The Belief-Conduct Dichotomy

By Cyberquill 09/04/20142 Comments

Your beliefs don't make you a better person. Your behavior does.

According to the blackboard, your behavior is king. Sounds reasonable—for what good are your most laudable beliefs and attitudes if they’re never put into practice?

What does it matter what you say if you then turn around and do the opposite?

No matter how sincerely you may believe in generosity, if you never give or share, how generous are you?

No matter how ardently you may advocate courage, if, at the first inkling of danger, you’re invariably the first one to seek shelter under the nearest sofa, how courageous are you?

You may say you love dogs, but the sight of your beaten and half-starved pet spaniel tells a different tale.

Bottom line, if your behaviors conflict with your beliefs (held or stated or both), it makes sense to assess your true nature on the basis of the former and discount the latter as aspirational trumpery.

So much for positive attitudes, values, and beliefs that fail to carry over into the behavioral realm and hence constitute a poor gauge of character.

But what about negative concepts that a person espouses—or appears to espouse through the veil of humor or via ambiguously borderline reasoning—that never seem to translate into how he or she actually behaves?

Does the mere advocacy of sexist viewpoints, without those viewpoints ever being backed up with deeds, render a person any more sexist than the advocacy of generosity in the absence of generous acts renders him generous?

If preaching courage doesn’t make one a hero, how come preaching racism makes one a racist?

What if you opine that blacks ought to be picking cotton in Georgia, but you always treat everybody the same regardless of race?

What if a husband keeps airing sentiments along the lines of women being biologically more predisposed toward doing home chores than are men, but at the same time and without batting an eyelash he does his own cooking and cleaning while his wife tinkers with her motorcycle as if this were the most natural state of affairs for him?

Talk is cheap. Two plus two equals nine. Just because I said so doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how I count the pennies in my pocket.

We’re quick to brand others as “racist” or “sexist” or whatnot solely based upon their articulated attitudes—a significant percentage of which we’ve probably misunderstood or interpreted without attention to nuance anyway—without feeling the need to check whether their day-to-day conduct indeed comports with what we heard. Or thought we heard.

If there seems to be a disconnect between a person’s views and their conduct, why should conduct trump views if those views are deemed commendable but views trump conduct if they are deemed deplorable?

Because if it is true that not our beliefs but our behaviors make us a better person, how can our beliefs alone make us a worse one?

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  • Richard

    The old adage actions speak louder than words covers both eventualities, though doesn’t cover the possibility that words alone may bring about “negative” (or “positive”) behaviour in others.

    On this interpretation of your interesting piece, I cannot, it seems, accept there is a dichotomy, although I do accept your implied presumption in favour of freedom of speech and your concerns at any move formally to restrict it. Controlling what we say is not far removed from controlling what we think and the majority of us try to have “positive” thoughts that sometimes are not readily distinguished from “negative” ones.

    Some have thoughts which are of enduring benefit to Mankind whilst others’ cause enduring damage. How is the matter to be judged and who is to do the judging? For these purposes, is mind control a legitmate way to proceed?

    The actions of others speak louder than words. Come to think of it, the original adage is enough to cover both -- does it represent collective thought or is it the product of individual genius? It is no doubt the latter but sufficiently well-framed to avoid sanction. That itself is a lesson -- law, perhaps, cannot control the mind.

    • Cyberquill

      Very often, our behavior reflects our beliefs. Our words, too, often reflect our beliefs, although whether the act of speaking itself counts as a “behavior” is debatable.

      For the purpose of this post, I’ve lumped together beliefs and words, and contrasted both with deeds (i.e., behavior).

      Ideally—at least for the sake of eliminating confusion among our observers—our beliefs, words, and actions align.

      In practice, alas, they may diverge. Depending on the nature of our beliefs or the substance of our statements, it may be either a good thing or a bad thing if our behavior doesn’t match up with what we think and/or say.

      Frankly, I, too, find the statement on the blackboard a bit awkwardly phrased, possibly raising a phony dichotomy. I merely attempted to discuss its implications if it indeed applied as written.

      Perhaps our behavior never contradicts our beliefs, and if it appears to contradict them, it simply means these beliefs are, in fact, pseudo-beliefs of ours that do not reflect what we truly believe on a level that may be inaccessible to our consciousness.

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