A Comparison of W.K Clifford and William James's Arguments on the Right of Belief

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Clifford and James

Summaries of W.K. Clifford and William James’s arguments for belief

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In this paper, I hope to effectively summarize W.K Clifford’s (1879) argument on the ethics of belief, followed by a summary of William James’ (1897) argument on the right to believe, and finally, provide an argument for why W.K Clifford’s (1879) argument is stronger by highlighting its strengths while simultaneously arguing against William James’ (1897) argument. According to Clifford (1879), there is an ethics to belief that makes it always wrong for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence. Clifford (1879) begins his paper by providing an illustrative analogy – one where a ship-owner is preparing to send to sea a ship filled with innocent men, women, and children. Prior to its departure, doubts had been brought to his attention regarding its condition and the possibility of a failure to complete the voyage. The ship-owner, now in a dilemma, successfully convinces himself that because the ship had weathered so many storms and successfully completed so many voyages, it was fit to believe that the ship was fit to sail. He acquired a sincere belief that the ship would successfully complete the voyage despite its apparent faults. Eventually, the ship sank. Clifford (1879) argues that the ship-owner is responsible for the death of those innocent men and women – not only did the ship-owner ignore the doubts regarding the ship’s capabilities, but he acquired a false belief by simply stifling his doubts. Yes, he felt sure about the ship’s capabilities; but, he only acquired such a conviction by allowing himself to believe it, and not based on sufficient evidence. Clifford (1879) also argues that in the event the ship had not sank and had completed the voyage, the ship-owner “would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found out.” (498) In essence, Clifford (1879) argues that the outcome has no effect since the origin of his belief was flawed and based on whims rather than evidence. In another analogy where a group of men are accused for manipulating children, Clifford (1879) argues that those who accused the innocence of the men based on self-propagated beliefs are not “honourable men,” (499) regardless of whether the accused were guilty. He illustrated the ideology that no accusation can be made unless there is sufficient evidence to supplement it; if sufficient evidence cannot be found, then the individual loses the right to believe that certain belief, as he will harm himself and humanity. Clifford (1879) argues it is right and necessary to examine evidence on both sides of any belief with patience and care. Right, because when a man is so consumed by a belief so as to not entertain other grounds, he can still choose the action stemming from that belief – thus, he has a duty to investigate “on the ground of the strength of his convictions.” (499) And necessary, because those who become consumed by their self-sponsored beliefs must have a rule to deal with actions stemming from those beliefs. Clifford (1879) argues no one belief is isolated from the action that follows, and no belief is ever truly insignificant. No individual can judge the validity of his beliefs in an unbiased manner; thus, the actions following beliefs, regardless of being true or false, can have strong implications on our future if not corrected now. Clifford (1879) argues it is essential to continuously judge our beliefs and validate them based on sufficient evidence. Finally, Clifford (1879) argues our beliefs are not personal property; rather, “our words, our phrases and processes and modes of thought are common property. Belief... is ours not for ourselves, but for humanity.” (500) Because our actions – which stem from our beliefs – affect those around us, Clifford (1879) deems it a universal duty to constantly doubt our closely held beliefs. Although “we naturally do not like to find that we are really ignorant and powerless,”...
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