Sometimes we believe we ought to do things. Sometimes we then do them. I'd love to know how the normative status of normative judgments (which I'm taking to be beliefs about what ought to be done all things considered) are related to the normative status of the things we do. I think that this is right: if your belief that you ought to Φ is justified, Φ-ing is justified. (If you ought to believe that you ought to Φ, you really ought to Φ.) I've written up a short little piece attacking a view (a.k.a., 'The View') that uses some principles I like but uses them for nefarious purposes (attacks on epistemic purism, attacks on views of the ontology of practical reasons that identify them with states of the world or worldly facts). I've attacked The View before (in 'The Myth of the False, Justified Belief' (here)), but my argument rested on intuitions about the moral significance of facts that an agent is non-culpably ignorant of that some people think are dodgy. (Fwiw, I've found much better rhetoric to use to get people to have the right intuitions than I used in that paper.) It can't be that facts you're non-culpably ignorant of determine what your obligation is, if you fail to take account of them, that's just bad luck. Or something like that. I'll try something different here and try to hit The View where it hurts. (Because I know the targets and we seem to be on reasonably friendly terms, I'm a bit more glib than I would be otherwise. Since they seem to be rather glib in attacking the views I cherish, I hope they'll forgive me as it's clearly not intended to be disrespectful.)
JUSTIFIED NORMATIVE JUDGMENT
Should your conscience be your guide? I really can’t say because we might never have met. If you are conscientious, you will often make the move from a belief about what ought to be done to an action rationalized (in part) by the belief:
(The Move) SBSOΦ
I can’t say that you should have made The Move if I don’t know the specifics. It’s not obviously irrational to make The Move. Indeed, it seems often that it would be irrational not to. Still, I think this principle can’t be true:
(Con) SBSOΦ → SOΦ
The best people make The Move, but so do the worst. For counterexamples to Con, see any movie about Nazis (but don't see Valkyrie).
If you think there must be some sort of normative relation between practical judgments and the actions and intentions those judgments rationalize, perhaps it is captured by something like this:
(W-Con) SO(SBOΦ → SOΦ)
While all kinds of people make The Move, only those who act rightly conform to W-Con. Conscientious Hitlers are no threat to W-Con, only Con.
W-Con seems trivial. Gibbons (2009: 172) seems to agree. Note that W-Con permits what he calls ‘strengthened detachment’. With W-Con, we can infer (2) from (1):
When should someone believe they ought to Φ? He suggests that someone who considers whether to Φ, gives the matter serious attention, has the intellectual skills to knowingly deduce that she ought to Φ, and has sufficient evidence ought to judge that she ought to Φ. It’s hard to say what sufficient evidence amounts to, but two claims are intuitively plausible:
(SE1) S has sufficient evidence for her belief that p if S has precisely the same evidence as someone who knows p.
(SE2) S ought to believe p if S has given the matter sufficient attention and has sufficient evidence to believe p.
Rather than bicker about whether evidence consists of knowledge or something else, I’ll just say now that nothing here turns on whether we opt for the right view of evidence or some alternative to E=K. Evidence can be pretty much whatever you want it to be, provided that you agree that even if p is part of S’s evidence, p isn’t the evidence that justifies S’s believing p when that belief is an inferential belief. Combine (SE1), (SE2), and W-Con, and the result is that you are permitted to do whatever it is that your epistemic counterparts are permitted to do. Indeed, you and your epistemic counterpart often ought to do the same things, provided that you ought to believe that you ought to do the same things.
This seems to be the view defended by Fantl and McGrath (forthcoming: 85). They say that if you have knowledge-level justification for believing p, it is permissible to treat p as a reason for action as well as belief. Suppose you have knowledge-level justification for believing that you ought to Φ. It would then be proper for you to treat that you ought to Φ as a reason for action, say, when you judge that you should Ψ because you know that Ψ-ing is the only means by which you could Φ. Suppose you have knowledge-level justification for believing p where you kow or justifiably believe you ought to Φ if p. It would then be proper for you to treat p as a reason for action and, arguably, proper to Φ accordingly. Like Fantl, McGrath, and Gibbons, I have a hard time seeing how W-Con could be false. Whatever it is that neutralizes the threats to the normative standing of the normative judgment should take care of whatever normative obstacles stand in the way of plowing ahead and acting on the normative judgment. In spite of the view’s intuitive plausibility, there is something wrong with:
(The View) W-Con, (SE1), and (SE2)
Those who defend The View believe that someone can have sufficient evidence to believe p even if ~p. Here is what Fantl and McGrath say on the matter:
… it is highly plausible that if two subjects have all the same very strong evidence for my glass contains gin, believe that proposition on the basis of this evidence, and then act on the belief in reaching to take a drink, those two subjects are equally justified in their actions and equally justified in treating what they each did as a reason, even if one of them, the unlucky one, has cleverly disguised petrol in his glass rather than gin. Notice that if we asked the unlucky fellow why he did such a thing, he might reply with indignation: ‘well, it was the perfectly rational thing to do; I had every reason to think the glass contained gin; why in the world should I think that someone would be going around putting petrol in cocktail glasses!?’ Here the unlucky subject is not providing an excuse for his action or treating what he did as a reason; he is defending it as the action that made the most sense for him to do and the proposition that made most sense to treat as a reason (forthcoming: 141).
It seems Fantl and McGrath are moved by a kind of anti-luck intuition. If someone shouldn’t Φ, there have to be reasons in light of which the subject shouldn’t Φ and should do something else instead, but they cannot be reasons that are inaccessible to the subject. Why? Perhaps it’s because the best that you can ever do is to do what the rational or reasonable person would do in your shoes. While there’s something to be said for the view that says (i) you should do the best you can and (ii) it cannot be that you should have done more or done otherwise than the best you could given your circumstances, I don’t think that this can be what motivates The View.
In The Myth of the FJB, I argued that there can be facts we are non-culpably ignorant of that determines what our overall moral obligation is. In other words, factual ignorance and mistaken belief excuses wrongdoing, they does not obviate the need to try to justify engaging a course of action that is wrongful. These cases show that there’s a reading of ‘sufficient evidence’ on which (SE1) is trivial and a reading on which (SE2) is perfectly harmless, but these are different readings. If ‘sufficient evidence’ just means evidence that ensures that it is permissible to believe, (SE2) is trivial but (SE1) is (arguably) mistaken. If ‘sufficient evidence’ just means evidence that ensures that we satisfy whatever evidential requirements there are on permissible belief, (SE1) is trivial but (SE2) is (arguably) mistaken. This reading leaves open the possibility that the right to believe turns on more than just the evidence. The view I would defend is that only beliefs that can properly figure in deliberation are permissibly held and since any false belief will pass off a non-reason as if it were a reason, no false beliefs can justifiably be held. If someone has a false belief that leads them to engage in wrongdoing but has the same evidence as someone who acts rightly, the evidence not ensure that the agent conforms to the norms governing action or belief but it might provide an excuse for acting on beliefs that oughtn’t be included in deliberation. The problem with this line of attack was that it appealed to intuitions about the duties you have in light of fact
s inaccessible to the agent. Intuitions about such cases seem to be the sort of thing that move unaffiliated graduate students, not your opponents who think we should drink petrol with ice and wedges of lime.
Let’s try a different line of attack. Coop thinks it’s his lucky day. He’s found a quarter on the ground and heads off to buy a gumball. He passes a vending machine and sees that trapped inside are an infant, a puppy, and a kitten. On the machine, a sign says that anything in the machine could be had for a quarter. He knows that it would be best if the infant were freed, second best if the puppy were set free, third best if the kitten were set free, and that the worst state of affairs involves his buying that gumball he wants. Coop judges:
(3) Cooper ought to bring it about that the infant is freed.
It seems that someone could have just Coop’s evidence and know that (3) is true. So, it follows from The View that (3) is true. It is, however, perfectly consistent with everything I’ve just said that the mechanism that would allow Coop to free the infant is broken. Perhaps the only buttons that work are the buttons that free the puppy or free the kitten. Now, consider:
(OIC): If S ought to Φ, S can Φ.
According to (OIC), what Coop ought to do is something other than what (3) says.
Here’s an argument against The View. It implies that your obligation can be what you cannot do. Obligations aren’t like that. Thus, either epistemic obligations are not fixed entirely by facts about an individual’s evidence or facts about what ought to be done are not fixed by facts about epistemic obligation. Having considered the arguments for W-Con, I find them convincing. When there’s a decisive case to be made against Φ-ing, there’s not a decisive case to be made for settling the issue by judging that you should Φ. As Fantl and McGrath observe, “When trying to determine what is true – that is, in forming beliefs – we draw conclusions from the reasons we have. The same goes for trying to decide what to do. Here, too, we draw conclusions about what to do – we form intentions – from the reasons we have. We bring reasons into our reasoning knowing that we might draw all sorts of conclusions from them along the way, some practical and some theoretical” (forthcoming: 78). We draw conclusions about what to do and believe on the basis of the very same reasons. One intuitive motivation for The View is the thought that the reasonable and conscientious agent cannot fail to discover and then do what should be done. If we were to say otherwise, then it often is a matter of dumb luck that we managed to meet our epistemic and moral obligations. It turns out that that cannot be the rationale for The View, not if it is incompatible with (OIC). [Zimmerman notes that (OIC) causes trouble for Con, but doesn't discuss W-Con. His view differs from W-Con (in part) because he imports an objective element into his view that The View doesn't and cannot given the arguments that motivate it.]
Someone plausibly suggested that the subject ought to try to release the infant rather than, say, bring it about that some critter is freed from the vending machine. It’s true that this costs a quarter and does no good at all, but it’s the right thing to do. Someone could say that, but look what that does to The View. In some nearby possible world our vending machine is working properly and some counterpart of Coop’s has saved the infant. It surely seems possible that he knows that when he pushes the relevant button the baby will be released. So, he has sufficient evidence to believe this. By (SE1), Coop has sufficient evidence to believe that by pushing the button the baby will be released. By (SE2), that is what he ought to believe. By W-Con, that is what he ought to do—release the baby by trying to do so. But, it’s not the case that that’s what he ought to do. He can’t do it.
It seems that those who love The View have to say that our initial supposition was mistaken. Coop’s counterpart did not know that pushing the button causes the baby to be released. Why didn’t he know? Because an epistemic counterpart could have just his evidence for believing this proposition and be mistaken where this mistaken belief would rationalize an action that the agent cannot perform. So, S knows p only if S has no epistemic counterparts in any possible world who falsely believe p and whose belief that p would rationalize forming the intention to perform an action the agent cannot perform under those circumstances. If that’s right, is there anything we can know about the external world? Given The View, all it took to show that Coop’s counterpart did not have knowledge was to find some counterpart of Coop’s counterpart (i.e., Coop) who had the same evidence but had a mistaken belief. Now it is starting to look like The View is committed to the view that we have sufficient to believe p only when our evidence for believing p entails p. That’s worse than my view! My view rules out false, justified beliefs that figure in deliberation. The View rules out the possibility of justified belief based on fallible grounds. So, The View rules out false, justified beliefs and justified, true beliefs based on even the best inductive grounds. It’s a bad view, much worse than mine.
I haven’t found the passage where those who defend The View say that they accept (OIC). So, I haven’t found the passage that shows that The View is incompatible with some view they cherish, only that The View is incompatible with something that strikes many of us as being obviously true. They are well within their rights to say that ignorance subverts obligation, but impotence does not. If they were to go this route, they have to say that someone who doesn’t know p can Φ even if it is physically impossible for someone who does not realize that p is true to Φ. Suppose people can get things out of our very sturdy vending machine either by putting a quarter in its slot or using the right combination to open a combination lock. Coop has no idea what the combination is. Someone could say that Coop isn’t obliged to open the lock to release the infant because he does not know that the combination for that lock is 12-34-56. They can say that he’s obliged to release the infant, the puppy, and the kitten by pulling the vending machine apart with his bare hands even though this is something he cannot do. People can say all sorts of things they shouldn’t.
Fantl, J. and M. McGrath. forthcoming. Knowledge in an Uncertain World. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gibbons, J. 2009. You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do. Nous 43: 157-77.
____. Forthcoming. Things That Make Things Reasonable. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
Zimmerman, M. 2008. Living with Uncertainty. New York: Cambridge University Press.
’ stand for saving the infant. Let ‘Ψ’ stand for saving the puppy. Given (OIC), it cannot be that Coop is obliged Φ. He’s obliged to do the next best thing, Ψ. Given that he’s obliged to Ψ rather than Φ, he’s obliged to refrain from judging that he should Φ. Weaken The View, and it still faces essentially the same problems with (OIC) that the view faces.] [Another footnote: Fantl and McGrath (2002: 77) say that S justifiably believes p only if S is rational to act as if p. It might seem that they reject (SE1) and (SE2). They do. But, they do so on the grounds that it is possible for subjects with the same evidence for believing p to face practical situations where the stakes of acting on p differ. These differences are differences that their subjects are aware of. In my cases, the differences between the situations Coop and his epistemic counterparts face are not differences that they are aware of. Fantl and McGrath’s remarks concerning cases of facts that the subject is not cognizant of that have some practical significance make it pretty clear that they think that such facts do not affect the normative standing of the agent’s actions, attitudes, or the reasoning that connects them.]
WARNING: There's something wrong with the comments box. My comments keep getting eaten. Save your comments before you try to post them. Here's the second part of the comment I've been trying to post in response to Matt:
It seems to me incoherent to me say that it’s proper to treat _that I am permitted to go do Boston_ as a reason for judging that you should go there when you can’t permissibly act on that premise. Note that if you accept (1) and (2), the case is a counterexample to the principle that p is justifiably acted upon (for some p-dependent choice) when justifiably believed. But, it seems then that in light of the reasons that the agent was aware of the agent ought to act against her own judgment about the thing to do in spite of the fact that it’s either not the case that she should revise her views about the thing to believe or positively oughtn’t revise her beliefs about the thing to believe. Again, more weirdness. This is an ought grounded in reasons she’s aware of. If you’re going to say that she shouldn’t act on her judgment because of what the reasons she’s aware of demand of her, why is she to believe she should act that way anyway?
Suppose you press our agent and say that she should have gone to Austin. She defends herself and says that she gave the matter serious consideration. The reasons to go to Austin didn’t seem any more important than those that demanded that she be in Boston. She notes that lots of reasonable people in her shoes make the same choice she did, etc… I would say “Here the unlucky subject is defending it as the action that made the most sense for her to do and the proposition that made most sense to treat as a reason and she defends her judgment as the judgment that made most sense for her to make”. If her judgment was unreasonable, I could see saying that neither the judgment nor the action was excusable. But, if her judgment was unreasonable, her judgment wasn’t justified. If the judgment about the thing to do is reasonable, that ensures that the action was reasonable. Don't you say in the petrol/gin case that the subject isn't just offering some excuse because they can show, "the unlucky subject is not providing an excuse for his action or treating what he did as a reason; he is defending it as the action that made the most sense for him to do and the proposition that made most sense to treat as a reason."
I submit that any case where you justifiably judge that A-ing is the thing to do is a case where some subject who does A can successfully defend it as "the action that made the most sense for him to do" and the reasons that provide the justification for the normative judgment make the propositional contents of those normative judgments the ones that are reasonable to include in deliberation.