ECHR Rulings: Keeping the Faith

I’m going a bit off-topic with this, I think, but John Coggon’s reply to today’s earlier post has got me thinking.  His reply pointed out that

[i]t might be worth noting that Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (presumably the key right under issue) states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

This has got me thinking about the nature of that supposed right. Note that the right is to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; that isn’t quite the same as a right to belief.  Nor, as far as I can see, could there be a right to believe anything, and when we say that a person has a right to his beliefs, I think we must be mistaken.

Why?  Well, quite simply because those beliefs, whatever they are, could be mistaken, and there’s something odd about saying that a person has a right to mistaken or false beliefs.  Suppose, for example, that you believe that Pythagoras’ theorem states that the square of the hypoteneuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the cubes of the other two sides.  I attempt to change your mind by demonstrating the falsity of your belief.  If you have a right to your belief, then I’ve thereby wronged you; and that looks absurd.  So we have to ditch the idea that you have a right to a belief.  And I can’t see why there should be different rules for different kinds of belief: if Smith can show Jones’ belief to be false, then it doesn’t make much sense for Jones to say that he has a right to keep hold of that belief all the same.

So far so good, and so far so falsificationist.  I think, though, that we can go further.  Suppose I am able not only to show that your belief is false, but that another claim is true – for example, I’ve got the mathematical know-how to demonstrate a more conventional version of Pythagoras: perhaps I could do this mathematically, or perhaps by cutting up various bits of paper into the right shapes and reassembling them.  In that sort of case, I think that you ought not only to ditch your old belief, but that you ought to adopt a new one.  That is, granted that there’s at least a passing resemblance between what we ought to do and what we have a duty to do, there’s some sort of duty to abandon old beliefs when a better one is encountered.  And, again, I can’t see why mathematical truths are special here: if I can prove (and you accept the validity of my reasoning) a statement in any field, I think you ought to believe it; and if I can’t prove it, but can provide a better reason to believe that statement than not to, then you ought to address your beliefs to that, as well.

Whatever: the idea that you have a right to your beliefs is weird – but now it looks like “freedom” of thought has to be reconceptualised wholesale.  If we ought to believe the best available arguments and ought to believe proofs – which seems correct – and if we have a right to freedom of thought, then that freedom can’t be the liberty to believe whatever we damned well want: it has to be a freedom within certain limits.  Plausibly, those limits are set by some standard of the best available evidence and – perhaps more importantly – the best available reasoning (since reason itself can count as evidence).

This looks like a very Kantian account, both because of the close relationship between what we’re free to do and what we ought to do – Kant would deny that there’s a difference – and because of the way that “thinkability” constrains and defines intellectual freedom.

I’m not sure if I’ve missed something here – but, if my hunch is correct, then the interpretation of Article 9 rights to freedom of belief might be up for grabs.  I think I feel a paper coming on.

  • Keith Tayler

    You appear to be raising the rights nonsense onto some very high stilts. Certainly it is nonsense to say “I have a right to believe 2+2=5”, but it can be very dangerous nonsense to say “you have no right to believe 2+2=5.” Isaiah Berlin spent a great deal of time describing the dangerous nonsense.

    I think the Article 9 rights to freedom of belief have already been grabbed. As John Coggon points out, the “rights” can be removed by the state on just about any and all grounds. The UK government has a long tract record of removing rights from the ECHR. Jacqui Smith’s 2001 letter to the Joint Committee On Human Rights is a classic. If you were a psychiatrist and you decided that someone who said they had a right to believe 2+2=5 had a ’mental disorder’, you could forcibly “treat” them and they, according to Smith, would have no Article 8 (Right to respect for private and family life) defence because of the state’s “interest in public safety.” So the right to freedom of belief has already been removed by ’experts’. The problem of expert knowledge is of course the Kantian ‘problem’ that Berlin so ably exposed.

  • Keith Tayler

    Sorry – I meant Article 5 not 8. Wrong glasses – seeing 5 as 8.

  • Keith:

    but it can be very dangerous nonsense to say “you have no right to believe 2+2=5.

    Perhaps – but “can be dangerous” does not amount to “is dangerous”. As for the nonsense, claim: I don’t buy it. The reasoning behind both these statements is the same, and it’s that I don’t accept that anyone has a right to any belief, just because there’s always a bare possibility that it’s wrong. Even a mathematical “proof” that everyone accepts might turn out to rely on a mistake in number theory that noone’s noticed until now, however unlikely that is. Moreover, recognising fallibility is a guard against the kind of thing that worried Berlin. If we all recognise that there is no right to believe what we believe, then we can still have a constructive argument. Indeed, we might be more likely to have one.

  • Keith Tayler

    To say you have a “right” to believe that 2+2=4 or indeed that 2=2=5 is nonsense. We need go no further than the content of the thought itself. The only place for rights is when an authority claims you must not believe 2+2=5 or (more Orwellian) that you must believe 2+2=5. But again, it is the content of the thought itself that has the last word. O’Brien had to get Winston to “see” five fingers where there were four; it was no enough that Winston should be prohibitied from saying there were four.

    In logic there is only the content of the thought; but even in ethics it is the content of the thought that counts. Rights are for the most part nonsense and should be avoided.

    Anyway, I think you are mistaken but I will defend your right to your belief.

  • Rights are for the most part nonsense and should be avoided.
    Absolutely. I have to agree with that unfashionable sentiment, I think.

    Anyway, I think you are mistaken but I will defend your right to your belief.
    Nooooooo! Give it the kicking it probably deserves. And in the name of collegiality and scholarly respect, I’ll do the same right back atcha!

  • Keith Tayler

    My “defend your right to your belief” remark should be qualified. I do expect everyone to argue their beliefs. I broadly support the Toulmin. Apel and Habermas theory of ‘discourse’. Unlike the earlier Habermas I think reason has its limits (Williams comes in here), and take a pluralist position more in line with McCathy. That leaves me with a Kantian ‘better argument’ position but with some limits placed upon reason. Like Williams (and Wittgenstein) I am against theory; a point Habermas can never quite understand (he did say that it was a shame Witts never developed ‘language games’ into a theory!).

    So that is doing philosophy by names (saves time). It means I am in agreement with you in terms of the ‘better argument’ principle, but do not see that rights argument help beyond the ‘rights’ to enter discourse and be heard, etc., etc..

  • Medical Ethics

    Abu is a grown up man and a father of two kids lives in Bristol Ct USA and recently he met a young girl whose name is Mary at six flags New England amusement park of Massachusetts . Mary is a medical student and very happy to have a child. She is having a test-tube baby from a medical lab that stores and sells and fertilized human eggs. A long time ago Mary’s grandfather who was also a medical doctor donated the embryo for someone who can have a child and now grand daughter Mary is having her grandfather’s eggs to produce a human child in an educated society.

    The moral question is what is the relation between Mary and the child?

    There are many donors who passed away but there embryos (eggs) are wetting for buyers to change wisdom of God (Rab) and system of psych. Medical ethics and moral family values are in danger in the United State of America and in the European countries due to lack of wisdom . Wisdom of humane life is the quality that separates animals from human beings. It is a state of living that marked especially by understanding of Supreme Being for human beings.

    Blessing on humanity (Rabi) from Mehdi (Imam) and Adam (Jesus) the father and the son with Holy Spirit!

    The global women health and education crisis is the result of Christian ethics of distributing education, ethics and moral values unequally. We know that the “God save the queen and queen save the world if queen is humane ” The problem is when someone uneducated and dusk colored like me tries to prove something it is called delusion and the same product gets new name and introduced by some privileged member of Christianity called illusion.

    Human faith religion starts from the premise of humanity which is more than a physical face and biological organism. It is a wisdom that can only be obtained from the nature of God (Rab). It is a stage of awareness where purity of living in the physical senses without bias. Humanity is theological evolution and logical process of supernatural system of Supreme Being, the theory of human faith religious is philosophy to evolve that human embryology is theological evolution and consciousness of supreme power.

    Mary reminded Abu of his childhood days in Multan Pakistan where Quasar- E- Batool ( Mother ) is the central point of humanity. The City of Saint human faith thought Abu that materialistic stress for mental development of a child can produce an educated human with spiritual sense of awareness that child becomes humane.
    Abu came home from the amusement park to Bristol that evening, prayed to his God (Rab) and asked heavenly light, what is wisdom?

    The answer was, ability to see beneath the surface of life and death.

    Human faith teaches not only moral values it can give realistic purpose of achieving complete fulfillment of internal life. Our method of understanding both the universe and life is based on unlimited confidence in individual by teaching respect of human life and God (Rab-Ul-Aalameen).

    Human faith is Mehdi’s and Adam’s monotheistic faith and knows that God is the creator and overseer of the universe at all the time and all matters. Saint Human Faith and Adam (Jesus) the father and son do not support culture of
    Drug users ,
    Money lover ,
    Thieves ,
    Gamblers ,
    The waves of fresh air with small particles full of wisdom and oxygen of (Rabi) are in the air it is just matter of time when they touch the brain to change the heart. Human Faith is heavenly light of knowledge restriction on sacred light is eclipse on humanity and blasphemy. The Divine Affirmations of human faith are the commandment of God (Rab) of Humanity (Rabi). The crime against the Divine laws is blasphemy and great disrespect for our God (Rab) of humanity (Rabi).

    The last eclipse on Moon was in 2008 and the last eclipse of Sun will change ecological system of balance and chemistry of nature . It is time to educate our self about environment and realty of life.
    There are no words can express the wisdom of God (Rab) , God is Knowledge, God is freedom ,God is light, God is Life, God is Love.