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Thought Control

Tim Bayne


As a teacher I have sometimes offered a million pounds to any student who can form any one of the following beliefs: that they can fly; that they were born on the moon; or that sheep are carnivorous. Needless to say, I have never had to pay up.  The Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass might have been able to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but that is a feat few of us can match. In fact, it is doubtful whether the formation of belief is under voluntary control at all. Adopting a belief seems to be more like digesting or metabolizing and rather unlike looking or speaking—it seems to be something that happens to one rather than something that one does.

But unlike digestion or metabolizing, the upshot of belief-formation has a direct impact on how we behave. Although we don’t always act in accordance with our beliefs, it goes without saying that what we believe plays a huge role in governing what we do. More importantly, a rational person ought to act on the basis of their beliefs; indeed, failing to act in light of one’s beliefs is a form of irrationality.

In and of themselves the two claims that we have just examined—that belief-formation is involuntary and that a person’s beliefs justify their actions—are unobjectionable. Trouble looms, however, when we put them together. From Francisco Pizarro to Tomás de Torquemada, and from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to Anders Breivik, history is littered with the carnage wrought by the actions of sincere but misguided individuals—people who have regarded the superiority of their religion, race or ideology as legitimizing actions that we regard as horrific.

How should we regard such individuals? If the formation of belief is involuntary, then, one might think, we cannot justifiably condemn them for holding the beliefs that motivated their actions. Can we condemn them for acting on those beliefs? Arguably not, for how else is a person to act if not on the basis of their beliefs? But if we cannot condemn them either for forming their beliefs or for acting in light of their beliefs, what grounds do we have for condemning them at all?

Some might be tempted to respond that we don’t have any grounds for condemning such individuals, and that those who act on the basis of their sincerely held beliefs shouldn’t be denounced for what they do, no matter how awful their deeds. We could, of course, continue to regard such agents as legally responsible for their crimes, but—according to this line of thought—we have no grounds for holding them morally guilty for the actions that they carry out in light of their convictions.

Although some might be happy to settle for this solution, I suspect that for many of us it is a response of last resort—a position to be adopted only when all other avenues are exhausted. Are there any other avenues available to us?

Perhaps we were too quick to embrace the idea that belief-formation is always involuntary. Although it is clear that we cannot simply decide to adopt any old proposition that is put to us, it doesn’t follow—and it may not be true—that we have no intentional control over what we believe. For example, it is surely plausible to suppose that we have some control over whether or not to subject our beliefs to critical scrutiny. One can deliberate about whether or not to believe those propositions that are open questions for one. And if deliberation lies within one’s voluntary control, then perhaps one can be justifiably blamed for failing to deliberate appropriately.

Perhaps so, but does this solve our puzzle? I suspect not. For one thing, I very much doubt whether the beliefs that motivated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Anders Breivik were ‘open questions’ from their point of view.  Instead, I suspect that they regarded them as self-evident truths, claims no more deserving of critical scrutiny than the belief that 2+2=4 or the belief that there is water at the bottom of the ocean. Moreover, even if they were guilty of failing to subject their beliefs to the kind of scrutiny that they should have, that failing would surely be relatively minor rather than an instance of gross moral turpitude of the kind for which we are inclined to hold them guilty.

So, how should we resolve this puzzle? I don’t have a full solution to offer, but here is one line of thought that I find tempting. Although belief-formation is responsive to evidence, it is also influenced by desire and motivation: how we take the world to be is heavily influenced by how we would like the world to be. And one of the central sources of belief in the superiority of one’s religion, race or ideology is surely the desire to dominate one’s fellow human beings.

And here, perhaps, we can see the hint of a solution to our puzzle. What the Khalid Sheikh Mohammeds and Anders Breiviks of this world are guilty of is not the fact that they have voluntarily adopted unjustified beliefs, for we have seen that it is doubtful whether their beliefs were voluntarily acquired. Rather, their guilt lies in the character traits that their beliefs manifest. Our condemnation of them is justified insofar as the beliefs that motivated their actions were grounded in intolerance, arrogance and self-aggrandizement.

Tim Bayne is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manchester. He has taught at the University of Canterbury, Macquarie University, and the University of Oxford. His main interests are in the philosophy of psychology, with a particular focus on consciousness. A native of New Zealand, he divides his time between Manchester and Geneva. His is the author of Thought: A Very Short Introduction .

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 Image Credit: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, upon capture. Taken by U.S. forces when KSM was captured  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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2 Responses to “Thought Control”
  1. S. Harris says:

    Well, clearly you have never had a psychotic episode. Good for you. Saves money, in your case.

  2. Neurotaylor says:

    The obvious question arises: to what extent is the formation of character traits under voluntary control?

    A fascinating post. I will look out for the book! Thank you.

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