Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.
So why is conceptual normativity not enough for an ethics of belief? That’s the question on everyone’s lips.
To try to answer it we’ll go back to Jonathan Adler’s ‘full awareness’1 condition.2
If we’re saying (as Adler does) that this condition is something which we need to impose, or assume, that would imply that we could acquire or hold a belief without it.
This in turn suggests we could choose whether or not to adopt the full awareness condition. Where there is choice there is scope for morality to apply. Adler himself recognises this:
There is an ethical grounding to the condition of full awareness that supports this first-person methodology. If one is acting (believing) rightly, one can acknowledge it without guilt or shame. [Emphases added.]
In the case of ‘I believe you are taking recreational drugs’ and ‘You are taking recreational drugs’ (see previous instalment) I am the person who is believing or asserting that you are taking drugs. I am also the person who is, or who can be, aware of having insufficient evidence that you are taking drugs.
If I also meet the condition of full awareness then I will be taking personal responsibility for the implications of believing you are taking drugs at the same time as knowing I have insufficient evidence.
Because I am the person taking this responsibility then I am also the one faced with what Adler sees as an ‘incoherence’. If I avoided the condition of full awareness by not taking responsibility I would not be faced with the incoherence. Being aware or unaware of the incoherence would be an indicator of whether or not I was meeting the condition of full awareness.
So although the first-person perspective is not itself a matter of choice, applying full awareness can be. Adler’s ‘ethical grounding’ seems to come down to an implicit moral duty to be fully aware, or as aware as is reasonably possible.
From a third-person perspective there is no incoherence. Both of the following statements could be true:
Fred believes you are taking drugs.
Fred has no evidence that you are taking drugs.
From a third-person perspective however someone else could acknowledge the incoherence Fred is faced with.
The first-person perspective and the condition of full awareness are also relevant to Adler’s third step: see Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #3. This step is about ensuring the belief is a ‘straightforward belief’ that p, rather than expressing faith in p, or an opinion or partial uncertainty that p.
A test of full awareness would be whether the believer, from the first-person perspective (with its implication of taking or not taking personal responsibility), can tell if her belief is a ‘straightforward belief’. A straightforward belief is one where ‘a claim is made on us for holding that the belief is true’.3 The same claim would be made if it was an assertion. This seems to be where the implicit moral duty comes in.
The first-person perspective therefore necessarily involves the believer’s obligations. Under Adler’s condition of full awareness these obligations arise purely from the ‘conceptual structure of belief’.4
But as soon as we acknowledge the social context within which belief behaviour takes place, those conceptual obligations flesh out into moral obligations. This is why conceptual normativity is not enough for an ethics of belief.
Because believing is intrinsically social behaviour, the conceptual implications of what we assert or reveal about our beliefs will generate expectations which we can either honour or shirk. But we wouldn’t have an equivalent moral ‘ethics of arithmetic’ (see Cellophane flowers of yellow and green) because arithmetic is not intrinsically social the way belief is.
So our conclusion is that even if Adler’s ‘intrinsic’ ethics of belief applied comprehensively and soundly to every category of belief, it does not remove the rationale for a moral evaluation of belief in its social context. William Clifford seems therefore to have got something fundamentally right.
We may agree with Susan Haack that Clifford does not clearly distinguish epistemic from moral culpability: see Susan Haack: “The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered #2. But he does not conflate the two. He sees over-belief as a moral failing, at least where a degree of volition is involved. But he does not offer a contextual analysis like the one I am proposing. This aims at separating those aspects of belief with moral significance from those without moral significance.
Epistemic obligation may not be just a ‘special case’5 of moral obligation. But epistemic and moral obligation do not just ‘correlate’ or ‘overlap’ either. Some aspects of epistemic obligation appear decidedly moral and others might be seen as more purely conceptual. But in a social context these aspects are inextricably linked, such that spelling out our obligations as believers can require the language of moral principle.
Adler’s approach does not remove the rationale for an evidence principle expressed in moral terms.
Notes and references
1 Jonathan Adler (2002), Belief’s Own Ethics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p9-10.
2 Adler’s ‘full awareness’ condition does not seem a million miles from Bernard Williams’s condition of ‘full consciousness’, which he introduces when asking if it is possible to believe something at will:
If in full consciousness I could will to acquire a ‘belief’ irrespective of its truth, … I could not then, in full consciousness, regard this as a belief of mine, i.e. something I take to be true, and also know that I acquired it at will. With regard to no belief could I know – or, if all this is to be done in full consciousness, even suspect – that I had acquired it at will. But if I can acquire beliefs at will, I must know that I am able to do this; and could I know that I was capable of this feat, if with regard to every feat of this kind which I had performed I necessarily had to believe that it had not taken place? [Bernard Williams (1973). ‘Deciding to Believe’. In Problems of the Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p148]
3 Adler (2002), p4.
4 Adler (2002), p2.
5 Susan Haack (1997, 2001), ‘“The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered’. In Knowledge, Truth, and Duty, M. Steup (Ed), New York: Oxford, p21.
© Chris Lawrence 2021