What are Epistemic Rights? A Basic Primer in Critical Thinking

todangst's picture

The following is based on a brief essay by Keith Parsons

To say that I am within my 'epistemic rights' to hold to a claim, I am saying that I violate no epistemic responsibilities or obligations in believing in my claim. (Rights and responsibilities go hand-in-hand.) An epistemic obligation is an intellectual responsibility with respect to the formation of, or holding to, my beliefs.

The basic obligations would include

1) Not forming a belief dishonestly, through self deception.

2) Not misrepresenting how we can to hold a belief (claiming a belief came through reason, when in fact it was inculcated into us in infancy, and merely verified afterwards)

3) Not forming a belief irresponsibly (for example, seeking only to verify, while ignoring contradictory evidence, or simply holding to my belief on theistic/non contingent faith)

To say that I have met these obligations allows me to hold that my claim is rational.

Unfortunately, having an epistemic right to hold to a belief does not verify the truth of the belief, for we are not judging the belief in this process, but the believer, we are simply saying that the believer is not guilty of any epistemic malfeasance in holding to his or her belief.

Some notes on points 1 and 3.

It is a notoriously difficult thing to determine whether one is guilty of self deception. Furthermore, as psychologist, I can only concede that everyone is guilty of self deception at some point, and that, even more troubling vis-a-vis epistemic rights, self deception is sometimes the best way to proceed - deceiving ourselves about the odds against us in some struggle may allow us to press on, and perhaps even succeed. Deceiving ourselves about a loss through denying it may help us cope with the situation until we are able to finally accept and deal with the loss later.

Therefore, I can only suggest that those who wish to examine their claims for self deception that you accept feedback from others concerning such claims, and openly examine them as possibly true. Use your own emotional reactions to these claims as clues as to their possible truth: does such a charge rile you, upset you, anger you? If so, these emotional reactions may provide you with information concerning possible self deception.

Another road to uncovering self deception is intra-personal - look to the cognitive models of treatment put forth by Beck and Albert Ellis. My website
http://www.candleinthedark.com/cognitive.html offers a brief overview of their works and their methods for uncovering 'faulty thinking', which includes self deception.

As for point 3, I can be more concise in offering ways to evaluate as to whether one is within their epistemic rights to hold to a belief vis-a-vis intellectual responsibility.

First, in order to honestly examine any claim, one must avoid simply simply being a verificationist, who looks only at what supports his own belief. You really need to consider at least four facets of the claim

1 elements that support my view
2 elements that debunk my view
3 elements that support my opponents view
4 elements that debunk my opponents view

and even

5 elements that debunk both our views

In order to be within one's epistemic rights to hold to a claim, one must know about opposing claims, in detail. One must be prepared to argue one's opponent's argument nearly as well as he can argue it. You must be able to:

1) Accurately reflect his argument, without a charge of 'strawman'
2) Point to his sources of evidence for his claim (if they exist)
3) Demonstrate how those sources are used to support the claim.

If you cannot do this, you are not within your epistemic rights to hold to your counter claim.

Those who wish to examine epistemic rights further would benefit greatly from this video, created by KT45 on youtube:


He presents this list of questions that help identify if you have critically analyzed your beliefs:

Have you critically analyzed your beliefs? Here are some questions that will help you figure it out.

1. Do you have a book that best describes your beliefs?
2. Have you read this book?
3. Do you have any other books on your beliefs?
4. Have you read books that argue against your beliefs?
5. Do you own a book that rebuts these arguments?
6. What advice would you give someone how wanted to learn about your beliefs?
7. What other holy books have you read? Have you explored other beliefs?
8. Did you grow up in your belief system?

One also ought to grasp the basics of logic before entering into a logical argument. Those who wish to pursue this study further could do so here:


On this page I present a basic, crash course in logic 101.

Finally, you've probably noticed that 'taking things on faith' is not discussed here. This is because theistic faith, or non contingent faith, is not a grounds for holding to a belief. It is not an epistemological position at all, in fact, it is a rejection of epistemology: it is the claim that one can hold to a belief without any justification. For more on this, see: Doesn't everyone take things on faith?

Those who argue that 'faith' allows one some sort of supernatural 'contact' with a god that in turn provides justification for the belief are merely begging the question.

"Hitler burned people like Anne Frank, for that we call him evil.
"God" burns Anne Frank eternally. For that, theists call him 'good.'