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The Duty to Believe According to the Evidence

Allen Wood
Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University

Are we morally responsible for what we believe? Is it wrong for people who are morally responsible to believe something on insufficient evidence? Some people don't think we are in any way responsible for what we believe. Others simply see nothing wrong with believing whatever makes you feel good (or bad, if that’s your preference), regardless of the evidence. Why are the ethics of belief important at all?

People, says Stanford philosopher Allen Wood, "infer that 'philosophy' is an arena in which anything at all may be claimed, without concerning yourself overly much with whether your answers to the questions might be right or wrong." But he argues that "however endless (or even seemingly pointless) philosophical controversies may be, you owe it to yourself and to others, as a thinking person, not simply to state 'your opinion' on the basic issues of life but also to care about reasons for what you believe."


"If I simply refrain from making a judgment in cases where I do not perceive the truth with sufficient clarity and distinctness, then it is clear that I am behaving correctly and avoiding error. But if in such cases I either affirm or deny, then I am not using my free will correctly. If I go for the alternative which is false, then obviously I shall be in error; if I take the other side, then it is by pure chance that I arrive at the truth, and I shall still be at fault since it is clear by the natural light that the perception of the intellect should always preceed the determination of the will” (Descartes, Meditations, AT VII: 59-60).

 

"Faith is nothing but a firm Assent of the Mind: which if it be regulated as is our Duty, cannot be afforded to any thing, but upon good Reason; and so cannot be opposite to it. He that believes, without having any Reason for believing, may be in love with his own Fancies; but neither seeks Truth as he ought, nor pays the Obedience due to his Maker, who would have him use those discerning Faculties he has given him, to keep him out of Mistake and Errour. He that does not this to the best of his power, however he sometimes lights on the Truth, is in the right but by chance; and I know not whether the luckiness of the Accident will excuse the irregularity of his proceeding. This at least is certain, that he must be accountable for whatever mistakes he runs into: whereas he that makes use of the Light and Faculties GOD has given him, and seeks sincerely to discover Truth, by those Helps and Abilities he has, may have this satisfaction in doing his Duty as a Rational Creature, that though he should miss Truth, he will not miss the Reward of it. For he governs his Assent right, and places it as he should, who in any Case or Matter whatsoever, believes or disbelieves, according as Reason directs him” (Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV. XVII. §8).

 

"Other men are carried away by their passions, their actions not being preceded by reflection: these are men who walk in darkness. On the other hand, the philosopher, even in his passions, acts only after reflection: he too walks in the dark, but preceded by a torch. The philosopher forms his principles from an infinity of particular observations. He takes his maxims from their source; he examines their origin; he knows their proper value. Truth is not for the philosopher a mistress who corrupts his imagination and whom he believes is to be found everywhere; he contents himself with being able to unravel it where he can perceive it. He does not confound it with probability; he takes for true what is true, for false what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and for probable what is only probable. He does more, and here you have a great perfection of the philosopher: when he has no reason by which to judge, he know how to live in suspension of judgment ” (Diderot (ed.), Encyclopedia: "Philosopher." This article was an adaptation and abridgement of the essay “Apology for Philosophy,” widely known in the French Enlightenment, whose authorship was uncertain, but which was often attributed on the authority of Voltaire to his friend the grammarian César Chesneau Dumarsais).

 

 

 



 

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Suggested Reading

Unsettling Obligations: Essays on Reason, Reality and the Ethics of Belief by Allen W. Wood. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 2002.

 

 

 

 

 


 

"A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence" (Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, X: "Of Miracles").

 

"Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, is not ours for ourselves, but for all humanity. It is rightly used on truths which have been established by long experience and waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning. Then it helps bind men together, and to strengthen and direct their common action. It is desecrated when it is given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer…It is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (W. K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief).

 

"It is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what Agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to Agnosticism. That which Agnostics deny, and repudiate as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions" (T. H. Huxley, Agnosticism and Christianity).

 
 
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