Both The Ethics of Belief by Clifford and The Will to Believe by William James illustrate the struggle for epistemological ethics. Is it ethical for one to believe something without sufficient evidence for it? Clifford would argue that it is not ever ethical to believe such a thing and that one is immoral when believing in something knowing they cannot rationally defend the argument. In contrast, James argued that in some cases it is paramount that one has irrational and willful belief even when the evidence is unknown. James, however, couched his theoretical position in a number of terms, ensuring that wishful thinking or fantastical delusions were not defended under the guise of his treatise. He explained that for instance an athlete choosing to believe he or she is the very best is a useful way of willing one’s own belief on the world; alternatively, simply ignoring reality and wishing the world to be different borders on unhealthy delusions.
Purpose and Goals
The purpose of Clifford’s article was to make the argument that irrational thought is not thought but rather fantasy. In theory he makes the argument that if a person elects to believe something they know they cannot prove, they are being immoral. Naturally, this has myriad implications for the Christian faith or any other religion that requires such commitment. Faith, Clifford essentially argued, is antithetical to good morals. William James’ purpose was the opposite of Clifford’s. James argued that it is in fact quite moral to stand up and believe in something when there is no evidence to defend it. He argued that this does not mean one should ignore evidence but instead that one should be brave enough to believe even when they know evidence will not be able to found to support their belief. In many cases, one can essentially will a belief into action through dedication coupled with belief. If a person believed he could start a business and worked hard to have faith and to work hard, he would likely eventually succeed. Had he taken Clifford’s advice he would have argued that having such irrational self-confidence was immoral and he would have remained where he started.
Implications and Consequences, Point of View
The implications of Clifford’s argument are many. First, it would make basically all religions immoral. Atheists would hold the moral high ground, believing only in that which could be defended rationally and with evidence. Those who meditated, prayed, or had faith in a higher power would be immoral unless they found a substantial body of evidence to defend their arguments. The implications of James’ argument are the opposite. James made the argument that believing something when evidence could not be found showed that religion and other faith-based decisions were of the higher moral character. To believe when there was no implicit reason to believe was a sign of bravery and moral superiority. The consequences of James’ argument are that faith is a valuable trait. In my assessment James’ argument has more merit and, perhaps more importantly, leads to far greater societal consequences. James’ perspective allows openness for the divine; Clifford’s point of view is instead fearful (as James points out) because Clifford fears the unknown.
Question at Issue
The real underlying question is whether or not faith is moral. Clifford argues that faith is essentially immoral, as it refuses to abide with reason. However, James makes the argument that this is not immoral and more importantly that faith is not failing to abide with reason, but rather having faith where reason cannot apply. The important concept at the heart of the issue is that some things cannot be reasoned. One cannot reason with God and therefore belief is not immoral, according to William James. Based on my assessment of these arguments, it is clear that James is right when he accuses Clifford of simply being afraid of faith, afraid of being wrong in a faith-based scenario, and being instead overly focused on the benefits of reason. Reason cannot and should not always be applied, James argues, and the consequences of his outlook appear superior.
Assumptions, Data/Facts, Concepts, and Theories
Clifford assumes that the divine can be reasoned if it exists. This is one of the most fundamental errors that cause his work to fail this assessment. While reason can and should be used in myriad situations, Clifford has no answers for those situations where reason simply cannot be used effectively. In such cases, it is clear that something beyond reason must be used, which is James’ argument. The facts show that some things cannot be reasoned; ergo there is no data for one to draw upon. This is why reasoned theories on what to do when there is no reason, such as James’, are so important.
Interpretation and Conclusion
Based upon this assessment, it is clear that there is far more merit to James’ argument. While Clifford argues that it is immoral to believe in anything other than facts, he fails to recognize the situations where facts may not exist or may be limited. Having read both documents, it appears clear that Clifford while well meaning ignores issues that might not fit into his paradigm of pure reason. William James accuses him of this and elaborates that Clifford fears the unknown because of a fear of being tricked or being wrong. It is for this reason that Clifford finds comfort in only believing that which can be proven. By arguing that believing anything that cannot be proven is immoral, he protects himself from the failure of believing in something (such as the divine) and being proven wrong.