Can beliefs be immoral?

Does it matter what we believe? Is everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion? Or can beliefs be immoral? Some people think so.

W.K. Clifford, mathematician, says:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.


Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to.... But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent.

T.H. Huxley, biologist and Darwin's Bulldog, says:

It is wrong for a man ["or woman," said in an Eric Idle voice] to say he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he ["or she"] can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.

Brand Blanchard, philosopher, says:

...that where great human goods and ills are involved, the distortion of belief from any sort of avoidable cause is immoral, and the more immoral, the greater the stakes.

The reason for the position of these thinkers is this: Our actions are guided by our beliefs. If our beliefs are mistaken, our actions may be immoral.

What do you think? Is it reasonable to apply the word immoral to a person's beliefs? Or must we reserve that term for actions? Or can we call a person's beliefs immoral only if their resulting actions are immoral? I don't know what I think.

(Acknowledgements to T. Schick Jr. and L. Vaughn for posing this question and collecting these quotations in their book How To Think About Weird Things.)


Zootenany Hoodlum said...

Have I mentioned lately how much I enjoy your blog?

Those are my thoughts.

Are they immoral?

I mean, I don't enjoy it *that* much.

Gee. I suddenly think I need to see my therapist.

richard said...

Re the antithesis you set up in your first paragraph: what makes you think an entitlement can't be immoral?

I believe that only actions can be immoral, but I also believe that beliefs are themselves actions: unseen actions, which are for that reason the most powerful.

Remind me, though: after a statement like that, which one of us is supposed to call the other one "grasshopper"?

fiona-h said...

yes... I see that I did make an assumption in my first paragraph. Convince me it was incorrect: give me an example on an immoral entitlement.

richard said...

Hmm, example of an immoral entitlement, hmm: what if you unknowingly buy something that had been stolen? Seems too obvious to be useful, though.

I'm trying not to invoke by name something too tension-provoking, like a place claimed by two peoples as a homeland or sacred site, but that might work better.

fiona-h said...

I think I'm going to play the "by definition" card on this one. I'd venture to say that if someone is entitled to something, it is impossible for it to be immoral.

Mr. Kite said...

I think we need to better define immorality. Immorality from what perspective? Absolute objective immorality, immorality from the viewpoint of the person being immoral, or from the viewpoint of a person calling someone else immoral?

Who actaully gets to draw the live between morality and immorality and why?

Does immorality require conscious thought and/or free will? If so, can animals be immoral? There's quite a bit of cruelty that happens in nature, so is nature cruel? For example, is it immoral for a cat to torture a mouse as it plays with with the mouse before killing it?

So, I guess whether morality resides in thoughts or actions really depends on who you let define the morality framework.

richard said...

You won't accept an assertion like "God exists," but you expect me to accept a "by definition" assertion that an entitlement can't be immoral? :-)

What about the situation where opposing sides claim exclusive ownership of something, and can articulate reasons for their entitlement?

And I like Mr. K.

fiona-h said...

I'm going to say it right out: something is either immoral or not. You're describing two different beliefs about the same proposition:

X is immoral

where X is buying stolen goods or claiming a place as a homeland.

The proposition itself has one and only one truth value:

T or F

The fact that different people have different beliefs/opinions (some believe it is true, some do not, some think it varies, some have no idea, some don't care) about the proposition doesn't change the truth itself. Or are you taking a relativist position here? I don't think you can do that without ending up in a very unhappy place.

richard said...

Unhappy place? Like where your pundles put me? ;-)

I'm not asserting relativism necessarily, but I do tend to push the idea that language itself is a flawed medium. Relativism does lead us to unhappy places, true, but absolute assertions about morality often lead us to the same unhappinesses, because of the problems of (a) interpretative instability and (b) resistance to imposed moral structures.

Belief doesn't change whether something is true, I agree, but as Mr K suggests, cultural factors are relevant: definitions of the terms "immoral" or "entitlement" determine the answers we'll come to when we try to think our way through them.

You and I more or less agree, I think, about these terms, but given that this all depends on the interlinked definitions of these two terms, it feels like a circular argument. Because it feels now like the questions in your post were more rhetorical than inviting of debate, no?

fiona-h said...

I wouldn't say that... what we ended up discussing in the comments was a little different than my original question, but that's fine. I still don't know what I think about that question (can a belief be immoral).

And I like debate! Esp. with people I already almost agree with, as is the case here I think :-)

Darren said...

This strikes me as wrong. My thoughts and beliefs are my own. (If I don't own those, then what the heck DO I own??) I will choose them and abandon them as I see fit, and while advice on how to choose them is sometimes welcome or at least interesting, I will not stand for a *lecture* on how to do so.

Others, even the looniest, have the same right as I do.

BTW in my view there is no such thing as absolute objective immorality, which obviates the need to ask that pesky "who gets to decide" question.

Darren said...

Fi: "I think I'm going to play the "by definition" card on this one. I'd venture to say that if someone is entitled to something, it is impossible for it to be immoral."

I'd concur. That's what you *meant* when you used the word "entitlement".

Richard, it is silly to get too carried away arguing what words mean IMHO. If you can't agree what words mean then conversation is impossible. What 'entitlement' means is not the interesting question here anyway.

But Richard raises an interesting question (which is unrelated to the post but oh well). I'll twist it. Is it moral to buy goods that you *know* (or strongly suspect) to be stolen? (I can't see why you wouldn't be entitled to buy goods that you *don't* know to be stolen).

Oh, and yes, immorality requires free will IMHO. Morality or the lack thereof is about choices.

Fi: "I'm going to say it right out: something is either immoral or not."

Yes, but.... the only thing that statements about morality can accomplish is placing an action in relation to a moral code, and all moral codes belong to individuals only.

Me: "The Holocaust was immoral".
Hitler: "No it wasn't"

It appears that the statements are contradictory and one of us must be wrong, but that's an illusion. What we meant to say (and all we CAN say) is that:

Me: "by my moral code, the holocaust was evil".
Hitler: "my moral code places 'the health of the aryan nation' at the top of the priority list, therefore by my moral code the holocaust was not wrong."

Contradiction resolved.

Darren said...

A thought about relativism:

I'm not sure what my position on morality is called. By my understanding of morality, immorality is immoral for everyone. None of this wimpy: "murder is wrong for me, but if that's in your culture then it's OK for you." Hogwash.

However, I think (am convinced in fact) that there is no "objective absolute" morality, therefore statements about "X is moral" can only be in reference to my own moral code (since I couldn't possibly mean anything else).

In other words: "X is moral" should always be understood as "by my moral code, X is moral". If someone else has a different moral code there is no possible way we can convince each other.

I'm not sure if that's what "moral relativism" refers to.

fiona-h said...

yeah, darren. when you put it like this:
"My thoughts and beliefs are my own. (If I don't own those, then what the heck DO I own??) I will choose them and abandon them as I see fit..."

it seems pretty clear.

but re: your talk of moral code etc... not sure I see the different between what you describe and moral relativism. If everyone is assessing morality against their own moral code, and if you accept this as reasonable, you can never claim someone is behaving immorally as long as they are acting in concordance with their own moral code.

Darren said...

I see the distinction I'm drawing as being between:

on one hand: "where moral codes reside". I say: within each of us, and therefore I reject the notion of objective, universal morality.

on the other hand: "scope of applicability" - even though my moral code resides within me and has no particular authority, I use it to judge anyone and everyone.

It seems to me your classic relativist rejects absolute morality (as I do), but also rejects the possibility of judging others by their own moral code (as I do not). Therein lies the difference (perhaps?) between me and a relativist.

richard said...

SIlly to argue what words mean? Really? Does that not describe just about the entire corpus of philosophy? :-)

But setting that aside: you're not so much rejecting the idea of absolute morality, as preferring your own moral code over any other. That's not relativism, true, but I don't know the term for it (Fiona? little help?), and a code this private doesn't make much room for social values.

fiona-h said...

Hmm...I don't think you're really a relativist. You're willing to label your own moral code superior to some others (fine - me too) -- but to do that surely you must have some external yardstick. It's not better just because it is Darren's. It's better because it's got some good stuff in it - don't buy stolen stereos if you can help it ... and that's just to start with! But how do we decide what's "good stuff"? We decide that by asking more than just "is this part of my (darren's) moral code"?

fiona-h said...

I sounded more superior than I really feel in that last post. I act immorally all the time. I don't do the obvious things (kill, steal, mix plaids and stripes), but I have plenty of moral failings. Not enough charity, too much gossip (!!). Laziness. Just to name a few.

Mark Hanington said...

Something about the logic of "something is either immoral or it is not" disturbs me. It's a digital way of thinking, where the moral-immoral continuum is analog. Make sense?

fiona-h said...

yeah, but if you pack all the ifs and thens into your proposition, maybe not so bad?

richard said...

I'd back away from the conflict a bit, away from both absolutism and relativism, in a way that makes use of Mark's analog/digital note: I want to come at morality from a social contract perspective, more in line with Rousseau's sense of communal growth than with Hobbes' sense of communal self-defence from each other.

Not good enough to assert your correctness, not good enough to rely on absolute and inherited morality. Maybe the best we can do is have a society that seeks, forever seeks, unattainable enlightenment.

Wow. Glass of wine with dinner may have been strong like scotch.

Darren said...

richard: "this code leaves no room for social values"

IMO, there are no such things as "social values". "Values" are held by sentient agents, ie individuals.

Mark, if you like, replace "is/is not immoral" with "not immoral/kinda immoral/really immoral"... I'm not going to place mass murder on the same moral plane as cutting someone off in traffic ;)