Thursday, December 13, 2007

Attack My Beliefs, Please!

This post was inspired by comments that Mitt Romney made when he heard that Huckabee had asked a question, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" Romney responded by saying that, "attacking someone's religion is really going too far."

This inspired me to thank of an important difference between my attitudes towards beliefs and those of people such as Romney.

I grew up in a culture that said that this is what you do to beliefs – attack them, at every opportunity. There is no such thing as a sacred belief – a belief that ought not to be questioned. At any day or time an individual is free to pick up any belief he or she chooses, hold it under the light of reason, turn it over, stretch it, take it apart, put it back together again, and subject it to all sorts of tests. If it survives, then you can keep it. Sometimes, it survives, but it is not quite the same as it was before you started to examine it. You can keep those, too. However, if it does not survive, then it is time to toss that belief and look for one with a little more substance.

Of course, Romney is a hypocritical bigot. He used an opportunity in a televised speech to denigrate the beliefs of others. “Don’t secularists belief that all mention of God should be removed from the public square?” Only, Romney did not express this as a question – an expression of something he heard somewhere and did not know to be true or false. Romney stated it as a fact – more like Huckabee saying, “Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan were brothers.”

In fact, I can’t go a day without having my beliefs attacked – without being insulted or denigrated on the basis of what I believe.

This claim is actually too easy to believe. Every day, children in schools around the world are taught to attack the beliefs of atheists, holding that a person who is not “under God” have no allegiance to the United States. Romeny’s own speech included claims that I (and those who believe as I do) are not Americans, cannot maintain a free society, and are at risk of producing atrocities comparable to those of Hitler and Stalin, and that, even though (according to Romney, my beliefs constitute a ‘religion’ of secularism that those beliefs are quite simply ‘wrong’. But, none of this is new. Romney did not say anything that I had not read a dozen times in the says before the speech from any number of religious sources.

Yet, I have not thought to respond by saying that it is wrong to attack my beliefs – that the mere act of attacking my beliefs is immoral and something that no good American (let alone a Presidential candidate) should ever do.

My complaint against Romney and others like him is not that they attack my beliefs, but that they use lies and sophistry to misrepresent my beliefs. If they were to attack what I actually believed, that would be one thing. However, their habit is to assign to me beliefs that I do not have and then to assert beliefs that they created – that they created, typically, just so that they can have an easy target to attack.

Not only has Romney attacked my beliefs, but I encounter people attacking my beliefs every time I check my blog – and find a set of comments – many of them telling me that something I wrote is wrong, that I misrepresented the phenomena that I was writing against, or that I had made some other sort of mistake.

The Benefits of Attacking Beliefs

Actually, I welcome attacks on my beliefs. I have learned a lot from them.

At one time, I was a libertarian. I thought that libertarian propositions were so true that no intelligent person could question them. However, intelligent people all over the place questioned them. I sought to find out why and asked one of my fellow libertarians to direct me to a critique. He showed me an article that attacked my beliefs. I read the article. I went to the library and did a little more research. The result . . . I gave up on libertarianism. The attack worked. I had believed – and I had held to be beyond question – a set of propositions that were very definitely not beyond question.

Two days ago I commented in passing that I used to hold that ‘good’ necessarily referred to relationships between objects of evaluation and desires. More than a few people attacked this belief and, eventually, they argued me out of it. I now hold that ‘good’ refers to relationships between objects and evaluation and reasons for action. I think that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. However, these critics convinced me that if other reasons for action did exist, then they would have to be relevant.

It really took them months, perhaps years, of attacking to get me to see this point. But, eventually, they won – and I was the beneficiary of their attack.

Please, people, keep attacking my beliefs.

Absurdity of Not Attacking Beliefs

The idea that it is wrong to attack somebody else’s beliefs is actually quite absurd.

I want to believe that I have one million dollars in my bank account. And I want to hold anybody in contempt if they should ever say or do anything that would challenge that belief. When the bank refuses to honor my checks, I want to accuse them of “attacking my beliefs” and to insist that, whatever they do, they must not do anything that even hints at a lack of respect of my belief that I have a million dollars in my bank account.

And I want to believe that burning somebody alive at the stake is good for them. It actually cleanses their soul and allows them to enter into a blissful afterlife. Otherwise, they will suffer eternal torture. I want to see anybody who expresses doubt or shows any lack of respect for that belief – people, for example, who stand in the way of my burning people at the stake – held in moral contempt for refusing to respect my belief that they may be so burned. Andrea Yates killed her five children, allegedly because the devil was out to get them, and the only way she had to protect them was to kill them while they are still innocent and, thus, give them over to God for protection. Whether we declare her insane, or whether we say she is guilty of a crime, we certainly are attacking her beliefs. Romney apparently believes that this ought not to be done. Romney apparently would like to argue that we should leave such people alone because, more than anything, it is wrong to show any measure of disrespect for what somebody else believes.

A rule that we may not attack the beliefs of others is simple nonsense. We must constantly search for truth, and that requires attacking any belief that might not be true.


Now, Romney does have a legitimate line of criticism to use against Huckabee, but it is not the objection, “Thou shalt not attack my religion.” The objection is, “Thou shalt not spread lies and slander about my religion or attribute to me beliefs I do not have.” In other words, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against me (by misrepresenting my beliefs).” Huckabee has a defense, of course. He did not say that Romney held these beliefs – he merely asked. On the other hand, Romney gave a nationally televised speech in which he misrepresented my beliefs while asserting that he knew what they were.

The moral crime of lying about others so as to denigrate them is not the same as attacking their beliefs (or their religion).

We find this moral crime in a number of claims that people make. We find it in the absurdities that bigots typically embrace regarding those they do not like – that that Jews are a part of a money-hungry cabal that controls the world economies, that homosexuals are responsible for AIDS, that secularists want to remove all mention of God from the public square, that there are no atheists in foxholes, that people not ‘under God’ have no allegiance to the United States. These are beliefs that we not only have a right to question – but we also have reason to question the moral character of those who would embrace these bigotries.

Not a Theist vs. Atheist Distinction

By the way, this view that there are no sacred beliefs and that all beliefs are to be held up to the light of reason is not a theist/atheist distinction. There are quite a few theists who have held that all beliefs may be questioned. They assert that a belief in God can survive this scrutiny – and I hold that this is not true. However, these people are not insulted by questions and objections – they do not feign offense and cry, “How dare you!”. They try to come up with honest answers.

At the same time there are atheists who have asserted that certain beliefs may not be questioned. This was true of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the other infamous atheist dictators. They were atheists, but they prohibited the questioning of a great many beliefs.

Many theists and many atheists try to portray the distinction between successful and failed states as a distinction between theist and atheist states – simply ignoring the counter-examples that arise in history. Yet, we get a better correspondence if we look at them in terms of nations that hold that there is a body of beliefs that may not be questioned, and nations that hold that any belief is subject to question. The failed atheist states and failed theist states alike fit into the former category. The successful atheist states (much of Western Europe and Japan now qualify in this category) and theist states fit into the second category.

Understanding Freedom of Thought

Religious freedom is not found in refusing to ‘attack’ somebody else’s religious beliefs. It is found in refusing to violently assault those who have different beliefs. Beliefs may be attacked, but they may only be attacked in debate – attacked with words and other forms of communication. The ‘attack’ may never take the form of a club or a gun or an arrest warrant.

However, 'freedom' is not preserved by a prohibition on attacking the beliefs of others. Indeed, the idea that we are free only makes sense if it includes a freedom to attack the beliefs of others - attack with evidence and reason, not with weapons and laws. People who want to put limits on attacking the beliefs of others are people who do not actually understand what freedom is about.


Doug Indeap said...

Insightful and well put. Thank you--again.

Martin Freedman said...

Another very good post.

However, given its title, I will take this opportunity to ask what I have been inferring in other threads, that was inappropriate to pursue there, because it would have diversionary.

We are talking about reasons to act that exist and, whilst I agree on rejecting the same set of reasons to act that do not exist that you do, there is one difference, I am challenging your assertion that desires are the only reason to act that exist. That is there are desire-independent reasons to act.

Please note this is the first time I am developing this argument in a debate - should you take me up on this - so I might make mistakes and if I correct these it is not because I would be moving the goal posts. Anyway you might convince me otherwise, I am open to this and indeed your stance does make arguments simpler, so in some ways I would like to be wrong.

There are two stages to this (1) promises - usually regarded as an exemplar of this but it has some distinct self-referential features and (2) "institutional facts such as rights, duties, obligations, commitments, authorizations, requirements, permissions and privileges". I am following John Searle in this, although I disagree with arguments he makes in other areas, I am tentatively persuaded of his arguments here.

I will start with (1) here and just make the case to see what your answer is and presume as little as possible.

What reason do we have for keeping a promise? The answer is promises are by definition creations of obligations to be fulfilled at some time in the future and obligations are by definition reasons for action. At that time in the future, however the agent is notified, the knowledge of the commitment is a desire-independent reason to act, such that to recognize the commitment is to accept that there is a reason to act. There is still a desire, in this case a desire-as-means, without which there cannot be a reason to act. However this desire is secondary to recognizing the commitment, this recognition being (the trigger behind) this desire-independent reason to act.

This captures the common scenario of feeling obligated by one's promise, especially when one does not feel like following through, one does not want to deliver on the promise. Whether one does or not fulfill the promise in fact, and often one does in spite of contrary desires, is irrelevant to this point. The point being that this is a desire-independent reason to act that one does consider and possibly follow through on. Such that if one just relied on one's current desires as the only reasons to act, one would not fulfill the promise as one would not recognize the promise at all. As soon as the promise is recognized there a desire-independent reason to act.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In order to get an agent to act so as to keep a promise, the act must be the act that best fulfills the agent's desires, given his beliefs.

Moral obligations exist independently of the desires that an agent actually has. An agent has an obligation to perform action A independent of any desire he may have to do A, either as a means, or as an end.

This is because obligations are tied to the desires an agent should have, not the desires he has in fact. And the desires that an agent should have are those desires that people generally have reason to promote in others. People generaly have a great many and strong reasons to promote a desire to keep promises. However, they are not always successful in promoting this desire - so some people do not end up having the desire to keep promises, or having a weak desire to keep promises.

So, the desire to keep promises is a desire-independent reason for action insofar as it is independent of the desires the agent actually has. It is not a desire-independent action in the sense that it can be traced to a new type of entity - a substance in the world that is not a desire, but that still provides reason to act. Its value is traced, not to the desires of the agent, but to the desires that people generally have reason to promote give their desires.

There is no reason for action that simply stops at 'institutional facts' without going beyond them into desires. Otherwise, how would you answer the question, "Why have this institution?"

Martin Freedman said...

Let stick to promises for now. A common objection to the argument I presented is the moral argument, which can I think be refuted. It is not of moral significance if I promise to go to a party and, for whatever reason, cannot make it. What happens is I have not fulfilled my obligation but it is not a moral obligation. Anyway I agree, that certainly in the case of promises, no new entity is being proposed, since the creation of a promise is, itself, the result of a desire-dependent reason to act - but this is, possibly, what makes promises actually a poor exemplar of the class. Will explore that - institutional facts - once we are clear on promises but I am not seeking new entities anyway (at least I hope not).

Now it appears that you are making such an argument but, I suppose, it depends on what you mean by "should have" and "People generaly have a great many and strong reasons to promote a desire to keep promises" I thought this is reflective of promoting moral goods but can or does this also apply to generic social goods, as in the case of promising to attend social occasions and the like?

Anonymous said...

Well, Huckabee wasn't lying (i'm not referring to whether he made a statement or asked a question). The truth according to the website says that Mormons beleive Jesus and the devil are brothers. So, I don't know why Romney would take it as an insult. If it's his beliefs, he should be unashamed of them. Huckabee isn't ashamed. You don't seem ashamed. Why is Romney? Food for thought.