I Know What I Believe

I've just finished teaching my summer class, an introduction to philosophy in which we read Plato's Gorgias cover to cover. Although the course went fairly well in terms of covering the content and bringing the study of philosophy to an audience that otherwise would never experience it, I've managed to come away with some worries, as I do at the end of almost every term, about what, precisely, my students have learned.

Aristotle, very famously, held that "all men by nature desire to know", but I spent several days in argument with my class about just what knowledge itself is. Plato's Gorgias contains a brief argument designed to highlight the difference between knowledge and conviction, but my students were unpersuaded, either by Plato or by me, that there is really any difference between the two. Some students were not happy with Plato's contention that, whereas conviction can be either true or false, knowledge can only be true. Others could not accept the notion that knowledge is itself a particular kind of belief (a warranted and true one). One student went up to the blackboard and drew charts and graphs trying to show why, once we "know" something, it ceases to be a "mere belief" of ours but is rather some new kind of thing.

Plenty of students are sloppy thinkers--cleaning up their critical thinking skills is one reason why they come to college, after all, and it is certainly a good goal to have in mind when taking a philosophy class. What surprises is not so much the sloppy thinking that one finds in beginners, but the resistance that one finds to the helpful corrections offered by experts in the field. I haven't had a course in physics since I was in college, and that was a long time ago, but in my day students didn't engage in long, drawn out arguments with professors of physics about the fundamentals of the science that one encounters in a class like Physics 101. Imagine a student going to the blackboard to illustrate why, even in a classical context, moving objects simply do not move in a straight line unless acted upon by some force. Imagine the physics professor patiently explaining to them why the science is the way it is but meeting steadfast resistance at every step and a glaring skepticism at the end.

Well, philosophy is not physics, of course, but philosophy 101 is not exactly a matter of simply making things up as one goes along. Some students, however, seem to think that merely having a firm conviction about something is a sufficient condition for them to act as experts in philosophy. There sometimes seems to be very little skepticism about their own convictions.

This is particularly true when it comes to matters of morality. The Gorgias is, at least in part, an extended treatment of the differences between a kind of unrestrained hedonism and the moral realism of Socratic intellectualism. Nobody under the age of 27 can really grasp the possibility that Socrates may have been right about the nature of human happiness. There are a few youngsters who pay lip service to it, but when push comes to shove they'll go for desire over intellect every time and, more importantly, when asked whether intellect ought to trump desire for everyone, students these days are notoriously relativistic. I have yet to meet a single undergraduate who was not a moral relativist of some kind.

Often times this relativism finds expression in what is commonly called "cultural relativism". This is the view that one sometimes hears as "I'm personally opposed to x but I don't favor making it illegal for others because they may not be opposed to it." Cultural relativism, in other words, is simply the view that cultures do, in fact, differ with respect to values and practices. This view is congenial to some because it does not entail that there are no moral truths, only that we have no grounds for enforcing moral truths. So the wishy-washy can have their convictions and be laissez-faire at the same time. It's no wonder, then, that when you ask students whether they are moral realists or moral relativists, they will very often say "Both!" The reason is that they want to believe that what they believe is true, for them, but it might not be really true for others because others might not believe it. They are radically confused about what it means to know something as opposed to having a firm conviction about it.

On the other hand, suppose one is a moral realist, and has a very firm conviction that one actually knows some moral truth. Does is follow from that that we have an obligation to see to it that everyone else knows the truth as well? In other words, may we legislate in accordance with what we have knowledge of? This is an extremely controversial question, one that is fraught with political overtones these days. Even if we put aside that rather sticky question of how one is supposed to know for sure that one knows some moral truth, it is by no means clear that we ought to mandate compliance with some moral norm, even one that is objectively true. Human freedom and autonomy go together, and without them moral responsibility is meaningless.

This is a problem raised in another of Plato's great dialogues, the Republic. In that work, Plato famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view), recommends mandating moral standards that some of us these days find repulsive (wives and children are to be held in common, for example). This already stark portrait of the "ideal state" is painted in even darker colors in the Laws, where even minor infractions of seemingly unimportant rules are punishable by draconian penalties. Most of us prefer to hold that people must be free to sin, otherwise they are not genuinely free, and freedom is a particularly prized thing these days.

We're more willing to intervene, however, when the so-called "Harm Principle" kicks in, that is, when allowing someone to act freely enables him to harm another person. In cases like that, we feel somewhat justified in saying "No, you can't do that, and if you do, we'll punish you." Even moral relativists quickly become realists when the issue is keeping other people from mugging or killing them. Or keying their Beemer.

Even the Harm Principle raises serious and tough questions, however. Abortion, for example, is the intentional destruction of a fetus. To destroy a fetus is, obviously, to harm it. Should we permit such harms? Some say yes, on the grounds that harms to a fetus are not on the same moral level as harms to fully-formed adults, or that a fetus does not warrant legal or even moral protections against the actions of fully-formed adults. Others say no, on the grounds that there is no meaningful, non-arbitrary difference between a fetus and a fully-formed adult qua human. Those who are convinced of the latter view may have a variety of reasons for thinking that they are right, and some of those reasons may be connected to some religious conviction. This is not necessarily the case, of course--plenty of high-profile pro-lifers are also atheists--but it would be disingenuous to claim that nobody opposes abortion for religious reasons.

So what do we do now? Can those who oppose abortion for religious reasons be permitted a place in the public square to promote their view of reality? These people are generally realists, so they think that their convictions are more than mere conviction, they are instances of knowledge. But why should the non-realist believe them? Why should the non-realist permit the realist to "legislate morality"?

Pundits are a lot like students--they tend to be relativists--and they also tend to be particularly outraged by the prospect of religious folks worming their views into the public agenda. In the most recent number of First Things (August/September 2006) Ross Douthat reviews four books that have as a common theme the rise of the so-called "religious right" and the ramifications of its political power. The title of the review, "Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy", gives a hint as to the perspectives to be found in these books, but Douthat paints a wonderful picture himself in the opening words of the review:
This is a paranoid moment in American politics. A host of conspiracies haunt our national imagination, and apparent incompetence is assumed to be the consequence of a dark design: President Bush knew about the attacks of September 11 in advance, or else the Israelis did; the Straussians took us to war in Iraq, unless the oil companies did; the federal government let the levees break in New Orleans, unless it dynamited them itself.

Perhaps the strangest of these strange stories, though, is the notion that twenty-first-century America is slouching toward theocracy. This is an old paranoia: Back in 1952, the science-fiction libertarian Robert Heinlein's Revolt in 2100 envisioned a religious tyranny toppled by a Freemason-led rebellion...but the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era, reaching a fever pitch in the weeks after the 2004 election, when a host of commentators seized on polls suggesting that "moral values" had pushed the president over the top...
Paranoia is a wonderful description of the view that political beliefs supported by religious conviction are in some sense dangerous to our polity. One wonders what sorts of supports are preferable. If one examines the political beliefs of just about any group, one is likely to find a squirrel's nest of sloppy thinking and poorly considered first principles; why should the nests of the religious squirrels be any more frightening?

Perhaps it is a consequence of rampant Dawkinsism--on this view religious thought is inherently inferior to all other kinds of thought. Indeed, calling it "thought" at all is already to insult the mental activities of dolphins and orangutans. So to find a political view supported by religious conviction is ipso facto to demonstrate that said political view is the view of a moron. More importantly, the morons who believe in God are morons precisely because they think they are right in their beliefs, that is, they think they know moral truths, rather than just believing them, the way the smart people do, and it is this insidious conviction that they have knowledge that makes them so dangerous to the rest of us. It is because they think they know something that the rest of us don't that they think they can get away with mandating morality for everybody.

In short, you have to be a moral relativist to be afraid of religious conviction as a foundation for political views. This does not mean that you have to be a moral relativist to be afraid of theocracy, I suppose. I would not want to live in an Islamic theocracy of the sort advocated by some folks in places like Iran. But the reason for that fear is not only because such places are very scary--it is also because the ideas lying behind that sort of theocracy are false. What if there were a theocracy in which the ideas behind its policies were all of them true? If you suffer from Dawkinsism, naturally, you'll think such an idea a blatant contradiction, but obviously it isn't at all. There could be such a place. Would it be as scary as the theocracies in the Middle East?

From one point of view--the libertarian--it most certainly would be. If you are a libertarian, then even if you are a devoutly religious person you will be suspicious of the prospects for putting political power into the hands even of your co-religionists. Libertarians of a certain stripe are fundamentally pessimistic about human nature, and I suspect they are right in that. A theocracy grounded in solid Catholic moral and political teachings would still need to be administered by sinful, error-prone human beings, who must be as free to sin in their application of power as the rest of us are in our day-to-day lives. But to allow them freedom to sin is to allow them to misuse their power, and to allow that is precisely what makes theocracies, along with all other forms of government, very scary. This is why it is better to keep governments as limited as possible, rather than as extensive as possible, as would be the case with a theocracy.


Apollodorus said…
I have yet to meet a single undergraduate who was not a moral relativist of some kind.

Sure you have. I am a moral realist, and I was when I was your student; I'm just not a very confident one. I suppose that if you use the phrase 'moral relativism' a bit like the Pope sometimes seems to, to refer to any view which is not rigidly absolutist and generally rule-based, then I am certainly a moral relativist 'of some kind,' since I tend to believe that there are a variety of legitimate and yet mutually exclusive good kinds of life that people can lead, and that right action is underdetermined by rules of anything more than a very general kind. I also tend to think that the good that is primarily relevant to moral philosophy is the good for human beings, and so you might call me a relativist because I take the good to be 'relative' to human beings. I don't think any of that really counts as moral relativism, though, for the simple reason that I believe that there are real human goods and truly reasonable ways to respond to them, and that such goodness and rationality do not vary fundamentally across cultures.

Now, I might not be able to defend all of that, and so whether or not I am justified in believing it or not is an entirely different question. But I believe it, and I believed it when I was an undergraduate. So I am offended. Okay, not really. I suspect that many of your other students have been far less relativistic than I am, though; a few very particular, very bright, very religious students come to mind...

Didn't Plato reject the idea that knowledge could be justified true belief in the last portion of the Theaetetus?
Scott Carson said…
I think I mentioned those students who answer "Both" when asked whether they are realists or relativists. It sounds to me as though you fall rather squarely in that category.
Apollodorus said…
It's no wonder, then, that when you ask students whether they are moral realists or moral relativists, they will very often say "Both!" The reason is that they want to believe that what they believe is true, for them, but it might not be really true for others because others might not believe it. They are radically confused about what it means to know something as opposed to having a firm conviction about it.

Now surely that's not a camp that I fall squarely into, if I fall into it at all. At the very least, I don't believe that what I believe is 'true for me,' but not true for people who don't believe it. If the view that I sketched is a 'relativist' view, then all kinds of moral realists who are celebrated and derided as anti-relativists end up being 'relativists,' too, like Aristotle, Martha Nussbaum, John Finnis, David Brink, and probably Aquinas, too, to name only a few. Sounds like a pretty overworked conception of what counts as 'relativism' to me.

I suspect that there are a good number of students who think that they are relativists, but only because they mistakenly believe that the only alternative to relativism is a rule-based deontology or divine command ethics. And I'm sure that there are a decent number of undergraduates who subscribe to some form of the latter.

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