Monthly Archives: January 2014

Why is choosing beliefs more problematic than choosing actions?

There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow: Yet it was the schoolboy who said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

“Believing what you know ain’t so” — if it is true that we choose our beliefs and are morally responsible for them, then it ought to be possible to do just that.

We are certainly morally responsible for our actions because, knowing (or thinking that we know) what is right, we are nevertheless capable of choosing to do otherwise. We are able to do what we know is wrong — to judge a particular course of action to be wrong and to do it anyway. This is possible because judging a deed to be right is one thing, and actually doing it is another. Without this distinction, the idea of sin would be incoherent.

When it comes to belief, though, no such distinction is possible. To judge a belief to be right just is to believe it. “Believing what you know ain’t so” is, pace the schoolboy, meaningless. To believe something just is to think it is so; if you don’t think it’s so, you don’t believe it. Thus, the idea of sin is incoherent when applied to beliefs. We cannot be held morally responsible for our beliefs because there is no internal standard against which to judge them. Of course, there is the external standard of what is objectively true, but that’s not good enough. A man may do something which, as a matter of fact, is wrong — but if he doesn’t know it’s wrong, he is still innocent. Likewise, a man who believes something false is innocent unless he knows it’s false — but if he knew it was false, he would eo ipso not believe it.


And yet, and yet — that can’t be the whole story. At some level, everyone understands exactly what Twain’s schoolboy is talking about, which is why his definition of faith makes us smile knowingly rather than scratching out heads. “Believing what you know ain’t so” is not simply meaningless, or it would not even register as a witticism. Somehow, despite the contradictions it seems to involve, it is possible to willfully — culpably — believe something you know is false. As for what exactly that means, though, I confess that I’m still at a loss. Further research is, as they say, indicated.


Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Psychology

Three justifications for democracy

1. The wisdom of crowds

Groups of people tend to make better — smarter and/or more moral — choices than individuals, and the larger the group, the better. It is better to be ruled by a committee than by an individual, and best of all is to be ruled by a multi-million-member committee-to-end-all-committees consisting of the entire adult population of the country.

This, despite its prima facie implausibility, is probably the reason most democracy-supporters would give for their preference, and the policy decisions of actual democracies are more-or-less consistent with it. I mean to efforts to maximize the size of the electorate (through the enfranchisement of women, get-out-the-vote campaigns, etc.) while still excluding the mentally and morally deficient (children and felons).

2. Violence minimization

Moldbug somewhere compares an election to a limited civil war in which the armies show up, get counted, but don’t actually fight. Elections serve a purpose similar to that of the ritualized dominance displays of other social animals. The contenders for alpha rank show off their size, power, and ferocity so as to sort out which of them would most likely win were they to fight it out. That established, the actual fighting can be dispensed with, to the benefit of all parties concerned. Humans, of course, win fights not by having bigger muscles or sharper tusks, but by forming bigger armies than their rivals, and so we arrange our dominance displays accordingly.

This is to my mind a fairly compelling justification for democracy, but it is apparently not the rationale on which actually existing democracies are based. If voting is about “counting the armies,” only able-bodied men should have the vote, and violent criminals are the last people in the world we should want to disenfranchise.

3. Divine right

It is the God-given right of the people to rule, and that’s that. The probable results of different forms of government are irrelevant; only democracy is legitimate. It is inherently good, while all other forms of government are inherently bad.

This kind of thinking, while rarely actually articulated, is probably what is really behind most people’s support for democracy. And just like its close cousin, the doctrine of the divine right of kings, it is immune to argument.


If there are any democrats among my readers, which of these justifications is the decisive one for you? Or are there other basic arguments for democracy which I have overlooked?


Filed under Politics

Default genders of animals

Several animals have a “default gender” in English — by which I mean that the word for either the male or the female also serves as the word for the species in general. The word man, which can (or could until very recently) mean either a human being in general or specifically a male human being, is an example.

My initial assumption was that, while most animal species do not have a default gender, those that do would be overwhelmingly default-male, in line with traditional “sexism.” In fact, they turn out to be pretty evenly split.

Default-male animals: dog (vs. bitch), fox (vs. vixen), lion (vs. lioness), tiger (vs. tigress), and of course man (vs. woman).

Default-female animals: cow (vs. bull), duck (vs. drake), goose (vs. gander), and hawk (vs. tercel). Interestingly, these are almost all bird species. The only exception is cow, which technically refers only to the female but in practice is used more inclusively.

The above are the only animals I can think of which have a default gender. If you know of one that I missed, leave a comment.

Among mythical creatures, most are default-male — dragon (vs. dragoness), giant (vs. giantess), ogre (vs. ogress), etc. The only exception I can think of is griffin; heraldry distinguishes between the griffin (winged, without horns or spines) and the male griffin (horned, spiny, and wingless). Perhaps not coincidentally, the griffin is a bird-like monster.


Filed under Language