BELIEFS THAT WRONG
You shouldn’t have done it. But you did. Against your better judgment you scrolled to the end of an article concerning the state of race relations in America and you are now reading the comments. Amongst the slurs, the get-rich-quick schemes, and the threats of physical violence, there is one comment that catches your eye. Spencer argues that although it might be “unpopular” or “politically incorrect” to say this, the evidence supports believing that the black diner in his section will tip poorly. He insists that the facts don’t lie. The facts aren’t racist. In denying his claim and in believing otherwise, it is you who engages in wishful thinking. It is you who believes against the evidence. You, not Spencer, are epistemically irrational.
My dissertation gives an account of the moral-epistemic norms governing belief that will help us answer Spencer and the challenge he poses. We live in a society that has been shaped by racist attitudes and institutions. Given the effects of structural racism, Spencer’s belief could have considerable evidential support. Spencer notes that it might make him unpopular, but he cares about the truth and he is willing to believe the unpopular thing. But, Spencer’s belief seems racist. Spencer asks, however, how could his belief be racist if his beliefs reflect reality and are rationally justified? Moreover, how could he wrong anyone by believing what he epistemically ought to believe given the evidence? In answer, I argue that beliefs can wrong.
Basu, R. Forthcoming. “The Specter of Normative Conflict”, in An Introduction to Implicit Bias: Knowledge, Justice, and the Social Mind, eds. Erin Beeghly and Alex Madva. Under contract with Routledge.
A challenge we face in a world that has been shaped by, and continues to be shaped by, racist attitudes and institutions is that the evidence is often stacked in favour of racist beliefs. As a result, we may find ourselves facing the following normative conflict: you ought (epistemically) believe p, but you ought (morally) not believe p. When the specter of normative conflict looms, what do we do? Do we simply face, as Tamar Gendler (2011) suggests, a tragic irresolvable dilemma that arises because we live in an unjust world? In this chapter, I consider how these cases of normative conflict should be understood and canvas the viability of suggested resolutions of the conflict.
Basu, R. & Schroeder, M. Forthcoming. “Doxastic Wrongings”, in Pragmatic Encroachment in Epistemology, eds. Brian Kim and Matthew McGrath. Under contract with Routledge.
The idea that we can wrong someone not just by what we do, but by what we believe, is a natural one. It is the kind of wrong we feel when those we love believe the worst about us, and it is one of the salient wrongs of racism and sexism. Nonetheless, it is philosophically puzzling how we could wrong one another by virtue of what we believe about them. This paper defends the idea that we can wrong one another by what we believe about them from two puzzles. The first assumption is a psychological thesis about belief: our beliefs are at the mercy of the evidence, thus we lack the right sort of control over our beliefs for them to be subject to moral evaluation. The second is the assumption that our epistemic reasons, our reasons for belief, are exhausted by evidential considerations. We defend an account of moral encroachment according to which (i) although our beliefs might be constrained by the evidence we are not at the mercy of the evidence, and (ii) our reasons for belief include non-evidential reasons, in particular, moral reasons.
Basu, R. & Schroeder, M. (eds.). Forthcoming. “Can Beliefs Wrong?”, special issue of Philosophical Topics.
The questions that we are interested in addressing in this special issue concern the perceived conflict between the intuitive idea that we can wrong one another by what we believe about each other, and the philosophically orthodox idea that the only norms that relate directly to belief concern truth-related factors such as evidence and reliability.
The idea that we can wrong someone by what we believe reveals itself in many different places. For example, one common formulation of the Christian Eucharistic confession, “we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed”, appeals to the idea that we can sin against God in thought, as well as in word and in deed. In addition, when loved ones believe the worst of us it is tempting to think that we can demand an apology for the beliefs they hold, and not just their actions. Many people also think that we can wrong not only the living but also the dead when we believe the worst of them. And at least one of the distinctive wrongs committed by a racist plausibly lies in what she believes about another human being. In all of these cases there is prima facie evidence that at least one important part of the wrong lies in the belief, and not merely the acts leading up to the belief or the acts that follow from the belief.
On the flip side, this idea that beliefs can wrong is philosophically puzzling. The norms that properly govern belief are plausibly epistemic norms such as truth, accuracy, and evidence. Moral and prudential norms play no role in settling the question of whether to believe p and they are irrelevant to answering the question of what you should believe. Consequently, from these principles it seems to follow that the person that believes of Barack Obama that he's more likely to be a valet than the President of the United States need only attend to the relevant statistical likelihoods before settling their belief. That they commit an injustice to Barack Obama when they mistake him for a valet ought to be irrelevant, in assessing the belief itself, as opposed to its consequences.
This leaves us with the question: can we wrong one another by virtue of what we believe about each other? That is, can beliefs wrong? If not, why not, and what is going on in cases like the foregoing, and if so, how, and what does that tell us about the content and nature of the norms governing belief?
In this special issue we hope to represent a range of responses to this central question of whether beliefs can wrong. For example, questions include, but are not limited to, the following: If beliefs wrong, do they also wrong when they are supported by the evidence? Does it make a difference whether the belief is true or false? Can you know that p if the belief is morally wrong? If beliefs can't wrong because they aren't the kind of thing that could wrong, why is that? Could beliefs be morally wrong, but not directed wrongs? Which epistemic attitudes—credences, belief, disbelief, acceptance, etc.—are subject to moral appraisal? How does the question of whether beliefs can wrong play out in particular cases of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.? What are the epistemic consequences, if there are any, of our interpersonal relationships?
This issue is expected to be in print in Spring 2018.