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W. K. Clifford and ‘The Ethics of Belief’

W. K. Clifford and ‘The Ethics of Belief’ by Tim Madigan

Jon Wainwright finds it easy to believe Tim Madigan.

The philosophical reflections of Victorian mathematicians are unlikely to be uppermost in our twenty-first-century minds. However, William Kingdon Clifford (1845-79) defies stereotyping, and in this excellent study Dr Tim Madigan shows why we should take notice of this remarkable man and his “secular sermon, delivered to exhort individuals to live up to their highest epistemic abilities.” Clifford’s most famous essay, ‘The Ethics Of Belief’ (1877), declares that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” – a provocative claim then and now. Also controversial – and proving an ongoing struggle for secular humanists today – was his opposition to those who thought that a spread of disbelief would lead to moral decline. As for Clifford the man, Moncure Conway wrote that he “had a winning personality, irresistible indeed, and in public speaking could charm alike the Royal Society or a popular audience.”

If Clifford had confined himself to mathematics, he would still be remembered today by mathematicians. Madigan says that one reason he made a broader impact was “a change in attitude regarding received wisdom” – which change in attitude Clifford the mathematician experienced directly. For more than two thousand years, Euclid’s geometry had been considered unquestionable knowledge; but work on non-Euclidean geometry by Riemann and Lobachevski was tearing down old certainties as well as opening up whole new fields. Today geometry, tomorrow the Gospels – why should either be exempt from conscientious inquiry? The Victorian crisis of faith was another questioning of age-old certainties, and in part a reaction to the emergence of science as a serious competitor to Christianity for explaining the universe. Scientific progress had already made remarkable inroads, and showed no signs of slowing down, challenging the religious to steer a new course while held between the rails of doctrine.

Unsurprisingly, the compartmentalization of science and religion was and continues to be an attractive expedient to some. This includes those apologists for religion who have given up on science and religion ever converging, and have plumped instead for concepts like the grandiose-sounding ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. For them, science deals with the ‘how’ and religion with the ‘why’, forgetting that a ‘why’ always implies a ‘how’. Clifford wasn’t impressed by this intellectual demarcation. The scientific method was not restricted to the laboratory, but was manifest in all areas of life. What do you look for in a plumber? Someone who relies on prayer, or someone who trusts in the uniformity of nature, and of pipework and fluid dynamics in particular? Do you rely on the priest in the pulpit to determine the historical basis of Christianity, or a historian trained in the examination of ancient texts and alive to questions of authorship, authenticity, dating, etc? Of course, once an evangelical Christian has begged the question by asserting that the Gospels are divinely inspired and therefore cannot be doubted, then all bets are off as far as reason and logic is concerned. No wonder Clifford’s ecclesiastical contemporaries spluttered their indignation – men like Clifford and fellow freethinker T.H. Huxley were treading on their toes.

Unethical Belief?

‘The Ethics Of Belief’ displays the kind of confidence that’s widely mistaken for arrogance – and yet is there an ethics of belief? Surely we have freedom of belief, just as we enjoy freedom of speech – as long as we do no harm? Even a top-drawer atheist like Dan Barker prefers to judge actions rather than beliefs as right or wrong, and many from both sides of the debate would agree.

In pronouncing about what people morally shouldn’t believe, is Clifford secularizing the concept of heresy? No, he’s raising the moral bar – perhaps to too high a level. In English law, a crime is committed when actus reus and mens rea together make a person guilty: there must be blameworthiness in both action and mind. In a court of law, lack of intention mitigates the fault. However, Clifford is saying that even if there is no intention to do harm through acting on an unjustified belief, the lack of consequence may not lessen the moral wrong. Moreover, for Clifford, “the habit of conscientious inquiry is the very basis for proper action.”

By using the example of a shipowner who settles his doubts over the seaworthiness of his ship by putting “his trust in Providence” rather than through “patient investigation”, Clifford emphasizes from the outset of his essay that an action is either right or wrong regardless of the “accidental failure of its good or evil fruits.” He further says that when “an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever.” Thus, even if the ship completes its voyage safely, the shipowner is still wrong to have believed in its seaworthiness without addressing his doubts. The drunk driver who makes it home without killing anyone, and the charismatic Christian who successfully resorts to ‘faith healing’ to treat his dying daughter, are similarly both at fault, although one may be called pious and the other a pisshead.

Conscientious About Conscience

If morality is confined to a few commandments, and wisdom to a few ancient texts, then the critical mental life of each of us is indeed of little consequence. Yet for the religious, conscience is a gift from God, something – like the engine-management system of a German automobile – with which we cannot and should not tamper. Clifford’s understanding of conscience is far more sophisticated, far more interesting, and far more hopeful for the human race. Conscience is something we can modify gradually “by associating with people, reading certain books, and paying attention to certain ideas and feelings.” In this way, as we mature we become “responsible for a very large portion of the circumstances which are now external” to us (The Ethics Of Belief and Other Essays, p.55). (On this view, far from enhancing our moral being, beyond a certain point the repetition of sacred texts is likely to inhibit the development of conscience.) Clifford also says, “The voice of conscience is the voice of our Father Man who is within us; the accumulated instinct of the race is poured into each one of us, and overflows us, as if the ocean were poured into a cup.” (pp.125-6)

Clifford Combats Credulity

Madigan brings out the attractive side to Clifford’s character. Who can fail to admire Clifford’s “almost evangelical desire to combat credulity and charlatanism, his wish to, in Conway’s words, ‘liberate the people of all classes from degrading dogmas’”? (quoted in Madigan p.35.) But in a poignant observation Sir Frederick Pollock points out Clifford’s active interest in human affairs: “He still followed the course of events, and asked for public news on the morning of his death, so strongly did he hold fast his part in the common weal and in active social life.” (ibid, p58.)

Madigan identifies the idea of the social instinct as key to Clifford’s ethical writings and at the heart of Clifford’s famous assertion about the wrongness of unjustified belief: “The pursuit of knowledge was a social issue, and one in which all members of the human species participate.” (Contrast this open-hearted approach with the self-serving excuses of Alvin Plantinga for example: “Must my criteria, or those of the believing community, conform to their examples? Surely not. The theistic community is responsible to its set of examples, not to theirs.” (ibid, p149.)) However, we should be wary when witnesses contradict each other or “when they have an interest in what they affirm, when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or, on the contrary, with too violent asseverations.” We should approach institutions in the same sceptical spirit, and “differentiate traditions which welcome inquiry from those which shirk from it.” Later philosophers echoed Clifford’s scepticism. Bertrand Russell agreed that scientific inquiry began with uncertainty but aimed at “securing evidence sufficient for reasonable belief.”

Dr Madigan suggests that given his system’s flaws, we can best understand Clifford’s evidentialism as a type of ‘as if’ thinking (to use the term coined by the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger), rather than a hard-and-fast system of rules which one is obliged to follow. According to Madigan, Vaihinger’s work “defended the notion of creative fictions – propositions that are known to be false but which nonetheless are the means to some definite end if treated as if they were true.” This idea may elucidate a perplexing problem that has only deepened with the advance of neuroscience and our broader understanding of cognition. Many of us will agree with Clifford that “consciousness is dependent upon a material basis” but then wonder why both he and Huxley took pains to avoid being labelled as ‘materialists’. Huxley rejected materialism as involving “grave philosophical error” but he thought that materialistic terminology was to be preferred in science. Vaihinger, too, thinks that the “materialistic conception of the world is a necessary and useful fiction, but it is false as soon as it is taken for an hypothesis.” Clifford warns us: “Many eminent men have been so much impressed with the exact correspondence between what goes on in our minds and what goes on in our brains, that they have mixed up the two things.” (ibid, p58.) This anticipates the concerns of Philosophy Now’s very own Raymond Tallis, for example.

The Outrageous Ethicist

There is much about ‘The Ethics Of Belief’ that is open to criticism, and Tim Madigan guides us through a maze of writings spanning over a century, from early critics such as William James and Charles Peirce, to modern-day philosophers such as Michael Martin and Susan Haack. Richard Gale and Richard Rorty, for example, “proved the inadequacies of ‘The Ethics Of Belief’ from, respectively, a consequentialist and a duty-based approach.” Madigan suggests that we cannot categorize Clifford as either a utilitarian or a Kantian, although Clifford borrows from both Kant and Mill in making his moral arguments, which to Madigan “are closer to the approach of Aristotle and other ancient virtue thinkers.” Madigan goes on to defend ‘The Ethics Of Belief’ along virtue ethics lines, as “an attempt to motivate individuals to use their reasoning powers to the best of their abilities, for both their own good and for the good of society as a whole.”

Just as we cannot easily pigeonhole Clifford’s philosophical position, so too is his style inimitable. For example, he writes: “Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow, infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race.” This is one memorable phrase that struck his contemporaries, yet may strike us as hyperbole.

Walter Kaufmann described William James’ rejoinder to Clifford, The Will to Believe (1898), as a “slipshod but celebrated essay… an unwitting compendium of common fallacies and a manual of self-deception.” In mapping out the diverse reactions to Clifford’s essay, Tim Madigan provides a valuable intellectual and historical context for the wider ‘ethics of belief’ debate. Clifford was of course not alone in his advocacy of reason and evidence. Huxley’s own statement of scepticism echoes Clifford: “it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.” But Clifford stands out as a powerful voice linking our epistemic and ethical responsibilities, reminding us that how we arrive at our beliefs is as important as what we believe, and that this matters for our moral as much as for our everyday lives.

W.K. Clifford fought many battles that are still with us today, and his armoury remains a powerful resource in the defence of a rational humanism. An ardent Christian in his early years, his loss of religious belief was not a tragedy but “a positive experience.” For me, this positivity is one of the encouraging hallmarks of the New Atheism – and one of the reasons why the New Atheism is such a provocation to some. Dr Madigan ends his account by describing Clifford as a “deliberately outrageous thinker.” Outrageous thinker, yes – outrageous person, no.

© Jon Wainwright 2010

Jon Wainwright is studying philosophy with the Open University.

W.K. Clifford and ‘The Ethics of Belief’ by Timothy J. Madigan, Cambridge Scholars, 2008, 200 pps. hb, £29.99, ISBN: 978-1847185037

• The next issue of Philosophy Now will feature scrutiny of the New Atheism.


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