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The Ethics of Belief: William Clifford versus William James

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The Ethics of Belief

Dr. Peter Krey, Fall Semester, 2004
Diablo Valley College, Pleasant Hill, CA

This article has been moved to Scholardarity. It can be read as text or as a PDF as well:  The Ethics of Belief: William Clifford versus William James.




Written by peterkrey

October 15, 2010 at 6:35 am

10 Responses

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  1. It’s good to come across someone who finds the Clifford—James debate as fascinating as I do.

    William James’s counter-arguments are ingenious and thought-provoking, but I don’t find them ultimately convincing.

    You might be interested in my own articles on the subject. They begin with: Clifford’s razor.

    It would be great to know what you think.

    Chris Lawrence.

    Chris Lawrence

    November 13, 2010 at 7:31 am

  2. dear Chris,

    I just read your fine summary of Clifford’s argument. I believe his position is far too monolithic and would stop life in its tracks, especially when you realize that belief can be taken in two senses.

    One is for the credulity of a proposition or the evidence for a hypothesis making a theory scientifically acceptable. Perhaps this sense is also right in terms of laws that are broken and evidence for guilt pronounced for the likes of that ship-owner. Clifford is completely right in such cases.

    But the second sense of the word “belief” is closer to trust, which is the human capital that makes society itself possible, let alone the good faith that under-girds morality.

    Without trust the most basic economic transaction would break down. How could I believe that you would hand me an article after I gave you the money for it? Should I first ask for the article and then pay you because of a lack of trust? Look at the number Osama Bin Laden has done on us in the airports. Billions of dollars have to be spent and millions of hours of productive time wasted because we now cannot trust each other.

    Clifford makes a categorical mistake when he uses belief in the second sense to undermine human responsibility. A matter of faith, the source of being trust-worthy and responsible (for the crew of a ship one owns) is used immorally and selfishly, to not check the sea-worthiness of the vessel. The ship-owner values his money more than the lives of his crew, a good indication why regulation is necessary. Clifford uses a category of knowledge in a moral relational situation, where responsibility and trust-worthiness are required.

    Clifford makes an analogy between stealing something and believing something without evidence, making both equally evil. With that he equates faith, a source of morality, with an immoral act.

    In that latter situation, when someone says, “Trust me” our suspicions should immediately be aroused and verification should be sought. This kind of social capital called trust is mostly unconscious.

    I think when William James presents his three kinds of decisions living, forced, and momentous, he is also getting at the fact that trust is the social capital that makes life, love, and even thought possible.

    To turn Clifford’s argument against him: how can someone not believe in God, when the whole universe exists as evidence. You and I certainly did not create it. It is a gift we have received from above.


    March 2, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    • Thanks Peter,

      Please find a reply here: Clifford’s razor: reply to Peter Krey.

      Thanks again,

      Chris Lawrence

      May 18, 2011 at 8:52 am

    • so what clifford thinks about the owner of the ship proves that god does not exist?

      November 4, 2013 at 12:01 pm

      • I would say rather that if Clifford is right in his overall argument, then that would suggest it would be (morally) wrong to believe in God – which is a different thing.

        Dear Chris,

        It is a different thing. There are proximates and ultimates and Clifford negates trust in the ultimate because of a misuse of trust in the proximate. My gas gauge is on empty, and I keep on driving passing gas stations because I trust in God that I will not run out of gas. An owner of a ship keeps sailing it and risking all the lives of the crew because he does not want to check if it is still sea-worthy. That is no way to trust in God. The driver and the ship-owner use their trust immorally, while trusting in the ultimate is one source of morality.
        peter krey

        Chris Lawrence

        November 4, 2013 at 9:21 pm

      • Reply to Peter Krey:

        Thanks Peter.

        We may be talking at cross purposes. My reading of Clifford is that he’s primarily talking about belief, not faith or trust. The ship owner errs because instead of forming a sound belief based on evidence he ‘put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere’. If one starts from the assumption that God exists, that Providence or the ultimate is a significant reality, or a significant part of reality, then I would agree that the ship owner appears guilty of a misuse of trust – trusting in something which should not be trusted in that way, but deserves to be trusted in a different way.

        But I think Clifford’s arguments also apply (and that he intended them to apply) without that assumption. If one starts without the assumption that God exists (or that Providence or the ultimate is a significant reality, or a significant part of reality) then the ship owner is guilty of over-belief, of believing something on insufficient evidence. If the ship owner’s ‘Providence’ is not only something which does not deserve to be trusted in the way the ship owner trusted, but something which which does not deserve to be trusted because it is no part of reality, then the ship owner’s primary error was to believe in the existence or reality of something for which there was insufficient evidence.

        To evaluate Clifford’s position fairly I do not think one can start from the presumption of theism. His essay is on the ethics of belief, not the ethics of faith or the ethics of trust.

        Chris Lawrence

        November 9, 2013 at 2:49 am

  3. Jason and I have wanted to put this article into our Scholardarity website and discussed how to summarize the argument. James criticizes Clifford from the point of view of decision-making. Really the owner of the ship, which sank, was misusing trust in order not to be trust-worthy. Where these values have to reinforce each other, they can be used to negate each other. Clifford shows how the owner is using trust to undermine trust-worthiness and with that he questions the value of trust itself. James defends its value in decisions that are live, unavoidable, and momentous.


    August 24, 2012 at 7:05 pm

  4. […] The Ethics of Belief: William Clifford versus William James […]

  5. […] live as if  I knew…for there really is no other option when it comes to some things (what William James had to say about that). But my “as if “is unsatisfactory. It keeps me above the deadly flotsam and jetsam, it […]

  6. […] The Ethics of Belief: William Clifford versus William James […]

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