Ethics & Epistemology
The ethics (or lack thereof) of belief
Is it morally wrong to believe something without, or even in spite, of the evidence?
A shipowner was about to send to sea a ship with immigrants on board. He knew that she was old, and not well built to begin with; that she had seen many seas and storms, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense.
Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors.
In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales. What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men.
The above story is from a classic essay entitled “The ethics of belief,” by William K. Clifford, a 19th century British mathematician and philosopher. (The full text can be downloaded here.) It began a famous and impactful modern debate in what is now an entire field at the intersection of ethics and epistemology. William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, responded to Clifford with another famous essay, “The will to believe,” and in this post we are going to take a closer look at the arguments put forth by Clifford, James, and a number of others who preceded them. Because our beliefs do have moral import, and we should act accordingly.