iseo58:

Pyxis with Crosses and Vine Scrolls, 7th-8th century Syria, Ivory with red paint added later

iseo58:

Pyxis with Crosses and Vine Scrolls, 7th-8th century Syria, Ivory with red paint added later

What should I believe? What should I do?

The purpose of this short article is to help people who feel unsure or confused about what to believe, and what to do or say, in cases like that involving Max Temkin and Magz (her name has been kept private, this is her twitter name). I do not try to answer every question or provide a comprehensive framework on the matter. Instead I target a very common problem area that I see tripping people up and causing cloudy thinking. This problem area is the distinction between reasoning about beliefs, and reasoning about actions.

Before I start I want to point out a few things. In reading this you should keep an open mind, until at least 10 minutes after having read the article. If you feel yourself strongly disagreeing during the article, that’s ok, it may be better to put it down. Even if you end up rejecting it all you will still get the most out of if by holding an open mind until the end.

Ok, ready? Let’s start. Here is the central idea of this article: Reasoning about beliefs is not the same as reasoning about actions.  In fact they are so different that they may even seem to contradict one another. Let’s consider our central questions:

What should I believe?
What should I do?

Not surprisingly, many people assume that the answer to these questions must agree with one another. I am here to tell you they are not the same thing, and they need not agree. In order to do something rationally I am not committed to believing that it is true, only that its outcome satisfies some criteria (for example, that it is the best thing to do). Here is the important thing to understand; reasoning about the best action to take might well involve assuming something we do not actually believe, and this is entirely consistent. I repeat: the answer to our two questions need not agree with one other. Confusion on this point leads many to make one of the following mistakes;

  1. Starting with a desired action and inferring from that (incorrectly) what we should believe;
  2. Starting with a known belief and inferring from that (incorrectly) what we should do.

I am going to examine this distinction by working though the Max/Magz situation.

If I am unsure of whether Max is a rapist or Magz is a lier is true or false, it is not rational to just ‘pick one’. In fact is it is rather silly. Instead of ‘hedging my bets’ I should simply withhold judgement on the matter. However if I am unsure on which way to act, it may well be best to simply pick. Even better than randomly picking is to have some guiding principles to help me decide which actions I should take. Let me introduce one such principle we could use; the harm minimisation principle. There are many principles one could employ but I will use this as an example. I will will apply this belief/action distinction to my thinking about Max, and then about Magz. First, to Max:

Reasoning about belief:
I do not know if Max is telling the truth or lying, because I lack sufficient evidence (for example, I have never met Max). Therefore I do not hold the view that either is true or false.
Special note: this means that I do not assume Max is innocent until proven guilty.
If I assumed Max was innocent then I have in fact made a judegment, and by implication, I also must believe that Magz is lying. Since I don’t believe any of this I reject the proposition.

Reasoning about action:
I do not know if Max is telling the truth or lying, because I lack sufficient evidence.
Harm minimisation principle: If I assume he is lying but I am wrong, I may cause great harm to him (placing him in prison, denying him income, reputation loss, etc.) If I believe he telling the truth and I am wrong, I have caused him no real harm with my actions. For the purposes of my actions, I do assume Max is innocent until proven guilty. Compare this to my belief, where I do not hold this view. This is not contradictory, because one is about my belief, and one is about my actions.

Now I apply these ideas to my beliefs and actions towards Magz.

Reasoning about belief:
I do not know if Magz is telling the truth or lying because I lack sufficient evidence (for example, I have never met Magz). Therefore I do not hold the view that either is true or false.

Reasoning about action:
I do not know if Mags is telling the truth or lying because I lack sufficient evidence.
Harm minimisation principle:  If I assume she is lying (for the purpose of reasoning about my actions) but I am wrong, I may cause great harm to her and other victims with my actions. This involves perpetuating victim blaming, rape culture, and making it more difficult for others to come forward in future.  If I assume she is telling the truth, but I am wrong, my actions will cause her no or insignificant harm. Therefore, for the purpose of my actions, I hold the belief that she is telling the truth. There are other principles we could also employ.  For example, we might note that the amount of false accusations is very low. Perhaps this is invoking a probability principle. And so on.

For some, drawing a belief/action distinction may seem like unnecessary hair splitting. I have already shown however that it can help as avoid two common mistakes, which I will relist here:

  1. Starting with a desired action and inferring from that (incorrectly) what we should believe;
  2. Starting with a known belief and inferring from that (incorrectly) what we should do.

There are other benefits from keeping this distinction clear. One broad benefit is that it helps us avoid polarising discussions and false dichotomies like “You are either with us or against us”.

Here are some stereotypical examples. People who support social justice will sometimes tend to start with how they should act - the victim should be treated (often taking into consideration more than just what benefits the victim, but also what benefits society in general) - and use this to decide what they should believe (the victim is telling the truth). From there we infer, explicitly or implicitly, the accused is lying. This will often be justified with the following comment “Assuming the victim is telling the truth does less harm than assuming the accused is lying”. We see now that this is a false dichotomy that need not be made.

People who start from their beliefs (or lack thereof) and try to use it to determine their actions will often make the mistake of believing that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, instead of only acting like it, and by implication assuming that the ‘burden of proof’ is on the victim, i.e. that they are by implication lying until proven otherwise. This most definitely perpetuates a big problem facing society right now with victim shaming, rape culture, and high reports of men raping women. Such people are often called rape apologists because of this, even though they feel they are working through logical principles and do not explicitly support rape.

Our distinction allows us to avoid this mess completely.

Some further errors we can avoid are listed below. I won’t elaborate on them but I encourage you to work through this belief/action distinction as a sort of mental exercise.

Withholding judgement means withholding action
Withholding judgement makes you a bad person (e.g., a rape supporter)
The accused is innocent until proven guilty

 Bonus: Further Thinking
If you do have a given belief about the situation (or any situation) you might like to think about whether you also have knowledge of it. You believe Max is guilty/innocent. Do you know it? You believe Magz is lying/telling the truth. Do you know it?

Many philosophers say that there are three components to knowing something:

  1. It is true
  2. You believe it
  3. You are justified in believing it

This is called Justified True Belief.
What sorts of things would/wouldn’t make your belief justified? Here is one thing that philosophers tend to agree doesn’t constitute justification: luck. If I believe I have the winning lottery numbers, and I do in fact have the winning lottery numbers, I am not justified in believing I have them because I am guessing or relying on superstition. In this case I do not have knowledge.

In Summary:
Reasoning about beliefs is different from reasoning about actions.
It is not rational to ‘pick’ a belief without sufficient evidence.
However, it is often rational to pick an action, and we can use principles to help us with this (e.g. harm minimisation).
We do not need to believe Max is innocent to act according to ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
We do not need to believe Magz was raped to support her, condemn rape & rape culture, and discourage victim blaming and shaming. 

Finally, don’t feel pressured to make an immediate decision on anything. Philosophy and reasoning are things we work through. They are contemplative. This is life, not an exam. If you find yourself on the wrong path, stop, go back, and try again.

Toward a Distant Dawn

Toward a Distant Dawn

(Source: weheartit.com)

ancientpeoples:

Silver and mercury head of a Sasanian king 
40cm by 22.9cm by 20cm ( 15 3/4 x 9 x 7 7/8 inch.) 
Iranian, Sasanid Period, 4th century AD. 
Source: Metropolitan Museum

ancientpeoples:

Silver and mercury head of a Sasanian king 

40cm by 22.9cm by 20cm ( 15 3/4 x 9 x 7 7/8 inch.) 

Iranian, Sasanid Period, 4th century AD. 

Source: Metropolitan Museum

demons:

Known as the Tower of Faces this three-story tower displays photographs from the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. Taken between 1890 and 1941 in Eishishok, a small town in what is now Lithuania, they describe a vibrant Jewish community that existed for 900 years. In 1941, an SS mobile killing squad entered the village and within two days massacred the entire Jewish population.

demons:

Known as the Tower of Faces this three-story tower displays photographs from the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. Taken between 1890 and 1941 in Eishishok, a small town in what is now Lithuania, they describe a vibrant Jewish community that existed for 900 years.

In 1941, an SS mobile killing squad entered the village and within two days massacred the entire Jewish population.