Conservative: You’re just saying that because that’s the liberal party line – the party line it just so happens your teachers and lectures agree to.
Atheist: You’re just saying that because these are the religious beliefs of your parents.
Science sceptic: You’re just saying that because that’s the scientific orthodoxy – an orthodoxy that just so happens to say whatever Big Pharma likes.
Crudely, we might consider these accusations of bias (they aren’t), and sentiments like these are common in argument. What do they mean, and are they a worthwhile argumentative strategy?
One way of understanding these statements is as logical rudeness: one suggests that whole groups of people (always ones opponents) believe what they do through some sort of epistemic pathology and thus there’s no need to take it seriously. 1 So Liberals think what they do through educational brainwashing, Theists through childhood indoctrination, and Scientists through corporate intimidation. As these obviously aren’t good methods, they don’t offer access to the truth, and so there’s no need to engage with them. Rudeness has more than a few problems: it doesn’t track, it stops the dialectic, and suggests to the opponent that their victorious.
However, there is another, more logically polite way of understanding these arguments. They suggest that the demography of the belief in question implies that it is not reached through rightly-guided faculties. 2 So, although someone is a generally reasonable and reflective believer, in this case it’s reasonable to think that they’ve been misled by some irrational factors into the beliefs they hold. That’s because these factors are the best explanation for the beliefs of the group to which they belong.
Patterns of warrant
Humans often believe things for other reasons than careful enquiry. They might do it to fit in, to massage their egos, or have been indoctrinated or ‘brain-washed’. The sorts of people who come to given beliefs will vary depending on the route taken. So one can ‘infer’ back from the demographics of belief to its aetiology.
So here are some features of the patterns of beliefs formed through rightly guided faculties:
Ceritus paribus popular beliefs, beliefs held by relevant experts, and beliefs held by smart people are more likely to be formed (or can be formed) by rightly guided faculties. What about poorly reasoned beliefs?
Here’s a couple of risk factors:
- Prudential benefit
- Membership of a particular socio-cultural group
So if we can identify clear prudential benefits (e.g. self serving, coercion) for the groups that hold a particular view, or that we can see that membership of a not-epistemically privileged group strongly predicts beliefs, then that’s good grounds for suggesting that in these cases the not-very-good reasons dominate.
The battleground of these arguments will fall on the epistemic privilege (or not) of the relevant groups in question. Everyone takes their group as epistemically privileged, and is unlikely to grant anyone else the same courtesy. At the extreme, we have conspiracy theorists who simply reject that the orthodox experts really are forming their belief through rightly-guided faculties, but have been lead astray by the conspiracy theory in question.
So perhaps these arguments are feckless. Each community will shelter with its selection of people they call ‘experts’ who agree with them, and refuse to accept the credentials of those offering another view. Hopefully though, there’ll be a general impression of what makes a privileged group – at least among those undecided, if not shared by the partisans. Ditto the sort of things people take as granting privilege. So (for example) even if the conspiracy theorists take themselves to be the experts, one can still convince the body of popular opinion that, in fact, their beliefs pattern in such a way to suggest they aren’t warranted.
But how, beyond intuitive appeal, to say that a given group is epistemically privileged? Firstly, survey their track record: have these people been vindicated before on similar matters? Secondly, look at the relevant risk factors – which are more convincing? So doctor’s have an excellent track record of knowing things about human anatomy, and that suggests they are privileged, and it’s a sufficiently good track record to rebut all but the most stonking conspiracy stories. In contrast, we mightn’t be so willing to consider the pattern of philosophers of religion generally being theists as a pattern of warrant: 3 here alternative stories (such as Theists being selecting themselves into Philosophy of Religion) seem reasonable, and so it wasn’t the case their advanced training in Philosophy of Religion led them to Theism.
Wot, no Ethics?
Almost all of our ethical beliefs strongly pattern with our cultural background. It’s highly unlikely, were we born outside the first world (or a couple of hundred years ago) we’d have had much of a problem with slavery, or with forcing homosexuals to commit suicide, or in keeping women as second class citizens. Yet demographics speak against how reasonable these beliefs are. After all, believing something because of our given socio-cultural millieu is hardly rightly-guided, yet our ethical beliefs very strongly pattern to suggest that’s how they are formed. Where from here?
First instinct might be just to deny that you form your ethical beliefs in this manner. But that won’t fly far. Why believe, save arrogance, that although demographics suggest the socio-cultural factors drive beliefs for everyone else, but not for you? 4
Perhaps the only answer is to offer a story of moral progress,that is that it’s hard to get to the ethical truths we’ve found, and the context of modern civilized society really is privileged (perhaps, in part, to its long and rich moral tradition) that there really were less enlightened times. The next is asserting dialectical superiority: that, although it is patterned, we can show our moral beliefs to be rightly-guided by beating all comers. So we can present reasonable defeaters for opposing points of view. 5 6
Two (vaguely anti-religious) examples
Enough theory, let’s put the demographics into practice.
Example 1) anti-gay sentiment: Those who disapprove of gay sex tend to be religious. However, they tend not to say the reasons for disapproval are solely derived from their religion’s special revelation. They draw extra credence from a number of what they call secular arguments, and may even say that the strength of these arguments are sufficient to convince one to disapprove of homosexuality.
The demographics disagree. That the pattern of anti-gay sentiment depends overwhelmingly on religious belief suggests there’s no persuasive case. Worse, if there was such a persuasive case, one would expect that opposition to homosexuality would occur amongst ethically well-educated atheists – or simply among ethically well-educated people who don’t hold religious beliefs that censure homosexuality. This simply doesn’t occur either. So the best explanation for the pattern of beliefs we observe is that the secular case is plainly in favour of homosexuality but, in the case of those who are religious, this is over-ruled by their religious convictions. 7
Example 2) Intelligent design: Biological orthodoxy for the last century has explained the past and current biodiversity of life on earth by Darwinian descent with modification from a common ancestor. Intelligent design advocates beg to differ. They offer a laundry list of complaints with the Darwinian explanation, and propose instead that a better explanation involves an intelligent agency. They also tend to assert a bias or conspiracy in the mainstream scientific community against them to explain why they are not taken seriously.
Again, the demographics suggest otherwise. Acceptance of ID patterns very strongly with religious convictions: almost all ID advocates are evangelical Christians, and it just so happens ID fits into their prior desires (to have a good teleological argument, to ‘beat’ naturalism, etc.) In contrast, the acceptance for evolution doesn’t have such a strong patterning: it is believed by those across the spectrum of religious beliefs, including non-Christian non-naturalists such as Hindus or Sikhs. Even better, acceptance of evolution correlates well with things like educational level and scientific aptitude.
These can be explained away, but the explanation is absurd. You’d need to posit some sort of “Darwinist conspiracy” within the realms of science, which has also managed to co-opt Christians and other religious groups and the educational establishment along for the ride. The only group not so affected is the ID movement, which just so happens to be compact of a very particular set of religious and cultural factors. The better explanation is of a parochial community of ID advocates, driven to ID by particular religious determinants. The prevailing result of honest, impartial enquiry supports evolutionary theory.
What’s the use?
Why bother using these rather involved bits of demography-to-undercut-probable-warrant instead of just rebutting the beliefs in question? Surely a direct rebuttal would be more decisive?
The use of these demographical concerns is limited. It’s main advantage though is similar to that of rudeness. If you’re convinced that in this case your opponents are pressing their case not on merit but to ‘acting out’ these extra-rational factors you’ve identified, that relieves you of the need to address them. When on the internet, with its threat of n-level responses, this can save one a lot of time indeed.
- See Suber 2002 ↩
- Proper functionalism, reliable process, or whatever else. We can be ecumenical of what exactly you need to be justified in your beliefs: nothing turns on particular views here. ↩
- Pace Feser. See also Hallquist. ↩
- Even if you really were the noble exception that formed beliefs rightly that just so happened to agree with your wider social context, that still means most people in your social context probably don’t have rightly-guided ethical beliefs. ↩
- There are worries with this sort of reply. Everyone’s group can say they have dialectical superiority and confirm it (to themselves) by beating (in their own mind) all comers. Better would be a hope that we could persuade some neutral or uncommitted third party to see things our way. But these people are rare, and it’s hard to simulate one without front-loading out presumptions in. ↩
- Of course, so long as everyone is within this particular western tradition, what’s the problem? It’s not like they are going to undermine beliefs they are committed to. There are two issues: 1) it’s a reductio – if this sort of argumentative strategy undermines moral commitments we have a deep commitment to, then its better to keep the commitments and dump the strategy 2) if you do think these sorts of concerns are valid, you should be worried about these sorts of things even if no one will call you out on them. ↩
- Of course, that doesn’t mean their opposition to homosexuality is wrong – their religious beliefs could be true. However, this finding can be pressed to a number of dialectical goals – to persuade those without said religious beliefs, for example. ↩