Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Alston's argument from epistemic poverty

Alston offers us this example in the hopes of causing trouble for the deontological view of justification:
S has lived all his life in an isolated primitive community where everyone unhesitatingly accepts the tradition of the tribe as authoritative. These have to do with alleged events distant in time and space, about which S and his fellows have no chance to gather independent evidence. S has never encountered anyone who questions the traditions, and these traditions play a key role in the communal life of the tribe. Under these conditions it seems clear to me that S is in no way to blame for forming beliefs on the basis of the traditions. He has no failed to do on anything he could reasonably be expected to do. His beliefs about, for example, the origins of the tribe stem from what, so far as he can see, are the best grounds one could have for such beliefs. And yet, let us suppose, the traditions have not been formed in such a way as to be a reliable indication of their own truth. S is deontically justified, but he is not believing in a truth-conducive way.


On one understanding of the deontological view, beliefs are justified when the believers who hold them have these beliefs without failing to meet any of their epistemic obligations. While Alston believes that the isolated subject meets her epistemic obligations (and accuses others of insensitivity if they were to deny this), he thinks that the isolated subject’s beliefs are not justified. What is missing, he says, are truth-conducive grounds. He seems to think that you can live up to your epistemic obligations even if you have no such grounds for your beliefs, but you cannot believe with justification unless they serve as the bases for your beliefs.

The argument I want to discuss can be stated as follows:
1. The culturally isolated subjects meet their epistemic obligations.
2. If they meet their epistemic obligations, their beliefs are justifiably held.
3. (Therefore) Deontologism implies that their beliefs are justified.
4.If deontologism implies that their beliefs are justified, plausible internalist views will deliver the same verdict.
5. (Therefore) Any plausible internalist view implies that their beliefs are justified.
6. Their beliefs are not justified.
7. (Therefore) Every plausible internalist view delivers the wrong verdict in cases of cultural isolation.

Alston does not say that his objection is intended to serve as an objection to all internalist views, but I think that if his argument succeeds against the deontological view, it should succeed against any remotely plausible internalist view. To see why, notice that Alston’s argument is supposed to succeed even if there are such things as epistemic obligations. If there are no epistemic obligations, the deontological view is sunk and the argument would be otiose. If, however, there are such things as epistemic obligations and we assume that (1) is correct, the internalist would have to say that it is possible to justifiably believe p even if your epistemic obligation is to refrain from holding this belief. Since the justified is the right or the permissible, this is not a tenable position and so the internalist should either deny (1) or deny (6).

Can the deontologist deny (1) or (6)? Alston thinks not. I take it that he thinks (6) is intuitively compelling. As for (1), Alston suggests that since his culturally isolated subject is free from blame, the deontological theory has to acknowledge that this subject’s beliefs are justified. Building on this, he remarks:
Deontological justification is sensitive to cultural differences because it depends on what can reasonably be expected of one, and that in turn depends on one’s social inheritance and the influences to which one is exposed. But truth conductivity does not so depend. Hence they can diverge.

Dialectically, I do not think this is a very effective objection. To wield this objection, you have to think that the culturally isolated subject has met her epistemic obligations and that her beliefs are nevertheless unjustified. Just as the internalist should not try to evade the objection by divorcing the justified from the right or the permissible, the externalist objection should not force us to divorce the justified from the right or the permissible.

In my opinion, Alston’s case is underdescribed. If we imagine that Alston’s subject has lived up to the canons of good reasoning, (1) seems intuitive and the interanlist can say with some plausibility that (6) is false. If, however, we imagine that Alston’s subject has not lived up to the canons of good reasoning, (6) seems rather intuitive and (1) does not. Alston might say that anyone who rejects (1) has unreasonable expectations and on this point he might be right. On the larger point, it is a mistake to think that your obligations are limited to what you can be reasonably expected to do. We cannot reasonably expect that everyone’s moral views will converge or that everyone will act as if their views have converged. Perhaps we cannot expect those who live in cultures with moral practices that differ from ours to behave in the ways that they should. We certainly should not embrace cultural relativism on these grounds, but then why should we think that epistemic obligations ‘shift’ in response to differences in ‘social inheritance’? (Even if you were tempted to embrace some sort of relativism, why not relativism about justification?) The link between what can be reasonably expected and what epistemic or moral duty requires is not what Alston takes it to be.

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