Sunday, June 11, 2006

True Beliefs III: The Liberty of Beliefs

I have spent two days discussing the importance of true beliefs – and the importance of a culture that praise and reward those who show a love of honesty, curiosity, and intellectual responsibility while condemning and punishing the deceptive, lazy, and intellectually reckless.

In the first post, I used the example of a man who jumps into a pool, believing that it is filled with water, when it is in fact filled with acid, to provide an example that illustrates the importance of true belief and the problems of false belief.

In the second post, I presented some of the obstacles to true beliefs and the costs associated with allowing those obstacles to flourish.

There is an important supplement to these ideas – the importance of allowing each person to have the freedom to act on his or her own beliefs, and not to have the beliefs of another forced upon him. There are four assumptions that I will bring into play on this.

Assumption 1: Let us assume that there is a truth to be known. In our example, the pool either contains acid or water, and the effects of the acid are what we typically know them to be. The facts of the matter include facts about how much discomfort and other effects that the acid will have on the person who jumps into the pool.

Assumption 2: I would like to add the assumption that there is widespread disagreement over many matters of fact.

Assumption 3: This assumption comes from the theory of action that sits at the foundation of these posts. Each person acts so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires given his beliefs. All of us do this – and it is not a mark of selfishness. It is simply recognition of the fact that my desires are the only desires connected to my muscles in the right way. Furthermore, if somebody else could control my actions, so that her desires were the proximate cause of the motions in my body, then these actions would be her actions, and not mine. I would not in any way be morally or even causally responsible for those actions. So, if I have causal power over your actions I will, necessarily, use them to fulfill my own desires, and not yours. I cannot do anything else.

Assumption 4: I have only had one desire. My sole desire is that the more and stronger of your desires are fulfilled. In this way, I am perfectly altruistic, with no ‘selfish’ or self-centered desires at all.

I would be willing to argue that the first three items on this list are true, and have given brief arguments above. Assumption 4 is clearly false, but it makes the strongest case against freedom. If a love of freedom can survive the best case against it, it can survive real-world arguments against it.

Even under this entirely unreasonable Assumption 4, I would have to choose to let you live your life as you saw fit rather than impose actions upon you , unless you were obviously in a state of extreme incompetence (such as being a young child). In order for me to act to fulfill your desires, I would need more than a desire to fulfill your desires, and no competing desire to weigh against it. I would also need to know what your desires are. I would need to know what they are in detail – their precise objects, and their relative strengths.

This would take a great deal of work. One could argue that it is impossible.

The next best option is to leave your decision making up to somebody else who has the same interest in the fulfillment of your desires as I do, plus vastly superior knowledge as to what those desires are.

That would be you.

The assumption that I have only one desire – a desire to see your desires fulfilled – is an idealized state that does not exist. I have other desires. Those desires will distract me from fulfilling your desires. Depending on the strength of those other desires and their objects, these distractions may be small and insignificant, or they may motivate me to neglect your desires entirely. If I had a desire to thwart your desires, this would be particularly problematic.

So, we have an argument here for the love of freedom – the love of a state where each person (except the clearly incompetent – as with a child) has the liberty to fulfill his or her own desires as he or she sees fit. Among the desires that we should use our tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to support is a desire to allow each person to have the freedom to pursue happiness in his or her own way. This means praising and rewarding those who work for a state in which people are left alone, and condemnation for those who seek to impose their will on others.

By the way, these are not my arguments. These arguments belong to John Stuart Mill in his 19th century book On Liberty. I have simply translated them so that they fit into the desire utilitarian theory that I use as the basis for these blogs.

Objective Truth and Impositions on Others

One of the arguments that I often come across in my reading, used against the claim that there are objective moral truths, says that that there are practical reasons not to promote the idea of an objective moral truth even if it is true. If people are cause to believe in an objective moral truths, they will undoubtedly take their sentiments as unmistakable guide to that truth. This will cause them to think that they are justified in imposing those sentiments on others. We wish to avoid this result, so we should not cause others to believe in objective moral truth.

This is an absurd argument for two reasons.

First, it requires more than belief in an objective truth to justify imposing one’s views on others. It also requires an arrogant presumption that one knows without error what those truths are. There are theists who claim that their moral conscience is the word of God written onto their soul. These people arrogantly presume that they are without error on all matters of morality. However, the fault does not lie with the belief that there are objective moral truths. It lies with the belief that the individual has a direct conduit to God and, as a result, cannot be mistaken as to what those truths are.

Second, common subjectivism is even worse when it comes to giving people a reason to believe that their moral sentiments are without error and may be imposed on others. Subjectivism says that one’s moral sentiments are without error because there is nothing for them to be in error about – there is no “fact of the matter” that one can be mistaken about. Furthermore, the prescription against forcing one’s will on others, on this system, is itself a moral sentiment that the agent may or may not have. It, too, can be discarded without moral error. Consequently, common subjectivism gives agents an even shorter route to intolerance than objective morality, and does not require the arrogant presumption of infallibility.

In contrast, the person who believes in moral truths, who also has an honest appreciation of his own fallibility, can recognize the dangers of imposing his or her beliefs on others. The honest believer in objective moral truth has reason to say, “I can be wrong. If I am wrong, and I force this conclusion on others, then the badness that results will be my fault – my moral responsibility. If I am going to force this conclusion on others, then I had better make sure that I am not wrong.”

Modesty is a virtue in the desire-utilitarian framework. Modesty is honest. Arrogance, on the other hand, is a dishonest conceit.


So, even though the scientist tells us that the pool is filled with acid rather than water, and we do not wish to see our friends, family, neighbors, and descendents dive in because of the harm that will be done, we should still have a love of freedom that leaves others to make up their own mind. We will try to persuade them and reason with them. However, before we will take steps to use force against them – to override their will with our own, we are morally obligated to make sure that we are not in error. There must always be a moral presumption in favor of the agent acting on his own believes that can only be outweighed by extraordinarily solid proof that he will regret the action if he is not stopped.

Force is not only prone to the corruption of the agent’s own desires and the possibility of error, it also leaves the victim unarmed to handle other, similar circumstances. Reason with a person and explain why he should not jump in the pool, and he can apply that understanding to all relevantly similar cases. He will do this voluntarily. Prohibit him by force and he will continue to lack the understanding that he could otherwise apply to relevantly similar cases, and he will probably fight to violate the restrictions themselves wherever possible.

If the victims of force are suspicious of the motives of those who are using force against them, they have every reason to be.

I am going to add one more entry to this series tomorrow. That entry will have to do with beliefs that one may cause harm to another, with a focus on beliefs that are grounded on faith.


Hume's Ghost said...

Ever wonder what kind of society we'd be living in if On Liberty was taught in schools as part of a ethics/civics course?

When I discovered this book a few years ago, I felt positively let down that I went through my entire educational career without hearing about it.

Dar said...

At least you would be able to prove to any skeptics that there is indeed acid in the pool by simply sacrificing something organic into it for all to witness the outcome. Then you would have beleivers.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes you would have some believers if you offered scientific proof of the acid -- I have agreed with that. However, we should not expect universal agreement even with the est you propose.

Possible responses would include:

• "Something organic" is not human and we cannot infer anything about what its affects would be on a person diving in the pool from its effects on something organic.

• Water sometimes burns like acid.

• If the pool actually contained acid, then it would smell different. It does not smell different, so it is not acid. Therefore, it is water.

• The people who claim to have seen the water dissolve something organic are a part of a left-wing conspiracy that aims to destroy your faith. They are not truly using something organic. They are using something that dissolves in water, or by slight of hand they are substituting acid for the contents of the pool.

• At the moment of entering the pool, it will undergo an extraordinary transformation from acid into water.

• The pool contains water, but it is within God's power to make it seem like acid to those who are lacking in faith.

• Of the water burns you, as acid would burn you, then this is God testing you. He is making you stronger by making it feel as if you have dove into acid. In dealing with the pain, you will be a better person.

We see arguments like this all the time. From "evidence" against evolution and the age of the earth, to claims that the suffering that religion inflicts on people is deserved for "for their own good" or required by some greater good, or simply does not exist, there will always be an infinite number of ways to deny any conclusion one does not wish to accept.

Anonymous said...

The best response here would be to test the water as well as you are able, post the results of the test publicly, point people to the results you posted, show them how to repeat the test themselves, and let those who ignore you suffer the consequences of their willful ignorance.

The worst part of this analogy is that often the easily observable results are random: society's pool of ideas is a mix of acid and water. Some people will be burned and some will not, and the faithful will ascribe the selection to God.