Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Beliefs are moral

A few weeks ago, in my post on The Asexual Agenda talking about atheism, I said the following:
But the way we talk about intersectionality doesn’t quite work for atheists.  Just by saying I’m an atheist, I’m telling you that I think your theistic beliefs are wrong.  By telling you I’m a “new” atheist, I’m telling you that I think you’re wrong and you should stop being wrong.  To speak of intersectionality is to look for allies.  But we are not allies, we are opposed. [emphasis added]
At least a few people found it shocking: I ended up arguing with one commenter, and my coblogger disagreed with it on her personal blog.  I had intended to shock, but it was still surprising to see people being shocked by something that to me is so basic.

It is possible to believe in something, and not really believe in it--brains are physical objects and we don't have complete control in them.  But I really do believe that there is no supernatural, and that supernaturalists are factually wrong.  Thus I am an atheist.  It is possible to be an atheist and not believe that others should believe in atheism--and "should" is just equivalent to saying that it's morally/ethically correct.  But I really do believe that supernaturalists should stop believing in the supernatural.  Thus I am a new atheist.

You might not be an atheist, or you might not be a new atheist.*  If so, you are wrong, and should stop being wrong.  If you are a new atheist, you are still wrong (about something else) and should stop being wrong.

*I am simplifying because being a "new atheist" also requires living in the 21st century, having some contact with atheist communities, and liking the label enough to adopt it.  But here I am using "new atheist" in the reductive sense of an atheist who believes that others should be atheists.

You believe that I am wrong about some things too, and I believe that you should believe that I should stop being wrong.

In short, I believe that beliefs are subject to morality.  People "should" believe what is factually correct.  I don't think it's an absolute principle, but I would say that this is generally true at least.  When I argue on the internet I don't know what your particular circumstances are, but on average I would say that my readers are better off with correct beliefs.

Correct beliefs lead to better decisions.  Even if incorrect beliefs incidentally lead to good decisions, "incidentally" implies that they are unreliable about it.  Christians who believe that gay sex is okay because of their particular Biblical interpretation are incidentally correct.*  That's not good enough, because now I can't rely on them to be ace-friendly, for instance.

*I think these people usually aren't using the Bible as a moral basis, but rather their moral intuitions informed by cultural norms.  But this is also only incidentally correct.  The same moral basis applied fifty years ago would not have been gay-friendly, and in fact was not.

This is true of belief-forming mechanisms as well.  A better belief-forming mechanism leads to better beliefs, leads to better decisions.  Even if a belief-forming mechanism incidentally leads to a correct belief, "incidentally" implies that it is unreliable.  Skeptics who exclusively use mockery to attack Creationists are incidentally correct.  That's not good enough, because now I can't rely on them to, you know, have any correct beliefs outside of skepticism.

Believing in god is a belief, but perhaps more importantly, a belief-forming mechanism.  The god-belief itself may not do a whole lot, but it may cause you to have more respect for religious authorities, cause you to believe in prayer, altmed, moral theology, or even just the naturalistic fallacy.  If you don't believe in those things, you are incidentally correct.  Good for you, but not good enough.

Above all else, I want to be correct.  Wanting you to be correct is just an application of the golden rule.  And most of all, I want you to want me to be correct.  I don't want you to be an asshole about it, and I want you to do your due diligence if you're going to persuade me of something.  But it's important to me, because you may be in a better position to persuade me than I am.

(There will be a part 2 to this post.)


miller said...

I read you to be applying the normativity of morality to the truth of beliefs, but this does remind me of another possible position that I've always enjoyed: that the "should"/"wrongness" (or normativity) of morality is derived from the "wrongness" (or normativity) of truth/falsehood. I run in to this a lot when I attempt to make Kantian arguments, or just generally bootstrap morality from nothing (or more reasonably, bootstrap morality from some kind of normativity in non-contradiction). Of course I've never been satisfied with those arguments (after all, to make a complex and satisfying moral system from almost meaningless premises should be impossible), but it is fun to do.

So basically I've always entertained a belief that would agree with you for a different reason- beliefs are moral because the normativity of morality is just the normaitivty of beliefs and nothing more.

miller said...

Skeptics who exclusively use mockery to attack Creationists are incidentally correct. That's not good enough, because now I can't rely on them to, you know, have any correct beliefs outside of skepticism.

I disagree. First, no one exclusively uses mockery. But some people do use a mostly mockery.

Essential to normativity is "force." If I say I believe that X is a normative principle, then I'm saying I will use some kind of "force" to make you do X, even if you don't want to. Force does not necessarily entail physical violence, but it does entail something other than rational persuasion, such as mockery. Two people can be aware of all the relevant facts, agree on some canonical method for integrating those facts, and still disagree on what is good. A moral norm with no enforcement at all is no moral norm; it is just a differing preference.

I don't think creationists care that they're not using canonical reasoning. If we truly believe they are wrong, we have to use some sort of force, such as mockery, to change their behavior.

miller said...

I was actually making an overly glib comment referring to, for instance, Thunderf00t. Or Bill Maher, say. They don't really exclusively use mockery, and pinpointing their epistemological errors is probably nontrivial.

I think the idea that moral norms require some kind of "force" is an interesting one to me. But I would also consider it a moral norm even if we chose to "force" it purely by persuasive means.

miller said...

Yeah... it makes more sense to me to think of the normativity of beliefs deriving from the normativity of facts, not the other way around. If behaving a certain way causes pain but does not cause anyone to belief falsehoods, how can we say it is wrong in that system?

miller said...

Much hinges on what you mean by "persuasive means." For example, I find the state's threats to imprison or kill me quite persuasive, but this is not, I think, what you have in mind.

What I mean by "force" is something other than imparting the relevant facts and integrating those facts by some canonical, agreed-upon method, i.e. propositional calculus or the scientific method (broadly construed).

You can argue the evidence and the scientific method till you're blue in the face, and the vast majority of creationists will not change their minds. Some will, but those are precisely the ones who do not need moral persuasion. The rest are not mistaken, they have made a moral choice to look at the world in a way that you say (and I agree) is morally wrong. They will not change their moral choice just because you have made a different choice.

I was actually making an overly glib comment referring to, for instance, Thunderf00t. Or Bill Maher, say.

I understood to whom you were referring. It's a glib comment, but even your glib comments have a lot of meat on on them. Of course, Thunderf00t and Bill Maher make epistemic errors, as do we all, but I think their emphasis on the use of mockery is not especially related to any errors they might make. They're simply using a particular means of force to back up their moral belief. And I think their tactic is very helpful - mockery in general is, I think, very effective in general in changing social behavior.

miller said...

Yeah, on one level I agree. Some amount of force (often in the form of shaming or appealing to emotion) seems essential to the moral character of an argument. On the other hand, this seems at odds with the thesis of my post, which is that it is morally correct to hold correct beliefs--even when our only response to an incorrect belief is rational persuasion. I do not, for instance, find it useful to shame deists, but would try to persuade them otherwise.

I think we might be working with two definitions of morality. The first simply describing what we "ought" to do. The second describing the things that are best addressed with our moral apparatus (using shame, reputation, and "justice" as necessary). Beliefs are moral in the first sense, but not always in the second sense.

Perhaps one way to phrase it is that beliefs are always ethical and sometimes moral.