Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The ethics of belief

I came across William Kingdon Clifford's essay, 'The Ethics of Belief' this morning which, though written in 1877, says quite a bit about the current UK government's attitude to critical analysis of their big information systems projects, from ID cards to the NHS.

"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... 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;"

The ship then gets lost at sea. Is the owner responsible for those deaths? Clifford says yes.

"What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him."

Now suppose the ship made the journey safely. Is the owner then less guilty? Clifford:

"Not one jot. When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that. (Note 3) The man would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found out. The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him."

Tony Blair in particular places a lot of emphasis on telling us that we should accept that he's a good guy who always does what he sincerely believes to be the right thing. On ID cards, NHS IT systems, the children's index database, education, rendition flights, anti-terrorism legislation, the Iraq war it is reasonable to ask whether he has a right to hold the beliefs that led him down these paths, given the evidence that was before him. Given that the general response of the government to questioning of its actions, such as the introduction of ID cards, is to dismiss such questions out of hand or generally yell, toddler fashion, "not listening, not listening", the evidence that they are meeting Clifford's basic test is not encouraging.

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