Source: Believing without evidence is always morally wrong | Aeon, by Francisco Mejia Uribe
[William Kingdon Clifford’s] once seemingly exaggerated claim that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’ is no longer hyperbole but a technical reality.
In ‘The Ethics of Belief’ (1877), 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. His first argument starts with the simple observation that our beliefs influence our actions. … The most natural objection to this first argument is that while it might be true that some of our beliefs do lead to actions that can be devastating for others, in reality most of what we believe is probably inconsequential for our fellow humans. … I think critics had a point – had – but that is no longer so. 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 in the way Clifford imagined.
The second argument Clifford provides to back his claim that it is always wrong to believe on insufficient evidence is that poor practices of belief-formation turn us into careless, credulous believers. Clifford puts it nicely: ‘No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character.’
Clifford’s third and final argument as to why believing without evidence is morally wrong is that, in our capacity as communicators of belief, we have the moral responsibility not to pollute the well of collective knowledge. … While Clifford’s final argument rings true, it again seems exaggerated to claim that every little false belief we harbour is a moral affront to common knowledge. Yet reality, once more, is aligning with Clifford, and his words seem prophetic. Today, we truly have a global reservoir of belief into which all of our commitments are being painstakingly added: it’s called Big Data. You don’t even need to be an active netizen posting on Twitter or ranting on Facebook: more and more of what we do in the real world is being recorded and digitised, and from there algorithms can easily infer what we believe before we even express a view. In turn, this enormous pool of stored belief is used by algorithms to make decisions for and about us. And it’s the same reservoir that search engines tap into when we seek answers to our questions and acquire new beliefs. Add the wrong ingredients into the Big Data recipe, and what you’ll get is a potentially toxic output. If there was ever a time when critical thinking was a moral imperative, and credulity a calamitous sin, it is now.