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
-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”.