The Ethics of Belief

More discussion on the beliefs of anti-vaxers . . . Should they have a legal duty to vaccinate? Do they have a moral duty to vaccinate?

[This is from an earlier post on Episyllogism.]

The Ethics of Belief: “A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales. ”

Above is the first paragraph of a classic essay on the relationship between morality and belief. Written in 1877 it is still worth reading and thinking about as William K. Clifford argues that we have a moral responsibility to assess our beliefs. William James was spurred by this essay and took great pains to present a defense of faith. James makes a very different sort of case in The Will to Believe.

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