Should we act on our beliefs? The vexing nature of responsibility

    People act on their beliefs. Obviously, that, as such, does not get them off the hook for the ensuing actions. Those who voted for Clinton believe that adherents of Trump should know better and vice versa—when it comes to the facts, when it comes to certain moral norms, or, more likely, both. Or, to give a few examples on which most Westerners agree: we believe that ISIS fighters also act on their beliefs, but that they should know better, and we believe that climate skeptics act on their beliefs, but that they should know better. If people were not responsible for their beliefs, it would seem improper to blame them for the actions they perform on the basis of those beliefs.

    However, the idea of responsibility for our beliefs faces two big challenges. First, how can we be responsible for our beliefs at all? I am responsible for whether I treat my neighbor kindly or rudely, because I can choose or decide to treat her kindly or rudely. But I do not choose or decide to hold a belief. Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and thinks: “Today, let me form this or that belief.” Beliefs are things that are not under the control of our will. How, then, are we responsible for them? This is a controversial issue in contemporary analytic philosophy. One way to think of it is this: we are responsible for our beliefs, because they are the consequences of things over which we do have control, such as whether we gather more evidence, whether we are humble and pay attention to our prejudices and biases, and whether we try to become more open-minded.

    Second, assuming that the first challenge can be met and that we are indeed responsible for our beliefs, we still face a deep puzzle about responsibility. As I said, people normally act in accordance with their beliefs. And that, it seems, is the right thing to do. One should not act contrary to what one believes to be the facts or contrary to what one believes one ought to do. Philosophers have even come up with a name for situations in which one succumbs and acts against one’s better judgment. Ever since Aristotle, they call it akrasia. One is akratic, for instance, if one believes that eating an entire bag of chips is bad, but one still does it. We don’t want people to be akratic. Rather, they should act in accordance with their beliefs.

    Now, here’s the problem. If we are to hold people responsible for their beliefs, then, given that belief is not under the control of the will, it must issue from an earlier culpable act: one neglected evidence, one failed to enter into conversation with certain people, one was not open-minded, or some such thing. But, presumably, at that earlier time, one believed it was alright to neglect that evidence, fail to enter into conversation, or not be open-minded on that occasion. Thus, how can we ever hold people responsible for their beliefs and the actions performed on the basis of those beliefs? We are unwilling to give up holding people accountable for their beliefs. But it seems we are equally unwilling to give up the principle that people should not act contrary to their beliefs.