I just can’t help believing – or can I?

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

We have already mentioned the difference between descriptive beliefs and prescriptive beliefs, and the fact that Clifford’s principle (‘CP’) applies to both:

[CP] …it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.1

But another important distinction is between voluntary and involuntary beliefs.

Once again the universality of CP implies that it covers both kinds. But Clifford’s language suggests he’s primarily focusing on aspects of our believing behaviour which are (or could be, or should be) under voluntary control:

Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we  weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence.2

In theory our self-control and discernment could dwindle away so much that our gullibility has become completely involuntary, so we could claim that any resultant ‘over-belief’ (see Would you Adam and Eve it?) is not our fault. But we would be wrong to let ourselves get to this state.

Think of a father who parties every night and wears himself out so much that he loses patience with his toddler son over something trivial and causes an injury. Perhaps the more extreme his exhaustion the less responsible the father was for the injury itself. But surely he is all the more culpable for letting exhaustion get the better of him.

In a similar way CP can apply to involuntarily acquired beliefs, if the methods and habits we cultivate for acquiring beliefs come from our voluntary choices.

Clifford certainly thinks there are cases where we exercise conscious control over what we believe. The ship owner for example ‘succeeded in overcoming [his] melancholy reflections’ on the state of his ship and ‘dismiss[ed] from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors’. He ‘acquired his belief … by stifling his doubts’, so ‘inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it’.3

At the other extreme Clifford describes a man whose ‘belief is so fixed that he cannot think otherwise’. But even that man

still has a choice in regard to the action suggested by it, and so cannot escape the duty of investigating on the ground of the strength of his convictions.4

Clifford weaves together voluntary and involuntary aspects of belief, both within one individual and between individuals in the same community. We can cultivate poor habits of belief by what we voluntarily choose to do or not to do. This can lead individuals and communities to ‘lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them’, becoming more credulous and prone to wrongly formed involuntary beliefs.

We are assuming of course that there are such things as involuntary beliefs, and indeed that there are such things as voluntary beliefs. Both assumptions could be open to question. But not now.

Read on.


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, p186.

2 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), p185.

3 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), p177-8.

4 William K Clifford (1877, 1879), p180-1.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

4 thoughts on “I just can’t help believing – or can I?

  1. Pingback: Would you Adam and Eve it? | some strong language

  2. Pingback: Less of the sermon | some strong language

  3. Pingback: A moral universe | some strong language

  4. Pingback: *Press This* I just can’t help believing – or can I? #171 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

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