Sunday, June 29, 2008

Reasons as evidence

I've posted some of this over at Ethics Etc., but as the thread is dead I thought I'd post a little on the matter here. Daniel Star and Stephen Kearns have written a few papers explaining and defending the view on which normative or justifying reasons are pieces of evidence about what we should believe or should do. It's an interesting view and the arguments they offer appeal to a number of considerations I'd appeal to in arguing that pieces of evidence do not constitute reasons in the relevant sense.

The first worry, which I posted over at Ethics Etc., went something like this. I believe it was Bernard Williams who observed that there can be a kind of conflict among practical reasons that there cannot be among theoretical reasons. If we identify both reasons for action and belief with evidence, I think you’ll have to deny Williams’ observation. So, the observation. You can judge that you ought to X knowing that there are real reasons not to that serve as reasons for regret. Moreover, you can _knowingly_ judge that you ought to X while knowing that there are, as it were, real reasons not to X that are defeated by reasons that favor X-ing. However, if you judge that you ought to believe, you cannot knowingly judge that you ought to believe while knowingly judging that there are real reasons not to believe. The evidence that speaks against believing would be regarded as misleading. I can’t see how this comes out true on a view on which all reasons are pieces of evidence.

The second worry concerns the status of the following thesis:
(OR) If S ought to X/S ought not X, there is a reason for S to X/there is reason for S not to X.

I don't see why we'd say the following is true:
(OE) If S ought to X, there is some evidence that S ought to X/there is evidence that S ought not X.

But, if Kearns and Star are right, I don't see how OE could not be a consequence of OR. Maybe there are good reasons to accept (OE), but I really cannot think of any offhand. Consider cases in which the subject's wrongful action is due to a non-culpably mistaken belief. To say that the beliefs are non-culpably mistaken is to say that they are the proper response to the evidence _available_. But, to say that the action was wrongful was to say that there were reasons not to do it. It seems that what makes the action wrongful is a set of facts that does not strongly supervene on the evidence at hand. To accommodate such cases, it seems that Kearns and Star would have to say that the sort of evidence they have in mind is not necessarily evidence possessed but evidence there is. I'm not sure how to make sense of evidence possessed or not that would not trivialize (OE) so that it just becomes the view that if you ought to do something there are some facts in the world in light of which this is true.

Friday, June 27, 2008


There should be philosophy soon. I thought I'd post an update in the meantime.

I had hoped that I'd now be grading final exams and packing my bags for Scotland. Half of that didn't work out. I was going to use my summer teaching money to pay my way over, but the money I was going to use to pay for travel didn't come through in time. I'm not entirely sure why. There's no real logic to the timing of pay around here. During the regular school year, you are paid in advance of teaching. If classes start at the end of August, you'll have pay on the last day of July. During summer, it seems you are paid only after wrapping things up. If your first few days of class are in May, you might get paid on the last day of June. The people here were inflexible and couldn't speed up the pay, so I had to cancel my trip to Arche summer school. (The folks at Arche were far more helpful, but in spite of exceptionally generous offers to let me slide on various payments, there was no way to make my trip abroad.)

I'd say that I'm more than a little annoyed by the situation as I'd been looking forward to philosophy summer school for months. Things have gone from highly annoying to absolutely ludicrous in the past few days. I'm finishing up teaching two summer courses and a friend is about to start teaching two as well. Although his contract promised him that he'd be paid at the end of June and July, he was informed by payroll that they weren't going to pay him until after his courses were completed. They knew that this violated the terms of the contract and apologized for the "inconvenience", but they insisted that there was nothing they could do. (I don't know how much they make, but not being paid a month when you are a philosophy lecturers isn't exactly an "inconvenience". Most of us live off of advances on next month's pay and blog on pirated wifi.) I'm no lawyer, but I would have thought that knowingly refusing to honor the terms of a contract for absolutely no reason would be slightly illegalish. They did suggest a solution. While they sympathized with his plight (no income for at least a month) and wouldn't pay him a dime, they suggested that he get me to loan him the money since I did teach two courses.

So, rather than keep up your terms of the contract, just get employees to get an unsecured loan and borrow from other employees. This is insanity, right?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Good news

Originally uploaded by Clayton Littlejohn
Survived my first jump from an airplane. I don't know what's with the suit. If the chute doesn't open, they could at least let you die with dignity. I won't bore you with the details. The flight up is the scariest part. (I have a fear of heights and flying.) For some reason, jumping out is thrilling but not the slightest bit scary. Having read all sorts of gruesome tales about skydiving fatalities after the jump, this might be a once in a lifetime sort of thing.

I've been a tad busy with summer school to post much philosophy as of late. Inspired by a post over at Dangerous Idea (here), I'd be interested in knowing what readers thought of the following. In the paper linked over at DI, the author suggests that Frankfurt examples work only if we're working with some materialist conception of mind. The idea, if I understand it (no guarantees, I've just skimmed it) is that if we were working with a view of mind on which there is no sufficient cause to be found temporally prior to the relevant agent's actions, then the causal-intervener could not do its causal intervening. Or, something like that.

Well, let's suppose that substance dualism is true and that this means that when someone performs a free action, there is nothing in the world just before that free action is performed that the causal intervener could be aware of and deduce that the agent would perform some action A. Let's also suppose that the fact that there is no deductive basis for the judgment 'S will A in just a moment from now' means that there could be no agent to intervene who knows that S will A in just a moment from now. Why should that matter to the Frankfurt example?

Suppose that the causal intervener is a god or an angel who knows the character of the relevant agent quite well and simply makes decisions about whether to intervene on the basis of judgments about what the agent will be likely to do. Sometimes the decision to intervene will result in a situation in which the intervener forces the agent to do other than she did. Sometimes the decision not to intervene will result in a situation where the agent acts out of character and does something the intervener wanted to prevent. In a wide range of cases, however, the intervener might remain idle, the agent will act in just the way the intervener expected, and it still seems that had the agent decided she would act in a different way than she did the intervener would have intervened. (In the nearest worlds where the agent decided to act otherwise, this decision would have required a substantially different character and the intervener would have either known that the agent's character was different.)

I don't see why we can't just run the Frankfurt case as follows. Over the person's life, there were many cases where the intervener was idle because the intervener judged reasonably and correctly that the agent would act in just the way the intervener wishes _and_ judged reasonably and correctly in many of these cases that had the agent decided to act otherwise the intervener would have intervened. In these cases, it still seems that the agent is responsible. She's responsible across the wide range of cases. However, in some of these cases she could not have done otherwise in the relevant sense.

Anyway, this is all very rushed. What I don't get it this. We can have an intervener poised to intervene in a wide range of cases {c1, c2, c3, ..., cn}. We can stipulate that the intervener knows as much as possible in these cases short of knowing what the agent will do in any case in particular. What matters (it seems to me) is whether there are cases within this range of cases in which we can say that the agent is idle _and_ where we can say had the agent tried to do otherwise the intervener would have intervened. I do see that denying the intervener knowledge might lead us to say that there will be some cases in this range where things don't go as they should (the intervener intervenes when it isn't necessary or fails to intervene at the right time), but I don't see why it's not sufficient to say that it's possible for there to be a single case in this range where the agent is responsible but would not have been allowed to do what she intended had she intended otherwise.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Dear Tom Waits,

Don't you think 85 bucks is a bit much for a show? I'd expect this crap from a Neil Diamond or a Don Henley, but not you. Honestly, do you really want the people who could afford to be there to be there?


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Evidentialism about absolutely everything (normative)!

Suppose, as evidentialists do, that the truth-conditions for claims about what you ought to believe are cashed out in terms of a particular believer's evidence. You'll likely think that:

(1) S ought to believe p if S has sufficient evidence for believing p.

Don't worry about what 'sufficient' means. With one or two exceptions, those who hold the view allow that there can be sufficient evidence for believing a proposition about some contingent matter of fact about the external world even if that proposition is false.

Now, supposing this is correct, we have a quick and dirty argument for evidentialism about absolutely everything normative. Let 'p' be a proposition that represents some action of the agent's as one that ought to be done. Let 'p', for example, denote the proposition that I ought to give to charity. While it seems from my point of view that what makes it the case that I ought to give to charity is (in part) that those in need would be helped by my charitable giving, that's not true. The truth-conditions for 'She ought to give to charity' should be cashed out in evidentialist terms. For, it seems that the following rule admits of no exceptions:

(2) S ought to believe S ought to X only if S ought to X.

Since S could have sufficient evidence for believing that she ought to X even if she did not if that fact about what she should do depended on more than just what supervenes on her evidence, we can argue from (1) and (2) that whether she ought to give to charity depends not on the needs of those she is in a position to help. It depends on what sort of evidence she has.

I think that this view is silly (to put it mildly). I think it shows what's silly about the appeal to the subject's perspective in arguments for internalism. But, that's me. I can't see how to be an evidentialist about epistemic 'ought's without being an evidentialist about them all. Since I think we have as good a reason to reject evidentialism as a thesis about all 'ought's as we have for rejecting any philosophical view, I'm happy to dispense with (1).

Monday, June 16, 2008


That's how many libraries have my book if dissertations count as books.

Saw the link over at Leiter's blog and couldn't resist. Thanks, Brian Leiter.

Monday's music.


Faithful readers of Think Tonk may remember the discussion from earlier this week about duties of fidelity and a certain dog's disposition to piss on things in my apartment covered in white fabric. There was some confusion about how to count pissed on objects and pissers. There was too little confusion when it came to counting pissings for my taste given my interest in action theory. Bracketing such concerns and assuming folk ontology, we had a pissing on the bed, two pissings on another's carpet while I was washing my bedding, and a pissing on the bath mat. A reader suggested that at the fifth pissing there was no longer an obligation to board the beast. Perhaps having read that thread and knowing that his owner would return this evening, little Bowser decided it would be a good time to piss on my cream colored couch.

He'll be leaving in five to ten minutes and will be missed.

Putting the 'lame' in lame duck

Because the "Golf we can believe in" page was insufficiently lame, McCain has replaced his Golf Gear link with a link to a special edition of McCain Cribs. If you want a frattastic tour guide to lead you on your tour around and through McCain's tour bus, be my guest. In case you were wondering, it does feature hip hop beats.

I miss Rudy.

More McCain Cribs!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Reasons and relations

Are practical reasons reasons only for potential actions?

It seems to me that they are not. Here's the basic strategy for arguing 'no'. Actions are coarse-grained items and each token action will be an instance of many different types. Considerations can constitute reasons by standing in the favoring relation and that relation is to something more fine-grained than token actions. So, reasons can constitute reasons without standing in relation to a potential action.

Here's what I've written up this morning. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated unless they show that I'm mistaken. Such thoughts will be a cause for regret and maybe resentment. Enjoy:

Suppose actions are coarse-grained items that are tokens of a variety of act-types. On this picture, Jones’ returning Smith’s book might be Jones’ keeping a promise to a friend, disappointing his sister who had hoped to read the book by the pool, and his burning fossil fuels as he drives to Smith’s apartment on the far side of town. On the view that reasons are favorers, that his returning the book would enable him to keep his promise is a reason because it makes the action favorable. On the view that reasons are reasons for potential actions only, since there is no potential action of Jones’ that is his returning the book that is not his returning the book while disappointing his sister and burning fossil fuels, the consideration that speaks in favor of returning the book can do so only if it speaks in favor of his disappointing his sister and burning fossil fuels. However, as there seems to be nothing in the circumstance that speaks in favor of disappointing his sister and burning fossil fuels, the view that treats reasons as reasons for potential actions only has to choose between saying that there really is no reason to return the book or some reason to disappoint Jones’ sister and burn fossil fuels. There seems to be no contradiction in saying ‘Look, there was no reason to disappoint my sister like that, but it was unavoidable since I had to return Smith’s book’. While this claim seems perfectly sensible, the claim expresses a conceptual falsehood if reasons are only reasons to the extent that they serve as reasons the actions the agent has the potential to perform. On the view on which practical reasons are reasons only for bringing about something more fine-grained than the coarse-grained action that instances many act-types such as the aspects of the action the agent takes to favor performing an action that will instance that type, a reason can stand in the favoring relation without thereby favoring bringing about all that must in order to perform an act of a given type. Jones’ reason is a reason to do something to return the book rather than a reason to do all that is entailed by his returning the book.

If we say that practical reasons stand in relation to something more fine-grained than potential actions such as favoring a type that the action is an instance of, we will do a better job explaining two features of our practical situation. First, think about the phenomenon of rational regret. An agent might rationally regret that she did not Φ knowing that she ought all things considered to have Ψ’d and knowing that she could not both Φ and Ψ. The natural explanation as to why an agent might rationally regret that she did not perform an action she knows she ought not to have performed is that there was something lacking from her Ψ-ing that spoke in favor of her Φ-ing. If that consideration that spoke in favor of her Φ-ing gave her no reason to act at all, her regret is hard to make sense of. On the view that reasons are reasons only for potential actions, given that she knows that she could not have Φ’d without thereby doing what she ought all things considered not have done, she could only judge that there was reason for her to Φ in those circumstances if there was reason to do what she should not all things considered do. But, then she should not regret that she could not have acted on that reason.

Second, the view seems better placed to make sense of the observation that practical deliberation is non-monotonic. As noted by Kenny, a piece of practical reasoning that proceeds from a set of premises to a conclusion might be perfectly acceptable even if that reasoning would not have been acceptable if additional premises were added. Suppose Jones were to reason initially ‘If I head to Smith’s this afternoon, I could return his book and keep my promise, so this is what I shall do’, but then realizes that in putting this plan into action he would thereby disappoint his sister and that the disappointment would be so great that he thinks it might be best just to return the book a few days later than promised. (Assume that she really wants to read the book and Smith will not be terribly upset by Jones’ failure to keep his promise.) If there was nothing wrong with the initial inference, but there would be something wrong with Jones’ inferring that he should return the book in light of both facts, practical reasoning is non-monotonic. If reasons only stood in relation to potential actions, it is difficult to see how this case could illustrate the non-monotonicity of practical reasoning. In remembering that his keeping the promise in the way he is contemplating doing would be a way of doing what he should not do all things considered. Either that his action would fulfill his promise would speak in favor of disappointing his sister terribly or Jones has just discovered a further fact in light of which the fact that his action would be a way of fulfilling his promise should not have figured in deliberation as a consideration that spoke in favor of returning the book. As the fact that the action would keep the promise does not speak in favor of disappointing his sister, we would have to say that Jones’ was initially unaware of a fact in light of which the consideration he took to favor returning the book was no reason at all. With no reason favoring the initial decision to return the book, we have no case illustrating that reasoning from a reason might be acceptable even if reasoning from that reason along with others to the same conclusion unacceptable. If, as seems to be the case, there are two features of our practical situation that seem to make sense only if reasons stand in relation to features of actions we contemplate performing rather than potential actions.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Don't miss it

I'm a bit burned right now to post a real post, but I thought I'd let readers know about Errol Lord's blog, The Excluded Middle. He's been posting lots of good stuff on reasons. If that's your bag, check it out.

I'd be interested to know what people think of the propositional view of reasons. I offered this objection in the hopes of elaborating on Dancy's objection to a view that treats practical reasons as propositions:

I suppose this is one concern about the propositional account. My reasons have a certain modal profile. It isn’t the modal profile had by propositions. The propositions can be found in worlds where my reasons cannot. If that doesn’t seem intuitive just on its face, this might help. In deliberation, it seems that what favors X-ing is a contingent feature of the situation. What counts as my reason depends on what I take to be favorable. Thus, unless I’m profoundly confused about what it takes to make an action favorable, we ought to distinguish reasons from the propositions.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ask the ethicists

How many things must a dog pee on before you stick it in a kennel rather than continue to board it at your house for a friend for free?

Monday, June 9, 2008

The good news (for some of you) is that I'm not dead yet. I had planned on skydiving this afternoon, but the winds were too high to safely jump. I have to confess that I nearly vomited as they explained that we'd be falling at 120 mph for about 60 seconds and jumping from 14,000 ft. But, as the money isn't refundable I'll jump next Monday.

In more philosophical news, I'll likely attend the Dallas Socratic Society tomorrow to hear Keith Loftin present his paper, "Evolutionary Naturalism's Self-Referential Incoherence". Should be fun.

As for matters philosophical, I've been busy revising a paper on epistemic norms. Quick question. According to Huemer, believing p rationally commits you to the further belief that your belief that p can satisfy a comprehensive epistemic endorsement and that a belief can only satisfy such an endorsement if it constitutes knowledge. These are to explain the claim that knowledge is the norm of belief. (See his paper on Moore's Paradox in Themes from G.E. Moore)

Suppose you think that knowledge is more valuable than any subset of its proper parts. To deny that a belief has this value is to deny that it could receive this comprehensive epistemic endorsement. Don't Gettier cases show, however, that the possession of this value, while perhaps necessary for a belief's satisfying every relevant criteria of evaluation, is not necessary for permissible belief?

The assumption that you oughtn't X unless X satisfies a comprehensive evaluation strikes me as exceptionally problematic. If 'X' denotes an action, it seems false. A comprehensive endorsement would endorse that action as having moral worth, but an action's having moral worth is not necessary for permissibility. Similarly, a belief's being accidentally true and reasonably assumed to be true seems sufficient for permissible belief. However, such beliefs might not be valuable in the way that items of knowledge are. I can't bring myself to think that the lack of this value has deontic significance.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Levels confusion

It's often thought that epistemic responsibility is (largely) a matter of bringing one's beliefs "in line" with the evidence. Specifically, it is a matter of bringing one's beliefs in line with the evidence that bears on the truth of those beliefs. Now, according to Williamson, for any condition C such that one must not believe p unless condition C obtains, one ought not believe p unless one has adequate evidence that C does in fact obtain. To do otherwise would be negligent at best. (See his remarks about the truth norm for assertion in Knowledge and its Limits. I think it's around pp. 246, but that's from memory.) So, quick argument that knowledge is not the norm of belief. To believe p without adequate evidence for the second-order belief that this belief constitutes knowledge is not epistemically irresponsible. But, it would be were knowledge the norm of belief. So, it's not knowledge that's the norm of belief. Truth is the norm of belief.

I think we can bolster this point as follows. According to the knowledge account, this talk of "adequate evidence" is to be understood in terms of evidence adequate for knowledge. If you think that it is permissible to believe p if p is known and deny KK principles, we have a problem. If you deny that knowledge of p's truth requires the availability of evidence that puts you in a position to know that you are in a position to know p (the denial of KK), then you either have to say that permissible belief doesn't require "adequate evidence" in the relevant sense or allow for the possibility of permissibly believing in an epistemically irresponsible way.

Similar problems arise for Huemer in his defense of the knowledge norm. His view appears to be that you shouldn't believe something that does not satisfy a comprehensive epistemic endorsement and that a belief can only be properly endorsed in this way if that belief constitutes knowledge. So, suppose we say of someone that while they know p they are not in a position to know that they know this. Here's the problem. According to Huemer, I'm permitted to hold the second-order belief that my belief about p can be comprehensively endorsed only if the second-order belief constitutes knowledge. If it does not, I oughtn't believe the first-order belief can be comprehensively endorsed and thus oughtn't hold that belief. So, either some KK principle is true or knowledge of p's truth is insufficient for permissibly believing p.

I don't see that parallel problems arise if we say that the fundamental norm of belief is the truth norm.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Belief and assertion

I've been rereading Kvanvig's paper on assertion and I'm sort of curious about how a view he discusses might be developed. (This is a quicky, btw, I'm on my way to dinner.) Suppose you say that the only rule that governs assertion is the sincerity rule: say only what you think.

I think that this sort of rule is ruled out by Lackey's examples of selfless assertion. Or, if you think the rule is a good one, it shows there's something wrong with some of her examples. Let that pass. Kvanvig notes that this view will seem too weak (correct), but suggests that:
we might say that belief is the fundamental norm of assertion, and that among the norms for belief are the other things that lead one to think that the sincerity requirement alone is too weak. So, for example, if one thinks that good reasons are required for assertion, that would be because it is a norm of belief that you shouldn't believe things without good reasons. Assertion thereby inherits this derivative norm because of the sincerity requirement

The proposal is interesting. Kvanvig doesn't endorse it or the view of assertion it's supposed to help. It struck me this afternoon that it might be really difficult to strengthen the belief account of assertion in the way he does. Here's why. Compare assertion to second-order belief. Consider:
we might say that belief is the fundamental norm of second-order belief, and that among the norms for belief are the things that lead one to think that the sincerity requirement alone is too weak as an account of assertion. So, for example, if you think that good reasons are required for assertion, that would be because it is a norm of belief that you shouldn't believe things without good reasons. Like assertion, second-order belief thereby inherits this derivative norm because of the accuracy requirement on second-order belief

But that's not right. Just because you oughtn't believe p without good reasons and oughtn't believe that you believe p unless you have that first-order belief, it doesn't follow that you oughtn't have the second-order belief unless there are good reasons for the first-order belief. The fact that the first-order belief is groundless is no reason to question the epistemic merits of the second-order belief. So, if someone were to say that you oughtn't assert p unless you believed p and oughtn't believe p without good reasons for doing so, I don't see why it follows from this alone that you oughtn't assert without good reason. What else do we need, then, to show that on the belief account of assertion there are derivative requirements governing assertion because of the relation between assertion and belief? I've had a few ideas, but they're bad.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


What if McCain asked Hilary to be his running mate?

It won't happen, I know, but neither will lots of scary, scary stuff. This is even scarier.