A Response to W.K. Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief”
Is blind belief foolish, or even dangerous? According to the writings of W.K. Clifford, a British philosopher, it is both. Clifford was of the opinion that no one should believe anything for which there was “insufficient evidence” (Clifford 363). He also claimed that if one did not have the time to fully investigate a matter they wished to believe in, then they had no time to believe in anything at all (Clifford 367). For the purposes of this paper, the writer will investigate Clifford’s claims further, and make a personal judgment on whether his theory of belief is right or wrong.
Clifford starts his argument with two stories of unsupported belief. In the first, a man lets a ship sail that he has convinced himself is seaworthy, despite obvious indications to the contrary, and it sinks with everyone onboard (Clifford 364). In the second, a group spread rumors about a religious organization that they believed to be true, but were in fact false (Clifford 364). The accusing group was not easily trusted again (Clifford 364). In both situations, a belief that people had completely given themselves over to failed them in very serious ways. If the subjects of either story had taken the time to investigate what they believed, they would have found their conclusions false and two very unfortunate incidents would not have occurred. The problem with Clifford’s idea of not believing in anything for which there is no sufficient evidence, even though on the surface it sounds like good advice, is how does one trust the information that they find while investigating? If we are not to believe anything without sufficient evidence, how can we believe that the evidence we do find is, indeed, sufficient? To the writer, this plan seems like a never ending circle. How is anyone to accomplish anything if every little statement must be analyzed and put to the test? How can we ever convince ourselves that the information obtained is, in fact, sufficient? At some point, it is essential to believe something, even if every little bit of doubt has not been erased. Commerce, industry, and life itself would grind to a halt if all we did was look for sufficient evidence, only to seek confirmation of our confirmation again and again. Eventually, one will have to declare that they know all that can be known about a situation, and the evidence will have to be sufficient enough. Sometimes there is no absolute right answer, and that is where we must exercise some modicum of belief.
One of Clifford’s greatest concerns seems to be the idea that “belief,” such as it is, does not effect only the person who holds the belief (Clifford 365). Instead, he believes that everything in our lives is driven by our beliefs, and what we believe will color what our family believes, and what is passed down to the next generation (Clifford 365). One must concede that this is, at least in part, true. However, it does fail the examination that Clifford claims is so important. He believes that beliefs are passed down, but he is working with evidence that he has personally seen, and implying that evidence to situations that he has not seen. There are many people who believe in God, or at least a “higher power,” but they still go out and do things that are contrary to what their religion dictates. In fact, some people will profess a religious belief when they are young, but then as they grow older they cease to follow the traits of their religion. They may have never stopped believing, but they simply do not choose to live a life that reflects their beliefs. Anyone could easily ask an addict if they believe in God, and they may very well say yes. Such a person’s life is not driven by their beliefs. Clifford has based his concerns about beliefs filtering down and changing society on insufficient evidence. He can only know what he sees, and in his own words, that is insufficient.
As far as erroneous beliefs being passed down to the next generation, that would also fall under the concept of an assumption. There are plenty of people who have broken through racist beliefs, and other socially unacceptable beliefs, and they no longer live as their parents or grandparents did. In this case, one person’s beliefs did not influence the future generations. Clifford is working with evidence that he sees, yet again, but he is generalizing the evidence to every situation. In the time in which he lived, he easily could have seen families in which his assumptions ran contrary to what he happened to believe. Does this not make him like the men he criticizes at the beginning of his essay? He is constantly assuming, and although he claims that people should exercise judgment and properly investigate their beliefs, he does not. He seems to look for information that furthers his case, and that is no different than what those he would seek to shame do.
Clifford’s summary of his ideas is as follows: “It is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (Clifford 367). This is quite the statement from someone who has based a great deal of his essay on insufficient evidence. How can he know the heart and conscience of man? How can he say for sure that the beliefs of one person will have a filter down effect that will change the whole world? He cannot. No one can, because no one has seen the future. Not even all available evidence points to the idea that a belief passes through families, becoming stronger as it does. Clifford has fallen prey to the same sins that he points out in other people. He has written what be believes to be true, but it is truth drawn from insufficient evidence. With even a slightly larger field of study, he should have been able to find evidence that refuted his own points. He, apparently, chose not to look for it. Even though he may base what he believes on his observations of the world, who is to say that his observations are correct? He is determined to believe what he wants to believe, and this clouds his judgments.
Clifford’s advice to not believe blindly is sound, but he would have done well to follow it himself. He is certainly not right that we should base every belief on available evidence. There is always evidence that is just outside our grasp, perhaps just outside our circle of society, that will put a kink into almost any belief. If Clifford’s advice was taken literally, no one would ever believe in anything. We would be suspicious creatures, always wondering if we were missing the key bit of evidence that would turn our plans on their heads. I personally think that it is better to believe and hope than to suspend belief and spend the rest of one’s life looking over one’s shoulder, hoping for that next piece of evidence that might put a weary mind at rest.