One of the basic purposes of the ethics is to regulate human behavior and establish commonly accepted norms and rules of acting. In these terms, the ethics assist in distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong, truthful and false, positive and negative. Commonly, ethics refer to human thoughts and ideas rather than actions. However, since it is impossible to regard these two notions independently, there is a need to analyze human behavior in general. The practice shows that good motives and ideas dot not necessarily guarantee positive actions, while the wrong beliefs do not coincide with the negative outcomes. Therefore, the issue of human beliefs is one of the central questions of ethics, which helps identify the nature of human thoughts, trace the mechanism of persuasion, determine the role of evidence and facts in the formation of right and wrong ideas, and analyze the connection between the assumptions and real actions.
William K. Clifford’s “Ethics of Beliefs” dwells on the question of beliefs, their occurrence, and influence on the actions of individuals. The author provides his theory of the relative value of the beliefs, illustrating it with the bright examples. According to Clifford, humans should always doubt their beliefs when there is no sufficient evidence or support for their truthfulness and rightness. The lack of the arguments and proofs results in the appearance of the corresponding doubts, which question the suitability and value of the personal beliefs. As a result, humans face the dilemma of ethical choice, the solution of which directly influences their actions and future deeds.
In fact, doubts are essential units of the beliefs, in the majority of cases. The matter is that people frequently deal with situations and events which are not connected with their personal experience and knowledge. Respectively, the lack of individual experience leads to the doubtful assumptions and beliefs regarding the present question. Actually, doubt is not a negative characteristic of the belief. On the contrary, it manifests the capacity to analyze the situation and critically examine various points of view. Not surprisingly, the same event may cause various responses from different individuals. Doubt proves the course of the thinking and mnemonic processes which regulate the behavior of people and define their model of acting in the society.
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Additionally, the lack of experience is not the only reason of doubts.Clifford explains that memory and recollections from the past may influence human beliefs, leading to the wrong implications and interpretation of the existing situation. This happens when individuals have some strong personal flashbacks, which result in the formation of certain stereotypes. For example, a burnt man regards fire as a threat, recollecting the moment of the tragedy. Obviously, the fire does not represent harm in all cases, and such a belief is a doubtful one. Nevertheless, it remains true for the person who has experienced the negative outcomes of interaction with the fire.
Finally, doubts arise since humans inherit certain beliefs rather than obtain them in the process of personal growth and experience. In other words, the entire communities and societies share the beliefs and values typical of their cultural and religious identity. Mothers transfer their beliefs to children as well as the old generation imposes their values upon the young representatives of their own culture. As a result of this shift, humans have a natural right to doubt the achieved beliefs and treat them with suspicion.
Clifford also points to the fact that doubts appear in case of insufficient persuasion in the rightness of the beliefs. Actually, it is the major reason explaining the existence of doubts and concerning personal ideas and values. The matter is that the majority of cases do not possess enough conviction and evidence to be completely truthful. Moreover, since every situation can be regarded differently, the issue of persuasion is quite subjective and relative. Frequently, people can suggest the false proofs to state the rightness of their beliefs. The example is the owner of the ship who persuades himself in the soundness of the vessel despite his knowledge about its technical damages.
Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the motives and beliefs which arise from the individual motivation and interpretation of the questions at hand. In the light of this, the ethics does not provide a universal solution. For example, the utilitarianism supposes that the rightness and morality of the actions are defined by their good outcomes and consequences. However, the deontological ethics points to the necessity to analyze the motives in order to understand the nature of the actions. In other words, positive or negative characteristics of the action consist not in the consequences but in the reasons and initial motives of the individuals.
Deontology helps ascertain the ideas suggested in the article by Clifford. If utilitarianism can justify false beliefs based on the wrong assumptions, this is not the case with deontology. The matter is that humans should critically examine various points of view before giving the final judgment. Frequently, wrong motives can lead to serious consequences and troubles. However, even if the following actions do not bring any harm, humans are not deprived of the responsibility for their destructive ideas and beliefs.
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On the one hand, it is possible to conclude that humans cannot go beyond their experience in order to present the right beliefs. However, Clifford refutes this idea, supporting it with the following arguments. Firstly, any belief is the reflection of the individual morality. Correspondingly, if a person confesses and follows the ideas of honesty, truthfulness, and generosity, his or her beliefs will never be destructive or harmful to others. From this point of view, the individual level of morality is the first indicator of the positive beliefs, which cannot present any threat or risk to the surrounding. The other question is the development of individual morality although it is not concerned with the issue of formation of beliefs.
Secondly, the existence of duties and obligations serves as a natural prevention mechanism against wrong beliefs. Social life calls for the fulfillment of certain rules, tasks, and obligations. If a person is well aware of his or her position and assignments, it will be easier to get rid of the false stereotypes and harmful ideas. The responsible and reliable attitude to work, relationships, and communication can prevent the appearance of the false beliefs and exclude doubts about their suitability.
Additionally, the testing and improvement of the existing traditions and commonly accepted norms of behavior are other ways of purifying the beliefs and making them less doubtful and controversial. It is true that society inherits its values and interests throughout the history. However, it does not mean that the community should accept all the existing standards without checking their impacts on the regulation of social relationships and interaction. Therefore, the improvement of the existing traditions and values can assist in forming positive beliefs on the individual and social levels.
It is also essential to mention the role of authority in the formation of beliefs and doubts. As a rule, humans perceive the authoritative values and ideas as given, without changing them. In fact, such a strategy is applicable in cases when the authority possesses sufficient level of responsibility and duties. Moreover, if the authority follows the moral rules and ethical code, their beliefs become of a great value for the surrounding. Nevertheless, the influence of the authority does not deprive the beliefs of doubts and cannot guarantee the exclusively positive outcomes of the individual actions.
Clifford also dwells on the idea of generalizing the knowledge and perceiving new situations as the familiar ones. In other words, if a person has no experience about a new event, he or she should treat it similarly to the previous ones. It means to compare the existing and the new knowledge. Clifford points to the need to make the situations and events simple, universal, and comprehensive for the sake of their effective analysis and corresponding response. However, under such conditions, it is important to deny the existing stereotypes and biased opinions in order to present the objective and relevant beliefs.
The example is the observation of the smoke on the hill. A person recollects that the smoke emerges in case of fire. Although the person cannot see the fire on the hill because of the dense forest, he or she can assume that it really exists. Therefore, finding the resemblance between different events can help make right assumptions and beliefs. The person cannot be certain about the beliefs although they preserve a grain of truth due to the previous experience and comprehension. Clifford argues that such an attitude to new objects and events strongly facilitates the process of their analysis and comprehension. Moreover, it partially helps eliminate doubts and create right opinions and values.
Clifford also points to the idea of uniformity in the nature. According to his words, all events and situations in the world resemble each other. Correspondingly, people have an opportunity to judge them all in a similar manner. The events from the ancient wars can be understood with the help of analysis of the present ones. The examination of the structure of the Sun can resemble the way of discovering the design of the Earth. Obviously, such generalizations may be too universal and relative since they are not supported with any solid evidence and proofs. Nevertheless, it is nearly the only way to form the beliefs and find the universal similarities between the objects and events. Under the conditions of the limited experience and knowledge, the method of comparison assists in expanding the boundaries of imagination and perception of new situations.
Overall, the subject of the article states the existence of doubts accompanying all the opinions and beliefs of the individuals. The author claims that there are ways of excluding doubts with the help of certain techniques and methods. Among them, the authority of the traditions, morality of individuals, strong feeling of responsibility and duty should be considered. Moreover, the boundaries of the world can be extended with the help of comparison of the analogical events and situations. With the help of shifting the experience, people can judge new events and form the corresponding perceptions of them. Nevertheless, the author emphasizes that even such methods do not guarantee the complete elimination of doubts and formation of the exclusively right beliefs.
In any case, human thoughts and beliefs should not be restricted due to a number of reasons. Clifford encourages people to discover new ideas, form new assumptions, and suggest new opinions based on personal evaluation and examination. Doubts are an essential element of the worthy beliefs, which should not be regarded skeptically or negatively. Moreover, they reflect the complex process of thinking and assessing the situation.