In his essay The Ethics of Belief, William Clifford argued that every form of belief had to be based on some evidence or inquiry. Moreover, in his opinion, it was unethical to suppress ones doubts and accept the ideas of others for granted. This paper is aimed at evaluating Clifford’s claims.
We will write a custom Essay on Belief without Prior Evidence specifically for you
301 certified writers online
It will also examine the ideas of William James who defended the belief without prior evidence. Overall, Clifford’s argument has a significant limitation, because he described the situations when it was possible to obtain some verifiable evidence. Unfortunately, even scientists cannot always do it. Additionally, there is nothing unethical in beliefs without evidence when they do not pose a threat to others.
William Clifford constructed a hypothetical situation when a ship-owner sent his crew on a dangerous trip knowing that the ship had not been seaworthy. Yet, he stifled his doubts and convinced himself that nothing had threatened those people. William Clifford argued that this person could really believe that the ship had been safe. Yet, his reasoning was based on wishful thinking, rather than facts.
The author said that this person was guilty of other peoples’ deaths because he had chosen to believe what he wanted to believe. In this way, Clifford tried to demonstrate that a person had no right to stifle ones doubt especially when other people could be affected.
This idea is quite acceptable and William Clifford was quite right in criticizing those individuals who indulged themselves in wishful thinking. However, he extended this argument and said that religious faith was also impossible without inquiry and doubt. The author pointed out that people often took the idea of God for granted and they acted like the ship-owner who he described at the beginning of his work.
Overall, Clifford’s argument has several weaknesses. First of all, people cannot always obtain verifiable evidence that can confirm their beliefs. Yet, one cannot argue that their opinions should be rejected entirely. In his essay, William James also noted that even scientists often had to act without prior evidence.
For instance, he described a chemist who could spend a significant amount of time in order to support a certain conjecture about chemical substances. This person might have some opinions or beliefs, but he/she could not prove them in any way. So, one should remember that objective evidence is not always accessible to people, but they can still believe in something.
Additionally, William Clifford focused on situations when a person’s beliefs could influence other people. His example of a ship-owner is very telling, but it does not show that beliefs without prior evidence are always dangerous. In many cases, the beliefs of an individual do not affect others.
For instance, one can mention a person’s religious beliefs that do not harm anyone. William James also pointed out that a belief without evidence could be acceptable when it did not pose any threat to others. In his essay, William Clifford did not respond to this objection.
So, there are several cases when a belief without sufficient evidence can be justified. In particular, one should speak about the situations when this evidence cannot be obtained or collected in any way. Secondly, an individual can believe that something is true, when his/her convictions do not harm others. This is why one cannot completely accept William Clifford’s argument about the nature of belief.