Saturday, August 25, 2018

Epistemic Responsibility 007: Deontic Justification of Belief

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966, page 15

So, here I sit with this theory of morality called "desirism", and suddenly I want to use it, not only for morality, but for epistemology.

I can hear the voices in my head saying, "Keep it up, Alonzo. Soon you'll be insisting that it cures male pattern baldness and guarantee a good harvest."

Look, it is not as far fetched as all of that.

First, we need an ethics of belief. We have many and strong reason to promote epistemic habits that will bring about true beliefs. That will allow us to avoid the harms that will come from people making stupid but avoidable mistakes - such as doubting the existence of human-caused climate change based on the nonsense put out by those who profit from activities that cause climate change. Without an ethics of belief, we are vulnerable to charlatans enriching themselves with fake cures to non-existing diseases and calling a 15-month investigation that brought over 30 indictments, 5 guilty pleas, and 1 conviction a "witch hunt" while chants of a 15 month investigation into the use of a private email server that brought no indictments is met with chants of "lock her up."

And it makes perfectly good sense to say that a moral system like desirism might have implications for an ethics of belief - an ethics of activities that can either bring about or avoid these absurd states of the world.

Second, I didn't invent the English Language. I didn't get a late night phone call from somebody saying, "Hey, I got this wonderful idea. We will use same word, "justify", to refer both to good and bad actions and good and bad beliefs." Nor do I think that it is absurd to think that, maybe, this happened for a reason. Perhaps it isn't actually a coincidence that people migrated toward using the same term in both cases. That, instead, people not only use the same term in those cases but that they have near to the same meaning and, more importantly, the same function. That function would be to use the embedded sense of praise and condemnation to mold character traits in order to better bring about good actions in the one case, and good beliefs in the other.

Indeed, it might even not be a coincidence that, as our community migrates further and further away from an ethics of belief - further and further away from a system whereby people are actually praised for having justified beliefs and condemned for unjustified beliefs - that we end up with something like Donald Trump and his followers, and multi-billion dollar corporations manipulating the public into deals like, "You give us $100 billion, and poison your water supply and your air, destroy your property, and impoverish your children and grand children. What do you say? Do you have a deal? No, don't go talk to your wife about it. What are you, a child needing permission? Be a man. Sign right here. Your grandchildren will love you for it."

As it turns out, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on epistemology talks about deontological justification and whether it is suitable as a form of epistemic justification. It mentions two objections.

Objection 1:

First, it has been argued that DJ presupposes that we can have a sufficiently high degree of control over our beliefs. But beliefs are akin not to actions but rather things such as digestive processes, sneezes, or involuntary blinkings of the eye.

This is not right.

Sneezes and blinkings are still doings (even if they are not actions). They involve something happening. In contrast, having a belief that p is not a doing, it is a state of affairs. It is a fact about how the world is structured. Having a belief is like having a scar on one's thumb or having a blood pressure of 102/58.

The only type of control we need over our beliefs, in this sense, is that they be the results of actions and habits that, in turn, we can influence through praise and condemnation. Having a belief that p is, indeed, a state that we can influence by influencing the dispositions and habits that lead to belief formation through praise and condemnation.

To call a belief "unjustified" is to say that the agent did not use those techniques that an epistemically responsible person would have used. A belief is "justified" if it is a belief that an empistemically responsible person would have acquired in those circumstances.

There is no problem of "control over our beliefs" that rules out a deontological version of epistemological justification. (That is to say, we have exactly the type of control we need to hold people morally responsible for their beliefs.)

Objection 2:

According to the second objection to DJ, deontological justification does not tend to ‘epistemize’ true beliefs: it does not tend to make them non-accidentally true. This claim is typically supported by describing cases involving either a benighted, culturally isolated society or subjects who are cognitively deficient.

Here, I need to see an actual case, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does not even describe one.

I do not see how the "isolated culture" version of this objection would go at all. After all, deontological justification is not sulturally determined. situation would work at all. After all, in the same way that slavery can be wrong even though an isolated culture does not recognize its wrongness, a habit of belief formation can be bad even though a culture does not realize its badness.

For the cognitively defective individual, I imagine a case such as one where a person has a brain defect that gives him a belief that p, where p happens to be true. He cannot be condemned for having the belief so it is justified. It is true. And it is a belief. Therefore, it counts as knowledge, even though all he has is a brain defect. This can't really be knowledge.

Well, the belief can't actually be a state that is a matter of epistemic or deontological assessment at all. This would be like making a deontological assessment of water being made up of H20. Nobody made it the case - it just happened. Because it just happened, it is not subject to deontological assessment as something that was justifiably - or unjustifiably - brought about.

We actually have something similar on the desire side. The aversion to pain is amoral. It provides a person with a reason for action, but this reason is, itself, neither justified or unjustified. It merely exists. To the degree that we can influence it makes sense to ask whether we ought to. However, the state of experiencing a pain that one is averse to is subject to moral judgment only insofar as we can develop different habits and dispositions.

So, I do not see how the two objections to a deontological theory of epistemic justification (a duty of beliefs) that appear in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has merit.

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