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...