Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Excuses and epistemic shortcomings

I've been swamped, so no posting. But, I wanted to post on something that came up in a discussion with a colleague yesterday. The question has to do with ignorance and excuses. What sort of ignorance excuses? Factual ignorance seems like the sort of thing that should excuse, but what about normative ignorance?

I don't have an argument exactly for thinking that normative ignorance shouldn't excuse, but I worry that we don't want to excuse evil behavior simply on the grounds that we become convinced that the agent has values that differ radically from our own. So, here's a thought. If you want to know the how and why of excuses that cite factual ignorance/mistaken belief, I'd say that someone could suffer these epistemic shortcomings but that is consistent with the hypothesis that the agent's heart was in the right place. Their actions were in the service of the right sort of values, they just lacked the factual information so that their actions that were in the service of those values did not actually promote/protect those values. Notice that this account could not be applied to cases where the subject acts on the basis of normative ignorance. So, the question I think is whether there is something more fundamental that explains why this gloss on how excuses work works because if it there isn't, it seems that the explanation as to how excuses work seems to presuppose an asymmetry between factual and normative ignorance.

[Notice that this approach might leave room for excuses for people who have the values right but make some mistakes about the comparative weight of competing reasons. Maybe, just a thought.] Do people have views about whether/how excuses based on normative ignorance work?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As you hint, there is a presupposition of an asymmetry between normative and factual. What is the difference between factual ignorance and normative ignorance? What is the difference between factual and normative? When you talk about morality (which I assume you are) it is hard to escape the creation of synthetic facts. In other words, ethic "facts" are based on normative theories, are they not?