Birther Beliefs

Photo by Michele Sandberg

Despite all evidence to the contrary, many Americans apparently believe that Obama was not born in the United States and is thus not a natural U.S. Citizen.  Presidential hopeful Donald Trump is one of them.  In recent interviews, Trump stated that he has doubts about whether Obama really is a U.S. citizen.  “All of a sudden,” he confesses, “a lot of facts are emerging and I’m starting to wonder myself whether or not he was born in this country.”

Popular discussions of the merits of Birther beliefs raise a bunch of philosophical questions worth considering.  One epistemological question is particularly pressing: is anyone justified in believing that Obama was not born in the United States?
This is a normative question, since it is a question about what we ought to believe.  Epistemologists tend to fall into two camps when it comes to offering normative accounts of justification.
The first camp focuses on the characteristics of the belief itself.  When asking whether Trump is justified in believing Obama was born in America, they’d say we should ask, for instance, whether this belief coheres well with all the other evidence available to him.
The second camp focuses on the characteristics of the believer rather than the belief.  When asking whether Trump is justified in believing Obama was born in America, they’d say we should ask whether a person with the intellectual virtues (e.g. open-mindedness, curiosity, objectivity, etc.) would believe such a thing.
Now, it is one thing to ask which of these two camps gives the best definition or account of justified belief.  It may be that focusing on the person rather than the belief (or vice versa) is the best way to account for what makes beliefs in general justified.  But another interesting type of question is when and where these two camps can be helpful to us in our daily lives as we evaluate our own beliefs and the beliefs of others.
Certainly, we cannot get away from examining the evidence for beliefs and their logical relationships with the other things we believe.  Doing so can help us see that Trump is (inconsistently, it seems) using standards of evidence for Obama’s birth place that he plainly ought to reject for other equally important questions of a similar sort.  (One need not prove that something is logically impossible to show that it is not the best explanation of the facts.)  So examining the evidence for our beliefs seems an important part of evaluating them well.
But evaluating how the intellectual virtues and vices we have and exhibit also plays (and, I’d say, should play) an important role in our epistemic practice.  Given the limitations we face in daily decision-making – we often don’t have much time to deliberate, we get tired, or we don’t have all the information we need – it behooves us to shape ourselves into thinkers with the right attitudes, motivations and habits.  Focuses on our intellectual virtues and vices is a necessary part of making sure we’re doing a good job with the evidence.  It may thus be helpful for Trump to ask himself: what intellectual vices do I have, and how do they influence my beliefs?  Indeed, we probably all should ask ourselves this question from time to time.
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Author: jasonswartwood

I am a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Twin-Cities. I am currently beginning work on my dissertation, which will give an account of the intellectual virtues that help one succeed at moral inquiry.

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