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The ethics of belief

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[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.


Written by Chris Lawrence

4 December 2010 at 10:46 am

4 Responses

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  1. Chris – I have just re-read Clifford’s Razor, and along with your clarification, I can see more clearly the question you are hoping to examine. Thinking philosophically, you are asking whether it is ethical to believe without sufficient evidence. I think I have often asked a parallel question as a psychologist: Why do some people find it impossible to seriously consider beliefs that differ from those they hold themselves? As with Clifford, I’m not asking this question only about religious belief. I have seen the same kind of rigidity or refusal to explore alternatives exhibited in relation to everything from scientific theories to selecting birthday gifts.

    I look forward to the development of your thinking on this profound issue.


    Terry Sissons

    5 December 2010 at 10:07 pm

  2. PS: A further significant difficulty with James advocacy of using religion as the source of ethical decisions parallels the problem I have with Clifford. With Clifford I ask who decides what constitutes sufficient evidence. With James I ask who determines which religion? Given his culture, James seems to think that all religions share his Christian assumptions. But we know we don’t. For as far back as we can see, our wars have minimally had a religious dimension and even today there are many who feel justified in killing anyone who does not share their beliefs.

    So, no, again, religion is not a sure bedrock of ethical behavior.

    I have begun to think once again about Piaget & Kohlberg’s developmental theories of moral behavior. They both suggest that there are levels of moral reasoning that at their lowest level reflect simple punishment and reward and finally reach the level of universal principle. They believe these levels are evident in every society, in every religion.

    And now I’m going to stop. I promise!


    Terry Sissons

    4 December 2010 at 8:22 pm

  3. An interesting post – even if my final conclusion is an emphatic “neither.” Here are a few thoughts about why.

    Clifford first: His essay was written in 1877 before it was perhaps as clear as it is today that there is no such thing as absolute certainty. Even science – the source of knowledge to which I assume Clifford was referring – is never certain. It is at best a “best guess” based on current evidence within the context of current scientific assumptions.

    So if nothing is absolutely certain, what constitutes “insufficient evidence”? And who determines whether or not it is sufficient? Is each person responsible for assessing it for himself? This would eliminate the “I was only following orders”, defense but given the variation in the availability of evidence and in our ability to analyze it when we have it, should we not sometimes depend on the assessment of others who may be more expert than we? even in relation to ethical decisions? if so, under what conditions?

    And by what principles should ethical decisions be made when in practice insufficient evidence is simply not available?

    Just what, then, constitutes “unjustified belief”? Would it be unjustified to say “I am going to marry this person because I think we can build a happy and constructive life together?” What if my mother agrees and my father doesn’t? What is the woman is pregnant? Etc. How can I possibly gather “sufficient evidence” before the fact?

    James’ position, on the other hand, horrifies me every bit as much as Clifford’s. His definition of religion seems extraordinarily narrow. And can we really say that all religious belief assumes that “the best things are the most eternal”? How do we know anything at all is eternal? I would think the evidence is that quite possible nothing is.

    And James’ statement that “belief is measured by action” is even less defensible that Clifford’s assumption that there is given to us anything resembling certainty.

    Even when I was a still a believing Roman Catholic, I suspected that part of me was really Lutheran – because doubt seemed to me to be intrinsic to faith. Now all that remains is my view that we must learn to make our decisions – including our ethical decisions – within the context of uncertainty. We can never be sure that even our most basic principles are right. “Love my neighbour as I love myself”? always? are there no exceptions? what about respecting everything else in the universe? other forms of life, the environment, etc.

    Given an assumption of inescapable uncertainty, I often find myself asking what beliefs, convictions/ethical principles we have a right or even obligation to try to impose on others? I believe we have a right to try to prevent murder. But what about Roman Catholics who believe that abortion is murder? What about those societies who believe that killing female babies is not murder?

    Which leads me to another question: to what extent do ethical principles depend on the context in which they are asked? in particular on the context of the society within which we are acting?

    I don’t expect you to try to answer this comment, Chris. But I will say that I’ve begun to look forward to your postings on Saturday mornings. And I am looking forward with fascination to seeing how you develop your thesis.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


    Terry Sissons

    4 December 2010 at 2:32 pm

    • Thanks Terry for such a meaty response.

      This thesis proposal is an attempt to extract the required 1000 words from material covered in much more depth in the series beginning at Clifford’s razor. I’m trying to use the Clifford/James debate to get to an exhaustive either/or, and then see if it’s possible to establish the most rational position to adopt on that either/or.

      So the ‘either’ may not be exactly Clifford’s position and the ‘or’ may not be exactly James’s. But one will be basically ‘it is ethically not OK to believe something on insufficient evidence’ and the other will be something like ‘sometimes it is ethically better to believe something on insufficient evidence rather than withhold belief’.

      ‘Belief’ in both cases means very much belief that something is the case, rather than including decisions about what to do. I wouldn’t want to characterise Clifford as saying it’s never right to decide to do something without being 100% certain it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think he is saying that, and if he is I wouldn’t agree.

      And even in relation to belief about what is the case, it will be interesting to pursue the issue of certainty. I don’t think Clifford is insisting that belief is a purely binary thing – ie you either believe x because you are 100% certain of x, or you don’t believe x. I think he would be more likely to say your belief should match your level of certainty – ie ‘it is ethically not OK to believe that something is the case with greater certainty than the evidence would justify’.

      Whereas James, if I read him correctly, would say: ‘sometimes it is ethically better to believe that something is the case with greater certainty than the evidence would justify rather than withhold that level of conviction’. This is because of the ethical benefit of making the required leap of faith. It’s that ethical benefit of the leap of faith which I think could be the crux of what James is saying.

      Thanks again Terry. Your input has helped a lot.


      Chris Lawrence

      5 December 2010 at 9:21 am

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