The Duty to Believe According to the Evidence Synopsis

The Duty to Believe According to the Evidence Synopsis

Allen Wood

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

Are beliefs a matter of morality? Can we be blamed for holding them? Do we have an obligation to believe one thing or another? Is it possible to hold beliefs that do not affect reality?

Beliefs, says Stanford philosopher Allen Wood, are most frequently held to be subject to moral praise or blame on the grounds of content obligations (e.g., beliefs in God, racial superiority, slavery as a justified social system, the occurrence of the Holocaust) or on the grounds of procedural obligations (e.g., beliefs that are formed or maintained on the basis of authoritative arguments or personal experience).

Concluding that the distinction between these two categories inevitably breaks down, Wood turns instead to the consideration of the "evidentialist principle," in which content and procedural obligations are understood to be fundamentally interrelated. Under this principle, morality is evaluated according to epistemic standards; that is, the set of considerations that are taken in a certain socio-historical context to justify belief.

The evidentialist principle is violated often, and those violations are, in turn, winked at, approved of, and even philosophically defended. Wood cites George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq on the basis of the danger of weapons of mass destruction as such a violation. Bush, says Wood, gave voice to a belief in the presence of such weapons that was stronger than what the evidence warranted. Bush also violates the evidentiary principle with his continued insistence, in post-invasion speeches, that Iraq posed a strong military threat to the United States--in contradiction of evidence that Iraq had relatively weak armed forces prior to invasion.

Wood asserts that the world would be much better off if there were a higher rate of compliance with the evidentialist principle. Instead, we live in a state of denial, developing myriad ways of evading the principle. Such mechanisms of evasions intensify around the issue of religious beliefs, which are often defended as a matter of faith, not of evidence or proof. Calling this perspective "impudent," analogous to the idea that a professional hitman should not be held accountable under laws designed to punish murder because their actions cannot be justified under those laws, Wood finds it shocking what "little reflection" people give to the reasons for their beliefs or epistemic standards for belief.

Entertaining what he considers to be a "thoughtful objection" to the evidentialist principle, Wood examines the contention that there is a certain class of beliefs--principally religious--that is not justified by any evidence but does no harm, even producing joy, consolation, and life enrichment. While Wood concedes that good consequences may occasionally stem from unsupported beliefs, the exception is not a reasonable basis for categorical belief. As there is no proof that unevidentially supported beliefs bring consolation and joy (e.g., an event that brings about these salutary feelings is undermined if revealed to be a joke), Wood argues that adopting the belief that unjustified beliefs are good is, in itself, a violation of the evidentialist principle.

Wood advances two types of moral grounds for the evidentialist principle: "self-regarding" grounds and "other-regarding" grounds. The former depart from the axiom that we must regard ourselves as having value (e.g., Kant's view that humanity is an end in itself).
Self-deception, letting others think for us, hypocrisy (etymologically, "not enough judgment"), and wishful thinking (a cowardice in the face of uncertainty that may be depressing or frightening) are all evasions of the "self-regarding" grounds for the evidentialist principle. Social conformity and acceptance of self-interested ideological arguments (e.g., in Christian ideals, the inevitability of communist triumph, or that a CEO's most profitable path is also by definition the most environmentally sound) are violations of the "other-regarding" grounds for the evidentialist principle.

We owe it to ourselves and to others, Wood claims, to exercise our rational capacities, chiefly among them the ability to weigh evidence. What is best for ourselves is not to let personal wishes or psychological needs affect our honest communications with others, but rather to uphold the responsibility to care for our vital interests.

In religious contexts, questioning dogmas of faith is often reviled as haughtiness and arrogance against God, whereas closed-minded dogmatism is passed off as open-mindedness. This anti-evidentiary position recasts open-mindedness as turning one's back on the facts. Faith-based judgments, says Wood, constitute "criminal conduct."

What is worst about violating the evidentialist principle is the harm that can result. United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix has said of the United States' decision to invade Iraq that it was based on the failure of leaders to judge critically the evidence gathered over a period of years. This method of believing in all evidence supporting a desired course of action and ignoring all evidence against, Blix argues, is reminiscent of witch hunts in past centuries.

Condoning such a violation of the evidentialist principle corrupts the process of social communication, positioning the human race into two camps: those who "believe as I do" and those who don't; those who are the "elect slaves of God" and those who are the "reprobate slaves of evil." Turning against reason as a corrupter of faith in such a fashion, warns Wood, is fanaticism.

The deconstructionist strain of contemporary theoretical thought does not fare much better, for it holds that there is no such thing as universal truth or honesty in favor of the view that speech and communication is contingent and, at best, an unstable source of meaning. Deconstructive critical reflection, Wood cautions, can only breed cynicism.

Wood concludes with the observation that many philosophers have expressed only "bemused, weary condescension" at the persistent violation of the evidentialist principle. Rousseau, for example, declared that as civilization grows, so do the devices by which people evade the truth. In the face of this, Wood urges the abandonment of fanatical, cynical, or staunchly skeptical positions. Wood leaves us with the final reflection that leading a complacent life on the basis of denial mechanisms is not leading the right life according to the evidentialist principle. It is better to maintain one's dignity and to do right by others than to engage in denial or self-deception.