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The Ethics of Belief

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Argumentative Essay on “The Ethics of Belief” PHIL 2641 Online – Section 001 February 13, 2008

William K. Clifford sets out to show in “The Ethics of Belief” that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence…” In this paper, I will show that his argument lacks key definitions needed in order to found his inference upon and that it begs the question as to what qualifies as “insufficient” evidence. Furthermore, I will show that the primary issue is not the belief but the results of the belief that is important and that all judgment and interpretation should be based upon said results.

Clifford introduces his argument by using the example of a shipbuilder who allows his ship to be used on a transoceanic voyage despite its age and the supposed need for repair. The vessel sinks and Clifford asserts that the ship owner is guilty of the death of the passengers because his belief in the ship’s seaworthiness was unsupported and ill-founded. However, there are several problems with his conclusion. First, Clifford ignores the ship owner’s reliance on the vessel’s past sailing history as being sufficient evidence as to its stable condition. The fact that the vessel had made many a voyage without incident can be viewed as sufficient proof of its ability to set sail safely. This begs the question, “How can one determine what constitutes sufficient evidence?” The ship owner by relying on the history of the ship alone could have met his obligation.

A second problem with Clifford’s argument is that he likely oversimplified the cause of the ship’s sinking. Perhaps the ship sank because there was a collision with another ship. Perhaps it sank because it struck an iceberg in the water. It may have sunk because of human error. In all of these scenarios no amount of fortification of the ship’s structure would have

Argumentative Essay on “The Ethics of Belief” Page 2 of 3

prevented the demise of the voyage. Any one or...