When are epistemic duties also moral duties?

Say that someone has an epistemic duty to seek out more information when a) s/he holds a false belief, and b) an ordinarily rational (“reasonable,” even) person in his/her situation would come to hold the true belief, either because i) it is trivially obvious that more information, which is cheap to obtain, is available to shed light on the belief, or ii) because the consequences (to oneself or, perhaps, to others — the latter of these ideas being the subject of this post) of holding a false belief are so serious that it’s rationally warranted to spend the costs to increase his/her confidence.

I think use of the language of “duty” is appropriate in such cases because of the parallel with Kant’s treatment of moral duty: just as Kant would say that morality is a consequence of our nature as rational beings, so is a certain amount of truth-seeking. Just as a rational being, qua rational being, obeys the moral law (on Kant’s account), so a rational being, qua rational being, surely ought to obey some epistemic laws. Perhaps a rational being isn’t obligated to behave perfectly in the domain of beliefs (it may be unreasonably difficult to do so), but it seems obvious that some concept of epistemic duty is useful to make sense of what people are failing to do when, for example, they blow things like basic belief consistency.

That line of thought immediately prompts the question: What is the relationship between epistemic duties and moral duties? It seems like there’s a close relationship between them, in that some epistemic duties can give rise to moral duties: if you ought to know better, and you harm someone through your ignorance, you’re violating a moral principle. Likewise, moral duties might give rise to epistemic duties: if I have a moral duty toward someone, that might make the epistemic burdens I must bear in their interests stronger.

I’ll offer four examples.

First, Kwame Anthony Appiah has a useful notion of extrinsic racism. Unlike intrinsic racism, which is the simple opinion that a racial group is bad, extrinsic racism erroneously attributes a genuinely discreditable quality (like laziness, criminality, stupidity, etc.) to a racial group. If the group genuinely had that quality, there might (arguably) be some reason to justify lesser treatment of that group (this is particularly obvious in the case of laziness and workplace discrimination and criminality and racial profiling), but, of course, it’s not true that the group has that quality. If you agree with Appiah (which I tend to do), it’s not even true that the racial group exists in that form (as racial “essences” that can have that sort of quality) at all.

It might seem hard to give an account of why extrinsic racists deserve moral condemnation. After all, an extrinsic racist may not actually bear any malice toward the groups that he sees as having bad qualities. Moreover, let’s say, ex hypothesi, that, for example, it is morally ok to, e.g., refuse to hire members of groups that are essentially lazy, just in virtue of their membership in those groups. Then if we want to pin moral condemnation on someone who thinks that members of group X are essentially lazy and consequently refuses to hire them (without disliking them), we have to be able to say that his/her failure to take steps to verify the truth of the extrinsic racist belief (learning that it’s false) itself violates a moral duty.

Second, consider religiously motivated harm to others, such as parents who deny their children education or medical care, or become suicide bombers/crusaders (etc.).* Again, a false belief makes the difference between morally justified harm to others and unjustified harm to them. If we want to condemn the behavior of these groups of people, and if we’re willing to grant the (controversial) premise that if there is a god, that god’s orders determine the moral, then we have to condemn the bombers and the child-neglecters for failing to do their epistemic duty and, thereby, reject religion.

My third example is ignorant voting, which has come under some attention lately because of a very interesting paper by Jason Brennan (I’ve read it, it’s extremely good, at least in my not-worth-very-much opinion) arguing that ignorant citizens have a moral duty not to vote. Given the benefits to democracy from high (informed) participation, however, his argument might equally well lead to the duty to become informed.

Finally, a classic example is the law of negligence. In the formalization of Learned Hand’s classic formulation in United States v. Carroll Towing, a defendant has a duty of care if B<PL — that is, if the cost of taking care is less than the probability-weighted consequence of a loss. If we imagine that the law confers moral duties and that the care-taking in some given case is a matter of knowledge (imagine a doctor who didn’t read the latest medical journal and thus missed an obvious diagnosis, killing a patient), then we have a straighforward example of a connection between moral and epistemic duties.

Do you think that the idea of epistemic duties as moral duties is a useful unified way to think about these sorts of problems?

* Incidentally, I fail to see the difference between religiously motivated violence and religiously motivated child neglect. In each case, people do harm to innocent others out of the belief that some god ordered it. Why do those who deny medical care and education to their children get off so much easier than those who blow up buses? One reason might be that parents have some special privilege with respect to their children, but then how do we justify permitting religious opposition to stymie stem cell research, where no such privilege exists?


4 Responses to “When are epistemic duties also moral duties?”

  1. The 79th Philosophers’ Carnival « Possibly Philosophy Says:

    [...] Gowder* discusses the relationship between epistemic duties and moral duties in When are epistemic duties also moral duties?. From Uncommon [...]

  2. Rita Says:

    I’ve been involved in discussions about “alternative” medicine recently and was moved to bring in the concept of epistemic duty – sharp end cases like the Australian homeopaths recently jailed for not treating their infant daughter, with the result that the child died a miserable death, make one think this may be in line with the cases mentioned here of religiously-motivated witholding of treatment. Of course, usually there is not so much direct harm involved in the use of unproven alternatives, but once it has been established where it can lead, do people not have a moral duty to think this issue through?

  3. ZT Says:

    “…One reason might be that parents have some special privilege with respect to their children, but then how do we justify permitting religious opposition to stymie stem cell research, where no such privilege exists? ”

    1. Because it’s using thier tax money.
    2. Because claiming all or even most religious groups oppose stem cell research (and abortion) on purely theological grounds is possibly the most commonly repeated straw man attack in current political discourse.

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    What grounds other than theological ones could there possibly be to oppose stem cell research?

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