I have a right to believe whatever I want — no, you don’t

Right to any belief

DO IT SOON What’s up? To believe is to take to be true. Beliefs can be false, unwarranted by evidence or reasoned consideration. Our beliefs are intended to reflect the real world – and it is on this point that beliefs can go haywire.
What’s new? There is an ethic of believing, of acquiring, sustaining, and relinquishing beliefs – and that ethic both generates and limits our right to believe. The wilful ignorance and false knowledge that are commonly defended by the assertion ‘I have a right to my belief’ do not meet these ethical requirements.

There are irresponsible beliefs; more precisely, there are beliefs that are acquired and retained in an irresponsible way. One might disregard evidence; accept gossip, rumour, or testimony from dubious sources; ignore incoherence with one’s other beliefs; embrace wishful thinking; or display a predilection for conspiracy theories.

If the content of a belief is judged morally wrong, it is also thought to be false. The falsity of a belief is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a belief to be morally wrong; neither is the ugliness of the content sufficient for a belief to be morally wrong.

If we find these morally wrong, we condemn not only the potential acts that spring from such beliefs, but the content of the belief itself, the act of believing it, and thus the believer. Among likely candidates: beliefs that are sexist, racist or homophobic; the belief that proper upbringing of a child requires ‘breaking the will’ and severe corporal punishment; the belief that the elderly should routinely be euthanised; the belief that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a political solution, and so on.

So what? Stay skeptical at all times. A skeptic is not a negative person, merely one who will not accept any “truth” at face value but will attempt to examine the issues involved from a neutral standpoint. Easier said that done.


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