The ethics of belief: Conservative belief management

Social Epistemology 20 (1):67 – 78 (2006)
Abstract
Some hold that W.K. Clifford's arguments are inconsistent, appealing to the disvalue of likely consequences of nonevidential belief-formation, while also insisting that the consequences are irrelevant to the wrongness of so believing. My thesis is that Clifford's arguments are consistent; one simply needs to be clear on the role consequences play in the "Ethics of Belief" (and, for that matter, in William James's "The Will to Believe"). The consequences of particular episodes of nonevidential belief-formation are, as Clifford insists, irrelevant to the epistemic, and so moral, status of believing. The moral matter is that adopting a policy of nonevidential belief-formation constitutes commitment to antithetical principles, viz. (i) our antecedent moral obligation to minimize the risk of harming ourselves and others and (ii) the flagrant disregard for (i) entailed by employing a policy of risk, i.e. nonevidentialism. Clifford's arguments should be read as demonstrating that a nonevidentialist approach to belief-management constitutes the kind of risk that, in fact, is at odds with this antecedent moral obligation - hence the discussion of likely consequences, despite his claims that they are irrelevant to the moral status of the beliefs yielding them. They are irrelevant to the moral status of nonevidentialism but not irrelevant to the fact of risk. The moral impermissibility of nonevidentialism inheres in the inconsistency of it and our antecedent moral obligations, not in the value or disvalue of the particular consequences of that belief-management style.
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