Should we apply moral judgments, such as “immoral,” to beliefs per se? Smith begins his discussion of this difficult problem.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In several recent essays I raised the question of whether or not we can legitimately pass moral judgments on beliefs per se, even if those beliefs are never manifested in actions. Suppose a racist believes that blacks are mentally and morally inferior to other races, but he never advocates that a black person be treated differently than any other person. Indeed, let us assume that the racist is a libertarian who defends the equal rights of every person and who does not discriminate in his personal or professional relationships. Although we may assess the racist belief as “irrational,” should we also condemn the belief itself as “immoral”? Many similar examples could be given.

In attempting to reach a reasonable verdict about this problem we will be thrust into a thicket of additional questions. For example: Is belief a matter of choice? Can we will to believe something without sufficient evidence, or in spite of evidence to the contrary? Can we choose not to believe something that has been logically demonstrated? And if we assent to a belief voluntarily, does it thereby become a legitimate subject of moral judgment?

These and similar questions pertaining to the ethics of belief, however theoretical they may appear, have been fraught with momentous practical implications throughout the history of western civilization, especially during the many centuries when religious persecution was the norm. If Aquinas and other prominent theologians were to justify the punishment of heretics and other religious dissenters, they had to uphold the volitional nature of religious belief. For if we do not have control over what we believe, if heretics have no choice but to persist in their dissent from orthodoxy, then on what grounds can religious dissenters be held morally and legally responsible, and thereby punished, for their failure to accept Christian dogma?

Early proponents of religious toleration often maintained that belief is not a matter of free will but is determined by our intellect, according as it is or is not persuaded by the available evidence. A typical example of this line of argument appears in the following passage, written in 1644 by the English individualist and Leveller William Walwyn:

Of what judgment soever a man is, he cannot choose but be of that judgment. [N]ow where there is necessity there ought to be no punishment, for punishment is the recompense for voluntary actions, therefore no man ought to be punished for his judgment.

This common argument also appears in John Locke’s influential essay A Letter Concerning Toleration.

[I]t is absurd that things should be enjoined by laws, which are not within men’s power to perform; and to believe this or that to be true, does not depend on our will.

Other defenders of toleration took a different view, maintaining instead that belief does have a volitional component. Christian belief, according to this argument, is meritorious precisely because it requires the voluntary assent of faith—so any attempt to use coercion will nullify the merit that Christian belief would otherwise have. Coercion is incompatible with faith, which must be voluntary, so persecution has no legitimate role in the furtherance of religion.

This argument has a long ancestry, reaching back to the early Christian era. Consider this remark by the apologist Lactantius (240–320):

[I]f you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free‐​will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist.

Although it is not my purpose to explain in detail the relationship between religious persecution and the ethics of belief, readers should have some appreciation for the historical significance of this issue. Controversies in philosophy and theology, however theoretical and abstract they may seem, have sometimes become matters of life and death for countless numbers of people.

Thomas Aquinas

A detailed discussion of the ethics of belief appears in the thirteenth‐​century work, Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas. To believe, according to Aquinas, “is to think with assent”; belief “is an act of the intellect, according as the will moves it to assent.” Aquinas thus maintained that belief is at once cognitive and volitional: it is an act of both the intellect and the will.

The volitional aspect of belief has always played an important role in Christian theology, for it enabled Aquinas (and many other theologians) to portray faith in God as a “meritorious act.” We should not be praised or condemned for an act over which we have no control. Only volitional acts can properly be the subject of moral judgment; so if we have no control over what we believe, if our beliefs cannot be freely chosen, then the theologian cannot reasonably condemn atheism and other forms of disbelief as sinful.

Aquinas held two positions: first, “unbelief is a sin”; second, “every sin is voluntary.” It clearly follows, therefore, that whether or not one believes in God must be a matter of free will. It is this volitional element that distinguishes the truths of religion from the truths of “science.” (It must be understood that Aquinas, following Aristotle and other Greeks, used the term “science” in its classical sense to signify those truths that can be known with certainty—either intuitively, as when we grasp the truth of a self‐​evident proposition, or through a process of deductive reasoning, as when we derive a true conclusion from a valid syllogism with true premises. In this usage, science, or certain knowledge, was contrasted with beliefs, which are only probable. I shall adhere to this usage throughout this essay.)

Because scientific truths have been demonstrated by reason and leave no room for doubt, we have no choice but to assent to their truth (assuming that we know of, and understand, the demonstration). As Aquinas put it: “the assent of science is not subject to free choice, because the knower is obliged to assent by the force of the demonstration.” The only choice we have in this area is whether “to consider or not to consider.”We might, in other words, refuse to examine the proof for a scientific proposition and thereby remain willfully ignorant of its truth; but if we do examine and understand the proof for a scientific proposition, our mind will automatically assent to its truth without an intervening act of will.

As an example of what Aquinas meant by a scientific truth, consider the proposition 2+2=4. A person who is completely ignorant of mathematics will not know that this proposition is true, and he cannot acquire this knowledge unless he chooses to study the rules of addition. But if he achieves this level of understanding, he must thereafter assent to the truth of 2+2=4. He has no choice in the matter. He cannot will himself to believe otherwise (e.g., that 2+2=5) because his will cannot overrule his intellect.

Aquinas (along with Aristotle, Locke, and many other philosophers) would regard it as improper to say “I believe that 2+2=4.” We should say instead “I know that 2+2=4,” because reason has demonstrated beyond doubt that this proposition is true. Belief pertains to those propositions that cannot be demonstrated with certainty. In such cases, when our intellect is not compelled by the force of a demonstration to accept a proposition as true, we have some degree of choice as to whether or not we will believe that proposition.

This is what Aquinas meant in saying that belief “is an act of the intellect, according as the will moves it to assent.” Belief requires voluntary assent—an act of the will—and it is this power of choice that gives to belief a moral character that is absent in scientific knowledge in which the will plays no direct role.

John Locke

We have seen that, according to Aquinas, truths that have been logically demonstrated (i.e., the knowledge of “science”) command the assent of the intellect, so our belief in them is not a matter of choice. Aquinas adds a proviso, however: “But the actual consideration of what a man knows by science is subject to his free choice, for it is in his power to consider or not to consider.”

This is very similar to the position defended centuries later by John Locke (in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding), who argued that knowledge “is neither wholly necessary, nor wholly voluntary.” Locke illustrated this point by comparing reason (or “understanding,” as he usually called it) to the faculty of sight. If I look at external objects I cannot help but perceive various similarities and differences; I have no choice in the matter. But I do have a choice as to whether I will look in the first place. I can also choose how carefully I will scrutinize the objects, i.e., whether I will survey them hastily or focus on them carefully. The same is true, said Locke, of the understanding:

Just thus it is with our Understanding, all that is voluntary in our Knowledge, is the employing, or with‐​holding any of our Faculties from this or that sort of Objects, and a more, or less accurate survey of them: But they being employed, our Will hath no Power to determine the Knowledge of the Mind one way or the other; that is done only by the Objects themselves, as far as they are clearly discovered.

Although Locke’s distinction between certain knowledge and probable belief is similar to that of Aquinas, it is interesting to note that Locke, unlike Aquinas, did not regard belief as falling directly under our volitional control. We can choose whether or not we will consider all the relevant evidence for a belief, but once we make this choice we are thereafter compelled to follow our judgment and assent to its decision. In matters of belief, a man “can scarce refuse his Assent to the side, on which the greater Probability appears.” Hence “Assent [i.e., belief] is no more in our Power than Knowledge.” As Locke was quick to point out, however, we do exercise a kind of indirect choice over both our certain knowledge and our probable beliefs, because we can choose to think or not to think, to consider or not to consider:

But though we cannot hinder our Knowledge, where the Agreement [between ideas] is once perceived; nor our Assent, where the Probability manifestly appears upon due Consideration of all the Measures of it: Yet we can hinder both Knowledge and Assent, by stopping our Enquiry, and not employing our Faculties in the search of any Truth. If it were not so, Ignorance, Error, or Infidelity could not in any Case be a Fault.

The last sentence of the above passage is highly significant. Unless we can justify some role for volition in our beliefs, then we cannot be held responsible for anything we believe, regardless of how irrational or repulsive those beliefs may be. If everything we believe or think we know has been causally determined by antecedent factors over which we have no volitional control, then a Newton or an Einstein no more deserves our admiration than does an ignorant nitwit. Like many other philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition, Aquinas and Locke identified the choice to think as our fundamental act of volition—a position, it is interesting to note, that was also defended by Ayn Rand.

I have sketched some historical background of the controversy over whether beliefs should properly be the subject of moral judgments. But even if we agree that we have some measure of volitional control over what we believe, it does not necessarily follow that moral judgments should be applied to beliefs per se, apart from whatever actions those beliefs may motivate. Much more obviously needs to be said about this difficult problem, so I shall continue this discussion in my next essay.