What is “Responsible Belief”?: An Interview with Rik Peels

September 11, 2017
Posted by Joe Gorra

Is it the case that what we believe and what we do not believe has a great impact on what we do and fail to do? Hence, if we want to act responsibly, we should believe responsibly? But do we have the kind of control over our beliefs that such responsibility for our beliefs seems to require? Do we have certain obligations to control or influence our beliefs on particular occasions? And do we sometimes believe responsibly despite violating such obligations, namely because we are excused by, say, indoctrination or ignorance?

We recently interviewed Rik Peels about his book Responsible Belief: A Theory in Ethics and Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2017). Peels is an assistant professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. His primary research interests are the ethics of belief, ignorance, scientism, and various issues in the philosophy of religion, such as whether God has a sense of humor.

What do you care most about in this important discussion about responsibility and our belief formation?
One of my main purposes in this book is to put responsibility for belief on the philosophical agenda. Ethics has paid plenty of attention to responsibility for our actions and omissions, but, clearly, we act on the basis of our beliefs. Epistemology has focused on knowledge and what is necessary for it, such as epistemic justification. Thus, the ethics of belief is a relatively neglected field. I deem it of crucial importance, though, for our beliefs are our window on the world and they thoroughly impact how we live our lives. We, therefore, need a theory of responsible belief.
What is the main argument of Responsible Belief?
I start the book with William Alston’s well-known argument against the idea that we have obligations to hold certain beliefs. I agree with him that we have obligations to hold certain beliefs only if we can control our beliefs, but that we lack such control over our beliefs. I, therefore, accept his conclusion that we do not have obligations to hold beliefs. I spell out a way to save responsibility for belief, though, by explaining how we can be derivativelyresponsible for our beliefs in virtue of the influence we have on them: what evidence we gather, to what extent we work on our intellectual virtues and vices, and so on, makes a difference to what we believe.
How do you develop that argument?
I develop this argument by way of three things. First, by defending the premise that we have obligations to have certain beliefs only if we can intentionally form certain beliefs (that is, if we can control them). Second, by showing what is problematic about several other attempts to meet Alston’s argument, such as so-called doxastic compatibilism, which claims that reasons-responsiveness suffices to be responsible for one’s beliefs. And, third, by developing an account in terms of the influence we have on our beliefs and what I call intellectual obligations to exercise such influence, like gathering more evidence, becoming more open-minded, and improving one’s skills in deductive reasoning.
Why do you find that argument to be compelling?
I find it compelling because it squares well both with various social practices and with our phenomenology in belief formation. It is an important practice to hold people responsible for their beliefs, such as their racist beliefs, their views on euthanasia, their political views, and their religious beliefs. But it seems we never choose to hold  those beliefs: we never decide to adopt them and we never or hardly ever choose to perform a series of actions in order to come to hold a particular belief. Rather, we talk to people, gather evidence, reflect on it, and then make up our minds. Thus, my theory of responsible belief can maintain doxastic responsibility without giving up any crucial normative principles or how we experience our own belief formation.
What are some criticisms of your argument that you find most interesting or wortwhile?
Here is one thing. In the book, I argue that people have contingentintellectual obligations, such as professional obligations the police have to investigate a murder and the obligation to find a solution for a problem if I promised you to do so. However, I also argue that all of us have non-contingent moral and epistemic obligations in virtue of being human beings. For example, if we find ourselves with two contradictory beliefs, we should try to find out which one is false (or maybe both). Some philosophers, though, such as Trent Dougherty, Pamela Hieronymi, and Sandy Goldberg, have argued that there cannot be epistemic obligations to act, since epistemic reasons count for or against propositions, statements, claims, or other things that can be true, whereas actions cannot be true or false.
What is your response to this criticism?
My response is twofold. First, it is false that epistemic reasons can only count in favor of things that are true or false. Our current epistemic reasons count in favor of suspending judgment on the proposition that the number of stars is even. But suspension of judgment is neither true nor false. Second, it seems that we can have a moral obligation to do things because of the moral consequences if we fail to do them. And we can have a professional obligation to do things because of the professional consequences if we fail carry them out. But if that is the case, then why can we not have an epistemic obligation to do something because of the epistemic consequences if we fail to do it?
How does Responsible Belief intersect with your other projects?
I currently work on three other projects that are closely related to the issues I explore in this book. I scrutinize scientism, which is basically an ethics of belief: namely the view that one should believe something only if there is sufficient scientific evidence for it [see, for instance, Jeroen de Ridder, Rik Peels, René van Woudenberg, Scientism: A Philosophical Exposition and Evaluation (Oxford University Press, 2018)]. My account renders this view problematic. I also work on ignoranceand my theory of responsible belief casts light on when it is permissible to be ignorant and when it is not [see Rik Peels, Martijn Blaauw, eds., The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance (Cambridge University Press, 2016), and Rik Peels, Perspectives onIgnorance from Moral and Social Philosophy (Routledge, 2017). Finally, I am working on the epistemic responsibilities of the university and it seems to me that teaching responsible belief formation in an age of (alleged) fake news and widespread intellectual vices is crucial to the task of universities.
How might Responsible Belief help illuminate discussions in philosophical theology and philosophy of religion?
At least two things come to mind. It is sometimes said that it is morally wrong to believe in God or that it is epistemically irresponsible to believe the claims of the gospel. My theory of responsible belief that I defend in this book provides some of the resources to show that no moral or epistemic intellectual obligations have been violated in coming to hold these beliefs. Second, an important issue in the debate on divine hiddenness is whether there is non-culpable non-belief. My theory of responsible belief delivers important tools needed to establish whether there is indeed such a thing as non-culpable non-belief.

Learn more about Rik Peels’ work by going to his Academia.edu page, and you can follow him on Twitter @RikPeels.