In his article “Ethics of Belief,” William K. Clifford makes a number of assertions about beliefs that are untenable. Clifford’s ultimate conclusion is that it is “wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon sufficient evidence” (Clifford, 280).
Presumably Clifford means it is ethically or morally wrong since his article deals with ethics. This statement, like all universal statements (except this one) are false. It if false not only because of its universal application for the reasons specified below.
Clifford provides a couple of examples presumably designed to help the reader understand his position.
With the example of the ship owner Clifford provides a moral agent who, in Clifford’s view behaves irresponsibly because he believes his ship is safe even though he is not justified in doing so. In response to this one wonders if the ship owner is justified in believing that his ship is not safe. Clifford does not tell the reader who made the suggestion that the ship was not seaworthy.
Was it some with knowledge of ships or some dithering idiot who knows nothing about ships walking along the dock? Certainly Clifford tells the reader the ship owner had often repaired the boat, so there is an indication that he maintained his boat.
In addition, nothing indicates that the captain and crew of the ship were unwilling or unqualified to set to sea. Consequently, the ship owner has some reason to trust his crew and the people who had repaired his boat in the past and appears to be justified in believing his ship is seaworthy. On the other hand there are only rumors from an unspecified source that the ship was not seaworthy. In fact, it appears the ship owner is more justified in believing the ship is seaworthy than it is not.
Clifford tells us that the ethical responsibility depends on whether or not “he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him. It is clear that he does. With the Commission, Clifford appears to be providing an investigating authority that concludes the charges against the inhabitants of an island were unjustified. Frankly, the appeal to an authority does not provide much evidence to support Clifford’s argument.
Although Clifford notes that the conclusion of the accusers was wrong, he bases his conclusion on the fact that they had no right to believe based on such evidence because they had not investigated the situation sufficiently. It does not appear that an individual’s right to believe is conditioned on his having done “sufficient” research.In fact, rights do not appear to be part of the issue at all. Rights are based on natural, constitutional, or legal rights, not on the amount of effort expended in research before the exercise of his alleged rights.
Frankly, Clifford offers no evidence that the individual in the example lack the right, he merely states it. When Clifford tells the reader that he has a duty to question his beliefs, he is clearly overstating the matter. The categorical imperatives that Kant wrote about indicate that ought implies can.Before individuals can be required to have a duty to examine their beliefs the individual must have the ability to do so.
Sometimes this is not the case. Some people lack the mental ability to examine their beliefs, but they are still entitled to have beliefs. In addition it is impossible in practice for an individual to examine all of his beliefs. In part this is due to his having an infinite number of beliefs that he is unaware of.
If one were to has the individual if he believed the number of particles of sand on the beach at Santa Monica, California is more than one, the individual would certainly say yes.Likewise with the numbers two, three, and so on until the number became so large that the individual might doubt the proposition. If one were to have asked the individual to list all of his beliefs just before asking him about the beach at Santa Monica, it is unlikely that he would say “I believe there are more than one grains of sand on the beach at Santa Monica, yet his subsequent actions indicate he holds that belief. It is impractical, if not impossible for an individual to examine all his beliefs.
Applying the principle universally only increases the difficulty.In addition, it is unclear to whom each individual has the duty to examine his beliefs. Clifford appears to suggest the duty is toward mankind and facilitating communication, but this does not appear to be the case. If one has a duty to due something it implies that someone has a right that the individual perform the duty.
It is not apparent that every man at large has a right for every other man to examine his own beliefs. It is unclear whether or not an individual has control over his beliefs. Belief seems to come about by recognizing the truth of a proposition.One cannot simply decide to believe something.
Suppose a person decides to believe he has a live, full-sized giraffe on his head, is it likely that he “really” believes that he does, or is he pretending. In practice it seems that there is some sort of unconscious leap of understanding that leads to belief. It is not something controllable by the individual. Lastly there is the difficulty in Clifford’s writing of having “sufficient” evidence.
Clifford does not tell us what that is. It does not appear quantifiable but varies with all propositions and all believers.Clifford appears to be concentrating on “true” beliefs, so apparently sufficient evidence would be the amount that convinces the individual of the truth of a true statement, but this is little help. This seems to imply that until one arrives at the truth, all investigation is insufficient, however if one comes up with the truth value of a statement with any sort of justification, relevant or otherwise, this might constitute “sufficient” evidence.
Therefore, Clifford’s position appears untenable. Clifford lacks “sufficient” evidence to support his thesis. One wonders if Clifford has a “duty” to reexamine his position.
Cite this Response to Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief”
Response to Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief”. (2017, Apr 16). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/response-to-cliffords-ethics-of-belief/