24 Jan You can always find someone who believes the opposite, or something incompatible. (LOU MARINOFF)
Philosophers are deeply interested in belief systems. Many philosophers, from Plato to William James, have noted the vital role our beliefs play – for better or worse – in getting us through the day.
Hobbes observed that the human world is governed by opinion. Opinions are only premature beliefs about issues that compel our immediate attention. A philosophical examination of a belief system involves trying to understand not only what people believe, but also how they come to believe as they do, what reasons they have for believing as they do, how their beliefs affect the way they live, and to what extent their beliefs are the source of their ease, disease, or disease alike.
An amazing thing about human belief is that no matter what anyone comes to believe about anything, you can always find someone who believes the opposite, or something incompatible.
This can lead to human actions that are also contradictory or incompatible. For example, the pagan Roman emperor Nero cruelly put people to death for believing in Christianity.
Some centuries later, the Inquisition cruelly put people to death for not believing in its version of Christianity. Whether Nero and the Inquisitors were insane or merely deluded, we’ll never know. During the American Revolutionary War, the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were considered heroes in the thirteen colonies, but were deemed traitors by the British crown. If apprehended, the American Founding Fathers would have been hanged for treason.
Were these signatories suicidal? Absolutely not. They were courageous men, who acted only after much soul-searching and public debate, and who applied deep philosophical principles even as they acted.
To chose a more recent and chilling example: Most Americans, Europeans, and Asians believe that the nineteen Arabs who hijacked the four airplanes on September 11, 2001, were terrorists who committed despicable crimes against humanity and affronts to civilization. Then again, some people in the Islamic world believe that they were martyrs, heroes, and warriors.
Meanwhile, these extreme and violent examples illustrate not only the vital role of beliefs in governing the conduct of people’s lives, but also how vitally beliefs about other people’s beliefs govern the conduct of people’s lives. Understanding all this is a philosophical task. Understanding how beliefs, and beliefs about beliefs, can make human lives better – or worse – is also a philosophical task.
For the record: I am not a moral relativist. I believe that people should have the freedom to believe in and worship their own god or gods in their own ways, but that such freedom should never entail the liberty to harm or kill others who believe differently.
I therefore tolerate other people’s beliefs, as long as they are not intolerant themselves. So I empathize with the early Christian martyrs – who died for their faith but did not seek to murder others for it – while I deplore Nero, and the Inquisition, and all terrorists as intolerant murderers.
My condemnation has nothing to do with paganism, Christianity, or Islam: It has to do with premeditated harm, which always increases and never decreases suffering in the world.
And that’s not relativism.
For if your beliefs cause you to feel disease, and if you lack the philosophical guidance to deal with your disease constructively, then you are liable to suffer unnecessarily yourself and possibly to spread your disease destructively to others, like some virulent contagion of the mind.
I firmly believe that some beliefs cause more disease than others; and that some are more harmful than others.
This is not moral relativism either.
There are many ways to harm yourself and others, and harm is bad. That’s absolute. There are also many ways to help yourself and others, and help is good. That’s absolute as well.
How you choose to help your- self and others is up to you.
The Big Questions: How Philosophy Can Change Your Life