The Ethics of Belief

We often say things like, “Well, everybody is entitled to their own opinion.” This is another way of saying, “Well, you can believe whatever you want to believe.”

But are statements like that actually true?

Please read the article by W.K. Clifford, entitled The Ethics of Belief, and then return here for some discussion of that article.

“Then he should have no time to believe”? Really? At first, it sounds incredible harsh and even outlandish.

But can we really believe just anything we “choose” to believe? Is it even possible to believe just anything that we might find appealing?

If you think about if for even a moment, you quickly realize that beliefs must be tied in some way to evidence. We must have some reason(s) for believing the things we believe.

Clifford is noting that we often do not take evidence as seriously as we should, that we are often quite lax in making the connection between evidence and belief. Our natural tendency is to “jump to conclusions” when those conclusions suit our inclinations or other motivations. Clifford is advocating that we be intellectually honest about the whole range of evidence that could bear on a given belief.

Intellectual honesty is such a fundamental concept for our purposes in this course that we must spend some time now in getting clear about what Clifford is really saying.


Clifford’s Main Arguments, According to Jensen

Clifford argues primarily for two counterintuitive conclusions:

First, believing itself has moral weight.

Second, the moral weight of believing is not about the content of the beliefs, but is instead about the method of obtaining the beliefs.

Regarding the first point, there is little argument that actions have moral weight. Whatever we intentionally do is either right or wrong. But most people have never considered that believing itself can be right or wrong. As we have already noted, most people think something like, “You have the right to believe whatever you want.” So, it is counterintuitive to hear Clifford argue that our intentions spring from our beliefs, which makes our beliefs themselves right or wrong. Here, in a nutshell, is the argument for the first counterintuitive point:
1) If actions have moral weight, then beliefs do.

2) Actions do have moral weight.


3) Beliefs have moral weight.
By now, you should recognize this argument as just another example of modus ponens, which is always valid. So, this is designed to be a deductive argument proving a substantial (and contentious) conclusion.

Since we know that the argument is valid, the only question of its soundness is whether or not the premises are true.

It is difficult to imagine an argument opposing premise (2), so the only real point of contention would be premise (1). If premise (1) is true, then the conclusion is proved.

Clifford’s article effectively shows that beliefs are necessary to actions, indeed that actions spring from beliefs. So, it is really the intentions themselves, which are informed and motivated by beliefs, that are the source of actions. And, the act of choosing a belief is itself an action, insofar as it is intentional. After understanding Clifford’s article, it is difficult to imagine how one would attack the truth of premise (1).

Both premises are true, and the argument is valid; so it is sound. It seems that Clifford has proved his counterintuitive first point, so most people’s intuitions are wrong about this point.

So, let’s consider the second counterintuitive point. Clifford’s argument for this point is spread throughout his article, so I have condensed it for you here:

1) The truth or falsity of most of our beliefs is a function of the actual facts.

2) We cannot in principle know the actual facts regarding most of our beliefs.


3) We cannot in principle know the truth or falsity of most of our beliefs.

4) We must choose our beliefs by either known truth/falsity or by the weight of evidence.

5) We cannot choose most of our beliefs based upon known truth/falsity.


6) We must choose most of our beliefs by the weight of evidence.

7) Morality can only concern matters of choice (intentional decisions).

8) The morality of believing must concern our choosing to believe.


9) The morality of most believing derives from choosing according to the weight of evidence.

10) Choosing according to the weight of evidence can only result from a method.


11) The morality of believing must derive from the method of evaluating evidence.
Again, the argument is valid, and it is difficult to see what goes wrong with any of the premises. This seems to be another sound argument, proving another substantive (and contentious) point.

So, believing itself has moral weight, and that moral weight inheres in the method of choosing beliefs rather than the content of those beliefs.