Does It Depend On What You Believe?

Leonard O’Brian
Scottsdale Community College
Scottsdale, Arizona
2 January 2008

‘It depends on what you believe’.  This claim surfaces frequently in discussions of morality, religion, and art.  It suggests tolerance on the part of the speaker.  It reminds us of other open-minded sentiments, ‘Who’s to judge?’ and ‘Live and let live’.  The sentence, ‘It depends on what you believe’ seems morally enlightened.

There’s a problem, however.  Imagine two people, Bill and Jill, who actually believe the proposition, ‘It depends on what you believe’.  Now imagine them starting to discuss some issue about which they disagree.  After Jill has announced her belief, and Bill has announced his belief, how do they proceed rationally?  They can’t:  After all, they believe that it depends on what they each believe, and what they each believe they’ve now expressed.  Producing evidence would be superfluous.  Their belief, ‘It depends on what you believe’, rules out rational discussion.

There’s something fishy about a proposition that rules out rational discussion.  Determining what is wrong with this proposition requires analysis.  The proposition arises in various contexts. To simplify, we’ll focus on just one context, moral discussion.  We will discover that the proposition or claim rests on a fatal ambiguity. 

The person who asserts, in moral discussions, “It depends on what you believe,” wants to establish that moral truth entirely depends on moral belief.  We may dub such a person a “moral relativist,” since he wants to establish that moral truth is “relative” to, dependent on, entailed by, moral belief.   Beyond wanting to establish this dependency, he may want to publicize it, thinking that if more people realize that truth depends on belief, more people may be tolerant of others whose moral beliefs differ from their own:  “If moral truth just depends on what someone believes, who are you or I to say that what another person believes is wrong?” 

Thus, belief in relativism and belief in tolerance intermingle.  Moreover, by seeing the failure of the relativist’s argument for tolerance, we will see the failure of relativism in general—we will see that ‘It depends on what you believe’ is almost surely false.  So we begin with the argument for tolerance.

We should be tolerant, the relativist claims, because what is moral for one person is immoral for another.  (Similarly with cultures: What is moral for one culture is immoral for another.)  Now, how could that be?  How could an act be both moral and immoral?  The relativist answers with the argument below.  ‘X’ stands for some morally controversial act; Jones is a woman, Smith a man.
         1.         Jones believes that X is moral.
         2.         Therefore, X is moral for her.
         3         Smith believes that X is immoral.
         4.         Therefore, X is immoral for him.
         5.         Therefore, X is moral for her and X is immoral for him.
         6.         Therefore, X is both moral and immoral.
         7.         Therefore, morality is relative, and we should be tolerant of                   the views of both Jones and Smith.

(This reasoning can be reformulated for cultures, C1 and C2 replacing Jones and Smith.)

Does the relativist’s reasoning work? The crucial move is from 5 to 6.  If X is moral for her but immoral for him, the morality or immorality of X seems to be relative to the moral beliefs of different individuals.  6 seems to follow, preparing the way for the appealing advocacy of tolerance in 7.

5, however, lends less support to 6 than we might suppose.  The weakness of 5 concerns the seemingly innocent phrases, ‘for Jones’ and ‘for Smith’.  They are ambiguous.  (The problem of ambiguity in the two phrases is identical, so we will speak mainly of, ‘for Jones’ or ‘for her’.)

Before explaining the ambiguity of ‘for her’, we note three criteria that must be satisfied if 5 is to support 6.

First, 5 must be moral or prescriptive.  It must make a moral claim about some action, say X, either that X is moral or that X is immoral.  It must not merely describe the person who believes that X is moral or immoral.  If 5 merely describes Jones, it has failed to prescribe X.  This principle is the  “Prescription Criterion.”

Second, 5 must assert that X is moral for Jones precisely because Jones believes X is moral.  If it asserts instead that X is moral for Jones because Jones’s situation is such that she will benefit from X, then an objective reason has been given for claiming that X is moral.  That outcome will not accomplish what the relativist seeks, since he wants moral truth to depend on moral belief, not on any objective circumstances.  This principle is the “Belief Criterion.”

Finally, the statement must be true.  This principle is the “Truth Criterion.”  5 must be true (Truth Criterion), when 5 means that X is moral (Prescriptive Criterion) because—just because—Jones believes X is moral (Belief Criterion).  If Jones’s believing that X is moral does not make X moral, certainly 5 gives no support to 6.

Now we analyze 'for her’.  This seemingly simple prepositional phrase is actually ambiguous, susceptible of three interpretations.  Under each of the interpretations, two of the criteria are satisfied; but under none of the interpretations are all three criteria satisfied.  As we say in logic, the argument equivocates.  6 will emerge unsupported.

On the first interpretation, 'X is moral for her' means, 'X is moral for her in her opinion, or in her view, or from her perspective.'  This statement describes Jones; specifically, it describes one of her beliefs, it does not prescribe X.  Similar statements would be, 'The earth is a sphere for an astronaut in flight’; ‘the earth is a flat surface for someone lying on an airplane runway.'  Now, these statements do not assert that the earth is a sphere or that the earth is flat.  Rather, they describe someone's perception or opinion.  In the same way, this interpretation of 'X is moral for her' only describes Jones’s perception or opinion regarding the morality of X.  It can easily be true, so it could fulfill the Truth Condition; it is a claim regarding Jones's beliefs, so we may allow it to pass the Belief Criterion; but it fails to satisfy the Prescription Condition.  So far,
6 is unsupported

On the second interpretation, 'X is moral for her' means, 'X is moral for her given her circumstances, whether or not she believes that X is moral for her.  This statement is moral: It prescribes moral behavior for Jones.  It fulfills the Prescription Criterion.  Also, the statement is conceivably true: We can suppose that some actions are moral depending precisely on a person's particular circumstances.  So it may fulfill the Truth Criterion.  Now, however, the Belief Criterion is unfulfilled because the morality of X is based not on Jones’s belief that X is moral but rather on the objective circumstances of Jones's situation.  6 remains unsupported.

Finally, 'X is moral for her' might mean, 'X is moral for her, and it is moral for her just because it is moral in her opinion.'  Our chase nears its end.  Unlike the first interpretation, this interpretation is moral; and, unlike the second interpretation, the morality of X depends entirely on her belief that X is moral.  The Prescription Criterion and the Belief Criterion are both satisfied.

The problem now is the Truth Criterion:  Is it probable, even plausible, that this assertion is true?  The burden of proof would seem to be on the relativist since in other, non-moral, contexts, beliefs and truths are distinct, the former not entailing the latter.  A person’s belief that the earth is flat certainly does not make it true that the earth is flat.  What reason do we have to think that beliefs determine truths in moral contexts?  The relativist reasons in a circle if he answers, “Because, in the moral context, it does depend on what you believe,” since the question with which we began just is whether, in the moral context, ‘It depends on what you believe’. The desired conclusion may not serve as a premise in its own behalf.  As we say in logic, were the conclusion so used, the argument would beg the question.

In summary, the relativist has tried to show that an act can be both moral and immoral by offering the 6-step argument above.  If the crucial move, 5 to 6, is to work, 5 must satisfy three criteria simultaneously.  5 is ambiguous because ‘for Jones’, ‘for her’, ‘for Smith’, ‘for him’ are susceptible of three distinct meanings; and, regardless of how we interpret those phrases, no more than two criteria are ever satisfied.    Our analysis does not refute moral relativism conclusively, but it does show that a common argument supporting it fails through equivocation.

Relativism derives from a combination of noble motive and logical confusion.  Commendably, it urges tolerance.  Sadly, to the extent that anyone were to adopt relativism consistently, relativism would undermine that very tolerance; for if, indeed, moral belief did entail moral truth, the beliefs of racists, sexists, and other bigots would entail that intolerance would be as commendable as tolerance.  Precisely because intolerance is reprehensible, we have good grounds for concluding that, in the moral context, it does not depend on what you believe.