Moral encroachment and reasons of the wrong kind


According to the view that there is moral encroachment in epistemology, whether a person has knowledge of p sometimes depends on moral considerations, including moral considerations that do not bear on the truth or likelihood of p. Defenders of moral encroachment face a central challenge: they must explain why the moral considerations they cite, unlike moral bribes for belief, are reasons of the right kind for belief (or withheld belief). This paper distinguishes between a moderate and a radical version of moral encroachment. It shows that, while defenders of moderate moral encroachment are well-placed to meet the central challenge, defenders of radical moral encroachment are not. The problem for radical moral encroachment is that it cannot, without taking on unacceptable costs, forge the right sort of connection between the moral badness of a belief and that belief’s chance of being false.

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  1. 1.

    Throughout the paper, I’ll be neutral about the particular moral properties that apply to belief, using “good” and “bad” as placeholders for the terms licensed by the true first-order moral theory.

  2. 2.

    Fritz (2017) motivates this approach. Moss (2018a, sec. 4) considers it a desideratum for moral encroachment that it be continuous with pragmatic encroachment.

  3. 3.

    I adapt this case from Moss (2018b, 220).

  4. 4.

    I adapt this case from Basu (2019).

  5. 5.

    See Way (2012, 491-2) and Schroeder (2012b, 458-9).

  6. 6.

    Schroeder (2012a, 284-5) also frames the debate in this way.

  7. 7.

    Another theory identifies RKRs with “object-given reasons” and WKRs with “state-given reasons.” See Parfit (2001; 2011, App. A); for criticism, see Rabinowicz and Rønnow‐Rasmussen (2006), Hieronymi (2005, 441– 43), and Schroeder (2012b, 2013). I follow Nye (2017) in supposing that this is not the most promising approach to the RKR/WKR distinction.

  8. 8.

    The best approach might be both constitutivist and concerned with efficacy; see, e.g., Hieronymi (2005).

  9. 9.

    For defenses, see Kelly (2002), Parfit (2011, App. A), Skorupski (2007), Way (2012), and Rowland (2015).

  10. 10.

    See Schroeder (2012a, 2018a).

  11. 11.

    See Sharadin (2016), or D’Arms and Jacobson (2000) on the core “evaluative presentation” or “concerns” of mental states.

  12. 12.

    See, for instance, Wedgwood (2002); for a response, see Smithies (2012, sec. 6).

  13. 13.

    See Schroeder (2012a, 2013).

  14. 14.

    NB: I am neutral as to whether withholding is a distinctive doxastic state. To see this, note that key idea in the main text can be made without reference to withholding. That idea is: the question of whether to have a belief about p is not merely constitutively concerned with evidence. It is also constitutively concerned with the sufficiency of one’s evidence p. Moral and practical concerns seem apt to make a difference to the question of whether one’s evidence is sufficient. Thanks to Justin D’Arms for helpful discussion.

  15. 15.

    See Owens (2000, 25-6), Pace (2011), Hannon (forthcoming).

  16. 16.

    See, for instance, Ross and Schroeder (2014), Smithies (2012, sec. 4).

  17. 17.

    One might argue that this example does not in fact involve a sufficiently direct or straightforward case of withholding to count as an RKR. But this claim takes up a heavy burden of proof; on the face of it, the withholding I’ve sketched is just as direct and straightforward as withheld belief ever is.

  18. 18.

    If the salience of the possibility that –p generally brings with it a RKR to withhold, does the salience of the possibility that p generally bring with it a RKR in favor of belief? In short, no. Attending to one’s credence in the possibility that –p facilitates withholding belief regarding p, but merely attending to one’s credence that p does not directly facilitate believing that p. Thanks to Tristram McPherson for helpful conversation.

  19. 19.

    Pace (2011) also defends radical moral encroachment. His proposal faces a particularly intense version of the WKR-related challenge that I pose in the main text.

  20. 20.

    See Basu (2019) and Basu and Schroeder (2019, sec. 1.1).

  21. 21.

    See D’Arms and Jacobson (2000) and Nye (2017). Within the dialectical context of this paper, it’s particularly noteworthy that Schroeder (2010) grants this point.

  22. 22.

    Keen readers may wonder why I have not tested moderate moral encroachment via analogy. The answer is straightforward; there is no analogue in the realm of emotion or desire for the distinction between outright belief and degrees of belief. And that distinctive role for coarse-grained doxastic states, as we saw in Sect. 2, is a crucial part of the explanation of how moral factors impact epistemic rationality.

  23. 23.

    There is room, of course, for the moral encroacher to argue for an ultima facie asymmetry here. But the burden of proof seems squarely on the defender of this efficacy-based justification for radical moral encroachment. Compare: it’s conceivable that we can more immediately and directly form beliefs based on the fact that their contents are pleasant than on the basis of moral bribes. But the burden of proof is squarely on the person who wants to argue that the pleasantness of a belief’s content is an RKR for believing it.

  24. 24.

    Basu and Schroeder (2019, sec. 3.2) place a great deal of weight on the claim that this tension is problematic.

  25. 25.

    Moss (2018a, sec. 2) makes a related point. Buchak (2014, sec. 4) suggests that holding someone responsible involves forming beliefs (not merely credences) about her. But this point does nothing to motivate the idea that we cannot be held responsible for mere credences; at most, it suggests that we cannot hold others responsible with mere credences.

  26. 26.

    See Schroeder (2018b, sec. 2.1). Basu has confirmed in conversation that she agrees.

  27. 27.

    Elizabeth Jackson and I argue for this point at more length in our (ms). See also Enoch and Spectre (ms).

  28. 28.

    Schroeder (2018a, sec. 2-3).

  29. 29.

    There may be exceptions to this principle; perhaps, for instance, it would be objectionably fetishistic for an agent to be relieved if her action A was not objectively morally bad precisely because someone else’s objectively bad action, B, preempted A. (Thanks to Alex Worsnip for this example.) But the principle has purchase in the cases that matter for this dialectic. There is nothing fetishistic about feeling relief upon realizing that no objectively bad actions or outcomes obtained in the relevant part of my past. And, both in Deathbed Promise and in cases of true racial profiling as understood by Schroeder, the agent's realization that her past action was not objectively bad will be accompanied by this broader realization about objective bads in her past.

  30. 30.

    Some might hold that Aidan’s belief is unproblematic (or less morally problematic) if true, on the grounds that the diners have, through a freely chosen act of tipping, given up the moral standing needed to object to Aidan’s belief. I think this line of thought is misguided. But note that, even if it were appropriate in some cases, its relevance would be quite limited. Take, for instance, a racist belief that someone has a genetic predisposition toward low intelligence. Surely, having such a predisposition does not make one fair game for racial stereotyping.

  31. 31.

    A defender of Schroeder’s view might argue: “it’s a striking fact that no morally bad beliefs are guaranteed to be true by the believer’s evidence. The best explanation of this striking fact is that the moral badness of belief is rooted in the risk of falsehood.” But this striking fact is equally well-explained by the hypothesis that it’s morally important to avoid certain inadequately supported beliefs. (Note, too, that if the badness of racist belief does not hinge on its falsehood, it is plausibly a WKR. Compare to the moral reason that arises if a demon threatens to murder five innocents unless you withhold belief about p, and he does so on the grounds that your belief is not guaranteed to be true by your evidence.) Thanks to Tristram McPherson for this objection.

  32. 32.

    Gardiner (2018) makes related points.

  33. 33.

    See Schroeder (2018a, sec. 3).

  34. 34.

    Basu and Schroeder (2019) offer another criticism of views that allow this tension: they note that it would not be much of an apology to say “I’m sorry for believing… even though my belief was epistemically impeccable, short of being true.” But Basu and Schroeder’s view (on which there are very few positive epistemic duties) makes room for a much better sort of apology: “I’m sorry for believing. My belief was one reasonable response to the evidence, but there was another equally reasonable response available to me, and it would’ve been much more decent to you.” Perhaps believers like Aidan, when their beliefs are epistemically rational, are called upon to offer apologies of this sort.


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For helpful conversation about the ideas in this paper, I’d like to thank Rima Basu, Justin D’Arms, David Enoch, Elizabeth Jackson, Stephanie Leary, Tristram McPherson, Nathaniel Sharadin, Declan Smithies, Alex Worsnip, and audiences at Kansas State University and the Ohio State University.

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Fritz, J. Moral encroachment and reasons of the wrong kind. Philos Stud 177, 3051–3070 (2020).

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  • Moral encroachment
  • Pragmatic encroachment
  • Epistemic rationality
  • The wrong kind of reason
  • Ethics of belief
  • Racial profiling