The virtues of belief: Toward a non-evidentialist ethics of belief-formation

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


William Kingdon Clifford famously argued that it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. His ethics of belief can be construed as involving two distinct theses-a moral claim (that it is wrong to hold beliefs to which one is not entitled) and an epistemological claim (that entitlement is always a function of evidential support). Although I reject the (universality of the) epistemological claim, I argue that something deserving of the name ethics of belief can nevertheless be preserved. However, in the second half of the paper I argue that Clifford's response to the problem of unethical belief is insufficiently attentive to the role played by self-deception in the formation of unethical beliefs. By contrasting the first-person perspective of a doxastic agent with the third-person perspective of an outside observer, I argue that unethical belief is a symptom of deficiencies of character: fix these, and belief will fix itself. I suggest that the moral intuitions implicit in our response to examples of unethical belief (like Clifford's famous example of the ship owner) can better be accounted for in terms of a non-evidentialist virtue ethics of belief-formation, and that such an account can survive the rejection of strong versions of doxastic voluntarism. It is as easy to close the eyes of the mind as those of the body: and the former is more frequently done with willfulness, and yet not attended to, than the latter; the actions of the mind being more quick and transient, than those of the senses. Joseph Butler, Upon Self-Deceit (1726)

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEthics of Belief
Subtitle of host publicationEssays in Tribute to D.Z. Phillips
PublisherSpringer Netherlands
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)9781402083761
StatePublished - Dec 1 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Belief-formation
  • Clifford
  • Doxastic voluntarism
  • Ethics of belief
  • Evidentialism
  • Self-deception
  • Virtue ethics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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