Monday, March 31, 2008

The new scepticism

No confidence whatsoever in the following argument, but I think it's verrrrrrry interesting and some of the crucial assumptions seem rather plausible. Run it up the flagpole...

An argument that we ought to deny that by Φ-ing S does all the reasons require iff S rationally Φ’s. (I'm assuming that the conditions that determine rationality cannot go beyond those that determine what S's perspective is like.) It seems that reasons figure in reasoning and do so (often) because they are considerations that seem to favor a prospective course of action. These considerations are represented by the beliefs and are not considerations about the beliefs that provide premises for the purposes of practical deliberation. Suppose S is systematically deceived about the nature of his surroundings. It is possible to be fully rational in deciding to Φ under these circumstances and possible to be irrational in deciding to pursue some other course of action, say Ψ-ing. It is possible that on these occasions the subject does not respond correctly to the considerations the subject would identify as those that make Φ-ing favorable. But, on such an occasion we have already said that something explains why S’s decision to Φ would be rational and S’s decision to do Ψ irrational. That which makes Φ-ing rational and Ψ-ing irrational would be making demands of S, so they would be guiding reasons. Those would be beliefs or S’s or facts about those beliefs. But, S does not take his beliefs or facts about those beliefs to be considerations that favor Φ-ing so either S does not have a sense of what it would take for Φ-ing to be favorable or reasons do not figure in reasoning even when that reasoning culminates in the subject’s rationally deciding to Φ.

It is true that we sometimes reason from facts about beliefs instead of first-order beliefs about matters external to us. It seems clear that this reasoning is not the sort of reasoning we typically engage in because the rational requirements one must conform to in order for that reasoning to resolve rationally is different from the rational requirements that we must conform to in order for more familiar patterns of reasoning to resolve rationally. To see this, consider an example. If allowed to reason straight, as it were, from the premise that p, knowledge that q entails p is all I need to infer q and do so rationally (assuming of course that I arrive at this conclusion by means of competent deduction and lack reasons for denying q). If forced to reason from the fact that I believe p, I can still reason to the conclusion that q given ancillary premises that assure me it is unlikely that I would be mistaken about p such as the assumption that the fact that p is part of the best explanation as to why I would believe p. Depending on how strong this assurance is, I might rationally judge that q, but were I to deduce it from my starting premise that would be irrational.

The kinds of reasoning must be different because the rational requirements must be different. I would now like to argue that there is something oddly self-defeating about the view under consideration. Suppose we stick with the view that a reason’s demands cannot demand more than that we conclude deliberation in ways that are rational and accept the further view that reasons are not external considerations some might take to favor an action or attitude. The wages of such a view is scepticism. For the reasoning that reasons from facts about us, say, is reasoning governed by rational requirements that do not allow us to treat claims about the external surroundings as reasons. So, if p is a proposition about the external world, we are rationally compelled to reason from the fact that we believe p rather than the fact that p. Note, however, that knowledge of p’s truth is sufficient for p’s inclusion in practical and theoretical deliberation. So, if nothing suffices to warrant p’s inclusion in practical and theoretical deliberation, we do not know p. Knowing that we do not know p, we cannot rationally reason from the fact that we believe p because one cannot rationally persist in the belief that p whilst acknowledging that one does not know p. I’m not sure how much further we have to retreat, but I think we have already retreated too far.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Moral Kombat!

Suppose Smith and Jones are shooting at each other each in the hopes of killing the other. Let's also suppose that Smith's shooting is justified, say, on grounds of self-defense. Is it possible that Jones' shooting is justified as well?

Most will grant that it is possible for S to have _a_ justification that conflicts with _a_ justification J has, but that seems consistent with saying that it is possible only that S's actions are justified or that J's are. There can be conflicts among the pro tanto reasons each agent has for acting, but just as those conflicts will resolve themselves in determining what S ought to do overall they will resolve themselves in determining whether S ought to shoot J, J ought to shoot S, or ensuring that neither ought to shoot the other. The conflicts will not surface at the level of all-thins considered oughts, say.

To give the thesis a name, a name I believe I'm lifting from George Fletcher, let's say the incompatibility thesis is the thesis that situations cannot arise where S's actions are justified, J's actions are justified, but just as S's success in acting requires preventing J from acting, J's success in acting requires preventing S's success in acting. Let's say the coherence thesis is the thesis that situations cannot arise where S all-things considered ought to perform an action, J all-things considered ought to perform an action, but the situation is such that S's success comes at the expense of J's success (and vice-versa).

I'm somewhat inclined to reject both the incompatibility thesis and the coherence thesis. Let me begin by noting something I think is interesting.

Subjectivism and OIC
It seems reasonably clear that the denial of the coherence thesis commits you to denying that all-things considered ought implies can. To deny the coherence thesis is to assert that there are situations in which it cannot be that S and J both succeed in doing what they all-things considered ought to do. Now, suppose you adopt a view on which what ought to be done is a function of one's perspective on the situation rather than a function of the facts as they are. It would seem that on such a view, depending on how we describe S's perspective and J's perspective, it might seem best given S's perspective for S to X and best from J's perspective for J to Y even though the situation is such that it is impossible for S to X while J Y's. If this truly is a case where the subjectivist would deny the coherence thesis and the denial of the coherence thesis comes with denying ought implies can, then we can see what is wrong with using ought implies can to motivate subjectivist or psychologized approaches to deontic notions such as obligation.

Against Incompatibility
Maybe my intuitions are just so thoroughly corrupted that they oughtn't be trusted, but it seems to me that there are roughly a gazillion counterexamples to the incompatibility thesis. Here's one. S and J are lovers. S likes to wake before J so that S can make coffee. J likes to wake before S so that J can make tea. If they wake at just the same time, there's an awkwardness in determining whether to make coffee or tea and typically they end up having neither. It is clear that J's making the coffee is justified as is S's making the tea, but neither could carry out their justified actions if the other were to try to carry out the actions they were justified in performing.

Against Coherence
It might seem harder to construct counterexamples to the coherence thesis working with an objectivist approach to justifications and obligations, but the following strikes me as being pretty compelling. J is dropping bombs in a just war and we might suppose that he is not only permitted to drop the bombs but obligated to do so given the importance of this particular campaign. S is a non-combatant who will be killed as a side-effect if J's bombs drop. If this were merely a case of S's defending himself, we might think that he would be permitted to either take arms against J or do nothing. Let us suppose, however, that S's family will also be killed in the campaign. It is not obviously wrong (to me, at any rate) to say that S ought all-things considered man an unmanned anti-aircraft gun and fire on J's plane in order to prevent J from dropping the bombs.

I cannot see any reason to reject this description of the case: S ought to drop the bombs the dropping of which would prevent J from preventing S from dropping the bombs; J ought to fire on S's plane in such a way as to prevent J from dropping the bombs, it cannot be that both S and J do what they ought to do.

Someone might say that denying the coherence thesis prevents morality from playing the role it ought insofar as it prevents morality from resolving conflicts.

This objection strikes me as rather weak. It still gives the agents some advice in this situation (take arms against the incoming planes if you must, but under no circumstances must you turn turn those guns on other non-combatants) and can still give advice in other situations. I cannot think of any reason to think that morality has to give more advice than this.

I worry that this objection might also prove too much. Problems with the incompatibility thesis arise when we have situations where S is permitted/justified in X-ing while J is permitted/justified in Y-ing while it is impossible that both S and J get their way. Intuitively it seems we just let J and S sort this out and neither acts wrongly unless one acts against a side-constraint in the way that they promote their ends. (If J just wakes up first, fine. If J wakes up first because J drugged S that's a different matter even if that is the only way for J to wake up first.) However, if we thought that morality had to guide us to unique outcomes in conflict situations, should that not lead us to assert the incompatibility thesis and insist that either S is not really justified in S's actions, J is not justified in J's actions, or both? I don't think you can derive the falsity of the coherence thesis from the falsity of the incompatibility thesis, but as the incompatibility thesis seems not particularly plausible in light of examples, theoretical justifications of coherence that would thereby establish the incompatibility thesis are suspect.

So, what are the other principled objections to denying the coherence thesis?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


According to Entertainment Weekly, Daniel Plainview is one of the 50 most vile movie villains of all time. This is impossible. Anyone who has seen There Will Be Blood knows he's movie's hero. The villain was Eli Sunday who eventually gets his comeuppance when Plainview shows him the business end of a bowling pin. The whole damn world is against the atheist.

More claims about reasons I suspect might be mistaken

This is a follow up on a few posts previous to this one. Concerning the case where Jones is approached for alms, is fresh out of alms, but has the means for murdering another for his alms, I wanted to say the following:
(4) There is a reason for Jones to give alms to the poor.
(5) The reason Jones has for giving alms to the poor, which is associated with the duty of beneficence, is not a reason that has among its demands that Jones do whatever is necessary given the circumstances to give alms to the poor.
(6) The reason Jones has for giving alms to the poor, which is associated with the duty of beneficence, is not a reason for Jones to murder the passerby and take his alms.

But, there's an obvious objection. While it might seem intuitive to assert (4) and intuitive to say that Jones has no reason to murder the man, these claims are inconsistent. Given the circumstances, Jones' murdering the man is a necessary means for giving alms to the poor. Reasons to pursue ends become reasons to pursue the means necessary. The absence of reasons to pursue means necessary for some end is an indication that there is no reason to pursue that end. Can't have it both ways, someone might say. This is all consistent with Foot's point, provided we read Foot as saying something to the effect that reasons associated with duties of beneficence are conditional reasons and we simply have no such reasons on the condition that improving the welfare of others requires us to act unjustly.

It is a general principle, the objector says, that if R is a reason for S to Φ and there is only one means by which S might Φ given the circumstances, R is a reason for S to pursue those means. And, as a consequence, if R is a reason to Φ and S is forced to choose between Φ-ing and Ψ-ing, R is a pro that favors Φ-ing iff R is a con that speaks against Ψ-ing. (Assuming, of course, that you would sacrifice the good by Ψ-ing). So, in the case at hand, insofar as the duty of beneficence says that there is a reason to give alms and that necessitates murder, it is a reason to murder and a con associated with the decision not to murder.

According to this line of reasoning, in conflict situations where S is forced to choose between Φ-ing and Ψ-ing, it would follow from this assumption that the reasons that spoke in favor of Φ-ing would thereby speak against Ψ-ing. In other words, any consideration that pointed to a pro of Φ-ing that could not be attained if the agent Ψ’d rather than Φ’d would be a reason to refrain from Ψ-ing. And, any of the cons associated only with Ψ-ing would thereby be a reason to Φ. That seems wrong, however.

Jones is out for his morning constitutional when he sees a man fall into the creek. Seeing that the man was struggling to pull himself out and is in serious danger of being pulled away from the shore, he rushes over to lend a hand. Smith is heading out to meet Jones the next day for lunch when he sees a different man fall into the same creek. Seeing that this man was struggling to pull himself out and in danger of being pulled away from the shore, he rushes over to lend a hand knowing full well that his assisting this stranger would prevent him from keeping his appointment with Jones. It seems that the strength of the case for Φ-ing is a function of both the reasons to Φ and the reasons to refrain from Φ-ing. It seems that the case for Smith to assist and the case for Jones to assist is equally strong. It follows that the reasons that favored keeping the meeting rather than helping the man were not reasons to refrain from helping the man. So, it seems that unless it is qualified significantly, the assumption needed to show that (4) is incompatible with (5) and (6) is false.

Arché Summer School

I don't know if any readers have registered for Arché Summer School, but I have and would be interested in knowing who else was planning on attending. Leave a note below or drop me a line at If this is the first time you've heard of it, you should go see what they have planned here. Also, shame on you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Impractical practical reasons

Further thoughts on the previous post. There's a question I've been kicking around for a while about the reasons associated with prime facie duties such as the duty of beneficence. What is it that such reasons demand of us? I want to argue that they give us reasons in circumstances where we do not necessarily have the potential to perform those actions. (They are impractical practical reasons.)

The thought was inspired by something Dancy said about Ross, the utilitarians, and beneficence and by something Foot wrote in her "Utilitarianism and the Virtues" on pretty much the same issue. Here goes.

First, our example:
Jones is asked to give alms to the poor. Fishing around in his pockets, he realizes that he is completely out of alms having spent the last of them on coffee and cigarettes. He does have a pocketknife and he knows that he could chase down a passerby and kill him for his alms. He could then give those alms to the poor. On the one hand, reasons associated with the duty of beneficence are reasons for him to give alms to the poor. On the other hand, considerations of justice and reasons associated with the duties of non-maleficence give Jones good reason to refrain from murdering the passerby. As conflicts of duty go, this one is not terribly hard to resolve. The hard question is not what Jones ought to do, the hard question and interesting questions pertain to the reasons he has and what those reasons are reasons for.

First, I'd like to say that it seems not entirely implausible to maintain that:
(1) In these very circumstances, there is a reason for Jones to give alms to the poor associated with the duty of beneficence.

Here's the justification. It is rational for Jones to regret that he did not help the poor even if Jones decides rightly to refrain from killing the passerby in order to acquire the alms to distribute. The moral residue is often regarded as an indication that there is a defeated reason rather than a canceled reason. That there is moral residue also suggests that we ought to reject the sort of view on which the duty of beneficence anticipates all of the possible circumstances under which it is not the case that the duty of beneficence is the duty that determines what ought to be done all things considered. If the duty of beneficence only gave us reason to act conditional on the absence of stronger reasons to pursue incompatible ends, the proper specification of the reason to give alms to the poor would say that there was in fact no reason to give to the poor when there are decisive considerations against doing what is necessary to do so. On that sort of view, (1) would be false. But, such a view is hard pressed to explain the rationality of Jones' regretting not giving to teh poor.

Second, it seems plausible to maintain:
(2) The reason Jones has for giving alms to the poor, which is associated with the duty of beneficence, is not a reason that has among its demands that Jones do whatever is necessary given the circumstances to give alms to the poor.

For example, it seems plausible to maintain:
(3) The reason Jones has for giving alms to the poor, which is associated with the duty of beneficence, is not a reason for Jones to murder the passerby and take his alms.

Someone might say that it is a reason but a defeated reason to murder the passerby, but this is where I think we need to listen to Foot. If there was a reason, albeit a defeated one, to murder the passerby generated by the duty of beneficence in this circumstance since there is no way to give alms to the poor without murdering the passerby, it would seem that Jones' decision to murder the passerby and distribute his alms would be all things considered wrong but would be a way of discharging the duty of beneficence. But, that seems wrong. As Foot notes:
Certainly benevolence does not require unjust action, and we should not call an act which violated rights an act of benevolence. It would not, for instance, be an act of benevolence to induce cancer in one person (or deliberately to let it run its course) even for the sake of alleviating much suffering.

Whereas the utilitarian might say that beneficence is simply a matter of promoting the welfare of others, I take it that part of what Foot is saying is that this is a perverse conception of beneficence and a warped view of what a benevolent action is. One way of putting the point is this. The reason writers such as Foot think the utilitarian view is repugnant is precisely because the reasons the utilitarian says we have to promote the welfare of others are the kinds of reasons that can, depending on the context, serve as reasons to perform unjust and brutal actions. If those were the kinds of reasons associated with the duty of beneficence, it seems that we would by the same token think that there could be no such thing as a duty of beneficence just as there can be no such thing as a duty to be chaste or a duty to refrain from being uppity as those alleged duties tell us we have kinds reasons we know there could not be.

Well, suppose one accepts (1), (2), and (3). If you do, you have an argument against the view that reasons are reasons only for potential actions. Here goes:
(4) There is no reason for Jones to murder the man in order to distribute his alms. Such an action is not demanded by considerations of justice (obviously) and is not demanded by reasons of beneficence either.
(5) There is a reason for Jones to distribute alms to the poor.
(6) Given the circumstances there is no potential action of Jones' that is his giving alms to the poor without his giving the alms to the poor by murdering another for his alms.
(C) Among the reasons Jones has are reasons that are not reasons for actions that are potential actions of his.

According to Vranas, the claim that all reasons for action are reasons for potential actions sounds like a tautology. Perhaps it does, but it is not obviously true. It is not, that is, when we think through the examples. According to Streumer, allowing for the possibility of reasons for action that are not possible action is the first step down a short path to crazy reasons. It does not take crazy reasons to provide counterexamples to the claim that reasons are reasons only for possible actions, it just takes the familiar reasons associated with prima facie duties. At least, that is how it seems.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Vranas' argument concerning the entailment from 'ought' to 'can'

Many are attracted to the view that what an agent ought to do depends (in part) upon what the agent is capable of doing:
OIC: If S has an obligation to Φ, S can Φ.

In the hopes of finding a sound defense of OIC, we might turn our attention away from the linguistic evidence and think about guiding reasons and the obligations they create. There is an argument that suggests that OIC follows from independently plausible claims about practical reasons and the relationships between practical reasons, the actions they call for, and the obligations they seem to create:
1. If S has an obligation to Φ, S has a reason to Φ.
2. If S has a reason to Φ, then Φ-ing is a potential action of S’s.
3. If Φ-ing is a potential action of S’s, then S can Φ.
C: If S has an obligation to Φ, S can Φ.
This argument is taken from Vranas' Philosophical Studies article, "I Ought, Therefore I Can" (here).

I suspect that many will be of the opinion that if we focus on just the linguistic considerations taken to cause trouble for OIC, we will end up saying things about reasons we ought not say. For example, we will end up saying that there are reasons for us to perform actions that are not potential actions of ours. Fleshing out the intuition, Vranas writes, “… reasons of any kind are conceptually linked to objects of the given kind: reasons for belief to potential beliefs, reasons for action to potential actions, and so on” (5).

In spite of its initial intuitive appeal, I worry that a premise crucial to the argument’s success is neither a truism about practical reasons nor true. Are reasons for S to Φ invariably reasons for S to perform a potential action? That is not entirely clear. Two examples should suffice for my purposes.

Jones lights a cigarette. In lighting the match to light the cigarette, he gives away his position to a sniper. According to a commonly held view about reasons for action, the reasons that count as reasons to, say, light and smoke a cigarette are considerations that favor lighting and smoking a cigarette. They show that there is something that makes the lighting and smoking worthy of choice, desirable, attractive, etc… Given the circumstances, lighting and smoking a cigarette is a potential action of Jones’. Given the circumstances, lighting and smoking a cigarette without giving away his position to a sniper is not a potential action of Jones’. Given his circumstances, by lighting and smoking the cigarette he will smoke the cigarette and give away his position. The considerations that speak in favor of lighting and smoking, however (e.g., the rich taste, the calming of the nerves, the coolness of the pose he’ll strike in photos while holding the cigarette) do not speak in favor of his giving away his position to a sniper. So, we have a threat to (2). There can be a reason for S to Φ in the very circumstances where that reason is not a reason to Ψ but Φ-ing without Ψ-ing is not a potential action of S’s.

Someone might be picky and say that Jones’ smoking and alerting a sniper to his presence is not an action of his. It is not if Jones knows nothing of the sniper’s presence. This problem is easily fixed. Jones is well aware of the fact that snipers are often watching the trenches for the flickers of light that indicate that an enemy is smoking a cigarette. I do not think it would be an abuse of the language to say that his running the risk of being spotted by a sniper is something he did and did willingly. The considerations that favor smoking a cigarette are not considerations that count in favor of running the risk of being spotted by a sniper. In general, it seems odd to think that the pros that favored Jones’ action also favor Jones’ imposing upon himself the foreseeable costs that come of pursuing that course of action. Reasons to smoke do not become reasons to alert snipers even when those things go hand in hand.

The point of this example is, hopefully, clear enough. When we know we cannot Φ without thereby Ψ-ing, see that there is much to be said in favor of Φ-ing and some things to regret about having to Ψ if one Φ’s, the considerations that favor Φ-ing do not seem to favor bringing about the cons associated with Ψ-ing. I like to jog. I hate wearing down the soles of my shoes. I know I cannot jog without thereby wearing down the soles of my shoes. The reasons that favor jogging do not favor wearing down the soles of my shoes. If I do not jog, I know I have failed to do what the reasons spoke in favor of and reasonably regret that. By not wearing down my shoes in the way I would if I jogged, I do not have the same cause of regret.

Smith is asked to give some alms for the poor. Fishing around in his pockets, he realizes he is completely out of alms. He has some keys, some matches, a few stamps, and a pocketknife. Seeing a passerby, he knows that he could use that knife to brutally kill the man and give his alms to the poor. Reasons associated with the duty of beneficence demand Smith to give alms. Given the circumstances, there is no potential action of Smith’s that is his giving alms to the poor that are rightfully his. Given the circumstances, there is the potential action of Smith’s that is his killing another in order to give alms to the poor. Reasons associated with the duty of non-maleficence and considerations of justice, however, speak strongly against doing that. It seems that while the reasons associated with the duty of beneficence are reasons to give alms to the poor but they are not reasons to give alms to the poor at the expense of considerations having to do with non-maleficence and justice. So, we have a situation in which it seems Smith has reasons to give alms to the poor. The situation is such that Smith cannot give alms to the poor without murdering a passerby in order to give alms to the poor, in which case if Smith gives alms to the poor he will do so at the expense of considerations having to do with justice and non-maleficence. Reasons associated with the duty of beneficence, however, are reasons to promote the welfare of others but not to promote the welfare of others at the expense of justice and non-maleficence. To see this, suppose Smith decides to murder the passerby and distribute his alms to the poor. Can we really say that while he acted wrongly, he did what beneficence asked of him? I think not. However, beneficence did ask of him that he distribute alms to the poor. Again, we have reasons for an agent to perform an action that are not reasons to perform a potential action of his.

Friday, March 21, 2008

It's a fair Friday, I'll give it that

I've finally crawled out from under a rock and made it into the office. There are no classes today, however, so I'm not really sure what to do with myself. On the way in, I stopped by the benefit store and found two (two!) vintage steel architectural file cabinets that I purchased for $200. I'll rework one into a coffee table (the basic idea is this) and likely let a friend have the second. I'd like to get some writing done but my ears are still killing me.

I've basically been in bed since last Saturday with a flu that turned into an ear infection. Apart from two pieces of sushi last night and a pancake last Sunday, I haven't eaten a solid piece of food since last Friday. I've mostly been sweating and suffering the chills while watching and endless loop of Flight of the Conchords and Extras and trying to force down sips of Gatorade. It's been a surreal experience. Haven't had much contact with people over the last five or six days except through occasional text messages and trips out my now very disgusting apartment for meds and tea. Now I'm walking around a deserted campus feeling a bit like the Omega man.

There's something I've been hoping to return to, and that is the relationship between 'ought' and 'can'. I threw something together hastily the other day after reading Sinnott-Armstrong's Phil Review article and a more recent piece by Bart Streumer and was pleased but mortified to see that Streumer was kind enough to read the post and offer some comments. It's one of the dangers of mentioning people's names when discussing their work, they might find out about it. Worse, they might respond.

There's something I think clearly right about Streumer's view concerning 'ought' and 'can'. Just to refresh your memory a bit, suppose Adams is tied to a chair by an intruder. Babcock sees him sitting in his chair through the window and says:
(1) You should have called the police.
Adams says:
(2) I couldn't, I'm tied to a chair!

The view that I wanted to defend (not because I think it is right, exactly, but just to see what it has going for it--yes, I might be waffling a bit) is that while Adams ought to retract (1), that is not because (2) shows (1) to be false but because at that stage in the conversation Adams ought to offer other advice if he is going to continue in his role as adviser. So, what makes it natural for Adams to say:
(3) In that case, you should have screamed so that your neighbors could have heard you.

is NOT that Adams replaces a false assertion (i.e., (1)) with a true assertion (i.e., (3)), but that in offering advice there is an implication that the advisee can follow the advice. On the view that 'ought' implies 'can' ('OIC'), however, (2) shows that (1) is false but is consistent with (3). So, the naturalness of taking (1) back and offering (3) is due to the fact that Adams corrects his mistaken assertion with a true one.

Here's what I think draws me to Streumer's view. Are we really going to say that Adams should have busted through the ropes and perhaps flown down the street to apprehend the burglars? If we are not prepared to say that, why not? It had better not be because he cannot bust through the ropes or that he cannot fly like Superman. I don't find myself attracted to the view that it is merely conversationally improper to say that he ought to fly down the street and apprehend the burglars and the thought that he should not is not due on my part to thinking that such an action would violate some substantive moral obligation.

Fair enough. But there's still the question as to what motives OIC. For my part, I think that _that_ is what is really doing the work. The linguistic data (i.e., that it seems natural to replace (1) with (3) upon hearing (2)) does not really move me. In fact, it seems if anything the linguistic data appears to cut against OIC more than it supports it. I do not see that the data offers univocal support to either OIC or the view that 'ought' conversationally implies 'can' ('OCIC').

Consider the following remark:
(4) You ought to have called the cops, but since you could not, you ought to have shouted for help.

That remark strikes me as perfectly natural. I cannot see how to explain its naturalness apart from conceding that it is true, but on OIC it is a manifest contradiction. It's that sort of data that I'm having a hard time with.

Anyway, my interest in this stems largely from a desire to work out some understanding of how 'ought' relates to 'knows'. An assumption that I will work from without defending (because I've defended it ad nauseum elsewhere) is this:

(A1) Ignorance is an excusing condition.

Situations can arise in which the fact that p ensures that it is wrong to X even though q is true. In situations where q & ~p, it might be that X-ing is permissible, but I'd say in situations where the subject reasonably believes q and is non-culpably ignorant of p, X-ing is still wrong. It is, however, excusably wrong.

The question is whether this can be accommodated by views on which there is an entailment from 'S ought to X' to 'Someone knows the facts relevant for determining that S ought to X'. On its face, this view and (A1) are in tension. There's no reason to assume in advance that the fact that p which ensures that S oughtn't X is known to S or any relevant party. So, if (A1) is right, any view that assumes an entailment from 'ought' to 'knows' is wrong ('OIK').

Cases like these are often used to motivate various fancy versions of OIK:
Here's a version of Parfit's mineshaft example from TAR:
A huge quantity of water is sloshing down the side of a hill. As it stands the water will end up in two caves, largely filling each of them. There are 10 miners in one of the caves, but no one at the site knows which. If both caves are flooded, only one of the miners will drown. (Ignore for now how we could know this, and assume we do.) The people at the site have some sandbags, which they could use to block one of the caves. If they block the cave with the miners, all the miners will be saved. If they block the other cave, the cave with the miners will be totally filled with water, and they’ll all drown. What should be done?

The options are

* Block the north cave.
* Block the south cave.
* Block neither cave.

Now, it is tempting to say:
(5) Ya'll should block neither cave.

However, as if often pointed out, the miners who know where they are (the north cave, say) will say:
(6) Ya'll should block the north cave.

On some versions of OIK, we focus on what is known to the speaker. Since the agent who is making the decision does not know where the miners are and knows that they can cut their losses by doing nothing, they judge (truthfully on this view) that they ought to block neither cave. The naturalness of (5) is accounted for. Since the miners know where they are and know that if nothing is done one of them will surely die, they can say (truthfully on this view) that the north cave ought to be blocked off. The naturalness of (6) is accounted for.

The following strikes me as perfectly coherent thing to say after the relevant decisions are made.

(7) You should have blocked off the north cave, but since you didn't know where the miners were, you should have done nothing.

I don't think we need OIK to make sense of (5) and (6) if we can make sense of (7). (7), to my mind, works a bit like the advice I gave Lanie in Lowe's. By taking account of the relevant agents' ignorance, you are really bracketing the question 'What should they really have done?' and are focused on a slightly different question 'Given that they were forced to act under ignorance, what was the best we could have hoped for?' It's similar to how taking account of Lanie's obstinate decision to paint the light fixtures we've set aside the question 'What should you do?' (answer: leave well enough alone) and focused on a slightly different question 'What's the best we could hope for?' (answer: silver rather than fluorescent pink light fixtures). Knowing that certain ends cannot be changed, we aim for second best. Knowing that certain ignorance cannot be remedied, all parties to the conversation (i.e., those with sandbags and those giving them advice) realize that it is pointless to try to settle the question as to what _really_ ought to be done and settle for second best. So, the naturalness of 'You ought to do nothing' is not that it is true in any sense that you ought to do nothing much in the same way that the naturalness of 'You ought to paint those light fixtures silver' is not due to the fact that the unwillingness to leave them alone changes the 'oughts' in that situation.

Anyway, I can't guarantee that this makes sense. I'm still on anti-biotics.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

'Ought' conversationally implies 'someone knows something or other about something'

I had a thought the other night about how the link between 'ought' and various knowledge ascriptions might involve conversational implicatures rather than entailment relations. I then discovered that Walter Sinnott-Armstrong basically worked out the view I was kicking around. On his view, when we use 'ought' in an advisory context and say 'S ought to X' there's a CI to the effect that S can follow the advice we've just given. I'm reading a paper by Bart Streumer criticizing Sinnott-Armstrong's view. I'm hoping that the work on the 'ought'/'can' relationship might be useful for thinking about the 'ought'/'knows' relationship as I'm trying to reconcile the view that ignorance is an excusing condition rather than, say, an enabling/disabling condition with certain observations about the use of 'ought' in cases where we're forced to come to a judgment knowing we do not know certain seemingly relevant facts about the consequences of pursuing one of the available options (e.g., Prichard's stop sign, Parfit's mine shaft).

An example. Jones' home has been burgled and Jones has been tied to a chair. Smith arrives. Jones does not answer the door because he is tied to the chair. Smith says:
(1) If you've been burgled, you ought to get out of your chair and call the police.

It seems natural for Jones to respond:
(2) I'm tied to the chair, so I cannot call the police.

The response seems perfectly apt. The question is whether it shows (1) to be false or not? Sinnott-Armstrong says it doesn't show (1) to be false. Rather, in asserting (1), one implies that the advice offered can be followed and (2) speaks to that implication. Streumer doesn't buy this response. He asks us to consider two further claims. Smith says:

(3) I know you cannot call the police, but that does not make it any less true that you ought to call the police.

Jones replies:
(4) Don't be ridiculous. It cannot be true that I ought to call the police if I cannot do so.

He thinks that Jones' reply is a natural one and that this cannot be so if 'ought' CI's 'can'. He writes, "if 'ought' conversationally implicated 'can', Smith would be cancelling the implicature when he says that he knows that Jones cannot call the police, and it would then not be natural for Jones to reply that Smith's claim cannot be true".

The thing is that I simply don't think (4) is natural. It doesn't strike me as an obviously appropriate thing to say and (3) strikes me as perfectly coherent.

Here's an example that I think suggests that Sinnott-Armstrong is winning thus far. Suppose Lanie is doing some home repair and really dislikes some lamps. I tell her that the ugly lamps ought to be left alone because the typical home buyer likes ugly lamps. It's all but analytic that most people have terrible taste. I say:

(5) You really ought to leave those lamps alone.

She insists on painting them, in which case I'd say:

(6) In that case you ought to paint them silver.

Now, consider two views:
(I) 'Ought' conversationally implies 'Will'
(II) 'Ought' entails 'Will'

A defender of (II) might say that when we know someone will not pursue some course of action, we say that they ought to pursue some other course of action and avoid other options. That, they say, is evidence that 'Ought' entails 'Will'. It's essentially the same evidence we get for 'Ought' entails 'Can' when we observe that upon learning that Jones is tied to a chair we take back the claim 'You ought to call the cops' and say instead 'You ought to have screamed for your neighbors to help untie you'. However, there is no one who thinks that (II) is true and in explaining the naturalness of (6) and taking back (5) will appeal to something along the lines of (I). I think this example shows that Sinnott-Armstrong was right to remind us that the fact that an agent ought to do one thing does not show that they should not do other things. Lanie really ought to leave those lamps alone, but since she will not, she really ought to paint them silver. Jones really ought to call the cops, but the reason the crooks tied him to his chair was to prevent him from doing what he ought to! That does not change the fact that he should have shouted for help since he could not untie himself.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Poor man's pragmatic encroachment

I've just written up a short little paper on the ontology of reasons, belief's functional role, and the justification of belief. I like it. (It's more of a call for a meeting of the minds, so JT might like it.) The basic idea is this. It seems that the reasons that bear on whether you ought to X are reasons that bear on whether you ought to believe you ought to X. It seems that the reasons that bear on whether you ought to hold certain normative beliefs are reasons that bear on whether you ought to hold certain non-normative beliefs. So, to the extent that we treat the reasons that bear on whether you ought to X as objective matters of fact, we ought to do the same across the board. And, to the extent that we ought not pass off non-reasons as reasons, we have reasons (dare I say a threat to the justification?) to exclude false beliefs from deliberation. On the only test I know of for distinguishing the wrong kind of reasons from the right ones, these reasons for excluding beliefs from deliberation are the right kind of reasons to bear on whether we ought (epistemically) to hold certain beliefs.

Anyway, it's very drafty but I'd love feedback. Here.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Belief's aim and its justification

Suppose you think reasons are objective matters of fact rather than psychological states of an agent. I'm thinking of guiding or justificatory reasons here. If what I say turns out to be true of motivating or explanatory reasons, I'd be surprised. I'm not not open to surprises, however. If you think of reasons as considerations that favor an action you will probably be sympathetic to this sort of view. Lots of people think that that's what reasons are, so I suspect lots of people will be sympathetic.

I'm of the view that belief aims at the truth, but I'm not sure that this is something we ought to take as basic. If an explanation can be given, perhaps this will suffice. The aim, purpose, or function of belief is to provide the agent with reasons for the purpose of practical and theoretical deliberation. Of course, we're talking about guiding or justificatory reasons. Any false belief will pass off a non-reason as a reason. Any false belief will fail in its aim, function, purpose, etc... So, any false belief will fail to fulfill its aim. Extensionally, as it were, the claim that all beliefs aim at the truth is correct. The fact that beliefs all aim at the truth, however, is not a brute fact.

Think about the belief's justification. There's justification for doing things or believing things that we have reason not to do or believe--sometimes. There is when there is a stronger reason to the contrary that defeats the reason(s) against. As there's no aim, function, or purpose of belief that gives us reasons that override the reasons to refrain from holding those beliefs that will pass off non-reasons as reasons, it seems there cannot be justification for adopting, holding, or deliberating from the false beliefs. If a belief cannot be justified when there is a reason not to hold it and no accompanying overriding justification that defeats this reason, there are no false beliefs that are also justified. The justification would have to involve an overriding normative or guiding reason that defeats treating a non-reason as a reason for the purposes of theoretical or practical deliberation. I don't think anyone actually believes in such things. I've never met someone who has.

In short, here's the argument. Every false belief passes off a non-reason as a reason. Beliefs are supposed to provide us with reasons, not non-reasons, for the purpose of deliberation. There could be a justification for this only if there were overriding reasons for treating non-reasons as reasons. There aren't. There is not sufficient justification for adopting, holding, or deliberating from a false belief or a belief that passes non-reasons off as reasons. Doxastic justification is factive.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Monday's video now on Tuesday.

Texas Primary

Tomorrow I'll be voting and caucasing for Obama. I'm not really sure what the point of caucasing is, but I'll be there doing something. you don't know where to cast your ballot, you should check here. You can verify that you are in fact registered and find where your polling place is. I never received any verification in the mail that I'm properly registered. A little surfing and I've found to my relief that I am. The quick and dirty argment for casting a ballot in support of Obama: he's more electable than Hillary. I'd be surprised if any readers needed a more substantial justification. If you think you need reasons for not voting McCain, here are a few. He's a child. (Saying publicly you look forward to Castro's demise? Singing "Bomb, bomb Iran"? Someone should tell him to grow up.) He's cheated on his wife. He actively seeks the support of an anti-Catholic bigot who worships a God he thinks will make Jews pay for their recalcitrant refusal to give up their Judaism. He's trying to game the FEC (here). He's a tool. He's not endorsed by Ann Coulter. (For the vampires.)

Sunday, March 2, 2008


I moved into a new apartment in February after a short stint in Garland, the town often said to be the inspiration for King of the Hill. Most of my time these days is spent painting, doing minor electrical work, and building new furniture. I listen to a lot of country music. I was given power tools a few years ago and they finally are being put to good use. I'll have some photos soon.

The new place is across the tracks from the old. That's true on two levels, literal and metaphorical. Late Thursday night while walking home I saw a shirtless and agitated man pacing the sidewalk carrying a shotgun. Someone had tried breaking into his house, he said. He wanted to know who I was. I told him I lived down the street and he calmed down. I'm glad I was still wearing my teaching costume. I can't imagine someone breaking into my place wearing a v-neck sweater and button down, and I guess this guy couldn't either. The only person I've ever seen breaking into my place wore leopard print pants. Last night a friend and I stepped out onto his porch to have a beer and saw the aftermath of an accident. A crowd of witnesses were telling a cop that the guy who caused the accident drew a gun and put it to the head of the guy who had been driving the car he struck. He had driven off and some cops went tearing off in the direction he supposedly went. After that, the street was flooded with cops and the choppers were called in. For reasons that were never clear, the cops eventually cuffed the guy whose car had been struck. Bad night for him. I haven't seen a gun yet this morning.

I still have to say that I prefer my new neighborhood to the old. Maybe the chances are higher that I'll be shot, but I still like my neighbors now better than I did back in uptown. No one drives a Hummer. No one wears BeDazzled clothes. There's not a W sticker in sight.