False beliefs are bad.
Desirism accounts well for the badness of false beliefs. People seek to objectively satisfy their desires, but act so as to objectively satisfy their desires given their beliefs. In other words, they act in ways that would have objectively satisfied their desires in a world where their beliefs are true.
(Note: To say that a "desire that P" is "objectively satisfied" is to say that a state of affairs has been created in which P is true.)
My standard illustrative story about the problem of false beliefs is that of a thirsty jogger taking a drink of what she falsely believes is clean water. Her act would have objectively satisfied her desire in a world in which her beliefs are true, but not in a world where the water has, in fact, been poisoned.
On this model, I have said that liars are parasites. They infect their victims with a false belief so as to harvest their victims' efforts for their own ends. People generally have many and strong reasons to punish and condemn liars.
Desirism also identifies intellectual recklessness as a moral crime. A person who points a gun and pulls the trigger, falsely believing it not to be loaded, is reckless. A person properly concerned that his actions cause no harm to others will double-check important facts that risk bringing harm. We may condemn those who do not do so for their lack of concern.
Religions are full of false beliefs. As such, they cause people - even good people (meaning by this, people with desires people generally have reason to promote, and lacking desires people generally have reason to inhibit) to fail to fulfill and to sometimes thwart other desires. It is not the case - as Steven Weinberg claimed - "For good people to do evil things - that takes religion." What is true is that for good people to do evil things - that takes false beliefs.
A good person is not intellectually reckless. An intellectually reckless person is not good. But some false beliefs seep in regardless of an agent's intentions.
There are limits to our epistemic powers and, from this, to our culpability in the case of error.
Nobody has held all of their beliefs to the careful light of reason. It's impossible.
Our first beliefs are handed to us. We do not even have the capacity to reason. For those who claim they will not "indoctrinate" their child - what are you going to do, lock them in a dark, soundproof room until they have the capacity to reason? How do they gain such a capacity?
Even when we can think about our beliefs, holding a belief "up to the light of reason" means comparing beliefs to other beliefs - some of them having just been picked up.
We take shortcuts. We have to. Lacking time or ability to objectively verify and continually reverify everything we know, we use methods that are "good enough".
If a society was 95% atheist, my bet is that the bulk of that population will be atheists for exactly the same reason most are Christian in some countries today or Muslim in others. They will simply pick up the beliefs common in their society substantially without question. Later, when they apply the light of reason to future beliefs, much of that will involve comparing those beliefs to this arationally adopted base set and determine if they match or do not match. This is one of our shortcuts. This is how the human species survives. Sincerely, one of the things we can say about those standard beliefs is, "They got us this far."
When people focus on "religion" rather than "false belief" they open the door to two types of avoidable misakes - desire-thwarting mistakes, which is why I write against them.
First, they put too much too much emphasis on religious beliefs that are not causing people to behave in ways harmful to others. And, second, it takes the spotlight off of false beliefs that are not religious. As such, it takes efforts away from battling beliefs that cause greater harm and focuses effort on condemning those whose beliefs are relatively harmless.
Allow me to assume that everything I have written about desirism is true and that all other moral theories contain significant errors - just for illustrative purposes. It is quite possible to be a theist and still accept desirism. For example, one can believe that there is a god creator of the universe who created a universe in which some desires are malleable and we have been given the social tools of praise and condemnation to promote useful desires and inhibit harmful desires. At the same time, the atheist can believe in Marxism, Objectivism, Act Utilitarianism, Common Moral Relativism - or any of a dozen other error-ridden theories prompting, in some cases, "good people to do evil things".
And, yes, I consider Marxism, Objectivism, and Moral Relativism more destructive than some religions. Act utiltarianism fails to be dangerous because it simply cannot be put into practice. Human beings do not work the way that act utilitarianism requires.
There are a whole lot of false beliefs out there. Some are religious, some are not. Some are dangerous, some are not. The practical thing to do is to focus on those that are the most dangerous, not necessarily those that are the most religious.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
False beliefs are bad.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:12 AM