Frequent commenter at this site, the Jewish Atheist recently noted that he’d written an essay on his blog. In this post, he coins two categories of belief, which he coins “load bearing” and “cosmetic”. Roughly speaking, to my reading, load bearing beliefs are those you can support via the epistemic methods to which he ascribes (and perhaps assumes either are our should be universal) and cosmetic ones are those which, knowingly or unknowingly, dishonestly hold as the reason for your belief but which under inspection are not really the reason.
Alasdair MacIntyre has a book (actually several) titled Whose Justice Which Rationality, which offers some interesting perspective on this issue. For much of the time, what you might title “cosmetic”, irrational, or “not the real reason” a person holds a belief, what is really going on is that they are working from different premises. Ethical differences cannot often (or even usually) be resolved by logical analysis.
Take this offering from JA:
“Abortion is murder,” on the other hand, is a cosmetic argument for most people. If you could convince someone who says this that abortion and murder aren’t exactly the same, they would likely still oppose abortion without ever wavering. That’s because they don’t really believe this argument in the first place — their belief rests on a different argument entirely. (As evidence that they don’t really believe abortion is murder, they would send a woman who killed a baby to jail, but would never send a woman who has an abortion to jail.)
Here’s the thing. Many people who say “abortion is murder” come from a Christian tradition, some of them even come from the Eastern tradition. In the East, the notions of person and what constitutes personhood derive not from Augustine and Boethius like the Western Christian (and I might add the modern Western secular Cartesian one) notion of person as the rational set of consciousness but instead derived from a different theology of the Trinity and how “person” was understood in that context. In the East, a person derives not from attributes of the self, but is relational. Similar to the “a tree falling in the forest with none to listen makes no noise” analysis from Quantum Physics, a person cannot exist but in the context of other persons. It is not “I think therefore I am” for contra Descartes, the East would hold, that without relationships with others, you in fact, “aren’t.” The idea that person=relationship is one developed frequently and in depth by Metropolitan John Zizioulas (Metropolitan is the Eastern Orthodox title for a Bishop of a large city or equivalent region). That theme is one I will be developing in more detail in a later essay (in progress).
This has consequences for legal thinking regarding abortion and end-of-life issues. The killing of an innocent can indeed be murder, but the legal consequence need not necessarily entail sending the woman to jail. Compare the pre-meditated murder of another with abortion. Both are catastrophic failures of the network of relationships in which the victim of the crime is found. In the case of murder, the network failure is found as a failure bound up in a single individual, i.e., the murderer. In the case of abortion, it is a community of people who have failed the child, the mother, the father, and the rest of the community in which they reside. It is our judgement as a people that locating the blame singularly with the mother, whom is often a desperate youth, is not reasonable. That we find that not reasonable does not in any way mean that the act of abortion is not akin to murder, just that isolating a singular criminal is more difficult. [As an aside, you might equally counter to those who, like JA, feel that abortion morally more in line with getting a tattoo, why the phrase “safe, legal, and rare” might be found commonly in those who feel as he does. Why rare if the non-consequential nature of abortion is not ultimately a “cosmetic” or false belief.]
But I digress. The point is there is no logical path to weigh the validity or distinguish between the conclusions made from differing beliefs, in this case that “person” resides in rational capacity vs “person” resides in possessing human relationship(s). They are both based on differing assumptions and traditions.
There is another problem with attempts to identify cosmetic vs “load bearing” beliefs. Positions people hold can (and should) be regarded valid even if they cannot be rationally defended. That you love your wife, for example, is not a position which needs or even should require rational analysis. I’m not convinced that ethics is any different in this respect. That person “A” cannot muster a cogent argument against cannibalism does not invalidate the correctness of his firmly held position against it. If Mr Able is pressed for a reason which does not stand scrutiny his belief is not invalidated for the requirement of logical defense of your beliefs is not a requirement for holding the same without self-contradiction.