W.K. Clifford: The Ethics of Belief
1. What does Clifford mean by evidence?
2. What does it mean to say that our beliefs have consequences on ourselves and others?
3. Are some beliefs more consequential than others?
4. For the most consequential beliefs what kind of evidence or proof is necessary?
5. Is anyone too busy to think about the most basic, and most consequential, beliefs?
This sense of power is the highest and best of pleasures when the belief on which
it is founded is a true belief, and has been fairly earned by investigation. For then we may
justly feel that it is common property, and holds good for others as well as for ourselves.
Then we may be glad, not that I have learned secrets by which I am safer and stronger, but
that we men have got mastery over more of the world; and we shall be strong, not for
ourselves but in the name of Man and his strength. But if the belief has been accepted on
insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one. Not only does it deceive ourselves by
giving us a sense of power which we do not really possess, but it is sinful, because it is
stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard ourselves from such
beliefs as from pestilence, which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the
rest of the town. What would be thought of one who, for the sake of a sweet fruit, should
deliberately run the risk of bringing a plague upon his family and his neighbours?
And, as in other such cases, it is not the risk only which has to be considered; for
a bad action is always bad at the time when it is done, no matter what happens afterwards.
Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self control,
of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer severely
enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions
which they lead to, and the evil born when one such belief is entertained is great and wide.
But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and
supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent.
To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything
upon insufficient evidence.
If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of
afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind,
purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or
discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without
disturbing it—the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.
If this judgment seems harsh when applied to those simple souls who have never
known better, who have been brought up from the cradle with a horror of doubt, and
taught that their eternal welfare depends on what they believe, then it leads to the very serious question, Who hath made Israel to sin?
It may be permitted me to fortify this judgment with the sentence of Milton—
A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because his pastor
says so, or the assembly so determine, without knowing other reason, though his
belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.
And with this famous aphorism of Coleridge—
He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his
own sect or Church better than Christianity, and end loving himself better than all. Inquiry into the evidence of a doctrine is not to be made once for all, and then taken as
finally settled. It is never lawful to stifle a doubt; for either it can be honestly answered by
means of the inquiry already made, or else it proves that the inquiry was not complete.
“But,” says one, “I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study
which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain
questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments.”
Then he should have no time to believe.