William James and acting on ‘rational beliefs’

Charlotte asked:

Explain James’ three distinctions that relate to the question there is ever a case of moral, rational belief even when one doesn’t have the evidence.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

James’ distinctions are prudential, intellectual and moral. The first is the pragmatic viewpoint, that occasions will arise when it is more or less unavoidable to hold a particular belief, even though the evidence in its favour is inadequate. The second refers to the human propensity for taking some things for granted because of trends, on the assumption that they mirror known trends or that sampling can establish a useful guideline. The moral category, however, is the problem child in this trinity, since moral issues tend to be a mix of rational, experiential and superstitious beliefs in which the last-named is rarely (if ever) demonstrable.

And so the first case, prudential, covers examples such as the operative treatment of a patient who is suffering from a diseased organ: it may not be a life-threatening condition in the short term, but definitely in the long term and likely to lead to a long painful death. Yet the operation itself may be life-threatening, so that the surgeon’s choice is dictated by all three of these motives — that it is prudent to operate, that intellectually it offers the patient a better chance of a calm survival, and that the moral inclination would urge intervention now rather than later, bearing in mind the probability of much future suffering. Even death under the knife could be excused, especially if postponing an operation takes account of the decreasing tolerance to surgery of an ageing patient’s body. James brings a further argument into the picture, namely that doing nothing is also a choice with the same level of ethical responsibility as doing something.

In this illustration it is obvious that evidence is unclear, yet the state of the patient demands a resolution. But this is pretty much the rule, not the exception. Overwhelmingly our decisions, though influenced by firm knowledge, tend to be governed by vague principles (belief criteria) of ‘sufficient evidence’ and ‘sufficient reason’ that are rarely sufficient to positively disbar accidents and failures. This is why in recent decades our lives have come to be dominated by statistics (probability), which are intellectually persuasive belief criteria.

Thus an intellectual belief on any act tends to orient itself on empirical knowledge, even though most human enterprises are based on insufficient knowledge — yet this is hardly ever a disincentive. A great deal of our explorative and inventive drive relies on mere hunches, ambiguous reports, the allure of success and the sampling of certain conditions that seem to allow extrapolation (e.g. sampling the oil reservoir under the sand of a desert). But strictly speaking, all these are cases where evidence is inadequate; what we do, therefore, is to pin our hopes on the little we know (and, by golly, the success rate especially in the last 100 years, has been spectacular!).

The moral aspect is the most vulnerable to rebuttal. Humans subscribe to all sorts of belief systems that are not supported by clear evidence. Examples are unnecessary; just think of the many wars that have been fought on behalf of supernatural powers. It is difficult to rationalise this behaviour; but even here it is the case that whole cultures have staked their rise to power, or their survival against adversity, on faith that their gods are behind them. It can generate a self-reinforcing positive incentive. However, the flipside of faith is bigotry and intolerance, for which no excuse can be found under any canons of rationality, even though (alas) they always wear the apparel of moral rectitude. Therefore it could well be argued that James’ criterion of a “supernatural domain [that is] accessible to human subjects” cannot stand up as evidence of anything. For on one hand, human morals tend to arise from a strongly developed sense of justice; but inasmuch as they are thoroughly bound to tempus et locus, arguments on their behalf are nearly always grounded in some form of prejudice that could be strenuously opposed by contradictory codes. Meanwhile no quantity of evidence could ever suffice to clinch the point.

In sum, two of James’ distinctions seem to hold up pretty well, when we take the facts of human history into account. But on the issue of morality vs evidence, we have to tread much more judiciously, since a deep cleft of ambiguity opens up whenever we try to judge a course of action on its tenets. James’ surmise concerning the supernatural domain therefore has no leg to stand on; it is a private opinion, not a philosophical principle, and cannot be counted as a valid distinction on the same terms as the other two.

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