Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.
We talked last time about normativity in general, and normativity in relation to believing.
A good example of a normative word is ‘proper’. Jonathan Adler says that if I believe something, ‘p’, my believing that p is only ‘proper’ if my ‘evidence establishes that p is true’.
My belief would then be ‘in accord with the concept of belief’.1
This is because if I said for example ‘p, but I lack adequate evidence that p’, that would be conceptually ‘incoherent’.2 Incoherent rather than immoral or irrational.
Compare this with William Clifford, who stresses that acquiring, holding, asserting and acting on beliefs are all straightforwardly and inextricably social. Belief helps to ‘bind men together’ and to ‘strengthen and direct their common action’.3 And this social context imposes on belief a moral dimension.
We could question of course whether believing is always social. What about private and unvoiced beliefs? I will certainly address these at some point, but for now I want to exclude them, so as to concentrate on the more central phenomenon of belief in a social context.
Even if Adler is right that, at a ‘basic’ or ‘intrinsic’ level, it is conceptual norms which govern whether believing is ‘proper’ or not, these norms will contribute to the expectations people will be justified in having when they experience belief behaviour (for example hearing beliefs expressed, and seeing beliefs acted upon) in a social context. And, like all social behaviour, belief behaviour can and will be morally evaluated.
An analogy might help.
Most of us share an understanding of basic arithmetic, and we can normally take this shared understanding for granted.
We would therefore be surprised, at the very least, if a student started speaking and behaving as if she was ‘top of the class’ after getting 25% in an examination. She would be giving everyone the impression that in her mind 25 is higher than, say, 90.
Her fellow students might start accusing her of self-deception or being in stubborn denial, and perhaps even of disrespect to fellow students who had laboured all year to improve their marks.
We would say the student ought to see that 25% is lower than another’s 90%. At the equivalent of Adler’s ‘basic’ level this is not a moral ought but a conceptual ought derived from the shared rules of arithmetic. But a moral ought can arise when evaluating social behaviour within the context of that conceptual normativity.
We would exonerate someone with an education deficit which stopped him understanding or applying the rules of arithmetic. But not someone who had hitherto seemed capable of understanding the rules but now apparently insists on violating them to bask in undeserved glory.
Or think of truth and lying. Whether a statement is true or false, and what makes a statement true or false: these fall under science or logic, not morality. But the fact that a statement can be true or false is what makes lying and telling the truth possible. These do have moral significance.
Adler’s conceptual evidentialism is an epistemological thesis, not a moral thesis. But even assuming Adler is correct, our shared assumptions about how beliefs, assertions and evidence interrelate conceptually will generate expectations.
These expectations will be interpersonal. So if I say for example ‘I believe you are taking recreational drugs’ or ‘You are taking recreational drugs’ without having supporting evidence I could be justifiably accused of deception, or of being misleading.
Every descriptive over-belief will not have equally severe moral repercussions of course. But holding and asserting a descriptive over-belief can have moral repercussions – and these will often be directly related to the absence or inadequacy of supporting evidence.
This is because of the background expectation that holding and/or asserting a belief typically implies the believer does have sufficient evidence.
1 Jonathan Adler (2002), Belief’s Own Ethics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p51.
2 Adler (2002), pp2-3.
3 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), ‘The Ethics of Belief’. In Lectures and Essays, Volume II, L Stephen & F Pollock (Eds) London: MacMillan and Co, pp182-3.
© Chris Lawrence 2021