The moral of the story

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

Last time I came up with four options as to whether an evidence principle like William Clifford’s (‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’,1 which we are calling ‘CP’) can apply to moral beliefs and other categorical prescriptive beliefs.

I rejected the first option, which was this:

(i) Somehow we manage to persuade ourselves that prescriptive beliefs can be supported by evidence. This would save both CP and the whole of morality.

William Kingdon Clifford

Clifford himself would go for this option though. He clearly applied CP to moral beliefs:

The beliefs about right and wrong which guide our actions … never suffer from investigation; they can take care of themselves, without being propped up by “acts of faith” … or the suppression of contrary evidence.2

He distinguishes between, on the one hand, ‘tradition’ which might be ‘handed on without testing by successive generations’ (bad) and, on the other hand, ‘that which is truly built up out of the common experience of mankind’ (good). This latter is a

great fabric … for the guidance of our thoughts, and through them of our actions, both in the moral and in the material world. In the moral world … it gives us the conceptions of right in general, of justice, of truth, of beneficence, and the like. These are given as conceptions, not as statements or propositions; they answer to certain definite instincts, which are certainly within us, however they came there.3

But ‘conceptions’ which are not ‘statements or propositions’ do not sound like the kind of thing which can be true or false. If they cannot be true or false it is hard to see how they could be supported by evidence. What Clifford seems to be aiming at though is not the conceptions themselves but our understanding of how to apply them: for example how ‘right’ relates to ‘beneficence’:

That it is right to be beneficent is matter of immediate personal experience; for when a man retires within himself and there finds something, wider and more lasting than his solitary personality, which says, ‘I want to do right,’ as well as, ‘I want to do good to man,’ he can verify by direct observation that one instinct is founded upon and agrees fully with the other.

He doesn’t use the word ‘belief’ here but he does now seem to be talking about beliefs, or things which could be beliefs: the belief that wanting to do good to man is founded on wanting to do right; or the belief that doing good to man is a way of doing the right thing.

But look what else he seems to have done. He has moved from ‘is’ to ‘ought’, from descriptive to prescriptive. If I believe I have an instinct to do ‘right’ and another instinct to ‘do good to man’ I am just describing how I am, or how I believe I am. I may also have an instinct to fall asleep when I am tired, or to eat when I am hungry.

Clifford may be right that the instinct to do right has some connection with the instinct to do good to man – unlike, say, the instinct to fall asleep when tired and the instinct to eat when hungry. He may also be right that an individual can detect the connection between the instinct to do right and the instinct to do good to man.

But that does not show that I ought to do good to man, that ‘it is right to be beneficent’.

Read on.


1 William Clifford (1877, 1879), ‘The Ethics of Belief’, in Lectures and Essays, Volume II, London: MacMillan and Co, p186.

2 William Clifford (1877, 1879), pp188-9.

3 William Clifford (1877, 1879), p201.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

4 thoughts on “The moral of the story

  1. Pingback: Banging on | some strong language

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  4. Pingback: *Press This* The moral of the story #169 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

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