Saturday, May 15, 2010

Epistemic Norms of Practical Reason?

The opening remark of Jessica Brown's Phil Compass piece, "Knowledge and Practical Reason":

It has become recently popular to suggest that knowledge is the epistemic norm
of practical reasoning


I wonder what an epistemic norm of practical reason is supposed to be. Here's a candidate norm:
JPR: If you justifiably believe p, it is proper for you to treat p as a reason for action.

I think JPR can be read in two ways. First, as a claim about what's epistemically proper for you to treat as a reason. Second, as a claim about what's epistemically and practically proper for you to treat as a reason. On the second reading, if you treat p as a reason for acting and A in light of that, it might be that A-ing is wrong, but not because p was treated as a reason for doing something. There might be other non-p related reasons not to A, p might not favor A-ing, but what we've ruled out are explanations as to why A-ing was wrong that cite p, p's negation, or things that entail either p or p's negation.

Suppose you want to read it only in the first way because you think that if JPR is read the second way, there are counterexamples. Circumstances can arise in which it is epistemically proper to treat p as a reason for action (i.e., it is not wrongful on epistemic grounds for you to have treated p as a reason for action), but it is practically improper to have treated p as a reason for action. In what sense, then, is JPR an epistemic norm of _practical_ reason?

Obviously, if you justifiably believe p, you can't be epistemically criticized for believing p. Now, perhaps the idea is that there's believing p and there's relying on the belief that p when thinking about what to do. You mull it over and come to believe that you ought to A. JPR says that you can't be criticized for treating p as a reason for believing you ought to A. Okay, but that bit of reasoning is theoretical reasoning, not practical reasoning. It's reasoning to a belief.

Perhaps the idea is that once you believe you ought to A that's often what you do. I'm not entirely convinced, however, that we assess the action, the A-ing, in epistemic terms. We might assess the reasoning that led to it in epistemic terms, but that still looks a lot like JPR is doing the work of a norm of theoretical reason.

On the second way of understanding JPR, it is obvious why it is an epistemic norm of practical reason. It is a norm that ensures that once a belief attains a certain epistemic status, practically speaking, it's not wrong to plow ahead as if p is the case. Maybe JPR thus understood is false, but it's not obvious that you're in the game of offering an epistemic norm of practical reason if you defend JPR on the first understanding.

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