Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Duty to Question: A Philosophy 101 discussion

I am about to teach the W.K. Clifford's famous essay on "The Ethics of Belief." What is compelling about Clifford's argument--which many agnostics will invoke to challenge the legitimacy of anyone's belief in God--is that he characterizes the act of believing in something to be a moral act. When we believe that Global Warming, for example, is non-sense or cooked up by political liberals, and in doing so we supress all evidence that challenges our belief or we have insuffiicent evidence for our belief, then, we are acting immorally. The reason why we are acting immorally, according to Clifford, is because

"no one man's belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives are guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a scared trust to be handed down on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified . . ."

Hence, our beliefs become part of the common stock of human beliefs that in total make up all knowledge of the universe. Our actions follow from our beliefs. So, if our beliefs are flawed, then our actions are flawed, doomed to fail, capable of causing disaster. Taking the Global Warming example, again, if we belief that Global Warming is false, and thereby we do not act, then we will be morally responsible for the destruction that ensues and the lives that are taken.

Clifford's strict requirements for belief is that we have sufficient evidence to warrant our belief, i.e. we have compelling evidence tested against the strongest possible counter-arguments out there.

In Clifford's view, the dogmatist, the one who is so narrow-minded as to believe that his views are the only right ones--despite evidence of contrary evidence, is the worst kind of sinner. And no one, no matter how rich or poor, intelligent or daft, is bound by this moral duty to test his or her beliefs. "No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station can escape the duty of questioning all that we believe." The skeptic, in other words, it the moral hero.

Clifford ends this argument with the following:

"'But,'" says one, 'I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments.' Then he should have no time to believe.

What do you make of Clifford's moral view of belief? Too strict? A good guideline?