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The Obligation to Believe

  • Alan Brinton (a1)

Do we ever have an obligation to choose to hold beliefs, religious or otherwise? The relations between belief, volition and moral responsibility are the subject of William James' widely discussed essay ‘The Will to Believe’. James first takes up the relationship between volition and belief: Does it make sense to speak of choosing to believe a proposition? His answer is that it does, in the sense that we can choose to act in ways which encourage the production of a believing attitude in ourself. For example, we can be selective in attending to evidence, and we can incline ourselves toward belief by acting as though we already believe. By avoiding certain influences and subjecting ourself to others, we can encourage the development of belief. In so doing, we in effect treat ourself as a third person, and our behaviour is analogous to what we might engage in when encouraging others toward favourable evidence. The question of moral responsibility then becomes appropriate in our own case in a way analogous to that in which it does with respect to our belief-producing actions toward others. Just as the deception of others raises moral questions, so does the deception of ourselves.

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page 1 note 1 James William, ‘The Will to Believe’, Essays in Pragmatism, ed. Castell Alburey (New York: Hafner Press, 1948). The doctrine appears frequently in James' other works. See, for example, ‘The Sentiment of Rationality’, ‘The Dilemma of Determinism’, ‘The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life’, and the ‘Conclusions’ and ‘Postscript’ from Varieties of Religious Experience, all anthologized in Essays in Pragmatism; also see A Pluralistic Universe (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1967), pp. 328–31; The Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1950), vol. 1, pp. 311–22; Some Problems of Philosophy (New York: Longman's Green, 1948), Appendix. For recent helpful discussions of James' doctrine, see Dooley Patrick K., ‘The Nature of Belief: the Proper Context for James' “The Will to Believe”,’ Transactions of the C. S. Peirce Society 8, no. 3 (Summer 1972), 141–51; Johanson Arnold E., ‘“The Will to Believe” and the Ethics of Belief’, Transactions of the C. S. Peirce Society 11, no. 2 (Spring 1975), 110–27; Kauber Peter and Hare Peter H., ‘The Right and Duty to Will to Believe’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 4, no. 2 (December 1974), 327–43; and Macleod William, ‘James’ “Will to Believe” Revisited', Personalist 48, no. 2 (April 1967), 149–66. Kauber and Hare consider the question of obligation and offer a general line of argument which involves considerations of the same sort as appealed to in arguments (3) and (4) in part III of this paper.

page 1 note 2 The notion of self-deception raises certain conceptual problems which are relevant to this discussion but will not be taken up in this essay. There is a significant by of literature dealing with these difficulties; see, for example, Daniels Charles B., ‘Self-Deception and Interpersonal Deception’, Personalist 55, no. 3 (Summer 1974), 244–52; Fingarette Herbert, Self-Deception (New York: Basic Books, 1969); Szabados Bela, ‘Self-Deception’, Canadian journal of Philosophy 4, no. 1 (September 1974), 44–9.

page 2 note 1 Clifford W. K., Lectures and Essays (London: Macmillan, 1879), vol. 2, p. 186.

page 2 note 2 ‘The Sentiment of Rationality’, p. 35.

page 3 note 1 Augustine , Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, trans. Shaw J. F., ed. Henry Paolucci (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961), chap. 20; see also chaps. 959 and 21–3.

page 3 note 2 Hick John, Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed., rev. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), pp. 55–6.

page 4 note 1 Rom. I: 1820, New English Bible.

page 4 note 2 Calvin John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Battles Ford Lewis, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), vol. I, bk. I, chaps. 35.

page 5 note 1 Institutes, chap. 8; Aquinas , On the Truth of the Catholic Faith, trans. Pegis Anton C. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Image Books, 1955), chap. 6.

page 6 note 1 ‘The Will to Believe’, pp. 105–6.

page 6 note 2 ‘What Pragmatism Means’, Essays in Pragmatism, p. 144.

page 6 note 3 See section I of ‘The Will to Believe’.

page 8 note 1 ‘The Sentiment of Rationality’, p. 27.

page 9 note 1 On the value issue see ‘The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life’, ‘The Sentiment of Rationality’, pp. 31–6 and ‘The Will to Believe’, pp. 103–4. On the question of free will see ‘The Dilemma of Determinism’.

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Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
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