Beliefs and Ethics Reconsidered

by Fred Whitehead


Timothy J. Madigan’s recent book on W. K. Clifford’s essay “The Ethics of Belief” has stimulated me to reconsider the problems Clifford raised, and to try to give my own views on those problems. First presented as a lecture to the Metaphysical Society in London in 1876, Clifford’s short but provocative text has often been reprinted in books on ethics and philosophy, and has attained the status of a classic presentation of the rationalist world view.

Clifford begins his essay with a long illustrative story, followed by his analysis:

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.

Clifford concludes with a dramatic principle: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”The audience of the Metaphysical Society and contemporary readers of the essay in published form realized that it implicitly undermined all philosophical arguments based on religious premises. Delivered at a time of intense controversy about “faith,” evolution, the authority of the Bible and kindred questions,
Clifford’s lecture directed a brilliant spotlight on the core issue of evidence. As Madigan explicates responses to Clifford from his own time until the present, I will not attempt to review those here.


When I used to teach Logic and Introduction to Philosophy courses, I always found Clifford’s essay a text that elicited lively responses from students. The Hyatt Regency disaster had occurred on July 17, 1981 in Kansas City, Missouri; a walkway suddenly collapsed, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200 others, becoming one of the deadliest structural building failures in American history. Subsequently the structural engineer and the construction company were found culpable for design and inspection errors. While they were cleared of criminal negligence, the engineer lost his license, and the construction company went bankrupt. The Hyatt case served to illustrate the responsibilities entailed by professional judgment, where human lives are at stake. While the architects and the construction company did not have the element of calculation about the ship’s integrity that its owner had, there were enough similarities to make the two cases comparable in terms of other issues. One of these being: how much are any of us responsible to and for other people?


Another text that we used was from Ayn Rand, in which she imagines the following situation: Walking down a city street, you are suddenly confronted by a beggar who claims he is starving. Rand states that you should not feel any obligation to assist him whatsoever. You might choose to do so, but it is not mandated; in fact, there are so many beggars at any given time, it might be merely encouraging laziness to give them money. Interestingly, as an atheist, Rand desired to strip away all notions of social obligation found in religion. She provided a vivid example of “extreme individualist” philosophy. In any given class, there were those who held to traditional religious views, while a few were convinced by Clifford, and others by Rand.

I used to try to provoke those who favored Rand, by twisting the story a little, thus. The beggar confronts you, and instead of simply denying him money, you pull out a pistol and shoot him. As it’s night and the street is deserted, you are not found out. What is the difference, I argued, between denying a starving person food, and shooting him outright? If indeed, we have no compelling connection to anyone else, if our own pleasure is all that counts, if there are no “rules,” what’s to prevent wholesale killing? Curiously, a discussion of this very issue has recently been published at the Alternet website. It turns out that in her journals of the 1920s, Rand wrote at length and admiringly, of just such a killer, William Edward Hickman. Hickman murdered and dismembered a 12-year old girl in 1927; the story filled the newspapers for months. Rand wrote that Hickman represented “the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A an who really stands alone, in action and in soul. Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.” At the time I was teaching these courses, I was not aware of Rand’s journals and her praise of the murderer Hickman, but I confess to taking some pleasure in having intuited for my classes the moral implications of her position.

While I tended personally to favor Clifford’s view of the relationship between epistemology and ethics, there were aspects of it that troubled me. Naturally, as a teacher of Logic and Philosophy, I was alert for counter-examples for every position, not out of a desire for mere exercise, but to drive at the core of truth or falsehood in any proposition or syllogism. Introducing the elements of validity and soundness was always stimulating for students, as they were wholly uninformed on these concepts. While sorting through different types of syllogisms was challenging, students quickly perceived their relevance for their lives.

What bothered me was the question of evidence and how it had any bearing on ethics as such. Indeed, while Clifford’s objective was obviously to banish metaphysics altogether, or at least to diminish its role in philosophy in favor of empiricism, his categorical statement seemed to me deficient.

For example, couldn’t a person be good, or do a good thing, without any metaphysical concepts at all? Several years after leaving teaching forever, I worked as a bus driver, where many of my passengers were developmentally disabled. In fact, I even wrote a series of poems, drawing on that experience, entitled In Transit. What I found was that many severely handicapped people were genuinely concerned for each other, and kind to each other. Of course, some were cruel, but generally there was a kind of rough esprit de corps that I found refreshing and even inspiring, compared to the conniving intrigues of Academe. At any rate, some simple act of kindness could be done by people who had no notion of metaphysics whatsoever. Evidence of any abstract kind seemed just irrelevant.

Furthermore, I reflected on various historical examples of ethical persons who had metaphysical notions. Many though not all abolitionists against slavery were Christians; they had often acted with great courage and determination to undermine the slave system, operating the underground railroad for escaping slaves, secretly circulating literature in the South, and so on. Similarly, I remembered a Catholic sister who gave me a suitcase full of ordinary over the counter medications to take to Nicaragua when I went there in 1988. Sister Marie and I probably differed on religious concepts, but we surely shared a great deal else. Unlike most professors, Marie had a lovely sense of what would be practically needed in a struggling country. There are numberless similar examples of religious people who have taken ethical stands throughout history, and from all religions.

No doubt the history of religion has had its share of calculating scoundrels such as the ship owner, but we cannot honestly deny there have been ethical heroines and heroes as well.

Conversely, there have been plenty of atheists for whom ethics was irrelevant or by any reckoning, minimal. Ayn Rand herself is a prominent instance; after all, she is considered by many the most influential writer of the entire 20th century. Consider the purges under Joseph Stalin, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution under Mao Tse Tung, and the mass murders under Pol Pot in Cambodia. Being an atheist or skeptic does not somehow exempt anyone from basic human social responsibility.

The upshot was that I began to question the very connection between epistemology and ethics. Now obviously, for social functioning, we need to know or at least believe that other human beings exist. We have some shared common perception that we are real. Then I remembered my old college ethics course from decades ago, in which after most of a semester reviewing the basic theories and proponents, the professor concluded that for him David Hume’s emotive theory was probably the most accurate and convincing.


In the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), which Hume considered his best and most original work, there is a quite remarkable passage, a footnote to part II of the section “Why Utility Pleases,” where Hume states: “It is needless to push our researches so far as to ask, why we have humanity or fellow-feeling with others? It is sufficient that this is experienced to be a principle in human nature. We must stop somewhere in our examination of causes; and there are, in every science, some general principles beyond which we cannot hope to find any principle more general. No man is absolutely indifferent to the happiness and misery of others.” The interesting thing was and is that Hume was a consummate rationalist, who saw that reason is not where ethics comes from. It comes from our feelings of benevolence. We do not calculate what is the “right thing to do,” we do it instinctively, out of our emotions, to assist others in need, or to prevent harm being done to them. This explains why people will spontaneously dive into a river to save a drowning person. Or why a soldier will throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades.

Furthermore, and this has apparently been little noticed, Hume states in his book toward the end that this principle of benevolence operates universally and across all cultures, and thus is comparable to the role of the Law of Gravity in the physical world. To me, this is an astonishing claim, but one that has a great deal of merit. The concept of fellow feeling, of simple human benevolence explains why people of diverse or even sharply opposing religious or metaphysical views can cooperate for common ends. Infidels and Christians worked together in the abolitionist movement against slavery. Catholics and Communists stood side by side (if often uneasily) in the French Resistance. And in other moments of crisis, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, people from across the world come together to aid the survivors.

Clifford’s concept of evidence remains relevant, however. In Haitian relief, we have to consider ulterior motives, the efficiency of the aid, and the very real possibility that money could be diverted for personal or political gain. We might well be reluctant to give money to an obese person who claims to be starving, even though on reflection we would realize that even obese people can be hungry.

Then there is the example of the famed German film, the Three Penny Opera written by Bertolt Brecht and composed by Kurt Weill (1931). In its plot, Jonathan Peachum, “King of the Beggars,” is chief of a roving band of scoundrels who appear daily on the city’s streets, in a variety of gruesome crippled guises, bodies twisted in agony. Toward twilight each of these makes his way back to Peachum’s den, untwisting himself, and dutifully turning in the collected cash. That is, apparent beggars may be enacting a scam. And then evidence will again become important.

The context of any given ethical action must, then, be carefully considered and evaluated, and in this sense the question of evidence is critical. But if someone believes they should do something good because Jesus told them to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” it cannot be discounted or valued less than an atheist doing the same thing for non-theist reasons.


The themes addressed here may be a bit further illuminated by a short discussion of them as problems in Logic. The basic form of the argument might thus be expressed:

If I see a starving man, I feel like I want to help him.
I see a starving man.
Therefore: I want to help him.

If I feed a starving man, he will live.
I feed a starving man
Therefore: He will live.

If I have saved a starving man, I have done the right thing
I save a starving man.
Therefore: I have done the right thing.

Naturally, even here we could imagine some counter-examples. For instance, the emaciated survivors of the Nazi concentration camps were quickly fed by their Allied rescuers, but many succumbed anyway due to advanced debilitation. But the simple force of the syllogisms is surely evident. They are both valid and sound.

If we introduce an additional premise along any of the following lines, what then:

I will do so because Jesus is God.
I will do so because Jesus told us to do so
I will do so because [here insert any god] told us to do so.

From a standpoint of formal logic, the argument becomes invalid, because the premise is unconnected to the conclusion.

Indeed, we could introduce either of these premises:

2 + 2 = 4
2 + 2 =5


While the first premise is true, and the second one is false, inserting either one makes the syllogism invalid, because the premise is unrelated to the conclusion.

This is surely why any educated philosopher is resistant to accepting these expanded versions of the basic syllogism; indeed, anyone who has had a basic course in Logic will also resist, for we learn that an invalid syllogism is inherently weak, and cannot ever be sound.

Author Sam Harris argues in his book The End of Faith that even liberal and pacifist versions of religion have negative effects insofar as they allow and even encourage people to posit their hopes on unsubstantiated or illusory ideas such as their afterlife. Quakers and the like, in his view, are thus enablers for superstition, mild though their versions may be. He has, perhaps, an arguable case, but taking it too far, ignores or discounts the genuine ethical actions of individuals in those faith groups. For surely there is literally a world of difference between Torquemada and William Penn, or between Calvin and Servetus.

Another way to consider this is to view the basic syllogisms, given above, with a wide range of additional premises floating around, above and behind them. This is, in fact, what occurs in the minds of those who hold metaphysical ideas. From a formal standpoint, inserting any such premise invalidates the argument, while from a practical standpoint, if they are not formally part of the argument, they are irrelevant.


One of the Bible stories I always found most impressive

was that concerning the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37):

“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho,

and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and

wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance

there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he

passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at

the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when

he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up

his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast,

and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow

when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host,

and said unto him, ‘Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest

more, when I come again, I will repay thee.’ Which now of these

three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the

thieves?” And he said, ‘he that shewed mercy on him.’ Then

said Jesus unto him, “Go, and do thou likewise.”

Anything like a full review of who the Samaritans were,

or their relations with the Jews is beyond the scope of this short

paper, but essentially they were immigrants from Assyria who had

adopted the Pentateuch section of the Bible, and certain Jewish

religious practices, but were not considered by the Jews to be

authentic Israelites, though they lived in the northern part of the

old kingdom, partly in what is now known as the West Bank. But the

moral lesson that Jesus promotes here would not have been lost on his

audience, who would have known of the traditional tribal antagonisms

at play.

It would make an interesting study to collect such

stories from various societies, in which acts of compassion occurred

across tribal or racial boundaries. I suspect that almost all

societies have these in their history. Two more examples, both from

the period of the Great Famine in Ireland:

“In 1845, Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid declared his

intention to send £10,000 to Irish farmers but Queen Victoria

requested that the Sultan send only £1000, because she herself had

sent only £2000. The Sultan sent the £1000 but also secretly sent

three ships full of food. The English courts tried to block the

ships, but the food arrived at Drogheda harbor and was left there by

Ottoman sailors” (Source: Wikipedia entry on “Great Famine:


“In 1847, midway through the Great Irish Famine

(1845-1849), a group of American Indian Choctaws collected $710

(although many articles say the original amount was $170 after a

misprint in Angie Debo’s The Rise and Fall

of the Choctaw Republic) and sent it to help

starving Irish men, women and children. ‘It had been just 16 years

since the Choctaw people had experienced the Trail of Tears, and they

had faced starvation…It was an amazing gesture,’ according to

Judy Allen, editor of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s newspaper,

Bishinik, based at the Oklahoma Choctaw tribal headquarters in

Durant, Oklahoma. To mark the 150th

anniversary, eight Irish people retraced the Trail of Tears, and the

donation was publicly commemorated by President [of Ireland] Mary

Robinson” (Ibid).

I will have to

leave it to the future to collect more such inspiring accounts. But

I cannot forbear just one more. Some years ago this same topic of

the ethics of helping starving beggars came up after a discussion in

some academic context. A professor who happened to be Jewish said to

me: “If you encounter a beggar, give him something, even if it’s

just a little, but give him something.” He said this with some

passion, as something not to be overlooked. I asked him why, and he

replied: “It might be him.” What do you mean, “him?” I asked

again, and he responded: “Him.”

Who is

“him?” “He might be the Messiah.”



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