Willful ignorance and self-deception


Willful ignorance is an important concept in criminal law and jurisprudence, though it has not received much discussion in philosophy. When it is mentioned, however, it is regularly assumed to be a kind of self-deception. In this article I will argue that self-deception and willful ignorance are distinct psychological kinds. First, some examples of willful ignorance are presented and discussed, and an analysis of the phenomenon is developed. Then it is shown that current theories of self-deception give no support to the idea that willful ignorance is a kind of self-deception. Afterwards an independent argument is adduced for excluding willful ignorance from this category. The crucial differences between the two phenomena are explored, as are the reasons why they are so easily conflated.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    It is uncontroversial that he at least knew about the terrible conditions of slave labourers at the munitions factories under his direct command, for which he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

  2. 2.

    I am not one to assume that necessary and sufficient conditions can be given for every non-primitive concept. But the only way to find out whether a concept is definable in this way is to make an attempt at it.

  3. 3.

    I say ‘pro tanto’ because in the Burke case, Burke may be entitled to remain ignorant of the meaning of his symptoms if that’s what he wants. We might still want to call him willfully ignorant however, since it’s at least arguable that he should find out (so he can begin putting his affairs in order perhaps). There are considerations weighing in favour of that.

  4. 4.

    Deborah Hellman acknowledges a use of ‘willful blindness’ which implies that the willfully blind are blameworthy. She also says that ‘we could use the term “willful blindness” to refer to being deliberately ignorant in a more general sense’ (2009, p. 302). We could, but I believe that this would distort the ordinary meaning of ‘willful’.

  5. 5.

    I add the second disjunct since in certain cases S would find out whether p if she were to allow things to take their normal course, and in such cases remaining ignorant would require positive action rather than omission.

  6. 6.

    It might be said that self-deception could sometimes involve avoiding unwelcome evidence while searching for welcome evidence, and that here no unwelcome evidence may be encountered, since the subject steers clear of it. However, it seems to me that if someone is to be properly described as avoiding unwelcome evidence, then she must be aware of a threat or at least of a potential threat (as if she thinks ‘don’t look there, it may be bad news’). But then she must have some reason to think there could be a potential threat there. Whatever gave her this reason, then, we can think of as the ‘unwelcome evidence which she has encountered’. But this may only be evidence that it may be true that p. Furthermore, some might want to add that as well as desiring that p, S strongly desires to believe that p is true. However, this is not common to all theoretical approaches. Mele (1997), for instance, seems to think that the outwardly-directed desire that not-p is capable by itself of generating the biases which he thinks are involved in self-deception, as he doesn’t invoke the inwardly-directed desire to believe that not-p as an explanatory factor.

  7. 7.

    In self-deception, the proposition one is self-deceived about may not be true (Lynch 2010), but these are untypical cases and may be ignored for present purposes.

  8. 8.

    Archer, it seems to me, takes a similar position, but calls her view ‘non-doxasticism’ about self-deception because it rejects ascribing to the self-deceiver the outright belief that p or that not-p. I would avoid that terminology, as I don’t see why suspicions etc. shouldn’t be regarded as doxastic states, or as part of a family of doxastic phenomena. Indeed, Archer herself suggests that suspecting that p involves believing that it may be true that p (2013: 273). That would be one reason to think of suspicion as a doxastic phenomenon. I would also claim that some cases of straight self-deception may involve believing outright the falsehood that not-p.

  9. 9.

    This feature of self-deception is perhaps the main reason why with the self-deceiver, we can generally say ‘he’s being irrational’. It seems that we cannot always say this of the willfully ignorant (e.g., see the case of the corporate boss below). It’s lacking this feature is perhaps the main reason for this.

  10. 10.

    S’s suspicion that p, of course, is not intentionally brought about. But S is willfully ignorant only insofar as he chooses to remain with that suspicion. He deliberately avoids confirming it.

  11. 11.

    Legal thinkers seem to agree that the culpability associated with willful ignorance can vary depending on the person’s motive. Speer, for instance, might have avoided finding out about what was happening at the camps due to moral cowardice, or due to strategic cunning, anticipating possible criminal trials. See (Charlow 1992) and (Luban 1999).

  12. 12.

    Is it possible for someone to be self-deceived in believing that not-p who has no preference regarding whether p? This suggestion is an interesting one and deserves more attention than I can give it here. But it seems true that any such case would not accord with the descriptions people give of paradigmatic self-deception.

  13. 13.

    Note, however, that the difference between the phenomena in this respect is quite subtle. For self-deception can also develop from an encounter with evidence which only indicates that p may be true. This could happen if one tried to explain away that evidence and ended up believing that p is not true. Thus a case of willful ignorance could segue into self-deception. I discuss this possibility in the concluding section.

  14. 14.

    Thus other-deception is a broader category than interpersonal deception. The ‘other’ can be a creature or an inanimate thing, not just a person.

  15. 15.

    Chisholm and Feehan have included causally contributing to someone continuing to have a false belief as a kind of deception (1977, p. 144). They do not provide any examples to support this claim. I do not think this is the no-brainer they assume it is, and their account of deception is in general far too broad, but I will suspend judgement on this point here.

  16. 16.

    There are exceptions to this, which can be ignored for present purposes. See (Lynch 2010).

  17. 17.

    Funkhouser’s view of self-deception has since changed to an intermediate view (Funkhouser 2009).

  18. 18.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for this example.

  19. 19.

    Of course, it may be worse to deceive yourself about a very serious matter than to be wilfully ignorant about a less serious matter. And sometimes a person may be entitled to be willfully ignorant (and incidentally, sometimes self-deception is not deserving of censure; see Szabados 1974). But willful ignorance is more purposive and deliberate than self-deception. And it seems to me that we would think less of Speer for having been wilfully ignorant of the Final Solution than for having deceived himself into thinking that the Final Solution was not happening.


  1. Archer, S. (2013). Nondoxasticism about self-deception. Dialectica, 67(3), 265–282.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bach, K. (1981). An analysis of self-deception. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 41(3), 351–370.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bandura, A. (2011). Self-deception: A paradox revisited. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(1), 16–17.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Burrell, D., & Hauerwas, S. (1974). Self-deception and autobiography: Theological and ethical reflections on Speer’s ‘Inside the Third Reich’. Journal of Religious Ethics, 2(1), 99–117.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Charlow, R. (1992). Willful ignorance and criminal culpability. Texas law Review, 70(6), 1351–1429.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Chisholm, R. M., & Feehan, T. (1977). The intent to deceive. The Journal of Philosophy, 74(3), 143–159.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Davidson, D. (1986/2004). Deception and division. In D. Davidson (Ed.) Problems of rationality (pp. 199–212). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  8. Funkhouser, E. (2005). Do the self-deceived get what they want? Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 86(3), 295–312.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Funkhouser, E. (2009). Self-deception and the limits of folk psychology. Social Theory and Practice, 35(1), 1–13.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Gardiner, P. (1969–1970). Error, faith and self-deception. Proceedings of the Aristotelian society, 70, 221–243.

  11. Heffernan, M. (2012). Willful blindness. London: Simon and Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Hellman, D. (2009). Willfully blind for good reason. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 3(3), 301–316.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Husak, D. (2010). Willful ignorance, knowledge, and the ‘equal culpability’ thesis: a study of the deeper significance of the principle of legality. In D. Husak (Ed.), The philosophy of criminal law: Selected essays (pp. 200–232). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Jenni, K. (2003). Vices of inattention. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 20(3), 279–295.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Jones, D. H. (2001). Holocaust. In L. C. Becker & C. B. Becker (Eds.), Encyclopedia of ethics (2nd ed., pp. 779–785). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Luban, D. (1999). Contrived ignorance. Georgetown Law Journal, 87(4), 957–980.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Lynch, M. P. (2009). Deception and the nature of truth. In C. Martin (Ed.), The philosophy of deception (pp. 188–200). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Lynch, K. (2010). Self-deception, religious belief, and the false belief condition. The Heythrop Journal, 51(6), 1073–1074.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Lynch, K. (2012). On the ‘tension’ inherent in self-deception. Philosophical Psychology, 25(3), 433–450.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Lynch, K. (2013). Self-deception and stubborn belief. Erkenntnis, 78(6), 1337–1345.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Lynch, K. (2014). Self-deception and shifts of attention. Philosophical Explorations, 17(1), 63–75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Martin, M. W. (1986). Self-deception and morality. Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Mele, A. R. (1997). Real self-deception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20(1), 91–102.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Peels, R. (2010). What is ignorance? Philosophia, 38(1), 57–67.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Smith, H. (1983). Culpable ignorance. Philosophical Review, 92(4), 543–571.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Speer, A. (1970). Inside the third reich. (Trans: R. Winston & C. Winston) New York: Macmillan.

  27. Szabados, B. (1973). Wishful thinking and self-deception. Analysis, 33(6), 201–205.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Szabados, B. (1974). The morality of self-deception. Dialogue, 13(1), 25–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Tuana, N. (2006). The speculum of ignorance: the women’s health movement and epistemologies of ignorance. Hypatia, 21(3), 1–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


I thank Maria Baghramian, Chris Cowley, Douglas Husak, and two anonymous referees from this journal for their extremely helpful comments on previous versions of this essay. Much of this work was supported by an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kevin Lynch.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lynch, K. Willful ignorance and self-deception. Philos Stud 173, 505–523 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-015-0504-3

Download citation


  • Willful ignorance
  • Willful blindness
  • Self-deception
  • Deception
  • Culpable ignorance
  • Ignorance