Philosophical Studies

, Volume 175, Issue 12, pp 3005–3028 | Cite as

Epistemic justification and the ignorance excuse

  • Nathan BiebelEmail author


One of the most common excuses is ignorance. Ignorance does not always excuse, however, for sometimes ignorance is culpable. One of the most natural ways to think of the difference between exculpating and culpable ignorance is in terms of justification; that is, one’s ignorance is exculpating only if it is justified and one’s ignorance is culpable only if it not justified (call this the justification thesis). Rosen (J Phil 105(10):591–610, 2008) explores this idea by first offering a brief account of justification, and then two cases that he claims are counter examples to the justification thesis. The aim of this paper is to defend the justification thesis against Rosen’s two cases. The argument will proceed in the following way. First, I clarify a few things about the nature of culpable ignorance generally and why the justification thesis is so intuitive. I then present Rosen’s purported counterexamples. Once this is done, I argue that Rosen misses an important view of justification in the epistemology literature that I call the pragmatic view. I present a general picture of the pragmatic view, and explain how it fits naturally with our practices of criticizing people’s beliefs, including claims of culpable ignorance. Finally, I address Rosen’s cases arguing that, if the pragmatic view is right, then Rosen’s cases are not counterexamples to the justification thesis.


Moral philosophy Responsibility Epistemology Justification Ethics of belief Culpable ignorance Excuses Agency Blame 



I am very grateful to the Murphy Center for Ethics and Public Affairs at Tulane University for their generous support during this project. I am also indebted to several people for their help in collecting and clarifying the ideas found in this paper. These include members of a reading group at Tulane University Dan Tigard, Jesse Hill, Eric Brown, and Nicholas Sars. I am also indebted to Paul Hurley, Bruce Brower, Alison Denham, and Michael Zimmerman for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I am especially indebted to David Shoemaker for his boundless patience in reading uncountable drafts of this work. Finally, I am extremely grateful to two anonymous reviewers at Philosophical Studies for their thoughtful comments and suggestions. The ideas found herein are much more clear, focused, and intelligible because of them.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyTulane UniversityNew OrleansUSA

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