Suppose a white supremacist to whom non-white races are inferior. Do they commit an immoral act insofar as they verbally or physically act on what they believe? Or is the belief itself immoral?

What’s the harm in a belief? Free will is required for morality to apply in the domain of epistemology. Do people have voluntary "control" over their beliefs? If not, how can beliefs be moral or immoral?

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    Does it make sense to choose our own beliefs, though? even if we grant complete libertarian free will, people believe according to the evidence and cognitive ability available to them at the time. The idea of someone having the conscious thought process "I find evidence for A is more convincing, but I'll believe B instead, that I know to be false" seems absurd. People sometime say "I choose to believe X", but it's more of a speech mannerism. What they mean is "I am not convinced of X, but choose to act as if X is true for some other reason" (social acceptance, etc).
    – armand
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 0:38
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    @global, how would you know if white supremacists rarely keep their opinions to themselves? Just because there are a few loudmouths online doesn't mean that there aren't a lot more hiding in the shadows. Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 1:04
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    kinda irrelevant to philosophy imho @DavidGudeman one can easily change "often" to "do not always" and we have an argument that makes no difference to what i was saying. hth
    – user65545
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 1:10
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    Yes, see Bashour, Immoral Beliefs:"Some beliefs are considered immoral because of their consequences (either actual or possible). I have called these ‘consequentially immoral beliefs’. Other beliefs may be considered immoral because they have moral content and involve poor justification... Finally, other beliefs, which I have called ‘immorally acquired beliefs’, may be considered immoral because they were reached through immoral means."
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 4:03
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    The position that we have voluntary control over our beliefs, at least indirect control, is called doxastic voluntarism, see IEP:"philosophers seem to have reached a consensus on one aspect of the debate, recognizing that indirect doxastic voluntarism is true." Direct doxastic voluntarism is controversial and is actively debated.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 4:09

7 Answers 7


Let us leave aside the obvious objection that questions of morality never have absolute answers, so what might be deemed immoral by one person or group might not be deemed immoral by another.

Given that, I would say that most writings on morality tend to focus on the moral nature of actions and behaviours, or their consequences, with little explicit reference to the moral qualities of beliefs per se. That said, it seems rather artificial to consider beliefs in isolation, since presumably our beliefs have a bearing on our behaviour. Given that, if your beliefs are a cause of immoral behaviour on your part, then your beliefs could be deemed immoral. Consequentialists tend to judge the moral characteristics of actions by the impact they have, so if your beliefs genuinely had no impact on anybody- in other words, if hypothetically you held a particular belief but you never acted upon it- then in a consequentialist sense your beliefs might be considered to have no moral value one way or the other. Suppose, for example, I considered theft to be legitimate, but I never allowed that view to affect my behaviour, then you might argue that the belief had no moral impact. Conversely, you might argue that by harbouring such a view of theft, I was leaving myself open to the idea of committing theft, so that I was in effect incubating an immoral intent. That said, there are other points of view which insist that certain patterns of thought are essentially wicked, regardless of whether they lead to wicked actions.

  • It reminds me of the argument that some people can use recreational drugs or alcohol safely, and others cannot. The drug is not immoral, and the use of it is not immoral, but instead the person using it who cannot do so safely. Same as not driving a car if you can't reach the brake pedal adequately. It ceases to be a 'moral' question and simply becomes an individual and practical one.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 21:12

Free will is required for morality to apply in the domain of epistemology. Do people have voluntary "control" over their beliefs? If not, how can beliefs be moral or immoral?

Let's say that we declare that “free will” doesn’t exist, what practical consequence will have? Are you going to change how you behave, how society is constructed, and justice is enforced? Are you going to stop asking people to explain their actions?
Our morality is not undermined by the idea that there may be no “free will”. Even if "free will" doesn't exist, we want to live in a moral society. So actions will be moral and immoral, without required "free will".

Suppose a white supremacist to whom non-white races are inferior. Do they commit an immoral act insofar as they verbally or physically act on what they believe? Or is the belief itself immoral? What’s the harm in a belief?

For some people, the knife of ethics can cut deeper. Ideas can be considered immoral because of the increased possibility of causing immoral actions. For example, atheism is considered immoral by some people, because it can create a society without God, where everything is allowed. It increases the possibility of immoral actions, it's an immoral idea. Other people can consider the idea of God immoral because it can make people kill other people in the name of God.

In our example: someone with "white superiority" can increase the possibility of a racist attack. So yes, if you believe that a certain idea can enforce a specific immoral tendency, it's logical to be considered immoral.

But that doesn't mean that people that hold these ideas are immoral. Ideas can push a certain tendency to society as a whole but they don't say anything for the individual. We can't know what conclusion an individual will reach, or what actions he will end up taking based only on his ideas. In reality, we can't exclude any idea as possible to be immoral (or moral) to the individual e.g "People are all equal, so no one is worth, no one is unique, so I am allowed to kill." or "White people are superior, so we need to help and pay more attention to non-whites." Don't underestimate people's stupidity.

So even if an idea can be considered immoral, the beliefs of a person can't be considered immoral and a person shouldn't be judged only by this info.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 10:12

Short answer: sorta?

Slightly longer answer: probably, at least under some moralities; but be careful of definition differences.

Longer answer still: the immoral beliefs usually are immoral because of the immoral behavior they inspire. Lack of the behavior implies the thought is not strongly held enough to count as a "belief".

For example, in Christianity (and probably also other religions), you're expected to "repent your sins", as in, sincerely regret the patterns of behavior designated as "sin", and try to get rid of them. This usually requires also getting rid of the underlying desires.

But let's suppose that "belief" strictly means "matter of fact" rather than "matter of what to do about the facts". Under that definition (and excluding less-obviously-objective beliefs like "I believe X would be better off dead"), I would say that no, beliefs cannot be immoral on their own.

But frequently the definition of "belief" used is fuzzier.

To go back to your original example - the specific belief "X races are inferior to Y race along Z axis" is not itself immoral (though it's definitely underspecified as to what "inferior" means), but the closely-related "X races should therefore be treated worse than Y race" can be immoral; either way, though, the action is certainly more, and more consistently, treated as immoral than the thought.


The philosopher supremo, Jesus of Nazareth, had much to say in reply to your question. He realized that, not just action, but attitudes are morally important. What a man thinks in his heart is subject to adjudication.

The examples He gave dealt with murder and adultery, two very common topics in dealing with human nature in any society. If anyone has hatred in his heart, he has committed emphasized textmurder already andIf anyone has looks upon a woman to lust after her, he as committed adultery already. This was His insight on this topic. He seemed to realize that integrity and character begin in the heart, and then results in good conduct. Compelling "good conduct" (by law or by nagging) without transforming the attitude lacks genuine ethics.

This answer assumes that "attitude" is a form of "belief" of which you are inquiring.


At the risk of sounding a little trite:

1: If it is possible for a person to choose a belief (a controversial claim), and

2: If a definition of morality is agreed upon, then

3: A person who chooses to believe in a proposition which contradicts the agreed-upon morality might be committing an immoral act, but

4: We don't tend to believe in things which are contrary to our morality. Otherwise, we wouldn't hold to such a morality in the first place. Our moralities tend to coincide with our beliefs. For a belief to be immoral therefore, it will generally only be immoral to someone else who holds an opposing morality; not to the believer themselves (an exception might be somethinglike a 'hot blood' murder, in which emotions lead us to act in a way at odds with our typical, calmer attitude).

Behaviour then, it seems, takes precedence over belief. (If we constrain ourselves morally in order to conform to social expectation, we will be viewed as moral beings - until such time as we betray our true opinions).

So. Does it matter if we hold to an 'apalling' morality but behave as though a 'saint'? Now that's an interesting question; one with a range of fascinating social, psychological and philosophical responses.


What maral are you talking about? Moral based on principles or moral based on rules?

Ofc moral rules based on believes. Why you killed him? because he was evil. Why do you think that he was evil? Because I believe he is evil. Typical inquisition logic. Murdering is immoral but we can kill evil on behalf of God. So, believes in something can give following immoral actions. But i don't know why you call this moral. Because moral are not based on believes.

Principles based moral haven't "believes". For example in Bible Jesus never said about moral believes, belief is belong to God, not to something else specific, individual or concrete.

And about moral. Moral have only 2 principles, called Golden one. Negative and positive forms. Negative is more ancient: don't do evil. That mean if you are not sure you won't do any evil, don't do this . And positive one: do good things. Tha mean if you are able to do something, try to think what good you will create or art in external world, not for selfish ambitions.

N form used primarily on east, P form used on west. But both depends not on "believes" but on logic, open vision and knowledges. Without any secrets, mystic and tricks. Maybe moral little bit boring, but moral is an inner power, not outside rules.

All other that called "moral", "moral rules", "moral believes" - is a fake moral based on smart tricks.

So answer you question: all believes are always immoral, because they can't be saved while metanoia, same as immoral always based at believes, not at minding(don't confuse believes and belief).


Those are actually a whole lot of questions and the answers heavily depends on unstated parameters. Like morality is just about "doing the right thing". But what is that, who defines that and who judges whether an action fits the definition. And in that judgement you could again take either the perspective of the person acting or the perspective of a bystander looking at the result of the action.

So if they actually believe that nonsense, craft a morality based on it, which then prescribes things like "assaulting other people is good" and then act upon that prescription, then they would be technically acting "moral"... that is towards their own (and hopefully exclusively their own) morality.

Seriously if you believe X is good and then do X, because you believe X is good, then that's pretty much the definition of acting moral. It's a case of logically valid reasoning based on bullshit premises that are treated as axiomatic. Like that's a trivial and not terribly interesting case.

And from the point of society the judgement of their action should also be pretty trivial. It's a bad action with regards to the result, it's widely obviously communicated that it's a bad action, it's done deliberately and not by accident ... so from the point of society the action is obviously immoral. And as that believe prescribed and thus "necessitates" the immoral action, it's not much of a stretch to argue it's immoral as well, at the very least by it's result being bad. You can further differentiate between the logical reasoning and the flawed premise, but either way for any moral framework that not subscribes to that flawed premise, it's pretty bad.

Now your actual question seem to be whether the person is culpably guilty. In the sense of having an awareness of the immorality of the deed and of the belief and thus as to whether they themselves are responsible for the evil being done. And again yeah pretty much, they likely were aware of the existing laws and regulations and made the deliberate choice to put their own moral compass above that, which is a violation of the monopoly of morality that the monopoly of violence seems to claim and thus he is fully culpably guilty of the crime.

So if the question is really just about whether it's immoral (from the standpoint of society), yes it is.

The crux is not to label the action or the believe the crux is what to do with the culprit. Like the goal of the institutions concerned with creating and upholding morality, is to encourage "good" actions and prevent "bad" actions. And for example punishing people for actions that were outside of their control, like accidents, is something that is possible, but pointless. Because the individual involved in the accident is not the cause of the accident they are so to say just the last domino piece.

So even if we assume the individual to be without free will and only look at these interactions as chains of events, as domino pieces pushing the next in line, we could nevertheless distinguish between whether a piece is at the beginning or at the end of the chain and we can look at different chain of events and determine the different options and the likelihood of them occurring and thus make predictions about cause and effect and thus see which effects are unavoidable and where we've got a handle on things if we changed the trajectory of the domino piece or our trajectory to not be made one.

Though regardless of whether human beings are deterministic or possess free will, it's still probably better to model them as possessing free will as, apart from a few edge cases the range of human options is so vast and unpredictable that it makes sense to thing of them as subjects rather than objects.

And of course thought, feelings, emotions, believes, anxieties, hopes, dreams, desires and whatnot are domino pieces in the chain of cause and effect and can be labeled as good or bad. It's asinine to think they aren't, the crux more that they are difficult to work with.

They are hard to detect and quantify, up to the point of "irrationality" (not really, but an observer might have a hard time figuring out the rationality in it) and they can be fleeting and changing on a whim all while possessing the strongest possible justifying powers that a human being could subjectively experience.

So if your society aims at equality and a mutual coexistence of equals then it absolutely could and should see believes to the contrary as problematic regardless of whether they are "free willed deliberate individual malice" or "a force of nature". Though what constitutes an appropriate reaction to it would probably be difficult.

It's not "just an opinion" but a clear threat to the fundamental values of society and beyond a certain point it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy especially if the racists have the power to frame the debate. Like if you harass people 99 times and they fight back and you only show that with no context you can retroactively justify the harassment and stuff like that.

So no that is serious and can and does do a lot of harm. The problem is rather where is it coming from what attracts people to it, what's the grain of truth used to sell the lies and so on. So do people extrapolate individual experience to a whole group of people, is there a general atmosphere of fear that is bred and nurtured, is there misinformation being disseminated. Is there an identifiable source, is there a group that is recruiting or is it more of a general vibe in the population? Are people actually motivated by the bullshit or just follow along because you have lots of outcasts who want to be part of something and are willing to believe negative framing about people they that they don't like or don't care about?

The problem is usually that the reasons for becoming a racist are multifaceted and personal, while the effect of it is monolithicly bad. And if the demand of your group is something unacceptable like the discrimination of another group then accepting it is impossible, even considering it rationally is problematic but ignoring it also frustrates those sporting that message, so it's lose lose and at that point you've probably have to consider them an enemy and go for containment. Which is not great at all and not a long term strategy.

So if it were to be that simple like in your example it wouldn't actually be a problem, yes treat that believe as immoral and that's it. But usually live is more complicated.

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