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Review of W. K. Clifford's 1879
article: "The Ethics of Belief"

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In an online chat "someone on the Internet" there was a posting that recommended an article by W.K. Clifford (1845-1879), an English mathematician and philosopher. It was written in 1879 and titled "The Ethics of Belief." 1 I Googled the title, found it on the Internet and printed it off so I could read it. I am one that likes to read a paper copy of a piece, I can underline points that I like, dog ear corners, and take my time to read and reread where necessary as I digest the contents of a piece.

He sums up his premise near the end of section 1:

"... it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

I full heartily agree with his premise. BUT I know that there are many that don’t. There are many that believe to challenge or question an authority (such as a passage in the Bible, or something tweeted by the President of the U.S., or something on Fox News or Christian talk radio), is not only wrong but a great SIN.

Clifford says near the opening of his article that:

"The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his* belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him."

* He is referring here to a person that he mentioned in a previous example.

Again I full heartily agree with Clifford. BUT I know that there are those that insist they have the "right" to believe whatever they want to believe. People certainly do have this "right." BUT that isn’t the issue here. The issue is whether it is ethical to believe whatever you want to believe without sufficient evidence to support or back up your belief.

This raises the question of what constitutes "sufficient evidence". Clifford addresses this in the rest of his paper.

"Ethics," according to my old Thorndike and Barnhart High School Dictionary, is the:

"... study of standards of right and wrong; that part of science and philosophy dealing with moral conduct, duty and judgment."

Towards the middle of Section 1 Clifford states:

"No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe. Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing the evidence."

I full heartily agree with both statements. BUT I know there are many that believe that obedience without hesitation, question, challenge or complaint is the highest virtue. To question or challenge something from a figure in authority is a great sin.

So here we are, with descriptions of two very different groups of people:

  • Those that believe that Ethics requires our due diligence, our civic responsibility to question and challenge all that we hear and believe, and

  • Those that believe doing so is a SIN.

Can two such diverse groups ever find common ground? Can they ever figure out a way to live with each other, to share the world with each other?

As I thought about these questions and what has been going on in the US recently, I realized that civilization, societies, communities, and families rest upon a foundation of TRUST. Without this firm foundation civilizations, societies, communities and families disintegrate.

TRUST rests on a foundation of honesty, integrity, truthfulness, dependability,  basic respect for the "other" -- those that are different from you -- and upon simple rules of common civility: rules about how we treat other people, how we interact with them, talk to them and talk about them.

TRUST is what has been lost in the culture war now engulfing the U.S. as evidenced by the willingness of many to tell and spread lies and misinformation. If you can’t count on someone to tell the truth, or to seek the truth, then you have a loss of trust and no basis upon which to build anything -- a family, a business, a neighborhood, or a town.

Trust is lost by the loss of basic civility and decency in our interactions with each other, both online and in face-to-face contact. If you can’t be sure that someone won’t respond with threats or actual verbal or physical violence you have a loss of trust. If you can’t trust a person’s word you never know what they might do or say.

Trust is lost by the willingness of many to throw aside basic principles of right and wrong for the opportunity to change and manipulate the system in one’s own favor at the expense of the health and well being of others.  Without an agreement upon basic rules of right and wrong -- it is wrong to lie for example -- you have no basis upon which to build a civil society or establish a civil relationship with family members or friends.

Once TRUST is lost it is very hard -- if not impossible -- to get it back! AND this is why the "Ethics of Belief"  is so important. It is the foundation upon which TRUST is built.

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  1. William K. Clifford, "The Ethics of Belief." Download at:

  2. book cover William K. Clifford, "The Ethics of Belief." Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.

Amazon book review:

W.K. Clifford (1845-1879) was a noted mathematician and popularizer of science in the Victorian era. Although he made major contributions in the field of geometry, he is perhaps best known for a short essay he wrote in 1876, entitled 'The Ethics of Belief', in which he argued that 'It is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence'. Delivered initially as an address to the August Metaphysical Society, whose members included such luminaries as Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Gladstone, T. H. Huxley, and assorted scientists, clerics and philosophers of differing metaphysical views, 'The Ethics of Belief' became a rallying cry for freethinkers and a bone of contention for religious apologists. It continues to be discussed today as an exemplar of what is called 'evidentialism', a key point in current philosophy of religion debates over justification of knowledge claims. In this book, Timothy J. Madigan examines the continuing relevance of 'The Ethics of Belief' to epistemological and ethical concerns. He places the essay within the historical context, especially the so-called 'Victorian Crisis of Faith' of which Clifford was a key player. Clifford's own life and interests are dealt with as well, along with the responses to his essay by his contemporaries, the most famous of which was William James' 'The Will to Believe'. Madigan provides an overview of modern-day critics of Cliffordian evidentialism, as well as examining thinkers who were positively influenced by him, including Bertrand Russell, who was perhaps Clifford's most influential successor as an advocate of intellectual honesty. The book ends with a defense of 'The Ethics of Belief' from a virtue-theory approach, and argues that Clifford utilizes an 'as-if' methodology to encourage intellectual inquiry and communal truth-seeking. 'The Ethics of Belief' continues to provoke and stimulate controversy, which was perhaps Clifford's own fondest hope, although he had no right to believe it would do so.

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Original posting: 2018-NOV-19
Latest update: 2018-DEC-01
Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

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