Philosophy

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William James and the Ethics of Belief

G.L. Doorea1

a1 Wolf son College, Oxford

There is widespread agreement among philosophers that William James's well-known attempt to justify religious faith in ‘The Will to Believe’ is a failure. But despite the fact that James wrote his essay as a reply to the ‘tough-minded’ ethics of belief represented by such thinkers as W. K. Clifford and T. H. Huxley, the reasons commonly given today for rejecting James's position seem to be mostly based on the same principle of intellectual ethics that motivated Clifford and Huxley. Clifford, it may be recalled, maintained that ‘It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’. Although this is a rather rhetorical way of stating it, the principle is basically the same one adhered to by most scientists and philosophers who consider themselves rigorous and ‘objective’ thinkers. Even philosophers not associated with the hardheaded modern Anglo-American style of empiricism commonly pledge their allegiance to such a principle. For example, Brand Blanshard (who is an epistemological idealist) holds that the ‘main principle’ of the ethics of belief is that one should ‘equate one's assent to the evidence’ and he then goes on to criticize James, on the basis of this principle, for advocating self-deception and intellectual dishonesty.