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How much of your decision and thoughts depend on belief? Do you consider belief a strong enough position to make clinical decisions on? How should belief be seen in terms of responsibility and clinical competency?  Here we muse on this very question and trust you find it of interest.

Back in 1877 the little-known British philosopher Clifford wrote in ‘The Ethics of Belief’ three arguments as to why we have a moral obligation to believe responsibly, that is, to believe only what we have sufficient evidence for, and what we have diligently investigated. Does this sound like you?

His first argument starts with the simple observation that our beliefs influence our actions. Everyone would we suspect agree that our behaviour is shaped by what we take to be true about the world – which is to say, by what we believe. If you believe that it is raining outside, you will bring an umbrella. If you believe taxis don’t take credit cards, you will make sure you have some cash before jumping into one. And if you believe that stealing is wrong, then you will pay for your goods before leaving the store. Seems straight forward….

What we believe is then of tremendous practical importance. False beliefs about physical, medical, nutritional or social facts lead us into poor habits of action that in the most extreme cases could threaten your survival.

Clifford’s second argument to back his claim that it is always wrong to believe on insufficient evidence is that poor practices of belief-formation turn us into careless, credulous believers.

Clifford describes it very neatly when he says: ‘No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character.’

Translating Clifford’s warning to our interconnected times, what he tells us is that careless believing turns us into easy prey for fake-news pedlars, conspiracy theorists and charlatans. Letting ourselves become hosts to these false beliefs is he says morally wrong because, as we have seen time and again, the error cost for society can be devastating.

Clifford’s third and final argument as to why believing without evidence is morally wrong is that, in our capacity as communicators of belief, we have the moral responsibility not to pollute the well of collective knowledge.

In Clifford’s time, the way in which our beliefs were woven into what he calls the ‘precious deposit’ of common knowledge was primarily through speech and writing. Because of this capacity to communicate, ‘our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought’ became ‘common property’. Subverting this ‘heirloom’, as he called it, by adding false beliefs is immoral because everyone’s lives ultimately rely on this vital, shared resource.

Whatever your views on (insert here whatever you wish), the recognition that the pool of common knowledge is polluted by subversion, deviation and information inadequately tested or reproduced should be upper most in your mind when communicating.

Our thought for this week is that in today’s information exchanging society, it’s very easy to propose a ‘belief’ based on spurious understanding and that as practitioners operating in a speciality, that is young, flexible and prone to over enthusiastic generation of simplistic explanations – we all have a moral, cultural and professional obligation to recall Clifford and check that our beliefs are meeting his three challenges.

2 Comments. Leave new

  • Kate Berkeley
    30, November 2018 11:01

    Surely the power of our beliefs is exactly why we are morally obliged to differentiate between beneficial and damaging beliefs? We all recognise the healing power of belief in an intervention, even if said intervention doesn’t have a sufficient evidence-base. In today’s society where pharmaceuticals fund research into the profit-making interventions over the unprofitable, a belief that Clifford would deem “morally wrong” in a less-proven intervention might just be what boosts that patient’s chances of recuperation. It seems Clifford and Lipton have, through the same fact base, come to opposing conclusions.

  • Clifford’s wisdom is impressive and I must look him up. I would like to be able to understand why some groups cling to wierd beliefs such as the ISIS belief that they were the righteous ones doing God’s work as they killed and maimed or the Nazi belief that wiping out Jews was ethically justifiable. I can’t get my head around these phenomena. There are some pretty odd beliefs around food and nutrition too but perhaps not quite so lethal?


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