Values Masquerading as Justified Beliefs

My resolution for 2010 is to update this blog at least once per week.  I’m sorry about the lack of posting recently.  I really don’t have a good excuse.

This is the first of (what I hope will be) several posts concerning the relationship between knowledge and morality.   Here, I want to discuss the relationship between values and information in moral action.  Quite often, philosophers approach moral controversies in politics and religion by pointing out internal incoherencies and contradictions within a stated position.  In this blog, Jim and I have both pointed out such incoherencies among the religious, the conspiracy theorists, and the politically dogmatic. Understanding why a position is unjustified or self-refuting is very important.  But, it is also important to understand why people hold unjustified beliefs and why they espouse bad reasons and accept bad evidence.  I think the trick to understanding this second ‘why’ comes in understanding the underlying values that particular positions appear to confirm or support.  In his previous post, Jim argued that we have a moral obligation to believe only those propositions for which we have good reason.  I am hesitant to completely accept this conclusion because, in many cases, belief formation does not appear to be a matter of conscious choice.  That being said, it is obviously true that people willfully ignore information or discount valid arguments it in order to maintain a position that is indefensible.  This is where an examination of values becomes especially relevant in understanding why people hold unjustified positions.  Values are the driving force behind every willful act.  So, insofar as holding a belief can be considered a willful act, the choice to believe will be motivated by some underlying value.

Even if we limit the scope of moral judgment to extra-mental actions, we cannot discount the moral relevance of beliefs.   Intent matters, and we cannot assess a person’s intent without first assessing a person’s beliefs.  For example, the mother who believes the baby’s milk is safe is probably not morally blameworthy if she accidentally feeds her child milk that has been poisoned.  The mother who believes that she has added poison to her baby’s bottle is still guilty of a moral crime, even if the container marked “arsenic” actually contains milk powder.   Moral intent comprises both beliefs about facts and values.  The milk-poisoning mother is morally blameworthy if she holds some value (e.g. ‘my baby is worth less than what I get by killing him’) which we consider morally abhorrent.  It is morally irrelevant whether or not the bottle contained what she thought it contained, provided she had a reasonable expectation that such things wouldn’t be mislabeled.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether a person had access to adequate information, or whether a decision was based upon a “reasonable expectation” based upon good data, but most moral controversies do not arise out of debates about the validity of inferences drawn from information. Instead, I think these controversies are really battles between irreconcilable values which are shrouded in “debates” about information that is often quite conclusive. For example, there is a great deal of disagreement about whether a parent is morally justified in denying a teenage child access to contraceptives because the parent believes that providing birth control tacitly condones immoral sexual behavior.    The murky moral issue does not rest upon the efficacy of birth control or abstinence education (despite what religious conservatives may say) because the empirical evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that denying teenagers access to contraceptives or contraceptive information only decreases the likelihood that they will engage in safer sex practices, not the likelihood that they will have sex.   If you don’t happen to value sexual purity for its own sake, it is easy to imagine that this sort of statistical information resolves the moral issue in favor of the teenager.  However, it is entirely coherent for a parent to acknowledge the veracity of the empirical data and still believe that it is a serious moral error to even tacitly condone premarital sex because it is wrong.

Thought experiment:  Imagine for a moment that you are a parent and that you live in a state in which epidemic numbers of teenagers have begun murdering the elderly for fun.    It so happens in this state that members of a particular gang are much less likely to suffer serious repercussions for murder than other teenagers who are not in the gang.  Membership in a particular gang does not decrease the likelihood that your son or daughter will participate in these gruesome acts, but it may decrease the likelihood that they will go to prison.  I am inclined to think that a great many parents would not want their sons or daughters to become a member of the protected gang, even if it meant that they would be more likely to suffer the consequences of murder, because most parents do not want their children to be murderers.  The fact that your child is statistically likely to do something terrible does not take away the terribleness of the act, nor does it excuse you from the responsibility to condemn murder as strongly and convincingly as you can.

I do not mean to suggest or imply that premarital sex is morally analogous to murder.  In fact, I don’t think premarital sex is wrong at all.  But the value of sexual purity is something that some people* take almost as seriously as murder.   The proponents of abstinence-only education who claim to believe that it is an effective way to prevent teen pregnancy demonstrate either embarrassing ignorance or damning dishonesty, but regardless of whether they are fools or liars, it is their values, not their information, which explains why they believe what they believe.  To assume that debates about sex education and contraception can be resolved by appeal to valid empirical research is to radically misunderstand the position of both sides because it is not really a debate about the validity of data at all.  It is a battle over incompatible values.

In fact, outside of philosophy, debates about the justification for beliefs almost always have a subtext of incompatible values.  Those of us who value being internally consistent, well-justified, or knowledgeable often find ourselves puzzled about why a person would hold on to a belief or accept evidence that is indefensible.  We would do well to consider that it may be competing values, not competing arguments, that make such beliefs attractive.  I think an an adequate understanding of such debates requires that we explore the value assumptions implicit in on both sides.  (E.g., "I value predictive success.  You value membership in a group that vows never to change its position.") Those who prefer a world-view-confirming fiction to unappealing truths may never be convinced by good arguments or evidence, but identifying the values that underlie such beliefs still makes the debate more honest.

*I use this example partially because this value is not limited to religious fundamentalists.  I once lived with a 28 year-old graduate student from China who was so concerned about maintaining her sexual purity that she wouldn’t use tampons or walk around in her pajamas in the presence of men.  When I asked her about this, she told me that a man could renege on his marriage to a woman if it was discovered that she was not a virgin on her wedding night.  When I asked what the consequences of this dissolution were she told me that the woman could maybe move back in with her family but that it was preferable that she take her own life to shield her family from shame.

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