Epistemic Responsibility

should we be in contempt of your beliefs?

| December 11th, 2020

For the longest time I believed tea had a host of amazing health effects. I had always heard how it has anti-oxidants and stops cancer-causing free radicals, among a list of other supposed benefits. In truth though, there is little evidence to suggest tea does all that much beyond tasting good and giving you a hit of caffeine(and some theanine). Still, is it so bad to believe tea is good for you even if it's based on anecdotes and widely circulated ideas, but not rigorous scientific study? Some would argue, yes, absolutely.

Before we dive into exactly what epistemic responsibility entails, let's first define each word on its own. Epistemic is an adjective and is derived from the base word epistemology. Epistemology, a major branch of philosophy, is focused on the concept of knowledge and beliefs. Responsibility is a noun and relates to the idea of attributing accountability or ownership to an action or state. So, put it all together and epistemic responsibility is the idea of being accountable for your beliefs.

I think we can all agree we generally should be weary of what we believe and not go around just taking everything for fact. Epistemic responsibility as a concept however takes this idea very seriously and suggests we all are taking on responsibility when we accept a new belief. A new belief should only be accepted if sufficient evidence is supplied. It is morally irresponsible to believe things just because it feels true, or that the majority of people think it is true. These are the tenets behind epistemic responsibility, sometimes also referred to as intellectual responsibility.

An argument against this idea is the classic, "you should be able to believe whatever you want as long as you aren't harming others." A reasonable statement to be sure, and one that helps hold the concept of the thought police at bay. However, one would be hard-pressed to think of a belief someone holds that doesn't in some way have an effect in how they interact with others or act in the real world. In fact, aren't our beliefs a precursor to everything that we decide to do, say, or think? If we don't hold those up to some standard, say scientific scrutiny, than humanity doesn't have a collective base to reference and each mind, or believer, is the ultimate decider of truth, or knowledge. Now, I'm sure you can think of someone, or probably a whole lot of someones, that don't put their thoughts through the ringer before accepting them as truth. Hell, let's be honest, we've all been there. Epistemic responsibility suggests you need to be just as careful in this arena as you are when driving on the road in order to not cause direct or indirect accidents.

Now, I'll admit, there are a lot of nuances in this proposed idea. For one, sufficient evidence can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Also, what if there is a belief that has only, and will only produce positive things in the world? Is a collective delusion that does no harm morally wrong? Epistemic responsibility says yes, but this is because its loyalty lies in accurate truth acceptance, not in trying to make humans feel good about themselves or the world. This hits hard when we consider the concept of God. It could easily be argued that it is epistemically irresponsible to believe in God, considering there is no evidence to support that belief. There are of course counter-arguments to this that at first sight seem reasonable but at close inspection bring us back to the chaotic scene of using no standard for deciding what is truth, or knowledge.

I would say I'm still developing my thoughts when it comes to the concept of epistemic responsibility, but overall I really agree with its moral value. While I'm certain I hold erroneous beliefs I do my damnedest to only hold beliefs I have evidence for, and the golden standard for my beliefs is scientific evidence. I do think it's irresponsible to believe in things, including God, that you don't have evidence for and I try to hold myself accountable when I find myself doing just that.

To close, I wanted to point you to a great video that details even more on this topic. In fact it's the piece of media that brought me to write this article and ponder deeply on the moral implications of our beliefs. It's an episode of Crash Course: Philosophy on YouTube and you can view it here.