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Epistemic justification and the ignorance excuse

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. Given my description, it may look like, rather than the second doctor’s ignorance, what’s really at issue is that she failed to take appropriate measures. As we shall see later, her failure to take appropriate measures is what makes her ignorance culpable, so a feature of her ignorance is at issue. That is, her ignorance is culpable because she failed to take appropriate measures, and culpable ignorance does not excuse.

  2. Other conditions might make it the case that one’s beliefs are not open to criticism. Austin (1956) defines excuses as applying to actions that are wrong, but where there are considerations that block responsibility ascriptions (or blaming responses or whatever). Strawson (1962) suggests there might be a consideration that blocks responsibility responses, but is not an excuse. Excuses are considerations that render inappropriate the reactions to a person’s behavior that might constitute blame (reactive attitudes). These considerations do not direct attention to the agent but to the circumstances. A further consideration (often called exemptions, though Strawson doesn’t call them that) “invites us to suspend our reactive attitudes toward the agent”. So, on this condition a person's beliefs are not open to criticism despite not being justified (because they are exempt from criticism). Nothing that follows hangs on this distinction. For my purposes, I’ll just be relying on our ordinary folk understanding of excuses, which is closer to Austin’s view. If readers are inclined more toward Strawson’s view, they are free to add a precondition to the justification thesis that it only applies to agents for which no exempting conditions apply. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer at Philosophical Studies for bringing this point to my attention.

  3. One might challenge this claim in the following way. Sally might be culpable for failing to keep track of the time, but Sally also had no reason to believe her failure to keep track of the time would cause her to be late (suppose she thought Susan was going to call before leaving her house so Sally thought that even if she lost track of time she would make it on time). In this case, suppose her ignorance of the time is culpable in that Sally really should know what time it is for reasons unrelated to her meeting with Susan. But this ignorance also counts as an excuse because Sally had no reason to think that a failure to know the time would make her late. My sense is that, in this case Sally is ignorant twice over. She is (1) ignorant of the time and (2) ignorant that she needs to know the time to avoid being late. Her ignorance of 1 is culpable (and so not an excuse) but her ignorance of 2 is not, and so should still count as an excuse.

  4. For a lengthy, engaging, and informative exchange on the nature of ignorance see Peels (2010, 2011a, 2012) with responses by Le Morvan (2011, 2012, 2013) respectively.

  5. See, for example, Talbert (2013), Arpalay (2003), Harmon (2011) and Fields (1994). Mason (2015) argues a similar point, though her view is considerably more nuanced. Rosen (2003) compellingly argues that moral ignorance is susceptible to the same considerations as non-moral (factual) ignorance. While what follows in this paper is directed only at non-moral ignorance, if Rosen is right then everything I say will also apply to moral ignorance.

  6. A number of theorists think we can be non-derivatively responsible for our beliefs. Among these are Clarke (2014), Sher (2009), Steup (2008, 2011), Sverdlik (1993), Hieronymi (2008), Ryan (2015), McHugh (2013), Feldman (1988a, 2000) and Feldman and Conee (1985). Those who agree that responsibility for believing is derivative are Peels (2011b, 2017), Peels and Booth (2010, 2014), Booth (2011), Nottleman (2007), Rosen (2003, 2004, 2008), Smith (1983, 2017) and Zimmerman (1997, 2008, 2017).

  7. Zimmerman (2008) makes a similar, though somewhat stronger, claim that he refers to as the Origination Thesis, which states, “Every chain of culpability is such that at its origin lies an item of behavior for which the agent was directly culpable and which the agent believed, at the time at which the behavior occurred, to be overall morally wrong” (p. 175). This claim contributes significantly to Zimmerman’s skepticism about responsibility.

  8. Following Smith, I treat omissions as actions, though there may be important differences. See Clarke (2014) for an extended discussion of omissions and their relation to moral responsibility.

  9. One might wonder why it must be ignorance of all of the wrong-making features. See Rosen (Rosen 2008, p. 593). On Rosen’s view, we need to say “all” because if one is not ignorant of a (any) wrong-making feature then one truly believes he is doing wrong (because one believes one’s action has a wrong making feature), and, for Rosen a true belief that one’s action has a feature that makes it wrong is enough to make one culpable for performing it. It might be that ignorance of only some of the wrong-making features excuses or mitigates blame to some degree. Suppose (like Rosen) that one knows that one is poisoning someone else, but one does not know that the dose is lethal (one has been assured it is not). One administers the dose anyway. My sense is that this person is blameworthy, but not as blameworthy as a person who administers the poison knowing full well the dose is lethal, but nothing in what follows hangs on this. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer at Philosophical Studies for bringing this to my attention.

  10. I am not claiming the pragmatic view is the only plausible view of justification that has the resources to defend against Rosen’s examples. I have chosen the pragmatic view for several reasons, not least of which is that I happen to think it’s something close to the truth. But also, because it fits remarkably well with our moral practices. That said, it is just one contender among many. Indeed, many theories that incorporate some notion of what Swinburne (2001) calls diachronic justification might also be up to the task. Gibbons (2013) is another plausible candidate to defend the justification thesis. It is worth considering whether these views, and others like them, can fit as well with our moral practices as the pragmatic view. For my purposes, though, I’ll be trying out the pragmatic view and arguing that it works.

  11. It is worth noting that there is more than one possible understanding of “deontic”. My understanding of the debate in the ethics of belief is whether the deontic nature of epistemic justification is like the deontic nature of justification in moral philosophy where “unjustified” actions are generally considered blameworthy (assuming no excusing or exempting conditions apply). Indeed, this is the “natural deontic understanding” of justification that Alston (1988) argues against. Feldman (1988b) also argues that, while doxastic justification does have a deontic character insofar as it makes sense to say that a person ought not believe something, for Feldman, it is not the kind of deontic understanding that concerns moral philosophy—that is, ethical notions like praise and blame do not apply to beliefs. Similarly, Nelson (2010) argues that, unlike moral obligations (duties), there are no positive epistemic obligations (duties).

  12. For examples of detractors, see Plantinga (1993) and Goldman (1999). Alston (1988), argues at length that deontic notions do not apply to beliefs because beliefs are not voluntary. There has been significant recent attention given to this objection. See, for example, Chrisman (2008), Chuard and Southwood (2009), Huss (2009), Nickel (2010), Steup (2008, 2017), Weatherson (2008) and Hieronymi (2008). Since Alston admits it is the most natural way to think about justification, and because the deontic view is shared so broadly, I want to set the issue of doxastic volunteerism aside, and operate on the assumption that epistemic justification is deontic.

  13. One might think of a “justified belief” in terms of knowledge where one is justified in believing p only if one is justified enough to know p. Of course, whether one knows p depends on other factors (p must also be true, for example), but assuming all other relevant conditions for knowledge are met, then one knows that p if and only if one is justified in believing that p. One might also think of justification the way Gibbons (2013) does, where one is justified in believing p if it is not unreasonable for one to believe p.

  14. For examples of this sort of view see Feldman (2000), Feldman and Conee (1985) and Chisholm (1957). I use the term evidentialism here to describe the strictest view of evidentialism. It is worth noting, however, that many evidentialists allow for exceptions that may fit under Rosen’s “broad sense” discussed below.

  15. This is an adaptation of a case from Rosen (2008) p. 600.

  16. Readers may find it useful to think of this as what Swinburne (2001) calls synchronic justification. This is importantly distinct from diachronic justification which is a synchronically justified belief that is also based on adequate investigation over time. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer at Philosophical Studies for bringing this to my attention.

  17. An objection similar to this one can be found in Feldman and Conee (1985) and also Feldman (2000). For a rebuttal see DeRose (2000). Dougherty (2010) also claims that “there is nothing distinctively epistemic about epistemic responsibility.” Because the features of a belief that are up for blame are not the of the right “kind”, namely they are not epistemic. Hieronymi (2005, 2006, 2008) thinks that epistemic reasons belong to a different class than reasons to act and so moral evaluations of belief do not depend on whether we have believed responsibly (though we are still non-derivatively responsible for them). See also Moser (1989). Against this, Booth (2006) and Peels (2017) argue that epistemic reasons can apply to actions. Others, like Hawthorne and Stanely (2008), Gibbons (2013) and Fantl and McGrath (2009) simply disagree that there is a distinction to be made between epistemic and non-epistemic reasons. (See fn. 20).

  18. In the original quote DeRose was not speaking about a doctor’s beliefs about her patient, he speaks about an example of a man named Henry and his belief in some proposition “P”. I have replaced Henry with our doctor and “P” with “the prescribed medication.”.

  19. I acknowledge that obligations that demand one improve one’s epistemic situation might also be appropriately described as prudential or moral, but I see no good reason to think that one’s moral obligation to, say, gather more evidence is not also appropriately described as epistemic.

  20. Korblith (1983) makes a similar claim. He suggests that justification comes down to being an epistemically responsible agent, which he describes as “doing the best one can in light of the innate endowment one starts from, however reliable or unreliable it may be” (p. 46). Something like this is correct, though one may not be required to do one’s literal best. Sally’s “best” may entail that she ask one hundred people for the time, but doing so would be excessive or even obsessive (Clarke 2014). For an evidentialist response to Kornblith see Feldman and Conee (1985).

  21. We may not be sympathetic at all, however, if we discover that she never bothered to check the weather report in the first place, or if she called a psychic hotline to ask about the weather. In such a case, we would hardly be surprised that her belief wrong. In fact, if one was her golfing partner that day it would not be inappropriate to feel some indignation toward her for setting a tee-time on such suspect information.

  22. This seems to be what Swinburne (2001) refers to as diachronic justification (see fn. 17).

  23. For views like this, see Stanley (2005) and Hawthorne (2004) who both discuss the pragmatic view in terms of knowledge ascription. A particularly thorough treatment of the pragmatic view can be found in Fantl and McGrath (2009), who argue explicitly for a version of the pragmatic view very close to, though far more robust than, the one described here.

  24. It bears mentioning that cases like this are akin to what Angela Smith (2005) describes as a “failure to notice”. Our accounts are somewhat similar in that, like Smith, I agree we commonly direct responsibility-like responses at things like beliefs. Where we differ is that she sets out to use that fact as support for a broader theory of moral responsibility where we are responsible for anything (attitude or action) that we can appropriately be called to answer for. Smith’s view fits well with the account of culpable ignorance I am offering here. As Smith claims, when we call on someone to answer for something we are demanding that person provide justification. Even so, my account of culpable ignorance is meant to be compatible with a broad range of responsibility theories, including (but not limited to) Smith’s.

  25. There are natural upper limits for what can be reasonably expected. See footnote 11.

  26. Here, I assume Sally is aware that being late for her dinner meeting, and thereby breaking her promise, would be wrong. If she is ignorant of the moral significance of her action, then there is a further question about whether her moral ignorance is exculpating. Unfortunately, there isn’t space to deal with that question here.

  27. There is a further point to be made here, however, about the appropriate amount of blame Susan can offer. If she, for example, leaves the dinner in a huff and holds a grudge for many years then she is blaming Sally to an unreasonable degree. If she merely scowls in indignation and demands Sally make it up to her by buying her desert, that is a much more reasonable response. My point is only that some degree of blame is appropriate, although I suspect that the degree of blame we levy at a person despite their ignorance is a function of one’s degree of justification as well.

  28. We might imagine Goldberg claiming he really does believe Himmelfarb is guilty, and nevertheless refrain from using that belief as a basis to accuse him until he verifies it a bit more. This is just what the pragmatic view would claim is Goldberg admitting that his belief isn’t adequately justified.

  29. See fn.10. Swinburne (2001) and Gibbons (2013) are plausible alternatives that might work. In fact, most views that include a diachronic element like Swinburne’s may work, though I’m not sure whether such views would fit as naturally with our moral practices as the pragmatic view.

  30. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that these theorists use the pragmatic view to make their arguments. Indeed, they reach their conclusions from different perspectives on epistemic justification.

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Acknowledgements

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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Biebel, N. Epistemic justification and the ignorance excuse. Philos Stud 175, 3005–3028 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-017-0992-4

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