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Michael Huemer on Thought Crime
How does it emerge?
Michael Huemer has a meditation on the phenomenon of thought crimes. A thought crime emerges when one group of people decides that if a person is suspected of believing X, then that person should be punished.
the status of ‘thought crime’ does not in general attach to beliefs that are so conclusively refuted that anyone who investigates carefully will reject them. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite. It is precisely because epistemic reasons do not suffice to convince everyone of your belief that you attempt to convince them through moral exhortation. When the plea “Believe P because the evidence demonstrates it!” fails, then we resort to “Believe P because it is immoral to doubt it!” Indeed, you might reasonably take someone’s resort to moral exhortation as pretty strong evidence that they have a weak case, and they know it.
Calling something a thought-crime is a dominance move. It is coercive. You only have to coerce someone if you cannot convince the person voluntarily. If X is demonstrably false, then you should be able to convince someone voluntarily not to believe X. It is only if X is plausibly true, or ambiguous, that you have to resort to coercion.
This makes the accusation of thought-crime highly suspect. The more that you try to force me to believe that the virus could not have come from a lab, the more suspicious I become.
This leads to the question of why people come to believe ambiguous statements so strongly that they are willing to punish people who question them. Huemer writes,
We have a natural, genetically based tendency to share our beliefs with each other, and to absorb the beliefs and practices of others. If we had to wait till we had sufficient epistemic justification to believe what other people tell us, a lot of people would die during childhood.
The system is flawed because, in addition to transmitting useful information about the environment and successful practices, it also lets humans transmit erroneous, useless, and even harmful ideas. People sometimes acquire such ideas, whether through random error, motivated reasoning, or psychological disorders. They then sometimes transmit these ideas to other people, using the natural human tendency to trust one another’s words.
Most such erroneous ideas quickly die out. But occasionally a set of ideas appears that has enough mechanisms for encouraging its own reproduction and preventing itself from being criticized that it persists for long periods of time.
I did not find this explanation convincing. I do not think that there is something intrinsic to belief X that makes people want to punish unbelievers. I think instead that thought-crimes emerge on the basis of elite insecurity. When an elite group feels it is getting the deference it deserves, it will allow you to question its beliefs. But when an elite feels insecure, it draws up a defensive perimeter around its beliefs. An insecure elite makes makes unbelief a thought-crime.
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.
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