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The Ethics of Belief VS the Will to Believe

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People have long been interested in the circumstances under which it is appropriate to believe. Often, the source of this interest is the desire to believe something for which one has insufficient evidence. Extensive excerpts of the following essays by William Kingdon Clifford and William James are often reprinted in anthologies

This is sufficient proof of the enduring interest in this subject, and of the importance of these particular essays. But since they are excerpts, and since Clifford’s Lectures and Essays is no longer in print, there is a need for the present book. Indeed, usually the excerpts from Clifford’s essay come exclusively from part one of his three-part essay.

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W.K. Clifford's essay is called The Ethics of Belief, and for good reason. He wants to convince us that forming our beliefs in the right way is a matter of real ethical importance. Thus, he begins with an example where the co nnection between belief and ethical considerations seems very strong: the ship-owner knows that his ship might need to be overhauled. Before the ship leaves port, however, he talks himself out of his doubts. He reminds himself that the ship has sailed saf ely many times before. He reminds himself that he believes in Providence. And he persuades himself not to distrust the shipbuilders and contractors who have worked on the boat in the past. The ship sinks in mid-ocean and all aboard it die. Clifford insists: the ship-owner is morally responsible for the deaths of these people. And his failing is clear: he let his beliefs be guided by things other than the evidence. Further, Clifford insists, he would be just as guilty if the ship had never sunk. What makes actions wrong are not the results. What makes actions wrong is not a matter of results

He had no right to believe that the ship was safe; it was wrong of him to hold that belief, even if he is lucky enugh to have nothing go wrong as a result. It might occur to the reader: what was wrong was not holding the belief; what was wrong was acting on the belief. Clifford agrees that even if my belief is fixed, I can control my action, and I have duties to act in certain ways (e.g., to have my ship checked before sending it on a long voyage) if even if I don't believe there is anything wrong. But he thinks the original judgment still stands: if the belief was gotten illegitimately -- if it came about without relying on good evidence -- then the person who holds the belief is open to moral criticism -- has failed in his or her duty. This is because belief is not simply disconnected from action.

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As mentioned earlier, in cognitive science and evolutionary biology, it is often assumed that the aim of belief (as well as of almost every other process) is something like “survival.” There are ongoing disagreements, however, about the extent to which that is correct and, even if it is, whether it is necessarily or even contingently connected to the aim of truth-acquisition (Stich 1990, Street 2006). A very different kind of candidate for the aim of belief would be something like pleasure broadly-speaking, or perhaps “feeling at home in the world.” If one of these is the aim, then the norms it underwrites might at times lead away from truth. For example: suppose Smith is the sort of guy who feels great pleasure when he believes that everyone he knows thinks highly of him, and pleasure is an aim that underwrites a doxastic norm. Then Smith has a prima facie obligation to believe that his friend Jones thinks the world of him. This is clearly one of the places where debates about psychological strategies such as self-deception, “bad faith,” wish-fulfillment, “irony,” and the like become germane in the ethics of belief (see Wisdo 1991, Mele 2001, Wood 2002, and the entry on self deception). If the aims of belief can plausibly be regarded as wide enough to include truth-neutral states such as pleasure or “feeling at home in the world,” and if these aims can underwrite genuine norms, then Evidentialism as characterized below clearly delivers a far-too-narrow characterization of its ethics. We have seen that our conception of the aim of belief can influence our conception of doxastic norms

But it can also affect the extent to which parallels can be drawn between the ethics of belief and the ethics of action generally. If one adopts “value monism” in the ethics of belief (whether it be veritism of some other kind of value), then there will be a strong parallel to monistic consequentialist theories in the ethics of action.

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In short, James is an interesting counterpoint to philosophers advocating more skeptical approaches to rational belief (like Socrates and Descartes). But an interesting feature of his argument is he (like Socrates and Descartes) believes that having true beliefs about even very theoretical questions is an important part of the good life. For instance, James thinks religious faith can be deeply valuable not just for the practical benefits it offers your life but because the beliefs that constitute your faith might be deep truths. He disagrees about the approach of Clifford and the skeptics -- holding back belief until the evidence has come in. Some kinds of belief -- the kind that are forced, live and momentous -- might require a different sensitivity to evidence. How do you think James would answer Socrates and Descartes skeptical puzzles?

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Stich, Stephen, 1990, The fragmentation of reason, Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Street, Sharon, 2006, “A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value”, Philosophical Studies 127: 109–166.

Wisdo, David, 1991, “Self-deception and the ethics of belief”, Journal of Value Inquiry, 91: 339–347.

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