Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #4

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

Last time we got as far as step four of Adler’s ‘filtering’1 process which was to test if a belief meets his ‘full awareness condition’. After step two the substituted belief was:

Tony is in the ice cream parlour.

Step four was then to ask of this belief whether it is really coherent to believe, or assert, that:

Tony is in the ice cream parlour, but I lack sufficient evidence that he is.

Ice cream parlor
Photo: Alex Robert alexrobert, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Adler thinks it is not coherent. He calls it ‘an instance of Moore’s Paradox’.

This is a reference to Cambridge philosopher GE Moore, who seems to have been the first to notice the paradox. His colleague Ludwig Wittgenstein called it ‘Moore’s paradox’, and he thought it was Moore’s most important contribution to philosophy. (That may or may not have pleased Moore.)

Moore’s paradox however is worded in terms of belief, not evidence. For example either:

It is raining, but I do not believe it is raining

or:

It is raining, but I believe it is not raining.

The paradox is because it is absurd to say ‘It is raining, but I do not believe it is raining’. That is even though

(i) ‘It is raining’ could be true;

and at the same time

(ii)  ‘I do not believe it is raining’ could be true;

Cambridge philosopher G E Moore in 1914
GE Moore in 1914

so therefore

(iii) ‘It is raining, but I do not believe it is raining’ could actually be true, no matter how how absurd it sounds.

Ditto for ‘It is raining, but I believe it is not raining’.

Adler sees a parallel with ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour, but I lack sufficient evidence that he is [in the ice cream parlour]’ since

(iv) ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour’ could be true;

and at the same time

(v)  ‘I lack sufficient evidence that he is in the ice cream parlour’ could be true;

so therefore

(vi) ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour, but I lack sufficient evidence that he is in the ice cream parlour’ could be true.

The question though is whether it is as absurd to say ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour, but I lack sufficient evidence that he is in the ice cream parlour’ as it is to say ‘It is raining, but I do not believe it is raining’. That is even where Adler’s ‘full awareness condition’ is met.

I am not sure they are as similar as Adler seems to think.

Moore’s paradox works because it is in the first person. It would be absurd for me to say ‘It is raining, but I do not believe it is raining’ because I would be contradicting myself. I would be saying that I believe it is raining and that I do not believe it is raining.

If I say ‘It is raining’ when I do not believe it is raining I will be telling a lie. (Or at least trying to: it may actually be raining, although I do not believe it is!)

But the absurdity disappears when we shift to, say, the third person. Someone else could say of me: ‘He says it is raining, but he does not believe it is raining’. That could be a report of my apparently absurd behaviour, but it is not absurd in itself.

From the third-person perspective it could be true that it is raining, and also that I do not believe it is raining. From the third-person perspective someone else could even hear me say ‘It is raining, but I do not believe it is raining’ and know that what I am saying happens to be true, because (a) she knows it is raining and (b) she knows I don’t believe it is raining.

But she will also know that if I had said only ‘It is raining’ I would have been attempting to lie, while if I had said only ’I do not believe it is raining’ I would have been telling the truth – about the same thing, that same thing being what I believe about whether or not it is raining.

In the case of ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour, but I lack sufficient evidence that he is in the ice cream parlour’ we get a similar result if we move from the first person to the third person. The issue though is whether ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour, but I lack sufficient evidence that he is in the ice cream parlour’ is as absurd as Adler thinks it is.

From the third-person perspective someone else could hear me say ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour, but I lack sufficient evidence that he is in the ice cream parlour’ and know that what I am saying happens to be true, because (c) she knows Tony is in the ice cream parlour and (d) she knows I lack sufficient evidence that Tony is in the ice cream parlour.

She would therefore know that if I had said only ‘I lack sufficient evidence that Tony is in the ice cream parlour’ I would have been telling the truth. But would she also know that if I had said only ’Tony is in the ice cream parlour’ I would have been trying to lie?

That doesn’t seem quite right, but it doesn’t seem quite wrong either.

Adler gives us another explanation which might help. In his book he is talking about a different belief, so I’ve changed what he says to refer to Tony in the ice cream parlour:

‘I believe that Tony is in the ice cream parlour. All that can secure for me the belief’s claim of truth is adequate evidence of its truth. I lack adequate evidence. So I am not in a position to judge that Tony is in the ice cream parlour. So I do not judge it true. So I do not believe that Tony is in the ice cream parlour.’2

Adler’s move from ‘I am not in a position to judge that Tony is in the ice cream parlour’ to ‘So I do not judge it true’ doesn’t seem quite right. Surely it’s possible for me to judge something is true even though I may not be in a position to judge that it is true? That must happen all the time.

But that’s not what Adler is saying. He would no doubt admit that I could say ‘I judge it to be true that Tony is in the ice cream parlour’ while I was not in a position to judge that Tony is in the ice cream parlour. The point though is not that I am actually, as seen from a third-person perspective, not in a position to judge, but that I believe, from my first-person perspective, that I am not in a position to judge.

Now it’s starting to look a bit more like a bona fide Moore’s paradox. But only a bit.

This is what it seems safest to say:

‘It is raining, but I do not believe that it is raining’ is a paradox in the first person because the first-person statement ‘I do not believe that it is raining’ contradicts the first-person statement ‘It is raining’.

But in the case of ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour, but I lack sufficient evidence that he is in the ice cream parlour’, the first-person statement ‘I lack sufficient evidence that he is in the ice cream parlour’ undermines the first-person statement ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour’. But it doesn’t exactly contradict it.

Take another example. You are in an unfamiliar town. You need to get to the station but you don’t know if you have to turn left or right at the lights, so you ask someone. She says you must turn left. I thank her and set off. After a couple of seconds she calls me and says, ‘By the way, I’m not in a position to judge whether it’s left or right’. She sees my puzzled blank stare and explains: ‘I do not have sufficient evidence to say which way it is’.

Undermining may not be as strong as contradicting, but it’s hardly trivial.

A critic could object that Adler’s first-person four-step method effectively rules out potential counter-examples like ‘God exists’ by, crudely speaking, replacing difficult cases with easy ones like ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour’. More generously though we could recognise it as a way to reveal the core conceptual content which Adler sees as common to all belief.

I don’t go along with all his thinking. But it does seem to me that an important part of that conceptual content is what, in an everyday social context, creates understandable expectations that we are justified in holding the beliefs we communicate to each other.

Read on.

References

1 Jonathan Adler (2002), Belief’s Own Ethics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p12.

2 Adler (2002), p30.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

3 thoughts on “Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #4

  1. Pingback: Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #3 | some strong language

  2. Pingback: *Press this* Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #4 #173 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

  3. Pingback: Cellophane flowers of yellow and green | some strong language

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