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The Ethics of Belief: William Clifford versus William James


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

In the “Ethics of Belief,” William Clifford argued that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”[1] The example that Clifford gives of the immorality of belief without evidence is that of a ship owner, who forgoes an overhaul of his ship, overcoming his doubts, and believing his ship sea-worthy, rather than going through the expense of checking it and making the necessary repairs. This example is one that plays off belief against self-interest. The ship owner overcomes his doubts for the sake of self-interest. He then collects his insurance, while everyone in his ship dies at sea, because the vessel had proven unseaworthy.

Clifford generalizes from this narrative to all matters of belief, where evidence is insufficient. “It is never lawful to stifle a doubt.” he writes. When someone retorts, “But I am a busy man; I have no time for a long course of study which would make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even be able to understand the nature of the arguments.” Clifford responds, “Then he should have no time to believe.”

In “The Will to Believe,” William James argues that we have a right to believe in some cases, when supporting evidence may be inadequate.[2] Moral decisions, for example, are made when two conflicting values present themselves and a choice has to be made between them. Clifford’s scientific and skeptical suspension of belief is not helpful in such cases. Religious beliefs would constitute another example.

While Clifford globalizes his mandate for avoiding error, James shows that life’s decisions are far more nuanced than Clifford realizes. First of all some issues are alive or dead for a person, like live or dead wires for an electrician. Secondly, some decisions are forced or avoidable, and thirdly some are momentous or trivial. Now when Clifford negates all belief without evidence in order to avoid error, he does not recognize that some decisions are forced and momentous. Not to make a decision is to make a decision in such a case. Not to choose an option brings about the loss of the truth or good that could have been experienced. One can avoid making a decision to go on a trip until it is too late to go.

Religious belief is a forced and momentous option for James because it is like getting married: to delay it indefinitely because one could not be perfectly sure that it would not lead to a divorce, would forfeit the good of the marriage. The analogy is of course, for the good that religious belief brings the believer. Such beliefs bring the realities their assertions refer to into existence. Of course, whether or not one takes an umbrella along in the morning is not a forced option: one could stay home; it is more trivial than momentous. Whether we believe philosophically that mind is a substance or not, is not a live, forced, and momentous decision for most of us.  Some decisions, however, are live, forced and momentous and to suspend belief because sufficient evidence is impossible, would bankrupt much of the heart of our lives as we live them. James is writing about areas where clear-cut, objective evidence is unavailable. He does not, of course, advocate ignoring or denying real evidence.[3]

James speaks of the passionate existence of human beings, who cannot live by the skeptical suspension of belief that Clifford dictates on all of life. James quotes Pascal: “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about.[4] Religion says essentially two things, according to James. “First that the best things are the more eternal things, overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak”[5] and that we are better off even now with the affirmation of religion.[6]

I myself wonder why James does not deal with Clifford’s example of the irresponsible ship owner? I believe this example reflects a categorical error on Clifford’s part. He represents an issue of ethics as an epistemological issue of belief, doubt, and avoidance of attainable evidence. The ship owner values his money much more than the lives of those, whom he should have served. What Clifford wants to present in order to argue against religious belief is itself a violation of the love and concern for the lives of others that religious belief upholds.

To James’s argument I would also add that there is a philosophical sense and a religious sense of belief, which are very different. Philosophically, belief is relegated to opinion and only reasoning has a claim to reliable knowledge. Michael Polanyi argues that personal knowledge is very different from detached and indifferent ways of knowing.[7] One observes from the outside the other from within. That “knowing” in the Hebrew Bible refers sexual intercourse, shows that it comes from commitment, participation, involvement, and even empathy. It is interpersonal and relational as well. Belief in this arena refers to trusting and committing oneself completely to the One who requires our ultimate concern, to use Tillich’s phrase. St. Paul puts it this way: faith becomes active in love. The verification of this faith is experienced in life and the evidence for it becomes real, because belief has the power to change a life into the promises that are believed.

After this is all said and done, even our most cherished beliefs need to be proffered for testing, questioning, and evaluation. Everyone is still called upon to give an account of his or her beliefs.



PARENT PAGE: Philosophy

[1] From Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, editors, Philosophy of Religion, Third Edition, (Oxford University Press, 2007), page 109. Clifford’s essay appears on pages 104-110.

[2] Ibid., pages 110-117.

[3] Ibid., page 110.

[4] Ibid., page 113.

[5] Ibid., page 115.

[6] Here I am putting James into my own words.

[7] Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man, (University of Chicago Press, 1959), page 38: “The moment the ideal of detached knowledge is abandoned….” Polanyi argues for personal participation in knowledge. I believe that the knowledge which requires personal involvement is complemented by detached knowledge. In his work, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, (New York: Harper Torchbook, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964),  on page xi, he speaks of “knowing by indwelling.”

Formerly posted by peterkrey on October 15, 2010 at 6:35 am

9 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


  1. 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

  1. 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


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



  1. […] 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 […]

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March 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm Edit

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