Clifford’s Ethics: Greatest Sin is Belief On Insufficient Evidence


“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient reason.”

So says W.K. Clifford in his famous essay, The Ethics Of Belief.  For Clifford, believing something on insufficient evidence is not just bad thinking– it is morally wrong.  Not just yourself, but others can be hurt from your shallow or wishful thinking.

Clifford gives the example of a ship-owner who suspects, due to evidence of abnormal wear and tear, that it may be time to overhaul his ship before the next voyage, but when a profitable trip presents itself, he convinces himself that the ship has one more mission left in her before docking for repairs.  Unfortunately, turns out the ship could have used some maintenance before setting sail, and it sinks during the voyage and all aboard are drowned.

Intuitively, many of us may feel that the ship-owner bears responsibility for this loss of life and material, but being he did nothing actively to bring about the sinking, the moral situation can become muddled; perhaps some might even chalk it up to chance or an act of God.  And the situation could become even more confusing if we assume the ship had passed its most recent government inspection and was not due for another inspection for another three months.  Or even more:  what if it is far from certain that repairs in time would have spared the ship?

None of this matters, says Clifford, for whom the ethics in the case are crystal clear.  The captain is utterly at fault since “he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him.”  For Clifford, who was an unabashed atheist, believing on insufficient evidence is about as close as one can come in this life to “sin.”

Clifford believed that right or wrong is not about outcomes, it is about origins:  the origin of belief.  If a person has “acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts” than he has done wrong, and it is an evil decision regardless of final results.

To achieve a good decision, one must practice “patient inquiring” without “prejudice and passion.”  One must ask the right questions and go about solving them in the correct manner.  Clifford approvingly sites Jacobi, who said that a question rightly asked is half-answered.  Clifford adds to this that “the METHOD of solution is the other half of the answer.”

It is wrong, says Clifford, to suppress one’s doubts simply because it is more convenient or less painful to believe a certain way.  This holds in the area of religious doctrine as well as anywhere else.

It is true that doubt is “a very bitter thing,” he says.  “It leaves us bare and powerless where we thought that we were safe and strong.”  And Clifford has the beautiful and ugly insight that “it is the sense of power” that the feeling of knowledge can bestow upon us that “makes men desirous of believing and afraid of doubting.”

Clifford thought that is was craven selfishness to believe something upon insufficient investigation.  Sure, we get the “sweet fruit” of feeling powerful and safe in our so-called knowledge, but by acting in ignorance, we can simultaneously bring misery to others.

Sounding a bit like the later Existentialists, Clifford contends that the belief of one person affects all humankind.  The lowliest man, by what he practices and preaches, can “help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race.”  And a mother wields the enormous power to encourage or constrain beliefs in her children that will keep society united and at peace, or that will rip it apart and bring woe unto another generation.

Also, in day to day society, Clifford maintains that we often get the criminals we deserve, that the population can make itself prey to evil-doers by choosing ignorance and faulty reasoning over skeptical, clear-thinking investigation.  As Clifford puts it:  “the credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat.”

When it comes to a man’s spiritual beliefs, the atheistic Clifford has little patience with religious bigots and unquestioning zealots.  Quoting Coleridge he says that “he who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.”

However, Clifford– apparently a brilliant debater of his day– knows his audience, and when it comes to citing the silliness of religious beliefs that taken for granted by believers, he picks not on Christianity, but rather on “Mohammadans” and Buddhists.  And as in Clifford’s day so it is today: it is easier to laugh at, and disapprove of, other people’s foolishness than our own.  By picking on the other religions, Clifford obviously hoped to jar people into giving second thought to some of their unquestioned ideas.

Clifford is less convincing when he tries to draw the line between when it is being evilly credulous to take someone else’s word for something– and when it is just following expert advice, and thus legitimate.  Lastly, the long essay, its main thrust exhausted, grows boring after about ten pages in.


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