Harmful Beliefs

In Philosophy, Politics by J Michel Metz2 Comments

Given that Quora has been acting really bizarre lately (they’ve started going through my listed credentials and are marking most of them as “needing revision”), it seems like it’s probably a wise idea to make a backup. It would not surprise me if they delete this as well.

What is the best way to tell someone that their beliefs are harmful to others?

Beware the eye tornado! Harmful!

Probably the same as the best way to say that someone’s blinking their eyes makes enough wind to cause asthmatic reactions.

In other words, there is no ‘best way’ to tell someone – outside of outright being humorous – that their beliefs are harmful.

You are not harmed by anyone’s beliefs. It is none of your business what someone else believes. No matter how logical, emotional, crazy, sane, offensive, outlandish, or bizarre someone’s beliefs are – they have no impact on you.

You can be harmed by someone’s behavior, not their beliefs. In fact, it makes no difference if someone attacks you because they’re simply mean people versus having some sort of belief structure behind it. You’re still attacked, and you still have the right to defend yourself.

You should not be in the habit of trying to mind-read people. First, it will drive you
crazy, trying to examine every single person you meet and determine whether or not what’s going on through their mind is harmful to you or not. Second, such behavior (of mind reading) is actually harmful to others, and you should not be engaging in behavior that is harmful to others. Right?

Beliefs and Speech

So, here we get to what the crux of the issue is, perhaps. If you say that beliefs are harmful, then the expression of those beliefs acts as “harmful behavior.”

Think about it. If I hold a belief that you don’t like, but I never mention or indicate what they are, nor act upon those beliefs, how can you claim harm? You don’t even know what those beliefs are. It’s only when – somehow – you become aware of those beliefs can you make such a claim. The beliefs themselves, however, can not – and do not – harm you simply by their existence.

It’s a twisted, retro-active tautological fallacy (a tautology is an assertion that is true in every possible situation). Because of this recent press for the suppression of free speech, in order to justify such an action means that you must criminalize the belief structures as they come before speech. If beliefs are criminal, then the subsequent actions would also be criminal. (Causing harm is a prima facie criminal act).

In other words, if there is something that you don’t want to hear, you can’t just say that the words can’t be said, you have to go a step backwards and de-legitimize the motivation behind the words, and then another step backwards and de-legitimize the belief system. Then you can work your way forwards and show a “line of succession”, fruit-from-the-poison-tree association.

This all comes from the fallacious notion that people have a right to “not be offended.” They want, very much, for this to be true, but there is no logical way to defend such a position except for working their way backwards in this fashion.

Is This What You Want Anyway?

Let’s go back to the fact that beliefs are none of your business for a moment. The same is absolutely true about your beliefs – they are nobody’s business but your own.

The question therefore becomes, even if someone were to show – convincingly – that beliefs were harmful, how precisely would someone actively remedy this situation? As I showed above, if that person simply never expresses those beliefs, how can you stop being harmed until they show – proactively – that they no longer have those beliefs?

If, for instance, I told you that it is harmful that you have the belief that you claim the right to mind read and coerce the change in beliefs in others, what would you do? Your very act to act as Thought Police is something that many people find hurtful, harmful, and dangerous. You should stop now.

Could you? Would you be able to say, “Holy crap, I didn’t know that this belief was harmful. I need to change this belief immediately!”?

If you could do that, would it really be a belief?

What if you simply walked around and kept that thought to yourself? Well, crap, according to your logic, you are still causing harm. But nobody knows about it? Doesn’t matter. You are still a walking, talking, moving hurtful person (according to this logic).

Even if you never mention it again, but you believe that people who have harmful beliefs – and you do have harmful beliefs yourself – how can you possibly live with yourself, knowing that just by existing you are putting people in harm’s way?

The Greater Good

The only logical remedy for this conundrum is to realize that beliefs – no matter what they are – are sacrosanct to the individual. No person, no group, no movement, can lay claim to your own personal thoughts and beliefs. They are off-limits for “the greater good.”

The same goes for speech. Speech is a manifestation of thought and beliefs. A street preacher’s bizarre prediction for the end of the world is utterly harmless if he is ignored. The Westboro Baptist Church has no power if people simply walk away. Someone wearing a MAGA hat or holding up an anti-abortion poster – simply being in your field of view – is not going to change the course of your day unless you let them.

It’s only when these activities turn into actions that they become harmful. If someone starts attacking young women on their way into an abortion clinic, then you can legitimately claim harm. If someone tries to force you to wear a MAGA hat, then you can claim assault. If the WBC blocks your way into your place of business or a cemetery, you can claim harm based upon their actions.

Remember – Black Lives Matter uses similar tactics (lying down in the middle of highways, blocking ingress/egress). One is not more or less offensive for the same action simply based upon their beliefs. Pro-Choice supporters have physically attacked Pro-Life protesters but are no less wrong just because their beliefs are different.

In other words, just like your beliefs do not grant you immunity from bad behavior, so too your beliefs do not automatically harm others for being unpopular.

Your beliefs are not, and should not be, governed by committee.


  1. This is an unhealthy oversimplification of belief built upon a dizzying array of questionable presuppositions about belief itself.

    Beliefs are rarely wholly unique to an individual and rarely exist in isolation. Dare I say more rare than a black swan. Quite the straw man you’ve built here.

    I would challenge you to find a single belief…just one…that you currently hold that does not, in any way, shape or form influence, guide, or otherwise drive…directly or indirectly…the way in which you interact with the world around you.

    That a vast majority of people are poorly equipped to map out for you the impact of your beliefs on those around you should not be misunderstood to mean that there’s no relationship between the two.

    Your behaviors are guided by a vast network of interdependent presuppositions, attitudes and beliefs–implicit and explicit–residing between and beyond your ears….presuppositions, attitudes and beliefs you didn’t simply conjure from the ether on your own. From birth you have grown to take your place as but one node in a vast network of these shared beliefs.

    Even on the extraordinarily remote chance that you hold a belief upon which you have not personally acted–directly or indirectly–you cannot say the same for all people who share that belief.

    I’m quite certain more than a few Germans who harbored ill feelings toward Jews didn’t directly take part in their persecution. After all, they may have reasoned, it’s just a belief upon which they have not personally acted…what is the harm in that? However they did take part, we might say indirectly, by allowing others who shared their beliefs (and who acted upon them) to go unchecked and unpunished.

    I’ll stop here. I need not eviscerate your entire post. I “believe” I’ve made my point. Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to re-evaluate your beliefs about belief.

    1. Author

      Excellent. Excellent! I always love spirited debate, and you have provided a lot of fodder. Thanks for writing in!

      I’m extremely glad that you’ve provided some interesting examples and managed to avoid the ad hominem. This is a rare bonus, indeed.

      Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t a few editorial declarations that have been unsupported (e.g., “straw man”), but we can work around those.

      “I would challenge you to find a single belief…just one…that you currently hold that does not, in any way, shape or form influence, guide, or otherwise drive…directly or indirectly…the way in which you interact with the world around you. “

      Fortunately, that is not the question at hand. The question is not whether the strata of beliefs necessarily guide your actions or behaviors, which they don’t. For instance, my belief that there is no teapot orbiting Pluto does not affect nor influence my behavior at all, nor does my belief (whatever it may be) in a higher deity necessitate that I react or behave in a certain way.

      This is not to say that a belief structure or system doesn’t guide (or predict) a world view, and then fromt here lead individuals to behave in certain ways. But the question at hand is whether or not those beliefs – themselves – cause harm. My belief (or not) in little green men living in outer space cannot harm someone who believes the exact opposite, unless I try to phhysically force that person to agree with my perspective.

      “…should not be misunderstood to mean that there’s no relationship between the two.”

      This seems as good a time as any to remind you that correlation does not (and should not) imply causation.

      “…From birth you have grown to take your place as but one node in a vast network of these shared beliefs.”

      From a particular perspective, this is correct. This is not, however, the perspective from the individual (the node in your analogy). What you are talking about, however, is a rudimentary form of how beliefs are generated and maintained – a valuable philosophical conversation, but a conversation outside the scope of the question at hand, nevertheless.

      Here, however, we get to the example that at least addresses the question at hand:

      “I’m quite certain more than a few Germans who harbored ill feelings toward Jews didn’t directly take part in their persecution. After all, they may have reasoned, it’s just a belief upon which they have not personally acted…what is the harm in that? ”

      This is true. What is the harm in that? Your argument falls into the same “Hateful Speech” category. (Need I actually make the comment that I find such acts and beliefs as reprehensible? I suppose I must.)

      It is important to understand where the genesis of harm is, here. Representatives Omar and Tlaib hold the exact same beliefs as those Germans that you describe. Their views – like those of the Germans – are reprehensible to me. The voters who put them into office, and the college students who seem to agree with them, also fall into that category. But so far aside from saying some really stupid and asinine things, those beliefs have not actually harmed anyone. No one has been imprisoned or put into camps by their beliefs. Those beliefs, so far, have not been followed up by action.

      It has, of course, created warning signs from which behaviors and actions could arise, and therefore it is worth paying close attention to people who do act upon those beliefs, like the aforementioned students who have been actively lobbying for anti-Israel boycotts, or like the morons in San Antonio (and other universities) who want to punish Chik-Fil-A for the beliefs of its CEO. Those are actions, and those can be harmful. But until San Antonio started messing with contracts, and until these university students started passing resolutions, their beliefs were just spinning in the wind and there was no actual harm done.

      Just because you don’t like what someone beliefs does not mean you are caused harm.

      To your point, there were Germans who harbored ill feelings towards the Jews (which are not beliefs, but rather stem from beliefs). They may have even disagreed with the policies and actions of the Reich. Having those two beliefs – while related to Jews yet are contradictory – can be held at the same time. Why would one be harmful and the other not?

      It is a stretch to say that it is the beliefs that caused the harm (by inaction), rather than the inaction itself. You have the double burden of not only showing that every individual’s inaction caused harm (because we are talking about individual beliefs here, not a collection of beliefs held by a society en masse), but also showing that the beliefs themselves drove them to inaction. In the German case, specifically, whatever beliefs someone may or may not have had could have been overridden by a natural state of fear for actively speaking out.

      Moreover, it is only in retrospect that we can say that such inaction actually potentially caused harm – at the time of a single instance of behavior against Jewish people could have been just that – a single instance. If there had never been another action taken against Jewish people in Germany, how could you have measured the supposed harm caused by those beliefs?

      How about a more modern example? Antifa uses the exact same tactics in Portland and Berkeley as the brownshirts. Even if you agree with their beliefs, do you agree with their tactics of pulling old men out of their cars and beating them? Do you believe, as they do, that crushing the skulls of random people with bike locks is a valid expression of dissent? If you don’t – and I hope that you don’t – are you complicit in the bike-lock-skull-crushing by not going to Berkeley or Portland and personally stopping the mobs?

      The answer – to me – is a resounding ‘no.’ No one is responsible for the actions of anyone else. Even those who agree with the philosophy of Antifa can not be, and should not be, held accountable for their actions, no matter how aligned the beliefs are.

      There are those who hold those beliefs, but determine that there are other, more sane ways of being able to channel those beliefs into constructive behavior. Reasoned debate is one way. Discussion and collaboration is a time-honored tradition in being able to share and disseminate beliefs without causing harm.

      The reason for this is very simple: unstable or poorly grounded beliefs can only be modified through discourse. A belief cannot be harmful in and of itself, because there would be no way to counter or modify that belief (as they tend to be more fluid than static objects) before it got to that state, otherwise. In other words, there would be no way to determine in advance if a belief is going to be harmful before it is established.

      Moreover, there is still the burden of proof that has to be shown that the belief is, actually, harmful. You still need to be able to show how the belief – just by itself – causes harm. While I agree with you that beliefs guide your behaviors and actions, as I said before you can hold a belief and choose not to act upon it. No one even know your belief or belief system unless you actively share it.

      (Sadly, any example I could give of a secret belief that I, myself, hold would immediately negate the idea of a secret belief, so I’m stuck in a catch-22). 🙂

      Your homework – should you choose to accept it – is to show the mechanics precisely how an individual’s belief – in and of itself – causes harm. Actual, tangible, measurable harm. Not a harm of omission of action, mind you, but active harm against others.

      Thanks for the great entry!

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