When Do False Beliefs Exculpate? (Pt. II)

08 January 2021

For last month’s pandemic puzzle, I posed the title question of this blog, noting that I meant it in a moral sense (rather than a legal one):

When do false beliefs exculpate?

The idea is that sometimes having a false belief exculpates one of a wrongdoing, but other times not—and perhaps even the opposite. 

My example of a false belief that does exculpate was a vet who accidentally puts down the wrong dog, because it looks almost identical to the one she was in fact supposed to put down: maybe she was careless (which is bad), but her false belief about the identity of the dog she put down exculpates her of murder (which is much worse). 

My example of a false belief that does not exculpate was someone from a racist cult who kills a person of a certain race out of the false belief that all people of that race are mindless bodies controlled by demons. That is still murder—the false belief notwithstanding. 

So in one case a false belief about what reality is like (which animal has which identity) lets a person off the moral hook for murder. But in another case the false belief about reality (who is human and who is controlled by demons) does not. Can we find a general principle that will distinguish the two kinds of cases? 

Last time, I floated the following as the principle that explains how false beliefs exculpate, calling it the false belief criterion of exculpation:

FBCE: If a person performs an action guided by a false belief, and that act would not count as a moral offence if the belief were true, then the person is not guilty of committing the offence.

This seemed promising, since it helped explain the vet case. But the racist-cult-murderer example shows that it can’t be right, because (as it stands) it would let the murderer of the hook, which is not the right result. So what shall we say?

My approach to solving this won’t involve discarding FBCE altogether. Rather, I’ll modify it in a way that will make it work, and I’ll do this in a way that takes its inspiration from Aristotle’s discussion of the moral import of ignorance in Nicomachean Ethics, Book III, though I piece the puzzle together somewhat differently from the way Aristotle does.

Two quotations from Aristotle will give us some material to work with:

1) In III.5 he writes: “No one would reproach a man blind from birth or by disease or from a blow, but rather pity him, while everyone would blame a man blind from drunkenness or some other form of self-indulgence.”

2) And earlier, in III.1, he writes: “What sort of acts, then, should be called compulsory? We answer that without qualification actions are so when the cause is in the external circumstances and the agent contributes nothing.” 

An important theme from the first quotation is that some limitations on knowledge (like blindness) are themselves culpable, while others are not. The theme of the second is how to sort out acts that a person was compelled to do from those that weren’t compelled: to the extent that the causes of the act were external—as opposed to originating from within the person’s own psyche—the act was compelled.

I think we can apply this perspective to beliefs, not just acts, in a way that can help us reach a solution (just keep in mind that the exact details of the solution would require a much longer paper!). 

False beliefs—as one kind of limitation on knowledge—can result either from unlucky external circumstances, from dereliction or negligence, or from active cultivation. Of course, probably almost no one actively cultivates them under the description that they are false. But people can indeed choose to do things that predictably cultivate the having of certain beliefs, which may in fact end up being false.

So the first step in the solution is to divide the routes to having a false belief into three rough categories: pure mistake (where the evidence was just misleading), negligence (where the agent failed to look at enough evidence), and active cultivation (where the agent takes active steps to convince themselves of a particular proposition). It may be that the lines between the first two categories are blurred, but the third is clearly distinct, since it involves a person’s willfully taking steps to acquire a belief with a specific content. And notably, people with religious allegiances are known to do this.

If all that is correct, then the move we can make is to add a * to FBCE, which would basically say that its exculpatory principle only covers false beliefs that are the result of pure mistakes and negligence; it does not include false beliefs that were actively cultivated. That leaves the ruling on the vet case as is. But it means that FBCE* does not imply that the racist-cult-murderer is exculpated, as long as it was the case that that person’s racist beliefs were actively cultivated (as seems likely). 

This approach seems to me to be on the right track. I’ll leave it to you to test against further hypothetical scenarios to see if it works generally!

There’s one more thing I’d like to say about the nature of active cultivation, which is relevant to the present cases. Some beliefs are such that they are much likelier to lead to acts that would be heinous atrocities (or perhaps milder forms of wrongdoing), if the belief contents were false. An example of belief contents that do not fit this description would be the Quaker belief that everyone has an inner Divine Light: even if it’s false, no one will get hurt from the acts that are motivated by it. But the contents of the racist-cult-murderer’s beliefs are like that, obviously. 

To my mind, that in fact adds a layer of culpability. Anyone who actively endeavors to convince themselves of something that would lead to what would be heinous atrocities if it were false is even more guilty of those heinous atrocities—no matter how convinced they are of the truth of their beliefs at the time of acting.


Comments (1)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, January 10, 2021 -- 6:15 AM

This is not where I thought

This is not where I thought you were going to go with this but this works.

There is passive cultivation perhaps with no one agent or agency even that drives people to do odd if not bad deeds. Should these people be held accountable? I don't know.

An interesting example of this is Travis Bickle from the movie 'Taxi Driver'. I will save the reader my thoughts but encourage those who have not seen the movie to watch it and think about Neil's post and the world as we know it.

This was a good read that got me to think. Thanks for the link.