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Today we explore what obligations we hold with our personal beliefs. Hank explains epistemic responsibility and the issues it raises with everything from religious belief, to ship owning, to vaccinations.


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For generations, just about everybody in the United States got vaccinations. And I'm sure there will be no conversation about this in the comments. And as a result, diseases like Measles were all but eradicated. In 1998 a study published in the scientific journal linked vaccines with autism. Even though that study was later discredited, a small but vocal subset of parents have refused to vaccinate their kids.

Now Measles are back, as is Whooping Cough, Mumps, and other diseases that were nearly wiped out. Children's lives are being endangered because some parents are acting on beliefs that have no scientific evidence to support them.

So why am I talking about this on Crash Course Philosophy? Normally when we talk about responsibility, we're talking about things that you do. But in philosophy, we sometimes face other obligations. Philosophers have argued that we all have epistemic responsibility. That is, responsibility we have regarding our beliefs.

Epistemic responsibility is an especially interesting area of philosophy because it's where many of its subdisciplines overlap. Where epistemology brushes up against philosophy of religion, which bumps into ethics. And philosophers might argue that we live in a world that could probably use a lot more epistemic responsibility, or at least more people who understand what it is.

Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, conspiracy theorists; the world is full of people who hold beliefs without any evidence. And not only that, they, like most of us, encourage others to share their beliefs. But over the past two hundred years or so philosophers have developed some pretty compelling responses to this phenomenon.

A few thinkers have come up with useful ways of thinking about the beliefs we have, and the harm they can cause, and what responsibilities go along with having them. Meanwhile, others have argued that we can sometimes hold beliefs without any proof. Not about vaccines, or global warming, or the moon landing – but about God.

[Theme Music]

W.K. Clifford lived in England in the mid-1800s, where the only vaccine that existed was for smallpox, and even that earned its share of scorn and ridicule at the time. But Clifford, who was both a mathematician and a philosopher, would probably have some very strong opinions about today’s anti-vaxxers. Because Clifford was one of the leading proponents of epistemic responsibility of his time. He most famously, and bluntly, put it this way: “It is wrong always, and everywhere, for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

And instead of using vaccinations as an example, Clifford told the story of a ship owner. He said, suppose there was a guy who owned a ship that he knew was old and decrepit and hadn’t been inspected in a long time. That ship was scheduled to make a transatlantic voyage, and the owner worried that it might not make it. But, overhauling the ship would be pricey and time-consuming. In time, the owner talked himself into believing that the ship was seaworthy.

The ship set sail. Then it sank. And hundreds of people drowned. But, the owner? He collected insurance money from his loss, and no one blamed him for the tragedy.

Now, most people would agree that the shipowner was responsible for the deaths of the ship’s passengers. But Clifford went even further. He argued that the owner would have been guilty even if the ship managed to make the trip safely. Because: He was guilty of accepting a belief without sufficient evidence, and whether that actually leads to harm or not, he has still done wrong, epistemically and morally.

Now, you might argue, “Don’t I have the right to believe whatever I want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone?” Yeah, good question. Clifford argued that there’s no such thing as a private belief, because we all talk about our beliefs – some of us do it a lot – and it causes our beliefs to spread. But even if you never vocalize a belief, it still influences the way you act and the way others perceive you. So in this way, a belief can spread subtly, insidiously, without a word being spoken.

Think about other kinds of beliefs that lack evidence, for example sexist beliefs. Imagine a modern day sexist in an American university. Most of these people are gonna know that actually expressing their sexist views isn't going to fly. But a sexist’s beliefs, even if they’re never overtly stated, tend to show through in the ways they interact with women and speak of them. So, no matter what: You know them and you know their views and you know their views subtly influence others, particularly if they’re a person in position of authority or respect.

Since our views always have the potential to harm others, W. K. Clifford argued that we have an epistemic responsibility only to believe things for which we have evidence. And if you don’t have evidence, you’re morally obligated to refrain from the belief. Basically, you should withhold judgment until you investigate the situation. Let’s head over to the Thought Bubble to explore this more with some Flash Philosophy.

It’s Tuesday, and your teacher tells you that, this week, there will be a pop quiz. And she’s nice enough to even define for you what she means by this: A pop quiz, she says, is a quiz that you can’t know is coming in advance. You reason, however, that such a quiz is impossible, so you never study for it.

Here’s your reasoning: The quiz can’t be on Friday, because if Wednesday and Thursday go by with no quiz, then you would know it was coming on Friday, since that would be the last possible day. So Friday’s out. But that means it can’t be on Thursday either, because by the end of class on Wednesday, you would know the quiz would be happening the next day. But since it can’t be on Thursday or Friday, it also can’t be on Wednesday, because that’s the only day left – so you would know in advance that it was coming.

Now, any amount of rationalization that will convince you that you don't have to study might sound pretty sweet. But, in this case, you’re probably going to regret it. Because, after all, if your teacher tells you there’s going to be a quiz, chances are, there is going to be a quiz. The fact that you’ve constructed a brilliant mind game that proves that it won’t, isn’t going to make that quiz not happen. So, beliefs about vaccines and shipworthiness may be irresponsible because of the danger they pose to others, but this case demonstrates that irresponsible beliefs can be damaging to you, as well. Thanks, Thought Bubble!

Clifford made a pretty convincing case for epistemic responsibility. And it’s worth pointing out that his beef wasn’t only with ship owners or kids who didn’t study. One thing his arguments were meant to show is that religious belief is epistemically irresponsible. Belief in a God whose existence can’t be proven was simply “blind faith,” he said. And blind faith leads a person to ignore other facts and arguments, causing them to live an unexamined, unthoughtful life that Clifford described as “one long sin against mankind.”

Unsurprisingly, this idea was met with some counterarguments. Let’s hear from one of his interlocutors: 19th century American philosopher and psychologist William James took issue with Clifford’s thesis that it is immoral to believe something with insufficient evidence. James acknowledged that one of his beliefs that was most important to him – his belief in God – lacked evidence. So he set out to demonstrate that certain beliefs can be held, morally, even if there’s nothing you can really point to, to back them up.

Now, James recognized that it would be ridiculous to say it’s ok to believe in just anything you wanted. So he narrowed down his claim to argue that, when you adopt a belief, you have options. And the nature of those options can basically determine the moral defensibility of the beliefs you end up holding. Specifically, he said that the options you face when choosing a belief could be either live or dead; forced or unforced; And momentous or trivial.

You face a live option when you’re considering a belief that you could actually see yourself having. For instance, maybe you’ve never had a pumpkin spice latte. But you love pumpkin, and you love lattes, and you love spice, so you hypothesize that you would enjoy a pumpkin spice latte. That’s a live option for you – because you can imagine yourself believing that you’d like a pumpkin spice latte. On the other hand, you probably can’t even entertain the possibility that you’d enjoy, like, a dog food spice latte. Try as you might, you just can’t imagine accepting that option as an actual belief. So, that’s a dead option to you.

Now, a forced option is one in which, whatever you do, you’ve made a choice. You can’t not choose. "Stay in or go out," is a good example of a forced option. You have to do one or the other; you can’t wait and decide later. Because, as you wait to decide, you’ve stayed in and thus, you have made your choice. But unforced options are those where you can just opt out of choosing. If I let you pick peanut butter or ham and cheese, you can always just decide to have neither. So your choice is an unforced option.

A momentous option is one that, if you choose it, stands the chance of radically changing your life for the better. Accepting an opportunity to go to the International Space Station, for example, could be momentous. But the option to have French fries with your burger would be trivial – eat them, don’t eat them, either way – not gonna make a huge difference in your life.

Now, James said that, if you’re considering whether to believe something for which there’s not sufficient evidence, it’s permissible to still believe it – so long as it’s a live, forced, and momentous option. And religious belief just happens to fill all of those criteria. First, James said, believing in God is a live option for himself and a whole lot of other people. He also argued that religious belief is a forced option. That’s because he didn’t buy the idea that agnosticism was really a thing. He figured that withholding judgment is the same as not believing – so you either believe in God, or you don’t. Finally, James thought religious belief is momentous – it has the possibility to greatly improve your life. So, he concluded that we are justified in believing in God in the absence of evidence through faith alone.

The problem is, if we’re justified in believing in God in the absence of evidence, then we’re also justified in believing that it’s ok not to vaccinate our kids. Because that, too, is an option that can be described as live, forced, and momentous. So unfortunately, philosophy can’t just make all of the baseless beliefs in the world go away. But it can help you argue against those ideas intelligently.

Today we have learned about epistemic responsibility. Clifford says it is always wrong to believe without sufficient evidence, but James says there are some exceptions – namely, religious belief. Next time we will consider whether we can gamble our way to belief in God – stay tuned!

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Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out amazing shows like Brain Craft, PBS Game/Show, and Gross Science. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.