The Immorality of “The Will to Believe”

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

William_James_b1842cWilliam James's classic essay, “The Will to Believe” purports to be a “justification of faith.” James's argument is driven by an analogy between, on the one hand, the activities of making friends and pursuing love interests and, on the other hand, that of sustaining religious commitment. The acceptability of James's analyses of the former is supposed to show that religious commitment is also acceptable. James's essay is notoriously convoluted, and thus widely criticized. The most frequent challenges to James's line of reasoning have fixed on the appropriateness of his leading analogy. The critic often accepts James's analysis of how to win friends and lovers, but then asks: How are friendships and romances at all like faith? Perhaps to the religiously committed the analogy is obviously too thin? We wouldn't know. So we propose a criticism that instead challenges James's account of how to form friendships and woo potential lovers. In a nutshell, James argues that religious commitment is justified even in the absence of decisive proof of the existence of a deity for the very same reason that, when trying to form a friendship or attract a lover, it is to one's benefit to assume that one's efforts toward achieving those ends will be successful. Your believing that the person you'd like as your friend or lover already likes you (or finds you attractive) can help to bring it about that you, indeed, are liked or found attractive. So James thinks it is with religious commitment: “faith in the fact can help create the fact,” he says. It is our contention that this line of reasoning yields a particularly noxious sense of entitlement in those who accept James's account; for this reason, James's views about friendships and romances are unacceptable. If these views are indeed analogues with religious commitment, it, too, is unacceptable.

James's argument draws on the observation that there are cases of what we may call doxastic efficacy, cases where it does seem that belief in advance of the requisite justification is instrumentally efficacious in making the belief true. When one adopts a belief for the sake of making that belief true, one thereby commits an act of assumption: one self-reflectively endorses holding a belief with the plan being that in holding the belief, one has reason to expect that one will behave in a way that will contribute to making the belief true.

Accordingly, in such cases, one adopts a confident attitude with the idea that, in being confident, one will act in a way that will bring success. Again, we needn't challenge the claim that there are genuine cases of doxastic efficacy. As athletes and other competitors will attest, believing that one will win is helpful in securing victory. The trouble with James's deployment of this idea is that every example he provides is morally abhorrent.

The trouble is obvious in the cases of friendship and romantic conquest. They both begin with the question: Do you like me or not? James proposes his view by way of a contrast with an opposing idea, namely the evidentialist view that one must suspend judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence. Scolding the evidentialist romancer, James asserts:

[I]f I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence . . . ten to one your liking never comes . . . . How many women's hearts are vanquished by the mere sanguine insistence of some man that they must love him!

James's thought is that if Andy seeks to woo Betty romantically, the belief that Betty is already romantically interested in me is doxastically efficacious for Andy, and so it is properly the target for an act of assumption on Andy's part. Andy should adopt the belief that Betty is romantically interested in him.

James recommends the same for the friendship-seeker. He writes:

The previous faith on my part in your liking's existence is in such cases what makes your liking come . . . . The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth's existence.

Again, the counsel is that because the belief is doxastically efficacious, if Andy wants Betty to be his friend, it is a winning strategy for Andy to form the belief that Betty will be my friend.

James offers the very same advice for those seeking a kind of practical success as well:

Who gains promotions, boons, appointments but the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live hypotheses, who … takes risk for them in advance? His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification.

The thought, again, is that acts of assumption assist in making themselves true. Believe that the promotion is yours, and you'll act like you deserve to be promoted. When you act like you deserve a promotion, you make a “claim” on those above you – they'll notice you and think you're deserving of a promotion. Then you're more likely to get the promotion. And it's all because you believed you'd get it in advance of the evidence!

What to make of this? To repeat, we leave aside the matter of James's defense of religious commitment by means of the supposed analogies; our concern rather is with the kind of advice he proffers to those seeking friends, lovers, and boons. His advice is absolutely terrible. There is a much better way to win friends: Make yourself worthy of friendship and honor the virtues that others embody and the aspirations they pursue. Rather than taking others to like you so that they may come to like you, perhaps you should focus on being someone they should like? If in the end they do not like you, well, the loss is theirs. In the case of romantic conquest, James's advice is more obviously ridiculous. James advises that in romance, one should be confident. But the idea that confidence is appealing does not seem right. Is there anything worse than the man who thinks he's such a prize that women cannot help but fall for him? In adopting his confident attitude, he performs an act of assumption, but it frequently yields contempt, not conviviality. Furthermore, it is easy to see a darker element of James's advice. When taken towards a stranger, “You must love me!” is a stalker's belief, as is the idea that the insistence on the matter helps. News flash, gentlemen: Perhaps the reason why you don't have evidence she likes you is because she doesn't. It hardly needs saying that these same points apply equally to the “promotions and boons.” Instead of focusing one's mind on the thought that they will come, one should focus on making oneself deserving of them.

What's missing from James's analyses of friendships, romances, and promotions is the thought that we ought to strive to make ourselves deserving of such goods. Indeed, one must wonder whether a friendship founded on Jamesian acts of assumption could possibly run deep or persist. One who sees his friendships as originating in a doxastically efficacious assumption rather than in the effort to deserve others' friendship is likely to lose out on the distinctive goods that strong friendships deliver. This is even more obvious in the case of lovers: Were Andy to attribute his romance with Betty to his early adoption of a confident, insistent strategy, he surely misses the whole point of love. And he misses the goods as well.

James's defense of religious commitment runs centrally on an analogy with his analyses of friendship and romance. These analyses arguably misconstrue the very nature of friendship and love. In fact, those following the Jamesian analyses seem doomed to shallow friendships and superficial romances. One should expect the version of religious commitment James defense to be similarly trivial.