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Oct 14, 2016

The Moral Implications of Beliefs

Smith discusses the claim that some beliefs are immoral and the role of credibility in choosing our beliefs.

Concluding Thoughts on Clifford

In the conclusion of a previous essay I presented W.K. Clifford’s hypothetical of a shipowner who suppresses reasonable doubts about the seaworthiness of his vessel and permits it to sail. The ship is lost at sea and all passengers are killed. According to Clifford, the shipowner is morally responsible for those deaths, however sincere his belief in the soundness of his ship may have been. This belief cannot absolve the shipowner of moral guilt “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.

Clifford then altered a detail of this hypothetical. Suppose the ship successfully completes her voyage without incident. Clifford asked if this factor would diminish the moral guilt of her owner. “Not one jot,” he answered. The negligent shipowner “would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found out. The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.”

This is an interesting argument. The moral guilt of the shipowner, according to Clifford, does not hinge on the contingent factor of whether the ship, which a reasonable and honest person would concede is dangerous, actually sinks or not. Rather, the immorality lies in the belief of the shipowner that the ship is safe—a belief he rationalized by suppressing reasonable doubts about its seaworthiness. This unjustified belief persists regardless of the outcome of a particular voyage, and so does the immorality of that belief. The shipowner had no right to believe in the soundness of his vessel, given substantial evidence to the contrary that he refused to take into account. By a “right,” in this context, Clifford meant a moral right. He concluded that it is morally “wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, or to nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation.”

Perhaps it will be said that moral judgments should apply not to beliefs per se but to the actions that result from those beliefs. Clifford rejected this possibility: “For it is not possible so to sever the belief from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other.” Nor did Clifford concede the possibility that some beliefs have no influence whatever upon our actions. Irrational beliefs, however trivial they may seem, will ultimately affect more significant beliefs by lessening our overall commitment to reason.

If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future.  It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole.  No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may some day explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.

It is interesting to note the similarity between the position expressed in this passage and the views of Ayn Rand. Like Clifford, Rand vigorously condemned the evils of evasion, and she would probably have agreed with Clifford’s point that no belief is truly insignificant when considered within the total context of one’s knowledge and one’s commitment to reason. Of course, Rand would have categorically rejected Clifford’s argument that rationality is a moral obligation that we owe to “humanity”—a point that I criticized in a previous essay in this series.

Is it true, as Clifford maintained, that we have a moral obligation to be rational? We might answer this question in the affirmative even if we disagree with some of Clifford’s reasoning, so let’s leave his article, “The Ethics of Belief,” behind and consider this issue in more general terms.

A possible objection to assessing beliefs as “moral” or “immoral” is that moral judgments, properly considered, should apply only to actions. This objection evaporates, however, when we understand that the assent of the mind to the truth of a proposition, which is what I mean by a “belief,” is not the core issue here. Rather, the moral judgment applies to the reasons, or lack therefore, for the assent. We properly speak of mental actions as well as physical actions, and to reason is to engage is a type of mental activity. Suppose, as with Clifford’s shipowner, we arrive at a belief while willfully ignoring evidence to the contrary. The “immorality” involved here would pertain not to the mental assent as such but to our failure to take the necessary mental actions required to justify our belief.


Precious few philosophers would disagree with what George Santayana wrote in his essay “William James” (Character and Opinion in the United States, Scribner’s, 1920, p. 87):

To be boosted by an illusion is not to live better than to live in harmony with the truth; it is not nearly so safe, not nearly so sweet, and not nearly so fruitful. These refusals to part with a decayed illusion are really an infection to the mind. Believe, certainly; we cannot help believing; but believe rationally, holding what seems certain for certain, what seems probable for probable, what seems desirable for desirable, and what seems false for false.

Ah, yes, says the philosopher: I will believe only what is reasonable to believe. I will believe only when there is sufficient reason to believe, and I will reject all beliefs that lack justification. These are noble ideals, but the issue is not nearly as simple as may first appear. Complications abound, among which is the uncomfortable fact that we cannot possibly consider and evaluate the evidence, pro and con, for every knowledge claim that happens our way. I pride myself on being a rational person; but like every other mortal who has ever existed, I am also fallible, so it is highly improbable—so improbable as to be virtually impossible—that I am the first person in the history of humankind who holds no incorrect beliefs whatsoever. Let’s assume, as a lowball estimate, that 1 percent of my beliefs are incorrect or, at the very least, highly dubious. How would I go about identifying that 1 percent? Where would I even start?  

I don’t profess to have a good answer to my own questions, though to consider various possibilities makes for an interesting mental exercise. I raise the question as a springboard to discuss some features of belief that are sometimes overlooked. The first thing I shall discuss is the credibility of a knowledge claim. As I said, we do not, because we cannot, assess the details of every knowledge claim that we happen to encounter. This is where the credibility of a knowledge claim comes into play.

Assertions, arguments, doctrines, etc. (which, for the sake of convenience, I shall call propositions) must strike us as both relevant and credible before we will take time to investigate them further. A proposition is relevant if it is related to our intellectual interests, whether theoretical or practical. A relevant proposition is one whose truth or falsehood would have a significant impact on what we believe or how we act.

A proposition must also appear credible before we will take it seriously. If I am told that American astronauts did not really land on the moon but that this event was an elaborate hoax concocted by NASA to secure funding for the space program, I would likely reject this assertion outright—because, though interesting, it does not strike me as credible. True, I do not have the evidence in hand to prove that the moon landing was authentic, and we have abundant evidence of other governmental frauds; nevertheless, I would not take the time and effort to investigate this claim unless I was presented with enough presumptive evidence to establish its credibility. Only if I took the claim seriously enough to merit further investigation would I seek for more detailed information that would resolve the issue one way or another to my own satisfaction.

To assess a proposition as credible is to say not that it is justified but that it is worthy of being justified. A credible proposition is one that we regard as worthy of further consideration. Without credibility a proposition will simply pass through our consciousness without stopping long enough to be examined. Credibility is like an Ellis Island of cognition, a checkpoint for immigrating ideas that are seeking permanent residence in our minds. Whether a proposition is turned away or admitted for further investigation will depend on how we assess its credibility.

The same point can be made by differentiating between a reasonable belief and a justified belief. A reasonable proposition is one that does not strike us as impossible or highly improbable, even though it may lack sufficient justification to warrant our assent. Of course, given the vast number of reasonable beliefs, we cannot examine every proposition that falls into this category. Severe limitations of time require that we narrow our focus, selecting only those propositions that we regard as reasonable and relevant. 

Of course, a problem with the credibility test—a mental sieve, in effect, that sorts knowledge claims that are worthy of serious consideration from those that are not—is that our standards of credibility may sometimes exclude beliefs that are worthy of serious consideration and that may actually turn out to be true. This is part of what it means to be fallible. More needs to be said about this problem.

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