November 9, 2018
The Ethics of Belief is predicated upon the notion that it is of the utmost ethical importance that beliefs are formed in the right way. In the Ethics of Belief, William Clifford details this “right way” of forming beliefs as one that must be guided by evidence, and nothing other than evidence. Typically, we view actions as wrong based on the results of said actions, but the Ethics of Belief argues that it is not the result of the action that makes an action wrong. Clifford asserts that, when your actions are guided by beliefs that are not subjugated by evidence, that is the point in which an action becomes wrong. While some may point out that evidence possesses an inherent subjectivity and should therefore not function as a standard for morality, Clifford contends that the Ethics of Belief must function in a society that is healthy in regards to the process of inquiry. Only in this society can evidence be disseminated to form reasonable belief.
The Ethics of Belief ideology is exemplified by the parable of the ship-owner. In this example, there is a ship-owner who knows his ship may be due for an overhaul. While he is aware that he should do a full safety and functionality check before it take another trip, he pushes down his doubts by reminding himself of how many trips the ship has safely completed, how he is confident in the shipbuilders who constructed the vessel, and how he trusts in Providence, which is essentially God’s protection. With all of these beliefs ensuring the safe passage of the vessel and all of its passengers, the ship-owner confidently sends it off to sea, where it sinks mid-ocean and everyone aboard dies.
While the ship-owner displayed both strong belief and thoughtful ethical consideration in deciding to send off the ship, according to Clifford, the owner is morally and ethically responsible for the death of those aboard his ship. His belief in the ship sailing was not supported by any actual evidence about the ships ability to sail. It is crucial to make the distinction clear that the ship-owner is not being held morally responsible because the ship sank and the passengers died, but because he did not have the right to believe that the ship would not sink and the passengers would be safe aboard it. The fact that he acted on that belief that was, to Clifford’s standards, both unaided and arbitrary, makes the action in and of itself wrong in nature.
Although the ship-owner parable is simple and effective in demonstrating Clifford’s thesis, objections can be made when applying his position to a greater framework. At its core, the methodology behind the Ethics of Belief is most apparent in the way in which we understand our world through science. Clifford’s premise is embodied in the scientific method, which is the guideline for proving all theories of science to be validated and accepted by the scientific community and the world. The ship-owner was held morally responsible because he did not utilize the scientific method, which requires constant and perpetual research and experimentation. This pursuit of verifiable evidence is the “right way” to form a belief in Clifford’s eyes.
However, can evidence be trusted? And if so, can it always be a guide to what’s moral or immoral? While science seems to be the perfect manifestation of Clifford’s belief ideology, science has proven to have its fallacies. Some forms of scientific theories that were once approved by the scientific community and accepted by society have now not only been disproved, but put deemed unrealistically and unimaginably approved in the first place. A prime example of this is the scientific concept of “phrenology”, commonly known today as scientific racism.
Phrenology is a science developed by a German physician in 1796, which was adopted by Europeans when attempting to justify slavery. The process of phrenology is to observe and feel the skull to determine someone’s psychological attributes, extending to mental capacity. By measuring and inspecting the skulls of Black people, Europeans used arbitrary metrics to come to the conclusion that Europeans are superior. Slave owner and popular phrenologist Charles Caldwell, developed one of the key pro-slavery phrenological arguments, claiming the ease exhibited with Africans enslavement was because of the inherent “tameableness” they had as a people. This tameableness was a result of Africans having routinely large areas of “veneration” and “cautiousness” on the top and back of their skulls.
This example reflects how evidence is something that can be both malleable and subjective, and that evidence being a guide to morality is invalid. The creators of phrenology took observations and molded them into supporting evidence that justified slavery and furthered the hegemonic reign of white supremacy. Evidence perpetuating a morally wrong action contradicts the very principal Clifford proposes, since evidence itself is something that doesn’t clearly have a right or wrong. This points to a large oversight in the Ethics of Belief, begging the question: If evidence can be fluid and manipulated, does it give a belief any more validity than a belief without any supporting evidence?
These caveats, as outlined by Clifford, are addressed in the philosophy constructing the Ethics of Belief. For evidence to be sufficient, it must be “sufficiently reasonable,” and sometimes this can either be with evidence of direct observation, or evidence that it is reasonable for one to trust. In the case of science, and even phrenology, the appliers weren’t morally wrong for using phrenology as a justification for racism. Phrenologists were experts of that field, so the common people had sufficient reason to trust their information, the same way the ship-owner would have had sufficient reason to trust his ship-makers if they had inspected the ship.
This contributes to the notion that knowledge, as we know it, can be viewed as a social product. Clifford alludes to this premise, stating, “...it is one thing to believe things that are socially sanctioned. If I am not an expert myself, that may be the best I can do.” When applying this stance to the case of phrenology, those who received and further disseminated the evidence of phrenological scientists would be considered to be passive appliers. They take evidence that is presented to them in society and use it to guide belief as they navigate their environment. The scientists, on the other hand, would be considered active constructors. This is due to the very nature of their actions; they molded and coerced science in order to create evidence that would shape the beliefs of society. In a society where active constructors are construing evidence to further a socio-political agenda, the environment in unhealthy with regard to the process of inquiry. This, subsequently, functions outside of reasonable belief.
The delicate balance of assessing evidence, society, and action are all crucial components in fully understanding belief and its ethical implications. While there is an emphasis of the right way to form belief, there are criteria one must follow to ensure the validity of the evidence used to employ this methodology. This validity highlights not solely the truth of the evidence used, but the context guiding the evidence’s application in greater society. Understanding these key points is crucial in distinguishing between the implications of sending a faulty ship out to sea versus justifying the enslavement of a population based on skull measurements.