Kingdon Clifford and Christ’s Kingdom

‘He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart’. So wrote William Kingdon Clifford in The Ethics of Belief. What Clifford argues in that essay is that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’. Who does Clifford believe to be in the wrong? Well, during his last days rumours circulated that he had converted to Christianity. The doctor may have certified that he was ill, Clifford quipped, but ‘twas not mental derangement’. So why the Biblical language quoted above? Perhaps he did not begrudge Jesus a striking phrase. More likely, as van Inwagen argues, the unusual frequency of Biblical allusions in this essay is calculated to reveal the true target of his polemic. Whether the active intention of Clifford or not, however, I think there is a further meaning we may properly read into those words. With its stark call to the rigorous practice of cognitive virtue, it’s fair to say that The Ethics of Belief is nothing less than the epistemological counterpart of the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Be epistemically perfect, as it is reprehensible to believe that your Father in heaven is perfect’.


If that’s so, then far from being anti-Christian polemic, the essay is at some level a Christian ascetic treatise in disguise. For, whether reprehensibly or not, Christians believe that their heavenly Father is epistemically perfect, and Christ enjoins his followers to imitate all the perfections of that Father. So the Christian is called to epistemic perfection. This is especially important if you believe (and this it is sinful not to believe!) that the Fall was to a significant extent a cognitive fall, a fall into duplicity (as one infallible authority has it).


  Of course Clifford would have been appalled at such a suggestion. As Christian faith is epistemically reprehensible, so a Christian reading of The Ethics of Belief is reprehensible. This, I think, is a problem for Clifford. For imagine a sect which holds that the Sermon on the Mount, and nothing else, is the infallible word of God (presumably the sect would also have to attribute a derivative authority to the Jewish law). Beautiful and moving as the Sermon may be, the idea that a community of ordinary fallen folk might band together and try living out that teaching in all of its undiluted rigour is truly horrifying. Within a day or so, the whole sect would be reduced to limbless despair. (This, incidentally, is why those who like to hint that the Pelagianism was a morally ennobling humanism which ought never to have been anathematised are dead wrong).


Fortunately, Christianity is not just the Sermon on the Mount. God does not demand that we be perfect right now. Instead, God demands that we set aside all the barriers that we ourselves have placed between Him and us; that we sincerely strive to follow His commandments, and sincerely seek forgiveness when (not if) we fail; that we hear the Word throughout the Scriptures; and that we participate in the Christian community, not least though the sacraments. If we are lucky, we may steadily approach towards perfection. But for any ordinary person, in the midst of an ordinary life, to let the expectation of perfection govern their practical reasoning is mental derangement indeed.


  What goes for perfection in general goes for epistemic perfection in particular, and this is Clifford’s problem. We cannot expect to produce a rigorous demonstration that we are not dreaming before we get out of bed every morning. Of course Clifford doesn’t think that we have to do that; the issue is rather that, given his premisses, it’s unclear why he shouldn’t think that. No human being can go through life scrutinising every proposition to the same degree of rigour that, in Clifford’s famous example, the shipowner ought to employ in checking that his vessel is seaworthy. We have to start from some epistemological first principles; we have to accept most of what we’re told, especially when young; and we have to adopt some kind of stance on what really matters in this life, whether it be the scientific method or economic freedom or artistic self-expression or even Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, if someone cleaves to their own world-stance without seeking to understand those of others, accepts a limited portion of what they’re told uncritically, and doesn’t consider at even the most rudimentary level what makes for a good epistemological principle and whether their practice is really governed by such principles, then that person is epistemically vicious.


    I rather suspect that Clifford, in his rush to equate religious belief with mental derangement, has fallen into epistemic vice. The reflective Christian, who has considered at some level the intellectual foundations of her faith, and the potential objections to it, and who also strives to understand other world-stances, is epistemically virtuous (assuming that Christianity is not without intellectual foundation. Some, like Clifford, do believe this, but it is a very strong claim, and usually believed without much foundation). If the Christian world-stance is fundamentally correct, moreover, then it is only by following the path of Christian perfection outlined above that we can ever approach Clifford’s high epistemic ideals. Only then will we be employing our rational faculties as God intended them to be employed, and only then will our many moral flaws stop distorting our epistemic practices: for after all, ethics and epistemology are inseparable, just as Clifford argues.


Some more philosophy. Some actions are p-sensitive, that is, they are such that if some proposition p is false, then they will have bad consequences (e.g. the sending to sea of Clifford’s ship, which will have bad consequences if ‘the ship is seaworthy’ is false). It is wrong to perform any p-sensitive action without sufficient evidence that p is true. So far, so good.

How does Clifford get from here to ‘it is wrong….to believe anything on insufficient evidence’?  He considers the view that we discharge our moral responsibilities by giving a thorough examination of the evidence before performing the action, and responds that a lack of belief one way or the other is necessary for a fair examination of the evidence. It is here that things start to go wrong.

To perform a p-sensitive action responsibly requires giving an extremely thorough examination of the evidence  (much as it may read like wanky philosophese, it really is easier if I dub this kind of examination, say, an A-examination. Why A? For ‘appropriate’) . If believing that p disqualifies  a person from undertaking an A-examination, then we can only believe that p after we have undertaken an A examination. Since we can’t be sure in advance which propositions our future actions might be sensitive too, we can’t believe anything without undertaking an A-examination. But, as I argue above, the demand that we subject every proposition to an A-examination before assenting to it simply cannot be fulfilled. Clifford is quite fanatical:

“But,” says one, “I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study
which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain
questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments.”

Then he should have no time to believe.

It’s as if Jesus were to say to the typical red-blooded male, never look at women. We all know what the fruit of that sort of injunction is…

Surely it is enough for a fair A-examination simply to acknowledge the enormous gulf between the state of a person’s evidence before conducting an A-examination and the state of their evidence after. The examination is only compromised if we go into it with a reckless disregard for evidence in the first place. Most people are more epistemically virtuous than that. Of course, some people aren’t, but the problem is not that they believed some propositions without A-examining them, but rather that they have a reckless disregard for evidence. And in fact Clifford ignores the real problem in his shipowner case:

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
to 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.


The problem with the shipowner is most decisively not that he believed before he A-examined, but rather that he cares more for the money of his passengers than their lives. The shipowner is a paradigm of Pascalian self-deception who could have walked off the pages of Bill Wood’s doctoral dissertation. Suppose that he had undertaken an A-examination before he sent off the ship. Is Clifford seriously suggesting that the shipowner’s commitment to his prior belief, qua prior belief of his, would influence the examination more than his greed? Would the examination go any differently if he had, like a good Cliffordian, withheld assent from the proposition, despite his lusting after its truth? One wonders about the epistemic virtue of Clifford’s leaving that bit out of his analysis….

One last poke at the pinata. A declaration of war is about as p-sensitive an action as can be conceived. The burden of evidence required for war is so high, moreover, that it takes all the resources of state power to discharge it. It would be outrageous to reach such a decision without, for example, extensive consultation with the intelligence services. In this case, then, only the state can conduct an A-examination. On Clifford’s principles, however, that implies that it is morally wrong for any but the state to hold an opinion on the legitimacy of a war. Insisting on that, however, is an obvious recipe for docility and disaster. The citizenry should examine the evidence as best as they can with the resources available to them, and if after careful examination they reach a different conclusion from the state, they ought to protest, never mind that they have not conducted a true A-examination.


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