Basic Issues in Religion
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Dr. Ned Beach
18 October, 1999


William Kingdon Clifford, "The Ethics of Belief"

"Discuss William Kingdon Clifford's reasoning concerning the 'ethics of belief.' Why does he insist that 'it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence'? What arguments does he use to show this?"

Six Students, working as a team, offered the following answer:

-- A person must be justified in making a belief-claim.

-- By believing something on insufficient evidence, people can be hurt, reputations can be ruined.

Argument 1: Clifford begins with the story of the ship owner who initially has doubts about the seaworthiness of his ship, but then lulls his conscience to sleep by means of wishful thinking. Whether or not the ship ultimately meets with disaster, Clifford maintains, the conclusion is the same: The ship owner had no right to risk the lives of these people because "he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him." Even supposing the ship made its voyage safely, the owner was still guilty of making a belief claim on insufficient evidence.

Argument 2: Likewise, in the case of the members of a certain religious group on an unnamed island (probably England) who were unfairly accused of teaching their children bad doctrines, Clifford condemns the accusers (not the religious group) of unethical conduct. They "had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them." Their convictions were not earned by inquiring but rather by "listening to the voice of prejudice and passion." Even if the accused had been found guilty, the accusers still had no right to go on insufficient evidence.

-- It is wrong to believe without sufficient evidence.

-- It is wrong to "nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation."

-- In both arguments, the belief held by one man was of great importance to other men. Lives were lost and reputations were ruined due to belief on insufficient evidence.

Argument 3: Beliefs that do not produce actions are not really beliefs at all. The truths or falsehoods beneath them are insignificant.

Argument 4: Significant beliefs have an impact not only on the believer but on others also. In both examples (ship sinking & accused religious leaders), the beliefs were made by individuals. They were not made known to the public so that others could form an opinion as to whether they agree or disagree.

Argument 5: Every time we believe with insufficient evidence, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of weighing evidence, We suffer from supporting false beliefs because they lead to wrong actions. Eventually, one will believe everything and doubt nothing.

Instructor's Comment:

Arguments 1 and 2 (really facets of the same argument) are fine. Argument 3, however, introduces a subtle misconception. It's a mistake to suggest that Clifford sanctions or permits "insignificant beliefs" on the grounds that they produce no actions anyway. Rather, what he wants to say is that all unjustified beliefs, even the little ones that may seem insignificant and harmless, really do have noticeable effects on people's lives. They are like insidious serpents that worm their way into one's soul and corrupt it from within. Clifford also compares such beliefs to a disease that may begin as a mild malaise but then grows into a dangerous epidemic. Thus, for example, to believe in fortune-telling, in Santa Claus, or in the efficacy of prayer would all be instances of seemingly insignificant beliefs that have much destructive power. Their chief danger consists in the tendency they have to reinforce people's bad habits of wishful thinking and credulity. Once these sloppy mental habits take hold, there is no telling where their pernicious influence will spread next. Clifford feels deeply that we must cut these habits off at the root by keeping our minds free of any beliefs without sufficient evidence.

Arguments 4 and 5 are essentially correct, with the proviso that for Clifford all beliefs, without exception, are significant.

William James, "The Will to Believe"

"What does William James mean by a 'genuine option,' and of what three main components does this consist? Why is this concept important, according to him, and how does he use it to answer W.K. Clifford's argument?"

Students' Answer:

1. Living: A living option is one which is capable of happening. "I will flap my arms and fly to the moon" is not a live option.

2. Forced: A forced option is one in which a decision has to be made. The option of simply not choosing does not exist. "It is cold outside so you need a coat" is not a forced option because you can decide to just stay in.

3. Momentous: A momentous option is one in which the option would put you in an extraordinary situation or position; or one that would change your life in a big way. "Dropping out of college or not" is momentous.

This concept is important to James because he believes that whether or not you believe many beliefs makes no difference to the outcome. Clifford is making the argument that more often than not a person is making a judgment on grounds of no proper belief. He claims that this person has not explored the possible effects of the action that was chosen, and therefore Clifford is saying that people are falling into the habit of being credulous. Here is where James comes into play. First, he downplays the part of strictly testing everything. Where Clifford says that a man has no time to believe if he has no time to test his belief, James says that it is not always necessary to be so strict, especially on matters of insignificant importance. James can now go on to the matters than cannot be proven.

In the case of the existence of God, according to Clifford, If you do not have sufficient reason for belief in God, then you should not believe. James says that in doing this a person would lose all the good things that religion brings. James simply states that your commitment to your belief in God, whether right or wrong, has a great influence on the outcome.

To sum up James' refutation of Clifford, James makes the point that if you insist on proof, you are probably going to cut yourself off from things which are important. He sums it up best on page 77 with "a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule."

Instructor's Comment:

For starters, it is necessary to give a general statement about what a "genuine option" means, according to James. He defines this as a "decision between two hypotheses . . . when it is of the forced, living, and momentous kind." Having stated that, one can then go on to discuss those three components.

1. Living: It would be clearer to describe this in terms of the appeal or lack of appeal pertaining to certain beliefs. For people who believe in miracles, the notion of a winged flight to the moon might conceivably be a "live option." The point is that it's the belief, more than the event itself, which is describable as "live" or "dead."

2. Forced: The discussion here is on the right track. But in addition to an example of what is not a forced option, there should be one that is forced. "Either stay in this room or leave it" would be one such example.

3. Momentous: The second half of the students' interpretation is somewhat more accurate than the first half. That is, a momentous option is one that will have a major impact on one's life, whether or not it involves anything "extraordinary." The example about dropping out of college is good.

The first sentence in the next paragraph is incorrect, and it misses the main point of James's argument. His thesis is not that certain beliefs may safely be entertained because they "make no difference," but rather that they can justifiably appeal to our belief -- even in the absence of "sufficient evidence" -- precisely because they do make a major difference. If the choice whether or not to believe in something is not momentous, then it is not a "genuine option" either, in James's sense, and so it would not be legitimate to make it an object of the "will to believe." Also, in the next-to-last sentence of the paragraph, the same mistake occurs. It is not in matters of "insignificant importance," but rather those of compelling, earth-shaking importance, that we may "will to believe." (This assumes, of course, that the beliefs in question are also both living options and forced.)

Belief in the existence of God is a case in point. As the students point out correctly (but in apparent contradiction to their earlier statements), the commitment to this belief "has a great influence on the outcome" of one's life.

The final paragraph is good.