When Do False Beliefs Exculpate? (Pt. I)

03 December 2020

Another month of pandemic. . . and another puzzle from me to distract you from it. For those of you who missed it so far, I’ve been doing philosophical pandemic puzzles since March, all of which are still available in the Philosophy Talk blog archive. As much as I enjoy doing these, I hope it will only be a few more months before I can bring the series to a close!

My first puzzle was about beliefs (are they under voluntary control?), and this one is too.

The present puzzle question is this: when do false beliefs exculpate someone of a moral wrongdoing?

My focus is specifically on moral wrongdoing, rather than prosecutable legal violations.

Consider a scenario involving the tragic death of an animal. A veterinarian has two dogs in her care, and the dogs look very similar. Call them Fred and Rufus. Let’s say that for whatever reason, Fred needs to be put down. However, the vet, falsely believing that Rufus is Fred, puts down Rufus. 

It is clear that the vet may be guilty of carelessness and even negligence. But we wouldn’t want to say that she was guilty of murdering Rufus, even though she did intentionally kill the animal whose name was Rufus (assume for the sake of argument that the term “murder” can in principle apply to the killing of animals). Effectively, then, her false belief that this dog [the one she was looking at] is Fred exculpates her of murder. So, in some way or another, false beliefs can (at least sometimes) morally exculpate.

That suggests something like the following, which we can call 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 particular moral offense if the belief were true, then the person is not guilty of committing the offense. 

Applying this to the vet case, we see that it works nicely. She would not count as committing murder if her belief about the identity of the dog had been true (after all, Fred did have to be put down), so by FBCE the action that she did perform (guided by her in fact false belief about the dog’s identity) does not count as murder either.

I think there’s something along these lines that has to be right. And in a way, it’s gestured at already by the familiar children’s cry, “I didn’t do it on purpose!” But a puzzle arises if we apply FBCE to another sort of case.

Consider a case of a person indoctrinated with a racist religious ideology. Call her Sarah. Sarah believes (falsely, of course) that all people (or merely apparent people, on her view) of a certain race R are not in fact human persons but rather just human bodies that are controlled by remote demons as if by invisible puppet strings. Now suppose that this indoctrinated person goes and kills an individual, James, whose race is R, in an apparent attempt to stave off the demon invasion.

Is Sarah guilty of murdering James, morally speaking?

Here I have a strong intuition and inclination to say yes, that was indeed murder. I assume you have the same strong intuition.

But if that intuition is correct, then our false belief criterion of exculpation can’t be quite right. For apply it to the case of the murder of James. 

This is, of course, hard to contemplate, but bear with me. Suppose it were true that every human body that fit the description of being R was in fact merely a puppet controlled remotely by demons. So the live bodies themselves would be more like zombies that merely appeared to be intelligent due to their being directed by intelligent agents (the demons). If that were true, then slaying one of these live bodies would not in fact be murder (after all, the remote demon would still be alive). That means that if FBCE were correct, however, then Sarah’s act of killing James would not be murder, since it was guided by beliefs that would render her not guilty, if they were true.

So much the worse for FBCE, right?

But we clearly need to have something to put in its place—or at least a way of qualifying it—for otherwise false beliefs would never be an excuse, which they clearly are, as shown by the vet case.

What, then, should we put in the place of FBCE? What’s the principle we need here?

This, I think, is a very difficult problem, if one wishes to have an entirely general solution (one that will cover all cases of actions guided by false beliefs). So you may wish to start in a piecemeal way. Start by making a list of the salient moral differences between the two cases I just presented, and then look to see if those differences generalize to other cases you discover.

Good luck looking for a solution. And be on the lookout for my own attempted solution (or my own with a little help from Aristotle) later this month!


Image by Mylene2401 from Pixabay 

Comments (10)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, December 4, 2020 -- 10:02 PM

FBCE is contingent on self

FBCE is contingent on self interest. If someone kills a living creature for money - which the Vet in this case did - then they are on the hook for that money and whatever pain and suffering they caused the pet owners and the dog. Expertise makes one culpable in its exercise regardless of the truth value of that expertise. Either you purport to be an expert or you don't. If you do... then you are taking responsibility for your actions and consequences of those actions.

Whether one falsely believes in something or not, when they claim truth without caveats (which any cult typically does) they are culpable. The same is true for a priest who takes the confession of a serial killer and fails to protect others from harm.

A philosopher on the other hand, who Socratic-ally questions their actions prior to taking them can truthfully tell others they didn't know right from wrong or at least weren't paid money to say so one way or the other (which typically philosophers are not.)

Certainly someone who gives aid to another without self interest is rare but blameless should that aid bring harm. Just as certain most everyone else carries responsibility along with their beliefs. That is why it is always best to question belief to the very limit of credulity. That much we all know is we don't know all.

I think Aristotle will agree with this.

elderrhody444's picture


Monday, December 14, 2020 -- 9:55 AM

I am not a philosopher but

I am not a philosopher but did graduate work in History, plus took another major in Anthropology as an undergrad. Please therefore forgive me for failing to make reference to philosophers who may or may not support my views, (except maybe Spinoza who appears to have thought like I do that free will is significantly overstated.)

This question is fascinating because it poses for me at least two enormously important questions; 1) do humans have agency, (possess free will), and 2) are we destined to be who we are. In addition, it poses a moral conundrum: if one does evil to other humans because of ignorance, should one be forgiven and by implication go unpunished.

In my revisionist view, eight of the twelve apostles must have walked out when Jesus said that everyone would be forgiven. (And of the four than remained, one was stone deaf, another toying with his sneaker laces, and the last slavishly loyal and willing to accept any manner of questionable assertions, (currently referred to as "false news.")

I assume we are discussing the massive wave of dumb that has swept across this federation of disparate states but which is euphemistically called a nation. If that is my error, I apologize for these remarks. Assuming I am correct, and dumb or malicious alien lifeforms have secretly replaced tens of millions of humans in the disunited states of America, then I assert the following: The question is past its relevant time. We are in the midst of an existential civil war which has been going on, with violence and without it since the original states were still mere colonies. The confederate states were loyalist during the American Revolution and loyalist during the English Civil War. The confederate states are culturally incompatible with the northern and western coastal states. Anthropologists will tell you people fight for their cultures. Culture is human world view. Oh, and you can pretty much erase the midwest too from rational discourse with the pervasive neo-Calvinistic fundamentalism which informs its political decisions. I am saying this because I wanted to pinpoint the epicenters of the current nonsense. It is "Nixon's southern strategy" gone wild.

The reason the question could be considered of minor import is that our very liberty and civilization is being threatened by ignorant uninformed people who were irrationally y given the right to choose political leaders. These people are being controlled by the oligarchs for their own economic, (and therefore political), advantage. Because of the very dangerous conditions caused by technology and global capitalism, the mass of humans are in an fight for our lives, (that is for our physical well-being, security and what shreds of our liberty remains.) Any discussion other than how best to overcome the massive wave of deliberately induced expressions of stupidity are a waste of time. When good men do nothing, bad men prevail. Here I sit waiting for the intellectuals to finish ruminating while the society around us in burning down. Call a spade a spade and let's get on with the real question: How can we silence these idiots and build a progressive just society? You know, the Monopoly game is all over. Almost all of us have no cash left to play. It has all been seized by "the system," by the rules of play. As Marx taught us, when the means of production change, society changes with it. In a world enslaved by gigabytes and controlled by the programmers and financiers, we must stop debating non-essentials and get moving in the right direction. Me, it's too late for me. I am old and past my time, but geez, I did hope to see a just and equitable society evolving rather than this pile of human waste I see around me.

Do we forgive people for who they are? We can't know their moral underpinnings, nor their motives, can we. I guess in general one could say that since everything is caused by everything in the past, (including the absence of somethings), and since the universe is in a continual state of flux and change, and since conditions vary from nano second to nano second, I suppose everyone can be forgiven.
Like Tim Willocks said in one of his books, "the warp of life is woven from innumerable threads." I really like that. It puts things into perspective. No, Virginia, (and also South Carolina if you want), there is no free will because we are who we were destined to be, genetically, by conditioning, by indoctrination, by culture, by whatever. Therefore, if you feel like it, bless us all with a shower of forgiveness. Me, no, I do not forgive the stupids once they cross the line and so our society harm, maybe even existential harm. Napoleon said of his generals when they failed that they were "culpably negligent." The stupid should know enough to vote morally and if they don't to avoid voting at all; and of paramount importance, keep their mouths shut. My grandparents and parents worshiped education and expressed humility in the presence of intellect. Now we have morons spewing ignorance all over the place, bringing hate and dissension into our society so the oligarchs can keep us disunited and impotent as they practice their greed and indifference.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, December 19, 2020 -- 10:40 PM



Hmm... I'm not sure if I see the necessity of invoking the lack of Free Will here, but would indulge it. Just because one doesn't have Free Will doesn't excuse their action... ever. The courts are safe on this point.

False belief on the other hand in a world without Free Will, where a person is capable of truth, where they are responsible for finding truth for others (ie a Vet asked to euthanize an ailing dog by it's owner) that is beyond guilty. It is negligent.

Historians, Philosophers and Anthropologists alike have a calling for truth. Any negligence in that calling might be termed stupid but I would impute a more sinister intention and gruesome reward.

Hmm... is that stupid?

elderrhody444's picture


Wednesday, December 23, 2020 -- 6:01 AM

Good thoughts, Mr. Smith. It

Good thoughts, Mr. Smith. It continuously annoys me that there is a fundamental contradiction in all of my thinking and expressions. That is to make moral choices myself and expect them from others. Yet, I increasingly believing we have no "free" choices. Put another way, we only have very defined and confined choices and pre-formed decisions about those choices. We are everything that came before and are so controlled.. How can one choose any action "freely," (good or bad or otherwise), if one is not in command of one's own destiny nor even one's persona?

We are in a constant state of making decisions we think are choices, yet do not comprehend we are driven to those choices and decisions by who we are and by everything past, present, (and since Time is non-linear and merely a human construct), future as well. I guess that my simple understanding of some quantum physics has upset my formerly primitive view of life and what it means to be a human and an individual. So, do I opt for the answer that "intent" is the definitive factor to consider when deciding forgiveness? That is the ancient Catholic response, is it not? That one's intentions determine guilt or innocence. But there is another compelling argument: that we are known by what we do. Perhaps my personal position at this point in time, given what little I know, is that we are all destined to be what we were born to be; a criminal, a healer, a thinker, a magician, a dancer, a prostitute, tinker, tailor soldier or spy..... Neither intent nor action defines us. There is only the outcome (consequence) of everything before.

When someone behaves foolishly for example, I can only shrug and think they were destined to do so. I think that it is foolish for us to ignore billions of wiser people in non-Western cultures who believe it is up to Allah to will something, to occur or not, or that karma will prevail, or that what is meant to be is meant to be. There are many such expressions of humanity's absence of agency. We should take them more seriously rather than believe we had individual choice which somehow mattered. Perhaps we would have been less vexed. In a religious context, I have in other venues argued that free will is a tactic for religious people to assign guilt in the absence of knowledge about the complexity of causation. If one can assign guilt because of a theological position, one can have power and control over others. Admittedly though, it is not comforting to think that because we are destined and free will is largely a fiction, all manner of disorder and low behavior must be expected.

Oh, and of course, since everything is related, this begs the question for me: do we indeed live in a simulation? At least one might argue that if we are destined to be who we are and to make the "choices" we do, have not we been programmed by the consequences of everything which occurred or failed to occur in what we call, "the past?"

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, December 25, 2020 -- 12:09 PM



Why dither here? What melancholy drives solace?...none.

We are the bruise of a childhood collision. Rub dirt on it. Smell the dirt and indulge the infection.

There is no free will. Just as assuredly there is no predetermined truth found without looking. That is the non-linear life we lead. If there is no comfort in that... tough.

No free will is liberating in it's own right. Birds on the left, artificial artificers on the right, take your lead from the algorithms of your own browsing. What is liberating is creativity and truth. Academicians who depend on the ownership of their own thoughts don't parlay this freedom. You do. Celebrate that and move on. In our lifetimes there are more like you who understand this. Enjoy the street musician and your own poetry. It is a wondrous thing without any credit to you or the urchin.

I hear you 444. People don't like to hear me say this. I take joy in your words.

Best to you.

DavidTonn's picture


Wednesday, January 13, 2021 -- 12:13 PM



It seems to me that you are perhaps prevaricating over your definition of person capable of being murdered. As far as I can tell your only reason for modifying the culpability of the Veterinarian vs Sarah, is contingent on the definition of "what can be murdered" being different. The appropriate critical question is about the actor (Vet vs Sarah), not the being acted upon (Dog vs. Person), but your moral consequent seems to be critically dependent on the being acted upon.

Your call to intuition to lead your assessment demonstrates this. Your intuition is developed based on your survival, not morality--morality may effect survival, but it isn't the entirety of it. Intuition seeks to achieve a quite and final solution to an immediate problem. Blaming Sarah would achieve this--she would then be apprehended, punished/imprisoned, and perhaps rehabilitated. But it wouldn't address the actual reason/impetus behind the fact that James (the otherwise sustained meme framework of "there exist a human-like race of demon-people who should be killed and that look like R") was killed and was thus the culpable party to the Murder of James.

This is not to say that Sarah isn't culpable of some crime (such as manslaughter), just not "murder" of the "human being" here named James.

The argument is really that Sarah should have known better than to kill James. How exactly? Well, in this context, Sarah should have confirmed that James was really a demon, as described in her false beliefs. Likewise, the veterinarian should have confirmed that Rufus was really the sick canine Fred, as described by his false beliefs. FBCE must apply the same way.

elderrhody444's picture


Thursday, March 11, 2021 -- 6:54 AM

I enjoy this forum because

I enjoy this forum because unlike so many others I visit on occasion, the comments are intelligent and cogent. Thank you for providing a few minutes of sanity.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 1, 2022 -- 9:19 AM

Many beliefs are false, if

Many beliefs are false, if only because of Dewey's pronouncement We are, for example, mired in an era of extremism. Be that religious, political or anywhere along a continuum. Exculpatory? Good luck with that notion. I believe water is wet. Water, in this universe, would be wet, whether I believed it or no. I also believe I am fairly intelligent. That is propositional, on my part. Not everyone agrees. So what is my point? If you haven't gotten it, you were not paying attention. If THAT is propositional, on my part, sobeit.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, February 16, 2022 -- 11:50 AM

One might ask: if someone is

One might ask: if someone is acting under the influence of false belief, does that act merit exculpatory consideration? It has been asserted that ignorance of the law is no defense. Do we not have a parallel here? Or, am I failing to understand a distinction?

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
sartdni's picture


Friday, December 1, 2023 -- 12:48 AM

The intriguing things about

The intriguing things about this topic are the two very crucial problems it raises: first, whether or not humans have agency, or free choice, and second, whether or not our identities are predetermined. It also raises the ethical question of whether or not someone should be forgiven and, by extension, not penalized if they commit evil to other people out of ignorance.

After hearing Jesus promise forgiveness to everybody, eight of the twelve apostles, in my revisionist interpretation, had to have bolted from the group https://www.philosophytalk.org/shows/microaggressions coreball. (Of the four who persisted, one was completely deaf, another fiddled with his shoelaces, and the last was completely devoted but ready to believe any dubious claims, which are now called "false news.")

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines