The moral imperative to align one’s beliefs with the evidence
If believing something makes you happier, reduces your suffering, then it’s legitimate to believe it, even in the absence of supporting evidence.
Such claims are to be found almost everywhere. They come in many subtle disguises, but always the foundation is the same. Feeling better is the criterion for belief, and nothing else is required. The idea is simple, and on its face, rather persuasive. It’s also profoundly dangerous.
Such a criterion for belief, once applied, has no natural limits. Imagine the most horribly sexist person you can. Imagine that he or she behaves revoltingly toward the opposite sex. Let’s imagine for a moment that he or she has a pang of guilt one day, and starts to feel bad about his or her behaviour. We can say with some confidence that it would be very difficult for such a person to change all their many ingrained sexist habits. And so the guilt might go on. Or, they might choose to believe something that reduces their feelings of guilt and discomfort. They might, for instance, convince themselves that the opposite sex really are inferior. No need for evidence to support the idea. It’s OK to believe it because it makes them feel better, right?
This hypothetical example might seem far fetched, but it’s really not. Real examples range from the relatively unimportant to the profoundly disturbing:
- Most teachers continue to believe in ‘learning styles’ (the idea that students learn best when materials are matched to their prefered modality) despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Time spent fiddling with pointless ‘learning style’ ideas detracts from other testable ideas that might actually improve teaching.
- Across the world, each day, parents who are genuinely concerned by the sick state of their child give out mere sugar pills. There’s no hope they’ll cure the disease, but some homeopathist has promised they’ll work due to his/her magical beliefs. There is no empirical evidence that water has a memory, as homeopathists claim.
- The Vatican has recently lavished time and money on a propaganda campaign to encourage the people of Africa not to use condoms because they believe condom use increases the risk of HIV transmission. The evidence says the opposite.
- Some of the proponents of the Atlantic slave trade claimed that African slaves were so intellectually inferior that slavery was morally acceptable. They were likened to beasts of burden. The evidence says that all races are equal in intellect and measured differences are due to culture.
- Erich Koch (1943), representing the views of the Nazi party, said, “We are a master race, which must remember that the lowliest German worker is racially and biologically a thousand times more valuable…” Such ideas were the basis for the extermination of Slavs, Jews, homosexuals, and countless other ‘subhumans’ sent to the gas chambers. Such claims have not been confirmed by empirical evidence.
Believing something just because you want to is not a morally neutral act. Doing so opens the doors to self-delusion that can scale up until it involves impediment of life chances and even loss of life.
Or, if you’d rather I said it with earthier words: Bullshit is evil.