You Have the Right to Believe Wrong Things

We're living in a golden age of illiberalism. There are attacks on the First Amendment and the Enlightenment coming from the left. Any horrifying idea can be rolled down the road with enough academese.

 "You don’t have a right to believe whatever you want to." 

That one comes from Daniel DeNicola, professor and chair of philosophy at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, who spends the better part of his piece arguing that bad beliefs are bad.

Do we have the right to believe whatever we want to believe? This supposed right is often claimed as the last resort of the wilfully ignorant, the person who is cornered by evidence and mounting opinion: ‘I believe climate change is a hoax whatever anyone else says, and I have a right to believe it!’ But is there such a right?

We do recognise the right to know certain things. I have a right to know the conditions of my employment, the physician’s diagnosis of my ailments, the grades I achieved at school, the name of my accuser and the nature of the charges, and so on.

Actually it's the other way around. We have a right to believe. We don't have a right to compel knowledge from others. We might have a contractual relationship that compels them to provide that knowledge to us. 

Freedom of conscience, freedom of belief, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of the press are the cornerstones of any free society. 

In exploring the varieties of religious experience, James would remind us that the ‘right to believe’ can establish a climate of religious tolerance. Those religions that define themselves by required beliefs (creeds) have engaged in repression, torture and countless wars against non-believers that can cease only with recognition of a mutual ‘right to believe’. Yet, even in this context, extremely intolerant beliefs cannot be tolerated. Rights have limits and carry responsibilities.

Every major religion has required beliefs. That includes the left.

Rights are only limited by responsibilities when they directly interfere with the rights of another. When they do not, there is a very high barrier for restricting them.

Consider those who believe that the lunar landings or the Sandy Hook school shooting were unreal, government-created dramas; that Barack Obama is Muslim; that the Earth is flat; or that climate change is a hoax. In such cases, the right to believe is proclaimed as a negative right; that is, its intent is to foreclose dialogue, to deflect all challenges; to enjoin others from interfering with one’s belief-commitment.

The right to believe, like all actual rights, is negative. Rights, by their very nature, deflect abuses of power.

Believing, like willing, seems fundamental to autonomy, the ultimate ground of one’s freedom. ...Beliefs shape attitudes and motives, guide choices and actions. Believing and knowing are formed within an epistemic community, which also bears their effects. There is an ethic of believing, of acquiring, sustaining, and relinquishing beliefs – and that ethic both generates and limits our right to believe. If some beliefs are false, or morally repugnant, or irresponsible, some beliefs are also dangerous. And to those, we have no right.

Every totalitarian regime would agree with that. That's why we have the Bill of Rights. Precisely because our social compact states that people do have the right to wrong beliefs. Just not to deeds.