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Epistemic negligence

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Epistemic negligence is a category of negligence that applies specifically to an agent's beliefs, or the ways in which an agent supports a belief.

Negligence is one of four categories of culpability whereby an agent demonstrates a lack of concern in the interests of others by failure to take reasonable steps to secure those interests. Epistemic negligence applies to beliefs that an agent may carelessly adopt that threaten the interests of others, lacking sufficient concern for those interests to see whether the beliefs are well founded.

Like traditional negligence, epistemic negligence does not apply where there is little or no risk of harm. The belief that the universe was created by an intelligent entity, for example, would not qualify as negligence for the simple reason that this belief, by itself, does not put others at risk. However, a belief that the widower down the street is a witch and witches must be put to death are beliefs that create a risk for others.

In cases where an agent knows that there is a risk of harming others (such as the case in which there is a risk of the alleged witch being burned at the stake), epistemic carelessness counts as reckless rather than negligent. The difference between recklessness and negligence hinges on whether the agent is aware of the risk of harm to others, compared to whether the agent is unaware of but should have been aware of (a properly concerned person would have been aware of) that risk.

To illustrate these principles, imagine a case in which person picks up a gun sitting on a table, points it at another person, and pulls the trigger.

In the case of a gun, we can safely assume that the agent knows that he is creating a risk. People have done such things in the past and discovered tragically that they were mistaken in their belief that the gun was unloaded. In virtue of this, we condemn people for pointing guns at others even if they believes that the gun is not loaded. Callously disregarding this risk of another tragic shooting is reckless.

Even if it turns out that the gun actually is unloaded, the moral change of reckless endangerment would be justified precisely because a number of tragic shootings tells the reasonable person that there is a risk of harm.

We punish people who act this way. We have many and strong reasons to do so stemming from the cost of the tragedies we hope that the motivation springing from this condemnation will avoid.

In a case where the gun goes off and somebody gets shot, an excuse of false belief, "I believed that the gun was unloaded", would fail. False belief only works as an excuse when the agent who uses this defense is able to demonstrate that his was a well founded and responsibly formed belief. An ill formed and unfounded belief - particularly a belief that puts others at risk of getting maimed and killed - is no defense against the charges of recklessness or negligence.

Negligence, in fact, is a defined as an epistemic moral crime. While a reckless person ignores risks she was aware of, the negligent person fails to investigate risk. She fails to ask questions that a responsible person would have asked or fails to show proper concern over whether the answer she gets is accurate.

On the other hand, a responsible person, properly concerned with the interests of others, is always asking herself if her own mistakes might put others at risk. The reckless person knows about the risk and does not care, while the negligent person does not care enough to find out about the risk. Both of these latter two attitudes are attitudes that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.

A Case Study in the Climate Change Debate

Note that the agent in the example above involving the gun is guilty of a moral crime (recklessness or negligence) regardless of whether the gun is loaded. He creates a risk, owing to the fact that his belief might be wrong, and others who have had a relevantly similar belief have created tragic results.

This case study concerns an argument in climate change debate that follows the same pattern. As with the case of the gun above, a charge of epistemic negligence or recklessness can be defended independent of whether the CO2 gun is loaded. That is to say, the example here is indepedent of any conclusions about climate change itself. One cannot defend against the charge of epistemic negligence by claiming that the thesis of man-made global warming is false any more than one can defend against the charge of reckless endangerment in the case of picking up and pointing the gun by claiming that the gun was not loaded.

It may be the case that human greenhouse gas emissions are harmless. The relevant issue in the case of negligence is whether the person who formed a belief on this matter cared enough to make sure that her belief was well founded. Any use of a poorly structured argument can provide justification for a charge of recklessness or negligence. (This applies to poorly formed arguments on both sides.)

One common argument used in the climate change debate is that, since humans are responsible for only about 3% of total CO2 emissions each year, we can disregard the potential harms of this contribution.

This is an utterly foolish argument so easily discredited that we have good reason to view any who would use it with a level of contempt far worse than what we would have for the shooter above. The person picking up the gun shows a callous disregard for the possibility of shooting one or two people. The person who uses this 3% argument in the climate change debate shows a callous disregard for the interests of whole populations numbering in the hundreds of millions to billions of people.

To demonstrate the flaw in this argument, imagine the following case:

There is a fountain with a pool that holds 280 gallons of water. It can hold up to 550 gallons before the weight of the water collapses the stand that the pool is on and kills or maims people below the fountain. These are people who cannot be moved (as there are people who cannot be moved off of Earth or out of the region in which they live.

Each day for 10,000 years 100 gallons have flowed into the fountain, and 100 gallons flow out.

Then a gardener hooks up a hose, turns on a faucet, and starts adding water to the fountain. He starts adding 3 gallons per day. The amount of water in the pool starts going up at a rate of 3 gallons per day.

The gardener is warned, "If you let this get to 550 gallons, you'll be risking the lives of several of those people below the fountain."

Imagine the gardener answering, "My hose is adding only 3 gallons per day to the pool. This is only 3% of the total volume of water entering the pool. Consequently, I am not responsible for the fact that the pool is filling up at a rate of 3 gallons per day. Nor am I responsible for any harms that the people below the fountain may suffer if the amount of water in the fountain should reach 550 gallons."

It is such an absurd answer that our first and most cheritable response would be to question the mental abilities of the person who would say such a thing. "You think you can turn on a faucet and add water to the pool without filling up the pool?" We may still seek to confine such a person - their displayed inability to reason making them a threat to others. However, we would not hold them culpable for their actions in this case. They lack the capacity to understand even basic real-world facts.

We could try a charge of recklessness. However, recklessness requires being aware of a risk. This gardener is using the 3% argument to conclude that he is not creating a risk - that the risk comes from somewhere else. Again, the claim that his hose is not contributing to the increasing volume of water in the pool is so utterly absurd we can deny that the agent actually believes his own argument. We could say that he knows of the risk and is just trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

However, even if we allow that the gardener deceived himself into believing this absurdity, the charge of negligence would still stick. The responsible person would have worried about this type of self-deception and made an attempt to assess whether the argument makes sense - which our gardener has not done. The fact that our gardener fails to see such an obvious flaw in the foundation of his beliefs shows that he does not care enough to look.

This warrents a charge of empistemic negligence at the very least.


Whenver a person claims to know that the interests of others need to be sacrificed or that others are not at risk, we can ask how they have come to know that. When their beliefs are poorly grounded, we have reason to level a charge of epistemic recklessness or epistemic negligence. A person with a proper level of concern that his actions do no harm will work to make sure that her beliefs are well grounded. A person who shows a lack of concern with how well founded her beliefs are - when those beliefs put others at risk of harm - she shows that she does not care enough about the harms she may cause to examine those beliefs carefully.

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