Photo Credit of Sinking Boat to Pok Rie

The nineteenth century British philosopher, W. K. Clifford, is one of a small handful of individuals who titled an essay so effectively that it became the name of an entire philosophical literature: the ethics of belief.

It has been (correctly) observed that “Clifford’s essay is chiefly remembered for two things: a story and a principle.”

The story is that of the negligent shipowner who, by wishful thinking, convinces himself that an unsafe ship is seaworthy, and who thereby sends his passengers to their death when the ship sinks.

The principle is that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

As a result, Clifford is often viewed one-dimensionally as an (unreasonable) evidentialist, most interested in defending a stringent epistemic position. I think this is unfortunate.

It is unfortunate because such a view of Clifford overlooks what are probably the most relevant aspects of his essay for a “misinformation age” like ours.

Yes, Clifford was probably an evidentialist. And yes, Clifford probably wasn’t afraid to insist on high epistemic standards. But from the perspective of Clifford’s essay, in its entirety, these arguably aren’t the things that Clifford cared about most when it came to the “ethics of belief.”

There seem to be at least two other key components to Clifford’s essay that get less attention than they should. First, for Clifford, we have more than merely ethical responsibilities to believe in certain ways. We also have ethical responsibilities to inquire in certain ways.

Second, we have ethical responsibilities to believe and inquire in certain ways because our beliefs and our inquires impact others.  For Clifford, belief and inquiry have a social and political nature. And there are just and unjust ways to go about our doxastic lives as a result.

These points have gained new relevance given the commodification of attention by media platforms and the significant consequences of extreme beliefs fostered on the internet.

Given all this, it’s worth looking beyond Clifford’s famed story and principle for ethical insight.

In his essay, Clifford wastes no time identifying the important role of inquiry in one’s ethics of belief. He titles the first section of the essay (the one containing both the shipowner story and evidentialist principle) “The Duty of Inquiry.” At various points he specifies that inquiry ought to be fair, conscientious, and patient. These observations are in keeping with the “zetetic turn” that has recently come to interest many epistemologists.

Importantly, for Clifford, inquiry is not something that lone thinkers do in isolation. Rather, much of inquiry is a social process. This helps explain why, for example, Clifford devotes the lengthy second section of “The Ethics of Belief” to social epistemic questions about when we are justified in believing on the basis of testimony (i.e., believing based on the authority of others).

The second way in which Clifford’s ethics of belief is a social ethics of belief is perhaps even more central to his account: we have ethical responsibility to believe and inquire because our beliefs and inquiry impact other people’s lives. For Clifford, we have epistemic responsibilities to our fellow humans and to the human species.

This can be seen when looking at Clifford’s explanations of why believing on insufficient evidence is wrong. For example, he writes that

“Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, is ours not for ourselves, but for humanity.”

He also writes that believing on insufficient evidence is belief “stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind.”

Clifford’s impetus for positing moral duties in the doxastic domain is what we owe one another. There is surely something to this point. When we believe irresponsibly in politics, we often increase the risk that we’ll help elect someone that harms our fellow citizens. When we believe irresponsibly in religion, we often increase the risk that we’ll retain rules and prejudices that harm our neighbors. When we believe irresponsibly at work, we often increase the risk of exposing others to harm or unnecessary risk.

I don’t mean to be making a saint out of Clifford. His writings show that he could still believe irresponsibly, despite his own admonitions. Still, in our interconnected age, it is worth remembering the social impact of how and what we believe.

Mark Satta is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. His research interests include epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of law, ethics, and social and political philosophy, broadly construed.