Beliefs are ethically neutral: a response to W.K Clifford

I. Introduction

W.K. Clifford argued that one has not only an epistemic responsibility, but also an ethical duty, to hold a given belief only with sufficient evidence. In responding to Clifford’s essay “The Ethics of Belief,” I will address only Clifford’s ethical claims regarding beliefs. Clifford’s claims about epistemic rights will not be considered. Specifically, I intend to show that actions alone have an ethical character and that beliefs alone are not subject to ethical judgments. A public belief, a belief that is shared with or taught to others, is considered to be an act, or a portion of the act of sharing or teaching. Private beliefs can be divided into private motivating beliefs (PMBs) or purely private beliefs (PPBs). Clifford’s example of the shipowner’s belief that his vessel was not seaworthy is an example of a PMB. An example of a PPB would be the opinion of a non-expert that Venus, rather than Saturn (Ingersoll), is the windiest planet in our solar system. PMBs can affect the ethical character of the act that follows from the belief, particularly in the case of a blameworthy act, in which case the PMB can either aggravate or mitigate the “wrongness”, for want of a more precise word, of the prohibited act.

II. My Ethical System

In this paper, I will analyze W.K. Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief” using an ethical system on which I have been working slowly for several years. It is by no means complete, and much of it will likely sound very familiar to the reader. This in not by accident: my fledgling ethical theory stands humbly on the shoulders of giants. To the extent that the origins of derivative parts are not properly attributed to their creators, it is solely because they have been in my thought for so long that I have forgotten the source from which I absorbed them. I explicitly acknowledge that my ethical theory is not composed completely of my original thought and is, in this stage, little more than a minor refinement of rights-based ethics.

To briefly sketch the current state of my ethical theory, the terms “ethical” and moral” are considered equivalent and may be used interchangeably. Only actions by free moral agents may be the subject of ethical analysis or judgment. Such actions fall into one of the following categories: ethically prohibited, ethically neutral (but permitted), ethically required, or supererogatory. Actions alone, not persons, can be evaluated. Rights may be either positive or negative, and for each right, there is a corresponding duty (e.g., if person A has a right to X, some person B has a duty to provide X). A group can be said to have a particular right or duty if and only if at least one person in the group has that right or duty. It is obviously possible to make all sorts of claims regarding rights and duties, and a cohesive manner for evaluating those claims is an unfinished part of theory. However, borrowing from Kant’s first formulation of his Categorical Imperative, one cannot claim the existence of a particular right unless he can genuinely claim, without a logical or physical inconsistency that all people have that right. This obviously raises the bar significantly for claims to positive rights. Another key concept of my theory is that ethically prohibited acts are those that cause unjustified harm. As with rights and duties, a group or society cannot be said to be harmed unless at least one member of the group, other than the actor, is harmed. Acts that harm the actor are not considered ethically prohibited, as a free moral agent, by definition, acts in accordance with his own intent and self-interest. A person who harms  himself as a result of coercion or mental illness is not a free moral agent and therefore cannot commit an act that has an ethical character.

III. Clifford’s Argument

W.K. Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief” can be satisfactorily condensed by using his own summation: “[t]o sum it up; it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (Clifford 363). In his essay, Clifford denies the very existence of PPBs, claiming that “…no one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone” (Clifford 361). He offers no evidence in support of this claim, and the following example provides a sufficient argument to topple this claim. Most people, if asked which planet is the windiest, would have no idea, and their mistake or lack of this knowledge affects the operation of society not at all. Prior to NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn, the scientific astronomy community believed that mantle of “windiest” belonged to Neptune. As is the nature of science, new information led to a new conclusion, but it necessarily implies that the previous information was insufficient. It would be absurd to conclude that scientists at NASA or educators had committed an ethically prohibited act by disseminating to the then-current knowledge that Neptune was the windiest planet. It is difficult to conceive of someone being harmed by another person’s silently holding such a belief.

IV. Other Scholars’ Arguments Regarding Clifford and My Response

Most of the scholarly work found during my search for secondary sources on Clifford was concerned with the epistemic aspect of his claim and was therefore outside the scope of this paper. William James stands out as a philosopher who opposes Clifford’s claims in the realm of ethics. In the case of beliefs involving ethics, James turns Clifford’s argument against itself: “[m]oral questions immediately present themselves as questions whose solutions cannot wait for sensible proof. A moral question is not a question of what sensibly exists, but of what is good, or would be good if it did exist” (James 373). To start here and follow Clifford’s argument to its conclusion, it would be unjust for Clifford to hold a belief about whether anything at all is unjust.  Michael Shaffer comes to Clifford’s defense, citing C.S. Peirce’s publicity of belief argument, which states that “bona fide belief cannot be conceptually separated from action. In other words, bona fide beliefs are those upon which one is prepared to act” (Shaffer 41).

The belief to which Shaffer and Peirce refer appears to coincide with a belief that has the potential to become a PNM, which would place it in the sphere of ethical concern. PNMs are outside the scope of my thesis, but the mere preparedness to act upon a PPB, if the eventuality arose, is not sufficient to make it a PNM, absent the action itself. Mental preparedness or willingness to act is not an act in itself. Shaffer muddies the waters by inferring that Clifford’s thesis is purely epistemic: “[i]t is always (epistemically) wrong to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence” (Shaffer 45). This inference is not supported by Clifford’s essay.

V. Conclusion

The sources of our beliefs are too numerous for practical enumeration. Some are the products of events that occurred so early in our lives that we cannot remember them. Many are the results of what we experience in our daily lives, which is partially determined by the society into which we happen to be born. We form beliefs based on our sensory information, and our beliefs are affected by our mental and emotional states. Of all of those influences, each person can have complete, and privileged, knowledge of only his own thoughts and emotions. In every other aspect of life, he must act on incomplete and perhaps incorrect information.  Ethics generally does not require one to trivially cast his life aside. One acts based at least in part on what he believes, and requiring him to suspend all belief, and therefore all action, until he possesses complete information amounts to the same thing. It is sufficient that one acts with benevolent intent and with thoughtful consideration of the available evidence, however incomplete it may be.
To review my argument:
P1: Only acts by a free moral agent have an ethical character.
P2:  PPBs are not acts.
C: PPBs cannot have an ethical character.
Since PPBs are incapable of causing harm to another, they are outside the proper sphere of ethics. It may be that our minds may be our only truly free domains, and I believe I have shown that they are also truly private, their contents beyond the reach of the ethical pronouncements of others. The ignorant man deserves no condemnation simply because he is ignorant, and the wise man must go beyond the mere possession of wisdom in order to be ethically praiseworthy.

Works Cited

Clifford, W.K.. “The Ethics of Belief.” In The Philosophy of Religion Reader, edited by Chad Meister,
359-365. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Feldman, Richard. “The Ethics of Belief.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 60, no. 3
(2000): 667-695.

James, William. “The Will to Believe.” In The Philosophy of Religion Reader, edited by Chad Meister,
366-378. New York: Routledge, 2008.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Two Storms Caught in the Act on Saturn.” National
Aeronautics and Space Administration.
http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2004/apr/HQ_04119_saturn_storms.html
3, 2008)

Shaffer, Michael J.. “The Publicity of Belief, Epistemic Wrongs and Moral Wrongs.” Social
Epistemology
20, no. 1 (2006): 41-54.

Zamulinski, Brian. “A Re-evaluation of Clifford and His Critics.” The Southern Journal of Philosophy
40, no. 3 (2002): 437-457.

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8 Comments on “Beliefs are ethically neutral: a response to W.K Clifford”

  1. nakedgoat Says:

    Very shorts, simple and easy to understand, bet some more comments from your side would be great


    • I appreciate your taking the time to visit my blog, and I apologize for the totally unacceptable length of time has taken me to reply. I agree that responding to comments would improve this blog in particular. Philosophy is nothing if not a conversation.

  2. M.C. Jackson Says:

    I think if you’re gonna have a rights-based ethical system, of which the claim “X has a right to A, so Y has a duty to provide A,” is an integral part, that needs to be addressed/resolved before continuing. That is a fairly absolutist claim and seems to be different than what Kant was saying. Kant’s claim that one should not claim a right unless he’s willing to admit all have that right makes sense to a certain extent. It loses validity, however, when applied to any type of real world scenario. (And, this is pretty much the reason I lost interest in ivory tower philosophy and moved towards the “applied science” realm when it comes to thinking.) That is, a consideration of rights is a consideration of socio-cultural norms such that it is acceptable to say, “A has the right to drive, but B doesn’t, because A is of legal age and B is not.” Therefore, it is neither logically inconsistent or unethical to give some people rights that others are deprived of.

    I also have a problem with the notion that A is only entitled to X if C is obligated to provide X. You may flesh this out in a more complete form of your ethics, but in your formula, is “X” a good, service, or abstract notion of freedom? (or something similar) What is meant by “provide”? I know this seems like splitting hairs, but hey, it’s philosophy. And while I’m on the subject, what is meant by, “some person B”? For instance, if person A is entitled to food, then who are we saying is obligated to provide it? It doesn’t sound illogical to me to say that A could be entitled to food, without someone being obligated to provide it for her. It just means, that she has the right to eat. Secondly, if we say it’s B’s obligation to provide it, do we mean the opportunity to acquire food or actually put it on her table? I’m thinking of Milton Friedman’s example of the Island – admittedly, he used the example for completely different reasons – on which several people land after a shipwreck. His point was that if you take the land the first person to arrive establishes as his own away from him in order to distribute it to the others who arrive later, is that really fair? When applied to this example, we can see how we arrive at a logical impasse, b/c we have no Person B. That is, when the first person arrives, it is his right to do what he wills with the island, but there is one there to provide those rights. To move on, especially w/n the context of a comprehensive ethical system, we would need to establish the meaning of the key terms; right, provide, & some person B.

    But I digress . . . based on the title, your main thesis is to demonstrate that thoughts & beliefs can remain completely private and thus ethically neutral. The strength in your argument is in the assertion that, “Only acts by a free moral agent have an ethical character.” Because, even if one takes the stance that he is inextricably intertwined with his culture and thus his ideas can never truly be his own, it doesn’t stand to reason that we should place his thoughts/motivations into the ethical realm simply because they do not become an ethical concern until they have a context to be placed in. Or, rather, until they have an effect in the public realm.


    • Matt, I appreciate the excellent criticique. I believe that the apparent flaws or inconsistencies that you point out are due to the absence of the necessary fleshing-out, defining terms, etc..

      I have done that, in part, in other work that still resides on dead trees. There is still, I concede, much work yet to be done, along with a few unresolved inconsistencies that do not, at this point, appear insurmountable or fatal.

      WRT your example of the “right to eat,” the implicit (among ethicists) difference between positive rights (i.e., Person A has a right to X. Some person B has a duty to provide X to person A.) and negative rights (i.e., Person A has a right to X – say, X=eating. Person B has a duty to refrain from interfering with person A’s eating) should be made explicit.

      Since I try to refrain from P.U.I. (philosophizing under the influence of psychotropic medications – needed more pain meds than usual overnight), the only thing I can say for certain is that today won’t be very productive.

      More seriously, the meds and the underlying conditions requiring the meds are the reason grad school has been postponed for an indeterminate period, which means I’m splitting hairs for its own sake…but I alwaysl do it for reasons far more important to me than course credit, and your insightful constructive criticisms will prove invaluable. I really appreciate the time and thought you put into your comment.

  3. Towel Rails Says:

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  4. Excellent post!! I really like your site!!


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