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Ignorance Is No Excuse (so They say)

There are five sections. In the first, I will explain the asymmetry in exculpatory force between ordinary and moral ignorance. In the second, I will argue for the conditional claim that the asymmetry, if there is one, poses a challenge to the moral realist. There are three main ways for the realist to respond to the challenge: deny that the asymmetry exists, explain why it does, or show it to be metaethically irrelevant. In the third section, I will consider whether the existence of the asymmetry can be denied in realism-friendly ways, and argue that attempts to do so face serious obstacles. In the fourth, I show that attempts at explaining, in realism-friendly ways, why the asymmetry exists, granted that it does, are problematic, too. In the fifth and final section, I consider whether the realist can show that the asymmetry in exculpatory force is actually metaethically irrelevant, because differences in blameworthiness reflect differences in quality of will, and argue that the prospects of this strategy are limited as well.

Ignorance is no excuse (so they say)

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Call the conjunction of (1) and (2) the asymmetry. I do not wish to get hung up on technical details at this point. The gist of the asymmetry is that non-culpable ordinary ignorance will typically excuse, whereas non-culpable moral ignorance typically will not. This datum is more than enough for my argument to get off the ground.

Let me emphasize already at this point that some may not share the above intuition. However, my argument is supposed to work whether or not one does, because it hinges primarily on the conditional claim that if there is an asymmetry in exculpatory power, then moral realists have a problem. Moral realists who do not believe that there is such an asymmetry are of the hook for now, although I will argue below that they, too, face serious obstacles when it comes to explaining, in realism-friendly terms, why there is no asymmetry.

It is an interesting fact in its own right that it is so difficult to describe a case of mundane non-culpable moral ignorance that closely parallels cases of mundane non-moral ignorance. For why, if moral realism is true, would that be so? If there are mind-independent moral facts, it should be perfectly possible to come up with a suitable example to illustrate (2). And if it is not, it seems fair for the anti-realist to demand an explanation for this fact.

On the first horn, the realist can deny that there is such an asymmetry. But rejecting that there is an asymmetry between the way non-moral and moral ignorance affect blameworthiness challenges moral realism as well, for the main attempts to come up with cases in which moral ignorance does excuse do not work well under realist assumptions, either. Here, too, the most natural and intuitive explanations for the putative exculpatory force of moral ignorance are more compatible with an anti-realist metaethics.

Why does the fact that non-culpable moral ignorance does not have the same exculpatory force as non-culpable non-moral ignorance challenge realism? The short answer is that if moral facts are plain, mind-independent facts about rightness and wrongness, it is hard to see why being ignorant of them should not exculpate. If there are moral facts, and we can know what they are, then we can also fail to know them: we can overlook, misconstrue, and dismiss them. Why should failures of this kind give rise to anything like the aforementioned asymmetry? On the face of it, I see no reason why it should. It may be, of course, that moral facts are especially easy for us to know, which may explain the asymmetry. I will discuss this suggestion at great length below (Sect. 5), and argue that it is unhelpful to the realist.

In general, it should be noted that there are various ways for a subject to be ignorant of some (non-moral or moral) fact. Peels (2014); see also Le Morvan and Peels (2016) and Nottelmann (2016) distinguishes ignorance on the basis of false belief from ignorance due to lack of belief, suspended judgment or unwarranted belief. It is an interesting question whether the asymmetry holds for all these types of non-moral and moral ignorance: it may turn out, for instance, that there is no asymmetry in exculpatory power between suspended beliefs about some normative or non-normative fact, respectively. My discussion in this paper is restricted to cases of ignorance as false belief. I argue that an asymmetry in the exculpatory force between false moral and false-non-moral beliefs poses a challenge to moral realism. This point involves no commitment to whether a similar asymmetry applies to other ways of being ignorant.Footnote 11 However, the asymmetry I zoom in on is sufficient for my purposes.

Children Children are excused on the basis of moral ignorance. Take Eliza. Eliza is a 3-year old who loves going to day care. However, she also has quite a temper, and her more tenderly disposed playmates often have difficulties to cope with her outbursts. When she loses at a game, or when someone claims a toy she takes to be firmly entitled to, she snaps, and she has often been told off by her caregivers for hitting, biting or pushing her fellow would-be persons. It seems clear that we do not hold Eliza fully accountable; her educators will, of course, attempt to reign her in when possible. They may also inform her that she is not supposed to behave this way, and ask her to make amends and apologize. But we excuse her on the basis of her young age, and place all our blame on her parents or no one at all.

Does this example show that the asymmetry must be rejected? I doubt that it does. Firstly, one could question whether the fact that children are excused is due to their moral ignorance at all or merely due to factual ignorance. Is there any case in which we are inclined to excuse children that are clear cases of genuine moral ignorance, rather than them not really understanding the situation properly, or not really seeing the consequences of their actions?

But let us grant the point. Secondly, then, one could argue that even if one thinks that children are sometimes excused on the basis of genuine moral ignorance, the explanation for why this is the case does not support moral realism, that is, its cognitivist conjunct. Typically, the reason for our inclination to cut children some slack will be that their emotional capacities are not yet fully developed. They are simply unable to properly imagine how their actions may affect others and hurt their feelings.

A non-realist account of moral properties in terms of response-dependence explains this datum better than a realist one: Eliza is excused not because she is unable to appreciate facts about the rightness or wrongness of her actions, but because her emotional sensitivity has not yet developed enough for her to be disposed against inflicting unnecessary harm on others, and she does not yet have the requisite degree of self-control to step back from her vengeful desires and wait for them to cool off. In short: nothing about the reasons why children are excused due to their moral ignorance, and about how adults try to deal with this situation, suggests that cognitive access to mind-independent moral facts plays a crucial role.

Similar worries apply, however. Firstly, one could doubt that one can unambiguously identify a case in which we excuse mentally disabled people on the basis of genuine moral ignorance. People who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia or depression may well be in the grip of inaccurate (or perhaps, in the case of depression, unhealthily accurate, see Alloy and Abramson 1979) non-moral beliefs about the world or other people which may lead to various forms of undesirable behavior. Mentally disabled people such as individuals on the Autism spectrum are not known to fail moral/conventional tasks (Blair 1996). Their moral knowledge thus seems mostly intact.

Again, it is worth asking whether psychopaths are genuinely morally ignorant. Here, denying that they are appears much more promising, as many of the judgmental and behavioral patterns found in psychopathic patients and offenders are more plausibly explained by motivational than by cognitive deficiencies. Psychopaths (and acquired sociopaths) know right from wrong, but do not care (Cima et al. 2010; Roskies 2003).

In all cases mentioned thus far, it is unlikely that deficient behavior is based on genuine, non-derivative moral ignorance in the first place. But the important thing to file away is that even if one grants that it is, the explanation for where this ignorance comes from features emotional impairments and poor factual knowledge first and foremost, rather than an inability to appreciate mind-independent moral facts.

Let me emphasize again that I am not committed to the claim that moral ignorance never exculpates, so the fact that there are some cases in which it does exculpate does not undermine the idea that there is some asymmetry. But the fact that the alleged counterexamples are all based on special cases should not only make us suspicious; it also shows that apparently, the asymmetry does apply to normally functioning, healthy adults. The explanation this demands is more than enough for my argument.Footnote 13

Pragmatic explanations The asymmetry could be pragmatic in nature. Very roughly put, the idea behind this is that it would not be prudent, or desirable, to disrespect the asymmetry in our everyday practices of assigning blame and praise. For instance, if the asymmetry did not hold, everyone would always have a watertight excuse for everything: one could always say that one did not know what was right or wrong, and it would be difficult for others to disprove this defense.

However, even if the pragmatic explanation did work for moral ignorance outside the legal context, this would not explain the asymmetry in a way that helps the moral realist. For why is it that if we allowed moral ignorance to excuse, people would always have a watertight excuse readily available to them? Why would it be so easy for people to claim moral ignorance, far easier than to claim ignorance of the non-moral facts in favorable epistemic conditions?


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