Lisa's Notebook

Writing Exercises by Lisa McNulty.

Why Should I Believe You?

Today I have a good deal of Real Work to do and so I can’t spend much time on this piece. However, even though consistency is the enemy, I’m reluctant to break my streak so soon, so I’m going to compromise with a bit of self-plagiarism.

Back in 2013 I contributed a chapter to ‘The Good Wife and Philosophy: Temptations of Saint Alicia’, part of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series. This was not because I was particularly interested in the series (it’s fine I suppose) but because I was kind of obsessed at the time with the terrible state of English libel law and I wanted a low-pressure format in which I could express my thoughts on the issue.

Typically, when you are accused of a crime, you are assumed innocent until proven guilty. In other words, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution to show that you have committed the crime that you have been accused of. English libel law reverses this usual pattern. If you are accused of libel, then the defamatory statement is presumed to be false unless the defendant can demonstrate that it is true. Effectively, the defendant is presumed guilty until proven innocent. (English libel law underwent some degree of reformation with the Defamation Act 2013, partly under pressure from the Libel Reform Campaign).

I find this reversal of the usual burden of proof fascinating in terms of moral responsibility for beliefs. The Good Wife has an episode in Season Three, called “The Death Zone”, which sums up the problem well.

In this episode, a character called Danny Lambrose has written a book, entitled My Brother’s Peak, which describes his brother’s final ascent of Everest and his death on that climb. In this book, he claims that another mountaineer, named Oliver Cardiff, “not only stepped over Robert’s body to get to the summit but then took his bottled oxygen,” thereby abandoning Robert to die. Cardiff vehemently denies this, and brings a suit against Lambrose for libel. Initially he did this under American law. American law prioritizes freedom of speech over the protection of reputation, and thus the burden of proof rests with the person bringing the claim of libel. It is very difficult to get a libel conviction under American law. The suit fails. But then Cardiff tried again, this time under English libel law.

Significantly, it is not necessary for either the plaintiff or the defendant to be English in order for English libel law to be invoked. It is only necessary for the document to have been available to be read in England, which naturally it was. Yes, the internet means that virtually everything potentially comes under English libel law. It’s a whole thing. Hence the reform campaign.

So suddenly the accused is moved from a position where his accuser carries the burden of proof to where he carries it himself. The questions that occurred to me were:

  • Is there a sense in which he (or anyone) can have a right to be believed?

  • If so, what grants this right? How can it be lost?

  • Can you have a right to be believed by some people but not others?

For the last point, I’m thinking of the position of power that a person has in relation to Lambrose and to Cardiff. Suppose, for the moment, that you are an ordinary reader of Lambrose’s book. It’s likely that you would engage with the author’s perspective, sympathise with him, and would (if you allowed yourself to do so) become very much prejudiced against Oliver Cardiff, and assume that he’s guilty. Whilst you know that Cardiff denies the actions Lambrose accuses him of, you may be inclined to believe Lambrose over Cardiff. Should you? If you become convinced that Cardiff is guilty of abandoning a man to die, then you have already contributed to the destruction of Cardiff’s reputation; which, after all, is nothing but the sum of personal opinions. If you go on to express that belief to others, then you will increase still further the public perception that he is little better than a murderer. You don’t have the power of a judge or jury, but the power you do have also comes with responsibility. It seems plausible to say that, to be just to Cardiff, you should be certain beyond reasonable doubt that he abandoned a man to die, before you allow yourself to believe it; and certainly before you spread rumours about him. It is doubtful,to say the least,that Lambrose’s book could provide you with such powerful evidence.

Unfortunately, your alternative is not ideal; since you have power over Lambrose’s reputation, too. You would have to believe that the book contains untruths, which is a slur on Lambrose’s character; you would be presuming that Lambrose failed to meet a moral duty you expect of yourself (i.e., giving Cardiff the benefit of the doubt). However, in the circumstances, this is a comparatively minor slur, especially if you choose to regard him as a mourning relative mistaken about the strength of the evidence, rather than as a liar. On balance, as a reader of ‘My Brother’s Peak’, you have a greater power over Cardiff than you do over Lambrose. This power gives you a responsibility to assume that Cardiff did not abandon Robert to die, until you have overwhelming evidence to suggest that he did; and in particular, to refrain from damaging Cardiff’s reputation further by word of mouth, until you encounter such evidence.

Now consider the position of the judge in the first trial against Lambrose. This position of power is very different to that of a reader of Lambrose’s book, and much more straightforward. If you believe that Cardiff (or rather Cardiff’s lawyer) is telling the truth, then you must convict Lambrose for libel. This power gives you a responsibility: to regard Lambrose as innocent of libel, until you have overwhelming evidence to suggest that he is guilty; and not to convict him unless you encounter such evidence during the course of the trial.

Should the power you have over someone affect whether or not you ought to believe them? There is a sense in which this is obviously wrong. Your power over someone’s reputation, or over whether or not they are found guilty of a crime, does not in itself have any impact on whether or not that person’s telling the truth. But there is another sense in which your power gives you a duty; an obligation to assume truthfulness, until proven otherwise. Kant would perhaps agree that this is our duty, since we could not rationally will the existence of a world in which reputations were carelessly destroyed. The case of “The Death Zone” seems to show that if we do have such an obligation, what we ought to believe changes with what our position of power is. Read the book, and you are obliged to believe Cardiff. But suppose that the judge on the libel case happened to have read the book beforehand. The moment he steps into the courtroom, his position of power changes from that of a reader to that of a judge. So too his obligation changes: he is now obliged to believe Lambrose (until such a time as he is proven guilty). Perhaps, then, there are times when we have a duty to believe someone not especially because of the convincingness of their evidence but because of our position in relation to that person: a personal relationship, or a position of power.The latter opens a strange possibility: should our position of power change, our obligations could suddenly reverse.This is a puzzling idea. Can this sort of cognitive flexibility really be expected of us? Can we actually do this? Even if we can, ought we?

A potential response to this comes from Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s argument does not seek to prove the existence of God, but rather, to persuade people that they should choose to believe in God. Effectively, we’re ‘betting’ on God’s existence, or his non-existence; and when we make a bet, it is best to assess the dangers and benefits of betting each way. First, suppose that you believe in God, and it turns out that God doesn’t exist. Admittedly, your hopes of Heaven have been thwarted, but then you aren’t around to be disappointed by this fact. So what have you lost? Some wasted hours in church perhaps (depending on whether you actually enjoyed being there), some opportunities for enjoyable sins. But, you have lost nothing that prevented you from having a generally pleasant life. Secondly, suppose that you don’t believe in God, and it turns out that God does exist. The cost seems much higher. Not only do you not go to Heaven, but also you spend eternity in Hell. You have, admittedly, been able to sleep in every Sunday and, if you were so inclined, to get involved with various activities of which God may not approve. But on balance, you have things worse as a mistaken atheist than would as a mistaken theist.

Imagine that Pascal has convinced you that believing in God would be a good idea. Yet, currently, you do not believe in God. What can you do next? Having decided that it would be for the best that you believe something,there is still a further thing to achieve: you actually changing my belief, choosing one belief over another as an act of will. But that degree of self-control would be unusual to say the least. You can’t simply flip a switch in your head from ‘un-believer’ to ‘believer’. So what exactly are you supposed to do?

Pascal is aware of this problem. His response is that if we want to believe in God, we should act as though we believed in God already. Behaving like a believer might include such things as reading the Bible, attending church, and taking communion. Gradually, these habits of action affect our habits of thinking. Behaving like a believer provides us with the best possible chance of becoming one. Whilst Pascal is focusing on our belief in God, we might use a similar method in order to believe other people. Suppose that I become convinced that I have a moral obligation to believe someone. However, at the moment, I simply don’t believe them. What can I do about it? What would behaving like a believer mean here?

Suppose that the reader of Lambrose’s book agrees that her influence on Cardiff’s reputation gives her an obligation to believe Cardiff (until any point when the evidence against him becomes overwhelming). What exactly is she obliged to do? Certainly not to immediately and straightforwardly change her existing belief. It seems unlikely that this is something that she can do. But perhaps we can say that she is obliged to behave as though she believed that Cardiff did not leave a man to die. Behaving as though she believed means refraining from using the power she has against him: essentially, not spreading rumours to further damage his reputation. So far,this seems reasonable. However, in Pascal’s recommendation, behaving like a believer is not the end of the story. It’s a means to an end: a form of self-manipulation. You have been fully successful only when you actually have the belief. Would behaving like a believer actually make the reader believe? It’s possible, but by no means is it necessary. She may well remain personally convinced that Lambrose is right, that Cardiff is guilty; even whilst acknowledging that neither Lambrose not she can prove it beyond reasonable doubt. Provided that she acknowledges this, and provided that she does not suggest to others that there is good reason to think Cardiff is guilty,then she has surely done nothing wrong.

I am inclined to say that she has a duty not to manipulate her beliefs in the Pascalian way, even if she could. This is because the more adept she becomes at such self-manipulation, the less likely she would be to reassess her belief even in the light of overwhelming evidence. Suppose evidence reaches her attention that makes it overwhelmingly likely that Cardiff did take the oxygen and abandon a man to die. It may plausibly become, if not her moral duty, then at least a praiseworthy action to draw the attention of the world to this, so that neither Cardiff nor another similarly irresponsible climber will dare to act in this way again. Thinking of this in terms of the Categorical Imperative, we can say that the maxim ‘It is acceptable to manipulate one’s own beliefs’ is not one which we would wish to see universalized. Similarly, the judge is obliged to behave as though he believed that Lambrose is innocent of libel, until proven guilty. This behaviour is reflected in not giving a ‘guilty’ verdict unless there is evidence beyond reasonable doubt that he is guilty of libel. Yet behaving as though he believed would not necessarily make him believe. It is possible that in a circumstance where there is insufficient evidence to convict a defendant, the judge may nonetheless be personally convinced of the defendant’s guilt.

Curiously, Scottish law reflects this by allowing three possible verdicts: ‘guilty’, ‘not guilty’ and ‘not proven’. The last is commonly understood to mean ‘not guilty, but don’t do it again’; and is perhaps a means by which the judge’s full beliefs on the matter might be expressed.


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