The Obligation to Believe

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Do we ever have an obligation to choose to hold beliefs, religious or otherwise? The relations between belief, volition and moral responsibility are the subject of William James' widely discussed essay ‘The Will to Believe’. James first takes up the relationship between volition and belief: Does it make sense to speak of choosing to believe a proposition? His answer is that it does, in the sense that we can choose to act in ways which encourage the production of a believing attitude in ourself. For example, we can be selective in attending to evidence, and we can incline ourselves toward belief by acting as though we already believe. By avoiding certain influences and subjecting ourself to others, we can encourage the development of belief. In so doing, we in effect treat ourself as a third person, and our behaviour is analogous to what we might engage in when encouraging others toward favourable evidence. The question of moral responsibility then becomes appropriate in our own case in a way analogous to that in which it does with respect to our belief-producing actions toward others. Just as the deception of others raises moral questions, so does the deception of ourselves.