Moral judgements are a certain species of normative judgement that people make about the actions of others. However, there are instances where I am tempted to say that you can be judged as "wrong" in non-moral contexts.

I'm specifically interested in the following example: It's generally accepted that people have some kind of obligation to have their beliefs accord with the actual state of the universe. If I believe that Hilary Clinton is the President of the United States and choose to actively ignore any evidence to the contrary, it seems like I am doing something wrong. However, it seems weird to think that I am morally wrong to do so. But what other manner is there for me to be judged?

It feels "obvious" that the answer should be "epistemically wrong" as the mistake I am making is an epistemological one. This requires an account of normative epistemology that I don't think has achieved much consensus, although it can be found in some writers (Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Hegel) in different ways.

An ideal answer would give an account of how/on what basis normative judgement of this sort arises (or argue that it doesn't exist), with reference to contemporary or subsequent work in addition to the intellectual giants I have referenced.

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    Interesting ! See Metaethics and Moral Epistemology. But also Kant's Theory of Judgment : your example is a sort of practical judgements (an evaluation) because produces actions, but it is not affecting the "good" (i.e. moral). Mar 22, 2017 at 15:06
  • If you are asking for a normative judgement that isn't specifically about morality, initially I would say something about "best practices" in a professional setting. For instance, if doing something a certain way is way more efficient than another, a supervisor might make the normative judgement that one worker is better, more efficient, etc. than another because they always do tasks more efficiently than the other. Maybe someone would make the argument that "it's immoral to be inefficient because you're wasting resources" but that seems like a stretch.
    – Not_Here
    Mar 22, 2017 at 15:59
  • A normative judgement such as "it's better to do a task this way" or "you should always do a task this way" due to efficiency seems to be outside of the realm of morality. Maybe if somebody's life is on the line because you're a firefighter it has to do with morality, but in terms of filling out office paperwork, that doesn't seem to be a good argument. As to how those types of judgements arise, that's probably a complicated psychological answer having to do with why we value resources and why we would prefer efficiency over unnecessary expenditure.
    – Not_Here
    Mar 22, 2017 at 16:02
  • So, yes you could be blameworthy of wasting time or resources without having committed a morally wrong action. Think of a kid who is doodling on paper in class instead of writing notes. Is what they did "morally wrong?" Not really, but they are guilty of wasting their time and not using their resources efficiently.
    – Not_Here
    Mar 22, 2017 at 16:06
  • See Practical Reason; I would not say that "we have some kind of obligation to have our beliefs in accord with the actual state of the universe."... it would be quite "impractical" to jump from the 10th floor becuase our belief is not in accord with. Mar 22, 2017 at 16:20

4 Answers 4


This is an interesting question, but it has so many layers that it is hard to answer it well.

First, the question itself asks "is X blameworthy?" And this implies that there is a category of moral blame. This implies a moral theory where there are epistemic requirements for moral agency. The first article that comes to mind here is GEM Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy", and the idea is that on a neo-Aristotelian picture wrong is often identical with blameworthy. Conversely, excellence is praise-worthy.

These aspects don't hinge on whether people do praise or blame you but only on whether considered by the man of practical wisdom (phronemos), they would be blameworthy or praiseworthy. On such a picture, willful ignorance is clearly not praise-worthy.

Stated in more broadly Aristotelian terms, to do right is to use our nature to its maximum capacity and to do wrong is to abuse our nature. Clearly, reasoning incorrectly can be an instance of this.

But this account's focus on blame will wipe out two of the more common contenders for moral theory of the century: utilitarianism (and its kin) and Kantianism. So Let's put this aside and change your question to "is it morally wrong not to know something?"

You're also asking about ignorance. Here, you are asking is ignorance ever wrong? And the answer for all types of theories is yes. One of the more elaborate accounts of this happens in Augustine's considerations of moral ignorance. And in fact, this helps to create part of why we haven't followed the Aristotelian model of blame and praise.

On Augustine's account, we can be held responsible for sinning even if we did not know, because we failed in our duty to know things like the law. Building on Plato, he works out a system that is reflected in the Western legal system: ignorance of the law is no excuse. (an idea also worked out in Stoicism).

You also mention "morality" which brings to mind Kant. There's actually a pretty clear line in Kant's thought that we are in the wrong if we lie to ourselves. For Kant, this is to not treat oneself as a rational being (MPV - don't have the page number off the top of my head). But I don't think we are responsible on the Kantian picture for mere factual ignorance.

For contemporary literature, that's a bit away from what I work on, but I think McDowell might have something if you are looking for this in the Aristotelian vein. Otherwise, I might suggest the virtue epistemologists (Ernest Sosa, John Greco, Robert Roberts, and others) who are going to be working on the intersection of morality and epistemology. But if you are trying to avoid virtue ethics as the approach here, I'm not sure who to suggest.

  • Thanks a lot for the response! I'm honestly just trying to get a feel for what is out there and what people are thinking. I got an undergraduate degree in philosophy in the US, but focused almost exclusively on metaphysics and epistemology, especially logic and the philosophy of science. I have a basic understanding of moral discourse of course, but when I started seriously thinking about this idea I realized I didn't know who might have written about it. I read Modern Moral Philosophy in college and I'll reread that and look at modern virtue ethics (which is something that appeals to me!) Mar 24, 2017 at 14:22
  • The words "analytic and historical" were supposed to show up in this describing what I took courses in Mar 24, 2017 at 15:07
  • You're welcome. I did all of my degrees in the US (BS, MA, MPhil, PhD), but my focus in my research has been on modern philosophy. I think the main people dealing with: can you be blamed for reasoning incorrectly today are the virtue epistemologists. Which post-gettier has been a pretty popular field.
    – virmaior
    Mar 24, 2017 at 21:05

There are lots of interesting theories about what it means to believe something, and why we do it. I don't think we need to get in the high weeds here though. In general, to believe a statement is to think that it is true. We believe things because we think they are true.

It isn't clear that we can believe or disbelieve statements at will. Certainly if I told you, "I'll give you $5 if you believe that you have grown wings", you would not get richer in the immediate future. If this trend does not generalize, that is to say, if believe can be voluntary, then a few empirical tests will show that this is only relevant in extreme cases, not simple matters of fact like "who got more votes in the electoral college".

So one thing we could do is reject your premises entirely: if someone says I believe that Hilary Clinton is the President of the United States and choose to actively ignore any evidence to the contrary, they are lying in the first half of the sentence. Then it is clear what the problem is, and it is indeed a moral one. Lying is (in general) wrong. What's more, the speaker is using themself purely as a means, to avoid unpleasant news.

But say they are telling the truth---they do in fact believe that Hilary Clinton is the president of the US. Then of course they are wrong as in incorrect. We want to say that they shouldn't have this belief, because we want our beliefs to be true. I don't have a universal solution, but I think, if you ask the person, "Do you particularly want to believe only true things?" and they answer in the affirmative, then they are contradicting their own will by believing something false. This is bad in lots of frameworks---their soul is disharmonious, they are not being rational, etc.

I cannot imagine someone honestly answering in the negative. Perhaps there are statements that we do not want to know, but we certainly do not want to know false statements.

Fun side note:

The situation itself is a case of Kripke's paradox of dogmatism, which goes roughly as follows:

  1. If a statement is true, then any statement to the contrary must not be true.
  2. If I know a statement p, then p must be true.


  1. Statements to the effect of not-p must not be true.

What's more,

  1. From a purely epistemic point of view, I should ignore any statement I know to be false.


  1. I should ignore all statements to the effect of not-p.

That's a really tricky one, and solutions are probably not relevant to this question, but I hope it'll be fun to chew over.

  • Something weird happens here when we look at certain religions, such as Catholicism. It's a widespread position that humans are not meant to understand the trinity. On virtually all readings, the doctrine of the trinity and specifically the Athanesian Creed are logically contradictory. Generally the approach that Catholics take is to claim that it captures a truth beyond the potential for human understanding in a meaningful way and is best understood through faith alone. Mar 24, 2017 at 14:14
  • This is not quite the assertion to believe a falsehood, but rather that religious merit trumps logical merit when it comes to justifying the truth. The catholic doesn't say that the Athanasian Creed is wrong. The Athanasian Creed is the Divine Truth of God. But the Athanasian Creed is true... in spite of logic, maybe? The idea that logic is the arbiter of truth is a decidedly Enlightenment ideal. Mar 24, 2017 at 14:16

The topic that you refer to seems to be what has been called the ethics of belief. It is old at least as Socrates's "the unexamined life is not worth living". Some related products of ancient philosophy are the skeptic (Phyrronist) doctrines, which linked epistemological purity to tranquility and happiness. In modern times, although many philosophers have brushed against the subject, there is a short essay from 1877 that stands out as a new beginning. It is an essay by W. K. Clifford, appropriately titled The Ethics of Belief. Clifford emphatically argued that forming beliefs is a deeply moral issue, on both practical and principled grounds. Because the essay does not seem to be widely known, I'll copy Clifford's apt opening example in full.

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

So there are potential dire consequences to make-believing. Two other arguments of Clifford's are, first, that forming a belief without a proper inquiry will ruin a person's intrinsic credibility, and will thereby ruin a basic bond of society. Second, that no belief is too small or insignificant. Every belief counts, because if you neglect once, you will neglect again, and also influence others to neglect. Clifford concludes that it is immoral ever to form a belief without a proper inquiry.

It is not only the leader of men, statesmen, philosopher, or poet, that owes this bounden duty to mankind. Every rustic who delivers in the village alehouse his slow, infrequent sentences, may help to kill or keep alive the fatal superstitions which clog his race. Every hard-worked wife of an artisan may transmit to her children beliefs which shall knit society together , or rend it in pieces. No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe...

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

One interesting response to Clifford's severe maxim was William James's essay The Will to Believe (1897). James accepted Clifford's claims in part, but argued that in some specified circumstances, it is justified to believe without sufficient evidence. Religion, unsurprisingly, was the main case in point. This has, by the way, a precedent in Kant, who also argued in favor of believing in God, not on the basis of knowledge or evidence.


Maybe more of a comment, but a few quick points that might be interesting to explore. The Talmud says that an error in study is considered intentional:

Be careful in study, for an error in study is considered an intentional transgression.

Pirkei Avot 4:13:1

This sounds maybe like it's talking about intellectual honesty and conscience. But in a certain way the context here may actually be about the stratification and power dynamic at the heart of the pedagogical relation -- not just that teaching involves a basic difference between people with and without intellectual authority; but rather that teaching involves a discernment about the nature of the student, their level of maturity and the kind of material they are ready for.

"An error in study" is also an error in instruction -- teaching someone "wrongly", before they might be ready for some given material, or for some particularly nuanced aspect of a given problem. In particular, there are several verses that are explicitly indicated as not to be taught unless a student is definitely ready; and even entire books (like the Zohar) that, again according to rabbinical commentary, a student isn't supposed to read until they're fifty years of age at least.

All this is perhaps to say: education is never just individual study -- but always caught up in a social process of instruction and correction, of continual revision. Errors in study have ethical and moral import because they may refer to a lack of discrimination of the teacher -- not to have corrected an error in the student before it was too late -- and thus this has an ethical line associated with it: not to teach anyone anything for which they aren't yet ready. In particular this cements an essentially patronizing idea that there are many things "one is not ready" to know.

To oppose this, we could affirm a transcendental equality of thinking -- or take as an axiom a kind of universal cognitive aptitude. The latter approach sometimes takes the form of an equality of intelligences as in Ranciere's Ignorant Schoolmaster. The former is at work in Laruelle's notion of a transcendental equality of all thoughts.

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