Here now is Matt King:
Moral conviction is often lauded in ordinary discourse. To be a person of principle is considered a virtue (and it is certainly a pejorative to be thought of as ‘unprincipled’). Of course, too much conviction, given that we can be mistaken in our moral judgments, and we risk retaining principles we ought to reject. Nevertheless, there is a common thought that principled persons do something right in holding true to that which they believe deeply. While we should sometimes adjust our beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary, it is also true that there is virtue in sticking to one’s guns.
I’m interested in exploring this notion of conviction through the activity of “standing up” for what one believes. In particular, I identify three distinct (though related) ways in which an individual might fail to stand up for what she believes, and, thus, ‘lack conviction’. While there are no doubt epistemological norms associated with conviction, my interest is in its distinctively moral character.
A natural starting place for thinking about conviction lies with the idea of being convinced or certain. In this way, convictions are matters an agent takes to be settled. The question has been asked, the issue deliberated upon, a decision made. One aspect of convictions, therefore, is that of being inhibited to reconsideration or revision. But I’d like to suggest that unlike other claims of which we’re convinced, moral convictions involve a further practical commitment. If I’m convinced that eating meat is wrong, it seems I should be willing to stand up for that principle.
Inquiring as to the nature of the activity of standing up for (or similarly simply standing for) risks an overreliance on metaphor. To stand for something suggests a presence in front of which one stands. One does not retreat or cower, one does not rest or recline; rather, one adopts an upright position. Standing up for something suggests something to which one adopts an opposing stance. We might say that one stands up against the opposition. Familiarly, a child might stand up to bullies, just as one might stand up for workers’ rights by picketing a corporate headquarters.
We can gain some insight into the nature of moral conviction by examining the various ways in which one can fail to stand up for what one believes. First, one can fail by failing to stand for anything. Such a person might have some moral beliefs – indeed, it would be surprising to find someone who was not convinced of any moral claim whatsoever. Nonetheless, one might fail to stand for anything if one was insufficiently willing to be guided appropriately by their moral beliefs.
This might occur because morality plays no significant role in how they organize their projects or because they treat moral principles as not terribly important to their deliberations. They might be egregiously egoistic or curiously indifferent to others. We’re familiar with the example of the politician who aims to be overly diplomatic so as to appease all constituencies, but ends up raising our suspicions as there seems to be nothing he stands for.
It is unclear to me just what is problematic about lacking conviction. It strikes me as bad. If I found a friend of mine had no convictions, I would think something is missing, that they were in some sense misoriented to the world. But I’m less confident about the general explanation for why it’s a fault. Why would an unwillingness to ‘take a stand’ on any moral matter be so bad? Suppose one hedges most moral bets so as to refrain from over-commitment. Why would such caution count as a vice? (I am reminded here of Frankfurt’s discussion of the wanton – one who has no second-order desires – but I’m not sure what to make of the similarity.)
Lacking convictions altogether is rather unfamiliar. Most people have moral principles they’re willing to act according to and stand up for. But this doesn’t ensure they succeed at all times. One can fail to stand up for something in a particular instance. Typically, this would be when faced with a temptation or challenge that motivates one not to so stand. In this way, lacking moral conviction in particular circumstances looks more akin to ‘ordinary’ cowardice, where a difficulty is avoided because it is difficult.
There is an element here of “putting your money where your mouth is”. For instance, we might think about the importance of being vocal about the social justice efforts you endorse or calling out the bad behavior of others, like a co-worker’s sexist remark. (In this way, there are strands here related to being a “ally”.)
It is not entirely obvious to what extent the first two failures indicate a moral value to conviction. It might be tempting to treat each as reflecting only the epistemological nature of conviction. We might think that having moral principles at all generates certain practical commitments as a result, such that failure to have those commitments indicates an internal irrationality of some sort. (Like the practical commitment of intending the necessary means to one’s intended end.) Similarly, failing to stand up in defense of what one knows to be right because it will be difficult to do so might simply be a special case of more general akratic type behavior.
There is a third kind of failure, however, that is more suggestive to me. It involves refusing to “face the music”: that is, a failure to stand by one’s convictions in the face of scrutiny by and discourse with others. Admittedly, why standing up in this way is a virtue remains to me mysterious. Why is the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square so appropriately impressive? Is it just the costs he was willing to face in defense of his ideals? Taking a stand, even when practically foolish or unlikely to achieve any effects, still strikes me as noble (at least pro tanto), though I’m far less confident as to why this is so.