A Puzzle About Knowledge, Blame, and Coherence


Many philosophers have offered arguments in favor of the following three theses: (i) A is epistemically permitted (or required) to believe P only if A is in a position to know that P, (ii) incoherent agents fail to satisfy the aforementioned knowledge norm of belief, and (iii) A’s apparent reasons are relevant to determining what A is blameworthy for believing. In this paper, I argue that the above three theses are jointly inconsistent. The main upshot of the paper is this: even if the knowledge norm of belief is correct, it cannot explain some deontic requirements governing belief.

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  1. 1.

    See Bondy (2018), Grimm (2009), and Weiner (2014) on epistemic normativity. See Williamson (2002, 255–56; forthcoming) on the knowledge norm of belief. See also Littlejohn (2012) and Sutton (2005). I here take the knowledge norm endorsed by Williamson and others to be a deontic (or prescriptive) norm. See Simion et al. (2016) on knowledge as the evaluative norm of belief.

  2. 2.

    For instance, Kiesewetter (2017) and Lord (2014, 2017, 2018) argue that various requirements of coherence can be explained in terms of reasons-responsiveness. In other words, some types of incoherence can be explained in terms of a failure to respond correctly to reasons one has. Williamson (forthcoming) suggests that all the norms governing belief are somehow related to (or explained by) a norm of truth.

  3. 3.

    See Littlejohn (2012) and Lord (2017) on this concern.

  4. 4.

    See Littlejohn (2013) and Mitova (2017) on the factivity of epistemic reasons. In this paper, I assume that epistemic reasons are facts. But as I will explain in Section 1, apparent reasons can be non-factive.

  5. 5.

    As I indicate in Sections 2 and 3, some philosophers argue that there can be cases of permissible incoherence. I will come back to this possibility in the next sections.

  6. 6.

    See notably Parfit (2011, 34, 111) or Conee and Feldman (2004). Such an account is sometimes understood as a type of internal coherence between (i) a priori knowledge, experiences, perceptions, seemings, memories or intuitions, and (ii) beliefs or credences. See Turri (2009) or Wedgwood (2017, sec. 0.5).

  7. 7.

    The distinction between permission and excuse is common. Scanlon (2009, chap. 4) argues that good intentions or abnormal conditions such as being under great stress are relevant to determining whether one is blameworthy for believing, but such factors have no impact on what one ought to believe. He specifies that blame can play an interpersonal role, in the sense that it can explain why agents sometimes refuse to “enter into other specific relations that involve trust and reliance” (Scanlon 2009, 143). Littlejohn argues that an agent can “be fully reasonable and responsible while failing to do all that the reasons required” (Littlejohn 2011, 115). Boult (2017a, 2017b) argues that the connection between obligations and blame is incompatible with our epistemic practices. If obligations and blame were closely connected, we would never be excused for failing to satisfy our obligations. However, as a matter of a social fact, we frequently excuse people for having violated their obligations. See also Williamson (forthcoming), Lord (2017, 28), Madison (2017), and Schechter (2017, secs. 5–6; forthcoming) for discussion.

  8. 8.

    Or, at least, if there are norms entailing that agents ought to avoid having incoherent combinations of beliefs. Other norms could explain why agents ought to avoid having incoherent combinations of beliefs.

  9. 9.

    I compare these types of incoherentism in Daoust (2018, sec. 2).

  10. 10.

    I am here glossing over some subtleties. Other conditions could be added: for instance, Debby is not forming and revising her beliefs under special conditions such as extreme stress. See Scanlon (2009, chap. 4) on blameworthiness and extreme stress. I here assume that full responsibility excludes extreme stress.

  11. 11.

    As in Wrenn (2007) or Nelson (2010).

  12. 12.

    See Kroedel (2011) for another explanation of why we have no positive epistemic duties. See Kiesewetter (2018) for a reply to Kroedel’s argument.

  13. 13.

    See Harman (1986, chap. 6).

  14. 14.

    See Nozick (1993, chap. 2).

  15. 15.

    See Kiesewetter (2017, chap. 7.8; 2018).

  16. 16.

    See Demey (2013), Easwaran (2015), Easwaran and Fitelson (2015), Foley (2009), Kroedel (2011) or Sturgeon (2008). See also Schechter (2013) on the failure of Closure.

  17. 17.

    See Coates (2012) or Lasonen-Aarnio (2014, 2015, 2018). See also Daoust (2018) for discussion.

  18. 18.

    See Lord (2018, chap. 7) and Kiesewetter (2017, 173–74) on this possibility.


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I am grateful to Daniel Laurier, who has provided invaluable feedback on this paper.


This research was supported by the Groupe de Recherche Interuniversitaire sur la Normativité (GRIN) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (grant no. 767-2016-1771).

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Correspondence to Marc-Kevin Daoust.

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Daoust, MK. A Puzzle About Knowledge, Blame, and Coherence. Acta Anal 34, 493–503 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12136-019-00383-3

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  • Knowledge
  • Apparent reasons
  • Coherence
  • Blame
  • Epistemic norms