Category Archives: William Clifford

Justifying an evidence principle

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

Time we returned to our proposed evidence principle:

[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.

A principle like this lays on the believer a prima facie burden of justification for acquiring and/or holding descriptive beliefs. To justify a belief morally, the believer would need to demonstrate that either:

(i) It is supported by evidence; or

(ii) By not believing the believer would breach a conflicting and overriding moral imperative.

William Kingdon Clifford
William Clifford, 1901
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Full awareness

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

So why is conceptual normativity not enough for an ethics of belief? That’s the question on everyone’s lips.

To try to answer it we’ll go back to Jonathan Adler’s ‘full awareness’1 condition.2

If we’re saying (as Adler does) that this condition is something which we need to impose, or assume, that would imply that we could acquire or hold a belief without it.

Eyes
[Photo: Anna Bal]
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Raising expectations

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

We talked last time about normativity in general, and normativity in relation to believing.

A good example of a normative word is ‘proper’. Jonathan Adler says that if I believe something, ‘p’, my believing that p is only ‘proper’ if my ‘evidence establishes that p is true’.

My belief would then be ‘in accord with the concept of belief’.1

Thinking
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Normativity

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

I am trying to promote the idea of a moral principle (‘EP3’: see for example A moral universe) governing how we acquire and hold descriptive beliefs.

Descriptive beliefs are about what is or is not the case. They exclude for example beliefs representing our personal preferences and beliefs about what ought to be the case.

I am going to use the word ‘normativity’ to refer to any aspect of anything which relates to whether it ought to be, whether it is permissible, whether it is justified, and so on.

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments
1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
Moses receiving the Ten Commandments
1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
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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?’

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Susan Haack: “The Ethics of Belief” Reconsidered #1

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

For a short time in 1970 a lady by the name of Susan Haack had the unenviable task of teaching me Logic.

Many years later she published a paper1 which our meanderings have now brought us to.

The last few instalments have looked at Jonathan Adler’s ‘intrinsic’ approach to the ethics of belief: see Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #1 onwards. Adler sees the ethics of belief as ‘imposed by the concept of belief itself’,2 not as a matter of the rationality or morality of belief.

We’ll have more to say about Adler later. But now I want to return to the idea of an evidence principle expressed in moral terms.

Susan Haack in 2015
Susan Haack in 2015 [Photo: Atfyfe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
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Tangerine trees and marmalade skies

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

It’s time for some concrete examples of over-belief.

We’ve looked at the mayhem Clifford’s ship owner caused.

And we can easily think of other clearly immoral cases, for example dismissing entire communities as subhuman because of ethnicity or cultural characteristics; or assuming someone is a terrorist just from their appearance.

This is our evidence principle so far:

[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.

Antisemitic Nazi propaganda poster in Lithuanian language
Antisemitic Nazi propaganda poster in Lithuanian, 1941
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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.

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Less of the sermon

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

The two previous instalments (Would you Adam and Eve it? and I just can’t help believing – or can I?) quoted for authenticity a number of passages from Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief.

At times he comes across like a Victorian sermon though, which can be a tad off-putting.

But if we dial down the rhetoric I think we can make a fairly strong case for much of what he has in mind, particularly in relation to belief in its social context.

So here is my own version.

Clifford expressed his evidence principle (which we are calling ’CP’) in universal, absolute terms:

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

Staffordshire figure of Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon
Staffordshire figure depicting Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, circa 1860 [photo: David Madelena]
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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.

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