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Home > Columns > Paul Schweer > May, 2005 - An Unjust Belief

An Unjust Belief by Paul Schweer

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Sometimes I've believed as many as
six impossible things before breakfast.
-- The White Queen, speaking to Alice

In April of 1876, the monthly meeting of London's Metaphysical Society featured the presentation and discussion of The Ethics of Belief, a paper written by William Kingdon Clifford for the occasion of his acceptance into the elite society. Clifford's paper suggested that what one chooses to believe is subject to external value-based criticism, and that an unjust belief may in fact be unethical behavior. 1

Clifford's speech was not well received. The society's secretary, unwilling to publish the paper as required by the duties of his office, resigned instead. Many members left the room. Some cheered Clifford, but many tried to shout him down.

Clifford used the example of a ship; old, poorly built and maintained. The owner knows the ship, its history and its true condition, and struggles with the likely fact that if put to sea for yet another passage the ship won't survive the trip. But the owner does, with time and a little effort, convince himself that it will be okay. One more trip. The ship has made many before, after all.

The owner sends the ship to sea. And it goes down, killing all hands.

Is the owner guilty of the crew's death? He was convinced the ship was safe. Did he have a right to this belief? Or did he convince himself, based not on facts but wishful thinking? Should the owner be held responsible?

What if the story ended differently? What if the ship survived the journey, with no harm to anyone aboard? What of the owner in this case? Not guilty? How about... not found out.


1 This column is a summary of a section from the introduction to Waltzing with Bears: Managing Risk on Software Projects by Lister and Demarco.

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