There is widespread public consensus that it is immoral to judge people based on immutable traits. Just look at the way "sexist", "racist", and "homophobe" are used and you see what I mean.

There is also widespread public consensus that it is moral to judge people based on their beliefs. Just look at the way "communist" and "fascist" are used to see what I mean.

It seems to me there is a contradiction here. I don't think anyone chooses their beliefs. Belief is something that happens to you, you are convinced. I mean just try to sincerely believe 2+2=5. It can't be done. So to me, belief seems like an immutable trait as well.

Am I missing something, or is this cognitive dissonance?

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    People are morally judged on how they act. Being a pedophile might be an immutable trait, but people are judged as immoral if they act on it. They are similarly judged as immoral if they act on fascist beliefs. But beliefs are not as immutable as genetic predispositions. People have a large degree of control over many of them, albeit not immediate control. Elementary logic and arithmetic are not in the same category as political ideology in this regard. The latter can be changed by self-education and reflection, and if people fail to do their due diligence they can be judged on that too.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 18:04
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    Cognitive dissonance is the mild anxiety that one feels when faced with a contradiction. If you feel that P1 and P2 are contradictory, then you feel cognitive dissonance and that drives you to attempt to reconcile or ignore the contradiction.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 18:57
  • Added tags 'logic', 'moral-agency', and 'emotivism'
    – J D
    Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 19:25
  • Beliefs are not isolated statements, beliefs are coherent with each owns' system of truth, which is finally determined by will. That's why most people think different to you. I do believe that 2+2=5 in certain physical conditions, due to the subjectivities we imprint in math (an example: pi is not 3.14159, this lacks of digits, and you will never find a pi value correctly written in a book, because we can't print infinite digits; our solution is rounding, and rounding is subjective).
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Feb 12, 2022 at 3:15
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    It is also widespread public consensus that "widespread public consensus" is neither an accurate nor an ethical way to evaluate the world, people and/or ideas.. Commented Feb 12, 2022 at 15:11

2 Answers 2


One may revert to the beginning and ask, why is a judgement being given in the first place? Two basic motives enter the mind: (1) An attempt to change or reeducate the recipient; (2) An attempt to downsize or excommunicate the recipient. The former focuses on internal attributes; the latter on external. Both attempt to change attributes of the recipient.

Obviously an attempt to change a truly immutable internal attribute of another makes little sense. But one can still seek to change external attributes like social status based on internal attributes like gender. Naturally the morality of this depends on one's values and moral system. But as mentioned in the question, the modern trend is to frown upon this type of judgement, particularly as it interferes with equality of opportunity.

In the case of beliefs, an attempt to change those of another is rational only in the case that those beliefs were arrived in error. That is, unless we hold a value system in which false beliefs can be preferable, then we are perhaps morally obliged to establish the source of discrepancy between our beliefs and theirs. Even should we conclude that their beliefs were indeed found in error, we still ought seek to resolve the error at its source, rather than pouring our beliefs upon the other in vain righteousness.

This ought of belief resolution applies unless our goal is not education but rather an attempt to change external attributes, including internalised ones like self-esteem. To downsize a person for having arrived at beliefs through legitimate personal experience may well be judging a person for having the wrong upbringing or other external circumstances. The root issue here is truth or fallacy of attribution. Maybe this potential fallacy was the source of dissonance behind the question.

In conclusion, to find and fix using proper methodology the source of belief discrepancy brings arguably no contradiction; but to downsize another for having been surrounded by particular external circumstances may be fallacious. The key difference is in the assumptions and intent of judgement.

  • Regarding your "This ought of belief resolution applies unless our goal is not education but rather an attempt to change external attributes, including internalised ones like self-esteem.", can you elaborate more on this sentence? Why there's difference between the goal of education and the goal to change external attributes? Commented Feb 12, 2022 at 2:02
  • @DoubleKnot -- In this context education was meant as an internal attribute, versus social status or other social constructs -- in other words, personal change versus social change, knowledge versus status. As for why it matters, the point was that updating beliefs is presumably non-contradictory while judging on external circumstances can be contradictory per OP since both external circumstances and immutable internal attributes may be out of the recipient's control.
    – Michael
    Commented Feb 12, 2022 at 2:20

Short Answer

There's not a pat answer for your question, because your question requires an articulation of certain metaphysical presumptions including those on ethics, agency, and free will.

My brief response would be there's probably contradiction in the two positions you list, because most people have contradictions in their ethical beliefs, and largely operate on intuition and social conditioning. To be free of contradiction is to be an expert in formal and informal logic, and anecdotally, I'd argue very few of those exist. In fact, one group of philosophers, believe that ethical claims are largely emotive.

Long Answer

There may not be a scientific contradiction, because appearance can serve psychologically as a shortcut in the decision making procedure. In fact, one popularly cited cognitive bias might be at the root of your question: the fundamental attribution error. From WP:

In social psychology, fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational and environmental explanations for an individual's observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations. This effect has been described as "the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are",8 that is, to overattribute their behaviors (what they do or say) to their personality and underattribute them to the situation or context.

And generally, one's personality often is correlated with one's appearance and the immutability of one's traits.

From a philosophical standpoint, many argue that morality is largely an emotional gut reaction, a metaethical position known as emotivism. It's likely there's a contradiction buried in their somewhere! That's true of most theories, particularly those not vetted by thinkers. It may be that whatever contradiction you can distill from your question largely reduces to psychological rather than logical motivations. (See What does it mean for a proposition to be without cognitive content? (PhilSE)).

Whether there is a contradiction is based on your metaphysical presuppositions. In plenty of cultures, it's not immoral to judge someone based on their looks. In fact, genocide is partly fueled by xenophobia, and it's argued that the impulse towards in-group/out-group thinking is endemic to the human condition.

People judge. Actions? Sure. Looks? Sure. Immutable traits? Sure. In contemporary social-democracies, there's an emphasis on multiculturalism and that's the push to reduce judgements against things, ideas, people, etc. that are different to facilitate eusocial behavior. Certainly, on the plains of Africa a million years ago, tribal competition and the hostility of the environment favored snap judgements. Evolutionary psychology has a lot to say about how the brain makes snap decisions. An excellent work on this topic is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel-prize winning behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman.

Now, is it true that you cannot chose your beliefs? Perhaps, but why are you so sure? If you chose to educate yourself at some point, did you not expose yourself to a series of claims that you thought about to arrive at the point of new beliefs? One fascinating thing about beliefs is that people work very hard to maintain them, which is a choice of sorts. Don't the Three Wise Monkeys say something about how people avoid beliefs by isolating themselves from experience? You might not be able to choose a belief in the immediate sense, but don't you bear some responsibility for choosing to open yourself to new experiences that might transform your beliefs? Let's say you're a bishop, and you have ultraconservative views on human nature, and then you volunteer to work in the slums, and then find your beliefs transformed so that you now believe in very liberal views on human nature. Have you not indirectly chosen these beliefs? Of course, an answer to this question revolves around your beliefs on free will.

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