February 17, 2007

The ethics of belief - I

I've received some email in response to my piece over at CSICOP's Creation/ID Watch site dealing with how to approach the issue of religion while opposing creationism.

In that article I suggested that it was both unwise and self-defeating to note a person's religious affinities (deemed irrationality by some) and thereby sum their possible contribution to the debate, and even in some cases to society as a whole, as negative. It was, and remains, my supposition that an individual, especially those more enlightened souls who accept the metaphorical nature of faith, is unfairly judged if evaluated solely upon the basis of his adherence to a particular "irrationality" without consideration of how rationally he approaches the rest of his interaction with his family and society.

I wanted to offer the point of view that it is not necessarily an irredeemable act to believe irrationally. As I suspect most of us cleave to some personal irrationality or other, it would seem a more reasonable position to try to engage an individual as a collection of behaviors and positions. In other words, judge someone on the whole of their contribution.

Some readers have written to assert the opposing view - that the act of Faith (based on things unseen) is always wrong, that believing irrationally is never justified, or even harmless.

I think this is an important point to consider at some length. And as the larger thrust of the CSICOP article (and, I believe, Dawkins' "The God Delusion") was that discussion of provocative ideas can only contribute to greater understanding, I'd like to consider some sections from one of the materials suggested by my respondents. It is an essay from William Clifford called "The Ethics of Belief." Although there is much in the essay with which I disagree (including it's overarching point that it is always wrong to believe on insufficient evidence) it offers clear ideas that can be easily and profitably considered. Most important, it is wonderfully written.

As this will have to take place over several installments, let's begin at the beginning with an excerpt from section one (The Duty of Inquiry) of the essay.
A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowlingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.
Before we look at the following paragraph I think it's important to consider some observations that relate to the foregoing. First Clifford notes that the man in his parable acquired his belief dishonestly by stifling his doubts. Yet it seems to me that all belief is, to a greater or lesser degree, a "stifling of doubts." I do not believe it is fair for Clifford to cast this action negatively. It is something we all do, and it's seldom possible to predict whether catastrophic consequences might result from our uncertainties.

Second, there is a sense of contradiction in Clifford's description here. Did the shipowner decide to forgo repairs because of selfish considerations such as "this should put him at great expense" or did he "sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship?" One might rejoin that it is possible for people to embrace often contrary notions such as these, and one would be right. But I think that diminishes the force of Clifford's parable, for which the necessity to assign blame (in this case for believing without warrant) is to some degree dependent upon clarity of intent.

And third, don't we have to wonder if this incident: a ship going down in mid-ocean, is the outcome of many intertwined series of connected events and personal choices. What about the captain of the ship? What about the builders, or the harbor masters? Did they not share, in some measure, the responsibility for this tragedy? Is it reasonable, even for the purposes of a thought-experiment, to ascribe this result to the coalescence of one individual's (in this case, the shipowner) whims?

Clifford then says,
Let us alter the case a little, and suppose that the ship was not unsound after all; that she made her voyage safely, and many others after it. Will that diminish the guilt of her owner? Not one jot. When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that. The man would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found out. The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.
This is powerful stuff. But is it reasonable? I'm not so sure. Is an action, once done, "right or wrong for ever?" Are its consequences really unimportant in determining the morality of an action, or in this case, a thought? Can one truly be guilty without ever causing any discernible harm, to anyone?

Clifford expands, and attempts to defend, his position on these ideas later in the essay, which I will deal with in a later post. But let me finish here by saying that I am uncomfortable with absolutes. It is the conceit that there are universal, irrevocable absolutes, to which one can cleave regardless of context, that lies at the nexus of my difficulties with religion. And I find them no less disconcerting in the rhetorical hands of non-believers.


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