I've been reading a lot about history and some of the philosophical forces behind major events. It seems to be that the more fanatical a ruler / figure is, the more they justified their beliefs with their principles. My question is, can we ever know if what we believe is right or wrong? Can we really be sure we aren't making the world a worse place in the name of something we might believe in but could just be a lie?

  • 'Principles' - what do you mean by that? eg scientific principles..?
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 27, 2018 at 2:31
  • @CriglCragl I guess in my colloquium I use it to refer to informal personal philosophy
    – user189728
    Mar 27, 2018 at 2:37
  • 1
    Hayakawa, S. I. Language in Thought and Action. 1939. Enlarged ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. Originally published as Language in Action; and en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Korzybski We are not required to fall in and follow the leader. I would amend Korzybski's famous saying like this: the ideological map is rarely the territory. We have to check our ideas against reality, though it takes a real effort to do this.
    – Gordon
    Mar 27, 2018 at 4:58
  • @Gordon Korzybski was a top geezer
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 27, 2018 at 5:02
  • 1
    @CriglCragl Lol. That may well be true, but his little saying is good to remember. I am mainly taking off from his quote and making it mine. I must say that I think his idea of "time binding" is interesting, it's the first time I had read down that far in his Wikipedia.
    – Gordon
    Mar 27, 2018 at 5:09

4 Answers 4


My question is, can we ever know if what we believe is right or wrong?

Knowledge doesn't require absolute certainty. When I say, "I know there's a cat on the mat.", then I leave open the possibility of doubting it. What exactly makes knowledge different from belief is of course not an easy question and gets us to a ton of problems in epistemology.

Take for example the question, "We believe that there's an external world. But what if we're wrong?". This idea can get turned around: what reasons do we have for the skepticism in the first place? Why should we doubt it? While this can deal with some sorts of radical skepticism rather easily with issues like ethics it gets a little more complicated.

Can we really be sure we aren't making the world a worse place in the name of something we might believe in but could just be a lie?

This is an interesting problem which I think can be divided up into parts. Firstly we may ask, "How should we go about getting moral knowledge?". (Of course this presupposes that there in fact is moral knowledge in some way. So some metaethical stances would rule out that we can get moral knowledge.) Secondly we may ask, "But what if we're wrong? How should we take that possibility into account?".

The first issue is about Moral Epistemology. Depending on what sort of stances we defend in epistemology this influences what kind of methods we ought to use to make or revise moral judgments. Here's a basic article about it. Depending on what we believe we could for example argue that there are some principles that we should base our moral beliefs on. Or we might argue that we ought to find a balance between principles and preexisting moral beliefs, make them as coherent as possible.

The second issue is the concept of Moral Uncertainty. The question concerns basically an intersection of ethics with decision theory. Here's a very short description with further references.

  • Knowledge is extreme case of belief when opposite to 'knowledge' is much less likely than opposite to 'belief'.
    – rus9384
    Mar 27, 2018 at 13:16
  • So you seem to say knowledge is belief with a higher likelyhood of being true? How are we able to say which is more likely? Also, if something I believed to be much more likely true turns out as not the case then have I known it or not beforehand?
    – Marc H.
    Mar 27, 2018 at 15:55
  • The only thing that makes us say that something is known is statistics. E.g. we say we know that if you jump, you'll fall back because every other time you did it it was the same.
    – rus9384
    Mar 27, 2018 at 16:42
  • So there's no mathematical knowledge? Also, take a case with a single occurence, "I knew that I've seen person X yesterday at the train station.". How do you know that "The only thing that makes us say that something is known is statistics." with statistics only?
    – Marc H.
    Mar 27, 2018 at 17:45
  • Well, what are disputable things in that statement, except "I knew that"? There, of course, can be persons who look almost identically. But from statistical point of view it's very unlikely that they live in same town (except for twins - then statement makes less sense). Thus you use statistics. Well, you also use probabilities as extrapolation of statistics, but it comes from statistics. Without them you can't guess the probability. Also you might argue that you know it's train station. Just because all similar objects are called so.
    – rus9384
    Mar 27, 2018 at 18:31

Can we really be sure we aren't making the world a worse place in the name of something we might believe in but could just be a lie?

If a person believes that this world is one family and live accordingly without hurting his fellow beings following 'Dharma', his principles are right; no matter whether he is a fanatical ruler or not. [Please note: The base is, 'This world is one family'. If you don't like the word 'Dharma', you may replace it by 'the eternal law of the cosmos, inherent in the very nature of things'.]

My question is, can we ever know if what we believe is right or wrong?

Here, the word--'ever' creates a problem. If one believes that there is/must be a continuity to his life (I mean, birth and rebirth), the word--'ever' gets a greater meaning. Then the answer is 'Yes'. Otherwise the answer is--'Not quite sure' or 'Rarely'.

For clarification and epitomes you may read about 'Rajarshis'. Such ruler's principles are good things. After they attained self-realization they couldn't tell lies.


  • There are plenty of dysfunctional families out there..
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 27, 2018 at 12:40
  • @CriglCragl: Of course. But if you think over the entity of families or the reason behind that problem, you can't reject them completely. Mar 27, 2018 at 15:03

can we ever know if what we believe is right or wrong? Can we really be sure we aren't making the world a worse place

The short answer is no, we can only guess. But we can attempt to make informed guesses, by studying history, psychology such as cognitive bias, and orderly systematic observations such as through scientific methods.

You might equally ask, can we live without principles? Would that simply cause other threats? One response goes "If we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything."

Your "informal personal philosophy", everyone must have. Principles generally mean something like core tenets, or conclusions drawn about the world thought or experience, especially of a moral character and concise.

I am a bit dubious about your knowledge of history, leaders from Idi Amin to Caligula have managed to be perfectly brutal with almost no principles. Stalin & Hitler were egotistical opportunists with full faith in propaganda, so no real belief in their own principles except as tools for wielding power. Fanaticism, an unjustified sense of certainty, rather than principles, seem to be the real problem. It can be identified as a pathology, and addressed culturally and educationally.

in the name of something we might believe in but could just be a lie?

What structure are you assuming to determine 'lie'? If it's subjective, a sense of rightness or importance to a set of principles, how can those feelings be falsified? The principles could be contradictory, or could be aimed at goals they rarely do or cannot achieve. Or they might be murderous, horrific and evil. But probably not lies.

  • Fanaticism also is consequence of some set of principles.
    – rus9384
    Mar 27, 2018 at 6:56
  • @rus9384: smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/…
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 27, 2018 at 12:29
  • Yes, character traits affect what principles one might adhere. But there are other factors as well. And those factors are former while principles are censequent to that.
    – rus9384
    Mar 27, 2018 at 13:15

Well, a lot of people think that science can resolve the problem of being sure. The nice thing about science (as taught by Karl Popper) is that whenever it's sure of something, that thing is repeatable. That makes science neutral with regards to different philosophical viewpoints. But the aching problem with science is that it doesn't have that kind of certainty about what's unrepeatable, like origins, or fundamentally invisible, like morality.

Rene Descartes wrote, "I think therefore I am." Rather than being a congratulation of self, this statement is meant to find some hard floor in reasoning, something that really can't be negated. And "well, at least I know that I am thinking right now" was a pretty good shot. But that won't tell you how to run a government.

I think an acceptable next step for Descartes would have been to say, "Other people are just like me." From there one could identify equality and justice, which are pretty stable values throughout time.

Your Question

...is a very good one! Here's an example supporting your argument:

In his book Morality after Auschwitz, Peter Haas asks how an entire society could have willingly participated in a state-sponsored program of mass torture and genocide for over a decade without any serious opposition. He argues that

far from being contemptuous of ethics, the perpetrators acted in strict conformity with an ethic which held that, however difficult and unpleasant the task might have been, mass extermination of the Jews and Gypsies was entirely justified. . . . the Holocaust as a sustained effort was possible only because a new ethic was in place that did not define the arrest and deportation of Jews as wrong and in fact defined it as ethically tolerable and ever good.

from Can we be good without God? - William Lane Craig

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