Posted by: N.S. Palmer | October 26, 2013

Toward a New Ethics of Belief

June and Ward Cleaver from a 1960s TV series.

Ward believes that June is the best wife in the world.

By N.S. Palmer

Who is the best wife[1] in the world?

There are many criteria you could consider. But let me give you a shortcut. Skip the criteria. If anyone ever asks you that question, there is only one correct answer:

My wife is the best wife in the world.”

Why? Because she’s your wife.

One hopes that you mentally believe she’s the best wife in the world. But whether you mentally believe it or not, you’d be wise to say it when someone asks you.

It’s not just a matter of prudence. Even if the sofa is very comfortable and there are plenty of frozen dinners in the refrigerator, you have a moral duty to be loyal to your wife. That includes believing good things about her — or even if you don’t mentally believe them, then at least verbally assenting to those beliefs.

But wait a second. Aren’t you supposed to believe things only if you have good logical or empirical evidence that they’re true?

Delete the “only” and that’s correct. Other things being equal, if you have good logical or empirical evidence that things are true, then you should believe them.

But the story’s a little more complicated because it’s “other things being equal.”

What if you have good logical or empirical evidence that by some set of criteria, your wife is not the best wife in the world? Then you have a conflict of duties:

  • You’re obliged by evidence to believe that your wife is not the best wife in the world.
  • You’re obliged by loyalty to believe that your wife is the best wife in the world.

Which duty takes priority? A lot depends on the circumstances, but it also leads us to the fact that “belief” can mean different things, have different functions, and be justified in different ways.

To determine what belief is, we should not make up a definition, then go out into the world and see if anything matches our definition. We should look at the circumstances under which people say that someone believes something.

Likewise, to determine what belief does — what functions it serves for individuals and society — we should look at how it actually works, not just at how we think it works. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Don’t think, look!” This is empiricism and common sense. Aristotle and Maimonides would approve.

In one sense or another, you believe X if you do any of the following:

  1. Mentally assent to the proposition that X is true.
  2. Orally or in writing, state consistently that X is true.
  3. Behave consistently as if X is true.

Even if logic prevents your mental assent, you can still believe that your wife is the best in the world if you give your verbal assent and act as if the idea is true. Trust me: if you want to stay married to her, that’s a wise course of action. It’s also the right course of action.

As Sherlock Holmes Would Say, “A Clue!”

The clue that we’re dealing with more than logic and evidence comes in the very question we’ve been discussing:

Under what circumstances should you believe a statement?

“Should” is not a logical word like “is” or “implies.” It’s a prescriptive word, telling us how to act and how to live. That tips us off that we’re dealing with an ethical issue. The logical and empirical evidence supporting a belief are relevant, but they’re not the only relevant factors.

And the fact that it’s an ethical issue tips us off that belief is not a special kind of thing, off in a corner, governed only by its own rules. It’s a form of human action. To believe something is to do something. And what we do is governed, inter alia, by moral concerns.

A Field Trip to Southern Africa

In search of answers, let’s take a field trip to Southern Africa. There we encounter the Herero people, a subgroup of the Bantus. They have a curious preoccupation with witchcraft. If anything bad happens to someone, they believe it’s because the person was “witched.”

But witchcraft doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us. There are no boiling cauldrons, no eye of newt, nor even usually any deliberate spell-casting. According to Henry Harpending in his book West Hunter:

The way it works is this: perhaps Greg falls and hurts himself, he knows it must be witchcraft, and he discovers that I am seething with jealousy [at him], so it was my witchcraft that made him fall. What is surprising is that I was completely unaware of having witched him, so he bears me no ill will. I feel bad about his misfortune and do my best to get rid of my bad feelings because with them I am a danger to friends and family.[2]

The result is something very positive:

Everyone except the Americans agreed that witchcraft was a terrible problem, that there was danger all around, and that it was vitally important to maintain amicable relations with others and to reject feelings of anger or jealousy in oneself.[3]

So here’s the question: Should the Herero people abandon their belief in witchcraft because it lacks empirical evidence to support it?

Unpacking the Belief

It will also help if we can get clear about exactly what the Herero people believe. Their idea of witchcraft is peculiar by our standards. They think that if someone bears ill will toward someone else, then through some unknown mechanism, it causes misfortune to befall the other person.

What’s their evidence for the belief? Correlation: Whenever a person suffers misfortune, it’s always possible to find someone who bears ill will toward him or her. All that’s missing is a real theory about how the ill will causes the misfortune.

Here’s how their belief in witchcraft looks in terms of the three belief types mentioned earlier:

  1. Belief as mental act: The Herero mentally assent to the statement that negative emotions toward other people can cause harm to those people. The content of their belief consists of a known subject (negative emotions), a known object (harm to other people), a known correlation (negative emotions followed by harm), and an unknown process that accounts for the correlation.
  2. Belief as verbal declaration: The Herero consistently state that a causal relationship exists between negative emotions and harmful consequences. They never deny that belief.
  3. Belief as behavior: The Herero consistently behave as if a causal relationship existed between negative emotions and harmful consequences. If something bad happens to someone, they look for a negative emotion in another person that might have caused the misfortune. When they find it, whether in themselves or in someone else, they try to defuse it to prevent any further harm.

Apart from the supposed causal relationship between negative emotion and misfortune, there’s nothing very objectionable going on here. The social and moral results of (2) and (3) are overwhelmingly positive. And even the unknown causal relationship at the root of (1) isn’t logically disreputable. We often notice and act on correlations that are useful but unexplained. For example, aspirin (in the form of tree-bark extract) was used as far back as ancient Greece because someone noticed a correlation between aspirin consumption and pain relief. It wasn’t until the 20th century that we had any idea why aspirin worked. We just knew that it did work: and our knowledge was based on a bare correlation without any explanation behind it.

Now, we may fault the Herero for not testing their belief scientifically. They’ve never set up a control group, they haven’t looked for negative emotions that didn’t cause harm, and they give too little weight to other causes of mishaps.

But what would be the point of all that extra effort? Their belief is logically innocuous while being morally and socially helpful. There’s no percentage in putting it under a microscope. It works. The best outcome of a scientific inquiry would be to validate the belief, in which case they wouldn’t have anything more than they already have. The worst outcome of a scientific inquiry would be to discredit the belief, in which case they would have lost a powerful support for moral behavior and social harmony — giving it up for the relatively minor benefit of logical purity. They would have exchanged something more valuable for something less valuable.

Given that circumstance, the conclusion is clear: They should believe in witchcraft as they define it. The belief is a good thing. Taking that belief away from them in the name of logical purity would be wrong.

Do We Even Disagree with the Herero’s Belief?

Here’s a much trickier question: Do we even disagree with the Herero’s belief?

Remember what they assert: negative emotion, bad result, correlation, and a postulated but unknown causal mechanism.

We might say that we don’t see what the causal mechanism is, but neither do they. We might say that other causes are involved, but so do they. If they believe that witchcraft made a rock fall on someone’s head, they don’t claim that witchcraft alone caused the injury. The rock was clearly involved. They just think that other factors were also involved. Do we disagree? No.

Often, because of differences in terminology, context, or ritual, we think that disagreements exist where there are none. We don’t like the word “witchcraft” because of the meaning that we but not the Herero attach to it. However, we have no substantive complaints to make about the Herero’s belief. We tend to think that our disagreement with them, to the extent it exists at all, is much larger than it really is.

Unpacking One of Our Own Beliefs

Let’s apply the same kind of analysis to a belief that’s much closer to home:

I believe with perfect faith that God rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress them.

That, of course, is Maimonides’s 11th principle of the Jewish faith. In one form or another, the belief is held by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In particular, Orthodox Jews believe that there are 613 commandments governing every area of life: 365 negative commandments that forbid certain actions, and 248 positive commandments that require certain actions.

What is the evidence for the belief? As befits a principle of faith, the evidence falls far short of proof. Though it’s doubtful that any imperfect human being could keep all the commandments all the time, some people do try. And sometimes, good things happen to them. But overall, we know far too painfully that earthly rewards and misfortunes bear no dependable relationship to obeying the commandments or to moral behavior generally: the Bible’s Book of Job testifies to that fact. So we are left to see the rewards as either spiritual or deferred until “the world to come.”

Here’s how our belief in Divine reward and punishment (“God rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress them”) looks in terms of the three belief types mentioned earlier:

  1. Belief as mental act: Because God transcends human understanding, we cannot form a concept of God[4] (the belief’s subject). Therefore, we cannot hold the belief as a mental act unless we do some covert anthropomorphic substitution.
  2. Belief as verbal declaration: Orthodox Jews consistently state that God rewards those who follow the commandments and punishes those who violate them.
  3. Belief as behavior: Orthodox Jews try to obey 613 commandments that govern every area of life. That requires constant thought about the moral status of their actions. It also discourages impulsive or unethical behavior. It’s no guarantee: people who are inclined to cruelty or criminality can usually find an excuse, even within the constraints of the commandments. However, Orthodox Jews’ resolution to follow the commandments generally helps them be kinder, more honest, and better citizens than otherwise. The same applies to any other humane and comprehensive moral code.

Even though the belief cannot be formed as a mental act, the fact that it invokes the Creator of the universe as its authority increases its motivational power. Without that added authority, the belief would be less helpful. As belief types (2) and (3), the belief signifies membership in the religious group, expresses loyalty to the group, and promotes social cohesion.

Now, we may fault the Orthodox for holding a belief they can’t understand mentally, for not testing it scientifically, and indeed, for holding it in spite of voluminous contrary evidence.

On the other hand, those objections concern only belief type (1): belief as a mental act. And though the belief cannot be formed as a mental act, one can construe it as a slightly different, entirely comprehensible mental act that’s an ellipsis for two other beliefs and a resolution:

  • Right and wrong are a basic aspect of our world.
  • Acting morally is important.
  • Therefore, I resolve to act morally by following the commandments.

The first part is a metaphysical statement that summarizes a vast number of observations, attitudes, and descriptions about the world. The second is an evaluation. The third isn’t even a statement of fact, but expresses an intention. Put more concisely, the belief amounts to:

Right and wrong are a fundamental and important feature of the world. As much as I am able, I resolve to do right and to refrain from doing wrong.

Construed in this way, the mental-act belief is logically innocuous while being morally and socially helpful. It works. Science has nothing to say, pro or con, about any of it. The type (2) and (3) versions of the belief are indisputably positive.

Given that circumstance, the conclusion is clear: Orthodox Jews (and anyone else so inclined) should believe faith Principle 11. The belief is a good thing. Giving up that belief in a misguided and ultimately quixotic quest for logical purity would be wrong.

But Is Belief Voluntary?

An obvious objection to this line of thought is that belief is involuntary. We can only be obligated to do what we have the ability to do. If we cannot control our beliefs, then we cannot have a duty to believe one thing or to disbelieve another. As Brand Blanshard put it in Reason and Belief:

Now, beliefs are rather like tics and sneezes. In some cases, they are completely uncontrollable, and then to talk of duty in connection with them is absurd. If a man were offered a million dollars to believe at this moment that three and four made eleven, or that the chair on which he seemed to be sitting was the only living unicorn, he would lose the money.[5]

Blanshard locates our ethical duties about belief in two actions that we can control: First, to acquire the relevant evidence to assess the beliefs; and second, to form careful and logical habits of mind that make our involuntary acts of belief reliable.[6]

However, this objection applies only to belief type number one: belief as a mental act. If someone offers you a million dollars to believe mentally that three and four make eleven, then you’re out of luck. But if all that’s required is for you to say that three and four make eleven, then I’d suggest that you take the money unless significant countervailing evil would result.

Likewise, some members of a community might mentally disbelieve (or, with statements about God, simply not understand) some of the community’s most cherished articles of faith. But as long as they give their verbal and behavioral assent to those articles of faith — as long as they “believe” in senses two and three — then harmony will be preserved and everyone in the community will benefit. In that case, the verbal affirmation of the belief serves as a badge of membership in the community and as an expression of loyalty to the other members of the community.

It’s true that some articles of faith should not be believed in any sense at any time, such as beliefs that counsel harm or denial of human rights. But since belief types (2) and (3) are justified by the good they produce, such beliefs are automatically excluded from our duties.

But Are Belief Types (2) and (3) Hypocritical?

Another obvious objection is to point out that this argument seems to endorse hypocrisy. Hypocrisy means either or both of two things:

  • Saying something while mentally withholding judgment about it or mentally believing that it is false.
  • Saying something while behaving as if it is false.

Let us not evade the issue: Yes, if you mentally believe not-X while saying that you believe X, or while acting as if X is true, then you are acting hypocritically.

But in humility and with no small amount of trepidation, I must insist that hypocrisy is not always and everywhere a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be a very good thing. Sometimes, it can even be morally obligatory.

We can agree that truth is good and honesty is a virtue. But truth is not the only good and honesty is not the only virtue. Likewise, expressing mental beliefs is not the only function of belief statements and believing behavior.

Consider a question that most husbands[7] have faced at one time or another:

Does this dress make me look fat?

You know that only one kind of answer will keep peace in the family. If you give any other answer, you do so at your peril. Even worse, you cause unhappiness to your wife. But before you feel guilty about your hypocrisy, think for a moment about the real significance of that question. Is your wife asking for an objective statement of fact? No. In spite of the words she used, she is asking for your affirmation, encouragement, and support:

Dearest, that dress makes you look beautiful. You always look spectacular, and you make me glad to be alive.

In this case, your wife neither asked for an objective factual statement, nor should you have given one. You looked beyond her words and understood the real question, whose answer is “I love you.” To say otherwise would have been honest, but wrong. Hypocrisy was the right choice in that situation.

Like any human practice, hypocrisy can be used for evil purposes. However, it can also help sustain communities and cooperation. When a group of people all affirm the same articles of faith, the essential function of their statement is not to assert facts. Instead, their affirmation expresses loyalty, solidarity, and shared values with the other members of their group. In such situations, hypocrisy is often a virtue rather than a vice.

Belief as a Form of Human Action

Let’s sum up. Belief is a special kind of human action. It has at least three different types. It can serve different functions, both individual and social. It has its own logical obligations, but it is also subject to the same moral obligations as the other kinds of human action.

That being so, our obligations to believe or disbelieve are not purely logical. They also involve considerations of social benefit, personal character, group loyalty, and self-definition. We may believe things for logical reasons only, moral reasons only, or for both. In some cases, moral reasons outweigh purely logical ones — especially when our logical duties are not settled by the available evidence and the moral reasons are of great consequence.


  1. I’m using “wife” for concreteness and simplicity. Readers may substitute “husband” or “spouse” if they prefer.
  2. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, West Hunter, loc. 589 of eBook. Self-published compilation of the authors’ blog entries, mostly about genetics and anthropology.
  3. Ibid, loc. 591.
  4. Although “God” appears to be a proper name, it is actually an abbreviation for a description, i.e., “The God of Abraham.” Unlike “Joe Smith,” to whom we can point, we cannot perceive God in any normal way and therefore cannot name Him. Moreover, saying that the name “God” abbreviates a description only pushes the problem back a step. Either the description uses the word “God,” in which case it repeats what we already said, or it uses some other term, such as “the Being,” in which we again have a term (“the Being”) that is undefined and undefinable.
  5. Brand Blanshard, Reason and Belief, p. 402. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1973. The book is based on his Noble Lectures at Harvard in 1948 and his Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews in 1952-53.
  6. Ibid, p. 403.
  7. As before, readers may substitute “spouse” or some other term if they prefer.

Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


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