The ethics (or lack thereof) of belief

by Massimo Pigliucci

William Kingdon Clifford (left) and William James (right)

A shipowner was about to send to sea a ship with immigrants on board. He knew that she was old, and not well built to begin with; that she had seen many seas and storms, 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 refitted, even though this should put him to 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. What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. … (continue on Medium)

One Comment

  1. Pascal also has other deck-stacking, of course. First, speaking existentially, this life IS eternity for a secularist. Second, under the psychological division of the Problem of Evil, it may cause a secularist psychological pain in this life to make such a wager in the way Pascal assumes. Third, of course, as you also nod at, Pascal’s Wager is formulated on betting on the Christian god; a “fundamentalist” version of Allah or the non-Trinitarian Yahweh of Judaism would be a losing bet for him, but at the same time, HIS bet would be loser to fundamentalist Jewish or Muslim thinkers.

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