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This is part of a series

Sep 16, 2016

Back to the Ethics of Belief

Smith resumes his discussion of whether beliefs per se can be immoral.

Some readers may recall that I began this series by discussing the ethics of belief, only to get sidetracked into considering ethics in general and the moral sense school of ethics in particular. Rather than continue this lengthy detour, which, if unchecked, could result in my writing the equivalent of a short book on moral theory, I think it is time to touch home base and get back to the original topic. Let’s begin with a review of the troops.

In my first essay in this series, “Belief and Moral Judgment,” I wrote:

In several recent essays I raised the question of whether or not we can legitimately pass moral judgments on beliefs per se, even if those beliefs are never manifested in actions. Suppose a racist believes that blacks are mentally and morally inferior to other races, but he never advocates that a black person be treated differently than any other person. Indeed, let us assume that the racist is a libertarian who defends the equal rights of every person and who does not discriminate in his personal or professional relationships. Although we may assess the racist belief as “irrational,” should we also condemn the belief itself as “immoral”?

Looking back, I suspect that I deviated from this topic for several essays because I was unable to provide an ironclad answer to my own question. Although this subject has interested me for decades, I have never been able to arrive at a definitive conclusion that is able to overcome a number of possible objections. I would arrive at one conclusion that seemed reasonable, only to have doubts that pushed me in another direction. The vacillation continues to this day; and considering all the mental effort I have invested in this problem over the years, I doubt if I will ever reach a conclusion with which I am entirely comfortable. Much of my uncertainty, I suspect, lies in the ambiguity of words like “moral” and “immoral,” which are often applied loosely in different contexts. This, at least, is the official excuse for my indecision, and I’m sticking to it.

The following is a thumbnail sketch of how I tend to use certain words.

Generally speaking and with exceptions, I apply “moral” and “immoral” to actions, “rational” and “irrational” to beliefs, and “reasonable” and “unreasonable” to people. Of course there is a good deal of wiggle room here. For example, we frequently speak of irrational people, not merely of irrational beliefs, and I can think of no good objection to this common usage. But this raises the interesting question: Is there any difference between an irrational person and an unreasonable person? These descriptions strike me as having a different “feel” to them, but it would be difficult to explain why.

As indicated in my sketch—and, again, generally speaking—I regard the value judgment “irrational” as bearing an analogous relationship to beliefs that “immoral” bears to actions. My preference in this regard is rooted in my interest in freethought, which began at age 14 and predated my interest in libertarianism by nearly three years. A fundamental tenet of the freethought tradition is that people should be “free”—morally free—to question or reject any belief that they regard as irrational, without fear of moral condemnation for holding an incorrect belief. A corollary of this tenet is that people should be morally free to accept any belief that they regard as justified. And a clear implication of this approach is that beliefs per se should be exempt from moral judgments. A belief may be irrational but never immoral. Many freethinkers arrived at this conclusion because they objected to the claims of many theologians that to doubt the existence of God or the truth of Christianity is immoral. (See my discussion of Anthony Collins in a Freethought and Freedom: An Introduction.)

This position is plausible, but some beliefs are so godawful that merely to call them “irrational” does not seem to do them justice. To believe in the existence of magic fairies is irrational, and so is militant anti-Semitism, but these beliefs are scarcely comparable in terms of their significance. The former may be nothing more than a harmless delusion, but the latter has brought about an enormous amount of persecution and murder. Could we say, perhaps, that anti-Semitism is more irrational than the belief in magic fairies? This is a difficult claim to sustain, given the complete lack of evidence for the existence of magic fairies.

This is the kind of distinction that motivates us to label some beliefs as “immoral,” but there is another option. Perhaps, while repudiating the label “immoral” in regard to beliefs per se, we might aptly apply the label “evil” to some beliefs. There is a difference between these two labels. For instance, we could reasonably call a destructive earthquake “evil,” but we would not call it “immoral.” Similarly, we might wish to call anti-Semitism an evil belief but not an immoral belief. The term “evil” is a normative judgment, but it is not necessarily a moral judgment. That we should label some beliefs “evil” (as Ayn Rand did about racism) is an interesting possibility that I may take up in more detail at a later time.

Much of what I have written so far amounts to little more than thinking out loud. I did this because I wanted to give readers an idea of some of the problems that have troubled me over the years when I have attempted to answer the deceptively simple question: Should we condemn some beliefs per se as immoral? I will attempt at a later time to address this question in a more systematic manner, however tentative my arguments may be, but for now I wish to address a question that has surely occurred to some readers, namely: What is the point of all this hair-splitting over the meaning of words? Well, speaking from personal experience, I have frequently found that this sort of analysis may lead to insights that go beyond the conventional meanings of words. John Locke was correct when he observed that philosophy normally uses the ordinary language of civil discourse rather than employing a specialized vocabulary, and that philosophy will therefore suffer from the ambiguities of ordinary usage. Nevertheless, I think there is value in reflecting on subtle differences of meaning; we may became more precise thinkers as a result.

Having alerted readers in advance not to expect a neat and tidy answer to the question of whether beliefs per se should be deemed “moral” or “immoral,” I will now turn to an essay that has achieved the status of a minor classic among freethinkers: “The Ethics of Belief,” by W.K. Clifford, first published in the Contemporary Review in 1877.

William K. Clifford (1845-79) was a brilliant mathematician who pioneered geometric algebra—a species of which, “Clifford algebra,” bears his name. Clifford has also been credited with anticipating some features of Einstein’s theory of relativity. He was Professor of Applied Mathematics at University College, London, from 1871 until his death eight years later.

Clifford was raised a devout Anglican, and he retained his religious convictions until shortly after taking his degree in 1867. Then his reading of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer eventually led him to embrace a militant form of atheism. Moreover, after travelling through Spain, Clifford, a radical republican, became convinced that Roman Catholicism was responsible for a good deal of tyranny, violence, and dishonesty in the western world. Indeed, it would be fair to say that Christianity in general, according to Clifford, is a vast system of intellectual dishonesty, one that requires a willful refusal to base one’s beliefs on evidence.

Clifford’s essay begins with this hypothetical. A ship full of passengers sets sail. The shipowner has good reasons to doubt whether the ship is sound, so he worries that it may not be seaworthy. It is old and has needed many repairs, and it was not very well built to begin with. But to overhaul the ship would be expensive, so the shipowner represses his doubts with various reassurances. The ship has made many successful voyages without any trouble, and there is no reason to suppose that this voyage will be any different. He tells himself that his suspicions about the honesty of the shipbuilders and contractors were probably unfounded. In this way the shipowner “acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart…and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.”

What shall we say of the shipowner?

Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

In the interest of clarity, it must be understood that when Clifford said that the shipowner “had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him,” he was speaking of a moral right, not of a political right. The theme of his essay, as we shall see, is that we have a moral obligation (or duty) to base our beliefs on evidence, and that mentally to suppress or ignore relevant evidence is immoral.

I shall continue my discussion of “The Ethics of Belief,” which raises some very interesting points, in my next essay. Those who wish to read Clifford’s essay in advance will find it (in a .pdf file) here.

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