The Journal Gazette
Friday, July 30, 2021 1:00 am

Sincerely held beliefs still subject to challenge

Abe Schwab

The other night at dinner, I asked my family for examples of their sincerely held beliefs. Those who know my family well will not have difficulty determining which family member gave which response:

“I'm not sure.”

“I love mom.”

“All children are good.”

“I don't want to be here.”

Of these four examples, only one reaches beyond the individual and so opens itself up to scrutiny: “all children are good.” The others are reports about subjective states. We might approve or disapprove of these reports, but they are not subject to the same kinds of scrutiny.

And this is a really important difference. Sincerely held beliefs that are only about an individual's internal or subjective states (whom they love, whether they have sincerely held beliefs, where they want to be) are generally left alone.

We allow people to believe whatever they want to believe about these things, as sincerely as they want to believe it.

Sincerely held beliefs that stretch beyond the individual, however, are different. When someone claims “all children are good,” this belief has clear implications for behavior, policy, and action. If children are good, then they probably shouldn't be shamed for doing what they do. If children are good, we should be patient with their fumbling efforts to help. If children are good, we should probably ensure that all children have access to the resources fundamental to their health and development.

I don't want to challenge the claim that “all children are good” (in no small part because I enjoy living in a peaceful home), but that doesn't mean that such a claim, such a belief, no matter how sincerely held, shouldn't be scrutinized. What do we mean by “children”? And what do we mean by “good”? Do we have evidence they are good, or is it just an opinion?

All sincerely held beliefs that have clear implications for policy, actions, or behaviors that have a direct impact on others should be scrutinized. Similarly, sincerely held beliefs about what we should allow others to do should also be open to scrutiny. After scrutiny, some sincerely held beliefs should be highlighted, emphasized and advertised. Others should be condemned.

Which beliefs should be condemned and which should be praised and emphasized goes beyond the scope of this column. It's enough to recognize that the sincerity with which someone believes something has no bearing on whether the belief is open to condemnation.

If one person sincerely believes that black lives matter and another person sincerely believes that black lives don't matter, one of these beliefs should be condemned. If one person sincerely believes in protecting and preserving democracy, and another sincerely believes that undermining democracy is acceptable if it allows them to maintain power, one of these sincerely held beliefs should be condemned.

In short, no matter how sincerely we believe something, we could be wrong. No matter how sincerely we believe something, it's possible that that belief should be condemned.

Abe Schwab is a professor of philosophy and director of Ethics Across the Curriculum at Purdue Fort Wayne who specializes in applied ethics.

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