Susan Haack: “The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered #1

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

For a short time in 1970 a lady by the name of Susan Haack had the unenviable task of teaching me Logic.

Many years later she published a paper1 which our meanderings have now brought us to.

The last few instalments have looked at Jonathan Adler’s ‘intrinsic’ approach to the ethics of belief: see Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #1 onwards. Adler sees the ethics of belief as ‘imposed by the concept of belief itself’,2 not as a matter of the rationality or morality of belief.

We’ll have more to say about Adler later. But now I want to return to the idea of an evidence principle expressed in moral terms.

Susan Haack in 2015
Susan Haack in 2015 [Photo: Atfyfe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

How plausible is it that a moral principle like Clifford’s ‘CP’ (see Tweedledum said to Tweedledee) or our EP3 (see A moral universe) could apply to all descriptive beliefs? To put it another way, is it always morally wrong to acquire or hold a descriptive belief on insufficient evidence, or is it sometimes just unwise or irrational, or indeed not wrong at all?

Susan Haack’s paper looks at a number of options as to how epistemic appraisal of belief (as in Adler’s intrinsic evidentialism) and moral appraisal of belief (as in CP and EP3) might relate to each other. She refers to ‘ethical appraisal’ rather than ‘moral appraisal’, but it’s the same idea. Epistemic appraisal on the other hand, in this context, refers purely to the rightness or wrongness of a belief or the way it was acquired or held, without implying that that rightness or wrongness is moral, or conceptual, or a matter of wisdom or rationality.

The first option she considers is what she calls the ‘special-case thesis’. She associates this with Roderick Chisholm. It is that ‘epistemic appraisal is a subspecies of ethical appraisal’.3 Ethical appraisal can and does cover many more things than belief, for example our actions and our speech. The special-case thesis therefore says that every case of epistemic appraisal is a case of moral appraisal, but not vice versa. This is because when doing epistemic appraisal we are doing moral appraisal, but specifically applied to belief.

Haack thinks this is false, because there can be scenarios where a person is epistemically unjustified in holding a belief but not morally at fault. The person can only be morally at fault in believing that p if, like Clifford’s ship-owner, his belief is ‘willfully self-induced’.4 But even if his belief is not wilfully induced his evidence may still not be good enough.

That seems sound. It’s worth mentioning though that our EP3 is not necessarily a version of this ‘special-case thesis’. Haack may well be right that someone could believe something on insufficient evidence involuntarily and be morally blameless. Person A for example might believe that p (but without deliberately choosing to believe that p) on the testimony of person B. Person A could have good reason to trust B’s testimony and no reason to distrust it. But then it later transpires that B’s testimony was false.

But a scenario like that need not undermine a moral principle which says that, other things being equal, one should only believe on sufficient evidence. Someone can blamelessly tell an untruth out of ignorance. But that does not undermine the moral principle that one should not lie.

Haack’s next target is what she calls the ‘correlation thesis’.5 This is that positive or negative epistemic appraisal ‘is distinct from but invariably’ and ‘contingently’ associated with positive or negative moral appraisal. This comes in both a strong version and a weaker ‘prima facie’ version. The strong version is that:

whenever a person believes unjustifiedly, his so believing is always also subject, all things considered, to unfavorable moral appraisal.

The weaker version is that:

whenever a person believes unjustifiedly, his so believing is always also subject to unfavorable moral appraisal prima facie.

So it’s not that, as under the ‘special-case thesis’, someone is behaving epistemically wrongly because they are behaving morally wrongly, in the context of belief. It’s that if someone is behaving epistemically wrongly it just happens to be the case that they are also behaving morally wrongly. (Don’t worry if this distinction seems obscure. Haack doesn’t think much of either.)

She sees at least three possible explanations for unjustified belief: ‘negligent incontinence’ (the believer has been ‘careless or perfunctory in inquiry, but, jumping to conclusions, has formed a belief anyway’); ‘self-deception’ (‘self-interest has skewed his perception of the weight or relevance of this or that evidence’); and ‘cognitive inadequacy’ (‘he has done his best, but … his best cognitive effort isn’t good enough, and has resulted in an unjustified belief’). It is the last of the three, cognitive inadequacy, which she thinks is fatal to the correlation thesis even in its weaker ‘prima facie’ form:

If a person has done the best he can, not only to find out whether p, but also to determine that he is competent to find out whether p, he is not morally culpable even if his belief in his competence and his belief that p are, by reason of cognitive inadequacy, unjustified.

This leaves Haack with the ‘overlap thesis’.6 This is that believing without justification can be, but is not always, a form of ‘morally culpable ignorance’.7 It is the one she subscribes to.

Ignorance itself could for example arise from agnosticism (‘one has no belief on the matter’); mis-belief (‘the belief one has is false’); or over-belief (‘the belief one has is unjustified’). Of these it is over-belief which ‘constitutes culpable ignorance when, as it sometimes but not invariably is, it is both harmful and peccable’.

Armed with this analysis, she then lays into Clifford.

Read on.


1 Susan Haack (1997, 2001), ‘“The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered’. In Knowledge, Truth, and Duty, M. Steup (Ed), New York: Oxford, pp21-33.

2 Jonathan Adler (2002), Belief’s Own Ethics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p2.

3 Haack (1997, 2001), pp21-23.

4 Haack (1997, 2001), p26.

5 Haack (1997, 2001), pp21-25.

6 Haack (1997, 2001), p21.

7 Haack (1997, 2001), pp25-26.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

4 thoughts on “Susan Haack: “The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered #1

  1. Pingback: Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #4 | some strong language

  2. Pingback: Susan Haack: “The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered #2 | some strong language

  3. Pingback: Normativity | some strong language

  4. Pingback: *Press This* Susan Haack: “The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered #1 #173 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

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