17 Jun 2013, 03:15

Beliefs vs Assumptions

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Beliefs vs Assumptions

Originally submitted by emil10001 on Tue, 11/01/2011 - 11:57

There are some interesting differences that result from making decisions based on beliefs as opposed to making decisions based on assumptions. Since you can rarely be in a situation in which you have all possible information available to you in making a decision, you will need to rely upon either beliefs or assumptions, or some combination of those to make your decision.

I need to make decisions based on some assumptions that I have because I don’t have all of the information needed to make a fully reasoned decision. I do not need to believe that my assumptions are correct, as I know that they are just assumptions. If they turn out wrong, there is no need for me to change my beliefs, just discard some incorrect assumptions.

Belief - 2. confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof: a statement unworthy of belief.

Assumption - 1. something taken for granted; a supposition: a correct assumption. Synonyms: presupposition; hypothesis, conjecture, guess, postulate, theory.

The difference is that I have no attachment to my assumptions. I can easily discard them if I find them to be incorrect, and I actually do not even need to believe that my assumptions are correct. However, as you pointed out, we can’t always make decisions based on rigorous logic, and a main reason for this is that we don’t have all of the information. So, instead, we make assumptions about things that we are unsure about and hope for the best. We tend to accept that our assumptions might be wrong, and because of that, we might end up making the wrong decision. While we may be held responsible for the choice that we make based on that set of assumptions, it is difficult to blame someone acting in good faith who made a decision based on a faulty assumption. That said, there are poor assumptions, and then there are good assumptions, and if someone made a very poor assumption, then it may be easier to place moral responsibility on that person.

Beliefs are not so easy to discard, and people tend to be much more attached to them. If you make a decision based on your beliefs, it is a different thing from making a decision based on an assumption. Beliefs are generally unfalsifiable, and therefore have no real basis for believing them. (Please note that I am not trying to minimize yours or anyone else’s beliefs here, simply that this is what it is to have a belief.) When it comes to making a decision based upon a belief, I think that it would be more reasonable for you to be held morally accountable for that decision, as opposed to someone who acted on an assumption.

Example: A motorist is driving a car, and he sees someone on the side of the road, who looks like he is injured. The motorist needs to decide if he should stop and attempt to help this person out.

  • Outcome 1

Assumption: This person could be dangerous. The motorist decides to keep driving, because this person could be dangerous. Assumption: The police probably already know about this. The motorist decides not to call the police, because they probably already know about this.

Here, we might not want to hold the person morally responsible for the action resulting from the first assumption, but we probably would want to hold them morally responsible for the second. The reason is because calling the police would not have any possible negative impact on the caller.

  • Outcome 2

Assumption: This person is probably not dangerous. The motorist decides to pull over and help the person. The motorist calls the police because even if they already know about it, it doesn’t hurt to tell them again.

Here is an assumption made that may have a good outcome. The person on the side of the road may, or may not be dangerous, so it is possible that this was not a good idea to pull over.

  • Outcome 3

Belief: It is always good to help people. The motorist decides to pull over and help the person. The motorist calls the police because even if they already know about it, it doesn’t hurt to tell them again.

Is it always good to help people? What if this person is a murderer, and they look injured because another motorist pushed him out of a moving car to save her life? Now, by helping this person, the motorist is possibly aiding a murderer. We might be tempted to say the same thing about the case where the assumption caused the driver to pull over, but they never made the moral argument that it was always good to help people. They just assumed that the person was probably not dangerous.

In the reverse, where the injured person is just there by bad luck, we would want to assign moral praise to the motorist for pulling over.

  • Outcome 4

Belief: It is sinful to sit on the side of the road, imposing on motorists. The motorist decides not to pull over and keep driving. The motorist feels annoyed that this person has imposed upon him by sitting on the side of the road, so the motorist do not call the police.

This belief is harmful to the person on the side of the road. Declaring that they are sinful because they happen to be in a bad situation is arbitrary. It is easier to hold the motorist morally responsible here, because they have an arbitrary moral rule about the situation that informs their actions.

Here, I am trying to balance assumptions and beliefs, you can have good or bad outcomes from beliefs or assumptions. However, making a decision based on a belief rather than an assumption might change the way in which we would want to hold the decider responsible.

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