Ethics of Belief

by Max Andrews

W.K. Clifford summarized his deontic model of rationality when he stated, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.  If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind… the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.”[1] I will need to clarify a few of the nuances to Clifford’s epistemic ethic.  I would part ways with Clifford in his sea-worthy ship story with regards to his alternate ending (see below).  The ship owner is not responsible or equally guilty for the shipwreck even though it never happened.  Such counterfactuals are absurd to consider as having deontic statuses since they do not pertain to reality.  I would merely suggest that someone’s wrongfulness for believing upon sufficient evidence is congruent and the wrongfulness is not congruent to the consequent of actions taken based on that belief.  William James’ position states that it is permissible to believe upon insufficient evidence and, perhaps, even obligatory for us to believe on insufficient evidence.  I disagree with James (see my argument for justification for the contrast).

Clifford’s ship scenario:

Clifford’s essay is chiefly remembered for two things: a story and a principle. The story is that of a shipowner who, once upon a time, was inclined to sell tickets for a transatlantic voyage. It struck him that his ship was rickety, and that its soundness might be in question. Knowing that repairs would be costly and cause significant delay, the shipowner managed to push these worries aside and form the “sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy.” He sold the tickets, bade the passengers farewell, and then quietly collected the insurance money “when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales” (1877, 70).

According to Clifford (who himself once survived a shipwreck, and so must have found this behavior particularly loathsome), the owner in the story was “verily guilty of the death of those men,” because even though he sincerely believed that the ship was sound, “he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him.” Why did he have no such right? Because, says Clifford, “he had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts” (1877, 70). After making this diagnosis, Clifford changes the end of the story: the ship doesn’t meet a liquid demise, but rather arrives safe and sound into New York harbor. Does the new outcome relieve the shipowner of blame for his belief? “Not one jot,” Clifford declares: he is equally guilty—equally blameworthy – for believing something on insufficient evidence.

The deontic aspect of belief and knowledge is not so much how one forms a belief but rather what that belief is.  This ethic on pertains to what the belief is and how it measures to the evidence.  The justificatory means is peripheral as long as the belief corresponds to reality.  Initially, this seems an untenable position assuming that it may be possible to know the objective truth about all of reality.  In order for one to be justified and to have knowledge without being at fault ethically the belief must be congruent to the evidence.  This allows for reasonable accountability and correction of one’s beliefs and it permits the advancement of knowledge, to learn, and paradigm shifts.

When holding one’s belief to the evidence to see if it corresponds there has to be some sense of epistemic obligation to have sufficient evidence for every belief.  Some beliefs require more evidence than others considering multiple competing hypotheses and some beliefs do not require much evidence.  It would be irrational and wrong to maintain a belief when it is contrary to the evidence.  When the evidence is ambiguous, lacking, or, for a lack of better term, too close to call, then one is justified in maintaining an agnostic position.

I believe there are good theological reasons for moral obligation to believe according to the evidence.  In a categorically broad sense, the biblical witness does seem to indicate that there are certain beliefs and reasons for belief that are condemnable and some that are commanded/approved.  Moral intuition serves as an a priori conception, which can be expressed either doxastically or in a self-evident or incorrigible way.  I do not see any good reason for why moral judgments should not function as evidence for a belief.  However, there does seem to be good reasons for why moral judgments and axioms should serve as evidence.  These judgments are not empirically based but intuitively based.  These intuitions are objective and are grounded in an objective reality, just as is any other criterion for evidence.  There simply is not a differentiation between moral intuitions and empirical judgments.


[1] W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays (New York: Prometheus, 1999), 77.


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