Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Quality of Beliefs

A member of the studio audience (or at least somebody who is listening out in the hallway) has asked me to speak about the possibility of “bad beliefs” in desire utilitarian theory.

In my experience, there are so many times that people think they are doing the right thing, but they do not take the time to verify that they have good information & good beliefs to make the correct decision. Negligence, it would seem, is often the primary cause for moral wrong-doing.

This is true. I have written many times about the moral crime of epistemic negligence.

Now, there is a small problem when it comes to saying that negligence is the cause of something. Negligence (in desire utilitarian terms) is the absence of a sufficiently strong concern for the welfare of others. There is at least some linguistic difficulty in saying that something that does not exist can be a "cause". However, I consider this one of those pedantic concerns that is not worth a great deal of consideration.

It is the case that a person with an insufficiently strong concern for the welfare of others will not take actions to prevent harm to others that a person with a stronger concern would have taken. And people generally have reason to promote a stronger concern for the welfare of others (since they and the people they care about are the 'others' whose welfare is at risk).

However, notice here that the root of the moral problem is a defect in desire. Ultimately, a person is not blameworthy merely for the fact that he had bad beliefs. Rather, he had beliefs that a person who had a sufficiently strong concern for the welfare of others would not have had.

This is because the person with a sufficiently strong concern for the welfare of others will have an aversion to being wrong, where being wrong harms could cause harm to others. This concern with being wrong would have motivated him to double-check his facts and seriously address any reason to believe he was wrong.

The people who promoted the idea that CO2 emissions are not linked to global warming are not moral monsters merely because they believed this nonsense. They are moral monsters because a person who is truly concerned with the welfare of others would have been worried about the harm done if they were wrong. They would have double-checked the facts and the reasoning and would have then taken steps to reduce the risk of harm.

The leading global warming denialists obviously do not care about the people they harm. They do not care enough to take a serious look at the evidence with a decent respect for the fact that a mistake on their part could cost other people their lives and well-being.

I am reading your book, and you do talk about having good beliefs in the BDI model. Why do you then drop that clause from the theory? If Intentions & Actions are the results of Beliefs & Desires, it would seem to me to be imperative that we seek to make both of those things "good".

Yes, I do talk about having good beliefs. But what is a good belief?

All value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Beliefs, like everything else, have value in virtue of its relationship to desires. More specifically, beliefs have moral value according to the relationships that exist between those beliefs and the desires that people generally have reason to promote.

Here, it is relevant to bring up that people act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires given their beliefs, but they seek to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires. What matters are the relationships that exist between states of affairs and desires, not the relationships that people believe in. People who have false beliefs tend to waste a lot of energy failing to fulfill desires that people with true beliefs would have fulfilled.

So, the desires that people generally have reason to promote (whether they believe it or not) include curiosity, intellectual integrity, and honesty. These virtues are virtues precisely because they tend to promote true beliefs, and true beliefs aid in the fulfilling of desires.

True beliefs do not have any sort of intrinsic value. However, because of the usefulness of true beliefs, we have many and strong reasons to promote in others those desires that will tend to lead to true beliefs.

And we have reason to condemn those people whose desires are such that they tend to promote false beliefs.

None of this contradicts the claim that value (including the value of desires that tend to lead to true or false beliefs) exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

6 comments:

Kip said...

Thanks, Alonzo. As always, very cogent. One brief note, when I said "good belief", I meant beliefs that were true. I was inadvertently equivocating the word "good".

My main concern was that I think beliefs are so critical to actions, that I wanted to put them under the moral umbrella. You have done this, but it's just not emphasized as much as I would like. However, putting beliefs on the same level as desires may be wrong -- false beliefs are not necessarily cause of immoral actions. As you say, not having desires to have true beliefs, though, is cause of immoral actions. So, I can see that it's secondary, but it's a very close second in my book. :-)

Kip said...

Alonzo, I have another question.

You have said that "desires are the only reasons for action that exist". However, you have also used the BDI model to show that Beliefs + Desires = Intentional Action.

Would that not suggest that Beliefs are also reasons for action that exist?

faithlessgod said...

Hi Kip

A belief alone does not motivate one to do anything. A belief in combination with a desire does. Any intentional action will be a combination of a minimum of one desire and one belief as in:
P1. Agent A desires that P
P2. Agent A believes that action X will bring about a state of affairs where P is true.
C. A has a reason to X, that reason being the desire that P.

So beliefs can determine the means - actions - but only in reference to desire, since, here, without a desire that P there is no reason to X. That is why Fyfe argues, correctly IMHO, that only desires not beliefs can be reasons to act.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kip:

faithlessgod gives the answer I would give.

I think that confusion comes from because there are several types of 'reasons'. We use the word 'reasons' to mean 'goals' (or 'ends' or 'objectives'). We also use the word 'reasons' to mean 'causes'.

Beliefs and desires are both reasons (causes) of intentional action. However, of the two, desires are the only (goal) reasons that exists. Desires are the only things that provide value to ends.

Kip said...

Alonzo>> "I think that confusion comes from because there are several types of 'reasons'."

Yes, that was the confusion.

Alonzo>> "Beliefs and desires are both reasons (causes) of intentional action. However, of the two, desires are the only (goal) reasons that exists. Desires are the only things that provide value to ends."

So, when you say "desires are the only reason for action that exists", you mean they are the only "end goal", or "purpose". Okay, that makes sense. And, I agree.

I plan on doing a short "executive summary" type overview of DU in the near future, so I'm wanting to make sure I get all the facts straight. Thanks for your help.

Anonymous said...

Given your interest in taking on global warming denialists, I'd really like to see your reaction to the internal EPA memo that was just leaked, and the Obama Administration's attempts to keep it quiet.

http://cei.org/news-release/2009/06/25/cei-releases-global-warming-study-censored-epa