The Ethics of Belief: William K. Clifford

Here is a beautiful excerpt from the “Ethics of Belief” of William K. Clifford which I thought I should share with you:

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….

“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.


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.



3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Belief: William K. Clifford

  1. thinks says:

    It is a somewhat attractive concept to think of all pieces of a puzzle not only as fitting together, but, as being interdependent and evolving together in consequence to each other. There is an underlying truth, in that all thought is hence seen as more dependent unto its own flaws as one might wish. Although such postulation may place human thought, and therefore humanity itself, in a more realistic, down-to-size place in the cosmos, it also introduces an air of fatalism and helplessness in that a thinker is not, by this conceptual approach of interdependent beliefs, allowed to make radical changes to a belief as a single issue that is separate to other beliefs the thinker holds.

    The inevitable supposition that arises, is that thinkers are much less flexible than we would have wished. And, for as far as such a supposition may find evidence to support it, it would be limiting, rather than enlightening, to believe it to be entirely accurate as the definition of the sum of beliefs that represents the human character.

    Character itself is a perception that can be distilled to its most basic element, the biological chemical, physical, brain. But it is the very nature of the products of such instrument, that is, of the capacity to imagine and analyze -therefore critique, that would be ill-served, in my opinion, and, by “reducing” the mind to its rightful physical “size” we would lose all that its natural product could offer us, as conscious entities.

    Therefore I must disagree and believe that it is actually possible for a thinker to alter one single belief against the grain of other beliefs, which in turn may affect those other related beliefs, rather than accept that a thinker is doomed to perceiving every new element of data through a prism fatally pre-determined by the combination of existing beliefs.

    • epanechnikov says:

      Clifford does not aim to describe how people form their beliefs. He rather emphasizes the duty we all have to believe carefully, in the light of reason alone. Refusing to question what we have been told is a sin against mankind. He also enlarges on the danger of ignoring our duty of reason (see second passage). Someone sitting on a completely unreasonable belief is indeed sitting on a time bomb!

      Now I also believe that all rational beings should have formed a net interdependent beliefs. One simple implication of this is that a rational subject can not believe two incompatible statements (irrational subjects can!). But that does not mean that radical changes to a belief are not allowed! Whether this will happen depends solely on the intensity of any emerging (empirical or a priori synthetic) evidence. This evidence (which a rational being will examine “in the light of reason alone”) is able to alter the shape of the whole network of beliefs and this change can solely affect rational subjects. Hence rational beings can develop or change their beliefs in the most radical (and essential) way possible (open-mindedness and reason is the key).

  2. […] feel his views are somehow similar to the ones of William Clifford. What do you […]

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