Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #1

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

This is how my evidence principle is currently worded:

[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.

Last time I suggested a reason for thinking EP3 could perhaps apply to any descriptive belief.

There could be obligations implicit in belief language itself. These obligations would relate to the expectations our listeners might be justified in having when they hear any descriptive belief vocalised.

Particularly, perhaps, if our understanding of ‘belief’ is anything like Jonathan Adler’s.

Jonathan E Adler Belief's Own Ethics
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Don’t be shy, Nigel

It’s a strange thing.

He’s finally achieved his triumph. After all this time!

I expected to see Nigel Farage jumping about all over the place pointing out to us all the benefits we are now enjoying in the sunny uplands of Brexitland.

And making sure we’re in no doubt that it is he, Nigel Farage, whom we must thank for our immense good fortune.

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage in 2017 [Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, USA]

So where are you, Nigel?

© Chris Lawrence 2021

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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Face to face

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

’I don’t need to believe. I know.’

So said Carl Gustav Jung in 1959 when John Freeman asked him on BBC TV’s Face to Face whether he believed in God.

He later regretted that his reply was too short and too open to misunderstanding. But we’ll leave that can of worms safely shut for now.

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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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Would you Adam and Eve it?

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

We finished last time with the opening paragraph of William Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief.1

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.

JMW Turner The Shipwreck
J M W Turner: The Shipwreck
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The wreck of the Psyche

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

On 22 December 1870 there was a total solar eclipse.

A solar eclipse is when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, wholly or partially blocking out the sun as viewed from earth.

A total solar eclipse is a rare event, and even then its totality is only visible across a narrow band on the earth’s surface.

On 22 December 1870 the narrow band included parts of Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Sicily, Greece, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

The British Royal Astronomical Society organised an expedition to observe and record the eclipse.

solar eclipse 22 December 1870
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Let’s get metaphysical

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

Why am I so interested in what some random bearded Victorian dude thought about anything?

Here is one reason (in three parts):

(i) An important branch of philosophy – epistemology – is concerned with knowledge and belief.

(ii) An important position in epistemology – evidentialism – holds that beliefs should only be based on relevant evidence.1

(iii) Random bearded Victorian dude William Clifford effectively kicked off evidentialism.

knowledge and belief
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