Tag Archives: Rationality

The Duty of Inquiry: William K. Clifford (II)

See below another nice passage from the classic “Ethics of Belief” of William K. Clifford:

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not well 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 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.


So the shipowner has formed a sincere “faith” in his ship. However we would all surely find this faith discreditable. Sincerity does not alone fulfill the duties implied by the process of rational belief formation. Or as Clifford comments:


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.

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Interpersonal Intellectual functions and Persuasion

“A person may seek principles not only to test his own judgement or give it more support but also to convince others or to increase their conviction. To do this he cannot simply announce his preference for a position; he must produce reasons convincing to the others. Reasons may be very particular, but they also can be general considerations that apply well to a wide range of cases and point to a particular judgement in this instance. If these judgements in the other cases are ones the other person already accepts, then the general reasoning will recruit these cases as evidence and support for the judgement proposed in the present case. Principles or general theories thus have an interpersonal intellectual function: justification to another.”

An excerpt from R.Nozick‘s book “The Nature of Rationality” .

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Books I’ve recently read (and enjoyed)

The Nature of Rationality

by Robert Nozick

“Robert Nozick always attacks his problems in a disconcertingly original way.  The questions he addresses are fundamental in the true philosophical sense: Why exactly should we want to act and believe rationally? Why should we formulate principles of action and try to stick to them? The questions are not moral but explicatory. He is not out to argue that unprincipled or irrational behavior is immoral; rather, he invites us to consider what we are trying to do, and what the justification for such behavior is.

To Nozick, rationality and belief are each an evolutionary adaptation to a world that changes in nonregular ways. Our acts resonate with symbolic meaning and ‘stand for’ our principles and beliefs. In this boldly original . . . inquiry which will reward serious students of philosophy, Nozick uses decision theory to propose new rules of rational decision-making that take into account the symbolic, practical, and evolutionary components of our behavior . . . . this challenging treatise champions reason as a faculty that enables us to transcend our mere animal status and to strive toward goals by the light of principles.”

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