Saturday, June 12, 2010

Epistemic consequentialism (tidied up just a bit)

Maitzen (1995) argues that we ought to reject the nearly universally held view that our fundamental epistemic aim has to do with maximizing true belief while minimizing false belief on the grounds that a commitment to this view comes with a commitment to the universally rejected view that all and only true beliefs are justified. His argument fails, but the failure of his argument is instructive.

Goldman’s (1986, 1999) consequentialist approach(es) to epistemic justification should be susceptible to Maitzen’s objection. Goldman thinks there can be false, justified beliefs and unjustified true beliefs. Nevertheless, he seems to think that we can think of the justified belief as the belief that promotes something of epistemic value. True beliefs are, he says, intrinsically good. False beliefs are intrinsically bad. Withholding or suspending judgment is neither intrinsically good nor bad. The justification of a belief is not determined by the value of that particular belief, it is determined by whether the belief is permitted by a set of rules that would lead to a sufficiently high ratio of true to false beliefs by those who conform to those rules. Goldman is an epistemic rule-consequentialist (ERC). He is not an epistemic belief-consequentialist (EBC). I know of no actual advocate of EBC, but if someone were to advocate EBC, she would say that we ought to evaluate beliefs directly and determine their epistemic status by how well particular beliefs contribute to the epistemic good rather than assess beliefs indirectly by appeal to Goldman’s J-rules.

Maitzen offers us this argument against ERC, one inspired (in part) by Lyon’s (1965) objection to rule-consequentialist views in ethics:
(1) Upon pain of incoherence, ERC had better be extensionally equivalent to EBC.
(2) EBC would classify all true beliefs as justified and all false beliefs as unjustified.
(C) Thus, upon pain of incoherence, ERC had better classify all true beliefs as justified and all false beliefs as unjustified.
Because there are true beliefs that are not justified, we ought to reject both EBC and ERC.

Maitzen’s argument for (1) is straightforward. If the rule-consequentialist’s theory did not have the same evaluative consequences concerning the moral status of acts as the act-consequentialist’s view did, there would be an alternative set of rules the agent could conform to that would better promote utility than those proposed by the rule-consequentialist and thus should be preferred by the rule-consequentialist. If the act- and rule-consequentialist’s theory did have the same evaluative consequences, the views would be extensionally equivalent. Essentially the same point holds true for ERC and EBC. We simply shift our focus from acts to beliefs and from the intrinsically valuable consequences of acts to the verific effects of either individual beliefs or conforming to some set of rules.

I think Maitzen thinks (2) is pretty obvious. Here is what he says:
If the nominal aim is the reason for having, or pursuing, justification, then it ought to follow that beliefs are justified insofar as they serve the nominal aim and unjustified insofar as they do not. But this consequence gives rise to an obvious problem. If justification is essentially a matter of serving the nominal aim [i.e., to maximize true belief and minimize false belief], then it seems we would evaluate no true belief as unjustified and no false belief as justified … The reason is straightforward. If one seeks, above all else, to maximize the number of true (and minimize the number of false) beliefs in one’s (presumably large) stock of beliefs, then adding one more true belief surely counts as serving that goal, while adding a false belief surely counts as disserving it (1995: 870).

There are two problems with the argument. The first premise seems not to be obviously true and the second premise seems to be obviously false. First, observe that Goldman is not a maximizing epistemic consequentialist. He thinks that a belief is justified if the rules that permit the formation of the belief are such that conforming to them would lead the believer to form a sufficiently high ratio of true to false beliefs. A belief does not turn out to be unjustified on his view simply because there is some set of rules such that conforming to these rules better maximizes epistemic utility and these rules do not permit the formation of the belief. Thus, Goldman would not be at all disturbed by the charge that his view is not extensionally equivalent to a maximizing form of EBC. Let’s bracket that worry for now, for even if Goldman did defend a maximizing form of consequentialism, it is not clear the argument for (1) works. If we asked which set of rules produces the best epistemic outcomes when a believer conforms to those rules, we might say that there is not some unique set of rules. The rule that EBC says determines which beliefs are justified or rightly held will be tied for first and there might be alternative rules that are extensionally equivalent. If, however, we focus on rules that produce the epistemically best results when internalized and complied with, it is not clear that EBC will be tied for first because EBC might have greater internalization costs than some alternative set of rules and if those rules are not extensionally equivalent to the rule that EBC says determines which beliefs are justified, arguably we have a consequentialist rationale for rejecting EBC.

Of course, debates between direct and indirect consequentialists will likely continue for some time and so Maitzen may well be right to say in response that there is no good value-theoretic reason to focus on rules that are optimific when internalized as opposed to optimific when conformed to. So, let’s look at (2) because it is here that I think Maitzen’s argument fails most dramatically. Simplifying matters just a bit, Goldman thinks that true beliefs have positive intrinsic epistemic value, false beliefs have intrinsic epistemic disvalue, and withheld judgments are neither intrinsically good nor bad. So, his view commits him to saying that all and only true beliefs are justified, right? It would if we assumed that the total intrinsic epistemic value (or disvalue) of believing p is always equal to the intrinsic epistemic value of believing p. The problem is that I cannot think of any good reason to assume this and can think of some pretty strong reasons to reject it.
Forming a belief can contribute value directly and indirectly. Any true belief, according to the epistemic consequentialist, is a good thing, but one good thing amongst many things of value to take account of. Any false belief, according to the epistemic consequentialist, is a bad thing, but one bad thing amongst many things of value to take account of. An advocate of EBC will say that in determining the epistemic status of a belief, we have to take account of the total epistemic value of believing p and then compare that to the total epistemic value of believing ~p as well as the total epistemic value of suspending judgment. Believing p when p would always come out better than believing ~p or withholding if beliefs never had valuable consequences or prevented us from attaining valuable consequences in the future, but that’s not how things work with belief. I might believe that it is a good idea to read Dianetics because I think it will be good for a laugh. I might have really good evidence that it will be good for a laugh. Maybe it is good for a laugh. If, however, I read it and end up joining a cult that brainwashes me and instills in me tons of false beliefs while cutting me off from sources of information that would have provided me with many true beliefs, the total intrinsic epistemic disvalue of believing (correctly) that reading Dianetics will be good for a laugh could turn out to be great. The total intrinsic disvalue might be far greater than the tiny bit of epistemic value that was attained by forming the true but disastrous belief. Examples like this can easily be multiplied, as could many less far fetched examples in which someone forms a series of true beliefs that constitute misleading evidence that thereby prevents someone from appreciating a vast number of truths they might otherwise have come to believe. So, even if Maitzen’s faith in Lyon’s collapse objection is not misplaced, it seems we have some reason to think that the justification he offers for (1) is actually a reason to reject (2). EBC simply would not classify all true beliefs as justified and all false beliefs as unjustified because no one who accepts EBC should work from the implausible psychological hypothesis that forming a belief never has consequences for the future.

Of course, once we see why Maitzen’s argument fails, we can see why epistemic consequentialism is so deeply implausible. There is a perfectly good value-theoretic reason for thinking that consequentialists ought to respect some version of the totalism. As Carlson observes, consequentialists in ethics will say that the morally relevant outcome of an action is not simply the action taken on its own but the possible world that would be actual if the agent performed the action (1995: 10). So, if we try to characterize the justified belief in consequentialist terms and take the epistemic good to be prior to the epistemic right, we should say that the epistemically relevant outcome of a belief is not simply the intrinsic value of the belief taken on its own. We should assess a belief by assessing the total epistemic value in the possible world that would be actual if the believer formed the belief. As the example above illustrates, no one in epistemology thinks we should accept totalism. The effects of forming a belief, whether they happen to be good or bad, has nothing at all to do with the epistemic status of a belief. And that is why EBC and ERC are hopeless.

Epistemic Consequentialism

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