Clifford gives 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:
1. False beliefs about physical or social facts lead us into poor habits of action that in the most extreme cases could threaten our survival.
Example: If the singer R Kelly genuinely believed the words of his song ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ (1996), I can guarantee you he would not be around by now.
In a world in which just about everyone’s beliefs are instantly shareable, at minimal cost, to a global audience, every single belief has the capacity to be truly consequential.
2. The poor practices of belief-formation turn us into careless, credulous believers.
Careless believing turns us into easy prey for fake-news pedlars, conspiracy theorists and charlatans. And letting ourselves become hosts to these false beliefs is morally wrong because the error cost for society can be devastating.
3. In our capacity as communicators of belief, we have the moral responsibility not to pollute the well of collective knowledge.
Because of this capacity to communicate, ‘our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought’ become ‘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.
The Ethics of Belief by William Kingdon Clifford
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