Thoughts on W.K. Clifford’s Evidentialism (Part 1)

I’ve been discussing the ethics of belief in my Phil 304 epistemology seminar at Felician. The strictly philosophical issues on that topic strike me as interesting in themselves, and also for the implications they have for current controversies (e.g., Ferguson, ISIS, etc.) so I thought it might be worth setting out some thoughts on it via commentary on W.K. Clifford’s classic defense of evidentialism, “The Ethics of Belief.”

Clifford famously opens “The Ethics of Belief” with this passage and example:

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 knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

Like many readers, Clifford’s example strikes me as exactly the right sort to clarify what’s at stake in the ethics of belief. But like many readers, Clifford’s example also strikes me as problematically ambiguous—as apt to clarify as to muddy the waters. The problem arises not with the example per se, but with the details of Clifford’s description of it. The basic question is the structure of the inference involved: how does Clifford get from the facts of the example to the wrongness of the shipowner’s actions? In this post, I just want to analyze the example and inference. In a later post, I’ll make some broader observations about the ethics of belief (in Clifford, Rand, and others), and about the use of examples in philosophy generally.

It might help to begin by asking what actions are being evaluated for rightness or wrongness. I take it that the actions in question are inferences, and that Clifford is assuming that inferences can be evaluated from a perspective that is simultaneously epistemic and ethical (or possibly a perspective that is a hybrid of both). The claim, then, is that the shipowner makes inferences that involve voluntary epistemic defect and (therefore) moral culpability. In other words, the shipowner is guilty of a form of culpable ignorance and culpable lack of epistemic justification for his beliefs. The overtly physical action of sending the ship out to sea follows directly from the sum total of the shipowner’s beliefs, themselves dependent on the inferences he makes from the facts. But the culpability of the action of sending the ship out to sea is parasitic on the culpability of the inferences made about its seaworthiness, so it’s the inferences, not the sending per se, that are the basic candidates for evaluation. What’s wrong with the sending supervenes on what’s wrong with the inferences.

The problem is, Clifford treats the inferences as a single uncontroversially culpable inference, as though the shipowner were making an inference like

(1) The situation of the ship is S.

Therefore,

(2) I’ll send the ship out to sea,

–where ‘S’ denotes a state of affairs that indicates obvious lack of seaworthiness.

In that case, the ‘inference’ in question would be:

(1*) The situation of the ship is S.

(2*) S indicates obvious lack of seaworthiness.

(3*) A ship that isn’t sea-worthy should never be sent out to sea.

Therefore (nonetheless),

(4*) I’ll send this ship out to sea.

And Clifford’s point would have to be—more cautiously: might very well be—that the shipowner’s conjoint belief in (3*) and (4*) is culpable. You can’t believe (3* & 4*) without experiencing severe cognitive dissonance. But if you experience such cognitive dissonance (the implication is) you have the obligation to resolve it. If you don’t, you’re epistemically-morally culpable; the higher the stakes, the more culpable you are.

If that is Clifford’s point, I think what he’s saying is true. Not that it’s uncontroversial. Many people might dispute the idea that we’re obliged to resolve every cognitive dissonance we experience as well as every apparent inconsistency in our beliefs. But I agree with Clifford—and, I think, Ayn Rand—that we do. The problem is, to produce the preceding interpretation, we have to cherry-pick the passage, ignoring the complexities of what it actually says. And what it says seems more ambiguous to me than it evidently does to Clifford. The problem is that the shipowner isn’t making one obviously culpable inference, but a series of inferences, some obviously culpable, some possible culpable, and some not-at-all culpable. Perhaps Clifford thinks that any set of inferences is culpable if one inference in the set is culpable. But he doesn’t say that, and his meaning is not transparently obvious from what he does say.

Let’s take each step in the shipowner’s reasoning in piecemeal fashion (acknowledging that we’ll have to consider the reasoning later on as a single integrated set of inferences).

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.

The shipowner believes that the ship is old, and not “overwell built at the first.” The latter phrase is a bit coy, and a bit unclear, and requires some hairsplitting interpretation. Does “not overwell built” mean badly built? Or satisfactorily built on the whole, with some significant flaws? Or satisfactorily but not optimally built? I don’t know, but the details would matter. We also need to know how old the ship was, and what counts as excessive age in ships. Further, if the ship was repaired, we need to know whether the repairs fixed the flaws or not, and in general, whether “often needing repairs” indicates an unsafe lemon or not. The answers are all technical matters that a shipowner ought to know, but they’re not the kind of thing the average philosophically-inclined reader would know. That seems to me to present an expository problem for Clifford: the nautically ignorant will have trouble interpreting the example, and yet he couldn’t have intended the paper primarily for nautical experts.

I suppose we could tweak the example. As it happens, my car seems to satisfy Clifford’s description of the ship in his example. It’s a 2001 model (an unlucky thirteen years old), and when I bought it (from a used car dealer), I knew it had some defects. It’s seen many New York/New Jersey Metro Area streets and highways, and has often needed repairs. The last bout of repairs, which cost me about $2,000, seems to have fixed whatever was broken. (Thus spoke the dealer.) Now the car runs great, and I drive it everywhere without worrying ” overmuch” that the brakes will suddenly fail and get me (or others) killed. Does that (according to Clifford) make me as guilty as the shipowner, or does it just make my car different from the case of Clifford’s ship? Of course, if the cases are the same, I might be as innocent as the shipowner.

To stick with Clifford’s example, I suppose we could stipulate that the shipowner knows that the ship is too old to be sent to sea, and that the repairs it’s needed indicate that it’s a lemon that ought not to be sent to sea, but I wonder if such stipulations start to trivialize both the example and the point Clifford wants to make with it. If we stipulate that the shipowner knows that the ship isn’t seaworthy, why not just come out and say that, and dispense with a drawn-out example? It’s an interesting question what the example is supposed to do for Clifford’s argument.

It’s also an interesting fact that Clifford writes as though evidence was required for entertaining a belief in the ship’s seaworthiness but not for doubts about the ship’s seaworthiness, or even beliefs about the ship’s lack of seaworthiness. Clifford doesn’t agonize at all, or have the shipowner agonize, about the evidence he has for the ship’s age, the conditions of its original construction, or its needing repairs over time. That knowledge is all taken for granted as knowledge; the shipowner obviously has sufficient evidence for it. That might seem like a pointless quibble on my part, but I think it bears on the epistemic status of the doubts that Clifford puts in the shipowner’s mind:

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.

Clifford writes here as though doubt is allowed to make its claims on us without having to earn a right to do so. Elsewhere in the same essay, Clifford is very severe about the impropriety of spreading ill-founded rumors, but the doubts he has in mind here sound very much like rumors. We’re told that the doubts “preyed upon his mind,” but not everything that preys upon one’s mind is worth taking seriously. There’s such a thing as paranoia, and it would be a mistake to assume that paranoia ought always to be acted on or appeased just because it’s there. We’re told that the shipowner thinks he “perhaps” ought to have the ship thoroughly overhauled and refitted, but we aren’t told why. You don’t just overhaul a ship because a fear has floated into your head that it might crash. Of course, Clifford has told us that the ship is old, wasn’t well-built at first, and has needed repairs, but that doesn’t obviously tell you—at least, it doesn’t tell me–that the ship needs to be overhauled, either.

Finally, Clifford says this in description of the shipowner’s inferences:

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.

This passage presents a rather confusing mélange of inferences, some entirely reasonable, and some obviously dishonest. Together, they make Clifford’s example hard to interpret.

Clifford says that the shipowner “succeeds” in overcoming his melancholy reflections, but there are two problems in this formulation. In describing the reflections as “melancholy,” Clifford himself is trivializing them–“melancholy” is meant ironically–but if they are trivial, why would it be wrong to overcome them? Further, in saying that the shipowner “succeeds” in overcoming them, Clifford implies that he feels no cognitive dissonance: “succeeds” means “succeeds in overcoming any residual worries that might arise by reflection on them.” That contradicts the “cognitive dissonance” interpretation I previously put in Clifford’s mouth (which seems to me to make his view more plausible than his own formulations do), and also raises the possibility that the shipowner’s inferences are good ones. After all, if he succeeds in overcoming his reflections, maybe he’s successfully rebutted his doubts (i.e., rebutted them with answers that were more plausible than the doubts themselves). In that case, where is the inferential culpability? The second sentence of the passage could well be part of a perfectly reasonable inference to the best explanation: surely a ship’s track record is part of the evidence of its seaworthiness; if its track record is good, why assume that it will crash this time, unless you have evidence to suggest that its surviving its last few voyages was a matter of dumb luck? And we aren’t given any.

The claim about Providence is of course a sufficient condition for inferential culpability—whether you believe in Providence or not. I’m inclined to think that a belief in Providence would fail evidentialist strictures from the start, but whether it does or not, the shipowner has no evidence that Providence is smiling on his ship now. The problem is, Clifford has inserted this belief in Providence into a series of inferences that aren’t nearly as problematic as the one about Providence. So there are two interpretive possibilities here. We could seize on the sentence about Providence to indict the shipowner’s inferences, or we could ignore it, and focus on the reasonability of the shipowner’s inferences bracketing the one about Providence. It’s not clear to me how to read the passage, unless we use it to generate sub-cases–ones in which Providence figures prominently in the shipowner’s reasoning, and others in which it doesn’t.

Here’s another one of Clifford’s ‘give-with-one-hand-but-take-with-the-other’ passages:

He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors.

Well, if the suspicions were really ungenerous, why is that dismissal wrong? I suspect that Clifford really intends ‘ungenerous’ ironically, but in that case, the irony gets in the way of what he’s trying to say.

And the last bit:

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.

This raises the point I made earlier about cognitive dissonance. If his belief was sincere, it’s hard (though not necessarily impossible) to pick out the culpability. ‘Comfortable’ is equivocal as between ‘complacent’ and ‘confidently self-assured’. The rest of the passage leaves  unclear whether he watches the ship with a sincerely light heart and benevolent wishes based on a scrupulous consideration of all reasonable considerations for their safety, or whether Clifford is writing ironically and means that the shipowner is callously and cynically indifferent to the passengers’ fates, deceives himself about the ship’s safety, fakes a light heart and benevolent wishes, and pockets the insurance money without tears. The problem ultimately is that “such ways” is equivocal between too many ways.

Given the ambiguities here, I don’t think Clifford’s moral verdict on the shipowner follows. Here it is, again:

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 knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

But it isn’t clear from the example that the shipowner acquired his belief dishonestly. Unless Clifford thinks that it’s wrong to suppress any doubt regardless of its nature, it’s a bit tendentious to use this example as one of “stifling” a doubt, where “stifling” implies that the doubt is itself legitimate. And of course, it’s question-begging to assume that it is wrong to suppress any doubt. Fundamentally, what is unclear is the nature of the exact “frame of mind” that Clifford means to be condemning.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some general issues brought to light by Clifford’s example.

(Thanks to Kate Herrick for helpful discussion, as well as to students in my Phil 304 seminar–Caitlin Baard, Chelsea Barrett, Dan Postel, and Julianne Matassa.)

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on W.K. Clifford’s Evidentialism (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Evidentialism: Who Needs It? | Policy of Truth

  2. Pingback: Handguns are made for killing: Tyeshia Obie, RIP | Policy of Truth

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