It’s Fun To Do Bad Things

The great sage Oprah Winfrey says that the #6 thing that she knows for sure is “what you believe has more power thsn what you dream or wish or hope for. You become what you believe”. One morning, while I was eating my bowl of peanut butter crunch, I watched the local news cover a story about a little boy who, along with his little kid buddy, stole his grandmother’s car and went for a joyride. Eventually, the pair was stopped by the local fuzz. When the boy was questioned as to what possessed him to take his grandma’s car, he simply stated, “It’s fun to do bad things”. It amazed me that a seven year old kid had already come to the revelation that it iis, indeed fun to do bad things. This is what this kid believes. If you ask a psychiatrist, they’ll try to convince you that, by the time that a child reaches the age of seven, a professional mind shrinker can tell which children are destined for a life of crime. That’s what they say. I usually take such forecasts with a grain of salt. But in the case of that kid, I wholeheartedly believed that that kid was going to end up in the poke much sooner than later. After I stopped laughing about a seven year old child declaring that doing bad things is “fun”, I thought, ‘wait a minute. This kid stated a belief. He said that he believes that it is fun to do bad things!’. Obviously, most people would find something wrong about what the kid said. But why? Then I thought about Oprah’s #6 thing she knows for sure. It strikes us as wrong because we believe, although we do not often expressly say so, that what we believe has to do with who we are. Who we are, in turn, affects how we act. In short, what we believe affects how we act. When we say that we believe any thing (a proposition, an idea, etc), we often ask why do we believe one thing as opposed to another. What we are looking for when we ask this question of ourselves is a reason why we would accept a particular belief as true. We want justification for our beliefs. If our beliefs are justified, we are entitled to hold them. We think that our justified beliefs are true or more than likely to be true than not. This is essentially what Oprah is saying when she says that a belief “has more power” than a wish or hope. We often wish or hope for things that we know are based on shoddy evidence. Wishes and hopes often are unrealistic. (I was going to give an example concerning a wish and why I became a philosophy major, but I don’t think that to reveal it here would be appropriate. But trust me, it was very unrealistic). Beliefs carry an idea of truth, or that they represent some thing in the real world. If we look at the matter psychologically, we know the axiom that we become what we believe (unless you’re Andy Warhol, and you believe that we become what other people think that we are). So, if what we believe (by way of justification) is true (or more likely to be true — perhaps necessarily so), then what we believe has power. So say, that I believe that it is fun to do bad things. What’s the problem with believing that? I say that I am not a philosopher, not interested in philosophy (it’s a bunch of bullshit anyway), and that whether or not I hold justified beliefs is of no consequence. In the real world, I say, none of that philosophy crap really matters. So there. If I say to the epistemologist that I don’t care about justifying my beliefs, can he still “get” me on what I believe? Am I still committing a wrong in believing that it’s fun to do bad things? Unfortunately he can. The thing is, is that when we consider our beliefs, actions, etc, from a philosophical point of view, we rarely look at it from one side. That is to say, our beliefs in God and the afterlife are rarely strictly ontological issues. Our belief or lack of a belief in a supreme deity affects our moral choices as well. Likewise, our beliefs and whether we are justified in believing them not only carry an epistemic burden, but also a moral burden as well. What we believe affects how we act, and how we act is a question of morality. If we look at Oprah’s statement, “what you believe has more power…”, and we think about what we think of when we use words like “power”, it’s easy to see that words like “power” have moral implications. If we are going to endow something with force, it must not only be epistemically accounted for, but morally justified as well. Our actions carry force. When we act, we affect not just ourselves, but others. A child who goes for a joyride in his grandmother’s car affected (and potentially affected) the lives of all of those who were involved: the children, the grandmother, the police who chased the duo, anybody on the street who may have been hit during the chase, and so on. When those childern took the car, they were not only acting physically, but morally. A better example of how this works is William Clifford’s story of the shipowner who reasoned that his ship was seaworthy despite the fact that his ship was old, needed repairs, and had always made it back home. The shipowner believed that his ship was safe in the face of evidence that it was not. As expected, the ship sank, and people were killed. The shipowner was not only unjustified epistemically, he had committed a moral wrong for believing that his ship was seaworthy when it was not. The shipowner, according to Clifford, had no justification for believing that the ship would sail without incident. He had based his wrong belief on inadequate evidence (namely that his ship needed repairs and was old…). If asked, he could offer us no good reason why he believed his ship could make the journey. So, Clifford says, the act of believing in a wrong belief is wrong. This is, because what we believe leads to action. Clifford says, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”. I think that what Clifford says is true. If the way or what I believe is connected to how I act, then is I believe in things that are wrong, I am certain to act accordingly. My neighbor sometimes stands on her driveway and stares down the neighborhood. If I were the paranoid type, I could believe that my neighbor is stalking me. But, other than the fact that I see my neighbor standing on her driveway, do I have evidence for believing that she is indeed stalking me? No. Not really. Besides the fact that she can make an equal claim about my always staring at her (after all, how would I know that she’s always looking at my house if I’m not also staring at hers?), I have no compelling evidence that she’s maddogging me and what I do. What I found more amazing is the fact that Hollywood is filled with Clifford-esque situations! I was watching the movie Jaws last Saturday. I know that Beetlejuice said that The Exorcist gets funnier with each viewing, but my choice is definitely Jaws. That whole Quint telling the story about the USS Indianapolis being torpedoed and the survivors getting eaten by sharks is just plain funny. Don’t get me wrong, it is a horrific story, but the whole Jack Sparrow delivery takes any of the tragedy out of it. (If you want to see a pretty funny riff on that scene, I suggest checking out the Fox comedy Get A Life, starring Chris Elliott. In an episode, he gets stuck in a homemade submarine with his dad in a bathtub, and launches into Robert Shaw’s monologue. It’s freaking hillarious.) Anyway. Chief Brody, based on the fact that a local swimmer has been chomped by something bigger than a goldfish, wants to close the local beach. He has adequate evidence for believing that there is a killer shark patrolling the waters off of Amity Island. Namely, the death of Chrissy, the local girl, and the very much in public eating of Alex Kintner by said shark. The mayor wants to say that the girl was killed in a boating accident. The mayor also believes that the shark that is caught by some fishermen is the shark that killed the boy (but he refuses to agree to an autopsy of the shark). Chief Brody, Quint, and that dude that Richard Dreyfuss played — I think it was Matt something, decide to kill the shark. That’s a little besides the point, but the point is, is that Chief Brody believed that there was a great white shark that had made the waters off of Amity Island it’s feeding ground. He was right. He had adequate evidence for believing so. And, we know that, so far as the moral highground goes, Brody definintely has it. Sticking with the nautical theme, the same goes for the crew of the USS Caine in the film The Caine Mutiny. Captain Queeg, played by Humprey Bogart, is clearly out of his mind. The executive officers decide, after a series of increasingly disturbing events, to find a way to relieve Queeg of his command. After Queeg nearly loses the Caine in a storm, the officers decide to forcefully take command of the vessel. Even though they faced courtmartial, they knew that their belief — that Queeg was batshit insane — was right. They had more than enough evidence for believing that Queeg was mentally unstable. Additionally, they had a moral duty to take the ship from Queeg. If they allowed Queeg to keep command of his ship, the lives of the crew were in danger. This movie has a really cool ending. They totally diss Fred Mac Murray. This dude throws a drink in his face and all of the guys walk out like he was a dishonored Klingon. They should have kicked his ass! Ok, that’s great — if we’re right. But being right isn’t always the case. Our beliefs are flat wrong more often than we’d like to admit.Unfortunately, like when we’re right, we also act on our beliefs when we’re wrong. In George A Romero’s Day of the Dead, the character Rhodes, after having spent what we can presume to be years in an underground bunker, is more than a little mad. He begins to suspect that the scientists are acting against the interests of Rhodes and his men. Does he really have any evidence to believe this? No, he does not. Rhodes becomes so wrapped-up in his paranoia, that he kills several of the scientists and facilitates the breech of the facility by a horde of flesh-eating zombies. As a result of Rhodes’ wrong beliefs, many people die. By the way, stay CLEAR of the re-make of Day of the Dead. Awful! In the Cohen bros. flick, Burn After Reading, Linda Litzke (played by Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (played by Brad Pitt), believe that the disk found in the ladies’ dressing room of Hardbodies gym, contains top secret information. Chad reasons that the fact that there are department heads’ names and dates that it obviously means that the information is classified (it’s not. It’s the notes for a book that is being written by Osborne Cox, played by John Malkovich). The “evidence” they have for believing that the disk has secret info is scant — it’s Chad’s assumption (problem 1). Believing that the disk has information that may be of some interest to other parties, they attempt to pass it along to the Russians. This makes matters worse. The fact that they’re wrong eventually leads to the death of one of the pair. I’m not going to say which one, but it’s the one who starred in other films such as Legends of the Fall and Interview With the Vampire. This is what Clifford was getting at when he condemned our holding beliefs on insufficient evidence. In the worst-case scenerio, people get killed. When those people die, they die because we failed to believe what is true. Their deaths are on us because we failed epistemically and morally. And so, we bear a doubly heavy burden. So, what does this mean about Oprah’s advice, “what you believe has more power than what you dream or wish or hope for. You become what you believe”? What it means, is that it is true that our beliefs have a moral obligation that we owe to others. If we believe the wrong things, even if doing it is fun, we are responsible for others who may be hurt or affected by our actions. Lastly, the reason why we must believe only what we are morally entitled to believe is obvious when we look at those who do wrong and believe that it is good to do so. Those are the people that we should not aspire to be. We should, when we look at them, remind ourselves that those individuals are not… well, they’re not good people. A person who believes that it is fun to do bad things will more than likely end up on the bad side of life. And that’s not much fun in the long run, is it?

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