Posted on

Christine Bratu – “How (Not) To Wrong Others with Our Thoughts”

image of two cherubs thinking
Detail of the San Sisto Madonna (c. 1513-1514) Raphael

In this post, Christine Bratu discusses her article recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Christine’s article can be found here.

Imagine Jim attends a fancy reception and, seeing a person of color standing around in a tuxedo, concludes that they are a waiter (when, in fact, they, too, are a guest). Alternatively, picture Anna who, during a prestigious conference, sees a young woman setting up a laptop at the lectern and concludes that she is part of the organizing team (when, in fact, this woman is the renowned professor who will give the keynote lecture). In many of us, cases like these elicit the fundamental intuition that there is something morally problematic going on.

Some philosophers have used this intuition to argue for the possibility of doxastic wronging (Basu 2018, 2019a, 2019b; Basu and Schroeder 2019; Keller 2018). Cases like these, they argue, show that we have the moral duty not to have bigoted beliefs about each other. On their interpretation, the situations above are morally troublesome because, by believing classic racist and sexist stereotypes, Jim and Anna violate a duty they have towards their fellow party guest and keynote speaker, respectively. According to proponents of doxastic wronging, positing this morally grounded epistemic duty is the best way to explain our intuition, since in the situations depicted neither protagonist acts in a reprehensible way (in fact, neither of them acts at all!) – it’s their racist and sexist beliefs as such that are the problem.

I think this proposal is intriguing. Group-based discrimination is a serious moral and political problem, and the moral duty not to have bigoted beliefs seems perfectly tailored to strike at its root. Nevertheless, in my article I argue that we should reject the existence of such a duty: there is no such thing as doxastic wronging. I argue for this by presenting what I call the liberal challenge.

I start from the assumption that positing any new, morally grounded epistemic duties comes at a price, because it constitutes a curtailment of our freedom of thought. We should only accept such curtailment if we can thereby gain something comparably important. I then point out three strategies that advocates of doxastic wronging could adopt to convince us that we are gaining something comparably important, and I explain why I think that all three of them fail.

First, the advocates of doxastic wronging could claim that positing a duty not to have bigoted beliefs helps us avoid bigoted actions. This strategy fails, I argue, because we are already under the moral obligation not to act in bigoted ways. If the reason for limiting our freedom of thought is merely to decrease the risk of bigoted actions, then placing us under this new obligation is superfluous.

Second, these philosophers could claim that positing a duty not to have bigoted beliefs helps us avoid practical vices that bigoted beliefs manifest such as, for instance, arrogance. This strategy fails, I argue, because – while we might be morally better, i.e. more virtuous, if we avoided vices like arrogance – we are under no moral obligation to do so.

Thirdly, they could claim that positing a duty not to have bigoted beliefs is necessary to avoid the intrinsic harm of being the object of bigoted beliefs. This third strategy starts off more promisingly as it is based on a correct observation. Most of us desire not to be the objects of bigoted beliefs. People who think about us in bigoted ways frustrate this legitimate desire, and so it seems that they thereby harm us. Yet even if we grant that bigoted beliefs harm their targets, we cannot conclude that the resulting harm is important enough to justify restricting our freedom of thought. People frustrate each other’s legitimate desires all the time. We frustrate our parents’ legitimate desire to see us flourish when we let our talents go to waste, and we frustrate our partners’ legitimate desire to continue the relationship when we break up with them. Cases like these show that frustrating someone’s legitimate desire is not sufficient for our behavior to count as morally impermissible. To make this strategy work, proponents of doxastic wronging must, in addition, argue that the desire not to be the objects of bigoted beliefs is so important that its frustration is morally impermissible. However, I contend that they can only do so by appealing to the impermissibility of either bigoted actions or vices that bigoted beliefs manifest. In other words, they can only do by falling back on one of the former two strategies. And since I’ve already shown that such strategies fail, so does this one.

If we reject the duty not to have bigoted beliefs – as I argue we should – what about our initial intuition? What is wrong with Jim’s assumption that a person of color is most likely a waiter rather than a guest , or with Anna’s assumption that a young woman at the conference podium is most likely an organizer rather than the keynote?

It seems to me that the best way to make sense of these cases is to explain them not in terms of doxastic wronging, but rather in terms of doxastic harming. People like Jim and Anna do not violate any obligations they have toward their targets when they think about them in racist or sexist ways. However, they do frustrate their desire not to be the objects of bigoted beliefs, and they thereby harm them. When we reproach people like Jim and Anna for their hurtful thoughts, we are accusing them not of having done something they were morally not allowed to do, but rather of having done something it would have been better not to do (even though they were morally allowed to do it).

The change in perspective I propose does not make light of the morally problematic nature of bigoted beliefs. On the contrary, it ensures that the criticism we level against people who entertain such beliefs hits its mark properly by avoiding moralistic overreach and by making morally grounded demands on what other people believe.

Want more?

Read the full article at


  • Basu, Rima (2018). “Can Beliefs Wrong?” Philosophical Topics 46 (1): 1–17.
  • Basu, Rima (2019a). “The Wrongs of Racist Beliefs”. Philosophical Studies 176 (9): 2497–515.
  • Basu, Rima (2019b). “What We Epistemically Owe to Each Other”. Philosophical Studies 176 (4): 915–31.
  • Basu, Rima and Mark Schroeder (2019). “Doxastic Wronging”. In Brian Kim and Matthew McGrath (Eds.), Pragmatic Encroachment in Epistemology, 181–205.
  • Keller, Simon (2018). “Belief for Someone Else’s Sake”. Philosophical Topics 46 (1): 19–35.

About the author

Christine Bratu is a professor of philosophy at the University of Göttingen in Germany. She received her PhD in philosophy from the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. Her research interests are in feminist philosophy, moral and political philosophy (especially issues of disrespect and discrimination) and topics at the intersection between ethics and epistemology.