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BELIEF’S AIM AND ITS JUSTIFICATION

Clayton Littlejohn
cmlittlejohn@yahoo.com
Abstract: In this paper, I argue that a widely accepted claim about the ontology of practical reasons
is incompatible with a widely accepted claim about the justification of belief. Epistemologists don’t
think that justification is factive. They think that there can be false, justified belief. Reasons for
action, we’re told, are facts about the external situation. It cannot be that reasons are facts if
justification isn’t factive, so someone is getting things horribly wrong.

INTRODUCTION

A widely held view is that belief aims at the truth.1 No one thinks that could literally be true, so I
suppose that the widely held view is that this talk of belief’s aim is a useful metaphor for thinking
about belief. A natural way to unpack this metaphor is in functionalist terms. True beliefs can do
what beliefs are supposed to do. False beliefs cannot.
Why are false beliefs constitutionally incapable of doing what beliefs are supposed to do?
Here’s a hypothesis. Beliefs are supposed to provide us with reasons from which we can then reason
to some conclusion about what to do. Reasons for action are facts.2 False beliefs can provide no
reason from which we might then deliberate. True beliefs, however, can provide us with reasons.
They make us cognizant of something that is (at least potentially) a reason. It is true that the true
beliefs that sometimes figure in deliberation give us no reason to do the things we decide to do or
believe the things we end up believing. We sometimes reason from correct beliefs to decisions
about what to do when the things we know to be true do not count in favor of what we decide to
do. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with these beliefs, per se. What’s wrong is the way
that we use these beliefs. Beliefs that ought never be included in any piece of practical reasoning,
not even when we know that the truth of the belief is relevant to the choice at hand, are a different
kettle of fish. If the belief that p cannot give a reason to deliberate from even when the subject
knows that the deliberative process concerns a p-dependent choice, this belief cannot do what
beliefs are supposed to do.3 False beliefs, I say, are such beliefs because only facts are reasons and

1
See Velleman (2000), Wedgwood (2002), and Williams (1973).
2
See Collins (1997), Dancy (2000), Hyman (1999), Scanlon (1999), and Williams (1981).
3
Following Hawthorne and Stanley (2008), let’s say that a choice between options x1 … xn is “p-
dependent” if and only if the option most preferable of x1 … xn conditional on the proposition p is
not the same as the option most preferable of x1 … xn conditional on the proposition that not-p.

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false beliefs pass off spurious facts as if they are real and thereby pass off non-reasons as if they were
reasons.
This explanation of the aim of belief works only if we work from the assumption that
reasons for action are facts. Are they? Maybe motivating reasons are not facts. Maybe motivating
reasons are mental states or the contents of those mental states. Motivating reasons are not the
reasons I have in mind when I say that beliefs are supposed to provide us with reasons. The kind of
reasons that beliefs are supposed to provide, that beliefs can provide, but beliefs might fail to
provide are normative or justifying reasons. These are the reasons that apply to us, make demands
on us, and count in favor of the things we do. A widely held view is that these reasons are facts. I
cannot argue for that view here. I shall assume that normative reasons are facts. I shall assume that
beliefs are supposed to provide us with normative reasons from which we can then reason. I shall
argue that if these assumptions are correct, epistemologists are getting things wrong. If
epistemologists are not getting things badly wrong, that’s fine, but then the ethicists who think that
reasons are facts are getting things horribly wrong. If I’m right, someone is getting something
badly wrong. This is what I hope to show in this paper. I hope to show that it cannot be that the
epistemologists are right about justification and the ethicists are right about the ontology of
practical reasons. If there are false, justified beliefs, reasons for action aren’t facts. If reasons for
action are facts, epistemologists are wrong to suggest that the truth of a belief is not necessary for
that belief’s justification.

THE ARGUMENT

A simple argument suggests that there can be no false, justified beliefs if reasons for action are facts:
(1) The belief that p could contribute a normative reason to
practical deliberation only if p is true. (If p is false, the
belief that p could only pass off a non-reason as a reason if
included in deliberation.)
(2) There will not be a normative reason to include the belief
that p in practical or theoretical deliberation if the belief
that p would merely pass off a non-reason as a normative
reason if included in deliberation because it would not

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give you something to properly reason from for the
purposes of deliberation.
(3) There is, however, a normative reason to exclude the
belief that p from practical and theoretical deliberation if
the belief that p would pass off a non-reason as if it were a
genuine normative reason if included in deliberation.
(4) An action or attitude can be justified when there are
normative reasons not to perform that action or to
maintain/acquire that attitude only if there are
sufficiently strong normative reasons to perform the
action or to maintain/acquire the attitude.
(C1) Thus, only true beliefs can be justifiably included in
practical deliberation.
(5) A belief is justified only if it can justifiably be included in
some process of practical deliberation.
(C2) Thus, only true beliefs can be justified.
With two exceptions, every extant account of justified belief allows for the possibility of false,
justified beliefs.4 Internalists often say that it is possible to justifiably believe something on the basis
of non-entailing evidence and that two subjects’ beliefs will be equally justified whenever their
beliefs are based on the same evidence and these two subjects have the same evidence. If someone
can justifiably believe p on the basis of non-entailing evidence and anyone who believes on the basis
of that evidence will have sufficient justification for believing p provided that they do not have
defeating evidence that the first subject does not have, someone can justifiably believe p even if ~p.
Since everyone but the skeptic thinks that we can justifiably believe without having beliefs based on
entailing evidence, it seems every non-skeptical internalist will reject (C2). Externalists often say
that it is possible to justifiably believe something when that belief is based on a reliable but
imperfect process. If the process is sufficiently reliable, it will produce beliefs that are justified

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Sutton (2007) is one exception. He thinks that justified beliefs are just items of knowledge.
That’s because he thinks that the norm of belief is the knowledge norm and thinks that there cannot
be justified beliefs that fail to conform to the norm that governs belief. He is not alone in thinking
that justified beliefs have to conform to the norms that govern belief and that no false justified
beliefs conform to those norms. See [omit]. He is not alone in thinking that knowledge is the norm
of belief. See Williamson (2000).

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even some of those beliefs happen to be false. The possibility of false, justified beliefs is one of the
few things that internalists and externalists do not disagree about.
If the argument’s conclusion is intolerable, which premise should we reject? We could
reject the argument’s first premise, but it seems we can do this only if we reject the view that says
that reasons for action are facts rather than propositions or states of mind. Because I’m primarily
interested in showing that there could be no false, justified beliefs if reasons for action are facts, I’m
not interested in showing that (1) is true. Still, if (1) were not at all plausible, it wouldn’t matter
so much what the consequences of (1) were so let me say something on behalf of the argument’s
first premise.
This claim about the ontology of normative reasons is by no means universally accepted,
but it is widely accepted and seems to follow from a widely held view about reasons for action. It
seems that in the typical case, something gets to be a reason because it counts in favor of an action.5
It seems to the deliberating agent that the things that favor a course of action are facts or worldly
states of affairs, not states of mind or the contents of those states. In some cases, these might be
facts about the agent’s state of mind. The fact that you believe that your head is made of glass might
be a good reason to seek help. Typically, however, reasons are facts about the situation. A
person’s needs might give you reason to lend a hand. That you believe someone to need help is no
indication of a need on their part and the judgment that one ought to help will likely be taken by
the subject to be correct only if the intended beneficiary is really in need of help. If what makes a
reason to help a reason to help rather than perform some alternative course of action is that the
relevant consideration favors lending a hand, unless we are just really confused about what would
make the helping favorable the reason to help is a fact about the beneficiary of which you are aware
and not some state of mind necessary for making you aware.
If you ask ordinary agents what it is that favors Φ-ing, they will often point to facts about
the situation rather than facts about themselves. The reason to give someone a lift when they are
stuck walking in the rain is that it is really unpleasant to have to hoof it through the rain. It is not
that you believe that they could use your help. If, however, normative reasons are states of mind
rather than facts about the situation, ordinary agents are either systematically confused about the
kinds of things that favor the choices that they make or confused about what reasons are doing in
the course of reasoning towards a conclusion. I think it would be implausible to charge ordinary

5
See Dancy (2000) and Scanlon (1999).

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subjects with such systematic error and confusion. (Call this ‘the implausible error objection’ to
views that identify normative reasons with psychological states or the contents of those states.)
Even when ordinary subjects make mistakes as to matters of fact, they still have a decent sense of
what the facts would have to be like for some decision to be for the best. Ordinary subjects might
not have worked out theories of reasons much less a concept of a normative reason, but they still
know how to use the reasons available to them. In the hopes of making room for the possibility of
false, justified belief, I do not think we will make much headway by telling the ethicists and
ordinary rational subjects that they do not know what reasons are.
The second premise says that there cannot be a reason to include the belief that p in
practical deliberation in the way that the belief would be included if p were treated as a premise in
practical deliberation if p is not a reason at all and so the belief that p would pass off a non-reason as
if it were the real thing. To show that (2) is false, someone might offer a counterexample.
Someone might say that we don’t know whether the number of stars is (a) an even number or (b)
infinite or odd. Suppose someone offers you a large sum of money to assert sincerely that the
number of stars is an even number. You cannot sincerely assert what you do not believe, so it
seems that the pile of money is not just a reason to utter some words, it is also a reason to believe
that the words uttered are true. So, it seems you have a reason to get yourself to believe by any
means sufficient. If joining a cult would do the trick, join. If banging your head against the wall
would do the trick, go bang.
There are two problems with this objection to (2). First, the money is not a reason to
believe that the number of stars is even. At best, it is a reason to perform actions that might
produce the belief you need to sincerely assert that the number of stars is even. This is a practical
reason, not a theoretical reason. It is not a reason that might help justify a belief that is in need of
an epistemic justification. Second, even if we say that the practical considerations can do ‘double
duty’, it seems we could rewrite (2) to deal with these sorts of cases and still use (2) to show that
there’s something wrong with every extant account of justified belief (save one). Even if we
concede that there can be overriding reason to include false beliefs in deliberation when the effects
of including this belief are sufficiently good, this concession should give no comfort to the epistemic
purists who do not think that we need to point to such reasons to show how it is that false beliefs
could be justified. Reliabilists don’t say that a belief is justified if true and produced by a
sufficiently reliable process or false and accompanied by good effects that would be lost if that belief

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were not formed.6 Evidentialists don’t say that a belief is justified if supported by adequate
evidence and true or false and accompanied by good effects that would be lost if that belief were
not formed.7
What about (3)? If there were no reason, not to treat non-reasons as if they were reasons,
treating non-reasons as reasons would be all the reason you would need to do this permissibly.
However, it seems that there is some reason to exclude non-reasons from deliberation and to refrain
from treating non-reasons as if they were premises in deliberating about what to do. To say that
there is just no reason to refrain from treating non-reasons as if they were reasons is to suggest that
‘deciding’ to treat something as a premise for the purposes of practical deliberation is not the sort
of thing that calls for justification. That doesn’t seem right. At the very least, it seems that there is
an instrumental reason to refrain from treating non-reasons as if they were reasons. Treating non-
reasons as if they were reasons seems to be the sort of thing that makes it more likely that you’ll fail
to identify the thing to do as the thing to do.
Someone could say that there are only instrumental reasons to refrain from treating non-
reasons as reasons. The idea might be that so long as you somehow manage to do what you got to
do, it does not matter what reasons you reasoned from to get your body to move in the way it
ought to. I think there could be these sorts of instrumental reasons, but I doubt that that’s all there
is to it. When you judge that you ought to Φ, it seems that you are motivated to Φ and so long as
Φ-ing isn’t wrongful, you might think that reasoning from whatever it is that led you to Φ isn’t
wrongful. That might be if the kind of wrong we’re talking about is practical, but the judgment
that you ought to Φ looks a lot like the belief that you ought to Φ. Speaking just for myself, the
deliberation that leads me to Φ by means of the judgment that I should Φ is not a deliberative
process that I undertake in addition to the deliberative process that leads me to form the belief that
I should Φ. I’m not saying that the conclusion of practical and theoretical deliberation is the same.
The intention to Φ is not the belief that I should Φ. The action that is my Φ-ing is not the belief
that I should Φ. Arguably, it is either the action or the intention that is the conclusion of practical
deliberation and the belief that is the conclusion of theoretical deliberation. Still, it seems that
when I do what I judge I ought to do, it is one piece of reasoning that I undertake that leads to these
two conclusions. When the reasons I reason from are no reasons at all, I might succeed in doing

6
Goldman (1986).
7
Conee and Feldman (2004).

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what I ought to do without knowing that I’ve managed to do what I ought to do. I take it that when
I Φ when I ought to Φ without knowing that I ought to Φ, there is something wrong with the
justification I have for believing that I ought to Φ. If you shouldn’t epistemically believe p when
there is something wrong with the justification I have for believing that p, there will always be a
theoretical reason not to include the belief that p in deliberation that just is the theoretical reason
not to believe p. That suggests that whenever p is not a reason and the belief that p will pass off a
non-reason as if it were a reason if included in deliberation, there is a reason of a certain kind to
exclude that belief from deliberation, an epistemic reason.
It seems to me that (4) is a plausible claim about justification and defeating reasons. There
can be some justification for Φ-ing even when there are stronger reasons to refrain from Φ-ing than
those that favor Φ-ing, but the crucial question is not whether there is some justification for Φ-ing.
The crucial question is whether there is sufficient justification for Φ-ing. I doubt that there can be
sufficient justification for Φ-ing under the very conditions where the reasons against Φ-ing defeat
the reasons that favor it. Perhaps the point is obvious, but surely when we ask whether someone’s
shooting at an innocent aggressor could ever be justified the reason that this question is hard is that
we are not just asking if there could ever be some reason to shoot at an innocent aggressor. There
could be all manner of trivial reasons to do so. Doing so can make one a better shot. Doing so
might be a way of killing the spider crawling on the innocent aggressor’s shirt. These questions
about justification are hard because in asking these questions we are asking whether the case in favor
of an action can defeat the case against that action’s performance. At any rate, until someone shows
that (2) is false, we are not in the situation of someone who has to consider the respective merits of
the reasons that favor a belief’s inclusion in deliberation and reasons that favor its exclusion. We
have only a reason for its exclusion when the belief is false. There is a reason for the belief’s
exclusion because it passes a non-reason off as a reason. We have never seen a reason that favors
including those beliefs in deliberation that cannot fulfill their assigned role. It would seem
recognizing such reasons would force us to recognize a new role and we have no idea what that
would be.
Someone might say that the reasons that count in favor of an action or attitude can be
defeated only by those reasons to which the subject has access. Facts that are obscure to the agent
would be reasons, but reasons that only bear on whether the subject ought to believe or act once
they are apparent to the subject. While (3) and (4) might seem initially plausible, we might be wise

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to remember that a condition necessary for a reason’s functioning as a reason that contributes
towards determining whether an action or attitude is wrongful, justifiable, or permissible is that the
subject has access to it or is culpable for the failure to take note of it.
This objection needs to be treated with some care. I shall say more about the accessibility
of reasons later, but I shall first explain why this response is problematic. This response goes
against our ordinary moral intuitions insofar as it will force us to classify cases of excusable
wrongdoing as regrettable right action. Consider cases of ‘imperfect self-defense’.8 In such cases, a
subject reasonably, but mistakenly, believes herself to be in a situation in which she could justly use
violence to defend herself. To make this somewhat concrete, we imagine a case in which Plum
reasonably, but mistakenly, identifies Mustard as a mugger when in fact he is a jogger. Plum sprays
Mustard with mace. She acted on the (non-culpably) mistaken belief that doing so is necessary for
her self-defense. Unless we say that the fact that Mustard was harmless was not only a reason for
her to refrain from making him but also a reason that bore on whether her particular actions were
right or wrong, it is most unclear how we could classify such a case as excusable wrongdoing. The
excuse depends crucially upon her non-culpable ignorance. It depends upon whether she could have
reasonably thought that she would avoid engaging in wrongdoing.9 That there is wrongdoing to

8
The expression is taken from Moore (1997) as is the jogger-mistaken-for-a-mugger example.
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If we classify cases of ignorance or mistaken belief as cases of excusable wrongdoing rather than
regrettable right action, it seems we should distinguish between the permissible and the reasonably
taken to be permissible. If the role of justification is to identify that which is permissible, we have
to distinguish the justified action from the reasonable action. If we can draw this distinction for
actions, I can’t see why we can’t draw this distinction for beliefs. Justified beliefs, say, are beliefs
that conform to the norms that govern belief but reasonable beliefs are beliefs that seem to conform
to the norms that govern belief given how things seem to the subject. In cases of excusable
wrongdoing, the excuse for the wrongful action depends (in part) upon the fact that the subject is
reasonable in believing that the action was permissible. It does not follow that the excuse depends
upon whether the belief that the action was permissible is itself permissible unless there is no
distinction between a reasonably held belief and permissibly held belief. But, there should be such
a distinction. If someone fails to refrain from believing something they should not believe, they
cannot believe with justification but perhaps they can be excused for their epistemic failure.
Perhaps the (epistemic) excuse depends upon whether the subject could have reasonably assumed
that the belief was epistemically permissible. Following Gardner (2007), I think that the point of
offering an excuse is to show the agent in a positive light in spite of the fact that the agent acted
against an undefeated reason whereas the point of a justification is to show that there was no
undefeated reason that the agent acted against. The former does not involve showing that the agent
conformed to the relevant norms, but the latter requires that there was either no norm that the
agent violates or no norm that the agent violates without overriding reason that required doing
what violated that norm.

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excuse requires us to recognize that there is a reason to which she does not have the right sort of
access. That we ought to classify this as wrongdoing is supported by the following observations.
First, Plum has lost the right to non-interference but would not have lost it had the man been a
mugger rather than a jogger. Second, in the wake of her action, Plum ought to apologize and seek
forgiveness. This would not be the case if Mustard had been a mugger rather than a jogger. This
would not be the case if this fact were not itself a reason that went towards determining whether
her action was wrongful. Third, in the wake of her action if she were to help Mustard, that action
would not be merely beneficent. If she were to help him, that action would be a way of discharging
a duty of reparation. Such duties can only arise in the wake of wrongdoing. Had Plum acted
rightly, it seems her action would be merely beneficent as she would have no more responsibility
for taking care of Mustard’s injuries than you or I would have and we cannot help Mustard in such a
way as to discharge a reparative duty. The upshot is this. To classify cases of imperfect self-defense
as cases of excusable wrongdoing, a reason must be able to constitute a wrong that threatens the
justificatory status of an action even if the subject is unaware of it. It might be that only reasons of
which the subject is aware can go towards justifying her conduct, but that is a different matter.
Once we’ve established (C1), we can establish (C2) if we can say that justified beliefs are
beliefs that can justifiably be included in deliberation. If we think of justification in deontic terms
and say that p is justifiably believed iff p is permissibly believed, we can try to provide intuitive
motivation for this premise as follows. If it is permissible to believe p but not permissible to treat p
as a reason for action when, say, deliberating about some choice known to be a p-dependent choice,
then there could be decisive reason to exclude p from deliberation that was not, inter alia, a decisive
reason to refrain from believing p. Since the choice we are considering is known by the agent to be
a p-dependent choice, the reason for excluding the belief that p could not be that p is irrelevant to
the matter at hand. Could it be that the reason to exclude the belief that p from deliberation is a
reason to refrain from believing p, but a reason that is defeated? Perhaps, but then why wouldn’t
the defeating reasons that give overriding reason to believe fail to give overriding reason to
deliberate from p? I can’t think of any good answer to this question, so it seems the way to reject
this premise is either to argue that there are some cases where the subject can justifiably believe p
without there being some deliberative process where the subject justifiably includes p as a premise
because there are no deliberative processes that should include p or to argue that there are some
cases where there is overriding reason to exclude the belief that p from deliberation that gives no

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reason at all to refrain from believing p. There may be cases of beliefs that could never make a
difference to any deliberative process, but I can’t think of such cases and I don’t think many
epistemologists will want to defend their accounts of justified belief by saying that those accounts
apply only to this small (possibly empty) class of beliefs. Most epistemic purists think that
epistemic standards apply to beliefs regardless of the practical significance of those beliefs. If it can
be shown that those standards exclude, say, practically significant beliefs formed without evidence,
we should be able to generalize across all beliefs formed without evidence. If someone says that the
reason not to include the belief that p in deliberation concerning some p-dependent choice gave no
reason not to believe p, they would be hard pressed to explain the apparent irrationality of someone
who takes p to be permissibly believed, takes p to be the consideration that determines whether to
Φ, but then thinks that it is an open question what to do about Φ-ing because there is some reason
to exclude p from consideration. The subject that takes themselves to both permissibly believe p
and believe p to be the thing that, say, shows that Φ-ing is the thing to do but then takes themselves
to be obliged to exclude the belief that p from deliberation is inscrutable. Whatever it is that gives
them reason to exclude the belief from deliberation (e.g., the thought that there is insufficient
evidence to settle the matter) seems to give a further reason to drop the belief, suspend judgment,
or perhaps believe the belief’s negation.

OBJECTIONS

Epistemologists might reject the idea that reasons are facts about things external to us. Perhaps
they will say that normative reasons are just states of mind or facts about such states.10 This sort of
psychologism about normative reasons faces serious difficulties. If this is the epistemologist’s best
line of response, the epistemologists are in serious trouble.
As we saw earlier, the implausible error objection is supposed to show that practical reasons
can be facts and that any view that denies this is in trouble. I can imagine someone saying that the

10
For a defense of psychologism about normative and explanatory reasons for belief, see Turri
(forthcoming). His defense depends on an assumption he takes from Dancy, which is that
explanatory reasons and normative reasons must belong to the same ontological category.
Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible to act for good reasons. This seems like an odd assumption and
a weak rationale for accepting that assumption. As Stratton-Lake (2000: 22) observes, it seems
acting for good reasons could simply be a matter of acting for a reason that corresponds to a
genuine normative reason. The reasons for which we act and believe are mental states. The
reasons that are normative reasons are facts that correspond to our beliefs if all goes well.

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problem with the argument is that it assumes that the fact that a belief passes off a non-reason as if it
were a reason for the purpose of practical deliberation is what prevents that belief from being
justified. True, they might say, for any such belief there will be a reason to refrain from holding
that belief. However, it is a moral reason or practical reason rather than an epistemic one. Hence,
holding such a belief might be wrongful, but it is not epistemically wrongful. While epistemic wrongs
threaten epistemic justification, non-epistemic wrongs do not. In offering this response, it seems
that our objector is forced to adopt a view on which epistemic normative reasons (i.e., the reasons
that bear on whether to believe) are psychological states whereas practical normative reasons (i.e.,
the reasons that bear on whether to act) can be facts about matters external to a subject’s mental
states.11 Here is why. If rightness and wrongness depends on what sorts of normative reasons there
are, the objector has conceded that the rightness or wrongness of an action will depend (in part)
upon the facts. (This is what they must say to avoid the implausible error objection.) However, by
denying that the rightness or wrongness of a belief could depend on anything beyond the subject’s
states of mind, she is in effect saying that epistemic reasons either belong to a different ontological
category than practical reasons or she limits the range of possible epistemic reasons in ways that
practical reasons are not limited.
To get a feel for what such a view would look like, consider a case in which S knows she
morally ought to Φ iff p. She comes to believe mistakenly that p and, in judging that she ought to
Φ, she Φ’s straightaway. The Φ-ing, we are to assume, is morally wrongful. We might allow that
there is something wrong with the belief that inevitably leads to the commission of wrongdoing
when combined with further beliefs known to be true. However, as that is moral wrongfulness that
attaches to S’s Φ-ing, what reason is there to think that the beliefs that led one to Φ were
epistemically wrongful? In the absence of epistemic wrongfulness, there is no reason to think there is
a threat to the epistemic justification of the belief. In the absence of any reason to think that there
is a threat to the epistemic justification of the belief, there is no reason to say that the belief is not
justified. To be sure, if there were epistemic reasons to refrain from believing p in virtue of an
epistemic wrong, we ought to worry about the belief’s epistemic status. But, in the absence of any

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More cautiously, it forces them to either adopt the view that these are facts about their
psychological states or the states themselves. The objections we consider below would cause
trouble for any view that denies that the reasons that bear on whether to act (and, hence, whether
to act in accordance with one’s judgment) do not coincide with the reasons that bear on whether to
believe that one should act.

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such wrong and any such epistemic reasons for refraining from having that belief, its justificatory
status is unthreatened. The epistemic status of the belief is determined by facts about the agent’s
state of mind. The moral status of the action the agent must perform insofar as she is rational
depends upon further facts about states of affairs that obtain in the subject’s environment.
If this response is correct, we have to say that the kind of wrong that attaches to a false
belief in virtue of how it passes off a non-reason as a reason is the wrong sort of thing to threaten its
epistemic status. Let’s say that someone pursues the factoring strategy if they say that epistemic
reasons are states of mind while practical reasons are the facts represented by these states of mind.
I think the factoring strategy fails. First, and with apologies to Judith Thomson, consider an
example.12 Suppose a pilot comes to us with a request for advice: “See, we’re at war with a
villainous country called Bad, and my superiors have ordered me to drop some bombs at Placetown
in Bad. Now there is a munitions factory at Placetown, but there is a children hospital there too.
Some people tell me that I should drop the bombs to help with the war effort but some tell me that
we should avoid killing innocents. I am so confused, I just do not know who to believe.” Now,
suppose we say, “Look, given what you have said, it is clear that you should appreciate that
dropping the bombs is a necessary evil”. The pilot drops the bombs. We confront him and say,
“That was a terrible thing to do!” Confused the pilot says “But you told me that dropping the bombs
was a necessary evil”. “No”, we say, “We only said that believing you should drop the bombs is what
you should believe. You never asked us what you should do. That is an entirely different matter.”
What a queer performance this would be! Can anyone really think that what the pilot should
believe about what he should do depends on considerations other than those that determine
whether the pilot should drop the bombs?
One lesson to take from this example is that we ought to accept the following principle:
(Link) If you believe you should Φ and it’s not the case that you
should not believe this, it’s not the case that you
shouldn’t Φ.13

12
This is inspired by a passage from Thomson (1991).
13
[Omit] argues that this principle by appeal to some very weak assumptions about the connection
between practical judgment and motivation. We can extend the lesson of the toxin puzzle, for
example, and say that just as the reasons that bear on whether to Φ are the reasons that bear on
whether to intend to Φ, the reasons that bear on whether to intend to Φ bear on whether to judge
that you should Φ. If practical judgment necessarily implies belief in the way the cognitivists
maintain, we can give a demonstration of the principle given further assumptions defended by Raz

12
(Or, if you permissibly believe that you ought to Φ, you are permitted to Φ.) Note that this
principle does not assume that for any proposition, p, S’s belief that p is justified only if p. It only
assumes that for some propositions it is impossible for S’s belief to be justified if ~p and that if p is
the proposition that S ought to Φ, we cannot say that S’s belief that p is justified if ~p. If you
believe that you ought to Φ, you either ought to Φ or ought not believe this. It seems plausible to
me to say that there is a normative requirement or wide-scope ought that links judgments about
what one ought to do to the doing of what one judges one ought to do or the intention to do so. At
least, there is if you think that it would be irrational to judge that you ought to Φ without thereby
Φ-ing or intending to Φ and think that we ought not have combinations of attitudes (e.g., beliefs
and intentions) that violate these rational requirements.14 If this much is right, we have a neat little
argument against the view that takes epistemic normative reasons to be logically independent from
practical normative reasons. If the considerations that bore on whether to believe that one ought to
Φ did not entail that the considerations that bore on whether to act were also true, it would be
possible for there to be circumstances under which it is not wrong for S to judge that she ought to
Φ even though she ought not Φ. But, as there is a rational requirement according to which S ought
not both judge that she ought to Φ and refrain from intending to Φ and from Φ-ing. So, either the
considerations that bear on whether to act and believe consist entirely of considerations pertaining
to a subject’s mental states or they can include facts that pertain to matters external to such states.
Insofar as the view that treats epistemic reasons as states of a subject’s mind while allowing that
practical reasons are the facts such states represent, this view is untenable.
Here is a different rationale for Link. Consider a case in which a subject knows that she
shouldn’t Φ. She knows all of the relevant internal and external facts in virtue of which she
shouldn’t Φ. Suppose she also knows that she shouldn’t judge that she should Φ. If this subject is
anything like me, she will also think that the reasons in virtue of which she morally shouldn’t Φ are
reasons in virtue of which she epistemically shouldn’t judge that she should Φ. This is in the good
case, the case where the subject knows pretty much everything there is to know that matters.
Consider a second subject in the bad case, a case where the subject is mistaken about the external
surroundings. Her mistaken beliefs are all about non-normative matters and all her beliefs about

(1990) about the connection between duties and reasons. For further arguments for this principle,
see Gibbons (2009).
14
Broome (1999) thinks that the demands of rationality can be understood in terms of wide-scope
‘ought’ statements or normative requirements.

13
non-normative matters are mistaken. It might be that owing to such factual ignorance the subject
doesn't know what reasons bear on whether to act or not, but it doesn’t seem to follow from the
fact that the subject suffers from factual ignorance that the relations between the reasons that bear
on whether to act and whether to believe she should act differ from the relations that these reasons
stand in had this subject been in the good case. If these relations varied between the good case and
bad, the subject’s knowledge of the relations between the reasons in these cases would not be
apriori knowledge, but knowledge that depended, inter alia, upon knowledge of those contingent
matters of fact that bear on whether to act. I take it, however, that the subject’s knowledge of the
relations between the reasons that bear on whether to Φ and whether to judge that she should Φ is
independent from this empirical knowledge. If these points are both correct (i.e., that in the good
case the reasons that bear on whether to Φ are just the reasons that bear on whether to believe to
Φ and that in bad cases the relation between the reasons that bear on whether to believe and
whether to act don’t change), then it seems whether the subject is in the good or bad case the
subject knows that the reasons that bear on whether to act and whether to believe she should act are
just the same thing. If one is inaccessible in the bad case, so is the other. If one is accessible in the
bad case, so is the other. To deny Link, it seems you’d either have to (i) say that in the case of full
information the subject doesn’t know that the reasons that bear on action and belief are the same or
(ii) say that an agent’s ignorance changes that relations between the reasons that bear on whether to
act or believe. As (i) seems to be something that seems intuitively correct the denial of (ii) seems
to suggest that we could not know apriori how the reasons bear on whether to Φ and whether to
believe that you should Φ, it seems that Link must be true. Moreover, it seems to show that Link
must be true when we read the ‘ought’ in the consequent as the ought of an all things considered
judgment of practical reason and the ‘ought’ in the antecedent as the epistemic ought that governs
belief.
There is a second objection to the factoring strategy to consider. According to this
strategy, the considerations would bear on whether to believe we ought to Φ were considerations
about our perspective whereas an entirely different set of considerations would bear on whether to
Φ. The considerations that would bear on whether to Φ would be those that figured in our
perspective. This is a strange view because it seems that the very same mental states would provide
the very same reasons in the course of reasoning to a conclusion about whether to believe we ought
to Φ and in reasoning to a conclusion about whether to Φ. This observation seems hard to

14
reconcile with a view on which, say, facts about beliefs are ultimately what determines whether it
would be wrong to believe we ought to Φ but facts represented by those beliefs are ultimately what
determines whether it would be wrong to Φ. It would be as if epistemic reasons never figured in
reasoning. Moreover, if you were to say that the considerations that constituted reasons to believe
were facts about our mental states while saying that the considerations that constituted reasons to
act were the facts represented by those states you would have to say that we rarely if ever manage
judge that we ought to Φ because of the considerations that made it right to Φ.
Here is the third and final objection to consider. An evil villain issues a threat. He
declares, ‘If the cops believe I am a criminal I will continue to perform villainous acts, but if they
believe I am innocent I will behave’. The cops ought to stop this villain. Do the cops have any
reason to refrain from believing him to be a villain in order to achieve this end? It seems that this is
the wrong kind of reason to serve as a reason for belief. The reason is a reason for action only. It is
a reason for the cops to try to modify their psychological profiles in such a way that they no longer
believe the villain to be a villain. There is a world of difference between cases where a subject’s
reasonable but mistaken belief leads her to engage in wrongdoing (e.g., the case of imperfect self-
defense) and a case such as this one. In saying that the reason there is to refrain from including the
mistaken belief that p in deliberation is merely a moral reason or practical reason, we have lost sight
of the distinction between what seems to be two very different cases. This case is very different
from the case in which a false belief leads an agent to engage in wrongdoing.
We can distinguish the ‘wrong kind of reasons’ from the right ones by means of a test. R is
the right kind of reason for Φ-ing when a subject settle the question as to whether to Φ and thereby
Φ in finding R convincing.15 When we are thinking about action, the relevant question is a
question about what the subject ought to do. R is the right kind of a reason for action when in
finding R convincing the subject will settle the question about what to do and thereby Φ or intend
to Φ. When we are thinking about belief, the relevant question is a question about what the
subject ought to believe, a question that is transparent to a question about whether the relevant
proposition is true. R is the right kind of reason for belief when in finding R convincing the subject
will settle the question as to whether to believe p by settling to her satisfaction the question as to
whether p thereby coming to believe p. In the first case, the considerations that speak against Φ-ing
are considerations such that in being convinced of them the subject would be motivated to refrain

15
See Hieronymi (2005).

15
from Φ-ing because she would settle the question about whether to Φ by saying that she ought not
Φ. These very same considerations bear on the question as to whether to believe to Φ, so they are
not the wrong kinds of reasons to go towards making that belief wrongful. They seem to be the
right kinds of reasons for belief. And, as the subject knows that if that belief is wrongful but would
not be wrongful if the beliefs that obviously entail it were not wrongful in turn, it seems we have
the right kind of reason for an epistemic wrong. Either that wrong would attach to the belief that
the subject ought to Φ iff p or the belief that p. As the former belief is known to be true, the very
same conditions that determined that the subject ought to refrain from Φ-ing counted as epistemic
reasons for refraining from believing p. To say otherwise, one would have to reformulate the test
for distinguishing the wrong kind of reasons from the right ones or deny that there is any such
distinction.

CONCLUSION

If p is not a reason, there is a reason not to treat it as a reason. If p is not a reason and there is a
reason not to treat p as a reason for action, it could be permissible to treat p as a reason only if there
is an overriding reason that demands that p is treated as a reason for action. (This is because the
permissibility of doing something does not require that there is no reason not to, but only that
there is no undefeated reason not to.) There are no reasons like that. So far as I can tell, there are
not reasons that demand that you treat anything at all as a reason for action much less one that
demands that you treat some specific thing as a reason for action in spite of a reason not to treat it
as a reason for action. Thus, if p is not a reason, you ought not treat p as a reason for action. If ~p,
p is not a reason for action. If S justifiably or permissibly believes p, S is permitted to treat p as a
reason. This last point seems to me to be plausible and it is something that seems to be gaining
popularity.16 Denying it seems to require recognizing purely epistemic reasons to keep the belief
that p out of all deliberative processes (including those known to pertain to some p-dependent
choice) where those reasons are not reasons not to believe p in the first place. I don’t think that
there are different norms that apply to beliefs when they are idle and beliefs when they are active.
16
Fantl and McGrath (forthcoming) defend this claim. Gibbons (2009) defends the claim. They
seem to think that it is obvious. Neta (forthcoming) says that it is permissible to treat p as a reason
for action if you justifiably believe that you know p, but the differences between his view and their
views do not seem to matter for our purposes. If the argument shows that there are no false,
justified beliefs it should show that someone can have the justified belief that they know p only if p
since ‘knowledge’ is factive and the argument would show that ‘justified’ is factive as well.

16
I’m certain that there are not two levels of epistemic evaluation, one that determines whether it is
permissible to put p into the belief box and then a second that determines whether it is permissible
to put p into a premise slot. Thus, if S’s belief that p is justified, p must be true.
Essentially, this is my argument. Whether we should treat this as a reductio and a reason to
say that reasons aren’t facts or say that this is the surprising discovery that there are no justified
beliefs that don’t fit the facts is not something I want to settle here. It seems to me that these are
the options. First, you can say that the belief that p can contribute a reason to deliberation even if
~p. You can say this only if you say that reasons for action aren’t facts. I think that the implausible
error objection causes serious trouble for this view, but if someone thinks that this is the right
response perhaps they accept my thesis and accept that this has to go in order to make room for
false, justified beliefs. Second, you can say that there is no norm that enjoins us to refrain from
believing p when the belief that p would only pass off a non-reason as if it were a reason. The
problem with this is that it seems to deny something obvious. Among the norms that govern belief
and determine its epistemic status are norms that determine the epistemic status of reasoning from
a belief when one knows that the truth of the belief would make a difference to the deliberative
question one faces. Third, you can admit that there is such a norm but say that there is some other
norm that gives us overriding reason to include those beliefs that our previous norm tells us ought
to be excluded from deliberation. The problem with this is that no one knows what this norm
would be. It would have to give overriding reason to believe something that it seems the subject
could know is not something that she should reason from even when faced with a choice that the
subject knows turns on whether the proposition believed is true. Finally, someone could say that
the justification of a belief depends, in part, upon whether the belief is constitutionally capable of
providing a reason for the purposes of practical deliberation. Someone who says that this is the way
to go is going to have to say that there cannot be false, justified beliefs.
There are various reasons to think that there can be false, justified beliefs. It seems
intuitive, some say.17 While some say this, it seems that some have shown how the intuitions that
are supposed to show that there can be false, justified beliefs can be accommodated by views that
don’t allow for this possibility.18 This view leads to skepticism, some say.19 While some say this, it

17
See Cohen (1984) and Wedgwood (2002).
18
Bach (1985) and Engel (1992) do not say that truth is necessary for justified belief, but they do
think that our ordinary intuitions about justification ascriptions are consistent with externalist
accounts of justified belief and argue that the common internalist charge that externalist accounts of

17
seems that their arguments are easily dispensed with. If justified beliefs are just items of
knowledge, you cannot derive any skeptical consequences from (C2) without first demonstrating
that none of our beliefs constitute knowledge. I don’t think anyone will produce a convincing
argument that this is so. However, any such demonstration would seem to make the alleged
skeptical consequences of (C2) palatable. Someone could say that to accept the conclusion of these
arguments at face value is to accept the absurd consequence that none of the false beliefs we hold
are held rationally, since they are not capable of any justification whatsoever.20 Wrong on three
counts. First, the conclusion of this paper is that you cannot have it both ways. Either reasons are
not facts or justification is factive. Second, anyone who thinks that mistaken beliefs that lead the
agent to bring about bad outcomes excuse rather than obviate the need for justification thinks that
there’s a difference between rationally/reasonably responding to the reasons and responding to the
reasons in a way that is justified. That there are no false, justified beliefs is perfectly consistent with
the further claim that there are plenty of rationally held false beliefs. Third, if we say that what
justifies consists of facts, say because we agree with Williamson that our evidence includes only
what we know, we can say that false beliefs are justified to various degrees where those degrees are
understood as the probability of the propositions believed conditional on the subject’s evidence.
Someone could say that if reasons for belief are facts, we can have no false reasons and we have no
reasons for any of our false beliefs.21 While I would say that if reasons are facts, we could have
motivating reasons that aren’t true, but no normative reasons that consist of falsehoods. Here, I’m in
good company.22 It doesn’t follow from this that we have no reasons for any of our false beliefs.

justified belief clash with intuition stems from the internalist’s failure to heed the distinction
between a person who is justified in believing p and a person’s belief being justified. (This
distinction between personal and doxastic justification first appeared in the literature in Lowy’s
(1978) paper where she argues that critics of Gettier failed to show that there was something wrong
with Gettier’s cases because they failed to appreciate this distinction.) If we say that a belief is
justified only if it conforms to the norms that govern belief and say that belief is governed either by
the truth or knowledge norm, we can say that there are no false, justified beliefs. If we say that a
person is justified in believing when they reasonably take themselves to conform to the norms
governing belief, we can say that there are false beliefs someone is justified in forming. The
distinction between personal and doxastic justification is similar to the distinction between excuses
and permissions.
19
See Cohen (1984) and Conee and Feldman (2004).
20
[omit] raised this objection.
21
[omit] raised this objection.
22
Williamson (2000) is obviously on my side and arguably Conee and Feldman (2008: 90) agree
with me on this point. Conee and Feldman seem to say that contents such as that this is a tree cannot

18
We can clearly have motivating reasons for them and it doesn’t take a ton of logic to appreciate that
there can be false propositions supported by true ones.
Buried in this is, I think, a reasonable criticism. I’ve conceded that there can be false,
rational beliefs even if there cannot be false, justified beliefs. Someone could say that when
epistemologists speak of ‘justified beliefs’ they really only have in mind rational beliefs. That’s
probably true of some of them.23 I doubt that’s true of the externalists who think (wrongly, on my
view) that a belief’s justification is a matter of that belief being produced by a reliable process. I’ve
argued that this can’t the attitude of someone who thinks of justification in deontological terms.
Suppose the deontologist says that:
(DJ) S’s belief that p is justified only if S violates none of her epistemic
duties in believing p.
I’ve argued that there’s an epistemic duty to refrain from believing p when the belief that p could
not contribute a genuine reason to deliberation when that deliberation concerns some choice that
the subject knows to be p-dependent. I’ve argued that a subject violates that duty whenever the
subject believes p and yet p is false. That argument rests on the assumption that reasons for action
are facts. So, while I think someone can be perfectly reasonable while failing to live up to her
obligations or do what duty requires of her, I side with the deontologists who think that you cannot
fail to do what duty requires with justification. Not with sufficient justification, at any rate.
Suppose the deontologist says instead:
(DJ2) S’s belief that p is justified only if S does not violate some
epistemic duty unless some overriding epistemic duty demands it.
Someone could say that there is an overriding reason to believe false propositions when those
beliefs are supported by the evidence. I think that cannot be right. First, this assumes that
someone fails to fulfill her epistemic duties if she fails to believe what she has sufficient evidence to
believe. If you think that epistemic sins tend to be sins of commission, you probably won’t think that
the norms of evidence demand belief from those who shouldn’t act on their beliefs but rather forbid
beliefs that are not backed by adequate evidence. Second, suppose this is wrong. Even if the norms

be part of the content of our experience because someone could have an experience
indistinguishable from ours without seeing a tree. It seems that they are implicitly assuming that
that this is a tree cannot be the subject’s evidence for believing because it could seem that there is a
tree before someone when that proposition is false. See also [omit] for arguments for the claim that
evidence consists only of true propositions.
23
See Cohen (1984), Foley (1993), and Wedgwood (2002).

19
of evidence and norm of truth come into conflict, it would be odd to think that the evidential norm
is the overriding one since it seems to derive its status as a norm from either the truth norm or the
knowledge norm. Moreover, it’s odd to think that anyone who appreciates that S’s belief is
supported by evidence but is false does not then say that what S should believe is the false thing
supported by the evidence. So, even if the norms of evidence and truth conflict, why do we never
think the truth norm can be rightly violated in full awareness?
Some deontologists would cry foul. They will say that you cannot fail to do your duty if
you are reasonable, responsible, or rational in trying to do what duty requires. One response is the
hard-lined response. Once we distinguish justifications from excuses and denials of responsibility,
we see that rationality, responsibility, and reasonableness are a necessary condition for excusability
but that someone should be excused does not entail that what they believed or did was justified.24
One response is more concessive. If you really want to insist that no one can fail to do what duty
requires when they are reasonable, responsible, or rational, then you probably don’t really think
that the reasons that bear on our actions will be facts about our external situation. Such facts are
facts we can fail to take account of without being anything less than fully rational, fully reasonable,
or fully responsible. I’ve argued that if there can be false, justified beliefs, reasons for action cannot
be facts. If I can offer the concessive response, the objection accuses of me of affirming the
antecedent.
Suppose we take the argument at face value and say that there are no false, justified beliefs.
We can say that this view is a consequence of what seems to me to be a plausible view, which is that
there is a norm that governs belief that enjoins us to refrain from believing those things that ought
to be excluded from all deliberative processes. If reasons are facts, there is a reason this norm gives
us to refrain from including beliefs that don’t fit the facts in deliberation and so including that belief
in our belief set. If going against the reasons requires some reason to justify going against the
reason to refrain from believing and we cannot think of an overriding reason that we could cite in
full awareness to justify believing something when we know that the belief could give us no reason
to deliberate from, it seems for this reason that there cannot be false, justified beliefs. It seems that
anyone who denies this will inevitably have to say that the demands that theoretical reason and
practical reason place upon us cannot jointly be satisfied as situations will arise where we have made
a reasonable mistake about some matter, we’ll know that we ought to Φ if p is the case, and while

24
For discussion, see Gardner (2007: 88).

20
practical reason would demand that we refrain from Φ-ing and so refrain from concluding practical
deliberation by Φ-ing, theoretical reason would encourage us to continue to believe p and to draw
the theoretical consequences from this belief such as the belief that we ought to Φ. I’d like to think
that the demands of theoretical reason and practical reason will never come apart in this way,
telling us that there is nothing wrong with concluding that we should Φ but demanding that we
avoid Φ-ing. It seems that the best view that avoids this just denies that there can be false, justified
beliefs of the sort of that would cause this rift.

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