Thursday, September 25, 2008

If you're a phenomenal conservative, you might be a little bit of a terrorist

According to PC, if it seems to you that p, you thereby have some justification for believing p. It doesn’t follow that the belief that p is justified for you, that depends on whether it seems that particular seemings are untrustworthy or whether the seemings that support p are flimsy and wavering. I suppose, then, that if you have the robust appearance that p and no available reasons to suspect that p is false or appearances are in this sort of case misleading, the belief that p is justified for you if it seems that p. Suppose p is a moral judgment. Can seemings provide justification for our moral judgments? It seems they can. It might not seem that way to you, but it does to Huemer and myself. So, what should the phenomenal conservative say when morally things seem one way to one of us and a different way to someone else?

That depends on the particulars. Here they are. Suppose Huemer and I have what seems to be a reasonable moral disagreement. He thinks that we oughtn’t eat meat from factory farms. I think it’s permissible. We talk it over and it becomes clear that there is no factual disagreement that underlies our moral disagreement. What we have is, at bottom, mere a difference in intuition. I think that if there’s no good reason to believe that refraining from eating meat will make a causal difference, you needn’t worry about eating meat. He thinks there’s a further reason to refrain from eating meat ‘over and above’ the reasons we have to refrain from causing harm or creating the serious risk of harm. What should the phenomenal conservative say about this sort of case? This is a somewhat delicate matter. They could say that my intuitions justify me, his intuitions justify him, and we both leave with justified beliefs about the matter. Alternatively, we might both see no reason to discount the intuitions had by the other and think that this is a matter too difficult to decide and suspend judgment. I can see the phenomenal conservative going either way on this one.

Cases of reasonable disagreement involving two parties aware of the disagreement who both regard the other party as reasonable are tricky. It’s not clear that such cases give us verdicts that cause trouble for phenomenal conservatism because it’s unclear what the epistemic status of the judgments are in these cases and unclear what the PC commits us to saying about such cases. We can change the particulars of the case in such a way that I think it’s clear what PC says is at odds with what we think should be said. I shall argue that PC is a bit too PC, as it were, because it commits us to a form of moral relativism we shouldn’t take seriously. Here’s the argument:

(1) If a subject judges that she should Φ and it’s not the case that she should refrain from judging that she should Φ, it’s not the case that the subject shouldn’t Φ.

(2) There are some subjects whose intuitions suggest that they should feel free to engage in cannibalism or suggest that they are obligated to engage in acts of terrorism, in which case they should judge that she should feel free to engage in cannibalism or judge that she is obligated to engage in acts of terrorism unless the justification provided by their intuitions is defeated by further intuitions or further seemings.

(3) If these subjects live in cultures that condone or encourage cannibalism or terrorism, it is unlikely that these subjects will have defeaters in light of which the justification provided by intuition would be overridden or undermined.

(C) If a subject lives in a culture that condones or encourages cannibalism or terrorism and has the relevant intuitions, it is permissible if not obligatory for these subjects to engage in the acts of cannibalism or terrorism that they judge they should engage in.

It’s clear, I hope, that only a crude sort of cultural relativist could accept this argument’s conclusion. Which of the argument’s premises should we reject? Huemer (2005) rejects this sort of crude relativism on apriori grounds, as he should, but unless he’s prepared to reject (2) or (1), in so doing it seems he’s suggesting that we know apriori that there cannot be subjects of the sort I’m imagining (i.e., subjects who both have robust intuitions that justify believing that cannibalism isn’t impermissible or believing that terrorism is obligatory). That’s simply not plausible. So, which do we reject? Do we say that moral intuitions cannot justify moral beliefs because they are the wrong sorts of moral beliefs precisely because anyone who had those beliefs would be motivated to engage in morally impermissible actions? That seems plainly inconsistent with PC since it is using something beyond the subject’s intuitions or seemings to determine whether these subjects have justified beliefs. Should we instead say that it’s possible for someone to be epistemically obligated to believe that they are under certain moral obligations or free to engage in certain kinds of behavior even if they are forbidden from acting on these epistemically required beliefs? That seems the only option for PC if PC isn’t going to lend support to the sort of crude relativist view that accepts (C) essentially on the grounds that there are people whose attitudes are ‘pro-terrorism’ or ‘pro-cannibalism’ and have an insufficient stock of defeaters to undermine or override the justification intuition provides these abhorrent attitudes.

To defend PC, one could deny (1), but (1) isn’t the sort of thing we can sensibly deny. It seems that if you judge that you ought to Φ and are not suffering some failure of practical rationality you will thereby be motivated to Φ. It seems that if you held that (1) was false, you would have to say that while someone ought to have judged that they ought to have Φ’d, or at the very least oughtn’t have refrained from this judgment, they nevertheless were obligated to refrain from Φ-ing. This complex obligation, however, is one that it is impossible to fulfill if you satisfy the conditions necessary for being a practical agent capable of exercising rational control over your actions. Who would believe in such obligations? I know that some defenders of PC don’t believe in such obligations. In attacking externalist theories of epistemic justification, they dismiss as absurd the idea that there could be obligations to refrain from believing certain propositions when there is nothing available to the subject that indicates that this proposition is somehow different from other propositions they are permitted to accept (Huemer 2006: 151). Yet, the practical obligations the defender of PC has to accept in accepting (1) are, if anything, worse: they are obligations to refrain from acting that an agent is under even when the agent is obligated to believe that there are no such obligations to refrain from acting.

I suppose in defense of PC, someone might say that there is something special about epistemic obligations such that while it is absurd to say that you can be epistemically obliged to refrain from holding a belief with no internal indication that this belief is different from other beliefs permissibly held, there is no absurdity in the suggestion that moral obligations are such that there could be pairs of actions that differ in deontic status such that the first is obligatory or permissible and the second is forbidden. But, then it seems that on this view, we should two things. First, we should expect that sometimes the correct advice to give someone is of the following form: you must believe that you must Φ but you absolutely mustn’t Φ. Second, we should expect that sometimes questions of the following form should be open: while I know he absolutely must accept that he should Φ rather than Ψ, I wonder if he might be obligated to Ψ instead? I submit that it would be absurd to offer advise such as this. I submit that questions such as this aren’t open. If the only thing keeping PC from a crude sort of relativism that says that terrorists with the sorts of intuitions terrorists tend to have that keep the sort of company that terrorists tend to keep really ought to engage in terroristic acts is the denial of (1), there really is nothing that should encourage the thought that the phenomenal conservative can avoid condoning terrorism. The same can be said for cannibalism. It’s not all bad news. The same could be said for environmentalism.

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