Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Ethics of Belief by William K. Clifford

A business acquaintance I follow on Twitter posted that he often likes to reread William K. Clifford's essay The Ethics of Belief. The author, a mathematician by trade, originally published the essay in 1877.

Let's cut right to Clifford's point: "It is wrong always, everywhere, for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

It is wrong to believe. Not to act. But simply to believe.

Without deep consideration this seems to draw from Socrates, "An unexamined life is not worth living." Certainly there's nothing ominous about trying to know and understand all you can about life and the world and then use that knowledge as the basis for taking action.

But Clifford spins things a little differently. "The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the matter of it." Ethics depends on the thoughts not the actions which may result from them. Clifford using the example of theft to illustrate the true harm to society is not the loss of property but rather the disposition of the thief. The fact that a man has bad thoughts is more harmful to society than any action based on those bad thoughts. He clarifies this: "No one man's belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone." In other words, your thoughts are part of the fabric of society and, by implication, a matter for public scrutiny.

Your thoughts are my business.

A practical concern cited is whether one has the time to scrutinize in long detail all the questions and factors of life to which the reply is "then he should have no time to believe."

You have no right to believe.

I have a few fundamental problems with Clifford. Although he addresses it in his essay, the implication that all things are knowable I find false. Even whether all things are knowable to a substantial degree is debatable. Whether study of an issue will lead all men to the same (presumably) correct conclusion is almost certainly false.

A large part of the problem here is that beliefs being tested are themselves qualitative leading certainly to lack of agreement. Consider these beliefs: abortion, capital punishment, taxes, religion, country music, and the designated hitter. Regardless of your belief, try to imagine a fully considered study. Upon what would it be based? Whether having the belief is good or bad? And what exactly do good and bad mean in this context?

Even in his own theft example, Clifford states the true problem is that a society of thieves is bad. But one might make the case that people who don't sufficiently protect their property deserve to have it stolen and one who is able to steal has demonstrated great skill. Clifford has chosen for us his desired outcome.  Who will society get to decide on the one true belief? Just look at the chaos of having the DH in the AL but no DH in the NL. Who in the hell decided pitchers shouldn't hit?

Baseball levity aside, Clifford is using this argument to skewer religion. Because the existence of a higher power is untestable and discontinuous with our daily existence, because religion is foisted upon us by unknowing parents and perpetuated by unqualified clergy, and because even thinking these untested beliefs is a burden on society they should not be permitted.

Clifford (maybe because he's a mathematician) acts as though everything is 100% knowable leaving absolutely no mystery or uncertainty or flaw in life. It is that lack of certainty and the inevitability of error that makes life wonderfully worth living. Shades of gray.

Nothing in human existence is 100% knowable and belief fills that gap whether it's in the form of religion or politics (as if there's a difference) or art. Certainly examination makes life worth living. But that examination is my personal business - society can just deal with any resulting actions.

No comments: