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My Response to Watt


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Before I begin my response, I'd like to thank Watt for giving us a lot to think about. I'm grateful for his willingness to post here and thank him for his insightful comments, wit, and sincere engagement of difficult topics.

I'll begin with where we agree. I believe that the essential task of morality is to try as hard as you can to be as good as you can. My own belief is that God cares less about what your answer is than how hard you tried to engage the question. In this sense, the quotation offered by Watt is quite illustrative. As the obligation of the shipowner is to take all care to ensure that the ship is safe, the obligation of the believer is to be sure that his or her faith is well founded in reasons that make sense. I would argue that this realization helps us to avoid undue judgment of others by recognizing that effort and good intentions matter absent outcomes. If a well-constructed ship is wrecked in a hurricane, nobody blames the owner. If a well-constructed ship takes much longer to reach a safe port due to unfavorable winds, the owner is not blamed. Likewise, if a good person that works hard to be good has trouble finding the port that you want him to find, you can recognize that he's still working hard. If crisis destroys faith, there is no reason to presume that the architect of that faith is a failure. This is why my blood boils when I mention a good person that does good works who is not a member of the Church and someone says "sounds like a good terrestrial person". I swear, that line will get someone's jaw broken some day. Thanks to Watt for expressing this point in a more civilized way.

With that said, I do disagree with a few of the basic assumptions and arguments implicit in the post. Initially, I would challenge the idea of a "right to believe". The essential point of liberty is that one may chart one's own path to the extent that it does not infringe upon anyone else's liberty. For me, personal religious beliefs fall firmly within this domain. You can think whatever you want without being accountable to anyone else except possibly God. Now, this calculation changes dramatically when you try to convince someone else. Once that happens, your reasons for belief are a legitimate target for anyone to attack/defend/criticize at will. This is not to say that we cannot have persuasive discourse or that we cannot attempt to engage the values of others. I do think that it means that we can say that "your reasons are good enough/not good enough for me" but not "your reasons are not good enough for you". While we can criticize the reasons, I don't believe that we can make a judgment about what is or should be persuasive to another. This is not because we cannot know what is right, but because it is a hegemonic discourse to be the definer of the terms of debate and a participant in it. Of course, it would be perfectly legitimate for individuals to agree upon terms, were they so inclined. Beyond this problem, I simply think that it's more effective in creating meaning to engage reasons than conclusions.

A related concern is best exemplified in Clifford's quotation. As he states that the shipowner "had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him", he implies that there can be such a thing as a dispassionate analysis of "evidence". The problems with this assumption abound. First, we can't agree on what constitutes evidence. How many "evidence points" does my belief in a specific personal revelation from the Spirit count for? How many points get docked for an argument's reification through socialization? Second, we can never separate ourselves from our position in evaluating evidence. We can and should try. But that doesn't change the fact that Clifford's shipowner is, in fact, a shipowner. There are very powerful incentives for him to think that his boat is safe. There are lots of incentives for D-Train, Mormon, Esquire to be right about Mormonism. Same for the Baptists, same for the communists, same for the neo-cons. This doesn't imply that people consciously exclude or include evidence based on their world view (although many do), but that people actually see the evidence differently. We can create intersubjective meaning in these cases, but we're limited to doing so with the understanding that individuals still will disagree and that evaluating "evidence" is not a perfect process.

I agree that we Mormons have a lot on the shelf. But so does everyone else. I can't think of anyone that has reached a transcendental harmony between all of their views, all of their actions, and their social relationships. These issues are often profound doubts about our faith. Sometimes these can be the cause of great discomfort. However, this discomfort only comes about as a result of the process of sincere inquiry that Watt and I agree to be essential to real, living faith. While there may be issues unique to Mormons on the table, the phenomenon of doubt and "shelf issues" is experienced by all. Indeed, it may be that the process of inquiry places items on the shelf intentionally in order to place effort elsewhere. I know I've done that. I've written about it here. I have some serious doubts about Mormonism, Christianity, theism, etc. Despite these, I perceive that my questions can be answered more effectively by doing other things than by worrying about those directly (at least some of the time).

So, at the end of the day, I can say that effort is the most important thing. I must also say that our ability to evaluate the evidence before us is highly subjective and depends on our roles, ascribed, earned, and imagined. Above all, I must assert our right as thinking beings to determine the evidentiary standards that will determine our own actions.


64 Responses to “My Response to Watt”

  1. Anonymous Arwyn 

    Interesting post, D-Train. I'm going to have to wait until I get home from work to read deeply and respond efficiently, but in the meantime -- do you have a link to the post from Watt that you're responding to? I'd be interesting in reading that as well.

  2. Anonymous D-Train 

    It'll be up here as a guest post in a minute. Blogger is being WAY stupid.

  3. Anonymous D-Train 

    There we go. It's up now. I thought the post was one of the more interesting things I've seen lately and think people will really enjoy it. Hopefully my response is at least somewhat coherent.

  4. Anonymous Arwyn 

    Ah hah! That makes things a lot clearer. ;)

  5. Anonymous Watt Mahoun 

    D-Train,

    I think you make an excellent counter-point. I agree that we are essentially free to choose what we will believe..."right" or "no right". Which is the point I want to highlight with this comment. Having the right to do/believe something is a separate issue from being free, in the context of Clifford's parable. The shipowner is ever free to do/believe as he will, but he does not have the right to claim innocence and virtue, no matter the sincerity, because his conviction was based primarily on stifling doubt rather than letting such doubt lead him to act in good faith.

    In short, belief, if sustained by stifling doubt, may be sincere but it is also willfully blind to the distinct possibility that it is bad faith.

  6. Anonymous D-Train 

    Watt,

    I agree that innocence and virtue are separate from the right to choose one's belief. I'd only make three points to respond.

    1) Since evidence is so subjective, it's tough to determine whether right and virtue are present in a situation. The best we can do is create an intersubjective understanding of a societal norm of right and wrong. This is valuable and useful, but it doesn't translate well to individual morality, especially given our agreement that individual morality primarily depends on one's best effort to be righteous. Application of intersubjective understanding to that isn't going to get us all that far.

    2) Our role is heavily involved in how we see the evidence. I happen to think that once our roles become individually and socially determined, it becomes difficult to actually be immoral in the sense of knowing what's right and choosing not to do it. We can choose not to try to be righteous (which is the subject of your post, as I understand it), but our roles are a real complicating factor.

    3) There is a big difference between individual faith and our treatment of others. In the case of the shipowner, I agree that he had no right to put passengers on that ship, no matter how much he "believed". This is one reason that it's not appropriate to judge people: who are we to determine who's trying and who's not (if that's what morality is all about)? However, if only he is on the ship, it is up to him to decide whether it's safe. Likewise, I may be objectively wrong about whether there's a God, whether Joseph Smith is a prophet, whether the Word of Wisdom is true doctrine, etc. However, if my reasons are good enough for me, I can believe as I choose. In terms of my actions toward others, it's fine to tract based solely on my faith. If people aren't interested, they can shut the door. It's fine for me to choose who I marry on the basis of my reasons. It's not fine for me to try to force morality on people that don't agree without really compelling reasons that satisfy society.

    Does that make sense? I'll try to elaborate further if that argument isn't clear.

  7. Anonymous Watt Mahoun 

    Yes, it makes sense.

    On item 1: I think that feelings of doubt are among those highly subjective and personal or "intersubjective" things to which you refer, and I think that they are based upon our personal knowledge and understanding. As such, doubts are a very important part of how we reason through a decision process...and again, if one were to suppress those doubts rather than substantially address them, one has been dishonest with self. Of course, we often cannot tell how another is experiencing this process, and cannot easily judge. This is the reason why I have not pointed to any particular person or belief or doubt as a specific example. I think it is enough just to consider the idea in general.

    On item 2: I totally agree that our roles are a complicating factor in making decisions about what we will believe...and in whether we will be tempted to suppress our doubts. As a parent and husband I feel those pressures, as a member of the church, as an employee, as a citizen, etc. Similarly the role of shipowner has its own complications: financial/investment concerns, pressure from the market and competition, demands for time and performance from customers, etc... I don't think my post or the Clifford parable are as much about choosing not to be righteous, as about choosing to proceed based on misplaced priorities. This is the reason why one can easily fall into the trap of thinking/reasoning around inconvenient doubts and come out with a sense of sincere belief and having made a righteous choice. But this fallacy of reason is what Clifford addresses when he says:

    "The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him."

    On item 3:
    I think the point you make about the necessity of not judging others is a particularly strong and important one. You are right...we have no idea what others are experiencing, how hard they are trying, or what challenges they face. We also do not know how they have handled their doubts and why. But we do or should know these things about ourselves...and this is the reason why the shipowner parable is best contemplated without too much calling-out of specific issues. It's not my intention to call-out any specific concerns that I may have with other people's beliefs or how they handle their doubts...only to raise the point that when one has doubts; no matter what they are, one must consider the weight that such doubts have. The weight of a doubt need not directly concern putting the lives of others at risk; it need only be enough that to suppress it would free us to take the next step in a chain of choices/actions that lead to unexpected or unknown results.

    The core of the parable is that, it does not matter whether one ever becomes aware of the results of a decision, or if the results come to good or bad. The failure is in acting according to a belief that is built upon stifled doubts...this is in fact an error in correctly understanding and operating within free agency.

  8. Anonymous D-Train 

    Seeing if our comment problems are resolved.....

  9. Anonymous D-Train 

    Clearly not. Darn it.

  10. Anonymous D-Train 

    Item 1: I agree. We need to make an effort individually to get to the bottom of our doubts. How we do that is up to us, as you note.

    Item 2: I agree that Clifford is talking about misplaced priorities, but would contend that the difficulty cited in item 1 makes an evaluation of this point particularly difficult. I am willing to agree with you to the extent that we're only talking about the general need of individuals to make that decision. As long as we're stopping short of saying that we can evaluate one's decision to believe or not believe for them based on an external standard of evidence, we're on the same page.

    Item 3: I see more clearly where you're coming from and generally agree. I would tend to place the obligation to weigh doubts a little lower than I suspect you might, but I can agree that there is one. I would simply argue that the more personal the implications of a doubt/failure to resolve a doubt, the more moral leeway an individual has in deciding what to do about it, especially in the moral context of relations with others. To use a less dramatic example: if I doubt whether a particular film is good for my spirituality, I don't really have to consider others in that decision. I might be making a wrong choice, but the moral consequences are solely between me and God. Should I choose to, say, ignore my doubts about whether the meat I'm serving my guests went bad, I would be exposed to some level of moral censure (presuming anyone found out). And rightfully so. My actions weren't personal and I should expect in that case that my reasons should not be either.

    It should be obvious that I generally see the broad issue of whether to believe in God or in a set of religious doctrines/moral principles as generally falling into the personal category. As I see it, this strikes a reasonable balance between discretion and accountability. Should I choose to use that faith as a justification for acting on others, I need to have some other reasons that are socially acceptable, especially for that individual.

  11. Anonymous annegb 

    Wow, D-train (which I feel totally stupid addressing some of these nicknames like Roasted Tomatoes, have I said enough about that lately? It's hard to feel serious),

    However, I am. And I'm going to print that off. How profound. It's okay to tell me that it's not good for you, it's not okay for you to tell me it's not good for me. Wow.

    I got lost in the last part, my simple take on that is I agree with you, I think. I think a lot of the arguments or shrill tones, God just doesn't care.

    There is so much that I don't understand or know, I was thinking today about that allegory of the cave, maybe we're seeing shadows. And the progress here is something we can't quantify. I don't know much, but I believe most of these tones will be fixed after we die and the true nature of life is begun to be revealed. If that makes sense.

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