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Deontology and doxastic control

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Matthias Steup has developed a compatibilist account of doxastic control, according to which one’s beliefs are under one’s control if and only if they have a “good” causal history. Paradigmatically good causal histories include being caused to believe what one’s evidence indicates, whereas bad ones include those that indicate that the believer is blatantly irrational or mentally ill. I argue that if this is the only kind of control that we have over our beliefs, then our beliefs are not properly subject to epistemic evaluation in deontological terms. I take as premises the claims (1) that acts which violate a deontic standard must be under the control of the agent that performs them, and (2) that deontic standards are deontic standards only if there is both something that it is to comply with them, and something that it is to violate them. The argument proceeds by showing that any belief which one might take to violate a deontic standard of a distinctively epistemic kind has a “bad” causal history, and so is, according to the compatibilist account, not under our control. Since these beliefs are not under our control, it follows from premise (1) that they do not violate any deontic standards of a distinctively epistemic kind. It then follows, from premise (2), that there are no deontic standards, of a distinctively epistemic kind, that govern belief. So if we have only compatibilist control over our beliefs, our beliefs are not properly subject to epistemic evaluation in deontological terms.

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  1. 1.

    Alston (1988), p. 294. I have omitted one of Alston’s notes. Alston also suggests that there is a range of “epistemic desiderata”, and that we do better to evaluate beliefs relative to the desiderata found within that range, rather than in terms of justification. See Alston (2005).

  2. 2.

    Buckareff, however, argues that there are important differences between doxastic decisions and practical decisions, which pose severe problems for Steup’s account of doxastic control. See Buckareff (2006). But see also Steup (2008, 2011a), for ways in which Steup would deal with these difficulties.

  3. 3.

    This qualification will usually be omitted below. Understand that all normative standards and constraints mentioned in this section and the next are of a distinctively epistemic (as opposed to, say, moral, or legal) kind.

  4. 4.

    Mason (2003) argues that the modality involved in the OIC principle must be such that agents are able to intentionally discharge their obligations. That would suffice for my purposes. If an agent is unable to notice a flaw in his or her reasoning, that agent is not able to intentionally avoid reasoning badly in that way.

  5. 5.

    See, for example, Alston (1988) and Steup (2012). Steup, of course, does not take this fact to show that we are not in control of our beliefs.

  6. 6.

    There is, of course, some sense in which one ought to refrain from going in for fallacious inferences, at least in that non-fallacious reasoning is (qua reasoning) better than fallacious reasoning. But this is an “external” sense of ‘ought’, and not one that has much bearing on the questions of epistemic deontology that are at issue here. That the reasoning is fallacious gives one a reason not to go in for it, but this is not a reason for the agent, not one that the agent possesses.

  7. 7.

    Moreover, everyone recognizes that it is a poor reasoning strategy. We might reason counter-inductively when playing roulette, but no one concludes that water will not quench their thirst in the future from the fact that it has quenched their thirst in the past.

  8. 8.

    See Steup (2011b) for more information on this approach.

  9. 9.

    This is a summary of their account of moderate reason responsiveness, which is the view that they ultimately settle on. They do identify other kinds of reason responsiveness, but they argue that these other kinds of responsiveness do not provide a satisfactory basis for moral responsibility.

  10. 10.

    Of course nothing said here should be taken as criticism of Fischer and Ravizza, who did not intend to provide a model for an account of doxastic control.


  1. Alston, W. (1988). The deontological conception of epistemic justification. In J. Tomberlin (Ed.), Philosophical perspectives 2: Epistemology (pp. 257–300). Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

  2. Alston, W. (2005). Beyond justification: Dimensions of epistemic evaluation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  3. Buckareff, A. (2006). Doxastic decisions and controlling belief. Acta Analytica, 21, 102–114.

  4. Fischer, J. M., & Ravizza, M. (1998). Responsibility and control. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  5. Mason, E. (2003). Consequentialism and the ‘ought implies can’ principle. American Philosophical Quarterly, 40, 319–331.

  6. Steup, M. (2008). Doxastic freedom. Synthese, 161, 375–392.

  7. Steup, M. (2011a). Belief, voluntariness and intentionality. Dialectica, 65, 537–559.

  8. Steup, M. (2011b). Justification, deontology and voluntary control. In S. Tolksdorf (Ed.), Conceptions of knowledge (pp. 461–486). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

  9. Steup, M. (2012). Belief control and intentionality. Synthese, 188, 145–163.

  10. Tolksdorf, S. (Ed.). (2011). Conceptions of knowledge. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

  11. Tomberlin, E. (Ed.). (1988). Philosophical perspectives 2: Epistemology. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

  12. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124–1131.

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I would like to thank John P. Waterman, Nick Goldberg, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Earlier drafts were also presented to the 2013 meeting of the Alabama Philosophical Society and at the 2013 Northwest Philosophy Conference. I would like to thank my audiences at both conferences for their feedback.

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Correspondence to Nicholas Tebben.

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Tebben, N. Deontology and doxastic control. Synthese 191, 2835–2847 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-014-0423-4

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  • Doxastic voluntarism
  • Epistemic deontology
  • Epistemic justification
  • Freedom of belief