The Ethics of Belief

Most people think there are things we ought to believe, and things we ought not to believe, otherwise means-ends rationality wouldn‟t be possible. But are there things that we ought to believe, or ought not to believe, irrespective of our ends? Clifford (1879) and James (1896) have different views about how this question should be answered. Clifford has an absolutist view, that it is always morally wrong for one to believe something upon insufficient evidence or reasoning. James argues that there are special cases in which one is entitled to believe upon insufficient evidence or reasoning. After examining their arguments, I argue for an alternative position, in which we are morally obliged to change our beliefs in response to certain situations we are faced with in our everyday lives. The view that Clifford and I share is that a belief itself (but not only belief itself) can be morally wrong, independently of any wrong actions the belief in question causes. While it could be objected that we have no control over what we believe, and hence can‟t be held morally responsible for our beliefs, I contend that moral realisation causes the necessary change in the morally deficient belief we realise we have. Since Clifford and James both intended their views to be applied to religious belief, I will also discuss one important application for the ideas discussed in this essay, namely the implication these arguments have for religious belief.
Keywords William Clifford  William James  belief
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