What Does Clifford Consider to Be the Appropriate Ethical Norm

1 January 2017

I agree with Clifford’s’ evidentialist view to a point, as in theory it is a good one, however, practically I believe it is not a realistic way to live your life, as it would be near impossible to find time to investigate and sufficient evidence on which to base every single belief that you come across in your life. Evidentialism states that the justification for a belief is based entirely on the evidence supporting that belief, therefore defining the epistemic condition of a belief.

This can be summarised by the simple thesis “For all persons S and propositions p and times t, S ought to believe that p at t if and only if believing p fits S’s evidence at t. ” Clifford’s evidentialist principle is extremely similar to this thesis, as the main point of his argument is that “it is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence” .

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From this we can see that he believed that sufficient reason and evidence supports a belief and if counterbalanced then one should withhold assent to that belief, rather than risk believing something based upon inadequate information. One aspect that Clifford emphasises more than the ordinary evidentialist thesis does is the severity of the consequence toward the believer of a false belief, as he uses words such as ‘guilty’ and ‘sin’ to describe the transgressions of these dishonourable men whose judgement was not to be trusted.

He places importance on challenging beliefs indoctrinated in you from childhood, instead of neglecting doubts and avoiding educating yourself on the opposition of these beliefs- stating that if you do not do so “the life of that man is one long sin against mankind”. Another important point that he raises is the repercussions that your ‘false’ beliefs can have on mankind, not only the important decisions made by people in positions of power that obviously and directly affect others, such as the two examples given in The

Ethics of Belief; but also the small and seemingly insignificant beliefs made by every man, as he expresses that “every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence” the results of this will be a greater, ethical wrong toward society- “the danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery. The first example that Clifford provides in The Ethics of Belief is one of a certain ship-owner who sold tickets to emigrant families for a transatlantic voyage. The ship was fairly old and had needed repairs in the past but instead of overhauling and refitting the ship, the owner chose to rather save the money and send the ship to sea with the belief that it would be safe and seaworthy. In Clifford’s story the ship sinks and the ship-owner collects the insurance money without any further consequences.

Clifford (who himself once survived a shipwreck, and so must have found this behaviour particularly loathsome ) argues that, although the man had convinced himself that no harm would come to the passengers and was sincere in this conviction, it was a result of him suppressing doubts raised about the seaworthiness of the ship and was not based on investigative evidence. Therefore Clifford states that even if the ship had not sunk, the man would still be guilty, as his belief would still have been a false one, even if it had not resulted in the death of many people.

The second example that is used is one of a group of men who lay false charges against a group of citizens, accusing them of harmful religious practices and resulting in a Commision being appointed to investigate the claims. It was found that the accused were in fact innocent, something that the accusers could have seen had they investigated the matter themselves. In this example, Clifford emphasises how wrong the beliefs of these men were- although they honestly believed them to be true- as these beliefs were founded on a suspicion and not sufficient evidence.

As he does with his first example, Clifford suggests that had the results of the enquiry been different, and the accused been found guilty, it would in no way validate the beliefs of the accusers, as the belief would still be an unjustified one, giving them no right to believe their accusations. In this argument we must also consider the difference between an epistemic and ethical wrong as Clifford is arguing the ethical norm regulating belief formation. Ethical norms are the unofficial rules or laws determined and constructed by the cultural power of a society and often have a moral connotation.

Epistemic means “of, or relating to knowledge” and an epistemic wrong is when something ‘violates an epistemic principle not overridden by any other epistemic principle’ whereas an ethical wrong is more of a breach of morality and the principles between what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. An example of an epistemic wrong would be “accepting some proposition on the basis of false, irrelevant or insufficient evidence” , which is one of the main points of Clifford’s argument. An example of an ethical wrong would be to give false information to customers in order to benefit financially.

There are three negative consequences for ethical wrongs- ‘the tie to action, the generational wrong and bad habits’ – the first deals with the negative results that moral failings can have on the actions of the believer; the second deals with the social dimension of these ethical wrongs which can be inherited by other generations and thus lead to a downward spiral of society along with the third, in which the bad habit of supporting a belief for unworthy reason will create a world in which no-one challenges anything and everything is taken at face value.

Clifford argues not only the epistemic importance of inquiring into the validity of all of your beliefs but also the ethical importance in challenging everything. He states that “we all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born when one such belief is entertained is great and wide. As a counterargument to Clifford’s Ethics of Belief, a fellow philosopher, William James, wrote The Will to Believe, challenging some of Clifford’s points and I believe that his arguments are valid and provide more of a logical way of looking at belief and the appropriate ethical norm toward belief maintenance.

James argues that “first of all some issues are alive or dead for a person, like live or dead wires for an electrician” meaning that to some, certain choices where two options are provided and neither are acceptable when relating to the believers personal situation are not valid choices, “secondly, some decisions are forced or avoidable” , such as choosing to turn left or right in your car when getting to a T junction in the road, which is forced, or deciding which ovie to watch- which is avoidable, as you could chose not to watch a movie- “thirdly some are momentous or trivial” and therefore your decision could be one that would either have a significant effect on the history of the world or the lives of others, such as approving nuclear warfare, or could be a menial choice such as what to eat for lunch. “Now when Clifford negates all belief without evidence in order to avoid error, he does not recognize that some decisions are forced and momentous. Not to make a decision is to make a decision in such a case.

Not to choose an option brings about the same loss of the truth or good that could have been experienced. ” From this we can see that selection for beliefs is more complicated than it may initially appear in Clifford’s argument and not as simple as just believing anything that has sufficient evidence to support your belief in it. For instance, in some cases one can never have absolute certainty of one’s evidence and this makes it fairly difficult to decide when one’s evidence is sufficient or insufficient.

Also, an ethical norm is decided on the basis of your moral compass and thus this is very much an instinctual decision, not one made based upon epistemology or knowledge, and this is supported better in James’s argument as he states that “our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must decide an option between propositions whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds” as opposed to Clifford who states that with patient investigation you can find the appropriate evidence on which to assent or dissent to that belief.

In conclusion, I believe Clifford’s Ethics of Belief is a valuable insight into an argument that should be seriously taken into consideration when dealing with both the epistemic and ethical norms surrounding formation and preservation of beliefs, especially if those beliefs are significant ones that could have an impact on the course of your or other people’s life. However, I also feel that it is necessary to take into consideration that as beliefs are often a moral issue the choice to believe can be an emotional as opposed to intellectual one.

James provides for this impulsiveness in his argument and allows for a less rigid standpoint in regards to the evidence required to provide someone with the right to a belief. Considering both the view of Clifford and of James I feel that one of the common points recognisable in each is the importance of belief and that instead of taking our beliefs for granted we should truly appreciate and make the most of the opportunity given to us when we are allowed the freedom to choose what we truly believe to be true.

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