Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.
This tells his keynote story of the passenger ship owner who manages to overcome his doubts as to whether his ship is actually seaworthy. He does this not by having her overhauled and refitted but by trusting in Providence.
The ship sails and then sinks in mid-ocean.
Is the ship owner guilty of the death of passengers and crew? Undoubtedly.
He ‘did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship’, but he had ‘acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts’.2
But what if the ship had been sound all along? Clifford says he would still have been guilty. Not of manslaughter of course, but of holding a belief he had no right to hold, as the origin of the belief was faulty. He would still have endangered the lives on board.
Clifford argues that guilt attaches to the unjustified belief itself, not just to any action arising from it. This is because ‘it is not possible so to sever the belief from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other’.3
No ‘real belief’, he says, ‘however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant’ or without effect in the world. At the very least, each unjustified belief makes it easier to acquire the next one.
William James called beliefs held on insufficient evidence ‘over-beliefs’.4 He would have gone along with Clifford about the ship owner but, as we will (eventually) see, he was a lot less absolute than Clifford about over-beliefs in general.
Clifford saw over-beliefs as intrinsically corrupting. This is because each one
prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.5
An individual’s credulity is no ‘private matter’ as our beliefs form part of a shared social asset:
Our lives are guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, … an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handed on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified… Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows.6
Because the wrong of over-belief is to society at large, we are all obligated regardless of rank or role:
Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow, infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. Every hard-worked wife of an artisan may transmit to her children beliefs which shall knit society together, or rend it in pieces.7
Clifford understood how tempting it is to over-believe, and offers what could be a deliberate inversion of Genesis Chapter 3:
It is the sense of power attached to a sense of knowledge that makes men desirous of believing, and afraid of doubting.
This sense of power is the highest and best of pleasures when the belief on which it is founded is a true belief, and has been fairly earned by investigation. For then we may justly feel that it is common property, and holds good for others as well as for ourselves. … But if the belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one. Not only does it deceive ourselves by giving us a sense of power which we do not really possess, but it is sinful, because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence, which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town. What would be thought of one who, for the sake of a sweet fruit, should deliberately run the risk of bringing a plague upon his family and his neighbours?8
So it is not just unsound or unwise but morally wrong to over-believe:
We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born when one such belief is entertained is great and wide. But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent.9
As with other moral failings there could be both immediate and indirect consequences. If I steal money, the theft itself may be insignificant: my victim ‘may not feel the loss, or it may prevent him from using the money badly’. What ‘hurts society’ though is not so much the loss of property but the risk of becoming ‘a den of thieves, for then it must cease to be society’.
Similarly, over-belief is wrong primarily because of its effects on the community. The direct impact of my individual over-belief may be insignificant, but
I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things … 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.10
Phew. ‘Sinful’, ‘pestilence’, ‘plague’, ‘evil’, ‘sink back into savagery’? Surely this is all a bit over the top? Richard Gale for example imagines us ‘rolling around on the floor in hysterical convulsions’ when reading Clifford’s ‘plague theory of epistemically unwarranted belief’.11
But then savagery may not be an exaggeration for what took place at Washington’s Capitol Building on 6 January 2021 – a result, one might argue, of ‘epistemically unwarranted belief’.
1 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), ‘The Ethics of Belief’. In Lectures and Essays, Volume II, L Stephen & F Pollock (Eds), London: MacMillan and Co, p177.
2 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), p178.
3 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), p181.
4 William James (1907, 2000), ‘Pragmatism’. In Pragmatism and Other Writings, G Gunn (Ed), London: Penguin, p131.
5 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), pp181-2.
6 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), p182.
7 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), p183.
8 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), p184.
9 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), p185.
10 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), pp185-6.
11 Richard M Gale, On the Nature of Existence of God (1991), New York: Cambridge University Press, p356.
© Chris Lawrence 2021