A moral universe

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

A few articles ago (see Tweedledum said to Tweedledee) I floated the idea of an evidence principle:

[EP1] It is wrong to believe anything, within the category of descriptive belief, on insufficient evidence.

I called it ‘EP1’ because I expected to have to amend it later on. I could then call any future versions EP2, EP3 etc.

EP1 is based on William Clifford’s principle, which I’m calling ‘CP’:

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

EP1 only applies to descriptive beliefs, unlike CP. But as we saw in Would you Adam and Eve it? Clifford clearly intended CP to be a moral principle, and EP1 will also be a moral principle.

One immediate implication of EP1 being a moral principle is that it will predominantly apply in social contexts, or at least presuppose a social context. We can and should therefore envisage a rationale for EP1 like the one articulated in the previous instalment for CP.

Another implication of EP1 being a moral principle is that it will typically apply to descriptive beliefs acquired and/or held in circumstances which involve a degree of conscious volition. I touched on the distinction between voluntary and involuntary beliefs in I just can’t help believing – or can I?, and I’ll have more to say about this later.

For now though the point I want to make is that, other things being equal, EP1 would judge believers blameworthy if they acquired or held a descriptive over-belief as a result of something they did voluntarily, or voluntarily did not do. Like CP, therefore, EP1 applies primarily to our behaviour in respect of how we believe, and only secondarily to the resulting beliefs themselves.

There are further implications of EP1 being a moral principle.

Saying that over-belief (over-believing) in general, or any specific category of it, is morally wrong is in many respects like saying lying or deceiving are morally wrong. In all three cases we are assuming we already understand what is for something to be morally wrong. We are not questioning whether anything can be morally wrong.

We will incorporate this into our principle:

[EP2] If anything is morally wrong, then it is morally wrong  to believe anything, within the category of descriptive belief, on insufficient evidence.

This makes it explicit that the kind of wrong we are talking about is moral wrong, and that we are assuming a universe where the idea of something being morally right or wrong already exists.

Consider for example the principle that lying is wrong. A perfectly amoral universe with no pre-existing concept of moral right or wrong would be one where the imperative that ‘it is wrong to lie’ would not apply. This is because the conditions would not exist for it to be used meaningfully.

So all kinds of moral beliefs are similar in some respects. But this does not make them all equal or equivalent. Every over-belief is not as wrong as every lie or every deception. Some lies are worse than others, and some deceptions are worse than others.

But there are features of moral principles in general which, other things being equal, are also features of EP2. And in one respect EP2 seems to be more like a typical moral principle than CP is.

For example CP speaks in universal, absolute terms.

But it would be hard to argue it would be wrong ‘always, everywhere, and for anyone’ to do anything: lie, cheat, steal – or even kill.

Morality is a domain of choices and moral imperatives.

Taken literally CP says over-believing is the paramount sin: rather sacrifice your only son as a burnt offering than over-believe.

But an evidence principle expressed in moral terms only needs to say that it is wrong to over-believe (as it would also be to lie, cheat or steal) in the absence of any conflicting and overriding moral imperative.

We should make that explicit too:

Rembrandt The Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham
Rembrandt: The Sacrifice of Isaac

[EP3] If anything is morally wrong, then it is morally wrong to believe anything, within the category of descriptive belief, on insufficient evidence, in the absence of any conflicting and overriding moral imperative.

If we were in the French Resistance and we knew where our comrades were hiding, would it be morally wrong to lie to the Gestapo if they asked us nicely?

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.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

9 thoughts on “A moral universe

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    1. Chris Lawrence Post author

      Another thought on this. I don’t know if it’s fair to say it’s the moral principles themselves which are in conflict. It could be more that the event or act itself might count as an instance of more than one thing. In this case it would be an instance of lying but it would also be an instance of courage and an instance of loyalty.
      We could say there are three imperatives at play here: ‘Do not lie’, ‘Be courageous’ and ‘Be loyal’. At the generic level they don’t actually contradict each other, in the way that, say, ‘Love your enemies’ and ‘Hate your enemies’ do. You cannot possibly obey both ‘Love your enemies’ and ‘Hate your enemies’ at the same time.
      But (in many if not most circumstances) it is possible to obey ‘Do not lie’ and ‘Be courageous’ and ‘Be loyal’ at the same time. But it will not always be possible to. That could well be true of most if not all moral principles.

      Liked by 2 people

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