Philosophy, Uncategorized

W.K. Clifford, The Ethics Of Belief


This week’s blog prompt is to read and assess William Kingdon Clifford’s essay The Ethics of Belief. The essay is about using ‘belief’ as evidence for truth versus thorough investigation to find evidence for truth. To quote W. K. Clifford: “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” By that statement, we can see that Clifford was definitely not for using belief alone to present truth as, well, truth!

To support the premise of his statement William Clifford turned to himself, William Clifford, and presented a thought experiment in the form of an allegorical story.

The Story

The story is about a ship owner, not a captain, who had an old ship. The old ship had been around the block a few times and had ‘often needed repairs’. Some people (Clifford never stated if they were friends or not) also told the ship owner that ‘possibly she was not seaworthy.’

The ship owner mulled over having her refitted and overhauled; then he thought about how many times she, the ship, had ‘weathered so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come home safely from this trip also.”

He decided to put his ‘trust in Providence’ which would ‘protect’ the ship and it’s passengers. He felt comforted in his belief – then the ship went down with all it’s passengers on board in the middle of the ocean.

Clifford’s Statement

After presenting the story Clifford said that ‘he [the ship owner] was verily guilty of the death of those men.’ Referring to the allegorical men aboard the ship. He went on to say ‘the sincerity of his convictions can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him.’ Clifford states that evidence should be acquired through the process of investigation and not using belief as a process to an end; to this Clifford said the ship owner must be held accountable for his sole action of belief.

To sum Clifford’s statement informally:

  1. Belief alone does not provide evidence for protection.
  2. Ship owner relies on sole belief to provide evidence for protection, therefore ship goes down.
  3. Ship owner is guilty because investigative action was not taken.

To be honest, in my humble opinion, this seems applicably practical on the surface. Take mathematics for example, one can’t perform most mathematical operations without having your work checked and sometimes re-checked to be sure the end result is true. I also think his statement is somewhat logically true but also unsound. The ship could have gone down because of other circumstances, for example, like forces of nature which can be out of man’s realm of control no matter how well one is prepared.

Clifford then went on with modifying his first allegory with a different outcome for the ship; he made another allegory painting the picture of a group who did not conduct a fair inquiry and again stated ‘they had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them.”

After Affects

Clifford then offered a few causal points (which leans toward a slippery slope fallacy). Namely in that he claims that an individual’s belief is not his own private matter but that of society as a whole. He goes on to basically say that if each individual expresses examination for evidence, instead of placing faith in beliefs, all society will go to hell in a hand basket and evils will occur. To quote Clifford:

“The danger to society is not merely that it should believe the wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.” – W. K. Clifford

My Overall Take

Like I said before, I think Clifford’s logic if valid but not sound. Things cannot be as black and white as they seem, considering what context certain causal events occur that may cause one to lean on belief.

Lastly, for one who was stressing investigating true through honest inquiry Clifford never went into defining what honest inquiry was. He never state how to measure it or what gold standard could be used to define and honest inquiry.


3 thoughts on “W.K. Clifford, The Ethics Of Belief

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