The Alcove

Making Sense of Bad Beliefs

An essay in Aeon tackles a tough but urgent question: Do people have the right to believe whatever they want?

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Philosophypolitics

The chaotic politics of the last few years are partly the result of two trends associated with belief: First, the apparent prevalence of repugnant beliefs once thought (by some) to have been supplanted by a new consensus, or at least rendered unacceptable in mainstream public discourse; and second, the spread of beliefs which lack reasonable factual foundations. These trends may frequently overlap, but they are not identical. At present, however, public debate seems to lack a clear framework for thinking or talking about either of them. When large numbers of fellow citizens seem to hold, and act on, beliefs that are either outmoded and offensive or false and ridiculous, certain reactions come naturally: surprise, frustration, anger, bewilderment. But less obvious is what we should do, especially since the natural response of simply restating our own values and facts, but more loudly, seems inadequate and possibly perverse. Inadequate, because it is not, strictly speaking, ignorance, but rather an apparently conscious rejection of those values and facts behind the problem. And perverse, because there’s something faintly self-destructive about having to insist on (say) the authority of science, as if matters of fact were somehow “ours” to promote, rather than realities everybody has to live with.

This is admittedly a rough sketch of a complex and evolving problem. For greater clarity, I want to recommend Daniel DeNicola’s recent Aeon essay on whether people have a right to believe whatever they want. It seems to me that DeNicola is asking precisely the right question for this moment: How should we think about the responsibility individuals have (or don’t have) for their beliefs? On what grounds, if any, can we rightly condemn someone for what they believe?

DeNicola begins by noting that in many cases, we have a right to know things: our grades, our medical diagnosis, and so on. But although beliefs aspire to knowledge—each of us, even the climate change denier, thinks our own beliefs are true—they are not the same as knowledge: Unlike knowledge, they can be either mistaken or immoral. And, at least when it comes to immoral beliefs, DeNicola writes, “we condemn not only the potential acts that spring from such beliefs, but the content of the belief itself, the act of believing it, and thus the believer.” Imagine someone who privately holds anti-Semitic beliefs but does not act on them: Even in the absence of action, this reasoning goes, we still have reason for moral condemnation. Of course, as DeNicola notes, a complication arises from the way we come to possess beliefs. If a person is raised in an anti-Semitic household, at what age do we hold them morally responsible for their anti-Semitism? Since many of our beliefs are acquired in this less-than-voluntary manner, DeNicola argues that “it is not always the coming-to-hold-this-belief that is problematic; it is rather the sustaining of such beliefs, the refusal to disbelieve or discard them that can be voluntary and ethically wrong.”

I think it is the question of how such beliefs are sustained that brings us closer to contemporary political problems. We may acquire all sorts of flawed or mistaken beliefs, but as we discard or fix them, as we develop new beliefs and revise old ones, we depend on outside authorities, on evidence, on expertise. What happens, then, when those basic sources of belief accountability are in jeopardy—not necessarily because of some crisis in their competence, but rather because of a decline in trust and the rise of alternative facts?

This problem is, arguably, not quite covered by the extreme case DeNicola considers: of somebody who, when challenged, declares their right to believe whatever they please. In a discursive setting along with other people, this is really a claim “to foreclose dialogue, to deflect all challenges; to enjoin others from interfering with one’s belief-commitment.” And in the context of a community, that’s inappropriate—since beliefs “shape attitudes and motives, guide choices and actions,” they affect other people in our association, the very people who help us develop and revise our beliefs in the first place. The extreme claimant of an unqualified right to belief is, in this sense, simply being selfish, and should develop what DeNicola calls “an ethic of believing” which recognizes some limits.

The cultivation of an ethic of believing would certainly be helpful, but I think today’s politics pose a problem slightly different from the one raised by DeNicola’s selfish right-claimant. It may not be that some citizens are claiming an unlimited right to believe whatever they want; rather, the problem may be that they have begun to accept as authoritative certain sources of knowledge that the rest of us don’t (and shouldn’t!) recognize, and that they have come to form moral views that are tarnished by a radically underinclusive understanding of the communities to which they belong. These problems are just as knotty as the more limited case treated in DeNicola’s essay, if not even more so. But even if the essay doesn’t speak directly to them, it is of great help in starting to think more clearly about them.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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