Customary Beliefs

'The study of past times and uncivilized races makes it clear beyond question that the customary beliefs of tribes or nations are almost invariably false. It is difficult to divest ourselves completely of the customary beliefs of our own age and nation, but it is not very difficult to achieve a certain degree of doubt in regard to them. The Inquisitor who burnt men at the stake was acting with true humanity if all his beliefs were correct; but if they were in error at any point, he was inflicting a wholly unnecessary cruelty. A good working maxim in such matters is this: Do not trust customary beliefs so far as to perform actions which must be disastrous unless the beliefs in question are wholly true.'

Bertrand Russell, Individual Liberty and Public Control

Comments

Komal said…
"The Inquisitor who burnt men at the stake was acting with true humanity if all his beliefs were correct..."

I disagree with this. There are hardly any beliefs that can justify burning somebody at the stake. Even if his beliefs were true he would not have been acting with true humanity.

In face it is not beliefs, but the state of a person's affect that determines their willingness to engage in cruelty. Ignoble and cruel people tend to manifest their beliefs in ignoble and cruel ways, whereas compassionate and stoic people do not.
Komal said…
Corrections:

* Even if the Inquisitor's beliefs were true he would not have been acting with true humanity.

* In fact it is not beliefs, but the state of a person's affect that determines his willingness to engage in cruelty.
meera said…
Russell tells us to doubt the correctness of our beliefs (customary here) before putting them into action. Doubt one always can like he says - but the inherent correctness or falsity of a belief is not knowable by mere doubting since beliefs are ghosts till they are tested and put into action for results. The surety with which he announces that the customary beliefs of tribes or nations are almost invariably false is based on the expiry of these events in history whose results can be studied and not because of the intellect using its scalpel of doubt to dissect and study the future outcomes of such beliefs. Nevertheless, one do has to agree with Russell that doubt as a mechanism is very helpful when customary beliefs appear to lack common sense utterly when applied in action (like in many religious injunctions).

Russell's choice of the example of Inquisition (though a bad example) only verifies his theory that if one does not doubt adequately one's beliefs one ends up indulging in unpardonable cruelties such as the Inquisition. This is exactly what he deduces through his bad example. But one has to disagree with him about knowing a belief's truth value a priori. It is not possible. Finally, if the tail-end of the maxim is chopped a bit, it becomes good for many to follow since the stress will then be on examining the direct result of foolish and dreadful actions (like burning people in this instance) and not on the underlying beliefs that indirectly push one to effect those actions.

@ Komal: Ignoble and cruel people tend to manifest their beliefs in ignoble and cruel ways, whereas compassionate and stoic people do not. Perfect expression!
Awais Aftab said…
It was an advice for my religious friends :)

What Russell is saying that: If your belief leads to an action which would be disastrous, then it is good reason to be doubtful of that.

For example, if some Muslim believes that God commands that an apostate ought to be killed, then if he is correct, he is doing God's bidding by killing an apostate, but if he is wrong, then he is doing something really horrible and evil.

So, the point was that before you set out to act on your belief, just think for a moment "What if i am wrong? Would the consequences be disastrous if i am wrong?" And if the consequences would be disastrous, then you ought to treat your belief with doubt.
Meera said…
@Awais

It was an advice for my religious friends :)

Righto! I understand this and also, Russell’s passage is mainly for those ignorant zealots (who surprisingly still thrive in a modern age) who are incapable of basic scrutiny of beliefs that even a rock is capable of.

What Russell is saying that: If your belief leads to an action which would be disastrous, then it is good reason to be doubtful of that.

I don't think so. What Russell is saying is this: Unless you are convinced that your belief is true, do not perform a disastrous action. How exactly does one get to test the correctness of one's belief according to Russell? This is why I recommend once again as I recommended last time that the maxim be shortened to this: “Do not trust customary beliefs so far as to perform actions which must be disastrous. Period.” This maxim will not allow for the correctness or incorrectness of a belief to dictate a disastrous action and it will still be a good advice for your religious friends :D
puzzled said…
“Do not trust customary beliefs so far as to perform actions which must be disastrous."
you have a reason to be impressed of this guy Russels
How can be a religion from the God who created us, can turn us against each other and take freedom away from us while he himself has given it to us.
Meera said…
@puzzled

Not all you find in religion has come from God. This much has to be grasped well. And it is not religion per se that takes away the freedom from us. It is the dross, the poison, the obscurity, the darkness, the pettiness, the intolerance, the apartheid, the animosity and other such negative attributes induced by some men over the ages in some tenets - that can dangerously find permanence in obtuse religious minds in the name of God - that collectively owe to the discord and lack of freedom that you talk of. There are certainly concepts of grandness, beauty and freedom in religious teachings too but not many will be able to stand up to this challenge since human nature is not accustomed to gravitate towards grandness or beauty or true freedom as easily as it does towards mental pettiness and poverty (which is abundant everywhere).
Awais Aftab said…
No, Meera. You are misreading Russell.

Russell is not saying "Unless you are convinced that your belief is true, do not perform a disastrous action."

The 'unless the beliefs in questions are wholly true' refers to the action being disastrous, not to the 'do not trust customary beliefs' part.

What he is saying is "Do not perform an action whose consequences would be disastrous if it turns out that you are wrong in your belief." And I explained it with that apostasy example. A Muslim who believes in killing an apostate sees this action as following God's commandment and not as something disastrous. However, if he is wrong (which he is) the action is disastrous. A person can only realize the disastrous consequences of his beliefs if he takes a step back to think "What if I am wrong?", because otherwise the belief blinds him.

I agree with you that the maxim be shortened to: “Do not trust customary beliefs so far as to perform actions which must be disastrous. Period.” However, not because the previous maxim allowed for correctness or incorrectness of a belief to dictate a disastrous action, but because this one is not likely to be misread like the previous one :)
Meera said…
Hey Awais

I still do not understand how Russell's statement "Do not trust customary beliefs so far as to perform actions which must be disastrous unless the beliefs in question are wholly true" is not equivalent to my statement "Unless you are convinced that your belief is true, do not perform a disastrous action." They so much appear the same to me.

A belief's veracity cannot be tested except by the one who believes in it. Let me explain why. Consider your example of a muslim who is commanded by God to kill an apostate. The belief here is that the muslim was commanded by God. The disastrous consequence of it is that a person who happened to be an apostate was killed unjustly. Now who here can raise his hand up and say for sure that the belief is false or true? Who can surely declare "I know he was not commanded by God" or "I know he was indeed commanded by God". None can. Since a belief of one mind cannot be evaluated by another mind. But the consequence of this belief is for all to see. An unjustified murder. Which, in Russell's terms, is a disastrous consequence. Hence, I repeat again, that it is not the correctness or incorrectness of a belief (which cannot be verified by doubt) but effect of its action, which can be adequately scrutinized by doubt, that should be the sole and primary reason why its parent belief need to stemmed in the bud.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Meera

Regardless of our difference in interpretation of what Russell intends to say, we are at an agreement. I agree with what you say (which is also equivalent to my interpretation of Russell.) "It is not the correctness or incorrectness of a belief (which cannot be verified by doubt) but effect of its action, which can be adequately scrutinized by doubt, that should be the sole and primary reason why its parent belief need to stemmed in the bud."