Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Regret, apology, wrongs, excuses, justifications, etc...

[Previous version of the post written while half asleep at 3 am, current version written while half awake at 9am. I think it's improved.]

Here is something epistemic norms might not be. They might not be the sorts of things we can be properly faulted for violating whenever we violate them. In a recent discussion of the norms of assertion, Lackey appears to deny this:
[T]here is an intimate connection between our assessment of asserters and our assessment of their assertions. In particular, asserters are in violation of a norm of assertion and thereby subject to criticism when their assertions are improper. An analogy with competitive basketball may make this point clear: suppose a player steps over the free throw line when making his foul shot. In such a case, there would be an intimate connection between our assessment of the player and our assessment of the free throw—we would, for instance, say that the player is subject to criticism for making an improper shot.

It is hard to imagine what could excuse a player’s failure to notice that she’s stepped over the line when taking a foul shot without bringing in evil demons, evil geniuses, evil hallucinations, etc… If this is supposed to be an argument for some sort of fault requirement on warranted assertion, I think it provides little support for:

Fault: If S’s assertion that p isn’t warranted, S can be faulted for asserting p.

First, even if it’s hard to imagine how someone can break the foul line rule without being at fault for doing this, this rule is hardly representative of the rules of basketball, the rules in competitive sports, or norms that govern our behavior. It is not difficult to find rules where there is not an intimate connection between the player and the play. Among the rules in an NBA referee’s book is one that says, “A player in control of a dribble who steps on or outside a boundary line, even though not touching the ball while on or outside that boundary line, shall not be allowed to return inbounds and continue his dribble. He may not even be the first player to touch the ball after he has re-established a position inbounds.” You don’t have to watch much basketball to know that someone can fail to do this without being subject to criticism for this failure. You cannot tell the referee that you had used the greatest skill to avoid stepping out of bounds unless you are hoping to get the referee to smile while (rightly) giving the ball to the opposing team. Second, there seems to be no a priori restriction on how rules of games are formulated. So even if there were no actual examples of rules from competitive sports that someone could faultlessly break or only examples of rules from competitive sports that someone that are broken only by those who can be faulted for so doing, I think the thing to say is that we get to make up whatever crazy rules we want for the games we invent. I don’t think we just get to make up the rules that govern assertion. You can’t uncover the norms of assertion by seeing which ones look most like the rules of basketball. (If only I were wrong on this point, I could use the referee’s rulebook to refute Fault.)

In a recent defense of a justified belief account of warranted assertion, Kvanvig says something that seems to support Fault:
This point should be self-evident … norms of assertion are norms governing a certain type of human activity, and thus relate to the speech act itself rather than the content of such an act. Notice that when we look at the four conditions for knowledge above [i.e., truth, belief, absence of defeaters, and justification], the only ones regarding which apology or regret for the speech act itself is appropriate are the belief and justification conditions. There is, therefore, a prima facie case that knowledge is not the norm of assertion, but rather justified belief is.

This isn’t self-evident, not to me at least. I can see someone saying that what you ought to apologize for is what you can be faulted for and what you can be faulted for is what you ought to apologize for. I can see someone saying that it doesn’t follow from the fact that you asserted something false that you ought to apologize. Having said that, I think this doesn’t support Fault because it doesn’t follow from the fact that you did something you shouldn’t have that you can be faulted and ought to apologize. Excusable wrongs are things that oughtn’t to have been done but it’s not obvious that we should apologize for committing them. Perhaps an explanation is in order, but that’s not the same thing. If I’m wrong on that point, it is self-evident that you can’t be faulted for doing that which you ought to be excused for doing. Either way, I don’t think intuitions about when apologies are in order are a particularly good guide to claims about when someone did something they shouldn’t have. Given that warranted is just a technical term for permitted, intuitions about apologies don’t seem to be a good guide to claims about warranted assertion.
It might help to consider the ‘serial’ view of defenses:
[I]t is best if we commit no wrongs. If we cannot but commit wrongs, it is best if we commit them with justification. Failing justification, it is best if we have an excuse. The worst case is the one in which we must cast doubt on our own responsibility. When I say ‘best’ and ‘worst’ here I mean best and worst for us: for the course of our own lives and for our integrity as people.

Just to be clear, a ‘wrong’ here is a pro tanto wrong, not something that is wrong all things considered. In this scheme, excuses are distinguished from justifications and denials of responsibility. In offering an excuse or in offering a justification, we seek to provide a rational explanation for the agent’s action. The difference between justifications and excuses is that when the former is available, there are reasons available that explain why there was a sufficient case for acting. The reasons for acting are sufficient even if there were reasons to do things differently. Often offering an excuse involves explaining how it could seem from the subject’s point of view that there was a sufficient case for acting when there was not. If we cannot show that there was an appearance of a sufficient case for acting that would convince a reasonable or responsible person to act, the excuse wouldn’t excuse. In offering an excuse we point to factors that show that a reasonable and responsible agent could have engaged in precisely the wrong that the agent did while in full awareness of those facts that the agent was cognizant of, and it is most unclear that when we can pull this off the agent has something to apologize for. Who could demand an apology from someone while acknowledging that the agent’s decision to act as she did was reasonable?

What about regret? Regret is a funny thing. An agent can act with justification but regret that there was no way to avoid committing some wrong even if the agent knows full well that the it would have been wrong to refrain. The regret is not the recognition that the agent should have done things differently. The justification didn’t fail. If we can regret doing what is right, it seems that the connection between regret and fault will be far from straightforward. It seems that in the passage above, Kvanvig is saying that intuitions about regret are going to cause trouble for KA. He must be thinking that we don’t regret or don’t properly regret bringing about some state of affairs we didn’t know at the time of acting we would bring about (e.g., we don’t regret asserting something false when we have good reason to think that it’s true, we don’t regret running down the kid when we couldn’t see the kid crossing the street, we don’t regret those romantic relationships that started well but drive us to jump off of a bridge, etc…). That’s far from obvious. If we regret acting against a defeated reason in acting rightly, we regret bringing about a bad state of affairs we did not know how to avoid and knew we could not avoid if we were to do the right thing. Why then should we assume that we cannot regret that we brought about some bad state of affairs that we did not know that we brought about? It can’t be that we don’t regret it because it was unavoidable. Not only can we avoid bringing about bad states of affairs that we don’t know we bring about when we act, we can regret that which we know was unavoidable. My intuitions might differ from his, but I think that Oedipus can rationally regret marrying his mother. I think prosecutors can rationally regret winning a conviction when the accused was innocent. I think I can rationally regret every accident I’ve every caused while driving even when I exercised due care in trying to avoid them. If regret is the mark of the wrong, there are wrongs without fault and wrongs we commit without awareness. Seems like a prima facie case against RA, not KA. We don’t need cases of factual ignorance to make this point. Take cases of reasonable moral disagreement where someone reasonably but mistakenly judges that they should resolve the disagreement in a particular way and then acts on that judgment. If they discover later that they acted on the weaker reason, there are grounds for regret. By hypothesis, however, the subject acted reasonably because they acted on a reasonable judgment about what to do.

No comments: