Friday, March 20, 2009

Good news for people who love bad views

According to Gibbons (here), lovers of The Good simply love the idea that reasons and rationality are perspective-dependent. The baddies, on the other hand, think that rationality is perspective-dependent but reasons are perspective-independent. Gibbons is a lover of The Good. I’m a baddie. Here, I want to show that it’s good to be a baddie.

To make this just a tad more precise, let’s introduce two theses:
The Good: Both reasons and rationality are perspective-dependent.
The Bad: Reasons are perspective-independent but rationality is perspective-dependent.

Let’s say that facts about what you believe, how things seem, what you know, what you are in a position to know, and what you are justified in believing are all facts about your perspective. Thus, the fact that believe that there is milk in the fridge, that it seems to you that there is milk in the fridge, that you know there to be milk in the fridge, etc… are all facts about your perspective. The mere fact that there is no milk in the fridge, however, is not a fact about your perspective. I take it that if rationality is perspective-dependent, the facts that determine whether you rationally believe or act on your beliefs strongly supervene upon facts about your perspective and are wholly independent from any further facts that do not strongly supervene upon these facts. I take it that if reasons are perspective-independent, the facts that determine whether you have reason or most reason to believe or act on your beliefs strongly supervene upon facts about your perspective and are wholly independent from any further facts that do not strongly supervene upon these facts. To convince you that you ought to be a baddie, I’ll argue that reasons and rationality are not related in the way that Gibbons suggests they must be in trying to make us all lovers of the good. He thinks that reasons are things that make things reasonable. I shall argue that reasons would make little reasonable if reasons were what the lovers of the good say they are.

Let’s begin with story, Breakfast. The other morning, I went to the kitchen to make breakfast tacos. I had checked the night before to make sure I had all of the ingredients. I had the eggs, the milk, the tortillas, the cheese, the veggies (i.e., onions, spinach, peppers), and the fruits (i.e., tomato and avocado). Because I know Amy rarely eats avocado before lunch, it was reasonable for me to believe the ingredients were still there. I went to the fridge to take out the eggs and veggies. While chopping the veggies, I firmly believed that I would soon have breakfast tacos with avocado. (For the record, I wouldn’t bother to make breakfast tacos if I couldn’t have avocado. In the past, when I’ve discovered I couldn’t have avocado because, say, the avocado on hand has gone bad I’ve always thought it would be better to have granola instead of breakfast tacos without avocado. I’ll pitch the eggs and chopped veggies that I won’t use.) Unfortunately, in plain sight on the door of the fridge was a note saying ‘We’re out of avocado.’ I didn’t notice the note, but I should have. This is where notes like this after left in our apartment. I thought I was having avocado for breakfast but should have known better. If you should have known that ~p, your belief that p is the case isn’t justified.

Imagine a nearby possible world in which I’m the same on the inside down the last qualia, but things in the fridge and on the fridge’s door are different. In that possible world, there is avocado and no note on the door. The belief that I would have avocado for breakfast was based on the same reasonable grounds. Unlike the first case, there was no evidence or potential evidence available to me to override these grounds. So, I’m justified in my belief about breakfast.

Imagine events unfolded slightly differently in our first version of Breakfast. While believing on the basis of the same reasonable grounds that I do in the second version of the story that I have everything within I need to make delicious breakfast tacos I stop chopping the veggies and take the veggies I’ve chopped along with the eggs that I’ve beaten and throw them all away. I reach for the granola and pour myself a bowl. Did I see the note? No. Do I still want breakfast tacos? More than anything. Do I still believe that I have everything I need to get what I want most? Of course. Remember, I didn’t see the note. I still believe that I ought to make the tacos with avocado. I still believe that I can do what I have judged what I ought to do (i.e., make breakfast tacos with fresh avocado) by continuing to chop the veggies and cooking the eggs. I just throw all of it away. Do I know that I’m throwing it all away? Of course! I take the chopping board across the kitchen and scrape the veggies off into the trash. I then pitch the eggs into the trash and wash the bowl. I put the frying pan away. I make granola and eat it. I eat it with a sad look on my face as I believe I should be eating and making tacos and don’t particularly enjoy the taste of soggy granola.

I’m deeply irrational in this version of the story. I believe I ought to make tacos. I believe that I can make tacos only by cutting up an avocado and some veggies. I see no reason not to cut up an avocado and veggies and while nothing I know of prevents me from taking an avocado out of the fridge to cut into strips I do something else instead still believing quite firmly that I ought to make tacos and ought to cut up the avocado and veggies because of that. This much strikes me as obvious. However, some have the intuition that I oughtn’t make the tacos and oughtn’t believe that I ought to do that. That’s because they think that I’m not justified in believing that there is avocado in the fridge. Presumably, you should never believe without justification. If you believe something you epistemically shouldn’t there is a decisive epistemic reason for you to refrain from believing. You need a baddie to make sense of this. According to intuitions that I think everyone shares you are deeply irrational if you stop chopping the veggies and throw away the ingredients for your tacos. That’s because you would believe you ought to do one thing but knowingly you do something else. According to intuitions that I think everyone shares, if you just abandoned your belief that you should make tacos without taking any notice of the note, that would be an irrational move for the mind to make. If there’s a reason for you to make that move, to give up a belief because of evidence you are unaware of, it seems you need a baddie to make sense of this. It’s only the baddie that countenances reasons to modify your mind in ways such that if you were to modify your mind given your perspective we’d judge you as deeply irrational.

This particular objection only works if we say both that the justificatory status of the beliefs in the two stories differ in spite of the sameness of internal grounds. If you think that this is impossible, I have not give you any reason to think that reasons and rationality can come apart. If you think this is possible, you either have very weird intuitions about rationality or ought to see the importance of distinguishing between rational belief and justified belief. The rationality of a belief, it seems, is determined by facts about your perspective and is independent from any further facts that do not supervene upon these facts whereas the justification of a belief depends, inter alia, upon the absence of undefeated reasons not to hold that belief. According to the example above, such reasons can be found on the fridge contained in a note. Unless you are Bishop Berkeley, a good man by all accounts, you don’t think that such reasons are provided by facts that strongly supervene upon the sort of facts that determine whether your beliefs are rational (i.e., facts about your mind).

To defend the good, I suppose someone will either say that I shouldn’t have assumed that I’d get what I want in both versions of Breakfast or say that you can be justified in believing p even if you should have known better than to believe that p. I’ll let them decide which of these options they would prefer. I’ll note that while further attacks on The Good will make use of different examples, our first example gives us a recipe. If you oughtn’t Φ or oughtn’t believe p, there is an undefeated reason for you not to Φ or not to believe p. Such undefeated reasons are conclusive. It follows from The Good and the claim that there’s a conclusive reason not to Φ or not to believe p that if you Φ or believe p in spite of this reason, you believe or act irrationally. Just to avoid any confusion, in addition to talking about reasons and rationality I’ll sometimes also say something about justification. Justification, it seems, is a deontological notion in at least this sense. You shouldn’t ever believe without justification or perform unjustifiable actions and if your actions and attitudes are justified you’re not obliged to act or believe differently. Since I can keep constructing these cases I think it's good to be a baddie. I don't see that it's all that great to poison your neighbors (here) or eat the brains that used to belong to people from nearby tribes (here).


Neil Sinhababu said...

I have to run off to teach so I can't read this post. I just want to congratulate you on the awesome title.

Clayton said...

Coming from the author of "Possible Girls", I feel quite honored.