Clifford: The Ethics of Belief

Clifford's Argument

Clifford offers an argument against theism. His argument can be reconstructed as follows:
1. There is insufficient evidence for the belief that God exists.
2. “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” ("Clifford's Credo")

C. It is wrong to believe that God exists.

Clifford's Credo

For present purposes let's just grant Clifford his first premise. (As we've seen, other philosophers premise their discussions with a similar assumption. For example, Pascal begins his "wager" with a very similar assumption, which he referred to as a "position of metaphysical ignorance".) Let's focus on Clifford’s second premise, which I’ll be calling “Clifford’s Credo”:
“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
The first question this credo prompts is: What is the force of the “wrong” here? In what sense is it “wrong” to believe on insufficient evidence?

Clifford sees the issue as a moral or ethical one. It is morally wrong to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence. He illustrates his point with reference to two main examples. In both of these examples, Clifford describes subjects who form their beliefs on the basis of insufficient evidence. Clifford claims that we should morally condemn these subjects, thus supporting his credo.


Clifford considers a possible objection to his credo. The objection is that:
Clifford’s position incorrectly identifies the target of our condemnation.
The objection claims that it is actions that we judge morally right or wrong, rather than beliefs.
(The idea behind this objection is that beliefs alone aren't morally condemnable. We only condemn the person when they act upon these beliefs. It is only when the person acts upon the beliefs that we get any objectionable consequences.)

Clifford's Response

Clifford's response to this objection is both subtle and complicated. (In fact, it's a good philosophical exercise to try to navigate your way through the series of related points he makes in response to this objection.) Here, I just want to highlight some of the key claims that Clifford makes. In what appears to be his main response to this objection, Clifford claims that:
“[We cannot] sever the belief from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other.”
He illustrates this claim with a number of points. For example, he argues that beliefs, by their very nature, must have some impact on behavior. That is, he argues that it makes no sense to think that a subject can have a genuine belief if that belief never manifests itself anywhere in the subject's behavioral dispositions.

More importantly, Clifford seems to argue that an insufficiently-supported belief will always have bad consequences. He admits that these bad consequences may not follow immediately, but he is convinced that, somewhere down the line, bad consequences will result. (And the upshot is again that it is the insufficiently-supported belief that is the appropriate object of our moral condemnation.)

Further Objections

There are a number of objections we might raise that Clifford doesn’t consider:

What does it take for evidence to be “sufficient”?

Clifford never really spells out what it would take for evidence to be sufficient. However, given what he does say, it seems like he has pretty high standards for "sufficiency". If that's the case, it would seem like Clifford is committed to the claim that many ordinary beliefs are morally condemnable. (After all, most of my own beliefs aren't formed after a rigorous study of the evidence.) Note, this alone isn't a knock-down objection to Clifford's position. However, it may point to an unappealing consequence of his view.

Jamesian objection: We only condemn unsupported beliefs when the stakes are high.

Even if we grant Clifford's very questionable claim (made in response to the objection he considers) that insufficiently-supported beliefs will always have bad consequences, we still might want to deny Clifford's Credo. In the cases he originally used to support his credo, the various negative consequences were quite severe. (For example, in the ship owner case many innocent lives were lost!) But it seems doubtful that the consequences will always be that severe. We might think that often the consequences are essentially negligible. As such, we might think that the moral condemnation of such beliefs only applies when the stakes are high.

Consequentialist objections.

We might specifically object to Clifford's claim (that arises in response to the objection he considers) that insufficiently-supported beliefs will always result in bad consequences. There are a number of possible objections to make along these lines:
  • There may be good consequences resulting from an insufficiently-supported belief. Even if we grant that there is insufficient evidence for his existence, we still might think that there could be good consequences following from belief in God. (For example, consider Pascal's Wager.)
  • On the other hand, there may be bad consequences resulting from Clifford's policy of withholding belief in the absence of sufficient evidence. Clifford suggests that we are morally obligated to withhold belief whenever there is insufficient evidence. But (especially if the standards for "sufficiency" are high, see above) if we follow this policy, this may lead to paralysis on many issues. If the evidence doesn't decide an issue one way or another, then, according to Clifford, we should form no beliefs. But arguably, on certain issues it's often better to form some belief, regardless of what it is, than to form none at all.