Are we morally responsible for what we believe? To some extent, we are. The acceptance of lies and bizarre conspiracy theories by so many of our fellow citizens makes the issue extremely relevant. The philosopher Regina Rini discusses the ethics of belief for the Times Literary Supplement:
On January 6, the US Capitol building was stormed by a mob, motivated by beliefs that were almost entirely false, absurd and nonsensical: the QAnon conspiracy; the President’s [lies] about massive voter fraud, and the various conspiracy theories that he and his lawyers peddled in support of overturning the election results.
In 1877, the English philosopher William Clifford published a now famous essay, “The Ethics of Belief”, setting out the view that we can be morally faulted for shoddy thinking. Clifford imagines a ship-owner who smothers his doubts about the seaworthiness of a creaky vessel, and adopts the sincere but unjustified belief that it is safe to send passengers across the Atlantic. The ship then sinks. Clifford (himself a shipwreck survivor) asks: don’t we agree that the ship-owner was “verily guilty” of the passengers’ deaths, and that he “must be held responsible for it”? If we agree to this, Clifford continues, then we must also agree that the ship-owner would deserve blame even if the ship hadn’t sunk. It is epistemic carelessness that makes the ship-owner guilty, even if catastrophe is luckily avoided. “The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief … not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.”
Clifford’s views went out of favour among philosophers for most of a century. Moral evaluation, it was thought, should stop at the mind’s edge. After all, we cannot directly control our beliefs in the way we control our fists. I can’t just decide, here and now, to stop believing that Charles I had a pointy beard . . . And if I can’t control my beliefs, how can I be held accountable for them?
Yet in recent decades, many philosophers have become less impressed by this objection (sometimes called the problem of “doxastic voluntarism”). After all, I can control how I acquire and maintain beliefs by shaping my informational environment. Suppose I do really want to change my beliefs about Charles I’s grooming. I could join a renegade historical society and surround myself with dissenting portraiture. Slowly, indirectly, I can retrain my thoughts and I can be held accountable for choosing to do so.
More to the point, I can also fail to take action to shape my beliefs in healthy ways. The social media era has made this point especially acute, as we can each now curate our own information environment, following sources that challenge our beliefs, or flatter our preconceptions, as we please. Digital epistemic communities are then made up of people who amplify one another’s virtues or vices. Credulously accepting conspiracy stories that vilify my partisan enemies not only dulls my own wits, but encourages my friends to dull theirs. Clifford himself was quite sharp on this point: “Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me … It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive”.
So far, then, Clifford’s 150-year-old diagnosis seems precisely to explain the epistemic culpability of those who stormed the Capitol on a wave of delusion and lies. But there is a wrinkle here. Clifford thought that credulity – insufficient scepticism toward the claims of others – was the most troubling intellectual vice. But the epistemic shambles of QAnon show a more subtle problem. After all, if there’s anything conspiracy fanatics possess, it is scepticism. They are sceptical of what government officials say, sceptical of what vaccine scientists say, sceptical even of what astronauts say about the shape of the Earth. If anything, they show that critical thinking is a bit like cell division; valuable in proportion, but at risk of harmful metastasis. In the eyes of QAnon devotees, we are the “sheeple” who fail to “do the research” of tumbling down every hyperlinked rabbit-hole.
Conspiracy aficionados are all too willing to think for themselves – that is how they end up believing that Democrats are Satan-worshippers or that 5G phone towers cause Covid-19. And that’s where Clifford’s moralizing – “No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe” – goes wrong. The ethics of belief should not be a Calvinistic demand for hard epistemic labour. Conspiracists work at least as hard as the rest of us, pinning notes and photos to their bulletin boards late into the night. Hard epistemic labour is just as prone to amplifying epistemic mistakes as overcoming them.
In fact, we should not be focused on individual intellectual virtue at all. The epistemic practices that justify our beliefs are fundamentally interpersonal. Most of our knowledge of the world depends essentially on the say-so of others. Consider: how do you know that I live in Toronto? Well, it says so right at the bottom of this column. But that’s not the same as going to Toronto and seeing me there with your own eyes. So even this simple belief requires trusting the say-so of me or the [Times Literary Supplement].
Perhaps you want to be an uncompromising epistemic individualist, refusing to believe until you’ve verified it yourself? Well, you’ll need to come to Toronto to check. But how will you find Toronto? You can’t use Google Maps (that’s just more say-so from others). Maybe you’ll set out with a compass and enterprising disposition. But how do you know what that compass is pointing to? How do you know where the North Pole is, or how magnetism works? Have you been to the North Pole? Have you done all the magnetism experiments yourself? The list goes on.
No one lives like that. We are all deeply, ineradicably dependent on the say-so of others for nearly all our beliefs about the world. It’s only through a massive division of cognitive labour that we’ve come to know so much. So genuine epistemic responsibility isn’t a matter of doubting all that can be doubted, or only believing what you’ve proven for yourself. It’s a matter of trusting the right other people. That takes wisdom.
Not everyone in the Capitol mob was a QAnon believer. Some were white supremacists aiming to violently uphold a president who refused to condemn their hate. Others were merely insurrection tourists. Still, many do seem to have genuinely believed they were fighting a monstrous regime of Satanic child-harmers. Those beliefs did not appear in a vacuum. A Bellingcat investigation of the social media history of Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot by police while attempting to storm the House of Representatives, suggests that she held relatively mainstream political views until about a year ago, when she veered off into deep QAnon obsession. She put her trust in the wrong people, and all her epistemic labour only made things worse.
That is the most delicate and important lesson to draw from last week’s horror show. QAnon believers are culpable for their bad judgment. But that culpability extends far beyond them, through to everyone whose actions fed their dangerous beliefs. It’s not enough to insist that responsibility falls entirely on the believer, because we are all dependent on others for our knowledge, and we must all trust someone. That mutual reliance means we are all our neighbour’s epistemic keeper.
Most obviously the blame for last week’s catastrophe extends to politicians who cynically courted and channelled [lies] to support their false allegations of election fraud. Donald Trump spoke to the mob moments before their assault, declaring “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong”, and ordered them to march against the Capitol. That evening, after Congress regained control of its chambers, senators such as Josh Hawley continued to flog “objections and concerns” about the presidential election which had been dismissed by numerous courts and Trump’s own Justice Department.
But manipulative politicians are not the only ones to blame. The culture of the internet played a big role as well. An investigation of QAnon’s origins by the podcast Reply All found that the conspiracy began life as a joke on the ultra-ironic website 4chan. In 2017, “Q” was one of only several fake government source characters being played, tongue-in-cheek, by forum participants who all understood it was a game. Gradually the Q persona became the most popular, and then outsiders – who didn’t get the joke – stumbled onto Q’s tantalizing nonsense. Within a year, thousands of people looking for anything to fill the gap left by their scepticism toward authority developed a sincere belief in Q. Behind the scenes, someone, with cynical political or commercial motives, was happy to oblige.
Prof. Rini’s analysis sounds right. The next question, of course, is: how should we respond? Millions of people are being immoral with regard to what they believe. Is there anything to be done about it? We have laws against some immoral behavior, like theft and assault. Although we can’t have laws that control what people believe, we can have limited government regulation of the companies that distribute those lies (such as Facebook, Fox News and your local cable TV company). The public can also exert pressure on companies, TV networks, for instance, that give certain politicians and pundits repeated opportunities to lie in public. And in our personal lives, when we hear somebody say something that’s simply not true, we can speak up, even though it’s easier to stay quiet.