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Welcoming the Concept of Alief to Medical Ethics

Welcoming the Concept of Alief to Medical Ethics

 by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.

Philosopher Tamar Gendler has introduced (circa 2008) a new concept in the philosophical literature that could be of interest to medical ethicists. The concept is that of ‘alief’ and it is meant to contrast with the concept of ‘belief.’ An example Gendler discusses to tease out the difference between the two concepts is the example of a woman who believes African American and Caucasian people to be of equal intelligence, yet in her behavioral responses it seems as if she believes differently (e.g., she is more surprised when an African American student of hers makes an intelligent comment than she is when a Caucasian student does, she more quickly associates intelligence with her Caucasian students, when grading exams she might grade the same quality exam differently if written by an African American student than a Caucasian student, etc.). In other words, if you ask her explicitly, she says she believes P (in this case, P is “all races are of equal intelligence”), and she says it sincerely. But, you might think from the outside that she believes ~P (in this case, “all races are not of equal intelligence”). You might be tempted to say that she does not really believe P. What Gendler wants to say is that this woman does believe P, but that she has an ‘alief’ that is in tension with her belief of P (she has a “belief discordant alief”). The content of this alief is a set of associations that get activated (usually from habit) and show themselves in behavioral responses.

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