Cellophane flowers of yellow and green

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

We came up with our test-case descriptive belief a while back:

I believe you are taking recreational drugs.

And we also said this could be just another way of asserting:

You are taking recreational drugs.

Jonathan Adler would agree. He sees a belief as simply what we regard as true: ‘what I believe is just how things are’1 for me.

Tablets and capsules
[Photo: Würfel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

This, then, is how I imagine Adler would articulate2 the evidential requirement of our test-case belief:

If I believe and/or assert that you are taking recreational drugs, then I regard it as true that you are taking recreational drugs. When I attend to that belief a claim would be made on me for holding the belief as true. The link between the claim of the truth of ‘You are taking recreational drugs’ and the condition of its truth is whatever evidence I have that you are taking recreational drugs. If I fully believe that you are taking recreational drugs I need adequate epistemic reasons – evidence – for thinking ‘You are taking recreational drugs’ is true.

When Adler introduced his ‘first-person methodology’ he used the example of Jim, who believes he is handsome:3 see Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #2. We could apply similar thinking to our test-case belief.

Someone else could perhaps explain my belief that you are taking drugs by saying that I want to shine at your expense by casting you as reckless and immature. But this is non-epistemic reason. It might explain my belief but it cannot justify it. I cannot in ‘full awareness’ take myself to be holding the belief that you are taking drugs as a way of shining at your expense. In the same way Jim cannot take himself to believe he is handsome so as to avoid depression.

In both cases the ‘cannot’ is first and foremost a conceptual constraint rather than a practical or moral constraint. Adler would see it as ‘contradictory’ for me to think all three of the following at the same time:

(i) that I believe you are taking drugs; and

(ii) that my only reason for believing this is to shine at your expense; and

(iii) that my elevated self-esteem has no bearing on the truth of whether you are taking drugs.

My intention or desire to shine at your expense cannot be ‘the condition of the truth’4 of my belief that you are taking drugs.

We could question whether it is exactly contradictory, but it is at least conceptually unstable. If my only reason for believing you are taking drugs is to shine at your expense, then I have no epistemic reason – no evidence. 

From my first-person perspective my statement ‘I have no evidence that you are taking drugs’ may not contradict my statement ‘You are taking drugs’ but it does undermine it: see Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #4. Reflecting on the belief and what could be the condition of its truth should lead me to discard the belief.

Adler would say that asserting ‘You are taking drugs, but I lack adequate evidence that you are taking drugs’ violates a conceptual norm and is therefore conceptually incoherent.5 But the shared conceptual norms governing our belief language are part of the shared context of expectations within which we interact socially.

This social interaction includes asserting, receiving and acting on beliefs, all of which are open to morally evaluation. It is that shared context of expectations and assumptions which makes asserting ‘You are taking drugs’ without sufficient evidence equivalent to (or close to or akin to) deception, and therefore morally culpable.

Adler could of course agree with all this but still insist that on a ‘basic’ level the ethics of belief is a purely conceptual matter. After all, going back to my example of the student who thought her 25% exam result made her top of the class, surely we’re not suggesting the rules of arithmetic are moral rules, or that there’s a moral ‘ethics of arithmetic’?

So, as far as belief is concerned, even if conceptual normativity does provide a context for moral normativity, why is conceptual normativity not enough for an ethics of belief? That’s our question for next time.

Read on.


1 Jonathan Adler (2002), Belief’s Own Ethics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p11.

2 Based on Adler (2002), pp4-5.

3 Adler (2002), pp9-10.

4 Adler (2002), p5.

5 Adler (2002), p3.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

3 thoughts on “Cellophane flowers of yellow and green

  1. Pingback: Raising expectations | some strong language

  2. Pingback: Full awareness | some strong language

  3. Pingback: *Press This* Cellophane flowers of yellow and green #174 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

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