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Belief, credence, and moral encroachment


Radical moral encroachment is the view that belief itself is morally evaluable, and that some moral properties of belief itself make a difference to epistemic rationality. To date, almost all proponents of radical moral encroachment hold to an asymmetry thesis: the moral encroaches on rational belief, but not on rational credence. In this paper, we argue against the asymmetry thesis; we show that, insofar as one accepts the most prominent arguments for radical moral encroachment on belief, one should likewise accept radical moral encroachment on credence. We outline and reject potential attempts to establish a basis for asymmetry between the attitude types. Then, we explore the merits and demerits of the two available responses to our symmetry claim: (1) embracing radical moral encroachment on credence and (2) denying radical moral encroachment on belief.

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  1. See Nagel (2010: p. 418), Ross and Schroder (2014: pp. 275–277), Staffel (2017), and Jackson (2019a). For an overview of the belief/credence relationship, see Jackson (2020).

  2. Our assumption nonetheless rules out eliminativist views of belief and credence, such as those defended by Churchland (1981), Stich (1996), and Maher (1993: pp. 152–155).

  3. While much of the original pragmatic encroachment debate was about knowledge, most of the moral encroachment debate (with the exception of Moss 2018b) has proceeded in terms of rationality or justification. However, that doesn’t mean that the moral encroachment debate, or our argument in this paper, has no implications for knowledge. It may be that practical or moral considerations affect knowledge by affecting justified belief. (The relationship between credence and knowledge is controversial, so if there is pragmatic or moral encroachment on credence, it is less clear what implications this would have for knowledge. See Moss (2018a, b)).

  4. For a related notion of purism, see Fantl and McGrath (2009: pp. 27–28). Roeber (2018) points out that pragmatic and moral encroachers aren’t the only ones who deny that whether you should believe p only depends on factors relevant to the truth of p.

  5. For discussions of moral encroachment, see Pace (2011), Fritz (2017), Gardiner (2018), Moss (2018b), Schroeder (2018b), Basu and Schroeder (2019), Basu (2019a, b), Bolinger (2020, forthcoming).

  6. Our focus here is on moral encroachment on epistemic rationality, but we take our arguments to apply equally to questions about epistemic justification (if there is a difference). Further, by ‘rationality’ we mean epistemic rationality unless otherwise specified.

  7. Pace (2011: p. 257) draws on Clifford’s (1886: p. 346) example of a shipbuilder to make a case for moral encroachment on epistemic justification.

  8. This distinction between moderate and radical moral encroachment first appears in Fritz (2019). The distinction also appears (sometimes under a different name) in the taxonomies offered by Gardiner (2020) and Bolinger (forthcoming). Note that radical moral encroachers need not take on a commitment that Moss (2018b: p. 915) describes as both radical and unattractive: the commitment that even moral considerations that do not depend on the truth or falsehood of belief can make a difference to that belief’s epistemic status. Schroeder (2018b) rejects this commitment; Basu accepts it. For further discussion, see Fritz (2019).

  9. Since Michael Pace’s endorsement of radical moral encroachment is quite tentative (2011: p. 264), we set his view aside for the sake of exposition, returning to it in Sect. 3.3.

  10. This case appears in Basu and Schroeder (2019) and Basu (2019a). For related cases, see Keller (2004) and Stroud (2006).

  11. See Basu’s Security Guard case (2019b: sec. 2).

  12. Schroeder claims that doxastic wronging only occurs in cases where a false belief diminishes someone. We’ll set this complication aside.

  13. Compare Marušić and White (2018: p. 108). Schroeder (2019) offers an attempt to distinguish between problematic and unproblematic cases of seeing others “as objects”.

  14. Indeed, it’s striking that Gendler (2011: p. 57) discusses the John Hope Franklin case precisely to illustrate the notion that morality sometimes requires “explicit irrationality through base-rate neglect.” Cf. Schroeder (2019: sec. 1).

  15. Two other options: the radical encroacher might say that epistemic rationality sometimes admits of dilemmas, such that no matter what a believer does, her credal state will be epistemically irrational. Or she might say that, in certain cases, epistemic rationality requires us to take on imprecise credences. Thanks to an anonymous referee for encouraging us to offer more detail here.

  16. For other endorsements of this claim, see Enoch and Spectre (ms) and Gardiner (2018: p. 179), who writes that “some of Schroeder and Basu’s motivations for moral encroachment extend to moral encroachment about beliefs representing what is likely”.

  17. Thanks to an anonymous referee for this objection.

  18. To distinguish between this character and more familiar cases of doxastic wronging, one might understand Schroeder’s “diminishing an agential contribution” as shorthand for “representing an agent’s contribution as insignificant or negative even more strongly than one’s evidence does.” But this approach rules out other cases of diminishment for which Schroeder’s approach is a natural fit. Say, for instance, that you learn that a stranger across the street is very confident (but does not believe), on the basis of your race alone, that you are a thief. You then learn that the stranger’s credence matches her flawed, misleading body of evidence about your racial group. It seems entirely appropriate for you to feel diminished by the stranger’s judgment.

  19. For a prominent statement of this orthodoxy, see Alston (1988).

  20. For the seminal treatment of “rationalizing explanation” of mental states, see Davidson (1963). Floweree (2017) argues that this approach does not rule out agential control over beliefs.

  21. A further development of this approach might suggest that we only have agential control over beliefs when our evidence underdetermines the question of whether to believe or withhold—in other words, when we are in a permissive case (see Jackson and Turnbull forthcoming). This move fails to support an asymmetrical approach to belief and credence—many think that permissivism for credence is more plausible than permissivism for belief (see Kelly 2013; Schoenfield 2014; Jackson 2019b).

  22. Here, Basu and Schroeder cite Nelson (2010).

  23. Thanks to Alex Worsnip for suggesting this strategy.

  24. Schroeder rejects this claim; see Ross and Schroeder (2014), Schroeder (2018a: sec. 3.1).

  25. For the former view, see Smithies (2019: ch. 3); for the latter, see Ross and Schroeder (2014).

  26. Thanks to an anonymous referee for encouraging us to say more about this.

  27. We suspect that Pace’s (2011) defense of radical moral encroachment (which differs notably from Basu and Schroeder’s) does too little to avoid collapsing this distinction. On Pace’s view, merely being offered an adequately strong moral bribe can make it epistemically rational to believe any proposition, so long as one’s evidence makes that proposition more likely than not.

  28. Schroeder (2018a) suggests that radical moral encroachment on belief is a natural extension of his (2012) account of pragmatic encroachment. But that account is executed in terms of costs of error. This raises two problems. First, some costs of error do not seem to be costs of the right kind to bear on epistemic rationality. For more on this objection, see Worsnip (2020). Second, if wronging beliefs are associated with costs of error, then there must be a distinctive moral badness to false belief. This has unappealing results for the ethics of belief; for more, see Fritz (2019).

  29. And as an anonymous referee points out, this could also lead to problematic Moorean sentences such as “my evidence says that p is .9 likely to be true, but I’m not justified in a .9 credence in p.” For more on epistemic probability, see Williamson (2000: ch. 10) and Climenhaga (2020).

  30. Dutch Book arguments were originally proposed by Ramsey (1926); the accuracy-dominance argument for probabilism was originally proposed by Joyce (1998). For further discussion of the arguments that credences must be probabilistically coherent, see Hájek (2008) and Easwaran (2011).


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Thanks to Ethan Brauer, Daniel Wilkenfeld, Tristram McPherson, Joshua Smart, Nevin Climenhaga, and anonymous referees at Synthese for helpful comments on earlier drafts. Research on this paper was supported by Australian Research Council Grant D170101394.

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James Fritz and Elizabeth Jackson contributed equally to this article, and were equally involved in every stage of its conception and writing.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth Jackson.

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Fritz, J., Jackson, E. Belief, credence, and moral encroachment. Synthese 199, 1387–1408 (2021).

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  • Belief
  • Credence
  • Moral encroachment
  • Epistemic rationality