Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Respecting Beliefs

I tend to like Simon Blackburn, but his essay Religion and Respect (PDF) is a bit disappointing. He opens the essay with a story about a dinner party:

Some years ago, without realizing what it might mean, I accepted a dinner invitation from a Jewish colleague for dinner on Friday night. I should say that my colleague had never appeared particularly orthodox, and he would have known that I am an atheist. However, in the course of the meal, some kind of observance was put in train, and it turned out I was expected to play along—put on a hat, or some such. I demurred, saying that I felt uncomfortable doing something that might be the expression of some belief that I do not hold, or of joining a “fellowship” with which I felt no special community, and with which I would not have any particular fellow-feeling beyond whatever I feel for human beings in general. I was assured that what it would signify, if I went through with the observance, was not that I shared the world views or beliefs of my host, or wished myself to identify uniquely with some particular small subset of humanity, but only that I respected his beliefs, or perhaps his stance. I replied that in that case, equally, I could not in conscience do what was required.

Note what, according to Blackburn's own words, is happening here. Blackburn accepts an invitation for dinner; during the dinner the host asks him, as a guest, to participate in an observance. He protests that he would be uncomfortable doing anything that would express a belief he doesn't hold, and his host assures him that he will not be understood in this way. Now, as Blackburn notes later, someone might well argue that he had some obligation, as a guest to his host, that needs explicitly to be considered in this line of reasoning; not once did he seriously consider that his host's request to respect his beliefs might be a way of asking him to show respect for the host, who has certain beliefs that are coming into play. Contrary to what Blackburn seems to suggest later, nothing in this requires that he express any beliefs at all, even in a play-along sort of way. It was made clear by the host that the observance wasn't going to be taken as his expression of belief, but simply as a way of participating in the dinner party as the host was throwing it. One can perhaps argue that the observance was tasteless proposal for this participation (we can't in this case, because we don't know what it was), but one can insist that, if you're a guest at a dinner party, you should participate in it along the lines suggested by a host unless you can give a good reason why you shouldn't that shows proper respect to the person who invited you over. One can certainly think of a situation in which someone confronted with a case like this would bow out from it, with a carefully constructed response that both expresses respect for the host, both as a person and as a host, and makes clear that he cannot in good conscience do it. But Blackburn decided to take the course of being rude to his host, without, it seems, explaining himself as a decent dinner guest would. (It should be noted that Blackburn himself doesn't try a full justification of his response, saying that it is "indeterminate" whether he was being asked to engage in self-deception or show minimal respect, because his host's state of mind could be interpreted in different ways. I'm not at all sure what this means; if it's indeterminate merely because there are different interpretations, I'm not sure why we wouldn't have to conclude that anything involving any human state of mind is so far indeterminate. Blackburn criticizes people for treating all opinions as equal; but then he concludes by effectively including that all opinions about his host's state of mind are equal -- since that seems to be the only way it could be 'indeterminate'. If one opinion were better than another, it wouldn't be indeterminate. I don't know what to make of this.)

But, really, beyond the question of good manners, the dinner party isn't important. What it does is serve as an occasion for considering the respecting of beliefs; and that's the argument that's really important. But his reasoning is sometimes very odd. For instance, he says,

And as far as toasting some particular subset of humanity goes, I also wish people were not keen on separating themselves from others, keen on difference and symbols of tribalism. I don’t warm to badges of allegiance, flags, ostentatious signs of apartness, because I do not think they are good for the world. I am glad that the word “race” has lost most of its reputation recently, and I would rather like the word “culture”, as it occurs in phrases like “cultural diversity” to follow it. More moderately, we might keep it, but also keep a beady eye on it. When people do things differently, sometimes it is fine, but sometimes it is not. This is especially so with overt signs of religious affiliation. By all means be apart, if you wish, but don’t expect me to jump up and down with joy.

But this line of reasoning, far from justifying (however slightly) his reaction at the dinner, tells against it. For it was clearly Blackburn, not the Jewish host, who was engaging in an ostentatious display of apartness. Just as you can't justify rebellion by saying, "Lapses from conformity should be despised," you can't reasonably try to justify a show of apartness by saying, "We should keep a wary eye on shows of apartness."

There is some good in the essay. Blackburn rightly recognizes that 'respect for X's beliefs' is a phrase that can mean lots of very different things. Sometimes it simply means that we should respect X enough to recognize that we can get along with him even if we disagree with him. But Blackburn tries to spin this into a much stronger thesis, namely, that "once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it."

But this makes the mistake of conflating false beliefs and irrational beliefs, at least to the extent of treating them as if they really had the same effect on the sort of reasonable respect that could be given. It may well be that if I believe that X believes p irrationally, there's not much more respect I can extend to him beyond the minimum, as far as that belief is concerned. But suppose that I hold that (a) p is false; but (b) X's holding of the belief is not irrational, but eminently rational. For instance, I think the belief 'God does not exist' is false; but that doesn't mean I can't respect someone's holding of the belief 'God does not exist' in something more than the minimal sense. Depending on the case, it might well be that X believes 'God does not exist' not for any lack of rationality or good sense, but simply because, through no fault of their own, their starting data were messed up, and their rationality and good sense is what led them to their belief given that starting data. In such a case I can well appreciate that, despite the falsehood of the belief, the holding of the belief is even to some extent admirable; and this will clearly take me beyond the minimal type of respect.

Further, I can respect and admire someone's holding of a false belief if the way they hold it is a sign of moral excellence. Naturally, since I think the belief is false I'll be inclined to think that something went wrong somewhere. But that doesn't make it impossible for me to admire certain pacificists for the quality, conviction, and moral character of the expression of their pacificism, even though I think pacificism a false doctrine. Even more than this, I can admire pacificism itself in some ways (e.g., for its simplicity, or its beauty, or its clarity) while still thinking it clearly false, and I can respect people for holding it, for precisely those reasons (that pacifism has a simplicity, or beauty, or clarity). Or I could hold that pacificists, despite the falseness of pacifism, are, by the very fact of being pacifists, showing signs that they are taking into account something important that is usually neglected. Pacifism, for instance, might be false by simple defect -- e.g., the pacifist is on to something important, but has simply not followed it up completely. In such a case, I can respect and admire pacifism, though thinking it false, for being an excellent beginning; indeed, it's entirely possible for me to respect and admire pacifists, though in my view wrong, for recognizing something in their pacifism that people I agree with might often neglect. In that case I'm respecting and admiring the holding of a belief I think false because I think it provides an important corrective, or because I think it refreshingly emphasizes something important that's often forgotten.

In short, there are lots and lots of good reasons why I might respect the holding of a belief I think false, far beyond the minimal sense of tolerating it and letting the believers get on with it. If I think it false, it will be because I think some beliefs better in some way (Blackburn's certainly right about that), but it does not follow from the fact that believing A is better than believing B that believing B can only be tolerated, and not respected. For believing B might, in some ways, or under the particular circumstances, be quite good enough to be worthy of a more substantial respect.

Blackburn's argument also doesn't seem to take sufficiently into account that false beliefs may be of varying degress of harmfulness; and, indeed, does not appear to consider that a false belief may even be largely harmless. Anscombe once argued that pacifism is not only false but disastrously harmful; but not everyone accepts the latter, and those who don't, and who think that, while pacifism is based on false principles, war should be rare, will quite reasonably think of the pacifist as close enough for most practical purposes, and even take the sincerity, the simplicity, the courage, and the conviction of the firmly convinced pacifist as something to admire.

Blackburn seems less inclined than I to accept that we should admire the passion or conviction of false beliefs:

Tony Blair is regularly given credit for his sincerity, at least by the right-wing media, as he remains the only person in the world to believe in Iraqui weapons of mass destruction. But surely we ought to find passion and conviction in such a case dangerous and lamentable. The tendency of mind that they indicate is the vice of weakness, not the virtue of strength. Far from being a sign of sincerity, passionate conviction in these shadowy regions is a sign of weakness, of a secretly known infirmity of representational confidence.

But this appears simply to be a case of tendentious example. For what is really governing the evaluation in Blackburn's argument is not the falsehood of the belief -- it is not because Blair's views are false that he thinks we should lament Blair's conviction and passion; it's because he thinks the conviction and passion express a weakness of character. But what of false beliefs that don't express a weakness of character? Or is Blackburn making the odd and (one would presume) controversial claim that all false beliefs are expression of a weak character?

Now, Blackburn does appear to recognize some of these points. For instance, he says that "The quality of mind that got someone to believe something with which, all the same, we do not agree, may itself be more or less admirable"; but if we accept this, we should also accept that we may respect the false beliefs as being expressions of this quality of mind in this type of circumstance -- just as we may find a belief lamentable for expressing a weakness of character (indeed, we may find it lamentable for this reason even if it happens to be right, as Blackburn's mention of Clifford should have reminded him -- Clifford's discussion of cognitive duty is not about whether beliefs are right or wrong at all, but about whether they are adequately supported or inadequately supported). And if we can have different grades of respect for different false beliefs, it must be false that we cannot respect false beliefs beyond the minimal sense. For minimal respect is exactly that: minimal respect, which admits of no grades.

Holding a false belief, as such, considered in no other light, does not entitle anyone to deeper respect, and it doesn't, considered only so far, entitle the belief to respect. But we are simply making a bad assumption if we think that this is the only light in which the holding of a false belief can be considered. For the holding of a false belief is a personal expression; the way in which the belief is held may express good character, or rational good sense, or something like this; the belief held may not merely be false but interestingly false, or admirable as well as false.

On the critique of expressive theology, I have very little to say. I'm not a fan of the position myself. But if anyone actually took Blackburn's argument against it seriously, we would have to condemn a taste for mythology that involves expressing oneself mythologically as "a cheat" because "the function of the language (the legitimation of attitudes and attitudes to attitudes) actually depends on ontological imaginings that the position officially disavows." This is the attitude of philistine; Blackburn's response reminds me of the irrational responses of those Christians who freak out about Shakespeare because his characters talk so much about Jove and other Greek gods, or who become hysterical about Harry Potter, or Narnia, or Middle-earth because it deals with magic (and even if it is fiction, they will patiently tell you if you disagree, such fiction legitimates magic and that's a no-no because magic is wrong). If you think something is a good fiction -- as, for instance, I think Feuerbachian atheism or Neo-Gnosticism is good fiction -- then there's no clear sense in which there is any cheating going on if we dabble in it in our expressions and lives, unless we are being hypocritical about what we are doing, i.e., unless we are trying to make people believe that we believe it. And even then the problem is not the use of the language but the hypocrisy in using it. We philosophers have better things to be doing than advocating puritanisms of the worst type. But, again, Blackburn's own argument when he talks about how it's OK for atheists to respond to great religious works of art should have yielded this result when he talks about expressive theology, which takes the whole of religion (or at least a large part) to be a great communal work of art.

UPDATE: Given that I always type directly into the post editor, long posts become filled with typos and residues of editing. I've fixed some of these.

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