In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Doxastic Voluntarism

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Historical Sources
  • Historical Scholarship
  • Varieties of Doxastic Control
  • Arguments for Doxastic Voluntarism
  • Arguments for Doxastic Involuntarism
  • Doxastic Voluntarism and the Foundations of an Ethics of Belief
  • Doxastic Voluntarism and Applied Ethics of Belief
  • Doxastic Voluntarism and Epistemology
  • Doxastic Voluntarism and Religious Faith
  • The Voluntariness of Cognitive Attitudes and Acts Distinct from Belief
  • Studies in Experimental Philosophy

Philosophy Doxastic Voluntarism
Nikolaj Nottelmann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0436


Could you form some belief for a prize when you have no evidence supporting it? Say, the belief that all intelligent lifeforms in the Andromeda Galaxy are tripods? Could you immediately make yourself form some belief, which you know to be false, say, the belief that the present king of England rules the United States? Obviously not. On the other hand, when carefully deliberating about some issue before finally making up your mind, it often seems like the ensuing belief formation is not something that merely happens to you, like a blush rising up your cheeks. Rather, it seems like something you do, a matter of your personal decision. The debate over doxastic voluntarism is fueled by this tension. Doxastic voluntarists argue that the differences between standard involuntary occurrences versus events like making up your mind indicate that at least sometimes the latter type of event is genuinely agential or voluntary. In contrast, doxastic involuntarists maintain that, even when carefully “making up your mind,” a chasm separates what you here do from ordinary actions like lifting your arm or going for a walk: the gulf between the involuntary and the voluntary. The debate over doxastic voluntarism concerns the extent of human mental powers. It would seem to belong squarely within empirical psychology. Yet, historically, the debate has been entangled with wider debates in normative disciplines like ethics and epistemology. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the central notions of belief and voluntariness are contested. There is no universal agreement whether these notions are at bottom purely descriptive or partly normative. Secondly, debaters may be guided by their desire to make sense of apparent truisms in ethics and epistemology. It has seemed obvious to many that we are somehow responsible for what we believe, and that this must require our ability somehow to control what we believe. Moreover, moral ignorance is often a matter of belief: An agent can be ignorant that she is doing wrong since she holds no beliefs relevant to the ways in which her action constitutes wrongdoing. Such ignorance seems like a valid moral excuse. Yet, what if the agent is responsible for her ignorance? At least this weakens her excuse. Since, moral ignorance is a widespread phenomenon and a typical excuse, the ethics of belief has consequences for the general theory of human responsibility and accountability for actions.

Reference Works

Doxastic voluntarism has often been discussed in the context of wider debates. Not least debates concerning the ethics of belief (see Doxastic Voluntarism and the Foundations of an Ethics of Belief), the nature of epistemic justification (see Doxastic Voluntarism and Epistemology), and the nature of religious faith (see Doxastic Voluntarism and Religious Faith). Hence, there are few reference works solely focused on voluntarism. However, several monographs devoted to these wider topics contain chapters on doxastic voluntarism (see Meylan 2013, Nottelmann 2017, and Peels 2017 in Doxastic Voluntarism and the Foundations of an Ethics of Belief). Similarly, Chignell 2018 devotes a substantial section to the topic. Presently, “Doxastic Voluntarism” is the only introductory text entirely devoted to doxastic voluntarism. It offers a comprehensive treatment of important arguments for and against doxastic voluntarism, and traces the position’s wider significance in ethics, epistemology, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion.

  • Chignell, Andrew. “The Ethics of Belief.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2018.

    Section 3 presents an overview of the voluntarist debate.

  • Vitz, Rico. “Doxastic Voluntarism.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    So far, the only extensive encyclopedia entry entirely devoted to the topic.

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