There has always been a discussion on what makes people believe in what they do. It’s a question that has continued to spark conversation among philosophers throughout the ages. Two of the most well-known essays on the subject have been written by W.K. Clifford and William James. The two have very different outlooks on if faith is compatible with reason. Clifford takes a stance of needing evidence to believe in what there could and stand by a current belief. James argues that there are times where supporting evidence is not needed. They each make very interesting points.
W.K. Clifford wrote “The Ethics of Belief” to answer the question “Is Faith Compatible with Reason?”. He tells a story shipowner who is preparing his ship to sail immigrants across the ocean. The owner is aware that the ship has made many voyages and needs a costly maintenance. He chooses to overlook his doubts about the safety of the ship and makes the biased decision to not pay for the expensive repairs and send the ship out to sea. The ship’s owner holds onto the unjustified belief that the ship will hold true for another voyage. The ship, however, did not last, it went down killing all those onboard. Clifford says, “he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.” (147) So, for the shipowner, no one was the wiser about his doubt about the ship not lasting through another journey. Clifford goes on to explain that the owner is responsible for the deaths because his reasoning for why he thought the ship was safe was not backed by logic but by emotion. He had no justification or evidence that the ship would hold for another voyage when he knew the ship needed repair, so he is responsible for the deaths. Clifford continues to say that even if the ship had held strong and continued making voyages for a few years after the shipowner should still be held accountable for his belief because his actions were unjustified.
When we take the story away from the argument we are left with Clifford’s main points. One is that we are obligated to act in a justified and unbiased manner, that all our actions should not be tainted with any unjustified beliefs. Clifford supports this claim by saying that we can always act against our beliefs, but we cannot fully justify our actions when we have firm beliefs on the opposing side. Secondly, we are morally obligated to have unbiased actions. This premise is defended in the paper. If we were to hold the ship’s owner accountable for his biased actions, then we would have to hold everyone to the same standard. We cannot be selective in this situation, it applies to everyone across the board. And even if the ship held and continued to make safe journeys for a few years after, the ship’s owner should still be held accountable for holding on to his unjustified beliefs that the ship could be lost. And with this thought in mind, it would be applied to anyone who did the same as well. Overall, Clifford believes that an unjustified belief is morally wrong. He is not saying that someone is wrong for believing in something, just that we are morally wrong for holding a belief without the necessary evidence to support it. To put things as simply as Clifford did; “To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (150)
William James wrote “The Will to Believe” in response to Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief”. James defines belief “as a live, momentous optional hypothesis on which we cannot avoid a decision, for not to choose is in effect to choose against the hypothesis.” (151) This definition of belief is very basic; you either believe or you don’t. James states that there are certain situations where we can hold a belief without the supporting evidence. However, he has guidelines for those situations. First, when they cannot be decided on intellectual grounds. Here James is saying that if we can come to a rational decision, then we should. Basically, we must use the rational options available to us if there are any. It is only when we cannot intellectually prove or disprove a belief that we can be irrational in our decision making. Secondly, they have two live options. In his paper, James refers to choices as live wires or dead wires, like an electrician would. A live option holds a real possibility to the decider. A dead option holds no appeal of possibility to the chooser. The decision maker has two live options to choose from. If one holds no appeal to the chooser then it is dead, and therefore it only leaves one choice left, the last living option. Third, they are forced. These are decisions that must be made. There is no way to go around or avoid making the decision. That there is no right or wrong choice, just that one choice must be picked to move forward. Lastly, they are momentous. According to James, momentous choices are significant, special only to the decision at hand, and final. It is only when a belief or decision meets all the requirements can it be made without supporting evidence. James later says that “…the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.” (159) This statement leaves the audience with a more individual understanding of James’ position compared to Clifford who speaks on a broader spectrum.
So, to me after thoroughly evaluating both philosopher’s opinions. I have come to the decision that both are right in their own way. We should not base our beliefs where it cannot be justified. But, at the same time, sometimes there are things that we simply cannot explain. However, I do side with Clifford’s stance. I used to be one of the people who went to church every week and prayed when I was having troubles, but over the past few years that has changed. I have developed the need to see things in a rational and intellectual manner to believe them. I agree that to hold a belief there needs to be a form of justification to prove said belief to be true. I think we have a moral obligation to everyone to ensure that what we believe in is justified. For example, if one of my close friends come to me, without any evidence, and tells me that my husband is having an affair, I’m not going to wholeheartedly believe her if I have even the tiniest of doubts that she is wrong. I would need some form of justification to believe said acquisition. I would not allow everyone to start believing that my husband is having an affair because of one individual view of a belief. I would need the justification to broadly assure everyone that my friend is right or wrong. One quote by James, that I think fits even with my stance with Clifford, is “There are two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of opinion—… We must know the truth; and we must avoid error.” (155)