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Open for Debate

Can People Be Epistemically Blameworthy?

17 April 2023
A pointing finger

We blame people for lots of things, such as stealing from others, forgetting our birthday, and voting for our political opponents. But it also seems that we sometimes blame people for their beliefs, and the way they respond to evidence. Holding inconsistent beliefs, applying epistemic standards unfairly, or being prone to conspiracy theorizing in the absence of any strong evidence (which was hidden by the conspirators, you see) are some examples you’ve probably come across. And in political discourse, there an increasing emphasis on what people believe over what they will do.

There’s an easy way to explain why this is: our beliefs often have moral consequences. Consider, for instance, the conspiracy theory that the Democrats had a child sex-trafficking ring at a pizzeria. Many adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theories ended up sending death threats to the store’s owners, and one person ended up shooting off a lock with a rifle to try and free the (non-existent) children.

It’s not clear these kinds of cases fully explain why beliefs can be blameworthy. We sometimes blame even when there aren’t any moral considerations lurking in the background. We blame people for violating purely epistemic norms: norms which have truth, evidence and justification (etc.) as their aim. And even if there can be some moral considerations found, this isn’t our reason for blaming. When you blame your uncle for finding some parts of the QAnon conspiracy theory ‘interesting to think about’, your blame isn’t based on the possibility that this kind of thing might one day lead him to shoot into a pizzeria to save some non-existent children. It’s for believing this particular thing now, given the lack of evidence he has now, even if this belief ends up being purely inconsequential in the record of his moral behaviours. In short, it seem that sometimes people are epistemically blameworthy, which suggests there might be a distinct form of epistemic blame.

If this is the case, we need to make sure it counts as blame. Blame is typically thought to be unpleasant, to carry a ‘sting’ or some opprobrium, in a way that merely being thought by others as silly or bad at cooking, while unpleasant, doesn’t. If you judge that I have big, unattractive ears, my feelings may be hurt, but this doesn’t communicate anything about me as an agent – as someone who exercises themselves in response to reasons.

The difficulty is that if there is such a thing as epistemic blame, it seems to be much more stripped back than its full-blown moral cousin. Though anger, resentment, indignation, are all commonplace when responding to moral slights, heated emotions seem out of place when responding to purely epistemic faults. But if these are out of place, then there may be little remaining to do the work of making epistemic blame a genuine form of blame.

One way to overcome this challenge is to think about blame’s effects. Blame has two primary effects: first, it signals our commitment to norms. When we blame, we communicate a lot of information: that we care about the norm, that we won’t tolerate violations, that we expect everyone else to act similarly, and that you are willing to take on costs to ensure the norm is upheld.

Second, blame motivates us to act in ways that sanction the target. Many paradigm examples of blaming behaviours are unpleasant for the target because it treats them negatively: we withdraw good will, we tell everyone what they did which diminishes their reputation, and we’re less likely to help them out.

These two features provide a way of understanding epistemic blame, and how it is both distinct from and similar to moral blame. First, epistemic blame signals our commitment to epistemic norms. In blaming, we are communicating that we care about the norm the person has just violated, and generally will not accept such behavior. Forming one’s beliefs in accordance with the evidence, noticing inconsistencies, and avoiding motivated reasoning are all important standards that we want to uphold.

What makes epistemic blame distinct, however, is the way that we don’t tolerate people’s behavior. Moral anger motivates us to get back at the person who wronged us, to express outrage to get people on our site, all of which increases the costs of violating moral norms significantly, but the costs of epistemic blame are much more minor. Disappointment, criticism, and a withdrawal of epistemic trust can be unpleasant, and reflect on you as an epistemic agent, but there is an upper limit to how unpleasant they can be. There is typically no victim in cases of epistemic faults, nor any need to atone or reconcile with someone who has been wronged.

These effects, in conjunction, are valuable because they help make people into skilled epistemic agents. Since being blamed is unpleasant, and we want to conform to the norms of our community, the threat of blame in response to violations motivates us to become better epistemic agents. This is something that is distinctly valuable: being the kind of agent who can form their beliefs in response to the evidence (instead of, say, what best signals one’s tribal identity) is an achievement that we should collectively be interested in fostering.

It may seem that having a second kind of blame on the table would exacerbate our (already overactive) blaming tendencies, particularly in political discourse. But it is actually possible that this may decrease the amount of blame flying by preventing our tendency to over-moralize. When we find ourselves blaming someone for their beliefs, it is tempting to put a moral spin on their behaviour and trump up reasons why they ought to be blamed even if there aren’t any. They haven’t just responded badly to evidence, they’ve done something which wrongs this entire group of people and contributes to a system of unjust practices. They haven’t just got a different opinion, they are undermining the social fabric that our nation needs to function (etc.) This is no doubt sometimes the case. But sometimes a bad belief is bad just in virtue of how it was formed, and this can be grounds for blame without moral interrogation.

This post is based on: Piovarchy, Adam (2021). What do We Want from a Theory of Epistemic Blame? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 99 (4):791-805.

Image by Public Domain Pictures  on Pixabay