Friday, May 24, 2013

The K took my baby away

On Monday I gave a talk at the Aristotelian society that had to do with the norms of belief (listen here). My view has long been that knowledge isn't the norm of belief (or assertion, practical reason, etc.), but I've started to think that it might be.  The view I defended in Justification and the Truth-Connection was a kind of truth-first view. Starting from the idea that the fundamental epistemic norm is a truth norm, we could say what needed to be said about epistemic normativity by identifying various derivative norms that derive their authority from the truth norm. At the end, we'd say what needs to be said about epistemic normativity without ever having to say anything at all about knowledge.

I've started to change my mind about this. I think there were two reasons for this and I don't think they're unrelated.  First, I had thought that having something as part of your evidence didn't require knowing that the thing was true.  I'm no longer convinced that this is so.  I'm not entirely certain that your evidence can't include p unless you know p, but I'm just not totally persuaded by my old Gettier-based arguments against E=K.  Since I still think that there are norms that govern belief that have to do with whether your beliefs can provide reasons, I've started to shift towards the idea that there is indeed a knowledge norm that governs belief.  

The second reason for the change is the subject of the Aristotelian society talk.  As I was thinking about what to talk about, I was struck by something I suppose I hadn't really thought about before.  Practical assessment seems to be largely outward looking. What I mean is that it seems that the deontic standing of your actions turns largely (if not exclusively) upon whether those actions were fitting in the circumstances.  (There are tricky cases that Steve Sverdlik describes in his excellent book Motive and Rightness, but we can set these aside for now because the point that I want to make doesn't turn on whether his arguments are successful or not.)  Thus, I think Judith Thomson is right when she says that it's an odd idea that we need to look into the agent's head to determine whether some prospective course of action would be permissible. (I'm not convinced that she's drawn the right lesson from this, but that's for another time.)  At any rate, it's striking that everyone seems to think that epistemic assessment is largely inward looking.  We care about whether the agent's reasons are good reasons and how the agent reasoned. The deontic standing of a belief seems to turn on this, not (just) whether it fits the facts.

So, there's an interesting asymmetry between practical and theoretical assessment that I've struggled to understand. Why does one seem to be so excessively concerned with the relationship between guiding and explanatory reasons when the other doesn't seem to be terribly concerned with this at all? 

It's because of this asymmetry that I started to think that the truth-first approach couldn't ultimately explain why the deontic status of one's beliefs turns on the reasons for which one believes and their relation to good reasons to believe.  It seems that any such explanation would have to start from the idea that the content of the fundamental epistemic norm has to do with truth and then try to derive additional norms by appeal to some ideas about what guiding reasons require or about how we're supposed to follow norms. Those claims look pretty good until you realize that these are supposed to be claims about how guiding reasons as such are supposed to work. Those claims threaten to undermine the asymmetry between practical and epistemic assessment.

A better approach, I thought, was a knowledge-first approach.  To the extent that knowing requires believing for good reasons, the knowledge norm could explain why epistemic assessment is inward looking without threatening to undermine the asymmetry by introducing some ancillary assumptions about how norms work or what guiding reasons require. So, I've shifted. You can listen above or read the paper here. I suppose the good news is that most of what I argue for in the book can stay pretty much the same. What changes is that the distinction between justification and knowledge that I thought could be maintained now seems to be undermined.  Oh well. 

1 comment:

Kristofer Rhodes said...

Bit of a tangential response here. You indicated (if I understood you right) that most philosophers who think about practical assessment think motives don't matter to permissibility. I guess the idea is this. If what someone did would have been permissible given the right motive, then what could it mean to say that having the wrong motive renders the action impermissible? Should we stop them from doing it? But if we shouldn't stop them when they have the right motive, why stop them when they have the wrong motive? The action remains the same action (with the same consequence) either way. Is this the basic idea?

If so, I'd think one could defend a connection between motive and permissibility in something like the following way. If all we're talking about is whether a certain set of events should be allowed to occur, then motive is irrelevant to permissibility--but we're not talking about people anymore. (The events we're talking about may in fact be actions undertaken by people, but we're not thinking of then qua actions, but instead, merely qua events.) But from this it follows that if we are talking about people, then we're not just talking about whether a certain set of events should be allowed to occur. And this seems a natural enough thing to say, after all, actions are more than events.

But--otherwise identical events with distinct underlying motives are ipso facto different kinds of actions. So, for example, two men walking down the sidewalk may thereby constitute identical event-types. But if one's motive is to give a child some candy, and the other's motive is to give a child some poison, then the two men walking down the sidewalk constitute different action-types.

Is permissibility individuated by event or by action? Presumably action, if what we're talking about is what people are permitted to do.

Are both the two men just described permitted to walk down the sidewalk? Depends on the standards that apply but a natural standard could be drawn up which makes one man's action permissible and the others' impermissible. (Indeed even in legal contexts intent is often part of a crime, making an action with one motive criminal, and the same event with a different motive non-criminal.) "No walking on this sidewalk with murderous intent" is a perfectly sensible standard. We lack only the convenience of mind-reading devices to consistently enforce it. But if we had them, we could enforce the principle, and I don't see any reason to think such a system couldn't work in principle.

Well, anyway, I'm speaking as an outsider to the discussion so I should probably do some reading before jumping in like this. It piqued my interest because I've been writing on my own blog about mercy, suggesting (contrary to the literature on mercy) that beliefs and motivations matter for whether a decision was a merciful one or not. I think clicking on my name takes one to my blog but in case it doesn't: