The Ethics of Belief

W.K. Clifford


1.       Clifford's Dictum: "It is wrong, always, everywhere, for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence"

          a.       Belief desecrated when given to unproven unquestioned statements

          b.       For private pleasure

          c.       Or to drown our sorrows and make us feel better

          d.       Belief should only be influenced by

                    i.        Reason/intellect/truth

                    ii.       Never by passion, wanting it to be true


2.       Clifford's duty to humanity and to ourselves

          a.       Withhold belief until sufficient evidence

                    i.        Only believe things when one has the right to believe them given the evidence before one

          b.       Avoid being overly willing to believe things (being “credulous”)

          c.       Avoid stifling doubts and avoiding investigation

          d.       Avoid letting prejudice and passion guide one’s beliefs

3.       How significant/serious a duty is this?

          a.       “Guard the purity of one’s belief with a fanaticism of jealous care lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object and catch a stain which can never be wiped away.”

          b.       Society crumble if widespread acceptance of belief on insufficient evidence



5.       Any belief can always have affects on action and thereby hurt other people (and yourself)

          a.       Something is not truly a belief if it has no influence upon the believer’s actions

          b.       Belief affects other beliefs

          c.       Puts a stamp on our character

          d.       No belief is ever insignificant

          e.       Your believing too quickly, may make others in society also believe too quickly

          f.       Can harm oneself, as if you don't take care of the truth (believe things simply because you want to believe them), others won't take care of telling the truth to you (they'll tell you what you want to hear--comforting and pleasant matters)

                    i.        Will live in a make believe world

                    ii.       Importance of truthfulness to others about what you think

6.       Have a duty to wait for sufficient evidence before one believes

          a.       There is an ethics of belief

          b.       Just as it is wrong to try to hurt people even if in fact it doesn't, so it is wrong to believe w/o sufficient evidence, even if it never hurts people

                    i.        And even if the belief turns out to be true!

7.       Sinning against one's own nature

          a.       Self-deception: Believing because you want it to be true is a kind of self-deception

8.       Science analogy

          a.       Wrong for a scientist to put forward something as true, without having done the research to prove it (or making up data)

          b.       Even if it was true and no harm done

          c.       Obligation to scientific enterprise

9.       Belief is not a private matter

          a.       Individual belief is common property:

                    i.        Your belief is part of shared resource of community for getting truth and progress of human kind

          b.       Our lives guided by conceptual schemes and words, phrases modes of thought handed down from previous generations with a sacred trust to give it to next generation purified and enlarged.

          c.       Each of our beliefs are woven into this for good or bad

          d.       With our beliefs we have a privilege and responsibility to help create world future people will live in

          e.       Examples

                    i.        People with racists or sexist beliefs pollute the fabric of society

                    ii.       So do people who buy into silly, unproven ideas like astrology, conspiracy theories, bizarre medical treatments

          f.       Superstitions clog progress of human race

          g.       One person’s negative opinion about another in a community spreads to others and affects how others view that person and how the community operates

          h.       People don’t have the right to do whatever they want with their beliefs

          i.        Must come to belief by public standards, since it is a public resource



          a.       Cases where you should belief even if not sufficient evidence

          b.       Friend is dying; if you (or she) believes she will die, then she will give up

          c.       Believe we are not going to (or can’t) succeed make it even less like we will

                    i.        Competitive sports


          d.        C. S. Lewis’s examples

                    i.        Mountain climber, extracting a thorn from child's finger, rescuing a swimmer

                    ii.       In these cases belief against the evidence is rational

Clifford says: “If no time to get conclusive evidence, no time for belief"

          e.       Moral situations where we have to act without conclusive evidence all the time.

                    i.        But this is not believing?

          f.       Political matters

                    i.        Who will be the better candidate? Have to vote

          g.       Getting married, falling in love?

                    i.        Wait for sufficient evidence?