leap of faith

Playing it safe or going for broke – is either ethical?

Pascal and Kierkegaard both give arguments for religious faith. Pascal argues that it is rational to believe in God despite a lack of sufficient evidence by simply weighing the possibility of an infinite gain against that of a finite gain. Kierkegaard postulates that passion is essential to religious faith and requires a leap of faith over objective improbability. Kierkegaard’s argument seems to cover problem areas inherent in Pascal’s argument, but has its own weaknesses. Although Kierkegaard’s argument seems logical in that his conclusions follow from his premises, his concept of what is important in religious life might be up for question for its desirability. Clifford has argued that any belief not investigated objectively and founded in sufficient evidence is immoral. The ethical soundness of both of these arguments is questionable under this strict criteria for moral belief, but if one excludes forced options it is only Kierkegaard’s belief can be seen as unethical. In this paper I will discuss the reason’s place in both Pascal’s and Kierkegaard’s conception of faith and susceptibility of those conceptions to moral criticism.

In “The Wager,” Pascal uses a cost and benefit analysis to show that it is reasonable to believe in God whether one has good evidence or not. In Pascal’s view, the existence of God can neither be proven nor disproven by reason. Although reason is neutral to the proposition that God exists, Pascal believes that reason can be applied to the belief in God.

According to Christian doctrine, those who believe in God will have an infinite reward while those who do not will have an infinite punishment. Agnostics are not immune to punishment, because according to doctrine, not choosing to believe in God is, in effect, choosing against believing in God. Therefore an infinite gain or loss depends on a positive belief in God.

When compared in a cost and benefit analysis, the possibility of an infinite gain is a more preferable choice over a finite gain no matter how large that finite gain might be (Pojman 1987: 397). A person then, would rationally choose to believe in God, gambling on the possibility of an infinite gain. This means that the rational person must then try to get her/himself to have faith. Pascal suggests that this may be done by first willing to believe the proposition, discover the best means to get in that state and act in such a way to make the acquisition of belief likely.

Pascal is successful at demonstrating why it is rational to have religious faith but his argument itself contains weaknesses. Pascal forgoes the whole question of whether God exists or not by claiming that reason can neither prove nor disprove His existence. This changes the focus from whether the proposition that God exists is reasonable in itself, to whether it is reasonable or not to believe He exists. This is a good start because other attempts to apply reason to the proposition have failed. Pascal is fairly convincing that it is reasonable to believe that God exists, but is it reasonable or possible for a person to believe a proposition at will? And if he or she wills to, and in fact is successful at believing a proposition without evidence, is it ethical?

The major objection to pragmatic justification for religious belief is that it may be unethical. Clifford argues that belief alone is not ethical if not backed with sufficient evidence. To illustrate his point, Clifford uses the example of a ship owner sending his ship out without having it inspected. Although his ship was old and not well built, the ship owner decides puts aside his feelings of doubt and put his trust in Providence to see his ship through the voyage instead of investigating its seaworthiness. Despite his conviction and sincere belief, the ship went down midocean. Clifford’s example clearly illustrates that if a person holds a strong belief or even wishes to hold a belief on one side of a question s/he is then unable to investigate the question with a fairness and completeness as if s/he were really in doubt and unbiased (Clifford in Pojman 1987: 380). The predetermined belief gets in the way of fair inquiry and, according to Clifford, a belief that is not founded on fair inquiry is irresponsible and unethical. Clifford, in this way, objects to Pascal because even though it might be advantageous to believe one proposition over another it is unethical to do so without sufficient evidence (Clifford in Pojman 1987: 380).

Clifford’s objection to the pragmatic justification of belief has its own problems. It may be too strong to claim that it is “wrong for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence” (Pojman 1987: 380). William James explains that religious faith is a forced option, in which one cannot remain skeptical and wait for sufficient evidence. According to James, suspension of belief avoids error only if religion is not true, but if religion is true, then postponing belief for sufficient evidence is an error equally as great as positively choosing not to believe (James in Pojman 1987: 394). James does a wonderful job of illustrating how skepticism out of duty reduces to a tantamount that, in the context of a religious hypothesis, claims that yielding to the fear of error is “better and wiser than yielding to a hope that it might be true.” In James’s example, a man who hesitates indefinitely to ask a certain woman to marry him because he is not sure that she will be an “angel” after he brings her home, cuts himself off from the “angel-possibility” just as much as if he were to marry someone else (James in Pojman 1987: 394).

James’s discussion is convincing and does a good job of countering Clifford’s objection to Pascal’s argument however, if we disregard Clifford and accept the argument that it is a good idea to have faith in God despite a lack of sufficient evidence, does it necessarily follow that faith will come about just by participation in religious observances? Or that this pragmatic justification is enough to allow us to believe decisively in an absolute way? The infinite loss or gain is possible, but the possibility that it is not seems to prevent complete confidence (Pojman 1987: 380). If one acquiesces to believe without complete confidence, is it religious faith or just playing it safe?

Kierkegaard deals with these problems inherent in Pascal’s argument in “Subjectivity is Truth.” Kierkegaard states that complete confidence is not required and, in fact, not desired for faith. Faith for Kierkegaard requires improbability, so that a person can then take a passionate “leap.” This leap of faith makes religious observances true and absolute by believing absolutely through a “strenuous exertion of will” Adams in Pojman 1987: 414). Kierkegaard uses three arguments (identified by Adams) to illustrate this point, the approximation argument, the postponement argument, and the passion argument. I will discuss them briefly and explore the shortcomings of each.

In the approximation argument, Kierkegaard reasons that a finitely small possibility of error cannot be disregarded with infinite passionate interest and therefore that historical inquiry, since it “gives, at best, only approximate results, is inadequate for religious faith” (Pojman 1987: 398). The approximation argument has a shortcoming in that it deals only with one of the two reasons for disregarding the possibility of error. Kierkegaard deals with the first, that the possibility is too small to worry about, by claiming that any finite possibility of error, no matter how small, becomes important when an infinite passionate interest is applied. Adams has identified a second reason for disregarding a very small but finite possibility of error.

According to Adams, the possibility of error can be disregarded if the risk of not disregarding it is greater. It is here that Adams interjects that an infinite passionate interest, when applied to a very small but finite chance, may in effect, be selecting that possibility. To illustrate this point, he uses the example of a woman’s interest in her husband’s love for her. In this example, the woman is 99.9% sure that her husband truly loves her. The chance that he does not love her is not too small to discount given the greatness of her interest, but she also does not want to hedge her bets by not disregarding it. If this desire is “at least as strong as her desire not to be deceived,” then she should disregard the risk of error, since she would run a risk 999 times as great of “frustrating one of these desires” by not disregarding it (Adams in Pojman 1987: 410-11).

In other words, not disregarding the possibility of error is in effect selecting that possibility. This would have a more negative effect than just strictly disregarding it. According to Adams, if a person’s “strongest desire in the matter is to be committed to the true opinion,” then that person “ought to commit themselves to the more probable opinion, disregarding the risk of error,” because the only other alternative is to commit one’s self to the “less probable opinion, disregarding the risk of error in it” (Adams in Pojman 1987: 411).

The postponement argument holds that total commitment to any belief will be necessarily postponed when it is based on an inquiry in which one recognizes any possibility of a future need to refuse the results. Kierkegaard’s first premise of this argument is that “one cannot have an authentic religious faith without being totally committed to it” (Adams in Pojman 1987: 412). Total commitment to a belief is the determination “not to abandon the belief under any circumstances that one recognizes as epistemically possible” (Adams in Pojman 1987: 412). Adams’ objection to the postponement argument centers on this first premise. Adams believes that the heart of commitment in religion should not be an unconditional determination not to change one’s important religious beliefs under any circumstances as Kierkegaard states, but rather that the object of religious devotion should be God (Adams in Pojman 1987: 413).

The passion argument concludes that passion is what is most essential and most valuable in religiousness and that it requires objective improbability. This argument hinges on the belief that infinite passion of the greatest possible intensity is the most essential and the most valuable feature of religiousness. This is a slightly different view from Pascal whose primary concern was playing it safe. Pascal used the fear of eternal damnation to rationalize belief in God, where reason was neutral to the proposition of God’s existence, but in Kierkegaard’s view, rational support for the belief in God detracts from faith because it reduces the intensity of passion. Replacing faith with “probabilities and guarantees” is for Kierkegaard, a “temptation to be resisted with all [ a believer’s ] strength.

Adams agrees that Kierkegaard’s argument follows from his conception of what is important in religion, but he questions whether such a conception is desirable. “Infinite passion of the greatest possible intensity,” requires a maximization of sacrifice and risk. Although Adams recognizes the place of sacrifice and risk in religious life, he believes that some degree of cost and risk may be a more favorable and plausible view than a religious view that requires the highest degree of cost and risk. Although Kierkegaard acknowledges that it would be impossible to live without pursing some finite ends, Adams believes that the pursuit of some finite gains such as “truth, beauty, and satisfying personal relationships” would be more desirable and costly than the pursuit of “self-flagellating pain.”

Whether or not infinite passion of the greatest possible intensity is desirable, is it ethical? Clifford would emphatically say no. Since passion requires improbability, and the intensity of passion is measured in part by the smallness of the chance of success, it would naturally follow that the more improbable the proposition the greater the passion. Kierkegaard would see the old ship as a great opportunity to demonstrate his passion and put all his faith into the old ship despite the evidence that the ship is not sea worthy. Clifford, it seems, would object even more strongly to Kierkegaard than he would to Pascal. Where Pascal might not base his decision on evidence or choose to overlook the evidence, Kierkegaard would decide to let the ship go to sea on the basis of the great improbability, because to do so would be an act of great passion. It is likely that Clifford would find Kierkegaard not only irresponsible and unethical, but out of his mind.

It is here that the real difference in perspective comes out. Clifford strongly emphasizes a reliance on reason and evidence, whereas Kierkegaard claims that there is no place for reason in religion. It is clear that, for Clifford, one’s moral duty is to only believe what is backed by sufficient evidence. Kierkegaard seems less concerned with moral obligations to one’s people and more focused on the internal “passionate” religious life of the believer. James has argued that it is better to yield to hope rather than a fear of error, but his argument seems to fall short when it comes to an individual’s moral responsibility to others — if you were on a boat about to ship off across the Atlantic, would you want a captain who “hoped” that the boat would make it, or one who made sure it was fit for the journey? Clifford’s moral argument does then seem to carry some weight when faith is looked at through the old ship example, but to what degree is this example applicable to religious faith?

Religious faith is a forced option, by not believing you are in effect positively disbelieving and have to suffer the consequences. In the example of the old ship, the option is not forced. Not positively believing that the ship is safe is not the same as positively believing that it is unsafe. In such a situation it is possible to survey the ship and test it for its sea worthiness with indifference and objectivity. Such an inspection of religious faith, however, is impossible because there is no room to be objective or indifferent. Clifford’s argument therefore, when it comes to the forced option of belief in God’s existence, seems to be unapplicable. Believing or not believing in God is an option where one’s personal life or soul is at risk, not that of other people.

Is it moral or ethical to believe in God and to act on faith in God’s actions? The distinction here is particularly important. It is one thing to say one believes in God in the sense of his existence, it is another to believe in God in terms of his actions. The ship owner believed not only in Providence, but that Providence would see his ship through. Such a faith in God’s actions seems particularly subject to societal standards of morality, although the actual belief in God’s existence is not. Just because one believes in God, it does not nesscessarily follow that God will always watch over and see him/her through every situation.

Pascal’s argument centers exclusively on believing in God’s existence. Playing it safe, in that sense, seems to be ethical. How could merely believing that God exists be immoral? Even if the belief is wrong in the end, no one is the worse off and as Pascal argues one’s life is actually better by holding such a belief. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, seems to be more concerned with acting on faith in daily life, exercising infinite passion in light of finite improbability. Although I find Kierkegaard’s view of religious faith appealing, I think “going for broke” can be criticized as being unethical, because Kierkegaard is not only talking about having faith in God’s existence, but in any willed determination. It is in the unforced options like the old ship example that Kierkegaard’s argument loses ground and becomes unethical. I, for one, would not want to go down with a ship held together solely by an exertion of will no matter how passionate.