Sunday, December 27, 2009

Justification isn't the right to believe?

I've been reading a forthcoming piece by Jeffrey Glick (too lazy for PQ link) where he argues against the view that having a justification for believing is a matter of having a certain kind of epistemic right. I take the view to be an utter triviality, so I had to take a look. (I can't imagine what a case of having a right to believe without having a justification for believing would look like, and I can't imagine how a successful justification for believing wouldn't show that having the relevant belief is consistent with the satisfaction of epistemic duty.) We disagree about (JustRightEPR). I like it. He doesn't. He writes:
JustRightEPR. A candidate for duties S has a justified belief in a proposition p if and only if
(a) S believes that p
(b) S has no epistemic duty not to believe that p.

If we now allow that the reference to an epistemic right in (JustRight) is to be interpreted as the relatively weak (JustRightEPR), as Wenar concluded, then the path is laid to save the view that justification confers an epistemic right to believe, and this parallel between ethics and epistemology is preserved. For it is surely the case that when one’s total evidence justifies one in believing that p, there is no epistemic duty against believing p ...

But things are not as straightforward as they may first appear. When philosophers talk of having an epistemic right to believe, or being epistemically entitled to believe, or having the epistemic authority to believe, they have in mind something stronger than the mere permissibility which (JustRightEPR) implies. The epistemic privilege right to believe is entailed by having on-balance justification for a belief, but there is more to having on balance justification for p than simply having no epistemic duty not to believe that p. This difference is what undermines the (JustRightEPR) interpretation of (JustRight). [I disagree with this--CL]

Here is an example of an ordinary privilege right. Smith picks up a piece of seaweed floating in international waters. Her doing so is permissible; she has no obligation not to pick up the seaweed. If she had chosen instead to leave it be, she would have done something permissible. Smith has no obligation not to leave it be. If the seaweed in the example is replaced by an object in the water that would have some non-negligible benefit to Smith but would serve no significant purpose to anyone else, a shell which would complete her collection, perhaps, again if Smith picks it up she does something permissible. If she chooses not to pick it up, she also does something permissible. She has no moral obligation to pick up the shell. It certainly is in her interest to pick up the shell. She would benefit if she did so, and the effort to acquire the shell is minimal. It may be prudentially obligatory that Smith should pick up the shell, but that is not the same as moral obligation.

This structure is not reflected in an epistemic right to believe. Suppose a rational adult agent Jones who has a total body of evidence E is considering which doxastic attitude to hold towards some proposition p. Suppose E justifies p: very roughly, were Jones to believe that p on the basis of E, he would be justified in believing that p. But p is false, and so it is false that were Jones to believe that p on the basis of E, then he would know that p. If he does in fact believe that p, he will do what is epistemically permissible. He has no epistemic obligation not to believe p given the facts about his evidence. But if Jones instead does not believe that p, then to maintain parity with the discussion of moral privilege rights, it should often not be the case that he has done something epistemically impermissible. He should often lack an epistemic duty not to disbelieve that p. But it is false that often Jones does something epistemically permissible when he believes that not-p when his total evidence justifies p. Therefore the view that epistemic rights are merely privilege rights is false.

This strikes me as a rather strange argument. I can't see how the argument could succeed unless we were to assume that there was no epistemic duty to refrain from believing without adequate evidence. But isn't there such a duty?

Bracket that. Glick seems to assume that you have a claim right only when you often also have a lot of latitude. But, there's nothing to the concept of a claim right that suggests (in a way that is obvious to me) that such rights are enjoyed only when there's also a lot of latitude in how to exercise such rights. Yes, there's a difference between picking up seaweed and picking up an attitude, but I don't see why the fact that there's less doxastic latitude entails that (JustRightEPR) is false since that claim entails nothing about the amount of doxastic latitude we have.

Here's a view on which justified belief is just the belief you have a claim right to. Your only epistemic duty is to refrain from believing what you don't know. I don't see that there's anything above that suggests that you couldn't defend this version of (JustRightEPR).

4 comments:

Ralph Wedgwood said...

Clayton -- I agree with you that Glick's argument relies on implausible and undefended assumptions. But (i) Glick is talking about "liberty-rights" (or "privileges), while you seem to be talking about "claim-rights", and (b) in general, I'm puzzled by your use of the terms 'duty' and 'right' here.

As I use these terms, they are much narrower than the deontic modal terms 'ought' and 'may'. In the strictest sense, they refer to legal (or more broadly, institutional) rights and duties -- which are defined by the structure of systems of social rules.

When used in this way, the distinction between a claim-right and a liberty-right (or "privilege") can be defined quite simply: you have a claim-right to X under a given system of rules when these rules require certain people to protect you in your possession of or engaging in X, whereas you have a mere liberty-right to X when these rules do not forbid you to take possession of or engage in X.

Extending these terms slightly, we can use them to refer to moral (or as political theorists sometimes say, natural) rights and duties -- which are presumably defined by the structure of the social rules that ought to exist, or something like that.

Now, I am certainly convinced that all the epistemic terms (like 'rational', 'justified', 'reason to believe', etc.) are normative terms. But I really don't see what the distinction between an epistemic claim-right and an epistemic liberty-right (or "privilege") could even amount to. If I have a claim-right to believe p, wouldn't that have to mean that certain other people ought to protect me in my exercise of my right my belief in p?! If it doesn't mean that, then what does it mean?

Jeff said...

Clayton--Thank you for your comments on my paper. I really appreciate your time and your thoughts.

Here's a first shot at a response to the following worry:

"Glick seems to assume that you have a claim right only when you often also have a lot of latitude. But, there's nothing to the concept of a claim right that suggests (in a way that is obvious to me) that such rights are enjoyed only when there's also a lot of latitude in how to exercise such rights."

I certainly have not given an argument that claim rights entail a lot of latitude in their application. But it does seem to me that all the ordinary cases of claim rights (consider all the material objects, money, and intellectual properties you own) involve a great deal of permissible latitude in the use, acquisition, and divestment of the stuff one has a claim right to. Maybe one can't permissibly fail to acquire his or her own body, but that's debatable. I'm having trouble coming up with a clear case of a claim right with highly limited latitude in its application. (Maybe towards one's children?)

If the vast bulk of the cases of moral claim rights involve wide latitude and a whole bunch of cases of justification involve little to no latitude, isn't that enough to drive a wedge between rights and justification? (On the assumption that epistemic rights are supposed to be very much like moral rights.)

Ralph--I thank you too for your thoughts and your input.

You say, "If I have a claim-right to believe p, wouldn't that have to mean that certain other people ought to protect me in my exercise of my right my belief in p?!"

Question mark, exclamation point indeed! Earl Conee had a similar reaction to this. I give the objection a brief mention in the paper, because anyone who buys it could stop there. I have other objections for those who don't buy it.

I'm still toying with the idea that knowledge, rather than mere justified true belief, may give one an epistemic claim right that would epistemically obligate others not to (deliberately?) undermine one's knowledge. That's a tough sell, but I think the it's easier in the case of knowledge than in the case of mere justified true belief.

Clayton said...

Ralph,

First off, I apologize for not getting back to this earlier. I've been traveling and immediately upon returning to Austin I've been hosting visiting family. Also, your questions tend to be difficult.

"I really don't see what the distinction between an epistemic claim-right and an epistemic liberty-right (or "privilege") could even amount to. If I have a claim-right to believe p, wouldn't that have to mean that certain other people ought to protect me in my exercise of my right my belief in p?! If it doesn't mean that, then what does it mean?"

I don't see what the difference between liberty and claim right could amount to in epistemology, I simply thought that justifiably believing p = believing without being in violation of duty = being within your rights (as determined by the relevant set of rules) to believe p. I need to look at the passage I was quoting, but I intended to talk about liberty rights but it might be that Glick had something different in mind in the relevant passage.

Clayton said...

Ralph,
Just realized that I did specifically make reference to claim rights in the post when I should have been talking about liberty rights. Perils of late night blogging and blogging about papers you are reading in another browser tab rather than papers you have in hand.

Jeff,

Sorry for the brief comments. They were terse and written late one evening, so they probably come off far more negative than they should have. I really liked the paper. I'm not entirely certain I agree with your position as I tend to think that the thesis you are attacking is a near triviality, but that's one of the reasons I keep thinking about your paper.

You wrote, "If the vast bulk of the cases of moral claim rights involve wide latitude and a whole bunch of cases of justification involve little to no latitude, isn't that enough to drive a wedge between rights and justification? (On the assumption that epistemic rights are supposed to be very much like moral rights.)"

I'll need to think more about that. It seems to me that degree of latitude will be an unsure guide to whether there's a right that someone enjoys. I can't think of an argument that there will be limits in latitude, but I can't think of an argument that follows from the assumption that a right is had to any claims about the kind of latitude enjoyed.