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The Ethics of Belief

September 13, 2010

I’m sat drinking coffee and contemplating the ethics of belief. This is the title of a lecture and essay by W.K. Clifford, written in the late 1800’s. Clifford had been an Anglican before going through the Victorian “crisis of faith”, and it was against this religious background that he wrote The Ethics of Belief, which is presented in extraordinarily religious language. He wanted to provide an argument that set belief apart from religion, with a stricter standard of epistemological ethics. Clifford opens with an example. A ship owner sends a ship out to sea firm in the belief that it is seaworthy, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The ship successfully completes it’s voyage. From a consequentialist viewpoint this is acceptable. However, Clifford states that the ship owner is morally culpable in any event as he had access to evidence that showed the ship to be unsound. This evidentialism is the basis for Clifford’s ethics of belief.

His basic argument appeals to me, despite some flaws. He does not define “belief”. He doesn’t tell us what evidence or quantity of evidence qualifies as sufficient. And he takes evidentialism too far. He says that anyone, anywhere and at any time is wrong to believe anything on insufficient evidence. This is a step too far, given that there is a need to act based on beliefs even when we don’t have sufficient evidence to be certain in our thoughts.

What I’m wondering is exactly how we can define belief in a way that let’s us talk about it in a meaningful way when considering both our everyday lives and more obscure epistemic issues. I’ve got some ideas, but want to test the waters… Any contributions in the comments would be appreciated!

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