The Ethics of (Dis)Belief

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
~ William Clifford, The Ethics of Belief

Years ago, in my first philosophy of religion class, as a fresh-off-the-boat undergraduate in my first semester of university, I was exposed to, and fascinated by, William Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief, where he argued forcefully and persuasively that believing in anything upon insufficient evidence was morally criminal. Since that time I have always retained the conviction that deciding what one believes is a matter of serious moral gravity. This is, in fact, what I take to be Clifford’s key insight into the ethics of belief; namely, that no act of choosing to believe or disbelieve anything is truly a private matter. Human beings, by virtue of the human situation, are such inextricably communal beings that nothing we say, do, or believe, in public or in private, is really a matter of no public consequence. To draw any sharp line between the public and private lives of citizens seems to me to reflect an anthropological naïveté. Unless the distinction is meant to be a purely political or legal one, it seems flatly wrong; clearly, there can be no such moral line drawn up between public and private affairs.

C.S. Lewis put this point beautifully, as he often does, in Mere Christianity where he writes:

There are two ways in which the human machine goes wrong. One is when human individuals drift apart from one another, or else collide with one another and do one another damage, by cheating or bullying. The other is when things go wrong inside the individual—when the different parts of him (his different faculties and desires and so on) either drift apart or interfere with one another. You can get the idea plain if you think of us as a fleet of ships sailing in formation. The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other. If the ships keep on having collisions they will not remain seaworthy very long. On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order they will not be able to avoid collisions. Or, if you like, think of humanity as a band playing a tune. To get a good result, you need two things. Each player’s individual instrument must be in tune and also each must come in at the right moment so as to combine with all the others. But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is trying to get to, or what piece of music the band is trying to play. The instruments might be all in tune and might all come in at the right moment, but even so the performance would not be a success if they had been engaged to provide dance music and actually played nothing but Dead Marches. And however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.
Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.[1]

The second element of the science of morals is, according to Lewis, directly concerned with apparently private affairs, and this is precisely because these private affairs are a matter of public consequence. William Clifford, who also adopts imagery involving a ship, illustrates his point with the following Gedankenexperiment (as the Germans say):

A SHIPOWNER was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not over-well built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.
What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.
Let us alter the case a little, and suppose that the ship was not unsound after all; that she made her voyage safely, and many others after it. Will that diminish the guilt of her owner? Not one jot. When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that.[2]

Clifford goes on to argue, convincingly, that one will not be able to evade this critique by arguing that this or that particular private belief is of no such consequence, for “no real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may some day explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.”[3] He is, in fact, more elaborate than this, saying:

Nor is that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it… If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole.[4]

Therefore, “no one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone.”[5] As a Catholic, I find myself in profound agreement with this point. In fact, turning to the Catholic Church’s belief in indulgences, we find Pope Paul VI outlining one of the basic suppositions underlying the doctrine as follows:

There reigns among men, by the hidden and benign mystery of the divine will, a supernatural solidarity whereby the sin of one harms the others just as the holiness of one also benefits the others. Thus the Christian faithful give each other mutual aid to attain their supernatural aim… This is the very ancient dogma of the Communion of the Saints, whereby the life of each individual son of God in Christ and through Christ is joined by a wonderful link to the life of all his other Christian brothers in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ till, as it were, a single mystical person is formed.[6]

The whole universe, as pictured by the Catholic faith, is infused at every turn with moral significance. This belief isn’t as difficult to make good sense of as it may at first appear. Consider, for example, that I choose today to sin in some apparently private expression of my freedom to do so; will it not be the case that I could have spent that same time praying for others and/or myself, which would have redounded to the salvation/sanctification of all men? My very failure to act well is a sin of omission. However, there is an even deeper sense in which my private sin obviously hurts mankind more directly. Consider that every sin I commit personally is an act by which I distance myself from God. However, sanctity is the most beautiful thing in the world, and people are moved more by beauty than by anything else (they are moved by truth or goodness only insofar as they perceived it so to be and, in addition, perceive its beauty). Beautiful things are, of course, called ‘beautiful’ precisely because they look like God; that is to say, something is beautiful just to the extent that it intimates the divine nature. Something is perceived to be beautiful just to that extent to which it is perceived (however confusedly) to intimate the divine nature. All this is simply to say that to the extent that I distance myself from God by sinning, I put others in the near occasion of damnation by failing to be holy, (i.e., by failing to be truly beautiful).

Many critiques of Clifford’s essay have already been offered in the philosophical literature. However, I will here give a summary outline of my objections or responses to Clifford’s provocative argument: i) first, his argument presumes doxastic voluntarism, and this seems difficult to reconcile with views like Naturalism, thus his argument can only be erected on some intellectual framework which allows for doxastic voluntarism, and this seems to undercut the family of views he means to invite us to; ii) his view is broadly consequentialist and, I think, Utilitarian, but even construed as Utilitarian there may be some cases where belief upon insufficient evidence is, on Naturalism, morally obligatory; iii) having ‘reasons’ may not qualify as sufficient evidence, and this could undercut all beliefs established by philosophical arguments (which, in turn, would undercut Clifford’s philosophical argument about the ethics of belief); iv) not all beliefs are inferred from evidence, and some beliefs, perhaps even some of the beliefs Clifford means to target, may be justified in a properly basic way; v) if every belief needs to be justified by a serious appraisal of evidence, then nobody should have the time to believe anything at all, including that there are any ethics of belief.

Clifford notes that ‘Belief’ is “that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, [and] is ours not for ourselves, but for humanity.”[7] This rational faculty, however, is difficult to account for naturalistically, especially if it is deliberative in any libertarian sense.

As Richard Taylor has done well to note;

I cannot deliberate about what to do, even though I may not know what I am going to do, unless I believe that it is up to me what I am going to do. If I am within the power of another person, or at the mercy of circumstances over which I have no control, then, although I may have no ideal what I am going to do, I cannot deliberate about it. I can only wait and see.[8]

To say that it is, in a given instance, up to me what I do, is to say that I am in that instance free with respect to what I then do.[9]

I deliberate in order to decide what to do, not to discover what it is that I am going to do.[10]

However, physicalism (a popular form of naturalism) makes very difficult the belief in free will, or doxastic voluntarism (i.e., free will applied to the deliberative faculty of belief). The idea that we have the ability to freely choose what to believe assumes, in the first place, that we have free will at all, and in the second place, that we have the ability to will to believe anything in particular (i.e., that this faculty of free will can be applied doxastically). Let us assume that if we have free will at all it isn’t implausible to think we can apply it to what we will to believe or disbelieve. Nevertheless, if we accept anything like physicalism, which is the view that everything which exists (including us) admits in principle of (exhaustive) physicalistic description, then there is no metaphysical space left to insert ‘persons’ (as libertarians conceive of them) into our world.

I could go further in this direction, but before I do perhaps I should stop right here and note that Clifford could legitimately respond ‘to heck with physicalism then,’ and there would be nothing wrong with this response in principle. Clifford’s ethic need not vindicate physicalism in order for there to be something right about it, and Clifford’s being a physicalist has nothing significant to do with his argument here. All I mean to show is that the view to which Clifford presumably means to invite us (i.e., Naturalism) is notoriously difficult to combine with any account of freedom sufficient for the kind of moral indictments he means to issue. His injunctions and censures are either mere expressions of taste, like the propagandistic emoting that A.J. Ayer advocated in moral discourse, or else at least they are groundless unless rooted in a view very remote from his own (and, ironically, perhaps much closer to the religious views he means to disabuse us of).

Moving to my second objection to Clifford’s view, I should note that while his view is broadly consequentialist, and consequentialism isn’t always utilitarian, utilitarianism is by far the most popular version of consequentialism. Briefly, utilitarianism is the view that in any circumstance C, an action A is morally right if and only if it results in an equal or greater-than ratio of pleasure to pain than any other action B in C would have brought about. This definition may seem somewhat crude and unfair, as there are versions of utilitarianism which replace ‘pleasure’ with some more dignified account of happiness (sometimes even ‘eudaimonistic’ Aristotelian accounts). However, in general it is just the view that an action is right to the extent that it results in more well-being than otherwise would have resulted, and this seems to me to be the underlying motivation for Clifford’s argument.

However, because moral reasoning often happens under conditions with time constraints, and these time constraints often don’t allow us to act with any reasonable confidence that what we do will lead to greater happiness overall, philosophers have defended utilitarianism by introducing a distinction between ‘Act’ and ‘Rule’ utilitarianism.

Act Utilitarianism: def. An Act is right if and only if it results in at least as much happiness on the whole as the alternatives.

Rule Utilitarianism: def. An act is right if and only if it conforms to a rule-set whose universal acceptance and application would result in the greatest happiness on the whole.

I introduce this distinction simply by way of clarification; I interpret Clifford’s argument to be cast in terms of Rule-Utilitarianism. The ship-owner did something wrong not necessarily because his action led to less happiness or well-being in fact, but because it failed to follow an epistemic rule which, if universally applied, would result in the greatest happiness on the whole. The ship-owner acted in contravention of the rule.

However, even on Rule-Utilitarianism (and Naturalism) there may be some cases where it is morally obligatory to believe upon insufficient evidence. I recall an example which, as far as I know, originally came from Sam Harris (though when I went digging for it I couldn’t seem to find the reference in his books). He asks us to imagine that we were being tortured by religious radicals who were attempting to either convert us or eventually kill us. Eventually they tell us, and we have reason to believe, that unless we bring ourselves to genuinely believe in their religion they intend to set off a nuclear bomb in our home country (wherever that is), killing hundreds of thousands, or perhaps tens of millions. Now it seems that, under these circumstances, we would be morally obliged to do everything within our power to make ourselves believe in their religion. We allow ourselves to be brainwashed, and force ourselves to accept indoctrination, or else we will have acted in such a way that we bring about a much greater amount of suffering and evil in the world. If we don’t at least try to accept their religion, under those circumstances, then we are acting in a manner which is antithetical to the utilitarian imperative. Therefore, we can imagine a situation where, on Naturalism & Utilitarianism, a person would not only have the right, but in fact the duty, to believe something upon insufficient evidence. This critique of Clifford of course presumes some things, such as that he would be happy with my interpretation of him as a rule-utilitarian, and that may be up for debate, but at least if he is a rule-utilitarian (and clearly a naturalist) then my critique here should be considered on-point.

Moving to my third objection I would like to ask, what, exactly, is ‘sufficient’ evidence? What epistemic standard do we adopt, and what norm do we follow? For any such epistemology, is there ‘sufficient’ evidence for it? Is there sufficient evidence for coherentism, or for classical foundationalism, or for reformed epistemology? What exactly is ‘sufficient’ evidence? If, on the one hand, ‘sufficient’ evidence means simply ‘on the balance of reasons’ then how can Clifford indict anyone of ‘balancing wrongly’ when it seems that there is no way to even prescribe a norm (i.e., an epistemology) ‘on the balance of reasons.’ In effect, what Clifford has done is smuggled in an epistemic norm without giving us any epistemology – and what epistemology could he give us if he couldn’t afford belief in it without sufficient evidence? If having some ‘reasons’ is sufficient to warrant belief, then nearly everything will be epistemically legal. Why imply that the Christian who believes in her faith on the basis of everything she knows, in addition to her experience of the Holy Spirit, is doing anything less prudential than the Naturalist who believes in Naturalism on the basis of everything he knows, in addition to his lack of any compelling religious or spiritual experiences?

If sufficient evidence means proof in the strongest sense, then not only do we need proof that such a thing as ‘proof’ exists (otherwise we have not the sufficient reason for believing there are any proofs out there), but we need also take inventory of just how great a cost adopting such a high standard would be. We would not only have no time to believe in the majority of philosophical positions, but we will have no time to have scientific beliefs either (for science adopts methodological presumptions which it is the province of philosophy to justify, like the reality of the external world, or the validity of inductive reasoning), not to mention common sense beliefs (such as in the reality of the past). We would, it turns out, not have the time to believe in the deliverances of science, which base themselves (as always) on secure but unproven (and often unprovable) assumptions. We will not have time enough to believe that planes will continue to fly, or that the sun will continue to rise in the morning. However, surely Clifford doesn’t want us to abandon all of these beliefs!

What kinds of reasons are sufficient to grant us the license to believe? If the evidences must be indubitable and/or incorrigible then almost all scientific and philosophical ‘evidence’ is inadequate. If, on the other hand, sufficient evidence means anything less than proof then we are left with an indissoluble quandary – what amount of evidence qualifies as sufficient? Are arguments from authority good enough? If even arguments from authority (i.e., based on trusted testimony) are inadequate, then most of us can’t afford to believe most of what we believe, even (and especially) about science and history. However, it now becomes clear that for any reasonable standard of ‘sufficient evidence’ religion will pass the test, and I’ll flesh this out in my following (fourth) criticism.

Bearing in mind the point I just made about some beliefs being unprovable, it seems clear that at least some of our most deeply entrenched beliefs are not inferred on the basis of evidence or believed on the basis or arguments. This last point segues into my fourth criticism, which is that the right ‘epistemology’ is something like Plantinga’s reformed epistemology[11] (which is a non-classical species of ‘foundationalism’). On this view a belief may be justified apart from arguments or inferential evidence on the grounds that it is what philosophers call a properly basic belief.

A belief which is properly basic is one which we are within our rational rights to believe even in the absence of any arguments or evidence, and which it would be irrational to disbelieve in the absence of any (strong) arguments and/or evidence against. Our belief in other minds, the reality of the external world, or our belief in the reality of the past are run-of-the-mill examples of ‘properly basic’ beliefs. We can’t prove either that the past is real (i.e., that the world didn’t come into existence moments ago with the appearances or ‘accidents’ of age, from the fossils in the ground from dinosaurs which were never here, to the memories in your head of the things you never did), or that the world is populated by other minds like ours (we apprehend ourselves immediately, so we cannot doubt that we exist as persons, but for all we know the rest of the world could be comprised of automatons who seem so personable that we confuse them for persons), let alone proving the existence of an external world at all. Yet, we believe these things naturally and strongly. Either we are justified in doing so, or we are all committing epistemic sins by believing in these sorts of things (assuming we do). However, the most plausible account of these beliefs being justified is reformed epistemology.

Here’s the rub; if this epistemology is at least approximately correct (i.e., it’s ‘on the right track’), then what counts as sufficient evidence may be satisfied in the case of the Christian religion. As Plantinga himself, along with other reformed epistemologists, has argued, belief in God, and even in Christianity, may be for some people a properly basic belief.

There is a wide variety of beliefs which fall under this same basic category – we all naturally believe them and don’t feel any need to give any arguments or evidence for them. We believe them not on the basis of a rational inference given some clever argument or some body of evidence, but rather we believe them because our experience of the world naturally forms in us a basic belief which we have no reason to doubt. Plantinga thinks that belief in God is like this, and although that claim usually raises a few eyebrows, I think he’s right. At least if God does exist, we would expect that a person’s cognitive faculties, if they are operating correctly, will recognize this fact. Aquinas recognized this point when he talked about the sensus dei, and Calvin did as well, calling it the sensus divinitatis. The claim thus amounts to saying that if somebody doesn’t recognize that God exists, their cognitive faculties have malfunctioned. This sounds somewhat pejorative, but it isn’t intended to be an indictment, it is simply a consequence of accepting this kind of epistemology along with accepting very plausible theistic assumptions. The atheist can, of course, accept the epistemology while remaining skeptical of Theism (as Tyler Wunder has done),[12] but they won’t be able to go as far as to claim that the theist is committing any epistemic sin when she believes in God.

Moreover, beyond the claim of Theism being properly basic, I think we can argue with success that Christianity may itself be maintained in a properly basic way. For instance, epistemologists (even including Wunder) who accept this general approach have argued that beliefs based on the testimony of others are also properly basic; in the absence of a defeater, you have every reason to believe my name is ‘Tyler’ if I tell you so, and you have no justification for disbelieving it after I’ve told you that is my name unless you have some very good reason to disbelieve it (what epistemologists refer to as a ‘defeater’). So it is with the witness of the Holy Spirit, whose testimony within us confirms that Christianity is true. In the absence of some defeater – some reason to suspect that testimony is false – we can maintain our commitment to the truth of Christianity in a properly basic way. The philosopher William Lane Craig has made this point elsewhere, and I’m really just repeating after him.[13] So, not only are some beliefs maintained in a justified way apart from arguments or inferential evidence, but some of the very beliefs Clifford means to attack are among the best candidates for beliefs of this kind.

Finally, the pièce de résistance, the definitive difficulty with Clifford’s ethics of belief is that it is self-defeating. If every belief needs to be justified by a serious appraisal of evidence, then nobody should have the time to believe in Clifford’s ‘ethics of belief.’ Unless Clifford provides us with some reasonable standard for ‘sufficient evidence’ which won’t cost us beliefs like the belief in the past or the belief that there are objective ethical values (concerning either belief or actions), he cannot hope to provide us with sufficient evidence for his own view about the ethics of belief.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 71-72.

[2] William Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, fourth edition, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach and David Basinger, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 99-100.

[3] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[4] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[5] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[6] Pope Paul VI, Indulgentarium Doctrina, Apostolic Constitution Whereby the Revision of Sacred Indulgences is Promulgated, Vatican Web site, July 29, 2014,

[7] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[8] Richard Taylor, “Freedom and Determinism,” in Reality in Focus: Contemporary Readings on Metaphysics, ed. Paul K. Moser (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 271.

[9] Taylor, “Freedom and Determinism,” 273.

[10] Taylor, “Freedom and Determinism,” 278.

[11] See: Alvin Plantinga, “Reformed epistemology,” in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Second Edition (2010): 674-680.

[12] See this interview:

[13] William Land Craig, interview with Kevin Harris, Reasonable Faith, Podcast Audio, July 29, 2014,


One thought on “The Ethics of (Dis)Belief

  1. Pingback: If Atheism is true, we ought to believe that Theism is true. – Tyler Journeaux

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