Clifford’s Ethics of Belief

Last post I took as a starting point the fact that people should want to hold true beliefs. It turns out that W. K. Clifford (yes, of Clifford fame in mathematics) wrote a famous essay in 1876 on the ethical implications of this idea called The Ethics of Belief. In general, the essay argues that it is immoral to hold beliefs which cannot be verified through sufficient evidence. I won’t go into his epistemology because I think we have better foundations such as that presented in the previous post.

The argument essentially boils down to making a case based on an example (or thought-experiment if you will). I’ll give some modern day real examples to point out that his idea seems to be warranted. Let it be said that Clifford presents the example in much more poetic language (well worth reading in my opinion: full copy here). To prevent the post from going on too long, I’m going to just distill out the key points.

John is an immigration ship-owner (in the late 19th century). He knows his ship is old and not well-built. He knows it probably needs repairs from its many journeys. The key point of this setup is that there is enough evidence here to cast some legitimate doubt on its seaworthiness. Still his cognitive biases started flaring when thinking about the time and money it would take to do repairs.

John starts rationalizing away his fears. He knows that the ship had made the journey many times, so why suspect it wouldn’t make it this time? He has faith that God would protect those innocent people on the journey. He knows the repair people were overstating the problems just to scam him for money. And so on. He comes to be sure that the ship is safe for travel.

As presented above it looks like John had control over his biases and intentionally argued himself into a position that was easier and cheaper for himself at the possible cost of other people’s lives. This is not the case at all. We know that cognitive biases as above work without our knowledge (see the previous post). In this thought experiment John really truly believes he has a correct belief that the ship is seaworthy, and he does not know that he came to this belief through faulty means.

Everyone knows how this story ends. The ship sinks in a storm and lots of innocent people die. Now we have a difficult moral dilemma to unpack. Is John morally responsible for their deaths? Clifford argues that he is. He argues that it is a moral responsibility to rigorously examine available evidence to come to a belief that is most likely to be true.

Clifford then alters the scenario and allows the ship to continuously keep making journeys successfully and the faulty belief never causes harm. He argues that it is still immoral for John to hold a belief that would not be supported by rigorous examination of the evidence. This is because we have no idea when our faulty beliefs will cause harm. It is a moral responsibility for us to keep intentionally casting doubt on our held beliefs to seriously undergo a reexamination.

In the case that the ship continues to make safe journeys, it is actually doing good in helping impoverished people immigrate to make a better life (or at least we assume so to make a more striking case). Clifford argues that the act of not examining the belief is still immoral. We cannot judge whether or not an action is moral based on accidental consequences even if those consequences produce good for society. To rephrase yet again, the ethics of whether or not it is moral to hold a belief is not based on the truth or falseness of the belief but on whether or not you have sufficiently good reason to believe it is true. It is always immoral to believe something on faith regardless of the good it does.

This has the interesting consequence that it is more moral to hold a false belief on good evidence than a true belief on bad evidence. Even though the next example will take this relatively neutral post to a bit more inflammatory levels, I think it is important to see that the thought experiment of Clifford is not pure ivory tower speculation. There are real people who are genuinely good people attempting to good in the world but whose false beliefs thwart them into doing some truly terrible things.

In 2008, an 11 year old girl named Madeline Neumann collapsed to the floor. She had a treatable form of diabetes. Her parents had plenty of time to go seek medical help and save her, but instead they prayed. They believed that pray would cure her. They watched their daughter die. This is not some random isolated incident. These types of deaths happen all the time and for good reason. If you truly believe that prayer works, then this is how you should behave. Madeline’s parents truly believed they were helping their daughter.

If you believe prayer works, but you wouldn’t behave in this way, then you need to take a serious look at your belief that it works. Clifford would say that you have just as much moral guilt as the parents of Madeline. The belief may never cause real harm for you, but the random accidental consequences of a belief are not how we judge whether or not holding the belief is moral. If you wouldn’t behave as Madeline’s parents, then you probably don’t truly believe prayer works, but you just haven’t examined it close enough to overcome the societal pressure of whatever community you belong to.

Clifford himself sums up nicely:

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

…”But,” says one, “I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments.”

Then he should have no time to believe.

2 thoughts on “Clifford’s Ethics of Belief

  1. I like this quite a bit. Turn Clifford’s analysis around on John’s self and recognize that under ordinary conditions there is a harmony of long-term interests among people, and you get a good approximation of one of Ayn Rand’s main ethical points.

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