Sunday, May 13, 2018

Alston on the Moral Justification of Belief

I have written my last paper of the school year.

I did not write it as an assignment. Rather, there was a discussion during the last day of my Metaphysics and Epistemology Pro-Seminar class concerning the ethics of belief.

The argument under consideration says that we cannot be held morally accountable for our beliefs because they are not under our voluntary control. And we can only be held responsible for things over which we have voluntary control. (Not entirely true, as revealed by the existence of moral luck, but let's set that aside.)

So, we can't be held responsible for our beliefs.

I objected, "But, accountability involves more than intentional action. There is recklessness and negligence. In these cases, the agent does not intend to bring about a bad state of affairs, but is an unintended side effect of things they do for other reasons."

The professor's response was, "That would be a good paper topic."

So, I wrote it.

The paper is called Epistemic Negligence

The paper is a commentary on: William Alston, "The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification," Philosophical Perspectives 2 (1988): 257-99.

It's link to desirism springs from a thesis put forward by James Montmarquet, (“Epistemic Virtue”, Mind, 96(384): 482–497) in 1987 that what he defines as conscientiousness is the desire to believe that which is true and not believe that which is false. This desire, it seems to me, is one that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally (indeed, far more universally than it currently exists). Thus, it would count as a good desire in desirism terms.

A summary of the article:

  • Richard Feldman, ("The Ethics of Belief," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LX, No. 3, May 2000) seems to have somewhat misrepresented the views of William Alston. Specifically, he paid little attention to Alston’s distinction between “indirect voluntary control “ and “indirect voluntary influence “.
    • “Indirect voluntary control” concerns choosing to realize a state (e.g., to have a belief, to kill Vic) as an end or a means to a further end - by doing something else (e.g., studying, shooting Vic). For example, flipping a light switch to turn on a light, where turning the light on was intended as an end or a means to some further end.
    • “Indirect voluntary influence” involves influencing a state as an unintended side effect of an intentional action, such as killing a patient by mistakenly removing the wrong (healthy) kidney.
    • “Indirect voluntary influence” captures the deontological categories of knowing, reckless, and negligent wrongdoing - deontological wrongs where the wrongs were not intended.
  • Alston recognized (correctly) that we have indirect voluntary influence over our beliefs. That is, there are intentional actions we can perform that influence our beliefs.
    • Alston did not seem to recognize that indirect voluntary influence implies indirect voluntary control. When we are aware that an action has an influence, we may choose the action because of its influence, thus choosing the effect either as an end or a means.
  • When we have indirect voluntary influence, we are still morally responsible for those unintended, perhaps unforeseen, and possible wrongs (e.g., harms) of our intentional action (e.g., reckless and negligent harms the agent did not intend). So, indirect voluntary influence over our beliefs still leaves us morally responsible for reckless and negligent acquisition of beliefs.
  • In comparing epistemic to deontological justification Alston selected the deontological category of "permission" or "permissible action". An action is permissible if it is not prohibited.
    • The epistemic counterpart to this would be epistemic permission: A belief is justified if it is not prohibited - if it is not held in violation of epistemic rules.
    • Alston recognized that, for epistemic justification, this is too broad. Many permissible beliefs are not justified. He provides examples of permissible unjustified beliefs e.g., testimony, cultural traditions.
  • I suggest a stricter standard - a standard required as a defense against negligence that I call a “non-culpability standard”.
    • The non-culpability standard applies when one’s voluntary actions risks harming or wronging others.
    • When this type of risk obtains, standards get more strict - stricter than the permissibility standard allows.
  • I show how the non-culpability standard handles the cases Alston presented against the permissibility standard.
  • However, there is a potential problem with the non-culpability standard. The culpability standard is not fixed - the greater the magnitude and certainty of harm, the stricter the standards. Epistemic justification, in contrast, has not been held to be variable in this way.


Doug S. said...

Did you look at the classic essay "The Ethics of Belief" by William K Clifford?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am familiar with it. Clifford, however, assumed the proposition that is at issue here - whether a person had control over their beliefs. It turns out that he was right, for the reasons that I give here. And, he was right entirely in virtue of the possibility of epistemic negligence and recklessness. This writing provides a defense of that which Clifford assumed.