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Morality, responsibility and belief

Grahame Jackson asks whether we are responsible for our beliefs.

Imagine a Nazi. This man, as any good Nazi should, believes that all Jews are attempting to take over the world and in the process will subject his race to slavery and bastardisation. He therefore holds a belief which most of us find repugnant. It is usual in this case for us to condemn this man for his belief. In a sense we hold him responsible for believing this blatantly absurd idea.

Is he, however, actually responsible for this belief? Does philosophy allow us to claim that we are responsible for our beliefs? There are two movements within philosophy that can be represented by David Hume and René Descartes. Hume represents what I call the ‘Passivist’ tradition and Descartes the ‘Activist’ tradition. The basic proposition of the ‘Passivist’ is that belief is merely something which happens to us, that as we look at the world, beliefs are established for us by the state of affairs around us and only by that; we have no input into that belief.

The ‘Activist’, however, holds that belief is not something that is pressed upon us from outside. In some cases at least, belief is a matter of introspection and the giving or withholding of assent to certain propositions.

Most modern philosophers tend to hold that the ‘Passivist’ line is the one most likely to be correct. They say that beliefs occur because of our sensory perceptions and that these cannot be denied. You do not, according to philosophers of this view, see a man and then ask yourself “Do I believe that is a man?”; you simply see and then believe.

If this is the case how can we be held responsible for our beliefs, as our everyday morality holds the Nazi responsible for his beliefs? It appears we cannot. Moral belief under this description of morality seems not to be an action. Instead it seems to be something which happens to us, over which we have no control. The Nazi is merely mistaken in his belief, not in any way responsible for that belief. He is mistaken in the same sort of way as a man who thinks he sees his mother when he actually sees his next door neighbour.

There are two possible explanations for the Nazi’s mistake. Either he has a faulty perceptual capacity, that is, he sees the Jews around him wrongly, or he has been persuaded that a false belief is a correct one.

This description of the belief does seem adequate at first sight, but there is a major problem. If modern philosophy is correct in understanding belief as something which motivates us to act in a certain way, so that a belief in p motivates us to act in a way which is consistent (or at least not inconsistent) with p, then it seems that we cease to be responsible even for our actions. The Nazi, not being responsible for his belief cannot, therefore, be considered responsible for his actions either, because those actions are dictated by the fact that for him not to at least shun Jews would appear inconsistent with his belief that Jews are attempting to take over the world and damage his position. Somewhere along the line, everyday morality insists he must be responsible for something and therefore we must be correct in reviling and despising him. But if he ceases to be responsible, then all systems of punishment appear to fall apart and with them any concept of morality itself. Without responsibility surely morality becomes only the norm and the Passivist who believes in morality has to abandon any argument on any topic based upon the authority of morality. Moral statements such as “We should care for the weak” no longer have any strength greater than “We should all watch Coronation Street” because that too is the norm.

This all seems to be wrong. For morality to function in any way the Nazi has to be responsible for something, and if beliefs motivate in an unavoidable way then the Nazi must in some way be responsible for his belief to begin with. He must therefore have chosen to believe in the untrustworthiness of Jews. To have chosen to believe would leave him responsible for the actions dictated by his belief.

However, it would seem possible for the defender of the passive description of belief to avoid this dilemma by saying that the Nazi, whilst not responsible for either his belief or his general tendency to act in an anti-semitic manner, is still responsible for his specific actions. In other words, whilst the Nazi is bound to act in an anti-semitic manner he is not bound to spit upon that certain Jew at that certain time, or to burn down that particular synagogue on that certain night. In effect the defender of passive belief can attempt to run moral responsibility alongside this by saying that beliefs motivate modes of action as opposed to specific actions.

However, this seems a weak defence against the argument I outlined earlier. Even if we accept that there such things as modes of actions as opposed to specific actions then we must also accept that they shape our actual actions. They must be causally connected with the actions themselves. For them not to be seems to leave modes of action unconnected in any way with specific actions. If I tend to act in a certain manner then that manner must find an expression in specific actions otherwise I do not tend to act in that manner. The mode becomes redundant if it does not find expression.

How can we therefore ever be responsible for any actions? “I believe” must become a phrase for which we accept responsibility. If this is the case then we must be able to choose our beliefs, at least those which relate to morality. Otherwise how can we be responsible for them?

It does seem to be the case that human beings can choose certain things. We choose which way to drive home, which chocolate bar to eat out of two we like equally. If these choices are real choices and not preferences dictated by predetermined factors then why cannot it not also be the case that we can choose moral positions? The fact that there is moral discussion, that people hold opposing views seems to point to the idea that we can and do choose a standpoint.

If the passive description of belief is correct and there are moral facts, then surely we would all agree on all moral issues. Surely it seems implausible that all the anti-abortionists or pro-abortionists have a faulty ‘perceptual capacity’. There may be a moral fact here which relates to the abortion debate, but it is a fact to which we must give our assent. Morality is a much more complicated business than merely looking at obvious facts and acting in accordance. We can and do choose to believe certain things and it is this that forces upon us responsibility for both our actions and our beliefs. If there are no moral facts, as relativists would have us believe, then there is an even greater necessity for responsibility. From a relativist description of morality then it is obvious that we must choose one way or the other, especially over debates with no clear cut socio-moral conclusions. Without this system of responsibility then there can be no weight behind a castigation of the moral wrongdoer. Without responsibility he becomes merely an automaton acting without input into the moral endeavour.

The direct consequences of the Passivist definition of belief seem to be incompatible with a form of morality which accredits responsibility. Either the Passivist must assert that beliefs do not motivate us to act in certain ways, or abandon his passive description of belief if he hopes to hold onto any form of morality that is meaningful. Surely it is the Activist whose definition of belief allows us to function as responsible moral agents.

© Grahame Jackson 1996

Grahame Jackson graduated from Keele University in English and Philosophy and now keeps up with philosophy whilst running the family printing firm in Liverpool

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