It seems that a lot of people have the idea that everyone should be entitled to believe “whatever they want.” I think there’s a big problem here. There is, of course, the issue of whether or not it makes any sense whatsoever to talk about believing what we “want.” The process of belief formation is complicated and not fully understood. But, whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be the case that we can simply choose our beliefs. If you disagree with this, I would offer a simple challenge: choose at this moment to believe that the entity writing this blog is, in fact, a hyper-intelligent chicken wearing a sophisticated human suit for the purposes of fooling actual humans. I think it’s safe to say that no one reading this can succeed in such a task. As such, it would appear, prima facie, that, however we form beliefs, it is not the product of mere choice.
But there is a different issue with the idea that we should be able to believe whatever we want, one that seems more important. While it might not be the case that we can explicitly choose our beliefs, it does appear that we have at least some control over what we accept as the foundation of our beliefs. That is, some of us require some level of evidence or good reason while others do not. At least, it looks like some people don’t require what would widely be considered reliable evidence. Finding some quote on the internet that flies in the face of current research and hard data doesn’t seem to be much in the way of “evidence,” so anyone using that as the basis for their belief must be doing something other than requiring such as the basis for their beliefs.
This issue raises an obvious question: are we under some sort of obligation to only allow a certain class of thing to serve as the foundation of our beliefs? I think we are. That is, I think we are morally obligated to only allow those things which have a good evidential basis or are based on good reason to serve as the grounding of our beliefs. Of course, like anything else, we need some reason to think this is the case, so here is my reasoning on this issue.
The things that we accept as groundings for our beliefs, at least in large part, determine the actual beliefs we hold. Beliefs inform our actions. That is, they serve, (again) at least in large part, as a determining factor in the actions we take. This can be demonstrated easily. One need only imagine a scenario where an action is taken. Then ask the question “Why this and not something else?” For example, why did I put my key in the ignition of my car? At least a part of the answer to this will involve my belief that such will result in my car starting. If I didn’t believe that my car would start by doing such, I likely wouldn’t put my key in the ignition (assuming there isn’t some other pressing reason for doing so). With the above in mind it seems reasonable to suggest that our beliefs are one of, if not the primary, determining factors of our actions.
Actions have consequences, and our awareness of those consequences make us morally obligated to act in the appropriate manner. This is not to endorse some version of consequentialism, deontolgy, or any other ethical system. A recognition that actions have consequences is a primary component of all ethical systems, so what I’m saying is relevant to all of them. Recognizing, then, the moral component of acting appropriately, the role beliefs play in determining actions, and the way in which what we accept as adequate grounding for beliefs determines how beliefs are formed, it seems clear that what we accept as reasons for believing things has a moral component. So, and here’s the big conclusion of this, we are morally obligated to only accept as grounding for beliefs those things which are justified by good reason. Shortened, but recognizing the steps taken to get there, we can say this: we are morally obligated to believe only those things for which we have good reason.
So, what are the consequences of this? Looking at some timely issues, we can see just how devastating it can be to believe things without evidence. Take for example the recent proclamation by the Pope that condoms actually contribute to the problem of AIDS in Africa. Taking him at his word that he genuinely believes this, it turns out that the Pope has no good reason for believing any such thing. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that condoms dramatically decrease the risk of spreading very many STD’s, including AIDS. That means that those individuals looking to the Pope for guidance are much less likely to use condoms, and, hence, the spreading of AIDS is likely to increase because of the Pope’s actions. The Pope should have made sure he had good evidence for his beliefs before commenting on the issue. What he did was immoral in that there is a great amount of evidence on this issue, and none of it indicates that the Pope’s belief was in any way justified. Therefore, in this instance, we have a clear example of the Pope’s immorality, and it is the result of his not using evidence or good reason as the foundation of his beliefs.
The above example may seem extreme in its reach, and someone might think that it doesn’t really matter if they have good reason for their beliefs as they can’t have the same kind of widespread effect. However, it is not the scope of the consequences of the Pope’s actions that allow for them to have a moral component. Many of our actions have moral content, and, for most of us, we do not have the reach of the Pope. The point, then, is that for any action we take that has any moral content whatsoever the beliefs that inform that action should be grounded in good reason. If they are not, we are behaving immorally, and we should be judged accordingly.