You are on page 1of 12

Viktor Kevin S.

Rubio (2012-79402) Philosophy 150: Epistemology

An Essay on the Ethics of Belief

Abstract

This philosophical paper discusses the spectrum of belief ethics which includes the
topics of evidentialism, faith, and truth. Topics touched include mainly W.K. Cliffords
brand of evidentialism, W. James response to the Clifford, and a comparative evaluation of
J. Meiland and L. Pojmans discourse about voluntarism. All these topics consistently
contribute to the definition of the truth. As such, the conclusion of this paper is a
controlled amalgam of the various definitions of the truth; consequentially follows the
writers final conceived image and meaning of it. Below is the outline and short summary of
the papers parts:
W.K. Cliffords brand of evidentialism Cliffords classic take on evidentialism is
discussed. His two primary principles are analyzed and concludes with a general
agreement towards it. Cliffords statement that all epistemic wrongdoings are moral
wrongdoings is also agreed upon but with the condition that the semantic qualifier
is is changed to can be.
W. James response to W.K. Clifford The formers response to the latter is
evaluated. The writer agrees with James notion of consulting the passional ground
but only up to an extent. The qualifier of this extent is discussed herein.
Faith-based belief and its justification Discussion here stems from James notion
of faith in the ethics of belief. Arguments for and against it are evaluated with the
conclusion that faith-based belief are justifiable and can be necessary on certain
discussed instances.
J. Meiland and his justification for rationalization This part features much criticism
from the writer towards Meiland and his writings about pragmatic rationalization.
An example of rationalization leading to the conclusion that rationalization
essentially leads to truth-abandonment and harm is also discussed.
J. Meiland, L. Pojman, and doxastic voluntarism The former and latters writings
are pit against each other with the writer ultimately agreeing with the latters
arguments. Discussion points in this part are patterned from the guide question
regarding doxastic voluntarism.
The value of truth and our obligation towards it This part of the paper takes all the
meritable segments about the truth from the prior parts. These said segments
serve collectively as the mold for the final definition of the truth. Finally, the
writers conclusion as to why the truths inherent value warrants an obligation
towards it is discussed.
On W.K. Cliffords brand of evidentialism and epistemic obligations

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories,
instead of theories to suit facts
-- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

W.K. Clifford is known for his essay The Ethics of Belief, wherein he puts forth
the foundation for the classic view of evidentialism. The essence of this writing of his can be
summed up by the two principles he set. First: It is wrong always, everywhere, and for
anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence. Second: It is wrong always,
everywhere, and for anyone to ignore evidence that is relevant to his beliefs, or to dismiss
relevant evidence in a facile way.
For Clifford, these two principles must be upheld at all times for one to be
epistemologically responsible. According to him, we all have an epistemic obligation to
possess sufficient evidence for all our beliefs. In hindsight, Clifford makes absolute
senseWe must all act on the basis of evidence. Acting otherwise would seem to only
defeat the purpose of human rationality. The habit of conscientious inquiry is the very basis
for proper action said Clifford, and this sounds perfectly correct to me. Without further
scrutiny of all the intricacies of his paper, one could even say that his principles are norms
already observed in society even before he wrote about it. A clear and completely rational
mind is something that sets apart humans from any other animals. Thus, it is not only our
epistemological obligation to use it. More importantly, it is a human obligation to make full
use of our rational faculty. Clifford is arguably justified for setting such a strict rule on the
ethics of belief, as any chance of falsehood can lead to a moral decline or wrongdoing. I
would like to give an anecdote as to why I can argue for Cliffords part to some extent. Once
I was bidding on a laptop online, and the seller apparently happened to be in Dagupan. I was
young and nave, and so I agreed to send partial payment first before he sends the item. He
seemed trustworthy from our correspondence, and even gave me detailshis name,
address, and even some random stories about his life in Dagupan. Of course I ate it all up;
and of course, these all turned out to be fake. I got scammed. After realizing I had just been
scammed, I rightly felt fervor to bring about justice to this person who scammed me. I
looked up his given identity online and found someone who matched all the details.
Moreover, I found out that this person I found recently cancelled his Friendster and Twitter
account. At that point, I was so sure that he was the one who scammed me. The only thing I
could think about at that moment was the reason he cancelled his accounts were because he
was guilty and hiding (from me presumably). I was so convinced by my confirmation bias
that I immediately messaged members of his family of my accusations, how I was prepared
to exact unto him all the possible legal repercussions there are. I was basically berating his
family, borderline verbal abuse. I was angry. I thought I was acting upon evidence where I
was actually acting out of shock and anger. Long story short, his family easily proved me
wrong and it all ended with me humiliated and apologetic.
Acting upon insufficient evidence lead me to falsehood and said falsehood had
relatively grave consequences for the fourteen year old me. Even without the slightest
knowledge of Cliffords writings, that life event made an evidentialist out of me. It definitely
taught me that a failure in ones epistemic obligations would lead to moral failures. And so at
this point, I can say that I agree with Clifford that an epistemic wrongdoing is a form of
moral wrongdoing. I mentioned earlier that Clifford makes absolute sense. But at my time of
writing, it is important that I also mention that it made absolute sense to me only in
hindsight. Yes, epistemic wrongdoings can also be moral wrongdoingsbut not all of the
time. My anecdote is already clear proof of this. At the same time, other life events also
compel me to disagree with his qualifier that all epistemic failures are moral failures. There
have been times where evidence had been unreliable as basis for my life decisions (more
about this later on in this essay).
Clifford also states in his essay that a spread of a false belief would lead to a moral
decline. I definitely agree that there are cases wherein a false (incorrectly justified) belief can
lead to a moral decline. This would probably offend a decent portion of Filipinos, but I have
to cite Iglesia ni Cristo as an example. Based on all my inquiries with INC members and my
actual attendance of one of their liturgies, they aggressively insist that only their members
would be able to find salvation come judgment day. And when I asked them why they hold
this belief, they confidently tell me that this is all based on the writings on the Bible. But the
thing is, a devout Christian named Tomas de Torquemada once also believed that torturing
and killing non-Christians was morally right. That the Spanish Inquisitionthe torturing and
killing of fellow humanswas necessary because the Bible said so. I personally see the Bible
much like the Constitution. Both are texts that serve respectively as a moral and legal
compass to guide us all. And much like each other, the only way they can act as a said
compass is when someone interprets it. That someone who interprets these texts is a
human, and humans are fallible. To actually spread their human interpretation as if they were
the sacred words of the Christian God is, for me, a clear example of a moral wrongdoing
resulting in a moral decline.
Having said that, I can still agree with Clifford that an epistemic wrongdoing can
actually have a severe impact on humanity in terms of morality. He makes sense on some
parts, but goes way overboard with a few notable qualifiers found in his principles and his
essay as a whole. While I treat evidentialism as one correct way of going about life, it would
be irrational to say that it is the only correct way. Clifford inarguably raised the bar on
morality, but I believe that the bar he set was unfortunately too high. I have two primary
issues with his perspective. First: the fact that he prescribes all actions to be based on
evidence lest you commit a moral wrongdoing. Second: The fact that he claims some beliefs
are wrong and unethical to hold.
It is true that a belief backed completely by evidence is a sine qua non of a sound
action. Much as we would like to always be epistemologically responsible all of the time, it is
simply impossible. As already pointed out in class, there are times where evidence is
unavailable and a decision must be made. There are situations where we cannot afford the
luxury of a suspended judgment. There are plenty of instances in a persons life where he
might be neglecting his epistemic obligations but not necessarily committing a moral
wrongdoing. Moreover, lack of evidence as a reason for suppressing judgment is also
illogical. It is worthwhile to call into attention the adage that goes the absence of evidence is
not evidence of absence. Clifford notably fails to account for these situations and instead
just lumps all instances of non-conformance with his principles to be moral wrongdoings.
My second issue with Cliffords principles is that he admonishes and essentially labels
actions to be wrong and unethical should said actions fall out his purview of ethics. His
notion of ethics on belief, while correct on some points, appear too black and white for me.
It is unsurprising that he holds these principles, seeing that he is first a mathematician before
a philosopher. He prescribes ethics to be applied in real life as if he was discussing
mathematical rules. Mathematics can be said as an exact science. Real life, however, does
not have the same luxury or liberty to say the same for itself. Clifford wrote sensibly for the
most part, but comes off as too preaching and impractical in general. I reiterate my point
that while Cliffords way is absolutely correct in its own right, it is not the only correct way
to proceed with lifeno matter how much his essay tries to persuade us that it is.

On W. James response to W.K. Clifford

A small amount of doubt that you wont win will really damage you
-- Artour Babaev (Famous North American Dota 2 player)

It is already a point I have importantly stressed in my prior paragraphs that Cliffords


principles are too rigid (and hence impractical) to be totally applied in real life. There are
times in a persons life where all the available evidence in the world wouldnt help support
that persons decision. And in these situations, it is indeed inevitable that we invoke our
passional grounds. To illustrate my point, I would like to tell another life story. When I
met my first girlfriend, I knew I had to make her mine. Prior to the moment when I actually
asked her out, my head was riddled with doubts. Almost my entire life, I had built the
philosophy similar to that of Cliffordsnever act unless you have sufficient evidence. I
knew I liked her. My mind was already set on having her as my girlfriend. I also had a feeling
that she liked me too. All I had to do was confirm it to actually make it real. Thus, I
consulted my passional grounds and acted accordingly. Had I strictly abided by Cliffords
principles, I wouldnt have had a meaningful relationship that lasted almost seven years. This
is exactly one of the reasons why I am obliged to agree with James to an extent. His notion
of faith in a fact helps create the fact explains how I was able to turn my hypothesis into a
reality.
While Clifford wouldve told me to suspend judgment and any further acts until solid
evidence has been acquired, the Jamesian in me said evidence be damned! and just did it.
At the end of it, I acquired a truth. I believe that this example clearly delineates the
Cliffordian and Jamesian ethics of belief. Clifford will risk losing truths to avoid error while
James will risk error to pursue a possible truth. It is in this way that James writings persuade
me. At the risk of sounding nave, I am still inclined to say this: sometimes in life you just
have to believe. It is this eagerness that one can discover or even make truths. There really
are times when ones faith can act as a deciding factor to realize a possible truth. Cliffords
notion of evidentialism is too constricting and passive, whereas real life requires freedom
and action.

On faith-based belief and its justification

Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions and the
passage of time.
-- Richard Dawkins

While on the topic of faith-based beliefs, I would like to cite a few lines from
Religulous, a documentary by Bill Maher that criticizes theistic faith-based beliefs. The
documentary sees faith as justified in the following sense:
I think being without faith is something that's a luxury for people who were fortunate enough to have a
fortunate life. You know, you go to prison and you hear a guy say, ''You know what, buddy? I got nothing
but Jesus in here. I completely understand that. I think not having faith is a luxury sometimes. If you're in
a foxhole, you probably have a lot of faith, right? But you guys arent dumb. Youre smart people. How can
smart people believe in the talking snake, people living to 900 years old, and the virgin birth?
This perspective precisely alludes to James justification for faith-based beliefs. There will be
moments in life where faith is the only path available. It is not irrational, contrary to what
Clifford explicates, to believe in something with insufficient evidence. Like I said, there will
be times when evidence is simply not available for consultation. And in these cases, James is
right to say that we must invoke our passional grounds.
It is only up until this extent that I can safely agree with James. My only issue with
him is that the more you read into his essay, the less it has to do with epistemology (said to
be the quest of truth and knowledge) and starts to sound more like a self-help literature.
While James pragmatic take on the ethics of belief has a lot of practical value, say, in
ones attitude towards life, I have to question its stance in light of epistemology. True, it is
inevitable that we consult non-intellectual grounds when we sometimes make decisions.
True, it is nice and helpful to have positive (wishful) thinking. But it is exactly this permissive
stance of his that can help poison the mind of an otherwise rational thinker. What is nice
and helpful does not necessarily dictate what is true. What we want to believe is irrelevant to
what is factual. If it is more or less epistemologys purpose to pursue truth and knowledge,
then James view on the ethics of belief is considerably anti-epistemology. Thats not to say
that he is wrong in what he says. I simply believe that quite a few of his prescriptions have
nothing to do with the truth. If Cliffords failure is that he is too strict, James failure is that
he is too loose.

On J. Meiland and his justification for rationalization

The preachers and lecturers deal with men of straw, as they are men of straw themselves
-- Henry D. Thoreau
It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.
-- Leo Tolstoy

Whereas Clifford and James show the diversity in the spectrum of belief ethics, I see
Jack Meiland as not belonging on the spectrum at all. If the ethics of belief had its version of
Commission on Elections as to whether they are qualified to say anything about
epistemology, I believe Meiland would rightfully be classified as a nuisance candidate. It is
one thing to disagree with Clifford, but it takes so many different levels of wrongness and
audacity to state that evidentialism is generally unacceptable. Meilands libertarian view of
doxastic responsibilities, to me, is simply juvenile. He basically says screw the truth and just
do whats good for you. Both of the examples appearing on his writing appeal to the
notion that the truth is completely unimportant; that we actually have an obligation to ignore
the truth for the sake of self-preservation. He urges us that we can choose which
propositions to believe (regardless whether they are true or not), and rationalization takes
priority over truth. I am close to believing at this point that Jack Meiland is an intellectual
troll, and a successful one at that. For the sake of the essay though, I will still try to respond
to his writings as serious as I can.
The truth is the truth. It has an inherent value that has to be recognized whether you
agree with it or not. Whether you will act according or contrary to the truth is a whole other
discussion, one that I will even contest does not belong in epistemology. For prudential
reasons, Meiland prescribes that we rationalize reality and lie to ourselves. He even goes as
far as to say self-deception (or autosuggestion as he euphemizes it) is good. Againwhat we
want to be has nothing to do with the truth. Furthermore, I have good reason to believe that
rationalizing will deliberately lead you away from the truth and actually do more harm than
good. To illustrate my position, I turn once again to a story of mine. I have this friend, and
she is the kind of person that makes frequent use of rationalization as a means of self-
preservation. She deliberately ignores and corrupts the truth as to not hurt her ego. Case in
point: I asked her if she knows how to play Dont Stop Me Now by Queen on the piano.
She responded: I can, but only the opening part. I ask why and to which she replies, Im
just too lazy to learn the rest of it. Thats it: the Im too lazy defense. I know for a fact
that while she knows how to play the piano, she is no way (at the moment) capable of
playing something as complex as that song. I also know for a fact that she uses that line of
defense for every time her incompetency with anything is raised as an issue. She chooses to
ignore the truth of her incompetence for a chance at self-preservation. According to
Meiland, this is actually good for prudential reasons. At this point I outright state that Jack
Meilands prescriptions are not only wrong (insofar as it has nothing to do with the truth),
but are also toxic. Evidentialism may not be the be-all and end-all of reason and the truth
may not be the ultimate value by which we all must abide. But to question its legitimacy is
ridiculous. If the Jamesian thought has the possibility to poison the mind of a rational
thinker, Meilands prescription outright kills it. I have to concede that rationalization, self-
deception, and truth-abandonment have their merit (though limited as they are). But even so,
I see their merit only as crutches for when one cannot stand straight and carry the burden of
truth. I have been taught in our class from day one that epistemology is the study of the
epistemic goals; and one very important goal is to accept true propositions. Jack Meilands
opinions not only disregard the truth, they disrespect the truth. With this in mind, I have no
choice but to condemn Jack Meiland as an enemy of epistemology.

On J. Meiland, L. Pojman, and doxastic voluntarism

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort
or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.
-- C.S. Lewis

Having said that, I admit that I have yet to give Jack Meilands arguments a proper
treatment. It is because I do not think fallacy-riddled, pseudo-intellectual, strawman
ramblings should be justified by actual decent answers. For the sake of this essay however I
will unwillingly attempt to consider his arguments by way of discussing his three points given
in the guide questions. Let it be noted that I evaluate Pojmans phenomenological and logic-
of-belief arguments to be right and valid and so my evaluation Meilands arguments will
reflect not only my perspective, but also Pojmans. At the same time, I will also take this
portion of my essay to discuss Pojmans objections to Meilands view of doxastic
voluntarism.
First point: evidentialism is generally unacceptable. Evidentialism unnecessarily
claims a gap between belief and action. Meiland discusses throughout his writing the concept
of belief as something that is under our control. I will mimic Pojman and say that this line of
reasoning is a strawman argument for two reasons. First, Meilands idea of belief is skewed.
He believes that beliefs are things we can consciously manipulate; hence we can choose
what to believe. As Pojman disputes, this idea is invalid (as displayed by his
phenomenological argument). Beliefs are something we can only accept for what they are;
interpretations of these however are what we can control. By this conceptual correction
alone, Meilands argument becomes completely null. Second, evidentialism under the
purview of Clifford (whose class of evidentialism Meiland attacks) never claimed such a
thing; not to mention that there is more to evidentialism than Clifford. With a shallow and
literal reading of Clifford, one can be misled to think that he claims there is a gap between
belief and action. I think it is more appropriate to read Clifford in the sense that he claims
there is a gap between thought and action, not belief and actionAnd there is. Such a gap
does indeed exist between thought and action. For example, one can have the thought of
actually murdering another human being out of anger but not proceed with the idea in
actuality. This gap is where ethics come in. Relevant to this argument of Meiland is his
notion that there are some people who cannot separate their thoughts (or beliefs as he
incorrectly writes) from their actions. While I can easily cast this argument aside by reason of
it being commonsensically ridiculous, I will take the bait and respond. To this, I say it is
impossible within normal standards. For anyone who is normal (that is one who is not a
psychopath or severely mentally impaired), the gap between thoughts and actions are
mediated by our conscience. Socrates called it a daemon, Adam Smith calls it the inner
witness. It is this daemon, this inner witness, our conscience that evaluates our thoughts and
places the directives under which we act. Regardless of any religion or moral theory, this gap
exists universally and is also universally necessary.
Second point: A person has the freedom to consciously acquire and retain beliefs in
conformity with his own goals and interests. From a logical standpoint, Pojman already
dismantles this argument by his logic-of-belief counter-argument. From a moral standpoint,
a person can act contrary to facts and evidences to further his own goals and interests. But
this would constitute of an epistemic wrongdoing and possibly a moral wrongdoing. To
summarize: one cannot truly consciously acquire beliefs and while he has the freedom to act
against or despite evidence, it is possible that a moral wrongdoing may entail; furthermore,
acting contrary to the evidence for pragmatic reasons does not automatically make it a moral
action despite what Meiland would like us to think.
Third point: Doxastic voluntarism is true. While I can attempt to exhibit intellectual
acrobatics to disprove this argument, I am going to resist myself from this unworthy
exercise. Instead, I will conduct a simple experiment to check the validity of his proposition.
I, Kevin Rubio, of legal age and sound mind, hereby will that Heart Evangelista be right
outside my door, ready to make love to me. Now let me just go check outside real quick.
Nope, she wasnt there. Since beliefs are actually just the truth forcing itself upon us, no
amount of mere voliting will make that belief come true. Just because it is within my
freedom to volit such a thing does not make it true, valid, or even moral simply by the very
virtue of the exercise. Q.E.D., Mr. Meiland.

On the value of the truth and our obligation towards it

The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is
-- Sir Winston Churchill

I believe that the above quote best summarizes Pojmans take on truth, believing,
and epistemic duties. As I have previously pointed out, the truth has an inherent value that
must be recognized. It can be useful to visualize the truth as statue that simply sits out there,
adamant and incorrigible. We can all dictate as to how we can react to the presence of the
statue. We can accept it plainly for what it is, we can impose any creative interpretation upon
it, or we can even ignore its existence. However we so choose to deal with this statue, it does
not mar the very being of it. Much like the truth, we can all choose the interpretation we
want, but it will remain as it is.
Pojman establishes this static image of the truth in much of his essay. After
defining truth comes the question of whether we actually have an obligation (epistemic or
moral) to seek and uphold it. According to Pojman, we have a prima facie duty to be truth-
seeking, as it is an integral part of any viable moral theory. The question now is why is this
so?
The world we live in has many rules, which we have no choice but to follow. The
human species has collectively gone this far and has achieved so much by becoming more
and more efficient in working with these rules. But no matter how successful humanity has
become, we do not and cannot work around these rules. We can only work with these rules.
There is no circumventing the laws of physics and there is no outsmarting nature. There is
only the continuous upward struggle in the face of the limitations imposed on us. This, I
believe, is one of the greatest truths out there. Humanity did not get to this point because
our ancestors and forefathers insubordination of the truth. Humanity has acquired the habit
of excellence precisely by pursuing and acknowledging the truths of the world. The men of
the Stone Age did not get fire because they simply wished there to be fire. They acquired it
because they explored nature and discovered a truth. The Beatles made great songs not by
tending to what is wrong and fallacious; they made great songs because of their passion for
expressing beautiful human truths. Charles Darwin did not write about the theory of
evolution because he had an existential crisis and felt the need to explain the conundrum of
human purposehe did it to acquire truths about human origin. All these great human acts
have something to do with or for the truth. It is because of our natural and universal passion
and inclination for truth that the human race is where it is right now. We survived and
thrived because we recognized what is true and innovated upon it. The human race has been
surviving because we recognize and respect what is true. 100% of the people living today are
still alive because they respect the fact that jumping off a tall building would kill you. That is
a truth. The human race has been thriving because we also innovate upon the truth. Human
flight (by means of aircrafts) is easily possible today because of the scientists and inventors
constantly hard at work to establish and discover new and more truths in this world. That is
a truth. It is only when one understands the truth of our earthly lifeincluding its inherent
laws and limitationscan one live another day in this world and do justice to what it means
to be human. It is our obligation, our right, and our privilege to recognize and seek the truth;
for in this way we honor our place in the universe and continue the human tradition of not
simply existing, but doing so excellently.

References
Clifford, W. (1877). The Ethics of Belief. Contemporary Review.
James, W. (1896). The Will to Believe.
Meiland, J. (1980). What Ought We to Believe? American Philosophical Quarterly, 17(1),
15-24.
Pojman, L. (1985). Believing and Willing. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 15(1).
Religulous [Motion picture]. (2009). Lionsgate.