William Clifford’s The Ethics Of Beliefs

In the most basic sense evidentialism focuses on the justifications, beliefs, conclusions, and the evidence for each of these for any given person. William Clifford’s work, The Ethics of Beliefs, presents his principle of evidentialism and how one must judge the beliefs and justifications rather than consequences. Given Clifford’s definition, counter arguments regarding the necessity of consequences towards an individual’s action arise to invalidate Clifford’s claim. I will argue that despite the given argument Clifford’s evidentialism remains standing, because ultimately justifications cause the consequences.

Clifford argues that the justification of a belief does not lie in the result of an action, but instead justification lies within what leads to the action. Given the presented premises an individual should be able to justify his or her actions, regardless of if an act occurs. In which case, whether or not the action takes place the reasoning can still be judged. Clifford’s example of the ship owner, who knows about the ship’s failing conditions, but fails to fix the ship, shows that the intent behind an act is more important than the resulting consequence.

The ship owner deliberately ignores the fears and concerns about the ship based solely on insufficient evidence, thus the ship and all aboard perish. The ship owner is to blame for his beliefs because he did not have the right to believe what he did. This is because of the deliberate ignorance he showed towards the state of the ship. Clifford goes even further in saying that if the ship had made it to its destination safely the ship owner is still in the wrong: the evidence remains insufficient and the consequence is still irrelevant.

To Clifford what matters is how the belief is formed, not how it is played out. Regardless of the outcome, what leads to and justifies the outcome is the harmful aspect. According to Clifford as humans we must have sufficient evidence for all beliefs, understand the reasoning for the justification, and must not avoid or ignore counter arguments towards a given belief. Counter arguments towards a belief allow for a chance to change and improve beliefs. Rather than just plateauing in thoughts counterarguments offer an opportunity to better justify and validate existing beliefs. Clifford, 1877).

Without thought there becomes no justification or reasoning behind each belief and action. One might object to Clifford’s view is claiming that it would be unfair to evaluate a person and their beliefs for things outside of their control. Some beliefs are automatic from the senses such as if a light were to turn on in a room; one would believe that he or she is in a lighted room. Similarly, any belief can be justified at the given moment and not at a time in the future, take for instance an optical illusion.

A road on a hot day looks as if there is water resting on top, and to the naked eye there exists water on the road. In that moment of time the belief would be justified given all known aspects. However, when approaching the supposed water, which turns out not to be water, the belief at that point in time would not be considered justified. Given the situation the result of the belief was out of the person’s control because of the given optical input. Continuing onward, taking the time to evaluate each belief becomes time consuming, energy depleting, and seemingly unnecessary for all involved.

As such believing the immediate perception becomes the most convenient and understandable. The time it would take to consider each and every belief would detract from situations in which a conclusion or the belief becomes more dire; some beliefs ought to be more important than others. Justifying a wet road is much less serious than justifying stealing textbooks from the bookstore. If one tries to evaluate beliefs at all times, their ability to judge arguments will wear one down to the point where it becomes difficult to evaluate safely and it would become a hindrance, rather than a benefit.

Given this counter argument, the consequences are a necessary component and are more important than the actions that lead up to them. Considering this counter argument towards Clifford’s claim; his definition of evidentialism remains standing because there is a duty to society to continue to evaluate each action and belief. While consequence may hinder someone in a situation the justifications and beliefs ultimately lead to the consequence and as such are more relevant than the consequence itself. This is simply because these beliefs, regardless of the outcome, lead to all possible consequences.

In the instance of perception the error in the optical illusion could be spotted or understood if one simply took a moment to evaluate his or her surroundings. In this case the perceiver has no right to believe in his or her perception because there was insufficient evidence. Clifford’s evidentialism is based in the root of all beliefs rather than results and as such requires understanding before a consequence is reached. By evaluating all these actions, the consequence should not matter because enough thought should have gone into the justifications and as such the actions create more benefit than hindrance.

In response to energy depletion, if one is worried that they cannot judge correctly for all circumstances, they do not have the right to believe in anything. There must be a certain amount of effort given towards each belief; such is the duty to society. This duty is to believe responsibly, knowing that each belief one holds could result in a consequence that could become harmful. Ultimately, the ideas of the counterarguments towards Clifford’s claims fall short because despite only caring about the end result the argument fails to understand that reasoning and justification lead to the dreaded consequences.

During this paper I explained Clifford’s evidentialism and presented a possible counter argument regarding consequences towards his claim. Given the information of both positions I concluded that Clifford’s claims triumph over the other because the means of a certain action are more valuable than the actual result. While it may seem that consequences are a necessary component the reasoning and justifications are more important because they may lead to the dreaded consequence.