Notes on Clifford's Famous Paper, "The Ethics of Belief"

The point of my posting the following notes on Clifford's paper is not necessarily to endorse them, but rather to discuss the ideas of the paper, and evaluate them for ourselves. With that said, here's a rough outline of Clifford's famous paper:

Notes on Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief”

Thesis: It is immoral to either form a new belief without sufficient evidence, or to sustain an existing belief by deliberately ignoring doubts and avoiding honest investigation.

The “shipowner” illustration:

Version 1: a shipowner who rents out his ship to others sincerely believes that the ship is seaworthy without sufficient evidence – indeed, against the evidence -- and acts on that belief, and the belief turns out to be false. The result is that everyone aboard his boat drowned. We consider the shipowner to be blameworthy
-he had no right to believe it, since his evidence didn’t support it

Version 2:
-same as before, except that the belief turns out to be true:
-still blameworthy
-the rightness or wrongness of holding a belief doesn’t depend on its truth or falsity, but on how one came to believe it.
-but in this case, he came to believe it without good evidence, and this is what makes his believing immoral

The “persecution” illustration:

Version 1:
-a group of citizens come to sincerely believe without sufficient evidence (unsubstantiated rumors) that a religious group in their certain country illicitly indoctrinated children with certain unpopular religious beliefs (denial of original sin and eternal punishment).
-The citizens act on that belief and persecute the religious group, but the belief turns out to be false
-a commission was formed to look into the allegations
-the evidence discovered clearly showed that the religious group was innocent of the charge
-the group of persecutors could’ve easily discovered this if they had looked into it, but they chose not to
-blameworthy
-the rest of the citizens came to see the persecutors as unreasonable and untrustworthy

Version 2:
-same as before, except that in this case the belief turns out to be true:
-still blameworthy

The underlying point: it is wrong to believe something without sufficient evidence.

Objection: The illustrations don’t show this. Rather, what they show is that it’s wrong to act on a belief for which one has insufficient evidence.

Reply: it is impossible to compartmentalize beliefs so that they don’t affect one’s actions – or at least so that they don’t affect others in some way or other

-Once you believe something, your ability is diminished to fairly evaluate evidence that has the potential to undermine that belief.

-Each new belief influences one’s total system of beliefs to some extent, and one’s actions are based on this system of beliefs

-Beliefs are not private, but are public property, and serve as the basis of human action.
-From the beginning of human history until now, human beings have collectively generated a huge network of beliefs about the world
-These are constantly added to, either by careful investigation and testing, or by irresponsible acceptance
-They are transmitted to others and handed down from generation to generation
-The human community bases their actions and lives on this network of beliefs
-Thus, communicating an unjustified belief results in it being added it to the publicly held network of beliefs, in which case it can have potentially harmful effects on others if they act on it

Every belief must be based on sufficient evidence

-No belief exists for the good of any particular individual alone, but for the sake of the public good
-they all contribute to the common network of beliefs
-thus, they all contribute to binding humans together and directing their cooperative actions
-But if so, then every belief, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can have an impact on the lives of others

Every person has this duty to believe only upon sufficient evidence

-Every person has the power to either diminish or strengthen harmful superstitions in the home, among friends, or at work by what they say
-But if so, then each person is morally responsible for the beliefs that form the basis of what they say to others

The case for the immorality of unjustified belief

1) unjustified beliefs can harm others due to their content:

-Beliefs determine our ability to predict, control, and navigate our way in the world
-when they are true, they enhance our ability to do these things
-when they are false, they diminish our ability to do these things

-Beliefs have two features that give them the power to potentially shape the behavior and character of the whole human race
-beliefs have the power to alter human behavior and character, individually and collectively
-Once a belief resides in one person, it can be transmitted to others through communication and thereby affect their behavior and character

-Thus, beliefs – the public network of beliefs – have a huge impact on the lives of human beings

-Given this picture of the nature and power of beliefs, and thus their impact on human lives, it is easy to appreciate why it is important to form beliefs responsibly

2) Consistently believing upon insufficient evidence harms people by making them credulous

-Your credulity is harmful to others
-It can lead to a return to “savagery” (think of the Jim Jones case, the Heaven’s Gate case, the Fox News case, etc.)

-Your credulity is harmful to yourself
-If you don’t care about truth, then you’re vulnerable to those who are willing to lie to you in order to manipulate you


Application: morally irresponsible religious belief


Objection: most people don’t have time to inquire into the evidence regarding their religious beliefs.

Reply: “then he should have no time to believe”.

6 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

I used to think William James and Alvin Plantinga effectively dealt twin blows to Clifford's argument. But upon more reflection, Clifford makes more sense to me than ever.

Plantinga, for instance, is correct that we have beliefs for which we don't have evidence. But for him to argue that his notion of the Christian God is a properly basic belief, goes far beyond what a reasonable person should accept.

Belief in the Christian God depends on a great many things which do admit of evidence, like the purported incarnation, resurrection, atonement, and the inspiration of the Bible.

Lee Randolph said...

a few examples off the top my head of morally irresponsible religious belief (forgive me if you've heard this one before....)

- persecution for heresy, even between Christians regarding Christology
- war between catholics and protestants
- snake handling
- Creating Israel from the lands held by Britain after ww2
- neverending war between arabs and jews
- the holocaust
- slavery
- the mark of Cain being black skin
- inquisitions
- the dark ages
- witch hunts
- interfering with invitro fertilization research
- interfering with cloning
- interfering with stem cell research
- (and I hate to say this because I'm afraid of whats coming), a womans choice to abort.
- slamming two jets into the twin towers

Randy Kirk said...

It just seems like a post such as this would be so much more powerful if it included including ones own shortfallings in the mix rather than the supposed opposition.

I can't begin to tell you the horrendous effects of the beliefs of humanists that having any kind of sex any time as long as it is with a consenting person and will do no harm has caused. Who do we sue for the divorces, the children of divorce, the abortions, the effects on some of the moms after abortions, the STD's, the ruined lives of the kids who had kids and their kids.

Who gets sued for the Alar scare, or the cranberry juice scare?

Who pays back the companies that were destroyed because of the asbestos scare when almost everything these folks were making were designed to save lives, and were effective at it. And now, low and behold new science says that asbestos may not have been as bad as we thought.

Are can we get to some more direct beliefs like eugenics?

As to the original proposition. We all have these ethical responsibilites, but the responsibility is commensurate with how we intend to use the information. If we use our belief to convince someone to take the cool-aid, then we have some pretty serious responsibiity to get as many facts as we can. If we use the belief to convince someone to join the local Baptist church or Rotary Club or Mensa chapter, we probably don't need anything close to the same requirement.

If we are merely suggesting that someone come and share our belief system, we have very little responsibility, as it then becomes incumbent on them to get their own information prior to making the decision to move ahead.

I would hope you would really agree with this last, because to the extent that you desire to convince others to leave the faith, and I can imagine some pretty significant consequences for that person which you may not have really thought through.

Shygetz said...

I can't begin to tell you the horrendous effects of the beliefs of humanists that having any kind of sex any time as long as it is with a consenting person and will do no harm has caused.

Musta missed that day in humanism class. If I remember right, we secular scientists are the ones who figures out that AIDS was an STD, right? Also, take a look at the divorce rates, pal...Christians are the primary offenders there. The Biblical stance on abortion is controversial, to say the least (e.g. Exodus 21:22-25, which gives the penalty for killing a fetus as a fine, and the penalty for harming the mother as eye for an eye).

the ruined lives of the kids who had kids and their kids

Um, secularists push widespread birth control. Conservative Christians push the failing "abstinence only" programs, which are leading to increased childhood pregnancy.

Who gets sued for the Alar scare, or the cranberry juice scare?

Are you serious? We give examples of terrorism and war, and you come back with potentially overblown toxicity reports? OK, I'll let secular science own the Alar and aminotriazole reports. Your turn...

Who pays back the companies that were destroyed because of the asbestos scare...

Um, asbestos inhalation does cause cancer and other diseases. Sorry if that bothers you, but it's true. New science hasn't changed that; it has shown that different types of asbestos have different levels of toxicity, and that exposure to asbestos is related to the form of asbestos (e.g. secured asbestos is safer than flocked asbestos). But it is still a serious health hazard.

Are can we get to some more direct beliefs like eugenics?

Eugenics has nothing to do with secularism, and it has been around as long as agriculture and animal husbandry has existed.

I would hope you would really agree with this last, because to the extent that you desire to convince others to leave the faith, and I can imagine some pretty significant consequences for that person which you may not have really thought through.

I assume that you are referring to the boogie man; er, I mean, Satan and Hell and all that jazz. I would suggest to you that, by proselytyzing others to your faith and drawing them away from Allah (or Vishnu, or Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster), you are condemning them to some pretty serious consequences that you may not have thought through.

See, Pascal's Wager doesn't just have two numbers; it's a roulette wheel of cosmological proportion. In other words, only a sucker would put his money down on any number; no matter how high the payoff, the odds of winning are astronomically small.

Randy Kirk said...

Re: STD's. All known STD's were under control in America as of 1965. After 30 years of free love, a majority of the population has or has had an STD.

The fact that Christians get divorced doesn't logically have anything to do with the who was behind the change in thinking and laws that has led to the huge increase.

I'm certainly not going to argue the terrorism and war problem. Fanatics are fanatics. Nothing to do with the underlying belief.

The eugenics movement, on the other hand, was not a fanatical wing, but the core followers.

No, I wasn't talking heaven and hell with regards to consequences of you're persuading folks to leave the fold. I was referring to shorter life spans, increased emotional disease, etc. But, since you can't KNOW for sure if there is a heaven and hell, do you have an ethical responsibility to fully determine if they exist prior to dissuading someone from taking a path towards the one and away from the other? If you're wrong, isn't your deed far worse than mine of giving a person the hope of heaven while alive, even if there is nothing at the end?

Shygetz said...

All known STD's were under control in America as of 1965. After 30 years of free love, a majority of the population has or has had an STD.

You better cite some primary literature here, bub, or I'm gonna accuse you (or your unreliable source) of pulling stuff out of your nether regions. Regardless, free love was not a non-theist movement; there are very early Christian free love sects, such as the Adamites in Africa, as well as the Cathars. In the US, the free love movement was strongly linked to spiritualism, which is quite contrary to atheistic materialism. So, go hang that on someone else's door, 'cause I ain't claimin' it.

The fact that Christians get divorced doesn't logically have anything to do with the who was behind the change in thinking and laws that has led to the huge increase.

And yet you have asserted the baseless claim that atheists and agnostics are behind this change, even though only one atheist or agnostic has "come out" in the federal legislature (and precious few at lower levels) which makes the laws. Similarly, the divorce rates indicate that the people who actually utilize divorce mechanisms are not predominately the atheists and agnostics:

Jews 30%
Born-again Christians 27%
Other Christians 24%
Atheists, Agnostics 21%
(Barna Research Group, Dec 1999)

So, it seems that adhering to a religion that condemns divorce actually makes divorce more likely. So, I (and my one and only wife) should be blaming you and yours for the high divorce rates.

Fanatics are fanatics. Nothing to do with the underlying belief.

Yes, which explains the spate of atheist bombings we have been experiencing around the world. Well then, we are left with a few unappealing choices. Either:
1.) You are wrong, and religious beliefs (at least certain flavors) breeds fanaticism
2.) Religious beliefs attract already existing fanatics to their folds (hardly a superior prospect)
3.) Religious beliefs breed superior terrorists, and atheistic terrorists are simply too incompetent to attract our notice

Which do you think explains the relative lack of atheistic terrorism fronts?

The eugenics movement, on the other hand, was not a fanatical wing, but the core followers.

Yet another ignorant assertion. Eugenics was bad science that ensnared people both religous and secular. As I said, the idea has been around as long as animal husbandry. Plato was the first I know of who recommended its use in humans. The most striking early form of eugenics in the US that I know of was not secular in nature, but rather a Christian cult called the Oneida Community (which was the subject of one of my all-time favorite college lectures).

I was referring to shorter life spans, increased emotional disease, etc.

Shortler life spans? Oh gosh, that's funny. Please show me where you saw that we now have shorter life spans than in whatever utopian time you look back on as being indicative of good Christian living. Wow...you're funny.

And increased "emotional disease" huh? Do you have any evidence that non-theists exhibit a higher level of psychological disorder than theists, or are you (once again) pulling stuff out of your nether regions?