WK Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief”

by Max Andrews

W.K. Clifford summarized this deontic model of rationality when he stated, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.  If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind… the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.”[1] Clifford gives the scenario of a seafaring ship and the ship owner’s knowledge of the integrity of the ship.  In Clifford’s alternated ending the ship owner is responsible or equally guilty for the shipwreck even though it never happened.  The reason why he’s responsible is because he knew that that’s what could have happened.

The deontic aspect of belief and knowledge is not so much how one forms a belief but rather what that belief is.  This ethic on pertains to what the belief is and how it measures to the evidence.  The justificatory means is peripheral as long as the belief corresponds to reality.  Initially, this seems an untenable position assuming that it may be possible to know the objective truth about all of reality.  In order for one to be justified and to have knowledge without being at fault ethically the belief must be congruent to the evidence.  This allows for reasonable accountability and correction of one’s beliefs and it permits the advancement of knowledge, to learn, and paradigm shifts.

When holding one’s belief to the evidence to see if it corresponds there has to be some sense of epistemic obligation to have sufficient evidence for every belief.  Some beliefs require more evidence than others considering multiple competing hypotheses and some beliefs do not require much evidence.  It would be irrational and wrong to maintain a belief when it is contrary to the evidence.  When the evidence is ambiguous, lacking, or, for a lack of better term, too close to call, then one is justified in maintaining an agnostic position.

  1. It is one’s moral duty to believe something proportional to the evidence.
  2. To believe something, which lacks sufficient evidence, is wrong.
  3. We ought to do what is right.
  4. We ought to appropriate our beliefs proportional to the evidence.

Such counterfactuals are absurd to consider as having deontic statuses since they do not pertain to reality.  I would merely suggest that someone’s wrongfulness for believing upon sufficient evidence is congruent and the wrongfulness is not congruent to the consequent of actions taken based on that belief.  William James’ position states that it is permissible to believe upon insufficient evidence and, perhaps, even obligatory for us to believe on insufficient evidence.  (The following article in the reading).

I believe there are good theological reasons for moral obligation to believe according to the evidence.  In a categorically broad sense, the biblical witness does seem to indicate that there are certain beliefs and reasons for belief that are condemnable and some that are commanded/approved.  Moral intuition serves as an a priori conception, which can be expressed either doxastically or in a self-evident or incorrigible way.  I do not see any good reason for why moral judgments should not function as evidence for a belief.  However, there do seem to be good reasons for why moral judgments and axioms should serve as evidence.  These judgments are not empirically based but intuitively based.  These intuitions are objective and are grounded in an objective reality, just as is any other criterion for evidence.  There simply is not a differentiation between moral intuitions and empirical judgments.


[1] W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays (New York: Prometheus, 1999), 77.


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