The Ethics of Belief (1877)
William K. Clifford
Originally published in Contemporary Review, 1877. Reprinted in Lectures and Essays (1879).
Presently in print in The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays (Prometheus Books, 1999).
I. THE DUTY OF INQUIRY
A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not
overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs.
Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed
upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly
overhauled and and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship
sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself
that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle
to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would 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. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous
suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and
comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her
departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange
new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean
and told no tales.
What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is
admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his
conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was
before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by
stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not
think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame
of mind, he must be held responsible for it.
Let us alter the case a little, and suppose that the ship was not unsound after all; that she made
her voyage safely, and many others after it. Will that diminish the guilt of her owner? Not one
jot. When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or
evil fruits can possibly alter that. The man would not have been innocent, he would only have
been not found out. 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.
There was once an island in which some of the inhabitants professed a religion teaching neither
the doctrine of original sin nor that of eternal punishment. A suspicion got abroad that the
professors of this religion had made use of unfair means to get their doctrines taught to children.
They were accused of wresting the laws of their country in such a way as to remove children
from the care of their natural and legal guardians; and even of stealing them away and keeping
them concealed from their friends and relations. A certain number of men formed themselves
into a society for the purpose of agitating the public about this matter. They published grave
accusations against against individual citizens of the highest position and character, and did all in
their power to injure these citizens in their exercise of their professions. So great was the noise
they made, that a Commission was appointed to investigate the facts; but after the Commission
had carefully inquired into all the evidence that could be got, it appeared that the accused were
innocent. Not only had they been accused of insufficient evidence, but the evidence of their
innocence was such as the agitators might easily have obtained, if they had attempted a fair
inquiry. After these disclosures the inhabitants of that country looked upon the members of the
agitating society, not only as persons whose judgment was to be distrusted, but also as no longer
to be counted honourable men. For although they had sincerely and conscientiously believed in
the charges they had made, yet they had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them.
Their sincere convictions, instead of being honestly earned by patient inquiring, were stolen by
listening to the voice of prejudice and passion.
Let us vary this case also, and suppose, other things remaining as before, that a still more
accurate investigation proved the accused to have been really guilty. Would this make any
difference in the guilt of the accusers? Clearly not; the question is not whether their belief was
true or false, but whether they entertained it on wrong grounds. They would no doubt say, "Now
you see that we were right after all; next time perhaps you will believe us." And they might be
believed, but they would not thereby become honourable men. They would not be innocent, they
would only be not found out. Every one of them, if he chose to examine himself in foro
conscientiae, would know that he had acquired and nourished a belief, when he had no right to
believe on such evidence as was before him; and therein he would know that he had done a
It may be said, however, that in both these supposed cases it is not the belief which is judged to
be wrong, but the action following upon it. The shipowner might say, "I am perfectly certain that
my ship is sound, but still I feel it my duty to have her examined, before trusting the lives of so
many people to her." And it might be said to the agitator, "However convinced you were of the
justice of your cause and the truth of your convictions, you ought not to have made a public
attack upon any man's character until you had examined the evidence on both sides with the
utmost patience and care."
In the first place, let us admit that, so far as it goes, this view of the case is right and necessary;
right, because even when a man's belief is so fixed that he cannot think otherwise, he still has a
choice in the action suggested by it, and so cannot escape the duty of investigating on the ground
of the strength of his convictions; and necessary, because those who are not yet capable of
controlling their feelings and thoughts must have a plain rule dealing with overt acts."
But this being premised as necessary, it becomes clear that it is not sufficient, and that our
previous judgment is required to supplement it. For it is not possible so to sever the belief from
the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other. No man holding a
strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side, can
investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so
that the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry unfits a man for the performance of this
Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds
it. He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust
after it, he has committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized immediately in open
deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of
beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and
which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but
every new addition modifies the structure of the whole. No real belief, however trifling and
fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like,
confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy
train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp
upon our character for ever.
And no one man's belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives
our 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 sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not
unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this,
for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. A awful
privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity
In the two supposed cases which have been considered, it has been judged wrong to believe on
insufficient evidence, or to nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation. The
reason of this judgment is not far to seek: it is that in both these cases the belief held by one man
was of great importance to other men. But forasmuch as no belief held by one man, however
seemingly trivial the belief, and however obscure the believer, is ever actually insignificant or
without its effect on the fate of mankind, we have no choice but to extend our judgment to all
cases of belief whatever. Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and
knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, is ours not for ourselves
but for humanity. It is rightly used on truths which have been established by long experience and
waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning. Then it
helps to bind men together, and to strengthen and direct their common action. It is desecrated
when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the
believer; to add a tinsel splendour to the plain straight road of our life and display a bright mirage
beyond it; or even to drown the common sorrows of our kind by a self-deception which allows
them not only to cast down, but also to degrade us. Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in
this matter will guard the purity of his beliefs with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any
time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away.
It is not only the leader of men, statesmen, philosopher, or poet, that owes this bounden duty to
mankind. Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow, infrequent sentences, may
help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. Every hard-worked wife of
an artisan may transmit to her children beliefs which shall knit society together, or rend it in
pieces. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of
questioning all that we believe.
It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the doubt which comes out of it is often a very bitter
thing. It leaves us bare and powerless where we thought that we were safe and strong. To know
all about anything is to know how to deal with it under all circumstances. We feel much happier
and more secure when we think we know precisely what to do, no matter what happens, then
when we have lost our way and do not know where to turn. And if we have supposed ourselves
to know all about anything, and to be capable of doing what is fit in regard to it, we naturally do
not like to find that we are really ignorant and powerless, that we have to begin again at the
beginning, and try to learn what the thing is and how it is to be dealt with--if indeed anything can
be learnt about it. It is the sense of power attached to a sense of knowledge that makes men
desirous of believing, and afraid of doubting.
This sense of power is the highest and best of pleasures when the belief on which it is founded is
a true belief, and has been fairly earned by investigation. For then we may justly feel that it is
common property, and hold good for others as well as for ourselves. Then we may be glad, not
that I have learned secrets by which I am safer and stronger, but that we men have got mastery
over more of the world; and we shall be strong, not for ourselves but in the name of Man and his
strength. But if the belief has been accepted on insufficient evidence, the pleasure is a stolen one.
Not only does it deceive ourselves by giving us a sense of power which we do not really possess,
but it is sinful, because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard
ourselves from such beliefs as from pestilence, which may shortly master our own body and then
spread to the rest of the town. What would be thought of one who, for the sake of a sweet fruit,
should deliberately run the risk of delivering a plague upon his family and his neighbours?
And, as in other such cases, it is not the risk only which has to be considered; for a bad action is
always bad at the time when it is done, no matter what happens afterwards. Every time we let
ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of
judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and
support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born when
one such belief is entertained is great and wide. But a greater and wider evil arises when the
credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons
is fostered and made permanent. If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done
from the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may prevent him from using
the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself
dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should lose its property, but that it should become a
den of thieves, for then it must cease to be society. This is why we ought not to do evil, that good
may come; for at any rate this great evil has come, that we have done evil and are made wicked
thereby. In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no
great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to
exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make
myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though
that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and
inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.
The harm which is done by credulity in a man is not confined to the fostering of a credulous
character in others, and consequent support of false beliefs. Habitual want of care about what I
believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me. Men speak
the truth of one another when each reveres the truth in his own mind and in the other's mind; but
how shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it, when I
believe thing because I want to believe them, and because they are comforting and pleasant? Will
he not learn to cry, "Peace," to me, when there is no peace? By such a course I shall surround
myself with a thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud, and in that I must live. It may matter
little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man
that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the
cheat; he lives in the bosom of this his family, and it is no marvel if he should become even as
they are. So closely are our duties knit together, that whoso shall keep the whole law, and yet
offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient
If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps
down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading
of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious
those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it--the life of that man is one
long sin against mankind.
PHIL 101: Introduction to Philosophy
PHIL 101 Reading Questions: W. K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,”
William James, “The Will to Believe”
1. Give an extended description (3-4 sentences) of what Clifford thinks that we should say of the sea
captain who, out of sincere conviction, deemed his ship seaworthy? Does Clifford think we should say
something different if the case is altered so that the ship makes its voyage safely?
2. What does Clifford say of the two cases he mentions (the ship case and the island case). See “In the
two supposed cases which have been considered . . .”
3. What statement does Clifford give to sum up his essay?
1. Define: hypothesis, option, living option, forced option, momentous option
2. What is James’ thesis?
3. According to James, should we wait for proof to answer questions about morality? For truths
dependent on our personal action, is it permissible to exercise faith?
4. Regarding religion, explain what James means when he says that it offers itself as a momentous and
forced option. Why can’t we escape the issue by remaining skeptical?
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