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The ethics of belief (final version)

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Below is the final version of the PhD research proposal I sent off to the UK’s Open University last weekend. Thanks for all the feedback on the previous version – as a result of which I opened it up a bit beyond the historic debate between William Clifford and William James.

In the end I decided to go with this rather than Ethics as a product of evolution purely because I thought the ‘belief’ topic might be more focused and manageable through the application process. I left ‘evolution’ as my second choice, and I’d be more than happy to do either.

I would like to examine the historic debate between William Clifford and William James on the ethics of belief, to identify if possible the most rational position to adopt on the issues it illuminates. Considering the impact of religious belief on the prospects for 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.

James responded with his 1896 lecture The Will to Believe, intended 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.

The material below derives from a longer introductory treatment. I would welcome the opportunity to dig deeper into both positions, so as to try to shape and evaluate the most defensible thesis in the spirit of ‘Clifford’ against the most defensible antithesis in the spirit of ‘James’.

One rationale for doing this is a suspicion that something like this opposition might underlie much of the antagonism between different groups of believers and different groups of nonbelievers.

There is only space here to sketch a possible approach. We can start with a remark James makes towards 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 seem to agree that the issue is fundamentally one of ethics. Clifford says unjustified belief is unethical. James’s ‘religious hypothesis’ is about ethics – but it is also a hypothesis about what is the case.

For James religion says ‘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.

And a third:

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.

Two ‘affirmations’ plus one ‘representation’ constitute the ‘religious hypothesis’.

Since belief is measured by action: So we attribute beliefs to people on the basis of their actions, such that we may deny they really believe what they say they believe because of how we see them act? Possibly, but this is far from the necessary connection 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 while believing the converse.

Clifford does not condone even purely private unjustified belief. He 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 does not deny we can conceal our beliefs. But unless his principle is adopted 100% both the individual and the community will become more credulous, and that is wrong.

James on the other hand sees something special in the religious hypothesis such that it is impossible to behave as a non-believer as one would as a believer.

We can, for the sake of argument, 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.

This 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.

It may be both possible and necessary to recast both positions to include relative certainty. ‘Clifford’ may not need to insist on a purely ‘binary’ belief: only that, for example, it is unethical to believe that something is the case with greater certainty than the evidence would justify.

‘James’ on the other hand might say that sometimes it is ethically better to believe that something is the case with greater certainty than the evidence would justify rather than withhold one’s conviction, because of the ethical benefit in making that leap of faith. ‘Clifford’ would question whether that leap of faith can ever be a good thing.

© Chris Lawrence 2011.


Written by Chris Lawrence

8 January 2011 at 8:20 am

7 Responses

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  1. Besides analyzing the kinds of uncertainties which I find more questionable than others, I also ask whether/when it is ethical to act with certainty. And if/when a person is certain (eg: I am certain there is a God, or I am certain this man is guilty as charged, or I am certain you are pointing a gun at my daughter’s head), under what circumstances I have the ethical right or even duty to impose that certainty on others.


    Terry Sissons

    8 January 2011 at 1:43 pm

  2. Chris – I’ve put more thought into Ethics as a product of Evolution than into the Clifford/James comparison, and indeed feel better equipped to do so. And I’m not sure that substantive feedback is of any particular value at this point since you have submitted your proposal to a “higher authority” as it were for evaluation. So please feel free to recognize that I am formulating the following to clarify my own thinking. I appreciate the dialogue but do not want to complicate your train of thought at this point.

    My first thoughts were that both Clifford & James has pretty limited views of science and religion respectively. So I was relieved to read your concluding paragraphs in which you suggest that both positions might be somewhat modified to include the potential for some level of doubt. Especially since we are much more aware today that doubt or uncertainty cannot be avoided in either science or religion. Luther talked about the intrinsic nature of doubt in any faith (an idea that is no longer as central to Lutheran theology than I think it should be), and James seems to dismiss it altogether. In science, I think it was not really until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the essential inescapability of uncertainty took hold in science, and it is still not 100% accepted even by scientists.

    But I appreciate with your exploration of Clifford’s & James’ positions as ones of relative rather than absolute certainty. Personally I believe that my ethical decisions must be made with the sometimes terrifying knowledge that my choices may be wrong. There have been situations in which I have simply not known which course of action is the most ethical, and yet even to do nothing is to choose. I don’t see a way around this.

    So I have often asked if there are some kinds or sources of uncertainty/certainty that are more important to be aware of than others. I think, if I understand correctly, that is the jist of your question. I’m sure the potential answers are complex and varied – or at least they seem so to me – and I hope very much I will have the chance to read your own thoughts of this question as they continue to develop.

    Thank you for sharing this with all of us who find questions like these so engrossing.


    Terry Sissons

    8 January 2011 at 12:50 pm

    • Thanks Terry.

      It was quite a tough choice, but I had a worry that the ethics/evolution topic might seem a bit ‘done to death’ and I might struggle to get across a promising enough new angle on it in the context of the application itself and any subsequent conversation arising from it. Whereas the Clifford/James debate could serve as a pair of convenient labels for two overall positions which seem to crop up in a lot of current debate about religious matters. (If not on the surface then at least in the subtext.)

      ‘Clifford’ would be something like: It is wrong to base one’s ethics on any belief about what is the case, particularly when that belief itself smuggles in ethical content.

      ‘James’ would then be something like: The highest ethical position assumes a leap of faith, and that leap of faith can or (even must) incorporate belief about what is the case.

      The words ‘something like’ are important. An important early objective would be to get to a formulation of each position which is sound enough to work with.

      Thanks again for all the feedback. I value it enormously.


      Chris Lawrence

      8 January 2011 at 1:58 pm

      • Well, I’ve not even read Clifford, so I cannot speak with any knowledge about what he would say. But for myself, the statement I would tend to make from his side of the question as I understand it from what you have written is something like: “It is wrong to defend ethical principles as universally applicable when they arise from beliefs which are not based on evidence which is generally accepted as valid.” This still leaves room for error, of course, since it is possible that conclusions we draw from even strong evidence are wrong. But it does preclude my imposing my beliefs based on faith on people who do not share that faith.

        James’ position seems to me to be a little bit closer to contemporary fundamentalist religion. The statement I would make reflecting his side of the question might be something like: “The highest ethical position is based on a leap of faith; it cannot be achieved through the application of human reason or observation alone.” According to this position, doubt can only be overcome, and must be overcome, by a leap of faith. There are those who think this means accepting the bible as literal and historical truth, a position that I find simply risable. But there are those who say that we can’t prove that all men are created equal, that we each have a right to life, to liberty and dignity, to adequate food, clothing, and education, but that principles like these can and should be the foundations of our ethical behaviour.

        I suspect I may be distorting James’ position a little, but it is the only way I can look at it as a reasonably tenable position.

        I will stop for now, I promise. Let me say though that if I didn’t find your thesis so interesting, this would not be the third comment I have made on it today. Obviously I look forward to your next post.


        Terry Sissons

        8 January 2011 at 2:58 pm

      • Chris – I have missed your posts. I do understand, though, that for reasons trivial to profound, joyful to anguished, and sometimes simply to preserve mere sanity, one must withdraw.

        Hope all is well.


        24 February 2011 at 4:00 pm

        • Thanks Terry!

          Hardly profound, certainly not anguished, neither joyful nor joyless, so maybe a tad trivial. I sent off my application to the OU & I’m waiting to see if they call me for an interview. Doing lots of reading, and not over-full of things to say. Plus we have a new (and young) West Highland Terrier which has re-organised our time a bit. But I will be back…

          Thanks again,

          Chris Lawrence

          26 February 2011 at 8:38 am

          • Thank you for your enjoyable update. A new – young – West Highland Terrier is sufficient explanation for a reorganized schedule. I have found that a new puppy is just one step below the addition of a two-year-old when it comes to reorganizing one’s life. I imagine that waiting for OU is a big deal as well. Amazing how much energy can be focused on waiting, isn’t it?

            Best wishes for both endeavors. I awake your return to cyber-space with eager patience.

            Terry Sissons

            26 February 2011 at 2:28 pm

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