Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Can beliefs be immoral?

I had a chat outside of class with our man D. Shoemaker. At some point, we got on to the topic of the morality of belief states. David maintained that a belief, like "tall people are inferior to short people," can be immoral. I said that beliefs cannot be immoral. Here's a hasty outline of my position.

Morality, it seems to me, is about how we treat one another, not what we think of one another. What matters in morality is what we do, not what we think. Beliefs, all by themselves, cannot be moral or immoral. They just are.

Now you might think that if you believe something like "tall people are non-persons" and believe that "it is okay to kill non-persons" then you are likely to kill tall people. Is, however, the belief itself doing any sort of moral work? Or is it the killing of tall persons, and the connection between the belief and the action? It seems to me that all the work is being done by the treating of tall people in one way or another, and none by the thoughts floating in my head.

Take two cases.

Suppose I am a brain in a vat without any ability to communicate or otherwise impact the world around me. Suppose I think that tall people are non-persons. Is my having that thought immoral? I think that's silly.

Suppose there is a twin earth far, far away, with an impenetrable wall between it and our earth. Suppose I have beliefs about the agents (who are circles and squares) on twin earth. Suppose I think it okay to kill circles just for sport. What's (morally) wrong with my thinking that? The impenetrable wall makes it so that no one on either earth will ever have any sort of communication or interaction with one another. Can I have any beliefs about agents/things/whatever on twin Earth that are immoral? I don't think so.

Just to be clear, suppose all of the above beliefs are caused in the right way for moral appraisal. That is, no one is somehow "forced" to believe one thing rather than another because of evolution, genetics, compulsion, the way the brain is, and so on.

(A separate question: Does my position imply that intentions don't matter? You tell me, I don't know...)


  1. I disagree strongly with your intutions, I think it would be deeply unethical to believe that killing the circles is ethical, I think most people would support me.

    This is a job for... EXPERIMENTAL PHILOSOPHY!

  2. Sure, but *why* would it be immoral?

    It would be interesting to conduct an opinion poll, but the poll would not be an argument.

  3. I think that you're probably wrong. It seems quite weak to me to say that one cannot be immoral without acting. If I sit around believing that all circles (or Jews, or people from Hawaii) must die I would expect you to think that there was something wrong with the activity that I'm engaging in.

    Is there a difference between being immoral and acting immorally? I think so.

    I don't quite understand why you want to put the weight on the "connection" between the belief and the action and not on the belief itself. Is it true that the action wouldn't happen without the belief? If so then it seems that the belief is at least partially responsible.

  4. If a man is considered guilty
    4 what goes on in his mind
    Then give me the electric chair
    4 all my future crimes

  5. What would an immoral belief be like? It seems that we can have 3 types of morality-related beliefs:

    1) immoral
    2) morally neutral
    3) morally good

    Anyone who denies that beliefs can be moral seems to categorize all belief under 2. People who think beliefs can be immoral it would seem would allow beliefs to fall into any of the categories. Most of our beliefs would likely fall under 2 (I don't see how my believing your shirt is brown could possibly be immoral), so our interest is really on the first (and third) category, but again, what does it mean for a belief to be immoral?

    For an act to be immoral, it must go against actions that are deemed to be proper or good. Thus it would appear for a belief to be immoral, it would have to go against the set of beliefs that we deem proper or good. But what is this set and how do we get it? If I simply believe something because my life tells me it is that way, how is it immoral? It may be factually incorrect, but the way in which it can be immoral completely eludes me. Can anyone explain it to me?

  6. Jaworski is sketching a consequentialist position, which I certainly find agreable. Belief states cannot on-their-own cause things therefore they cannot on-their-own be moral or immoral. I can have a belief that it would be good to kill all circles but the badness only comes to pass if I act on it.

    It would seem the most plausible theory of immoral beliefs would be some kind of virtue theory. One cannot be virtuous, the story might go, if one is having twisted belief states. I find it somewhat perplexing, but I am generally perplexed by virtue theory in general. Perhaps the esteemed virtue ethicists among us could fill this out a little more?

    I would be careful in talking of intentions. I think it's false that they don't "matter." It's just that they're not on-their-own a right-maker or wrong-maker. They certainly matter in that they reveal something about one's character, which may inform me about that person's future behavior. If someone spits on me accidentally and apologizes, I'll accept the apology and worry little about them in the future (there is no reason to think they'll do it again if it was an accident). If someone spits on me deliberately and I know it, I'm going to avoid them in the future, because that's obnoxious behavior and I don't like to be around those people (you never know what obnoxious thing they'll do next).

    Insofar as intentions are guides to future behavior, they matter. There will be cases where this does not hold true, but I think it holds most of the time. If you're a compulsive accidental spitter, then that's another story. I may need to keep my distance.

  7. "Character" considerations is part of the objection that Shoemaker put to me. On my account, it looks like having a virtuous or good character is out, simply because character is about the belief states inside of our heads.

    I thought character may or may not be good because of the 'characteristic' actions of the agent with the character. So again, I thought that even that is about actions.

    Matteson: Right, I agree. But it is, as Arthur put it, beliefs 'all-on-their-own' that I'm trying to get at. What do you say in the case of the brain in the vat? Not only isn't it able to act or communicate, it will never be able to in the future. To be sure, beliefs might lead to action, but they won't for our brain in the vat. Can *it* be immoral? Or, alternatively, can the thoughts floating in the brain's head be?

    I get how odd it is to say that belief-states can somehow be morally appraisable, Noah. But, and I can't even construct a hypothetical to justify what I'm about to say, suppose that the belief you have that stems from your wife saying that something is a particular way *is* morally appraisable in the right ways. Now what?

    Come to think of it, the discussion was sparked by Shoemaker asking me whether we have a moral obligation to revise our beliefs in the light of certain information. So here is an example for you, Noah: Suppose you were told something bad by your wife. Suppose you believe it. Suppose you come across plenty of new information that implies (strongly) not-X. Do you have a *moral* obligation to revise your belief that X? And if you refuse, are you immoral?

    Notice the difference, please, between moral obligation and other sorts of obligation, like rational obligation. In the case presented, I would say you are under a rational, not moral, obligation to change your belief that X. If you don't, then either you are an idiot (but being an idiot is not to be immoral), or don't care much for rationality, including the axioms of consistency and coherence. Or did I just define what an idiot is?

  8. I see what you're saying, Peter, but it seems as if there's a slight confusion of the issue: saying that you're immoral for not changing your beliefs doesn't seem to be saying that your beliefs are immoral, but your decision to not change them is immoral (probably because it is irrational, among other things). I can see a case being made for that, but the I still don't see how a belief can be immoral, especially if it is based upon what one believes to be the truth.

    Basically, ~(resistance to change a moral belief despite overwhelming evidence against it > those beliefs are immoral)

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  10. "Anonymous said...
    I disagree strongly with your intutions, I think it would be deeply unethical to believe that killing the circles is ethical, I think most people would support me."

    No, Circles would aggree with you because it is in their interest to aggree with you. Squares would not because they are not being hunted and rectangles that live on another planet don't even care because they don't believe that circles or squares exist.