Saturday, 31 December 2011

Clifford and Faith

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. So says W. K. Clifford  in The Ethics of Belief (1877). Does he make the case for this very strong condemnation of faith, and endorsement of empiricism? Sadly, I think not, but along the way he makes powerful points toward this view, and against faith.

He starts his article with a story of a shipowner about to send his ship full of emigrants across the oceans. The seaworthiness of his ageing boat is doubted, but he banishes these doubts and, with a light heart, sees off the passengers and crew, who perish mid-ocean while he picks up the insurance money. Clifford considers the shipowner truly responsible for the deaths, but cites the reason for this guilt that ‘he had no right to believe on such evidence [that the ship was seaworthy] as was before him’. For Clifford it follows then that even if the ship had not sunk the shipowner is still guilty of this wrong, of believing on insufficient evidence. He cites another example, where serious charges are made against a group of professors by agitators who fail to verify the charges. He considers the agitators guilty, whether or not the charges are true, because they entertained their beliefs on inadequate grounds.

Clifford allows that a belief doesn’t inevitably lead to a particular action, and that a person may still investigate what is the right course of action. But he considers beliefs have such influence on actions that the two cannot be separated. He notes that no belief is worthy of the name that doesn’t affect our actions in some way, either now or at some future date. Layers of belief build to form a matrix that is implacably interknit, forever affecting our character. He goes on to observe that no belief is a purely private matter, and that inevitably we bear a burden in the fashioning of beliefs for posterity.

In the final paragraphs of the first section, The Duty of Inquiry, Clifford says the people in his examples are wrong because ‘in both these cases the belief held by one man was of great importance to other men’. Since  this is the reason for their guilt and, further, because all beliefs are public and affect mankind, we have a duty to investigate all our beliefs. This not only applies to those in power or authority, but also to ‘[e]very rustic’ and ‘[e]very hard-worked wife’. A belief based on insufficient evidence ‘is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind’. An atmosphere of credulity becomes permanent, and credulity betrays our 'duty to mankind'. I see this as an appeal to the common good of humanity, a concern for human civilisation. So his argument goes something like this:

Premise 1
Human civilisation is good.
Premise 2
Actions that harm people are anathema to human civilisation.
Conclusion 1
We should avoid actions that harm people.
Premise 3
Actions are inseparably linked to underlying beliefs.
Premise 4
Sufficient evidence leads to correct beliefs.
Premise 5
Without correct beliefs our actions may unwittingly cause harm.
Premise 6
Our beliefs form a matrix such that any incorrect beliefs corrupt it.
Premise 7
Everyone’s beliefs have an effect on the body of belief passed down to posterity and civilisation.
Conclusion 2
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

P1 is implicit throughout, and I think most people would accept it (including the religious) although it is not axiomatic. However:

1.       If universal fallibilism is true and we do not know, and maybe cannot know, every last foundational fact, and grounding axioms are unavailable, this would invalidate our matrix of beliefs, per Clifford. So his standard may be unattainable. 
2.       Beliefs born from values, such as P1, may put them beyond evidence other than the presence of those values in humans. If so, believing P1 corrupts Clifford’s own matrix of beliefs.

Allowing the argument for now, how does Clifford view religious faith? He barely alludes to faith, and it’s not homogenous, so what was his target? In an article in April 2011, The New Statesman asked some notables to explain their faith, and this supplies some illustrative quotes:

First, astronomer and creationist Hugh Ross says ‘The accumulating evidence [from research] continues to point compellingly towards the God of the Bible’. He is convinced by the evidence, having moved from a secular upbringing to belief.

Secondly, biologist Kenneth Miller:
Now, I certainly do not "know" that the spirit is real in the sense that you and I can agree on the evidence that DNA is real and that it is the chemical basis of genetic information. There is, after all, a reason religious belief is called "faith", and not "certainty". But it is a faith that fits, a faith that is congruent with science...
Finally, Cherie Blair: ‘It's been a journey from my upbringing to an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true.’ Her belief cannot be explained but she thinks her feelings provide a route to knowledge.

Hugh Ross’s ‘faith’ barely conforms to the popular definition. Clifford might argue over Ross's evidence, but he wouldn’t blame him for his investigations. Clifford doesn’t explore what constitutes sufficient evidence, nor does he consider the difficulties of establishing the facts of a matter based on evidence. Peter Van Inwagen, in a 1996 piece contra Clifford, observes that intelligent political opinion is sharply divided despite exposure to the same evidence, and it’s the same for many philosophical controversies. If intelligent people with a full grasp of the evidence have different beliefs, this casts doubt on the extent to which evidence leads to truth. Maybe Clifford just asks that believers make best efforts to confirm their beliefs, not that they should all agree? But Clifford implies that evidence leads to correct beliefs (P4). Opinions could justifiably vary when they reflect different values, or different presuppositions, and this shows his premise is wrong. However, where faith makes claims about an objective reality, contradictory conclusions point to an invalid mechanism for uncovering that reality. Van Inwagen makes good objections to Clifford’s conclusion, if not his drift.

Miller’s faith is closer to Clifford’s view of faith. He places his belief beyond scientific enquiry (‘What I do not claim is that my religious belief, or anyone's, can meet a scientific test.’) Nevertheless, by claiming it’s ‘congruent with science’ he hints at reasons for believing.

Miller draws a distinction between knowing and believing. When I move house, I will generally assume that my new neighbours are harmless and benevolent – I might ask about them but I wouldn’t make exhaustive enquiries to confirm the fact. It’s rare that one would know such a thing. Is this wrong? Or I might believe the local hospital is in Brown Street, but not necessarily know it. Would that be wrong? As William James points out in The Will to Believe (1896), we are all ‘chock-full’ of such beliefs. There are prudential reasons for ensuring we know the truth in these two examples, but it’s not clear there is a moral duty, which is Clifford’s charge. However, if someone with a serious injury approaches us and asks for directions to the hospital, we would feel a moral duty to ensure our knowledge is well-grounded, in case the hospital was in Green Street, on the other side of town to Brown. Here there does seem to be a moral element in addition to a prudential one, because of the strength of our beliefs and the potential consequences of being wrong. Clifford does not consider the strength of our beliefs, and the benefit of the doubt we afford many day-to-day beliefs built into our culture because of their trivial consequences. This supports Clifford’s premise that such ‘community’ beliefs are significant to the body politic, but it shows that we cannot operate without presuming many of them. So, while a moral basis for justifying some beliefs seems imperative, it cannot apply to all beliefs, contra P6. James’s pragmatism wins out.

The existence of scientists like Miller is an empirical strike against P3, since he acts scientifically without his faith affecting him. Clifford might respond that Miller’s work is tainted by his faith in some way, but if Miller’s work has been subject to the full rigour of scientific confirmation, this is hard to maintain. Or he might point to Miller’s views poisoning the well of knowledge for ‘mankind’, increasing their credulity. But if we have Miller as an example of someone who can partition his science and credulity, we have no reason to believe that others cannot either.

Blair’s claim to know something without explanation is a prime target for Clifford. James, contra Clifford, argues for the probity of our ‘passional nature’ deciding our beliefs where there are no intellectual grounds, which appears to be Blair’s contention. James argues that choosing between faith and non-belief is a genuine option that faces us, because it’s:

1.       Living; both options are a possibility
2.       Forced; the choice cannot be avoided, and
3.       Momentous; the options are not trivial and the stakes are high.

James's example for the living option is:
If I say to you: "Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan," it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: " Be an agnostic or be Christian," it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief.
But by dismissing being a ‘mahomedan’ as a dead option, James’s case for faith collapses, since it exposes the false dichotomy he presents, between agnosticism and Christianity. There are many, probably countless, possibilities other than those that he considers live. Nevertheless, Clifford should have considered similar qualifications to those James discusses, since the urgency of some actions and their momentousness bears on the morality of how our beliefs are adopted, whereas the presence of many trivial unevidenced beliefs cannot be fatal to our moral character.

So values may be held with no more justification than their brute presence in our natures. The Millers and Blairs of the world appeal to such values and presuppositions to justify their faith, as does Clifford in his argument, and as we all must at bottom. Furthermore, Clifford sets an unattainable standard, if universal fallibilism is true. He could moderate his claim and make it more defensible. I think a powerful case could be made to show that beliefs that are held recklessly are always wrong. Or, just as Hume said ‘a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’, one could claim that a wise, and good, man should proportion investigations into his beliefs according to a reasonable assessment of their potential for harm (or something snappier!). Or a case could be made that it’s immoral to say one’s beliefs are beyond scientific tests, as Miller does, because it places them outside objective democratic enquiry (if that’s what it does).

In the end, sadly, Clifford himself goes too far, and fails to offer a convincing view of religious faith.


Brown, S. (2002) Destiny, Purpose and Faith , Milton Keynes, The Open University

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Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Arguments for Vegetarianism

Peter Singer, Tom Regan, James Rachels, Stephen R. L. Clark, Henry Spira, 1979

Here I consider two contrasting philosophical arguments for vegetarianism. Peter Singer's rests on his flavour of utilitarianism; Tom Regan's on the notion of inherent rights. Both utilise the notion of speciesism.

Peter Singer’s argument is a little involved, but goes something like this:

Premise 1
We should do what minimises suffering for all affected
Premise 2
We consider equally the interests of humans in avoiding suffering
Premise 3
There is no morally relevant trait that humans have that some non human animals don’t
Conclusion 1
We should consider equally the interests of some non human animals in avoiding suffering
Premise 4
Intensive farming causes great animal suffering
Premise 5
For most of us the pleasure from eating meat does not outweigh the suffering of the animals intensively farmed
Premise 6
Most of us cannot know the provenance of what we eat
Conclusion 2
Most of us should not eat meat

P2 and P3 derive from the wrongness of speciesism, per Singer. He argues that speciesism is wrong  by comparing it to racism. Racists draw an unjustifiable moral distinction between races. Just as the colour of someone’s skin is irrelevant when deciding who or what has equal moral standing, so too is the furriness of their skin, say. It’s speciesist, then, to treat beings unequally based simply on their species - the species boundary is not morally relevant. Singer starts from the respect we show other humans; he establishes a line has been drawn between those beings we consider to have moral standing and those we don't, and then questions whether we draw it in the right place. P1 assumes that minimising suffering is good. So, we don’t baulk at kicking a rock, but we would baulk at kicking a child, because the child suffers. Suffering is a morally relevant trait, then, he thinks; so sentience is paramount, not species. Many might refer to human rationality, for example, as a morally distinguishing feature, but that introduces its own problems.  J.B.S. Haldane summed these problems up thus:
Has a hopeless idiot the right to life and care, though he or she is not a rational being nor likely to become one? If so, has a chimpanzee with considerably greater intelligence similar rights, and if not, why not?
The difficulty of finding a morally relevant trait makes speciesism a powerful argument, but it does not go unchallenged. Mary Midgley, for example, while accepting many of the comparisons with sexism and racism, also notes another -ism that we might not all agree is wrong: we might call it family-ism:
...we would have to show that the differential response to our own species was a far stronger emotional tendency than our differential response to our own tribe or our own children, because nobody doubts that our duty can sometimes call on us to subordinate tribal or family interest to that of outsiders. It would have to be so strong that all attempts to extend consideration to animals were doomed to failure as unnatural.
If Singer had a mentally incapacitated daughter, for example, and if during a visit to the ape house at the zoo a fire broke out, would he save his child in preference to the adult chimpanzees? I think we all would (save our child), and if Singer did not, in keeping with his principles, I think we would consider that the wrong decision. It seems to me that Midgley is right to point out that speciesism might not always be wrong, even if we can allow it is often wrong.

Note that Singer is not arguing for an absolute ban on eating animals; if meat could be produced in a way that reduced suffering or increased utility in the world, then he would conclude that it was morally right to do so. But premises 4 to 6 show that this is not the state of affairs in the world today, so we should not eat meat as things stand. P4 and P6 I agree with; P5 I think could be challenged for some. But these premises are empirical, and I want to stick to the philosophical issues as far as possible.

When he discusses whether or not we should kill, Singer appears to flirt with rationality and self consciousness as relevant traits. He defines a person, distinct from a human, as ‘a rational and self-conscious being’. Do these traits distinguish homo sapiens? The more we discover about other species, the less unique these features appear. And, more problematically, they’re not universal in humans. Some animals appear to be as rational as babies or mentally retarded humans. We either concede these humans have a moral standing less than or equivalent to animals, or we fall foul of speciesism. 

Singer's definition of person has a whiff of speciesism about it, since it appeals to characteristics (rationality and self-consciousness) that many see as peculiarly human. A person in Singer's sense has desires and plans which will be frustrated if killed (and desires satisfied and desires frustrated are definitions of happiness and suffering that utilitarians like Singer also use). Non-persons will have no such desires and plans, so nothing to frustrate. Killing humans, then, is worse than killing chickens because humans are aware of their lives in ways that chickens aren’t. It’s not worse because the human’s human. So Singer isn’t being speciesist, because he isn’t using rationality etc. to arbitrarily draw the moral line, but is using it to quantify the utility in his calculations. But in other circumstances animals may suffer more than humans because of ‘their more limited understanding’, so a different calculus would apply.

So, if we can adjust for the capacity that different animals have to satisfy desires in Singer's scheme, can factory-farming chickens, for example, be justified because they have fewer desires? I think not, because we are not comparing cramped chickens with cramped humans, but cramped chickens with the difference between eating meat and eating vegetables. The suffering of factory chickens surely does outweigh this marginal difference (Singer has made great efforts to establish animal suffering empirically, to support P4 - see The Ethics of What We Eat, for example). His argument compares the like suffering involved, and the beings are only relevant as their characteristics affect the amount of suffering.

Direct utilitarianism suggests that non-persons can be painlessly killed if replaced. Singer seems dissatisfied with this, since he invokes indirect utilitarianism and concludes it may not be right to kill non-persons, to encourage a respect for them that, if absent, would result in their mistreatment. Does this justify factory-farming then? Again, I think not. Singer isn’t expecting an immediate move to vegetarianism, and in a gradual change-over, much lost utility will be replaced by new utility; for example, in the vegetarian food chain.

Tom Regan objects that aggregating suffering in utilitarian moral theories leads to dire consequences for individuals – a good end justifying evil means. For example, it suggests that secretly transplanting organs from, say, one orphaned child to five sick people is good. As we’ve seen, Singer could counter with an appeal to indirect utility, and argue that the benefits of such a ‘general practice’ should be included in the calculation, to safeguard individuals. It’s not at all clear to me that this does provide sufficient minority protection. If we are to include the indirect suffering caused by the general practice we must also include the indirect utility gained by five individuals going on to lead healthy lives, which could be substantial.

Furthermore I think that a sacrifice of happiness in excess of the suffering relieved would be appropriate in some cases, reducing aggregate utility. For example, if a heavy table was on a person’s toe causing some discomfort, but hardly agony, I’d still feel obliged to ask five people enjoying lollies to help lift the table, even if their lollies melted. The suffering of those who lost five lollies could be more than the suffering of the toe-crushed, but if the suffering of the toe exceeds the suffering of the lost lolly for each person, it seems right that a number of individuals make that small sacrifice. Singer would no doubt reply that this is irrational if looked at in toto, and we should jettison our intuitions. But since we are looking for a system that explains and justifies our moral intuitions it seems to me that this highlights a flaw in utilitarianism.

In summary, I agree with Singer that speciesism is wrong in a similar way to racism. If suffering is the primary consideration, the charge of speciesism sticks if we treat babies with more respect than all animals. So I agree suffering is a relevant trait, but I am not convinced it is paramount. I would note that speciesism doesn't mean we should deny our natural urge to look after our own, as even animal rights campaigners surely would. Further, the flaws I see when we make moral judgements using aggregate suffering lead me to reject P1, so I cannot endorse Singer’s argument for vegetarianism.

As mentionedTom Regan finds the focus on suffering objectionable, since it gives no value to the being per se that has the feelings. His argument tries to rectify this perceived failing:

Premise 1
Every person has an equal inherent value, affording them the right to equal respect
Premise 2
Treating a person’s inherent value less than another’s is immoral
Premise 3
A person is a being who is an experiencing subject of a life
Premise 4
Some animals are experiencing subjects of a life
Conclusion 1
Treating some animals as if they have less inherent value than humans is immoral; they have a right to equal respect
Premise 5
Treating a person as a resource breaches their right to equal respect
Premise 6
Using animals in science, agriculture and sport is treating them as resources
Conclusion 2
Using animals in science, agriculture and sport breaches their right to equal respect, so is immoral

Regan also makes a speciesist appeal, with P3 and P4. Observing inherent values grants rights to those who are ‘experiencing subjects of a life’. Many animals may not fit this description, but we should be cautious and accept that many farmed animals do experience life in this way.

The Legend of the Wolf of Gubbio - Sassetta
Roger Scruton objects that only members of a moral community can have rights, because they need to be the ‘kind of thing’ that can have duties and responsibilities (to others). And David Wiggins agrees that a moral community only includes those who can owe ‘things’ to one another, ‘not least a duty to negotiate conflicts of interest’. We recognise that the events depicted in Sassetta’s The Legend of the Wolf of Gubbio, for example, where townsfolk draw up an agreement with a wolf to stop it terrorising them, are just not possible, since wolves do not understand the background duties and responsibilities to such agreements that humans do.

But it’s plain that not all humans would belong to this moral community either, since babies and the mentally retarded cannot adopt these responsibilities either. If we grant vulnerable humans a particular right, then the speciesist argument forces us to concede that we must grant animals that particular right. Regan wants to grant animals the right not to be used in science, agriculture and sport, so if we think vulnerable humans have this right, and we surely do, then his argument succeeds, or we have to show how vulnerable humans are different from animals, in a way that is relevant to the issue.

Scruton argues that babies are potential moral beings - they could sometime adopt responsibilities the way animals never could. This seems a plausible and relevant difference to me, although it raises questions about when potentiality is recognised. A human egg has the potential to be a moral being, but I doubt Scruton would grant it rights. However, to defend the standing of the mentally-incapacitated, who cannot even be potential moral beings, he claims human life is sacrosanct, which is blatantly speciesist.

P1 and P2 argue for personal rights, by suggesting that every person has an immutable value that demands respect. Regan has the laudable aim of protecting individuals, including many animals, from abuse by the majority. But in eliminating ‘evil’ means to achieve good ends, he also stops us avoiding bad ends, if ‘evil’ means are the only way to achieve that, because his approach takes no account of consequences. So, for example, if the killing of a cow is the only way to save 100 children, he would still consider the killing of the cow evil, and to be avoided. He might argue that there would always be a moral, rights based approach available to solve such dilemmas, but I cannot see this is always true. His rights based approach is too absolutist for many dilemmas that face us.

Further, I think rights are unnecessary to establish obligations to animals, and these obligations could include Regan’s aims: to remove their use from science, agriculture and sports. By granting rights, duties are imposed on others. But not every duty is spawned from a right; for example, we feel an obligation to the environment without granting it ‘rights’. So we can treat animals, and other things, well without giving them rights.

In summary, Regan’s speciesism argument works well, once we grant an inherent value to experiencing subjects of a life, and subject to the issues I raise above surrounding 'family-ism'. But inherent value would take too little account of the consequences of an act, and is an overreaction to the problem. Therefore, I cannot agree with Regan’s argument for vegetarianism eitherBoth Singer and Regan give good reasons for why we should treat animals better than we currently do, however.


Hursthouse, R. (2002) Humans and Other Animals (A211 Book 2), Milton Keynes, The Open University

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Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Observer Fails to Observe

As Andy Lewis at The Quackometer reports, The Observer have responded to the online storm caused by their failure to question the facts surrounding The Burzynski Clinic's range of treatments.

It's a poor article that ends with this:
I'll leave the last word to the deputy editor. "We had no intention of endorsing or otherwise the treatment that the Bainbridge family have chosen for Billie. The focus of the article was the extraordinary campaign to raise money for the course of action that the family, after careful consideration of the benefits and risks, had decided to pursue. It is a story of courage and generosity involving thousands of people. Of course, it is entirely legitimate to raise issues about the Burzynski clinic as a number of readers have done, and we should have done more to explain the controversy that it has provoked. But some participants in the debate have combined aggression, sanctimony and a disregard for the facts in a way which has predictably caused much distress to the Bainbridge family."
So, they admit their failure to report the facts properly, but can't resist a dig at the blogosphere (presumably), calling 'some participants' aggressive, sanctimonious and with a disregard for the facts. This is a cowardly way to smear a whole range of people who have posted on the subject, including Andy and Rhys Morgan, the 17 year old blogger from Wales, who are mentioned in the article.

This is ironic, since it's The Observer who are now coming over as aggressive, sanctimonious and with a disregard of the facts, in this piece.

It's worth noting that Andy and Rhys, among others simply raised concerns about the Clinic, and these concerns are justified. What caused the ensuing storm were the actions of an agent of the Burzynski Clinic, who adopted rough-house bullying tactics to try to silence these legitimate concerns. The Observer fail to make clear the nature of these bullying tactics. This is a serious omission.

I’ve not read any blogger who blames the families for pursuing the possibility of a cure – who wouldn’t clutch at such straws in similar circumstances? That’s what makes it important to examine the claims of potential miracle cures, and this is a duty that The Observer have failed to observe.

Donate to Cancer Research...

UPDATE: David Gorski on Burzynski's “personalized gene-targeted therapy”; "cancer is complicated":
...skirting the line between science and pseudoscience, Dr. Burzynski gives every appearance of recklessly throwing together untested combinations of targeted agents willy-nilly to see if any of them stick but without having a systematic plan to determine when or if he has successfully matched therapy to genetic abnormality.

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