Exploring William Clifford’s Argument on Personal Beliefs and Ethics of Belief

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Navigating Belief and Evidence: William Clifford’s Perspective on Rational Belief in ‘The Ethics of Belief’

William Clifford is one of the great mathematicians and is remembered as an intellectual and authority in science. While other scientists were worried that a collapse in religion would lead to morality and society desecration, Clifford was willing to embrace the uncertain territory that science failed to explain. While embracing certain morality codes, Clifford defended his lecture “The Ethics of Belief” that he delivered in London’s Metaphysical Society in 1876 (Christian). This was in an effort to promote discussion between religion and scientific beliefs.

In his article, Clifford argues that it is wrong to believe in God without the evidence that God exists (Clifford). In the first part of the paper, Clifford gives an example of a person who believes in something without having sufficient evidence. In the example he gives, he describes a shipowner who sends out a ship that he knows and believes to be seaworthy. He, however, encounters several doubts, given that the shop was overhauled and repairing the ship would cost him. However, he put his trust in the ship, given that it had already gone through many voyages and returned safely each time. However, the ship did not make it to shore this time around, even after convincing himself the ship would be fine (Clifford).

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Examining the Impact of Personal Beliefs: Clifford’s Critique on the Role of Belief and Evidence

Clifford insists that the shipowner was morally responsible for the deaths of the people on the ship. His failure is completely clear, given that he had the fact that the ship might not make it for another voyage. He let himself be guided by beliefs instead of the facts. His actions, however, were not wrong because of the results of the voyage. Even if the ship had survived the voyage, the shipowner would still be liable for his actions.

The lecture is divided into three sections, including the duty of inquiry, the weight of authority, and the limits of inference (Clifford). Each of these sections describes in detail the reasons why actions should not be based purely on beliefs, how beliefs affect other people in society, and the manner in which beliefs are passed on from one person to the community without regard for truth or evidence.

Due to this, Clifford brings up several premises of the various argument, including (Clifford):

  • When one’s beliefs have a huge effect on others, it is wrong to act on insufficient evidence.
  • One’s beliefs will always have an impact on others.
  • It is wrong to believe in insufficient evidence.

Interconnected Beliefs: Unpacking Clifford’s Premises on the Societal Impact of Personal Beliefs

The first premise states that in a case where our beliefs affect other people, it is wrong to make decisions without evidence. Clifford’s reason for this premise is due to the social function of belief. He stated that beliefs often prompt the decisions of our will, not just for ourselves but also for humanity. Social function often binds men together, and people often rely on what other people believe in to make decisions. The passengers that boarded the ship, for example, made their decision to board the ship based on the decision that the shipowner made to set it off for sail, despite his doubts.

The second premise insists that beliefs have effects on other people. Clifford believes that there is no belief that is held by one man and that the belief of one man eventually affects the entire humankind. This has been shown to be true in institutions like religion, where the belief of one man had a domino effect on the rest of society. It does not matter how insignificant the belief might be or how ‘unimportant’ the believer seems (Christian). Beliefs have never been a private matter, and they are even handed over through generations.

Clifford is well aware of the effects of beliefs in society, as well as the collection of socially held beliefs. His second premise, however, is a bit weak, given that he does not give a reason to think that all beliefs, even insignificant ones, affect other people. He simply states this. However, in my opinion, this is not completely true.

My Argument

There are beliefs that we hold that are socially held, and any change could affect the rest of the community’s beliefs. However, there are other beliefs that an individual holds that do not particularly affect society. An example is a belief that I may have right now that I will get a certain amount of cash within a week’s time. This belief could be held by evidence, for example, the timely delivery of a certain amount of work within the weeks’ time, which is a surety. It could also be simply wishful thinking. Either way, this belief does not affect society in any way, and neither will it have an effect on humanity.

One could dream up circumstances that may show a domino effect from the belief that I am expecting pay within a week. For example, a close friend could be in severe debt and could be facing jail time due to dues owed within a significant amount of time. I, however, could tell them that I am receiving pay and that I could lend most of that pay to the friend. This could lead to a friend being kept out of jail, which could lead people to be more generous with their friends. This could lead to one belief changing the decisions of others, and in this case, it includes the decisions of both the friend and the debt collectors.

Another reason to doubt the second premise is that, at times, people keep their beliefs to themselves (Christian). If someone kept an unjustified belief to themselves, there is a chance that it may not affect anyone within the society. This, however, does not take away its surety as my own belief. This belief, however, may lead me to act in different ways that may affect another person. However, if one is careful with their actions, one person’s belief does not necessarily affect others.

Evaluating Clifford’s Call for Objective Beliefs: Balancing Evidence and Subjectivity in Knowledge and Morality

In the first premise, Clifford believes that to act, one must have sufficient evidence to support their actions. The historical beliefs in society, however, are not based on sufficient evidence. Sufficient evidence could also be incredibly subjective, and for some, it may imply sufficiently reasonable. For example, if one person trusts the other person, they are justified in believing in each other even though lies may be involved.

Knowledge is also a socially generated product, and the rules of holding beliefs become more of social rules. For example, society will treat a certain expert a certain way simply because they are experts in it. It does not matter whether they have encountered the same problem before and solved it. In today’s society, your resume and track record speak for itself. This is a far cry from Clifford’s slogan that one should not act on one’s beliefs but rather on the evidence presented.

Clifford’s essay is meant to be a moral rejection of being subjective and a concept that holds that knowledge and truth are limited to self-experience. Subjectivism holds that truth can be found within oneself, one’s experiences, or other means that are extremely personal (Christian). This could include experiences like clarity through prayer, meditation, self-reasoning, or simply self-belief. Clifford insists instead that objectivism is much more superior, and it is the only concept that can hold true. This includes concepts like scientific evidence and mathematics. Clifford was extremely fond of objectivist ethics and said that any decision based on subjectivism is immoral.

Reconsidering Clifford’s Premises: Challenges to the Notion of Insufficient Evidence as Harmful and Unquestionable Morality

The first premise is also questionable, given that Clifford insists that acting on a certain belief without sufficient self-evidence could be harmful to the people who rely on the decisions made. However, insufficient evidence is not always harmful. At times, it could be extremely helpful. Within marriage, for example, spouses trust each other to be faithful and to cover their responsibilities. This is not supported by any past evidence but rather a self-belief in the other person. Insisting that a child believes in herself or himself is also important in self-growth and self-confidence. This is often done by encouraging the child on certain issues regarding themselves, including praising them and providing them with words of affirmation. It is important to ensure limits on overpraising children. However, the results of encouraging confidence, self-belief, and trust are not always bad. Hence, the premise is false.

However, apart from the circumstances that reject the second premise, as shown above, Clifford’s perceptions have a loophole in them. Clifford has not provided sufficient evidence to verify his concept of morality. His hypotheses, therefore, are in violation of his own moral conduct by claiming that his positions are true without being verifiable. He failed to clarify the contradictions that were brought upon him and given that his arguments begin unraveling, it is only prudent that his arguments are rejected. Without rejecting his philosophy, we would be acting immorally.

In conclusion, I believe that Clifford’s argument does not establish that actions without proper and reasonable evidence are wrong. This, however, does not dismiss the fact that actions that affect others should always be weighed heavily against the resulting consequences that may occur, given the evidence that is available. His thought process may be in the right place, but his arguments do not hold.


  1. Clifford, W. K. (1877). The Ethics of Belief. Contemporary Review, 29(1), 289-309.

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Exploring William Clifford's Argument on Personal Beliefs and Ethics of Belief. (2023, Aug 30). Retrieved from https://edusson.com/examples/exploring-william-clifford-s-argument-on-personal-beliefs-and-ethics-of-belief

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