Fake news and the ethics of belief

First in a series.

On 15 December 2020 I finally graduated with a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa. My thesis was on the ethics of belief. It was finished at the end of 2019 and submitted in January. In September I heard the final version had been accepted.

In this Covid year the graduation ceremony was of course a virtual rather than physical event. Even if it had been a physical event I may not have attended in person as we had returned to the UK in 2016.

University of Cape Town
University of Cape Town, Upper Campus
By Adrian Frith – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=845804

The short title of the thesis is Permission to believe. Its original motivation when I started it back in 2012 was indirectly linked to 9/11, over a decade earlier. I say indirectly because it was a response not so much to 9/11 itself but to responses to 9/11 and to responses to responses to 9/11.

My own reaction to 9/11 was not unlike that of Richard Dawkins:

My respect for the Abrahamic religions went up in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th. The last vestige of respect for the taboo disappeared as I watched the “Day of Prayer” in Washington Cathedral, where people of mutually incompatible faiths united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place: religion. [https://ffrf.org/news/timely-topics/item/14035-time-to-stand-up]

I became quite obsessed with religion, but wanted to get beyond just weighing the good and bad effects of this or that religion against each other. It was belief itself which seemed to be the issue – were there right and wrong ways of believing? Eventually I came across William Clifford’s evidence principle from his 1877 essay ‘The Ethics of Belief’:

…it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

This, and William James’s 1896 response ‘The Will to Believe’, started me off on a series of blog posts which I began in 2008. A few years later I turned some of that material into a PhD research proposal for UCT.

By the time the thesis was substantially complete fake news had become a thing. It was too late to change the thesis itself but if fake news isn’t what the ethics of belief is about then nothing is.

Read on.

© Chris Lawrence 2020

33 thoughts on “Fake news and the ethics of belief

  1. theotheri

    First of all, Chris, congratulations on your PhD. The ethics of belief sounds like a fascinating thesis, and if it is or becomes available for viewing to outsiders like me, would you let me know? I would very very much like to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. theotheri

        It has arrived – thank you. I’m looking forward to reading it. Not as fast as I would under normal circumstances because my husband died in November, and I am a bit overwhelmed with the urgencies required by the estate, etc. But your thoughts on belief will be particularly close to my heart right now.

        Liked by 1 person

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