Race Research and the Ethics of Belief


On most accounts, beliefs are supposed to fit the world rather than change it. But believing can have social consequences, since the beliefs we form underwrite our actions and impact our character. Because our beliefs affect how we live our lives and how we treat other people, it is surprising how little attention is usually given to the moral status of believing apart from its epistemic justification. In what follows, I develop a version of the harm principle that applies to beliefs as well as actions. In doing so, I challenge the often exaggerated distinction between forming beliefs and acting on them.1 After developing this view, I consider what it might imply about controversial research the goal of which is to yield true beliefs but the outcome of which might include negative social consequences. In particular, I focus on the implications of research into biological differences between racial groups.

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  1. 1.

    As Robert Nozick (1993) suggests, it is reasonable to suppose that our ancestors’ interest in true beliefs was originally an instrumental one—it was selected for because it helped us survive and reproduce. But in a world with less scarcity, more leisure, and a longer life expectancy, many of us have a greater capacity to form accurate beliefs about the world and a greater desire to do so.

  2. 2.

    There are limits to what kinds of beliefs you can try to shed or form for purely instrumental reasons. For example, if your acceptance of causal determinism saps your energy and makes it difficult to care about goals you once found important, you may have good reason to try to believe causal determinism is false or that it is compatible with free will (though if causal determinism and free will are, in fact, in conflict, you cannot have normative reasons to believe otherwise, since all normative reasons collapse in a world in which our beliefs are outside of our control).

  3. 3.

    And since “ought-implies-can” only one of these reasons can be decisive.

  4. 4.

    This is not to say that all of our desires, especially those induced by propaganda or influenced by fashion and other social fads, are worth attempting to satisfy, only that once we have goals in the marketplace, we will tend to gather reasonably reliable information about how to satisfy them since we bear the costs and benefits of our choices. This is not true in situations of interdependence, in which what we choose has little if any causal influence over the outcome we end up with.

  5. 5.

    It is increasingly common to use Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) to infer the genetic distance between groups (Rosenberg 2002). Some scholars use this technique as a way of picking out groups that correspond to our common conception of “race” even when SNPs involve non-coding DNA (Spencer 2014). Others use “race” to refer to genetically-mediated phenotypic traits that we find salient for social or scientific purposes (Mayr 2002; Kitcher 2007).


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Correspondence to Jonathan Anomaly.

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1According to William Clifford, “No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant … gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character forever” (1877, 292).

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Anomaly, J. Race Research and the Ethics of Belief. Bioethical Inquiry 14, 287–297 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-017-9774-0

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  • Ethics of Belief
  • Heuristics and biases
  • Race
  • Racial differences