The Ethics of Belief


In the United States Covid-19 has become the leading cause of death in adults. In other words, it causes more deaths than heart disease. What is really disappointing about that is that we could have done much better, had we paid more attention to science instead of theories without a sound evidentiary basis. Why do we do that?

We should know by now that when times get tough our best instrument at our disposal is usually critical thinking. At such times we need to weigh the evidence and data carefully, apply our best reasoning powers, set aside our prejudices and biases, and reach the best conclusion we can in the circumstances. We must ignore faith, feelings, instincts, guesses, hunches, and most important wishes. We live in a society where this is not commonly done. People usually prefer the opposite approach. This is particularly true in the United States, but it is true everywhere.

A while ago I learned from a University of Manitoba philosophy professor, Arthur Schafer, about the dangers of this approach. He said there is such a thing as the ethics of belief. Schafer in turn based his theory on what he had learned from a 19th century English philosopher by the name of William Kingdon Clifford. I had never heard of  him before.

Clifford argued, that to believe anything because it comforts you, or makes you feel good, or sustains you in life, or makes life a little less intolerable, is not just epistemically wrong, not just intellectually wrong, but actually one of the worst crimes that you can commit. It is a travesty and has some horrible consequences. We will get to those. According to Clifford this is a morally wrong. As Schafer agreed saying,

“ when we believe things because they make us feel good, rather than because we have good evidence for them, Clifford argues that we make ourselves credulous people.”


That is wicked according to Clifford and Schafer. If we are credulous people we can easily believe stories—like the story that Covid-19 was deliberately produced by Bill Gates in order to gain control of our minds and make profit by selling a vaccine entirely without evidence. Or we can believe that the end of the pandemic is “around the corner,” even though there is no evidence to support that belief. Or we can believe that the recent American election was stolen by evil Democrats despite the fact that there is no credible evidence to support the claim. If we are credulous we can believe anything because it makes us feel good. And that is a very dangerous thing.


According to Schafer “our society which many of us think of as secular, is actually “impregnated with a lot of irrational superstitions.” Now Schafer puts all kinds of things into the category of irrational superstitions such as religious beliefs. All of them. Now I know many of my readers will not accept that. I don’t want to tackle those beliefs now. Save that for another day. But I do want to tackle the beliefs people have had about Covid-19 entirely without evidence to back them up.

We have tolerated those beliefs. Often we have smiled at them or even mocked them. We have had such an easy target in the White House. We have had another easy target here in Steinbach with the crazy beliefs held by the nearby Reeve of the Rural Municipality of La Broquerie. Or the nearby Church of God Restoration. These are not beliefs we should tolerate. I have criticized them, but my criticism have been much too timid.

This is the attitude of tolerance. This is a liberal good—a very high good at that. Usually. But it is not acceptable in times of a serious health pandemic. Usually, we tolerate the fact that others have irrational beliefs. We tolerate that they believe any kind of superstition no matter how nonsensical as long as they don’t try to impose it on us. This is not the time for tolerance. According to Schafer “there are no innocent beliefs.” That is because all beliefs have consequences.

Many liberals hold that I have the right to believe whatever I want, so long as I don’t harm anyone else. Schafer says that by believing irrational things we are exposing ourselves to serious potential harms. As long as we would harm only ourselves that might be acceptable. But by our actions we are also  exposing many others to serious harms  through our credulity. That we are not entitled to do. That is morally wrong.

According to Schafer,

“we should not believe anything except those propositions for which we have good evidence and that the confidence we place in our beliefs should be proportional to the amount of evidence that supports them.”

He says we have a moral duty to engage in the hard work of looking at science, or our own good work, in order to consult the best available evidence conscientiously and honestly before we commit to believing. We have to be open-minded. That means that we have to be willing to accept evidence that contradicts our cherished beliefs or those propositions we would really like to be true and we must be willing to discard or modify them if the evidence entails such actions. Only on that basis are we entitled to believe something. Only on that basis can a belief be ethical.

Schafer says that if we believe a statement without evidence because we want to believe that, we are conditioning the mind to do that again. It will then tend to believe another statement without evidence just because we want to believe it is true. This is really a kind of slippery slope argument. Credulity leads to ever more credulity. It is not possible to sequester such beliefs in order to avoid contamination. Contamination will follow inevitably from our acceptance of beliefs without evidence in one case. Our mind is so trained to think that this is acceptable.

Professor Schafer gave an interesting example from his experience as an ethics consultant with hospitals. If you accept beliefs, such as religious beliefs, without evidence, you are more likely to believe that you should let their children die rather than giving them a needed blood transfusion. I don’t know if it’s true, but I was told the members of the Church of God Restoration don’t believe in modern medicine, trusting instead, without evidence, that God will take care of them. One irrational belief leads to another and that other may be seriously harmful.

This is what has happened with regard to Covid-19. The minds of too many people had been trained to accept irrational beliefs and hence misinformation has spread through our countries and disarmed people from looking instead at the actual evidence and taking reasonable precautions based on the best evidence.

2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Belief

  1. professor

    certainly belief is germane to our present shit storm. “christian culture”, invented by paul, in fact distinguishes itself as founded on belief, rather than jewish law. to proceed apace into the need to scientifically confirm belief without recognizing the religious, rather than scientific, roots of belief in western society seems problematic. the “secular” demand for confirmation has a mountain to climb. belief is an internalization affair. externalities such as law are quite secondary. we are still much more christian than we think we are.
    that aside, must we now make all of this a moral issue? please.

    having said that, to suggest that the large numbers of people who struggle with daily survival are going to constantly check the validity of their beliefs is a bit much. your professor needs to check out the realities of surviving while he cogitates.
    the vast majority of us are completely oblivious to the majority of what we think and feel every day.
    we have no clue what we even believe in. or why.

    all of this is compounded by the disorientation of our daily lives, immersed as we are in images and images of images. what baudrillard called simulacra. mirrors and more mirrors. ghosts everywhere.
    we are all mediatized. we struggle constantly with our attempts to keep a foothold in subject/object reality, limited as that foothold really is.
    this is precisely the sort of context that makes psychotic-like thinking and behavior increasingly widespread. and we are very anxious about this.
    simple admonitions about the ethics of credulity won’t cut it in this environment, particularly when all of this is manipulated politically within this mediatization by fascists.

    none of this negates the potential utility of science, but science itself is something of a constructed belief.

    as such, we have no clue what to do in the deep and swift water we are immersed in.

    1. Sorry for the delay in replying. I think you have become what your spiritual ancestor Spiro Agnew called a nattering nabob of negativity. Of course we live in world transfused with Christianity. In addition to the text of a major religion, the provides he fundamental mythology of our literature. We cannot escape that. Just like I cannot escape my Mennonitism even though no self-respecting Mennonite congregation would have me. But yes, for reason I have been giving, belief has a moral dimension too. Of course we can’t take the time to carefully every belief before we act. If we see a car coming at us down the road we jump away. We don’t analyze. If I am hungry for a sandwich I will just eat without undue analysis. But serious matters required serious thought. Not feelings, instincts, hunches, or faith. Thought! I also agree that we constantly struggle with disorientation. But I continue to assert our reasoning powers are still our best tool to get through our struggles. The mere fact that others try to deceive us is also no reason to abandon reason. In fact quite the opposite. That is when we need our critical thinking more than ever. Just because reason is often corrupted and deflected by the interests of others who want to exploit us is also no reason to abandon thought. Again, that is when we need it most.We must be alert to how others try to take advantage of us for their own interests.

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