I am a disciple of William Kingdon Clifford, who argued that "it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Obviously, this fits well with what I said on the "Moral Advice" page.
Clifford has not been well-treated by the philosophical world and unjustly so. In "A Re-evaluation of Clifford and His Critics," I argue for a charitable interpretation of his position. I also argue that his critics from William James on have attacked a straw man. In "A Defence of the Ethics of Belief," I argue that Clifford's position is correct.
It is possible to justify the ethics of belief in a single paragraph.
Objectively, someone who wants to do the right thing may sometimes fail to do so because he either lacks a relevant true belief or possesses a relevant false one. So, someone who wants to do the right thing will try to ensure that he possesses all relevant true beliefs and no relevant false ones. But a necessary condition for really trying to ensure that he does is trying to avoid believing without sufficient evidence. After all, if he believes without sufficient evidence, it is more probable that he will believe falsely, and the more probable it is that he believes falsely, the more probable it is that he will acquire relevant false beliefs and that relevant true beliefs will be blocked. There is definitely no alternative. For there to be an alternative, it would have to be possible to determine that a potential belief was false but not relevant and then successfully bring oneself to believe it. The trouble is that people cannot bring themselves to believe what they consciously know to be false. In contrast, people can do things to avoid over-believing. They can suspend belief if they do not have time to investigate and they can improve their standards of evidence by studying logic and statistics, by learning about cognitive biases, etc. So, someone who wants to do the right thing should always try to avoid believing without sufficient evidence. Everyone ought to want to do the right thing. It follows that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 186).
Given the foregoing argument, morality is primarily about acts. What we believe is important only because of the effects of our beliefs on our acts. We exercise control over our acts partly by exercising control over our beliefs. So, the ethics of belief is secondary. Its justification is consequentialist.
Some contend that the ethics of belief is deontological instead. The claim is that beliefs necessarily aim at the truth. Let us suppose that it is true. Then, anything that does not aim at the truth is not a belief – even if it has the same kind of effect on actions as a belief does. So, the most that a deontological ethics of belief can justify is calling the latter something other than “belief” unless there is a necessary connection between aiming at the truth and having the kind of effect on actions that beliefs have – and there is no such connection. Hence, a deontological ethics of belief cannot justify a demand that we reject harmful beliefs instead of just relabeling them. Furthermore, I do not think that beliefs aim at the truth – in a forthcoming paper in Ratio, I develop an analysis of belief that does not mention their relation to the truth at all. Finally, the deontological arguments do not show that there is anything wrong with the argument outlined above, and therefore give us no reason to reject it.
It is sometimes claimed that Clifford himself was a deontologist. But the argument set out above ultimately derives from Clifford and would not exist but for his work. At any rate, the issue of what Clifford actually meant is not as important to the ethicist as it is to the historian. What is important is determining how we ought to govern our beliefs. As an ethicist, Clifford would agree.
Copyright Brian Zamulinski.