Profitable Discourse

The Pursuit of Theological Clarity

JUDGING BELIEFS ON THE BASIS OF THEIR MORAL IMPACT

     The question of determining the truth or falsity of theological beliefs has a long and complex history, but one modern proposal has become increasingly more popular as of late. According to this proposal, theological beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact. And this conviction lies upon a deeper philosophical assumption, namely, that the truth or falsity of beliefs is less important than the impact beliefs have on someone's life.

     Now I happen to be convinced that this proposal is deeply flawed, and I want to explain why, but first it’s important to understand the proposal better and to notice its obvious benefits. The philosophical assumption behind this proposal is essentially part of a pragmatist epistemology, which essentially means a theory of knowledge whose highest values are usefulness and utility. The primary argument is that one ought to be less concerned with the correctness of a belief and more concerned with the practical ramifications of a belief—and this is actually very helpful. It has the benefit of immediately eliminating the philosophical partition between theoria and praxis, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, between beliefs and practices. Both ideas, values, and convictions on the one hand, and habits, actions, and practices on the other ought to be conjoined into a holistic vision of epistemology and ethics. 

     However, this is where the proposal’s problems begin. It ends up eliminating this partition not by bringing epistemology and ethics together, but by absorbing epistemology into ethics.Yet for many Christians, especially post-evangelicals, progressives, and liberals, who all rightly oppose fundamentalism and value intellectual humility, this seems almost automatically true. I'll admit it isn't too difficult to criticize some parts of rigorous theological traditions for all too often manifesting in platitudes instead of hard action. And if you've grown up in such a tradition, the path to the pragmatist framework can practically be traversed in a single step. That being said, allow me to share my concerns.

THE ARGUMENT 

     So this proposal on which we’re focussed claims that beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact, which is to say that the impact a belief has on someone's life is more important than the belief itself. My argument is that this claim is self-referentially incoherent and circular.

     Essentially, to argue that this claim is self-referentially incoherent and circular is to argue that it fails on its own terms. This becomes clear once one realizes that this position, “that beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact,” is itself a particular belief. So if the claim “all beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact” is itself a belief, then it ought to be judged on the basis of its moral impact—but it can't be. See, actively believing only those beliefs which produce positive moral impact is one ordeal, but believing that those beliefs which produce positive moral impact are the correct beliefs is an entirely different ordeal. One is concerned with immediate moral pragmatism, the other with general truth. One can’t move to the latter from the former, one can only assume the latter to move forth into the former. At some point one has to provide some sort of justification for why the claim “all beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact” is even worthwhile, and this is where the problem emerges. This is because if its justification is based on its moral impact, then the argument assumes its conclusion and thus engages in fallacious circular reasoning. But if its justification is based on its being true, then the argument’s very thesis itself is denied.

     Look at it like this. Let's say it’s false that the impact a belief has on someone's life is more important than the belief itself. If it's false, then we shouldn't believe it, we shouldn’t judge other beliefs accordingly, and we shouldn’t live accordingly. But let's alternatively say it's true that the impact a belief has on someone's life is more important than the belief itself. If it's true, then we should believe it, we should judge other beliefs accordingly, and we should live accordingly. But do you see the problem? If this is granted, then the primary motivation and justification of this very belief would stand in direct contradiction to its conclusion—namely, one would believe it not on the basis of its moral impact but on the basis of its truth. Yet to proceed from this foundation (beliefs are judged by their truth value) and then turn in the opposite direction (beliefs are judged by their moral impact) is like cutting off the wings of a jet plane while it’s still rushing down the runway—it'll never get off the ground. Therefore, this proposal seems to rest on the inescapable horns of a dilemma between circular reasoning and self-referential incoherency—and I don’t see a way out.

     Holding this argument in mind, I think the wisest way forward is to return to a process of judging beliefs on the basis of their truth or falsity rather than on the basis of their moral impact. But as I mentioned at the outset, this needn’t cause anyone to establish some sort of separation between epistemology and ethics, between beliefs and practices. On the contrary, we should accept the initial benefit of this pragmatic proposal and hold to a theory that gives balanced attention to beliefs and practices without absorbing one into the other. 

You can find my extended essay on this subject here.


     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.


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