Daniel Bivona, “On W. K. Clifford and ‘The Ethics of Belief,’ 11 April 1876″


The mathematician W. K. Clifford was the youngest and possibly most controversial member of the Metaphysical Society, a group originally formed by Alfred Lord Tennyson and some close friends. Lasting from 1869 to 1880, the Society ultimately brought together a great variety of intellectuals, writers, philosophers, scientists, poets, journal editors, politicians, and Church figures of the era for vigorous debates on metaphysical topics. A pioneering promoter and translator of the non-Euclidian geometer Riemann, Clifford anticipated Einstein’s discovery that gravity was not a mysterious force of bodies but an effect of curved space, but it was his withering criticism of metaphysical claims before the Metaphysical Society – in particular, his attack on the morality of believing on insufficient evidence, an argument which was delivered two years after he first joined the group and later published as the essay “The Ethics of Belief” – that marked him as the most controversial proponent of the agnostic position in the late Victorian period. When he died at the young age of 33 in 1879, Clifford left a legacy of important unpublished scientific work and a number of impressive published essays in which he offered both a very compelling critique of the ethics of metaphysical commitments and a powerful argument, inspired by Darwin’s Descent of Man, in favor of the claim that ethics derive from evolutionary history rather than descending from an immaterial God.

The Metaphysical Society was formed in 1869 by a group led initially by the architect Sir James Knowles, the poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the astronomer Charles Pritchard. Knowles had a lively interest in metaphysical exploration and he helped to encourage that taste in his friend Tennyson. Tennyson by 1869 had also been nursing for some time a fear that the Victorian age had become an age of materialism, and consequently inattentive to important spiritual matters. Pritchard, who would soon become the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, was convinced, in the aftermath of the controversy over Essays and Reviews (in 1860), of the need to reconcile scientific knowledge and the Bible and he likewise helped encourage the poet’s interest in metaphysical speculation (Metcalf 212). Although initially the group wanted to exclude opponents of Christianity from discussions, they soon became convinced that inviting opponents of Christianity into the Society would guarantee lively discussions of the evidences for Christian belief (Metcalf 214).

The Society ultimately brought together a great variety of intellectuals, writers, philosophers, scientists, poets, journal editors, politicians, and Church figures of the era for vigorous debates. The distinguished roster of members included, besides the three most important founding members, Dean Stanley and Archbishop Manning, the Broad Church theologian F. D. Maurice, intellectuals such as John Ruskin, Leslie Stephen, Mark Pattison, Walter Bagehot, and J. A. Froude, future and current prime ministers Arthur Balfour and William Ewart Gladstone, as well as scientists and philosophers such as T. H. Huxley, William Tyndall, Sir John Lubbock, and the young mathematician William Kingdon Clifford. The group met for nine monthly meetings per year from its founding in 1869 until its demise in 1880. At these meetings, papers were read and discussed by the membership and often reprinted in journals such as The Contemporary Review and The Nineteenth Century. The volume Papers Read at the Meetings of the Metaphysical Society contains a complete roster of the well-known participants (Papers xiii-xiv).

Clifford photo

Figure 1: William Kingdon Clifford, 1901

A brilliant mathematician who taught at University College London, translated the work of the non-Euclidean geometer Riemann, and anticipated Einstein’s theory attributing the force of “gravity” to an effect of curved space rather than the action of a mysterious force, William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879, Fig. 1) was both the youngest member of the “Metaphysicals” when he joined and, eventually, one of the most provocative spokesmen for the “agnostic” side in the Society’s debates. Clifford was proposed for membership by T. H. Huxley in 1874 shortly after he became Professor of Mathematics at University College London while still in his twenties and he delivered his first paper to the group, “On the Nature of Things in Themselves,” on the 9th of June, 1874. A strident agnostic, both celebrated and reviled during his short life for attempting to ground ethics in the very earthly “conscience of the tribe” rather than orders from heaven, Clifford would draw on the work of Darwin (especially some comments made by Darwin in The Descent of Man [1871]) to redefine the meaning of “piety,” associating the term “the pious character” with one who remains faithful to the dictates of the “tribal self,” an introjected moral authority whose dictates serve a natural selection function. In Clifford’s evolutionary view, “It is necessary to the tribe that the pious character should be encouraged and preserved, the impious character discouraged and removed” (“On the Scientific Basis of Morals” 294). Thus, his theory of the evolution of ethics argues that natural selection in human societies might operate at the level of the group rather than the individual, favoring the “pious character” over the “impious,” the latter identified by his failure to adhere to the dictates of his “tribal self.” Among other things, this strong claim clearly implies that ethics is a legitimate object of scientific study.

By deriving ethics from evolution and attempting to shift the focus of scientific interest from the “individual” to the “group,” Clifford eventually became an effective polemical voice on the “godless” side of the acerbic debates over design and natural selection that characterized British intellectual life more broadly in the period. Moreover, the work he did in his short lifetime (and the work published after his death by the defenders of his reputation such as Karl Pearson and his wife, the novelist Lucy Clifford) ensured a central role for his ideas in the increasingly heated debates about the nature of the “social” in what would eventually be called “Social Darwinism.” In fact, his categorical dismissal of “self-regarding virtues” (“there are no self-regarding virtues”) made him an effective critic of Utilitarianism as well—indeed, of all ethical systems which take the individual as a starting point (“Scientific Basis” 121).

Although he was the youngest member of the Metaphysical Society and was not invited to join the group until it had been in existence for five years, he seems to have quickly become one of the most controversial, if not influential, members of that distinguished, and varied, group. His importance clearly stemmed in part, not only from his challenging philosophical claims about the origins of human ethical reasoning, but also from the clarity with which he presented these ideas in his lectures and essays. Indeed, “The Ethics of Belief,” which was presented to the Society in 1876 and published in a different form in the Contemporary Review in 1877, stirred up a significant controversy, drawing sharp criticism from Matthew Arnold among others and ultimately helping to spawn William James’s thoughtfully critical response twenty years later in “Will to Believe.” Clifford’s very accessible prose style contributed mightily to stoking the controversy over “The Ethics of Belief,” for in that essay Clifford not only avoided the obscure jargon that is sometimes a distinguishing feature of metaphysical debates, but illustrated his claims with familiar examples that his audience found variously compelling or infuriating. If not the most complex argument, “The Ethics of Belief” is, nonetheless, the most important and provocative polemical work produced by any of the group of “Metaphysicals” that Bernard Lightman calls “the agnostics” (Huxley, Tyndall, Stephen, and Clifford [Lightman 2]). Indeed, one might say that Clifford takes the fear that many believers harbored—the fear that to challenge Christian metaphysics is to undermine Christian ethics—and turns it against the prejudices of the devout by accusing them of immorality precisely for promoting belief in metaphysical entities for which there is no compelling evidence.

“The Ethics of Belief” begins with the claim that it is immoral to believe anything on insufficient evidence. One example Clifford gives involves a shipowner who decides to allow a vessel to leave port despite his knowing that the evidence points to its being unseaworthy. Whether he believes the ship to be seaworthy (and believes this sincerely) or whether the ship actually does sail successfully to its next port of call (and thus avoids disastrous consequences), is irrelevant. The shipowner is still acting in an “immoral” way in allowing the ship to set sail whether it reaches its next port or not, because he is acting against what the preponderance of the evidence tells him about the ship’s condition (“Ethics” 70). Ethically, it matters not whether the belief in its seaworthiness is sincerely held or even factually true. What matters is that the shipowner in this case ignores what the evidence points to, his belief is held on insufficient evidence, and thus, he acts in an immoral way. Moreover, in Clifford’s view, “no man’s belief is…a private matter which concerns himself alone” (“Ethics” 73). All beliefs have serious ethical consequences for others. To behave in a credulous way is not simply to make an error of reasoning relevant only to one’s own individual state of mind; rather, to fall into credulity is to perform an immoral act with serious consequences for other people. As Clifford says,

The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery. (“Ethics” 76)

If one takes a different example, for instance, a seemingly harmless belief in spirit mediums, one can see why Clifford refuses to concede that even such ostensibly harmless beliefs are actually harmless to society. Because these beliefs can only be sustained by ingrained habits of refusing the conclusions entailed by evidence, to believe in spirit mediums is to foster credulity more generally and thus to encourage habits of refusing to inquire into the evidence for belief. It is no surprise, then, to learn that Clifford was at odds with such Metaphysicals as Henry Sidgwick and Arthur Balfour on this issue, or to learn that he once successfully exposed the “famous Williams” as a fraud at one of his séances (Madigan 34).

Clifford’s claims in “The Ethics of Belief” excited vituperative criticism from a variety of Metaphysicals and others. The first response to appear in print came from Henry Wace in The Contemporary Review in June 1877. Another of Clifford’s critics, William George Ward, the Roman Catholic editor of the Dublin Review, followed with perhaps the harshest polemical attack on Clifford in an article entitled “The Reasonable Basis of Certitude,” which appeared in Nineteenth Century in 1878. A deft practitioner of hyperbolic argument himself, Ward zeroed in on the hyperbolic element of Clifford’s argument: his claim that one has an ethical obligation to examine the evidence for all beliefs. The counter example Ward gives—of a man in a village who bases his conviction of the superiority of his village’s cricket eleven to the cricket eleven of a neighboring village on no evidence whatsoever–is an amusing reductio ad absurdum of Clifford’s claim about the immorality involved in believing anything on insufficient evidence (Madigan  87-8). Clifford’s claims could be caricatured in such a way by anyone who notices that, in fact, all of us do operate on many beliefs day-to-day that we have neither the patience nor the time to examine the evidence for. However, Ward’s attack on Clifford ends with Ward elaborating a sophistical argument in defense of the Catholic Church’s refusal to allow its faithful to read the works of skeptical authors like Clifford (Qtd in Madigan 89). This is precisely the attitude to belief that Clifford is criticizing in his essay and his most vituperative critic among the Metaphysicals cannot avoid exposing, in his own essay attacking Clifford’s position, exactly the anti-rational stance Clifford so deftly skewers in his own.

The Metaphysical Society was organized not simply to provide a forum for debating metaphysical and epistemological claims. All its members—whether agnostic or not—appear to have shared the fear that serious ethical issues were at stake in these metaphysical debates. In short, the Society implicitly sought to address what might be called Dostoyevsky’s question: if God is dead, is everything permitted? Clifford, thus, was, if anything, as interested in addressing the question of the origins of morality as in raising doubts about the existence and wisdom of God, and part of what made “The Ethics of Belief” so controversial was Clifford’s aiming a direct attack in it on the morality of metaphysical commitments. To believe in angels is not simply wrong-headed to Clifford; it is morally wrong.

Clifford’s earlier essay “On the Scientific Basis of Morals” is perhaps his most complex and novel treatment of the evolutionary foundation for morality (it was first published in The Contemporary Review in 1875). Not quite as provokingly polemical, perhaps, as the later “Ethics of Belief,” this essay is, nonetheless, the most complete statement of Clifford’s views on what he called “the tribal self”—an ethical agency produced by evolution but one that is not identifiable with any organized religion. He begins by arguing that all humans have been blessed by evolution with a “moral sense,” which he argues inspires feelings of “pleasure or unpleasure” in the doing of actions and which is “felt by the human mind in contemplating certain courses of conduct” (287). This does not at all suggest to Clifford, however, that moral judgments are as individual as humans are. The “maxims of absolute or universal right” are not necessarily “universal” but they are felt to be independent of the individual: their power to compel human behavior comes partly from the fact that they embody the moral authority of the group rather than just the individual (288). The source of moral agency is ultimately this “tribal self,” a component of the human mind that shapes human moral behavior in ways that have worked to the benefit of the tribe over the course of evolutionary time. Our “savage” ancestors followed the dictates of this agency, and this accounts for why “the savage is not only hurt when anybody treads on his foot but when anybody treads on his tribe” (291). Emphasizing Darwin’s insight (in The Descent of Man) that the ability of humans to cooperate through language means that, in human evolutionary history, natural selection might well have operated as much to the benefit of the social group as to the benefit of the individual, Clifford argues, “natural selection will in the long run preserve those tribes which have approved the right things; namely those things which at that time gave the tribe an advantage in the struggle for existence” (292-3). Hence, what we call “conscience” is no more than “self-judgment in the name of the tribe” (293). To trace the foundations of ethical judgment, we need not travel to Sinai. We need only examine the evolutionary function of morality: “Those tribes have on the whole survived in which conscience approved such actions as tended to the improvement of men’s characters as citizens and therefore to the survival of the tribe” (297).

The evolutionary model of morality that Clifford develops here necessarily commits him to something he delighted in—redefining religious language for polemical purposes, in this case, to ground ethics in the material foundation of evolutionary history, to take it out of the possessive hands of the religious who insist on grounding morality in the orders of a deity. Thus, “piety” no longer is to be seen as a behavioral response to the demands of one’s immaterial God, its proper form shaped by the dictates of religious authority, but rather as a behavioral response to what is demanded by “the tribe,” a response conditioned by evolutionary advantage:

It is necessary to the tribe that the pious character should be encouraged and preserved, the impious character discouraged and removed….[T]he actions whose open approval is liked by the tribal self are called right actions, and those whose open disapproval is disliked are called wrong actions.  (294)

Clifford was ahead of his time in helping to define the emerging late Victorian evolutionary concept of “social efficiency” although he deploys the concept in a more sophisticated way than would later be done by Benjamin Kidd in his Social Evolution of 1894, a work which popularized the term and which made a name for its heretofore unknown author partly because in it he assigned to organized religion the evolutionary function of promoting social cohesion. Since the “tribal self” is responsible for promoting “pious” behavior, and since Clifford’s notion of “pious” behavior redefines virtue as what serves the goal of evolutionary efficiency for the group, we can then dispense with the unnecessary hypothesis of God, not to mention the need for assigning a grandiose social role to organized forms of religion. Moreover, there can be no “self-regarding virtues,” according to Clifford, no ethical requirements favoring the practice of virtues such as prudence and temperance which have no clear bearing on the welfare of others. All virtues can only “be rightly encouraged in so far as they are shown to conduce to the efficiency of a citizen; that is, in so far as they cease to be self-regarding” (298). Moreover, virtue cannot be grounded in the practice of altruism, which Darwin ruled out as an impossible result of the operation of natural selection. Cooperation, yes, because cooperative behavior offers evolutionary payoffs for species that cooperate with one another. Altruism, no, because, as Clifford says, “Piety is not Altruism.  It is not the doing good to others as others, but the service of the community by a member of it, who loses in that service the consciousness that he is anything different from the community” (299). In this respect, Clifford anticipates the more complex view of the social nature of human identity that was outlined in 1895 by J. A. Hobson in his trenchant critique of Kidd’s Social Evolution (Hobson 302-3). 

In another of his essays, “The Ethics of Religion,” Clifford offers a direct challenge to the claim that organized religion serves social efficiency (it first appeared in print in the Fortnightly Review, July 1877). Clifford’s case against religion is based partly in a critique of metaphysics and partly in a view that religions persistently confound “purely ceremonial” proscriptions with necessary moral laws (“Religion” 365). Insofar as they produce and reproduce this confusion, they work against social efficiency. Thus, he cites two famous comments attributed by the New Testament to Jesus: “He that believeth not shall be damned” (King James Bible: Mark 16:16) and “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed” (King James Bible: John 20:29).  Clifford’s response to these claims is, “For a man who clearly felt and recognised the duty of intellectual honesty, of carefully testing every belief before he received it, and especially before he recommended it to others, it would be impossible to ascribe the profoundly immoral teaching of these texts to a true prophet or worthy leader of humanity” (“Religion” 102). If believing on insufficient evidence is “immoral,” it necessarily follows that the founder of Christianity, at least in this aspect of his teaching, is a profoundly immoral person.

Clifford’s influence among the devout would ultimately be limited by this tendency to defiant polemics, and there is little evidence in any case that the more conventionally religious members of the Metaphysical Society had the slightest interest in being persuaded to share his views. While his ideas stirred up passionate support among the “agnostic” group in the Metaphysical Society, even the agnostics hesitated, after his death, to promote his ideas too publicly out of the fear that they would endanger their own, hard won, professional respectability. The publication of Clifford’s “Ethics of Belief” in the Contemporary Review in 1877 not only seems to have led to the sacking of its editor, James Knowles, by the new owners of the periodical, but it ensured that Clifford himself “became an object of persistent vilification in the new more doctrinally conservative Contemporary that began to appear subsequently” (Dawson 168).  Even before he had been asked to join the Metaphysical Society, Clifford’s views on sexuality and divorce and his celebration of Swinburne and Whitman as the exponents of “cosmic emotion” in a May 1873 Sunday Lecture Series address had raised eyebrows among his “agnostic” friends (Dawson 169; “Cosmic Emotion” 411-29).  According to Dawson, after Clifford’s death in 1879, T. H. Huxley set out deliberately to do what he could to protect Clifford’s reputation from being sullied by association with “political radicalism, extremist atheism, and Swinburne’s controversial aesthetic poetry”–all of which were nonetheless important to Clifford in his lifetime (Dawson 165). Clifford’s ideas about divorce were quite radical for their time, and his critique of metaphysics positioned him as the most strident of the “agnostics.” Moreover, his celebration of Proudhon and Swinburne tied him closely both to utopian socialism and aestheticist poetry in the minds of his critics (165). Clifford’s close friends and colleagues, Frederick Pollock and Leslie Stephen, who posthumously edited and published his Lectures and Essays, were apparently so worried about protecting his reputation after his death in 1879 that they bowdlerized a number of the essays in order to leave a better “impression” with readers (173). While the young Karl Pearson, who edited Clifford’s posthumously published The Common Sense of the Exact Sciences (1885), happily used material from Clifford’s provocative essay “Mistress or Wife” in his essay “Socialism and Sex,” Clifford’s wife Lucy “subtly refashioned aspects of Clifford’s actual personality that might now play into the hands of his numerous adversaries” [after his death] (187). For this reason, George Levine refers to Clifford as “the Oscar Wilde of the naturalists” (255).

However controversial Clifford’s views on sexuality, aesthetic poetry, and divorce ultimately made him, his polemical essays on ethics for the Metaphysical Society ought to be considered a major contribution to the study of the evolutionary origins of ethics. Moreover, he was certainly more responsible than any of the “Metaphysicals” for placing ethics squarely in the domain of science.  His writings and lectures on this topic are characterized by directness, a carefully logical form of argumentation, and a resort to Scriptural examples that infuriated his opponents and left his supporters cheering him. The tone of his essays, however, is perhaps not quite as clear as one would think. Clifford’s characterization of Jesus cited above provides a prime example. Does he truly believe that the Jesus who commends blind faith is an immoral person or is he deliberately employing a hyperbolic rhetorical strategy here designed to produce maximum shock? While there is no particular reason to doubt the sincerity of his claims, the question of tone–and thus, sincerity–has to be raised simply because it could not have escaped his attention that he was firing a Big Bertha at the defenders of Christianity. Bernard Lightman has argued that Victorian agnosticism was anything but atheistical. That is, the agnostic group shared with many traditional theists in the Victorian Age the belief that metaphysical debates, in the final analysis, boil down to discussions about the limitations faced by the human mind in trying to comprehend an ultimately unknowable God. Thus, the agnostics were not attempting to destroy religion. Instead, they sought to purify it (Lightman 125). Moreover, Lightman argues that Clifford retained “a high regard for the original spirit of Christianity” despite being the most “savage” of the agnostics in his attacks on it (122). If Lightman’s claim is accurate, Clifford perhaps must be seen less as a consistent intellectual radical and more as a figure of multiple contradictions: a scientific materialist imbued with “cosmic emotion”; an empiricist unable to forsake things in themselves; the most “savage” critic of organized Christianity and Christian metaphysics in the period who nevertheless retains a great fondness for the moral example of Jesus Christ; an ethicist who derives ethics from evolution but who cannot finally surrender higher–if not high-minded—aspirations for human society.

Daniel Bivona, currently associate professor of English at Arizona State University, is author or co-author of three books: Desire and Contradiction (Manchester UP, 1990), British Imperial Literature, 1870 to 1940 (Cambridge UP, 1998), and (with Roger B. Henkle) The Imagination of Class (Ohio State UP, 2006). He is currently at work on two collections and a monograph tentatively entitled The Natural and Social History of Pluck: Character and Competition in the Victorian Age. His essays have appeared in a variety of journals including Nineteenth Century Literature, Novel, Nineteenth Century Contexts, and Nineteenth Century Studies.


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