A right to believe?

You are entitled to believe what you will, but your beliefs must be subject to criticism and scrutiny just like mine

Mark Rowlands

Religious protesters oppose the Obama administration's federal mandate requiring all private health care plans to cover contraception and sterilisation, Washington, DC on March 23, 2012. Photo by Olivier Douliery

Mark Rowlands

is professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. His latest book is Running with the Pack (Granta).

3,100 words

Edited by Brigid Hains

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Here is a true story. A young philosophy lecturer — let us call him Shane — is charged with the task of introducing young minds to the wonders of philosophy. His course, a standard Introduction to Philosophy, contains a section on the philosophy of religion: the usual arguments-for-and-against-the-existence-of-God stuff. One of Shane’s students complains to Shane’s Dean that his cherished religious beliefs are being attacked. ‘I have a right to my beliefs,’ the student claims. Shane’s repeated interrogations of those beliefs amounts to an attack on this right to believe. Shane’s institution is not a particularly enlightened one. The Dean concurs with the student, and instructs Shane to desist in teaching philosophy of religion.

But what exactly does it mean to claim ‘a right to my beliefs’? It often comes up in a religious context, but can arise in others too. Shane could just as easily be teaching Marxist theory to a laissez-faire capitalist student, or imparting evidence for global warming to a global warming sceptic. Whatever the context, the claim of a right to one’s beliefs is a curious one. We might distinguish two different interpretations of this claim. First, there is the evidential one. You have an evidential right to your belief if you can provide appropriate evidence in support of it. I have, in this sense, no right to believe that the moon is made of green cheese because my belief is lacking in any supporting evidence.

This sort of right can’t be what Shane’s student is asserting. After all, the arguments Shane was asking his students to explore were, precisely, evidence for and against the existence of God. When the student complained, he did so to preclude this gathering and examination of evidence. He regarded the very examination of this evidence as an attack on his right to believe — and so can hardly be talking about his evidential right to believe.

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Instead, the student’s assertion seems to be what we might call a moral right to believe. The student is asserting that he has a moral right to believe what he will, even if there is not sufficient evidence to establish that belief — indeed, even if the preponderance of the available evidence suggests the belief is false. This moral right to believe is a truly curious beast.

We can have moral rights to different sorts of things — most obviously, to commodities (food, shelter), freedoms (of thought, expression, pursuit of happiness) and treatments (non-discrimination). But what exactly, does it mean to have a moral right to any of these things? While many people claim not to understand the notion of a right, the idea is really very simple. The basic idea — courtesy of the late American philosopher Joel Feinberg — is that a moral right is a ‘valid claim’. To have a moral right to a certain commodity, freedom or treatment, is to have a valid claim to it, and against any attempt to block your access to it. If you have a moral right to, say, an education, then you have a valid claim to that education, and a valid claim against others that they do not prevent you receiving it. A claim is valid if it is implied by a true moral theory — or, if you don’t believe in that sort of thing, a moral theory that is better than its competitors. You don’t need to make, or even be able to make, the claim in question: someone else can do that for you. A child would have a right to an education even though it cannot understand this right and so not be able to claim it.

You have the right to be completely uninterested in views that you find stupid or abhorrent

Applying this analysis, we can infer that if you have a moral right to a belief then everyone else has a duty not to deprive you of this belief. A good way of depriving a person of a belief is by effectively criticising that belief: showing, for example, that it’s illogical or lacking in evidential support. Some people conclude that, if you have a moral right to a belief, everyone else has a duty not to criticise that belief.

I suspect this is an increasingly common way of thinking about the right to believe. It is, however, untenable. Freedom of expression is among its more notable casualties. Suppose you have the moral right to a certain belief. It doesn’t matter what that belief is: suppose it’s the belief that God created the universe. I, similarly, have the moral right to another belief, the belief that the universe has a purely natural origin. My belief — assuming we think of God as supernatural — entails that your belief is false. So, whenever I advance or argue for my belief, and defend it in public, I am simultaneously arguing that your belief is false and should be rejected. To advance my belief is to criticise yours, and vice versa. A moral injunction against criticising the beliefs of others quickly turns into a moral injunction against advancing your own beliefs for the simple reason that beliefs are often incompatible. There can, of course, be circumstances in which expression of belief can be legitimately suppressed (eg, ‘I believe we should lynch him,’ when said to a lynch mob), but adoption of such suppression as a general consequence of the moral right to believe leads to a near-universal ban on freedom of expression.

Even worse, many think that a moral right entails a duty of protection. If you have a right to something, then I should not only refrain from blocking your access to it but I also have a duty to help you, should others try to do so. In the case of the moral right to believe, it seems I would have a duty to attack my own belief in order to safeguard your right to your belief. Similarly, you would have a duty to attack your belief in order to safeguard my right to my belief. The idea is clearly incoherent. It is fairly obvious what society we would become if we understand the right to believe as the duty to refrain from criticism: a group of largely uncommunicative individuals, unable to advance their own beliefs for fear of criticising the beliefs of others. It might be that this is a possible future for liberal societies. It is not, however, one to which we should aspire.

From Shane’s story, we now switch to that of Wayne. Unlike Shane, Wayne is a fictional character, bearing no resemblance to any one person. Wayne has a problem. He has a tendency to espouse views that are both monumentally stupid and often deeply offensive. Nor is he shy in letting everyone know what these views are. Most people cross the street to avoid him, and so he has distinct difficulties in garnering an audience for his views. Does this mean that Wayne has any cause for complaint? Wayne suspects he does. His right to free speech, he claims, is being undermined by other people’s utter lack of interest in what he has to say. If Wayne thinks this, he seems to be using a certain interpretation of the right to believe — that he has a moral right to his beliefs in the sense that other people have a duty to listen to, or be interested in, his beliefs.

I have met people who think this. But it is highly implausible. ‘Shut up, I’m watching TV!’ might be rude, but I doubt it is a violation of someone’s right to believe. ‘Discrimination’ is a bad word these days, but on the other hand, in sifting through the possible beliefs we might hold, should we not be discriminating? In this imagined scenario, we are not dealing with a case of discrimination against Wayne — the person. It is not as if people say: ‘Oh, there’s Wayne. I’m not going to listen to what he says. He’s one of them’ — whatever ‘them’, in this case, denotes. Rather, the discrimination in question is directed at Wayne’s beliefs: ‘Oh, there’s Wayne. If I have to listen to another of his stupid beliefs again, I might just explode.’

The truth is that we are all creedists. Creedism is discrimination against beliefs. Creedism sounds a little like racism or sexism, and so people might assume it’s a bad thing. But it’s nothing like these things, and not a bad thing at all. According to racism and sexism, the properties that make a person worthy of certain commodities, freedoms or treatments reliably track certain biological properties — possession of a certain skin colour, or possession of a penis, etc. These views should be rejected on the grounds that they are straightforwardly false.

Consider the case of Jayne, who believes that the universe was created by a flying spaghetti monster: ‘Pastafari, praise his noodly appendage’

Creedism is different. I doubt I would associate with Wayne, if he existed. Similarly, if your next-door neighbour is an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler’s policies vis-à-vis other races you might decide not to invite him to your dinner party. In this, you would be doing nothing wrong. Still less do you have the duty of providing him with a forum for his beliefs. Creedism concerns one right in particular — and the right is yours not theirs: the right to associate and not associate with whom you choose. There are two vital qualifications required, however. First, your discrimination against your neighbour must be directed not at who they are but what they believe. If you cannot legitimately decline to associate with someone because of who or what he is, you can certainly do so because of what he believes. If you have this right, then exercising it cannot be a violation of your neighbour’s rights. Second, there is no question of depriving your neighbour of his moral and political rights in general. His right to vote is not taken away just because he believes stupid things (although it might be if he acts on them). Nor will the right to promote his beliefs be taken from him. The right exercised is your right to free association and nothing more than that. You have the right to be completely uninterested in views that you find stupid or abhorrent. Having the right to a belief cannot be explained in terms of other people having a duty to be interested in your belief. There is no such duty.

The idea of a moral right to believe came to prominence in the second half of the 19th century, in the form of a dispute between the American philosopher and psychologist William James and the English mathematician and philosopher W K Clifford. James thought that, under certain conditions, you have a moral right to believe, in the absence of supporting evidence. If the belief concerns an option that is living (in the sense that it has genuine appeal), forced (in the sense that there are only two possible outcomes, one good the other bad) and momentous (in that the stakes involved are very high), then I have a moral right to believe. For these reasons, I might have a moral right to believe in life after death, for example.

Clifford, on the other hand, denied this. Your right to believe extends only as far as the supporting evidence you have for your beliefs: the moral right to believe collapses into an evidential right to believe. It might seem that I’ve been siding with Clifford. In fact, I think we can make sense of the idea of a moral right to believe. However, this sense is unlikely to be of comfort to Wayne or Shane’s Dean.

Part of Clifford’s case was based on the inseparability of belief and action. If you have stupid beliefs, then generally you will do stupid things. However, thinking of it in this way blurs our target. For now, it is not clear whether we are dealing with the moral right to believe or the moral right to act on our beliefs. Let’s consider the case of Jayne, who believes that the universe was created by a flying spaghetti monster: ‘Pastafari, praise his noodly appendage.’ Let us suppose that this belief, while strange, is otherwise harmless. Jayne is not, for example trying to force public schools in Kansas to teach the Pastafarian theory of creation. She has no interest in converting others. She keeps her belief in Pastafari very much to herself. She won’t lie about it, but neither does she broadcast it.

Suppose Jayne’s family, who are aware of and increasingly perturbed by her belief, stage an intervention, and have her forcibly lobotomised. This is a violation of Jayne’s right to autonomy. Therefore, one sense in which Jayne has the right to her belief that Pastafari created the world is that she has the right not to be disabused of this belief by way of an un-chosen lobotomy. Of course, a lobotomy is a notoriously blunt instrument, and will have dire consequences for Jayne’s general level of cognitive functioning. But we can imagine more subtle options: hypnosis, brainwashing, or highly skilled and keenly targeted brain surgery that leaves her cognitive functioning intact. Nevertheless, when other people manipulate Jayne’s brain in this way — even if they think they are doing it for her benefit — her right to autonomy has been contravened. A way of understanding the moral right to a belief, therefore, is as a special instance of a more general right to autonomy: Jayne has a moral right to believe what she wants and the basis of this right is autonomy.

The morality of disabusing people of their beliefs — and, in particular, whether this violates their autonomy — concerns not what you do, but the way that you do it. The late American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars drew a useful distinction between what he called the ‘space of reasons’ and the ‘space of causes’. When we try to convince Jayne to abandon her belief by appealing to things such as logic, argument and evidence, we operate within the space of reasons. We might point out facts pertaining to the fossil record, the Burgess Shale, or the Darwinian account of evolution. Such an approach might not be successful (Jayne might think that the Burgess Shale is Pastafari’s way of testing her). However, there is surely nothing morally objectionable to it — particularly if we abide by the rules of good manners and common decency.

Lobotomies, hypnosis and brainwashing all fall outside the space of reasons — belonging, instead, to the space of causes. When we operate within the space of reasons, we are basically saying to Jayne: ‘These are my reasons for not believing in Pastafari, and this is why I think they should be your reasons too.’ But the changes that happen to Jayne when we invade her brain are precisely things that happen to her rather than things she does herself. Changing Jayne’s belief in this way is a violation of her autonomy. The difference is like being persuaded to go for a run for health reasons and being tied behind a car and forced to run — essentially the difference between rational persuasion and force.

Murdering or brainwashing unbelievers is not part of Jayne’s moral right to defend her belief

Part of the explanation of Jayne’s moral right to believe is that no one has the right to take away her belief using methods that lie outside the space of reasons. She has a moral right to believe in the sense that she has the right not to be stripped of her beliefs by force. This corresponds to one component of Feinberg’s analysis of a moral right. Jayne has a moral right to believe in the sense that she has a valid claim against others not to strip her of her beliefs by force.

Feinberg’s analysis also contains the idea of a claim to as well as one against. This can be incorporated into Jayne’s right to believe. She has a valid claim to her belief that Pastafari created the world in the sense that she can defend it, if she so chooses, in the public arena. However, she is restricted to using methods that belong to the space of reasons — persuasion rather than force. Murdering or brainwashing unbelievers is not part of Jayne’s moral right to defend her belief. She is entitled to advance her belief in the public arena using the same methods that her opponents are entitled to use in dissuading her of that belief.

This, then, is how to understand the moral right to believe. Other people have a duty not to deprive you of your beliefs using methods that fall outside the space of reasons. Other people can use persuasion but they have a duty not to use force. You have the right to defend your belief, in the public arena, using methods that belong to the space of reasons — you can defend your belief through rational persuasion but not force. The idea of a moral right to believe is the conjunction of these two claims.

There will be, of course, unresolved practical issues. Sometimes, the dividing line between rational persuasion and force is not entirely clear. No doubt many of us suffered, between the ages of five and 18 — and perhaps later — at the hands of the ‘That’s the way it is and you’d better accept it if you want to get a job’ brand of education. However, while rational persuasion and force might slide by degrees into each other, the absence of a firm distinction is not the absence of a distinction. If it were, the existence of people of average height would entail that no one is short and no one is tall. Here I am concerned with the point of principle and not practice.

What the Dean should have said to the student Shane is: ‘Yes, you have a moral right to your belief. You have the moral right not to have this belief taken from you by force, and you have the moral right to defend your belief using methods of rational persuasion. But that is all — philosophy of religion stays on the syllabus.’ To Wayne, we should say: ‘You have the right to your beliefs in the same way that Shane does — but you have no right to expect people to listen to you, associate with you, or be in any way interested in your beliefs.’ And to Jayne we should say: ‘Don’t let anyone mess with your brain.’

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