Monday, July 9, 2012

On "The Ethics of Belief"

In his 1877 essay, The Ethics of Belief, William Clifford claims: "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." The bulk of the essay is concerned with what counts as sufficient evidence, but I'm not going to get into that here. Let's just assume it's clear when a belief is based on sufficient vs. insufficient evidence.

A Sea Tale

What's so ethically wrong about believing something upon insufficient evidence? Clifford begins by telling a story about a shipowner who doubted his ship was safe, but stifled his doubts until he came to sincerely believe it was safe. The ship sank and he received his insurance money. What a jerk! Intuitively, he's guilty of something. But what, exactly? Clifford writes:
"He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it."
There's a problem here. Clifford's goal in this essay is to convince us of the wrongness of merely holding a belief without sufficient evidence. A more appropriate story would start with the shipowner believing the ship is seaworthy and then neglect to confirm his belief to some appropriate degree. He would not have "knowingly and willing worked himself into that frame of mind." We could consistently condemn someone for doubt-stifling yet not condemn someone for whom the doubt never arose.

Clifford goes on to say that the shipowner's guilt would not be reduced "one jot" if he stifled his doubts and the ship was — in fact — completely seaworthy. I agree that the shipowner would still be failing to carry out due diligence, but he can't be "guilty of the death of those men" as Clifford had claimed about the original case. This is a terrible story for making Clifford's point because it mixes in guilt for manslaughter, guilt for doubt-stifling, and the whole controversial idea that a person can choose what to believe.


What if the shipowner were convinced that the ship is fine, but checks it anyway to fulfill his professional obligations? Clifford would condemn him for believing the ship is fine before checking it. And even if the confident shipowner checks the ship and finds no problems, Clifford would still(!) condemn him for continuing to believe his ship is fine.
"No man holding a strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side, can investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so that the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry unfits a man for the performance of this necessary duty."
Why is being "really in doubt" unbiased, yet it's biased to believe something? Are doubters somehow immune to confirmation bias while believers are not? Can someone loan me a time machine so I can show Clifford the modern denialist movements?


I have to admit this bit is rather poetic:
"No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever."
So not only are we in a permanent failure state if we already believe something important without sufficient evidence, any "trifling" misheld belief is just as bad. As anti-religious as Clifford is, I feel like he's introducing his own system of everyone's-a-sinner. He actually does use the word "sinful" later on.

Virtue and Vice

We finally see more explicit ethical theory two paragraphs before his oft-quoted conclusion. First, he rejects act consequentialism:
"And, as in other such cases, it is not the risk only which has to be considered; for a bad action is always bad at the time when it is done, no matter what happens afterwards."
He does dabble with justification for his maxim from rule consequentialism.
"Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. 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."
But rule consequentialism might not cover all cases of believing for insufficient reasons. I suspect believing that one's own prescriptions are effective drugs is helpful as a rule, even though doctors sometimes prescribe placebos. Also, stifling doubts about doing something dangerous-but-necessary may increase one's chance of success.

Clifford turns to a form of virtue ethics as his primary justifications for saying it's wrong to hold any belief without sufficient evidence.
"If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done from the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should lose its property, but that it should become a den of thieves, for then it must cease to be society."
So it's not about immediate or far off consequences associated with the loss of money; it's about acting contrary to the kind of beings we are. We're social beings and social beings respect property. Likewise, beliefs held on insufficient evidence may have this or that consequence, but what's really wrong with such beliefs is that they turn us into credulous savages.

Beliefs and Ethical Goals

For Clifford, not falling into intellectual savagery is an ultimate and overriding ethical end. Holding beliefs without sufficient reason is detrimental to that end, so it's always wrong to do so. I don't think most of us would agree because we have other values that are (at least) on the same level as doing our epistemic duty.

I would connect evidence to ethics in a way that's quite significant, even if it isn't as absolute as Clifford's connection. Informally:
  • Beliefs held with sufficient evidence are more likely to be true than beliefs held without sufficient evidence. 
  • Goals are more likely to be achieved when holding relevant true beliefs than relevant false beliefs.
  • Goals are more likely to be achieved when relevant beliefs are held with sufficient evidence.
  • Ethical rightness involves maximizing the likelihood of achieving certain goals.
  • Ethical rightness involves holding relevant beliefs with sufficient evidence.
At any rate, "The Ethics of Belief" is a provocative and fun read...or maybe an infuriating read. I appreciate the way he criticizes Christianity by only criticizing other religions directly. He's sure not a boring writer.

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