Susan Haack: “The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered #2

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

What has drinking and driving got to do with the ethics of belief?

I’ll get to that.

Our current question is: ‘What has epistemic appraisal of belief got to do with moral appraisal of belief – or vice versa?’

Applied, for example, to William Clifford’s evidence principle (see below), the question would be whether he intended ‘wrong’ to mean ‘morally wrong’ and, if he did, was he right to do so?

Epistemic appraisal is, in this context, about how well or poorly a belief is supported by evidence. Moral (or ethical) appraisal would be about whether the believer was morally right or wrong in how the belief was acquired or held.

Last time we went through Susan Haack’s three possible answers. She called these the ‘special-case thesis’, the ‘correlation thesis’, and the ‘overlap thesis’.1

I think it’s fair to say that, of the three, Clifford himself subscribed to something like the special-case thesis. This is that when we appraise a belief or a believer epistemically, we are actually subjecting that belief or believer to moral appraisal. Hence:

[CP] …it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.2

It seems to me that considering his language throughout the essay (see for example Would you Adam and Eve it?) Clifford clearly did intend ‘wrong’ to mean ‘morally wrong’.

Haack however thinks Clifford fails to distinguish epistemic from moral culpability and offers no arguments for identifying the two or for the special-case thesis. Instead, she says, he just extrapolates his ship-owner story to a universal principle.3 His arguments ‘could, at most, establish the correlation thesis’. But she doesn’t think they even do that.

She lists some reasons why the ship-owner’s ignorance is morally significant:

The unjustified belief is false; the proposition concerned is of great practical importance; the person concerned is in a position of special responsibility; the false belief leads to dramatically harmful consequences; and the belief is willfully self-induced.

But for the correlation thesis to hold more broadly that ignorance would need to be ‘morally culpable even if all these features were absent’, say in cases of ‘apparently harmless unjustified belief’.

Clifford says that to count as a belief there must be potential ‘influence upon the actions of him who holds it’4 – which might then prove harmful. He claims over-belief involves ‘doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous’.

This, says Haack, ‘carries, if not invariably a risk of harm, a risk of risk of harm’. But she thinks this is too ‘remote’ for moral blame. Otherwise ‘not only drunken driving, but owning a car, would be morally culpable’.

We are also, she says, not always responsible for unjustified believing. Sometimes the cause is cognitive inadequacy.

Haack’s car-ownership analogy seems to miss Clifford’s point though.

His tirade against over-belief covers every consequence: actual and potential; immediate and remote; direct and indirect. Particularly significant is that, like a ‘pestilence’ or ‘plague’, over-belief generates more of itself.

The immediate effect of an individual unit of unjustified belief may be harmless, but this is no guarantee that every future and/or indirect effect of every unit of unjustified belief which that original unit may have encouraged (at first, second, third etc remove) will be equally harmless.

Compare this with car ownership.

Car ownership, or more generally vehicle ownership, may increase the risk of drunken driving in a statistical sense, in that increasing vehicle ownership might lead to an increase in drunken driving, and dropping vehicle ownership to zero should in theory eliminate it completely.

Access to a vehicle is doubtless a necessary precondition of drunken driving. But in itself it does not encourage and/or generate drunken driving.

Drinking and driving – short of drunken driving – is a far better analogy though, one which in fact supports Clifford’s point.

Fifty years ago drink driving was more prevalent in the UK, and prevalence normalised it. But ‘through firm laws, highly visible enforcement, and a sea-change in public attitudes … drink driving is now frowned upon by the vast majority of people’.5

Haack agrees that ‘bad habits’ of unjustified belief ‘may, if unchecked, become inveterate’. At the same time she doubts if ‘indulgence in such habits is bound to encourage them in others’.

But Clifford does not need to claim that every over-belief is ‘bound to’ inch us into savagery. This is why his ‘plague theory’6 seems to me so apt. An HIV+ individual refusing to practise safe sex is not ‘bound to’ infect every partner, but that hardly exonerates him.

Haack’s second objection is that we are not always responsible for unjustified believing. The strength of this depends on whether CP implies both additions in square brackets below:

It is [morally] wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence, [even when the unjustified believing is outside the believer’s voluntary control].

As I’ve already said, Clifford’s language strongly suggests he did mean ‘morally wrong’. So it is plausible that he did not intend the second addition, and would more likely have accepted the converse:

It is [morally] wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence, [except when the unjustified believing is outside the believer’s voluntary control].

This is because once it’s made explicit that we’re talking about the moral domain, we can typically assume that involuntary acts are excluded. Consider these two:

It is morally wrong to lie, except when you had every reason to think you were telling the truth or when talking in your sleep.

It is morally wrong to deceive someone, except when the person had misinterpreted an act [statement] you had performed [made] in innocence.

Both of these could make me doubt the speaker’s command of the English language. ‘Lying’ typically excludes innocent untruths, and ‘deceiving’ typically excludes being misinterpreted.

So where have we got to? Haack is quite scathing about Clifford. She is particularly unimpressed with his claim to universality: ‘always, everywhere, and for anyone’.

But her counter-arguments seem less fatal than she assumes. I have still not seen anything yet to negate the idea of a moral principle such that, other things being equal, one should only hold or acquire a descriptive belief on sufficient evidence.

Read on.


1 Susan Haack (1997, 2001), ‘“The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered’. In Knowledge, Truth, and Duty, M. Steup (Ed), New York: Oxford, p21.

2 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.

3 Haack (1997, 2001), pp26-7.

4 Clifford (1877, 1879), p181-4.


6 Richard M Gale, On the Nature of Existence of God (1993), New York: Cambridge University Press, p356.

© Chris Lawrence 2021 

3 thoughts on “Susan Haack: “The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered #2

  1. Pingback: Susan Haack: “The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered #1 | some strong language

  2. Pingback: *Press This* Susan Haack: “The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered #2 #173 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

  3. Pingback: Full awareness | some strong language

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