February 2, 2009
By Nick Shackel
What is good and bad? What is virtue and vice? How should we live? These are the big questions of ethics. They are also deeply practical questions. The point is not simply to know the answers but to do what is right and to avoid what is wrong. Through action we pursue ends, manifest character and live life. Action is the nexus of ethical concern. Agents are the authors of action and are also the objects of ethical evaluation. The ethical standing of an agent bears a complex relation to their actions, to how they were sensitive to the ethically relevant facts in coming to their actions and to their general inclinations to act. But agency and action also require believers and belief. What is the ethical status of believers and belief, as such? And what relation do these evaluations surrounding action and belief have to one another?
Historically we have been inclined to demand conformity of belief to right belief, just as we are inclined to demand conformity of action to right action, and to blame and even to punish wrong belief. However, there are significant contrasts to be drawn between the case of belief and the case of action. First, and as Locke pointed out in his letter on toleration, unlike actions, our beliefs are not under our control. How then can it be fair to subject belief to ethical demands? Second, the freedom of action which is held to be valuable is only the freedom to choose among permissible alternatives, not the freedom to do what is wrong. The freedom of belief which is held to be valuable, however, includes the freedom to believe wrongly and in error. Indeed, some value the freedom of thought so highly that they claim belief should always be at complete liberty, and complete liberty implies that belief is always blameless. Third, there is a significant conflict between liberty of belief and the apparently reasonable demand that you should proportion your belief in accordance with the evidence. Believing against the evidence seems to be blameworthy whilst believing with the evidence seems to be a defence against criticism.
In addition to the contrasts between belief and action, the significance of belief for action may have consequences for the ethical status of belief. First, effective action is highly dependent on true belief and so true belief has ethical import for right action. This can cut both ways. On the one hand, since true belief is hard to come by, it may be that freedom of belief is necessary for discovering truth. On the other hand, since false belief can result in wrong action, regimenting belief can be necessary for right action. Second, some truths undermine the flattering views we might wish to have of ourselves and others, or might bring us unwanted explanations that undermine the political or moral views we want to hold. For example, loyalty to those close to us appears to demand that we believe better of them than perhaps the evidence warrants. Third, since speech can lead others to action the ethical restraints on action may have consequences for restraints on speech. However, if belief is free, and if belief is the norm of assertion (it is permissible to assert what you believe) then the freedom of belief implies a correlate freedom of speech.
So, whilst belief appears to be an object of ethical concern, natural views of the nature of belief and of the normativity of belief (that it is constrained by, and only by the aim to believe truly) entail significant conflicts between rightness of belief and rightness of action, more generally, between epistemic normativity and moral normativity. The ethical status of belief is, therefore, no simple issue; it has its own special difficulties.
Regrettably, and because of the significance of belief for action, these difficulties are often lumped in with ethical problems about action, and, as a consequence, are often poorly dealt with. When your focus is on the action difficult philosophical questions about belief become an annoying sideshow on the way. And that’s fair enough, provided that those difficult questions are addressed somewhere. It is a worthwhile project to separate out those questions and address them as the main attraction. Secondly, and perhaps also somewhat regrettably, these questions have been pursued in isolation from rich ethical contexts by epistemologists, with a bare assumption that whatever is the true theory of knowledge or epistemic justification will settle the matter. Well, perhaps that is right, but I suspect we need some discussion and argument to show it to be right. In general, I think we need to formulate the area somewhat more broadly and more self consciously.
My suggestion is that there is something properly called epistemic ethics. Epistemic ethics takes belief as the nexus of its concern, just as ethics takes action as the nexus of its concern. Believers and beliefs are the objects of epistemically ethical evaluation. The epistemically ethical standing of a believer bears a complex relation to their beliefs, to how they were sensitive to the epistemically ethically relevant facts in coming to their beliefs and to their general inclinations to believe.
Epistemic ethics includes meta-normative questions such as the whether epistemic normativity is exhausted by epistemology as presently practised, whether the ethics of action and the ethics of belief are one and the same ethics or whether they are distinct, and if so what is their relation. It also includes normative questions about the justification of believer and belief as such, and the delicate relations between those and the justification of agent and action as such. However, epistemic ethics is concerned not only with such purely philosophical issues. It is also concerned with the issues of the specific epistemic duties had by us all, had by special classes of us (such as experts, journalists and politicians), had by us with respect to specific questions of belief, and had by us with respect to different arenas, such as private belief and public knowledge. Finally, just as applied ethics seeks to apply ethical theory to issues in the wider world (and has given rise to bioethics, animal ethics, environmental ethics, neuroethics, etc), epistemic ethics includes the epistemic side of issues in the wider world such as medicine, the economy, the climate, the relation of science and policy, and more generally, the epistemic roles, rights and duties of social institutions concerned with knowledge such as think tanks, research institutes, schools and universities.
When put like this I think it is clear that there is significant work already being done in this area, mostly by epistemologists who have made use of analogy with standard ethical issues. Virtue epistemology is clearly a matter of thinking in ethical terms about belief, as too is the recent work on the value of knowledge. Nevertheless, I think something important is added by drawing attention to the unity of epistemic ethics: namely, that philosophical issues that have been under-explored come clearly into view. At the moment I think there are at least three obvious issues (from work in progress on which I have extracted some of these remarks). First of all, the relations between moral and epistemic normativity are, on their face, complex and intricate, and yet there is a widespread assumption that this normativity is a unity. Secondly, within social epistemology, and perhaps within experimental philosophy, attention is being paid to epistemology in practice, for example, rules of evidence in the law, intuitions, etc.. But to know how such work is to have genuine philosophical significance requires some theoretical conception of the unity of epistemic ethics. Finally, the epistemic side of issues in the wider world is significantly under-moralised in that world. For example, politicians, journalists, advocacy researchers, civil servants, businessmen, none of whom would ever think of acting immorally, routinely resort to the production of bogus evidence, to tendentious misrepresentation and to bullshit, seemingly without the slightest thought that in doing so they might be engaging in unethical behaviour.