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B. Classical Deontologism

We must now ask a question that has been clamoring for attention all along. Suppose your beliefs don’t correspond to the standards the classical foundationalist or evidentialist holds before you: so what? Exactly what is the matter with you? You will be told that your belief structure is unacceptable and not rationally justified, and that you yourself are irrational; but again, so what? What is wrong with being irrational or with holding beliefs that are not rationally justified? It certainly sounds reprehensible, but what, exactly, is the problem? That is what we must know if we are to understand our de jure question. Consider, for example, John Mackie in The Miracle of Theism.7878   Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. He believes he has shown that the central doctrines of theism are not rational or “rationally defensible” because (as he thinks) he has shown that they are not probable with respect to what he takes to be the relevant evidence. What does he mean here by “rational”? How is he using this protean term? Suppose he is right in thinking that it would be irrational to be a theist if theistic belief is not probable with 86respect to the evidence (whatever precisely that is): what is this property of irrationality that would then afflict theism or theists? Mackie doesn’t say. And Mackie is not alone in failing to say. Many evidentialist objectors argue that theistic belief is irrational because there is insufficient evidence for it; they clearly think being irrational is a bad business; but they seldom say what’s bad about it. Instead, they move immediately to the task of showing, as they think, that there is insufficient evidence for belief in God. This prior question, nevertheless, remains crucial: insufficient for what? What is supposed to be bad about believing in the absence of evidence?

Contemporary evidentialist objectors don’t (for the most part) explicitly say; their progenitor Locke, however, does say. His question, you recall, is how “a rational creature, put in that state in which man is in this world, may and ought to govern his opinions, and actions depending thereon.” And his answer, as we have seen, is that a rational creature in our circumstances ought to govern his opinions by reason—that is, proportion his belief to what is certain for him. But how are we to understand the ‘may’ and ‘ought’ and ‘should’ that Locke employs in stating his project?

At first sight, his words have a deontological ring; they are redolent of duty, obligation, permission, being within your rights and the rest of the deontological stable. Closer inspection reveals that this is, indeed, how they are to be taken. It is Locke’s idea that we have a duty, an obligation to regulate opinion in the way he suggests. We enjoy high standing as rational creatures, creatures capable of belief and knowledge. Noblesse oblige, however; privilege has its obligations, and we are obliged to conduct our intellectual or cognitive life in a certain way. Our exalted station as rational creatures, creatures with reason, carries with it duties and requirements:

faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind: which, if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason; and so cannot be opposite to it. He that believes without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his Maker, who would have him use those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistake and error. He that does not this to the best of his power, however he sometimes lights on truth, is in the right but by chance; and I know not whether the luckiness of the accident will excuse the irregularity of his proceeding. This at least is certain, that he must be accountable for whatever mistakes he runs into: whereas he that makes use of the light and faculties God has given him, and seeks sincerely to discover truth by those helps and abilities he has, may have this satisfaction in doing his duty as a rational creature, that, though he should miss truth, he will not miss the reward of it. For he governs his assent right, and places it as he should, who, in any case or matter whatsoever, believes or disbelieves according as reason directs him. He 87that doth otherwise, transgresses against his own light, and misuses those faculties which were given him to no other end, but to search and follow the clearer evidence and greater probability. (IV, xvii, 24, pp. 413–14)

Here Locke isn’t speaking about specifically religious faith (faith as contrasted with reason, say), but about assent or opinion generally; and his central claim here is that there are duties and obligations with respect to its management or regulation. In particular, you are obliged to give assent only to that for which you have good reasons, good evidence: you are to accept a proposition only if it is probable with respect to what is certain for you. Someone who doesn’t regulate opinion in this way “neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his Maker” (emphasis added); God commands us to seek truth in this way and to regulate opinion in this way. Someone who does seek truth in this way, even if he should happen to miss it, still “may have this satisfaction in doing his duty as a rational creature.” You govern your assent “right,” he says, you place it as you “should” if you believe or disbelieve as reason directs you. And if you don’t do that, then you transgress against your own lights. One who governs his opinion thus is acting in accord with duty, is within his rights, is flouting no obligation, is not blameworthy, is, in a word, justified.

The English terms ‘justified’, ‘justification’, and the like, go back at least to the King James version of the Bible. We are justified, in this use, if Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin has applied to us, so that we are now no longer blameworthy and our sin has been covered, removed, obliterated, taken away; we are no longer guilty; it is as if (so far as guilt is concerned) our sin had never existed. As a matter of fact the term taken in that sense goes back to Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible; the Oxford English Dictionary cites especially Romans 5:16. And Locke is really claiming that you are justified in this sense (guiltless, conforming to your obligations and duties) in believing a proposition p only if p is either certain for you or such that it is probable with respect to propositions that are certain for you. More precisely, your assent to p is justified only if the degree of your assent to p is proportional to the degree to which p is probable with respect to what is certain for you. If you believe in some other way, then you are going contrary to your epistemic obligations; you are guilty; you are flouting epistemic duty. This is the aboriginal and basic idea of the justificationist tradition, the palimpsest in terms of which other justificationist notions are to be understood by way of analogical extensions. And of course there are analogical extensions. For example, if you follow Locke in thinking we have such a duty, then you will be inclined to transfer the term ‘justified’ from the believer to the believed, and speak, as in fact we do speak, of a proposition’s being justified, or justified for someone, meaning that the person in question has a good bit of evidence for the proposition in question. You will also say, 88no doubt, that there is a good deal of justification or rational justification for a given proposition, meaning thereby that there is a good deal of evidence for it.7979   There are many other analogical extensions or retrenchments of this original notion of justification, and many other analogically extended uses of the term; see WCD, chapter 1.


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