Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What's Wrong with Wrong Beliefs?

A post Frank put up a few months ago came to mind last week. Frank made a very cogent argument that intuitionism was a pretty shoddy approach to moral reasoning.

In a totally oblique way, this came to mind when I was listening to Thought for the Day a while back (unusual that I was paying attention at all, but there you go). A person called Anne Atkins made a very good point. Speaking about David Irving’s incarceration in Austria for denying the Holocaust, Atkins took the interesting position that although we might want to restrict people’s rights to express opinions (approving remarks about the Holocaust for example) it seems perverse to imprison them for simply saying things that are not true – statements of fact, she seemed to say, are by their nature innocuous.1 All you need to do in the face of wrong beliefs, she claims, is to stick someone on the Today Programme to counter the wrong statement (echoing Mill’s pretty strategic justification for free speech). Of course, this assumes that Irving was honestly mistaken in denying the holocaust (which is his line) and not cynically manipulating the available facts and records in order to sustain a political position.

But I wonder how we say that a mistaken belief is in and of itself innocuous – I suspect that we actually do disapprove of all sorts of false beliefs and actively regard them as dangerous and bad. Are all mistaken beliefs really on a par? Is racism or holocaust denial (both of which rely on beliefs about facts) really equivalent to, say, holding relatively innocuous mistaken beliefs, say about astrology or homoeopathy?

In fact, a quick skip around the blogosphere suggests that the general intuition is that mistaken, though sincere, beliefs are very often regarded as moral failings. We tend to think of people who hold beliefs profoundly different to our own as being more than simply fools. They're bad fools. But I can't actually think of any way we could argue for the immorality of mistaken beliefs (I'd love to stand corrected on this).

We might be able to argue against the normative judgements that invariably accompany statements of belief. Holocaust deniers, it seems, tend to be anti-Semites (or give comfort to anti-Semites) and people who believe in racial difference tend also to actively discriminate (or, again, give succour to active bigots). So maybe sometime we condemn holocaust deniers not because of their beliefs but because we suspect that they are actively discriminatory. Or we condemn pacifists because they give succour to haters-of-our-freedom etc. But that’s different to providing reasons to condemn simple holders of belief. How are passive, silent racists bad?

We could say that people who make statements of fact have duties towards the truth and towards standards of evidence. So some supposed statements of fact rely upon spectacular failures to consider evidence with any objectivity or critical eye. But we’re all guilty of this to some degree – it’s practically impossible – outside stringent experimental conditions – to assess evidence without prior intuitions getting into the mix. Even if we could identify the point when our conclusions, rather than falling within the range of reasonable difference (where the evidence could really go either way or where positions rely more upon how we prioritise competing norms), reflect our exclusion of crucial facts for fear that they would disrupt our positions, we would still not condemn the belief, but the methods by which the person arrived at that belief.

Similarly, we all tend to hide from interpretations or facts that disrupt our world views. We read newspapers that reassure rather than challenge us. We respond dismissively to unwelcome reports and even take great pleasure in shooting the various messengers that bring ignored facts to our attention. But, again, this sort of moral failure is about the information-gathering that leads to mistaken beliefs, not about the holding of those beliefs.

Maybe this is the issue. We tend to condemn people for not facing up to whatever facts we prioritise (sometimes with more grounds than others). But I’m damned if I know how a line could be formulated to demarcate innocuous and immoral false beliefs. And I suppose this is the crucial importance of intuitionism. It is not a claim that there is no space for reasoning in moral thinking. It is a claim that reasoning is not the only or total route to conclusions about morality. Moral thinking tends to carry within its sphere motives of compassion and sympathy (and hatred) which are not entirely open to articulation (though emotions they may, as Martha Nussbaum pointed out, be no less intelligent). It also tends to be cumulative – a specific moral thought reflects, in part, a personal history of moral thoughts, thus making the manner in which we reach conclusions remarkably obscure.

1David Vance also makes a similar point when he insists that holocaust denial is not a crime. Of course (pedantic old me) he doesn’t mean that holocaust denial isn’t actually a crime: it patently is in the countries he mentions. What I suppose he means is that there can be nothing inherently criminal about belief, even though it might be very wrong indeed to hold that belief. Similar points are made by United Irelander, Maca and myriad others.

No comments: