Thursday, September 25, 2008

The basis and the justification

I'm finding a bit of spare time to work on a paper I'm tentatively calling 'Phenomenal Conservatism Defeated'. While I'm somewhat inclined to think that phenomenal conservatism is preferable to other conservative views, I'm very inclined to reject the whole lot of conservative views about justification. Anyway, a few thoughts I've been working out for the paper.

First, I've just about finished off the section in which I argue that Huemer's phenomenal conservatism commits him to a crude sort of cultural relativism.

Second, I think I've put my finger on where his self-defeat argument goes wrong. That's what I thought I'd post on today.

The Argument
The argument purports to show that it would be self-defeating to not accept PC in light of certain considerations. Here it is:
(1) When you form beliefs, your beliefs are based on the way things seem to you.
(2) If your belief about p is based on something that does not constitute a source of justification for believing p, then your belief about p is not justified.
(C1) No belief is justified unless you may have a justification for believing p in virtue of its seeming to you that p (Huemer 2001, 2007).

Huemer then adds:
(3) If you deny PC, you do so on the basis of how things seem to you—how they seem intuitively to you.
It is supposed to follow that:
(C2) Your denial is self-contradictory as it is a denial, inter alia, that the way things seem to you constitutes a justification for the belief you hope to justify (i.e., that PC is false).

Does the argument work? I think not. Compare it to this one:
(5) Because Don Diego assured her that the dangerous and dishonest Zorro is nowhere around and she believes him, Elena believes she is safe.
(6) It would be self-defeating for Elena to base her beliefs on the word of a man that she believes to be untrustworthy.
(C2) Elena’s belief that she is safe is unjustified for reasons of self-defeat because she bases it on the word of someone she believes is untrustworthy.

It’s clear, I hope, that this argument does not establish what it purports to. Don Diego is Zorro, but this is a fact that is obscure to Elena. Because of this, her belief will not fail to be justified for reasons having to do with self-defeat. Her belief might be unjustified for other reasons, but whatever reasons those are, they don’t concern us. It’s clear, I think, that (6) is false. To fix the argument we would have to replace (6) with:

(6’) It would be self-defeating for Elena to believe she is safe basing this belief on the word of a man when she acknowledges that this man’s word is not a source of justification.

It’s not enough for self-defeat that she have some de dicto attitude that represents the man to whom she speaks as untrustworthy, she needs to identify the man as being untrustworthy. Replace (6) with (6’) and the argument still won’t work. And the reason that the argument still will not work as an argument for (C2) is that while (6’) isn’t false, it is inapplicable. Elena has no idea that Zorro and Don Diego are one.

Maybe this problem isn’t insoluble. The phenomenal conservative could show us that our beliefs are based, at least in part, upon the way things appear to us. Further, they might argue that facts that can come apart from appearances cannot be part of the basis of our beliefs. Finally, they might argue that facts that are not part of the basis for our beliefs are irrelevant to the justification of our beliefs. In other words, the justification of all our beliefs depends wholly on the ways things seem to us. With this in place, the denial of PC would be self-defeating, for it would amount to the denial that none of the properties relevant to the justification of our beliefs could provide us with justification for those beliefs. We couldn’t justifiably accept this set of beliefs.

Naturally, the success of this argument depends on the success of the arguments for these further claims. Note that what the argument would do now, however, is say that it would be self-defeating to accept a rather large set of claims while also denying PC: that the justification of our beliefs depends entirely on the basis of our beliefs (JB); that the basis of our beliefs consists entirely of how things seem or appear to us (BS); and that if it seems to us that p, we thereby have some degree of justification for our beliefs (PC).


A Response
Recall from the section previous I pointed out that the self-defeat argument for PC relied on two claims: that the justification of our beliefs depends entirely on the basis of our beliefs (JB); that the basis of our beliefs consists entirely of how things seem or appear to us (BS). Anyone who wants to reject the sort of argument I’ve offered for relativism above would probably want to say that when it came to the justification of action we would not accept the practical analogues of JB and BS: that the justification of our actions depends entirely on the basis of our actions (JBA); that the basis of our actions consists entirely of how things seem or appear to us (ABS). We know how things seem to the terrorists and the cannibals and when they try to justify their actions we simply do not care that no matter how long we rummage around in their motivational set we cannot find overriding reasons they accept not to engage in cannibalistic or terroristic acts. We do not care that we cannot find reasons they accept that undermine the justifications they offer for their repugnant moral beliefs. We know full well that there were reasons that spoke against their actions and that he feeble reasons they offer in the hopes to show that the case in favor of cannibalism and terrorism was sufficient to justify their actions could do no such thing. So, while it might be that reasons to Φ only justify Φ-ing if they are motivationally efficacious, reasons not to Φ can threaten the justification offered for Φ-ing even if they are, as they always are as ‘cons’, motivationally inert. If reasons not to Φ can get their ‘normative work’ done by removing permissions and setting the justificatory standards it would take for there to be a sufficient case for Φ-ing without playing any motivational role in the agent’s psychology, why think that these sorts of reasons have to be found in the agent’s psychology at all? Why not think that they can be found in the facts found in the situation regardless of whether the agent is aware of them or not? If we’re prepared to say that objective moral standards determine whether an agent’s actions can be justified and the most the agent can hope to do by telling us about what led him to act is an excuse or exemption, we have to reject JBA if we are to retain ABS. And, if we are to reject JBA while accepting (1), we have to reject JB as well. Maybe nothing counts towards the justification of a belief unless it is part of the reasons for which the agent believes, but maybe something counts against the justification of a belief even if it is not part of the subject’s basis for believing. Perhaps it needn’t even be part of the subject’s psychology.

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