The Right to Believe

Frederik Kaufman

As we know, everyone has a right to his or her own opinions about religion, politics, and sex. And don’t forget ethics, aesthetics, public policy, literary interpretation, and diet; also possibly law, economics, and criminology but most definitely atmospheric chemistry. You can expand the list, I’m sure. You will say: “I am entitled to my own beliefs.” Is that really true? Are you entitled to your own beliefs?

To believe something is to think that the relevant statement is true, statements being the bearers of truth or falsity. Some people may want to distinguish between belief and “mere” opinion on the ground that opinions cannot be true or false. Yet this just pushes things back a step, since depending on the situation, we can wonder whether we are talking about beliefs or opinions. And in any case, we can still ask whether we are entitled to an opinion, even if it is not the same as a belief.

Here’s the big question to keep in mind: Are there ways in which we should acquire our beliefs? In other words, are there proper (and, hence, improper) ways for us to come to believe what we believe? Possessing a belief is not the same as holding it by right, any more than my possessing your car gives me a right to it. Notice that asking about a right to one’s beliefs makes holding them a normative issue.

In his celebrated essay on miracles, David Hume observed that a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. Perhaps Hume has prudence rather than morality in mind, since the foolish person need not have done anything wrong. Still, Hume’s point is obvious: belief requires evidence, and the stronger the evidence, the more confident our assent. This nearly self-evident idea can be wielded with devastating effect against superstitions, groupthink, conspiracy theories, rumors, and fanaticism of all sorts. Despite the opprobrium this essay earned him among many believers, Hume does not deny the possibility of miracles; he merely asks what sort of evidence entitles us to believe in them.

In “The Ethics of Belief” (1879), William Clifford argued straightforwardly for a moral duty to believe only according to the evidence. He tells the story of an immigrant ship owner reflecting on the vessel’s safety prior to its next voyage. Instead of having the ship inspected, the owner convinces himself that it is safe by stifling doubts to the contrary. The ship sinks, and all are lost at sea. Did the ship owner do anything wrong? It seems that he did, because he didn’t have a right to the belief that the ship was seaworthy because he did not acquire the belief on the basis of evidence. Suppose the ship did not sink. Would that change things? Not at all, says Clifford. The owner (not to mention those on board) would just have been lucky, but he still had had no right to his belief that the ship was safe. Clifford pronounced, most expansively, that “it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

We may ask: Insufficient evidence for what? Clifford cannot mean insufficient for the truth of the belief, since that would imply we are at fault if we believe something that turns out to be false despite having good evidence that it is true. The ship owner could have gotten the ship inspected and so justifiably believed that it was safe, and it still might have sunk. Clifford probably meant that there was insufficient evidence for the belief to be at least likely to be true. What does “likely” mean? I would say it means more likely than not; that is, if the evidence does not make the belief at least more likely to be true than not, then it is insufficient. That seems like the minimum necessary to hold a belief by right while also keeping in mind Hume’s point that stronger evidence justifies stronger belief.

But why is forming beliefs in that manner a moral obligation? There are two main reasons for thinking so, and each is sufficient: other-regarding reasons and self-regarding reasons. What we believe affects others, and how we affect others goes to the core of morality. If, for example, we harm others unjustifiably because of beliefs to which we have no right, then we are to blame. Think of Clifford’s ship owner or a militant antiabortion activist or your basic global-warming denier.

Espousing ill-formed beliefs in America is not illegal. Freedom of thought grants the legal right to hold all manner of beliefs, but that does not address Clifford’s point about the ethics of belief formation. Provided that one obeys the law, the state seems to take little direct interest in what one thinks. But surely the state has a broader interest in how we, as citizens, form our beliefs, precisely because we all have an interest in how our fellow citizens form their beliefs, since that shapes the intellectual tone of the state, which affects policy and action. Do we want to live among uncritical or superstitious people subject to manipulation by others, prone to embrace the wildest beliefs on the most insubstantial evidence and specious reasoning? That is a shamefully tendentious description, I know, but the point remains. A society insufficiently committed to how its members form and maintain their beliefs is not a good place in which to live. Hence the need for robust education in the standards of evidence and reasoned inquiry. These intellectual virtues, bequeathed to us by Enlightenment thinkers, are threatened by all nonrational means of belief formation.

Consider next how self-regarding reasons show that we have a moral obligation to form our beliefs properly. It is bad enough to live among ignorant, impulsive people who believe on insufficient grounds, but how would you like to be one of them? Immanuel Kant based his moral system in the dignity of persons, understood as rational autonomous agents. To flout the standards for proper belief formation is, for Kant, to reject what is most valuable in us and is, therefore, a denial of our dignity; it is to sink to a form of life incompatible with the respect that we owe ourselves in virtue of our essential nature as persons. To the extent that we believe on the basis of self-deception, wishful thinking, insufficient evidence, peer pressure, habituation, upbringing, familiarity, mere assertion, dubious authority, naïveté, or simple unquestioning faith, we fail to respect ourselves as persons. Sincerity of belief and depth of conviction are beside the point.

Clifford’s view is bold and uncompromising, and he gives voice to the surprising claim that it is morally wrong to hold beliefs on insufficient grounds. But is he right?

In “The Will to Believe,” William James says no. He famously argued that “we have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will.” Any hypothesis! Belief in Santa Claus is a live option for the five-year-old. But James adds a crucial qualification: we are free to believe any live hypothesis “which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve.” If intellect is relative to the individual, then the five-year-old violates no moral duties. Transferred to adult life, James’s claim is that some kinds of nonevidential belief are legitimate, such as religious belief (the subject of his essay) and perhaps cases where, for example, believing that one will succeed actually helps one succeed. (Though one does not believe that one will succeed for that reason; it might be more accurate to say that one hopes to succeed.)

Does James answer Clifford? Begin with his “live hypothesis.” You might find a hypothesis tempting, though not because of evidence in its favor; requiring that would put us back where we started, namely, needing evidence in the first place. Instead, you just find yourself tempted to think one thing or another, perhaps because of circumstance, disposition, upbringing, or whatever. That I may acquire certain beliefs nonrationally does not remove my holding them from moral assessment; if the question arises, I can in theory step back from any belief and ask why I think it. The psychological difficulty one might have in doing so is beside the point. According to James, you may permissibly believe a tempting hypothesis at your own risk. True, you risk different things with James than with Clifford, though Clifford includes risks to others when you believe on nonevidential grounds. Or more sharply, you are at risk if it is permissible for me to believe a hypothesis I find tempting on nonevidential grounds. Are you okay with that?

But recall that James claims that nonevidential belief is legitimate only where the “intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve” the matter. James is saying that if you want to believe something and (your) reason doesn’t rule it out, then you may permissibly believe it. But here is a dilemma: if we relativize intellect to the individual, then too many nonevidential beliefs will be legitimate. How does my inability to resolve a matter intellectually give me permission to believe according to my will? Maybe I should engage my intellect better. On the other hand, if by “intellect” James means a general sort of rationality, then the legitimacy of one’s belief is not up to the individual alone; I might be mistaken in thinking that intellect cannot resolve the question.

It seems, then, that suitably qualified, Clifford is correct: we are morally at fault to believe without sufficient evidence to justify holding a belief, no matter how “tempting” the belief may be. I say “suitably qualified” because Clifford’s stark claim (“it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”) makes it sound as if I am as much at fault for believing it won’t rain today (because that would spoil my picnic plans) as I am for believing that global warming is no threat to humanity (because I watch Fox News). Not all failures to believe on sufficient evidence are equally wrong. Clearly, when more is at stake, the stronger the evidence required to believe by right.

What counts as evidence is a difficult question, one that we need not address here. But there are a few special cases: Can my holding a belief be itself evidence for its own truth? Maybe, but whether it is sufficient evidence is debatable. That question also emerges if I take someone else’s belief as sufficient evidence for my holding the same belief, as I do when I believe on authority. Regardless of how we answer these questions in any particular case, this much seems obvious: my right to believe is, like all my other rights, conditional.

Frederik Kaufman

Frederik Kaufman is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College.


“What we believe affects others, and how we affect others goes to the core of morality.”

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