Our Second Sunday Philosophical Tea Party

Welcome to the second philosophical tea party. This week, we are having tea in a cozy cabin in the woods, much like the one in Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special, because that is the inspiration for my question.

Hopefully most of you have been lucky enough to have seen the special already, but if you haven’t I suggest you watch it! I think they have re-runs of it on Comedy Central, and the DVD of it is also out. It is quite funny and I thoroughly enjoyed it, although the last song left me feeling perplexed. It is called “There are Much Worse Things to Believe In.”

more about “Test“, posted with vodpod

Of course, the song is tongue in cheek, but it also brings up something worth thinking about. Most of us have at least SOME beliefs that aren’t completely rational. Obviously, we try to avoid them, but even extremely intelligent people have some unprovable beliefs. So the question is: how do we distinguish between “good beliefs” and “bad beliefs.” Should the distinction be based purely on rationality or should morality also enter into it? Is it, as Stephen says, worse to believe in “variations on a dark and spiteful God” than to belief in something relatively harmless, like Santa Claus (or dare I say, Astrology)?

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  1. Wendy
    December 7, 2008 at 6:27 pm —

    …..So the question is: how do we distinguish between “good beliefs” and “bad beliefs.”……

    Personally, I think the test should be, “Are you willing to modify or discard your beliefs in the face of contrary evidence?” If your beliefs are absolutely unshakable, then they’re bad beliefs (regardless of what the beliefs might actually be). But if you’re willing to listen to new evidence, then no harm done!

    (I don’t think morality should enter into the equation because there is no set standard for morality. Morals change from person to person and from epoch to epoch.)

  2. Pseudonym
    December 7, 2008 at 7:17 pm —

    I like Wendy’s characterisation as a start, but I’m not sure it’s the whole story.

    I couldn’t, for example, imagine any evidence that would shake my belief that freedom of political speech is a fundamental right that must be protected. I guess it’s possible in principle, but it’s damn hard to see what form such counter-evidence could possibly take.

  3. kayla_unkempt
    December 7, 2008 at 7:20 pm —

    How do we distiguish “good” beliefs and “bad” beliefs? A lot of people disagree. Some say rationality, some say morals. The fact remains that most people just go on emotion. People believe in irrational things because it makes them feel good. If God was a big ugly monster that ate babies, nobody would want to believe in him…

    “I don’t think morality should enter into the equation because there is no set standard for morality. Morals change from person to person and from epoch to epoch.”

    EVERYTHING changes from person to person. Not just morals. The definitions of “rational” and “good” and “bad” also change from me to you to him to her. People don’t know what to set the standards at, but they know how they feel – so they take that and run with it.

  4. December 8, 2008 at 11:04 am —

    Wendy makes a good point about the willingness to examine evidence and change beliefs, but I think that’s only part of the equation. I think there also needs to be some consideration of the effects/practices that flow from the belief.

    For instance, say you have an ironclad, unwavering belief that it’s your god-given duty to give delicious vegan pancakes and free flu shots to orphans. Isn’t that on some level “better” than a less committed belief that your god says it’s okay to stab babies?

  5. Pseudonym
    December 8, 2008 at 11:12 pm —

    One more thing…

    How do we distiguish “good” beliefs and “bad” beliefs?

    Basically, the question drags in almost the entire field of moral philosophy.

    Generally speaking, there are three schools of thought on this:

    1. Consequentialism (or utilitarianism; they’re not exactly the same thing, but I’m unclear on the distinction), says that whether or not something is “moral” depends on its effect. If something has a good outcome (e.g. orphans get free pancakes), then that makes it more moral.

    2. Deontology says that whether or not something is “moral” depends on the intention. An act is more moral if you mean well by it.

    3. Virtue ethics says that whether or not something is moral depends on how the actor conforms to common virtues, such as justice, tolerance and truthfulness. An act is more moral if it’s more virtuous.

    (Before anyone says that virtues are “arbitrary”, or “preferences”, I suggest reading some secular philosophy first. Don’t ask me, though. I’ve only read enough to know better than to throw around words like “arbitrary” in an indiscriminate manner.)

    I personally think that in practice, the three ideas work together in any reasonable system of moral philosophy, and moral difficulties only occur where the three bases conflict. In those cases, the three bases need to be weighed against each other.

    Technically speaking, it’s probably not accurate much the time to call something absolutely “good” or “bad”. Rather, you’d have to look at two or more possible actions/beliefs/whatever, and judge their relative merit.

  6. December 11, 2008 at 9:54 pm —

    You see that video?

    I figured out how to embed that video.

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