Sunday, August 26, 2018

Epistemic Responsibility 009: The Beliefs of Animals

I have renamed this series "Epistemic Responsibility" because that is what I wish to write about.

It is about what it takes for a person to be a morally responsible agent with respect to his or her beliefs. It is about when beliefs are justified in the sense that a person cannot be morally blamed for having that belief, and when a belief is unjustified and moral condemnation is appropriate.

Note that, in the case of belief, I am justifying condemnation, not punishment. There are reasons not to allow punishment for having unjustified beliefs. This ties in to issues such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. "Unjustified belief" itself ought not to be a crime. However, epistemic recklessness that results in harm to others can be legitimately punished. The person who recklessly points a gun at a person and pulls the trigger, recklessly believing that the gun is not loaded, is guilty of endangerment and may be punished.

So, in reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on epistemology, I see this:

Why think that justification is external? To begin with, externalists about justification would point to the fact that animals and small children have knowledge and thus have justified beliefs. But their beliefs can't be justified in the way evidentialists conceive of justification. Therefore, we must conclude that the justification their beliefs enjoy is external: resulting not from the possession of evidence but from origination in reliable processes.

Gad, I do hate philosophical jargon. Let's put this into English.

This is an argument for the thesis that two people can have the same evidence available, yet one person can be justified and another not. This is a threat to the idea that a justified belief is a morally responsible belief, because a person cannot be morally responsible for something they cannot be aware of. The reason this is a threat is because animals and small children can have justified belief, but they lack moral responsibility. They simply do not have the capacities to form morally responsible beliefs. Therefore, a justified belief cannot be a morally responsible belief.

That's it. I'm done. Time to go home.

Well, actually, I need to remember why I selected to go down this road (justified belief = morally responsible belief) in the first place. It is because of an assumption that in the English of the common person (not the jargon of philosophers) we learn one definition of "justification". It is a term of praise (where "unjustified" is a term of condemnation) that we employ to produce good dispositions and habits. In the case of belief, the concept of "justification" aims to produce good doxastic habits. That's philosophereese for "good habits with respect to belief".

It seems that, if I am going to make sense of this part of our world, I am going to have to say that the beliefs of animals and small children are justified, even though animals and small children lack the capacity to act as morally responsible agents.

Let's look on the "moral responsibility" side of this problem.

In morality, we divide things into "permissible" and "impermissible". This is the distinction that I am probably going to want to map to the distinction between "justified" and "unjustified".

Actually, I think this may be clearer if I use a closely related set of terms, "just" and "unjust".

"Believing that p" is not an act. It is a state of affairs. Having a belief that p is like having a scar on one's thumb. It is a state one is in, not something that one is doing. Actions (doings) are "justified" or "unjustified". Whereas states of affairs are "just" and "unjust". Though, from here, we can say that a just state is one that can be justified, and an unjust state is one that cannot be justified. If we apply this to the state of having a belief, we can talk about beliefs that can and cannot be justified just as we talk about other states as states that can and cannot be justified.

This alleged link between belief justification and moral justification is making more sense all the time.

But . . . the animals and small children! We can't forget the animals and small children!

The problem presented to us is that we cannot say that the beliefs of animals and small children are justified because they are not moral agents and cannot be morally responsible.

However, we can say that they are not morally unjustified. People generally do not have much of a reason to get animals and small children out of the habit of trusting their senses when they use their senses to form beliefs. Even if they were full-blown moral agents, we would not need to punish or condemn them for forming beliefs out of their sensory experiences. So, animals and small children are, in fact, forming these beliefs in a way that full-blown morally responsible agents would form them. In this sense, we are justified in saying that they are justified.

So, now, we do have a way of saying that the beliefs of animals and small children can be justified without breaking the link between epistemic justification and moral justification. A belief is justified if it is formed in ways that would not be condemned if a moral agent would have used that method.

As a brief aside, not relevant to the argument above, I deny the proposition. "children and small animals are not moral agents". We praise and condemn children and small animals. We do so because our praise and condemnation act on their reward centers to form new interests and modify existing interests for the better. We reward children and animals for good behavior, and punish them for bad behavior. The range of activities we reward and punish them for, and the form and magnitude of our rewards and punishments may differ, but they exist. Because they exist, the claim that we do not treat animals and small children as moral agents is false.

No comments: