The ethics of belief
[The post below is an alternative draft research proposal for a philosophy PhD at a UK university. It overlaps a bit with the previous one, on Ethics as a product of evolution. I thought I would work both to a finished state before making a final decision. Again I would be delighted to get feedback.]
I would like to examine the debate between William Clifford and William James on the ethics of belief, so as to identify if possible the most rational position to adopt on the issues it illuminates. Considering the impact of religious belief on the prospect of peace in the 21st century its relevance could be more than academic.
Clifford’s 1877 essay The Ethics of Belief declared that it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. Clifford clearly meant ‘morally wrong’: The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat.
The material below is from a longer introductory treatment. I would welcome the opportunity to dig deeper into both Clifford’s thesis and James’s critique.
James intended his 1896 lecture The Will to Believe as a
defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters.
He caricatured Clifford as saying:
Believe nothing, …keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies.
There is no space here to do justice to either side. Instead we will jump to near the end of The Will to Believe:
When I look at the religious question as it really puts itself to concrete men, and when I think of all the possibilities… it involves, then this command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait – acting of course meanwhile… as if religion were not true [footnote] till doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough, – this command… seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave.
Since belief is measured by action, he who forbids us to believe religion to be true, necessarily also forbids us to act as we should if we did believe it to be true. The whole defence of religious faith hinges upon action. If the action required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no way different from that dictated by the naturalistic hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity, better pruned away, and controversy about its legitimacy is a piece of idle trifling, unworthy of serious minds. I myself believe, of course, that the religious hypothesis gives to the world an expression which specifically determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of belief.
Clifford and James agree the issue is one of ethics. Clifford says unjustified belief is unethical. James’s ‘religious hypothesis’ is fundamentally about ethics – but it is also a hypothesis about what is the case.
James earlier describes religion as saying ‘essentially two things’:
First, …that the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone… and say the final word. “Perfection is eternal” … seems a good way of putting this first affirmation of religion, an affirmation which obviously cannot yet be verified scientifically at all.
The second affirmation of religion is that we are better off even now if we believe her first affirmation to be true.
But there is more:
The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form. The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here.
The two affirmations – plus the ‘representation’ above – constitute the ‘religious hypothesis’.
Since belief is measured by action: Is this saying we attribute beliefs to people on the basis of their actions, such that we may deny that people really believe what they say they believe because of how we see them act? Possibly, but this is far from saying that action is the only criterion of belief – that people who do not reveal their beliefs by acting in a certain way literally do not have those beliefs. I can be immobile, and read and believe a statement I have never read before, without giving any sign of my belief. My belief may predispose me to act in certain ways, but there is not the necessary connection which James needs for his ‘necessarily also forbids us to act’.
It is possible both to believe something while not revealing it by action and also to behave in the same way while believing something or believing the converse. Belief and behaviour can be unrelated.
It is worth noting Clifford’s condemnation of private unjustified belief.
Clifford says we should never believe anything on insufficient evidence, even though in a particular instance ‘there may be no great harm done by the mere belief’ or ‘it may be true after all’. ‘No great harm’ could extend to ‘no harm at all’. Clifford is not denying we can behave so as to conceal our beliefs. But he is saying that unless his principle is adopted 100% both the individual and the community will become more credulous, and that is wrong.
James however sees something special in the religious hypothesis such that it is impossible to behave as a non-believer as one would as a believer. (See ‘required’, ‘inspired’, ‘dictated’, ‘determines’ and ‘makes’ in the footnote.)
We can grant that the kind of behaviour typically required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is thoroughly desirable, even that no behaviour is ‘better’. James would claim that that best behaviour may only accrue from sincere belief in the religious hypothesis; and that it is impossible to behave as if you believe the religious hypothesis without actually believing it.
That is a huge claim: that at the highest level morality can be necessarily linked to a belief that something is the case; that from the perspective of the individual believer, morality is what it is because of that something. Hence perhaps the ‘philosophic cave’, with its hint of Plato’s Form of the Good?
© Chris Lawrence 2010.
- William James did not annihilate the ‘evidence daleks’ | Brian Zamulinski (guardian.co.uk)
- Why life without faith is impossible | Andrew Brown (guardian.co.uk)