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Moral and Factual Ignorance: a Quality of Will Parity


Within debates concerning responsibility for ignorance the distinction between moral and factual ignorance is often treated as crucial. Many prominent accounts hold that while factual ignorance routinely exculpates, moral ignorance never does so. The view that there is an in-principle distinction between moral and factual ignorance has been referred to as the “Asymmetry Thesis.” This view stands in opposition to the “Parity Thesis,” which holds that moral and factual ignorance are in-principle similar. The Parity Thesis has been closely aligned with volitionist accounts of moral responsibility, whereas the Asymmetry Thesis has been closely aligned with Quality of Will accounts. Two central questions are at work here: how ignorance excuses (when it does), and whether it excuses in the same way for both moral and factual ignorance. I will argue that these questions have often been confused in the present debate, and once we have distinguished more clearly between them, it seems that Quality of Will accounts are compatible with the Parity Thesis. And more generally: that the distinction between moral and factual ignorance is far less important in debates about responsibility for ignorance than it has often appeared.

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  1. Including, among others, Gideon Rosen, Michael J. Zimmerman and Neil Levy on the one hand, and Nomy Arpaly, Elizabeth Harman, and Maria Alvarez & Clayton Littlejohn on the other.

  2. Volitionists hold that clear-eyed akrasia is necessary for blameworthiness, and therefore that an agent would have to knowingly renege on their epistemic obligations in order to be culpable for their epistemic failure. A large part of the debate concerning volitionism has revolved around this akrasia requirement. (I address this debate elsewhere: Hartford 2020).

  3. These are explicitly not purely epistemic obligations, but rather “moral obligations governing the epistemic aspects of deliberation.” (Rosen 2003, 63, note 5). Despite this nuance, I will often use “epistemic culpability” and “epistemic non-culpability” as a shorthand to describe the conditions for responsibility for ignorance on Rosen’s account.

  4. For Rosen the ultimate implications of the Parity Thesis are completely revisionary: any agent who genuinely feels entitled to do what they are doing (and comes up with nothing when they deliberate about whether their actions are wrong) would be considered blameless; this revisionist position is also advanced by Zimmerman and Levy.

  5. Here “blameless” refers to the execution of epistemic obligations.

  6. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the relationship between epistemic non-culpability and sufficient concern will diverge significantly where epistemic non-culpability is understood as requiring the conscious or deliberate mismanagement of one’s beliefs (as the volitionists argue it should).

  7. Provided their morally-ignorant beliefs emerged from insufficient concern; I will engage with this further in Section 5.

  8. As I remarked earlier, the idea might instead be that with regard to factual ignorance alone, epistemic culpability and non-culpability perfectly track the relevant evaluations regarding moral concern. But unless we subsume our notion of righteous motivation into our conception of epistemic non-culpability, then there will be times that these two evaluations come apart. (This will be especially so if epistemic culpability is interpreted as involving the conscious mismanagement of epistemic obligations, such as the volitionists espouse, but even on a broader conception of epistemic culpability there will be cases where people form false factual beliefs not only because of misleading evidence but also because they are motivated by various sinister interests and desires. I will return to this when I consider Arpaly’s case of Caius Fatuous in the next section).

  9. This is sometimes referred to as “impure” moral ignorance, as opposed to “pure” moral ignorance, which does not exist in confluence with factual ignorance. (I take this terminology from Wieland 2017, 150). The position that moral ignorance never exculpates is usually reserved for pure moral ignorance.

  10. Harman (2011) and Alvarez & Littlejohn (2017) explicitly follow Arpaly in this conception.

  11. Solomon comes after the discussion on the anti-Semite (who, Arpaly says, only has false beliefs about Jews not false beliefs about morality) and the alien with the errant travel guide to earthlings. In this section she is explicitly addressing problem cases where “actions were based not on false moral beliefs but on false factual beliefs.” (Arpaly 2003, p. 103 & 104; her emphasis).


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My gratitude to the journal editors and reviewers who guided the improvement of this paper. Thanks also to the participants at the “Reassessing Responsibility” workshop at the University of Cambridge where aspects of this paper were first discussed.

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Correspondence to Anna Hartford.

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Hartford, A. Moral and Factual Ignorance: a Quality of Will Parity. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 22, 1087–1102 (2019).

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  • Moral ignorance
  • Factual ignorance
  • Parity thesis
  • Asymmetry thesis
  • Volitionism
  • Quality of will