There may be no great harm done

I’ve been working my way through my summer reading list. I came across a gem of a quote in Jacob Bronowski’s Science and Human Values. Bronowski quotes mathematician W. K. Clifford who argues that unscientific beliefs are bad even if they are not directly harmful:

If I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit in in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous. [Emphasis added]

Fabricating negative consequences is almost certainly part of human nature. But even so, I wish there were some space in public discourse for honesty like Clifford’s. For us to be able to admit that we find some things wrong even if there is no great harm done.


  1. Interesting. The quote could be interpreted as no great harm done, but at the same time, Clifford seems to imply that a great wrong is done. Maybe harm and wrong are not the same but they can be. It seems conflicted as opposed to clear-cut.

  2. I think Clifford is actually making the opposite argument. He’s saying, “Suppose I allow myself to hold a belief about some totally trivial issue without sufficient evidence. Where’s the harm in that? Well, it’s not from the belief itself or the trivial actions that it leads to, but rather that I’m cultivating bad mental habits in myself, so that I’ll be less likely to have the correct beliefs about important things.” Ok, so I’m not as eloquent as Clifford. Here’s how he puts it in the essay that the quote is from: “Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence.”

    As far as there being “space in the public discourse… to admit that we find some things wrong even if there’s no great harm done”, I feel like it’s a very recent and partial shift that there is now some expectation that people feel like they need to point to the harm done to justify considering something wrong. Sodomy laws were only struck down in the US a few years ago, and Scalia’s dissent in that case pointed out that lots of other laws that are widely accepted (“against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation[!?], adultery, fornication[??], bestiality, and obscenity”) are based on non-consequentialist ethics.

  3. Thanks for the comment D. I really appreciate the full quote from Clifford’s paper. I didn’t have access to that!

    I see what Clifford (and you?) are saying. I would only point out that an unproven empirical claim underlies the analysis. Is it actually true that you “weaken your powers of self-control”? Suppose it turns out that you don’t weaken anything at all. I suspect Clifford would still maintain his argument. When it comes to evolution and creationism, I humbly submit we know that rejecting evolution doesn’t weaken anyone’s self-control.

    If Dan Kahan’s work is to be trusted, belief in evolution does not cohere with other measures of scientific literacy. So then what do we do in this case?

    I suspect you’re right re. consequentialist ethics in the public sphere. Writers like Rod Dreher would argue that individual self-expression has become the most important virtue. And thus it can only be restricted if there is concrete evidence of harm.

    Thanks again.

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