12. Lecture ‘Moral and Epistemic Responsibility for Beliefs about Extreme Means’ Simo P. Kyllönen & Ninni Suni

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12. Lecture ‘Moral and Epistemic Responsibility for Beliefs about Extreme Means’ Simo P. Kyllönen & Ninni Suni

Date Published: 30 June 2023

‘Moral and Epistemic Responsibility for Beliefs about Extreme Means’ a lecture by Ninni Suni and Simo P. Kyllonen for the Interdisciplinary Workshop Extreme Beliefs and Responsibility, held at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (The Netherlands) on the 29th and 30th of June 2023.

Ninni Suni is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki working on an Academy of Finland funded project studying psychological biases that form obstacles to fair climate transitions. Her areas or research include responsibility for beliefs and other attitudes, the connections between moral and epistemic normativity, and responsibility theory.

Simo Kyllönen is University Lecturer at the University of Helsinki. His main research topics are related to intergenerational justice, democratic theory, and ethics of climate change. He has published on environmental civil disobedience, moral responsibility for climate change, and future regarding democracy. This presentation is part of his current project “Facing Systemic Change Together: Citizen Deliberation in Informed and Just Climate Transitions” funded by Academy of Finland.

Evaluations of many recent extreme environmental protests, such as protests at art museums, start with the premise that justification of the protests and the responsibility of activists is mainly moral (and legal). By defacing the highly valued paintings, activists aim at directing our attention to great and urgent moral harms resulting from environmentally destructive practices. If we agree about the moral urgency of those harms, their protests gain pro tanto moral justification.

However, the justification of the choice of using extreme means depend on activists’ beliefs about:

a. the effectiveness of their extreme acts to accelerate necessary changes;
b. the unlikeliness of harmful consequences of their acts are (e.g., the actual paintings remain unharmed).

Activists’ responsibility for their beliefs warranting extreme acts can be either moral or epistemic, depending on how the beliefs are formed. We hold that responsibility for beliefs is grounded in them being reason-responsive attitudes that are constituted by the agent’s take of the belief being an apt response to its reasons (Neta 2019). This taking is an agent-level phenomenon. In short, beliefs and other reason-responsive attitudes are agentive, because we all have our unique way of responding to our surroundings. Studies in cognitive and neuropsychology on attention and perception show that which items and features in our circumstances grab our attention, and with attention, perception, memory, and reasoning, is to a great extent the result of cognitive, emotional, and motivational factors of the agent, such as her pre-existing beliefs, expectations, goals, values, attitudes, and personal interests. That is, which features of our circumstances we pay attention to, and how we weight them in our cognition is largely determined by our pre-existing personal attitudes and interests, rather than the objective features of the situation.

When a belief is formed this way and not, for instance, through brainwashing, this suffices for basic responsibility or attributability (cf. Smith 2007). But whether the agent’s responsibility for the belief is then regarded as moral or epistemic depends on how we evaluate the background attitudes driving its formation. These attitudes can be moral (e.g., regarding the relative value of various goals) or morally neutral (e.g., simple risk assessment). Consequently, activists may be blamed for their extreme acts, even if we agree with the pro tanto moral justification of their goal, if their beliefs concerning the choice of those acts are irrationally formed, or if they are guided by inappropriate moral attitudes.

When we evaluate activist’s mistake in their beliefs as moral, we tend to respond with moral attitudes such as anger, resentment, or blame, whereas an epistemic mistake is met with contempt, ridicule, or withdrawal of epistemic trust (cf. Kauppinen 2018). This leaves room for meaningful disagreement concerning the mode of responsibility for a given belief, even while agreeing that the agent bears basic responsibility for that belief. However, this means also that we ought to be cautious with our responses: we rarely have access to the full story behind an agent’s beliefs.