Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 9, pp 2497–2515 | Cite as

The wrongs of racist beliefs

  • Rima BasuEmail author


We care not only about how people treat us, but also what they believe of us. If I believe that you’re a bad tipper given your race, I’ve wronged you. But, what if you are a bad tipper? It is commonly argued that the way racist beliefs wrong is that the racist believer either misrepresents reality, organizes facts in a misleading way that distorts the truth, or engages in fallacious reasoning. In this paper, I present a case that challenges this orthodoxy: the case of the supposedly rational racist. We live in a world that has been, and continues to be, structured by racist attitudes and institutions. As a result, the evidence might be stacked in favour of racist beliefs. But, if there are racist beliefs that reflect reality and are rationally justified, what could be wrong with them? Moreover, how do I wrong you by believing what I epistemically ought believe given the evidence? To address this challenge, we must recognize that there are not only epistemic norms governing belief, but moral ones as well. This view, however, is at odds with the assumption that moral obligation requires a kind of voluntary control that we lack with regard to our beliefs. This background assumption motivates many philosophers to try to explain away the appearance that beliefs can wrong by locating the wrong elsewhere, e.g., in an agent’s actions. Further, even accounts that accept the thesis that racist beliefs can wrong restrict the class of beliefs that wrong to beliefs that are either false or the result of hot irrationality, e.g., the racist belief is a result of ill-will. In this paper I argue that although these accounts will capture many of the wrongs associated with racist beliefs, they will be only partial explanations because they cannot explain the wrong committed by the supposedly rational racist. The challenge posed by the supposedly rational racist concerns our epistemic practices in a non-ideal world. The world is an unjust place, and there may be many morally objectionable beliefs it justifies. To address this challenge, we must seriously consider the thesis that people wrong others in virtue of what they believe about them, and not just in virtue of what they do.


Racism Racist beliefs Ethics of belief Doxastic voluntarism 



I owe a large debt of gratitude to the following people for lots of enlightening comments and discussions: Mike Ashfield, Renee Bolinger, Kenny Easwaran, Maegan Fairchild, Stephen Finlay, Georgi Gardiner, Liz Harman, Pamela Hieronymi, Gabbrielle Johnson, Tanya Kostochka, Zi Lin, Jessie Munton, Mark Schroeder, Ralph Wedgwood, various other graduate students and faculty at USC, several anonymous reviewers, and audience members at Athena in Action and the Penn-Rutgers-Princeton Social Epistemology Workshop where this paper was presented under the title “Motivating Ethical Demands on Belief”.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Claremont McKenna CollegeClaremontUSA

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