Featured Philosopher: Stephanie Leary on “Pluralist Pragmatism”

Many thanks to the Daves for inviting me to contribute to the PEA Soup community!

One major focus of my past and current research is pragmatism: the view that there are practical reasons for and against belief and other doxastic attitudes like disbelieving, suspending judgment, etc. I think it’s true: if believing that there’s an afterlife would make you happier, this is a genuine normative reason for you to believe it, and if believing that your daughter won’t succeed as an actress would harm her, that’s a normative reason against you having that belief. But while some folks opt for a robust pragmatism according to which practical reasons are the only genuine normative reasons for doxastic attitudes, I’m more attracted to a pluralist pragmatism according to which both practical and epistemic reasons for doxastic attitudes are genuinely normative, but different in kind.

The reason I’m interested in pragmatism is that it has important upshots for how to think of the divide between practical and epistemic reasons. Many anti-pragmatists assume that practical and epistemic reasons are individuated by their objects: epistemic reasons are normative reasons for doxastic attitudes, while practical reasons are normative reasons for action and other attitudes. But if there are both practical and epistemic reasons for doxastic attitudes, this can’t be right.

So, I propose instead that practical and epistemic reasons are individuated by their grounds (in “Grounding the Domains of Reasons” in Australasian Journal of Philosophy). The basic idea here is that a fact’s being a normative reason is multiply realizable, and what makes a consideration R a normative reason for an agent S to do something A is one kind of fact for epistemic reasons (presumably something having to do with truth), but a very different kind of fact for practical reasons (something that has nothing to do with truth). For example, one might think that, for practical reasons, what makes R a normative reason for S to A is that R indicates that S’s A-ing would promote some value (or the satisfaction of some desire), whereas for epistemic reasons, what makes R a normative reason for S to A is that R indicates that S’s A-ing would make S more likely to believe the truth and avoid error with respect to some proposition p (where this isn’t a matter of promoting some value or satisfying some desire).

What I’ll talk about here, though, is a puzzle that I’m currently thinking about in relation to this pragmatist view. The puzzle arises from noticing that this view allows not only for practical reasons for doxastic attitudes, but also for epistemic reasons for action. After all, if practical and epistemic reasons are not individuated by their objects, and there are both kinds of reasons for belief, why can’t there also be both kinds of reasons for action too? And some potential accounts of what grounds epistemic reasons straightforwardly imply that there are epistemic reasons for action. For example, consider the view that I sketched above. If doing some action A would give S evidence about whether p, then this fact indicates that S’s A-ing would make S more likely to believe the truth and avoid error with respect to p. So, even if there’s no practical reason whatsoever for S to know whether p, the fact that A-ing would give S evidence about whether p is an epistemic reason for S to A.

But this seems problematic because, unlike with belief, epistemic considerations just don’t seem to matter to how we ought to act. Epistemic considerations seem to play a large role in determining what we ought to believe, especially when the practical reasons are weak or nonexistent. For example, even if there’s no practical reason for or against you having any belief about how many roses are in the garden, if Lily tells you she counted 100 roses, you ought to believe that there are 100 roses. But epistemic considerations seem comparatively idle when it comes to action. Suppose you have no testimony, butyou could easily count the roses yourself in just a few minutes, and you don’t have anything else better to do. Even when there’s no practical reason for or against you counting the roses, it doesn’t seem like the fact that counting the roses would give you evidence about how many roses there are makes it so that you ought to count them. Maybe you’re permitted to do so, but you’re not required.

So, here’s the puzzle. The pluralist pragmatist must either accept or deny that there are epistemic reasons for action, and both options leave her with a significant explanatory challenge. If she opts for acceptance, she must explain why epistemic reasons nonetheless fail to determine what we ought to do, even in the absence of competing practical reasons. If she opts for denial, she must explain why there are no epistemic reasons for action, even though there are both kinds of reasons for doxastic attitudes.

One might think that denial is the easier route because epistemic reasons are commonly thought of as right-kind reasons (RKRs) for doxastic attitudes, which are reasons that indicate that a certain attitude is fitting or correct, given the kind of attitude that it is. (This is in contrast to wrong-kind reasons (WKRs), which are reasons for attitudes that don’t indicate that the attitude is fitting or correct, given the kind of attitude it is – e.g. practical reasons for belief.) So, one might think that there are no epistemic reasons for action because there can’t be fitting-qua-doxastic-attitude-reasons for action. But this explanation assumes that all epistemic reasons are right-kind reasons for doxastic attitudes. And that is precisely what the pluralist is being challenged to explain (if she opts for denial). After all, practical considerations can be both right-kind reasons for attitudes and reasons for action: e.g. the fact that getting the job will make you happy is a right-kind reason to desire that you get the job and a reason for you to send in an application. So, the question for the pluralist is why can’t epistemic considerations be both right-kind reasons for doxastic attitudes and reasons for action too?

Instead, I think the pluralist is better off accepting that there are epistemic reasons for action and explaining why epistemic reasons do not play much of a role in determining what we ought to do, even in the absence of competing practical reasons. While I’m still fixing ideas, I think the explanation lies within three features about epistemic reasons for action. First, just about any action whatsoever can give you strong evidence about some proposition (even sitting still and thinking gives you conclusive evidence that you’re a thinking thing). So, in any choice situation, there’s strong epistemic reason for you to do each available alternative. Second, epistemic reasons for doing some action are not epistemic reasons against the available alternatives. For example, if library A and library B both contain good evidence about whether p, I have an epistemic reason for going to library A, but it’s not an epistemic reason againstgoing to library B (and vice versa). Third, being epistemically justified amounts to having epistemic reasons of a strength that is above a certain threshold.

Putting these thoughts together, then, I think the pluralist can explain why epistemic reasons for action don’t matter much to what we ought to do: in any given choice situation, there’s strong enough epistemic reason for you to do each available action (and these reasons are not reasons againstthe alternatives), so that you are epistemically justified in doing any available action. This explains why you’re only permitted, and not required, to count the roses in the garden, even when you have an epistemic reason to do so and no competing practical reasons. It’s because there are other things you could do instead that would give you just as good evidence about other propositions, and so, you have strong epistemic reasons for those alternatives too, making you epistemically justified in doing any of those alternatives.

3 Replies to “Featured Philosopher: Stephanie Leary on “Pluralist Pragmatism”

  1. Stephanie,

    There is something I find extremely confusing about the way people discuss this topic. I think the issue is semantic or syntactic, although you may think it’s metaphysical!

    When you say, okay, here is this epistemic reason R (because it’s a reason to believe that P), and the question is can it be someone’s reason to do A (some action)… It *looks* like there is this property of being an epistemic reason, and R has it, and then we’re asking whether R can be the person’s reason to act. But that can’t be the question, because we *all* think it can — I’m pretty sure I’m an alethist, and I definitely think it can. After all, the fact that R is an epistemic reason doesn’t in any way stop it from being the very same person’s practical reason to do A. (As I think you yourself point out in the “Grounds” paper?) R is just a fact, and that fact could obviously be the very same person’s reason to act in a certain way. (Maybe the fact is: Russ told me the papers are posted on the web site.)

    So I *think* what’s going on is, we don’t have these two properties of facts: being an epistemic reason and being a practical reason. We have two relations (possibly, as you suggest, each a determinate of the same determinable):

    being an epistemic reason (Person, Fact, Do-able)

    and

    being a practical reason (Person, Fact, Do-able).

    Kind of along the lines of Scanlon’s analysis of the logical form and the metaphysics too. And the issue is whether the do-able in the first of those can be an action.

    Does that seem right?

  2. Hi Jamie! Thanks for your comment!

    Ok, so a couple things here. Sometimes people use the term ‘epistemic reason’ and all they mean is a reason for belief. But often when people use ‘epistemic reason’ in this way they are also assuming that alethism is true – that all the reasons for belief there are are the sorts of reasons that are in some way connected to believing the truth and avoiding error. But other people use the term ‘epistemic reason’ to talk about a particular sort of reason for belief – the sorts of reasons that alethists think there are – while at least leaving it open as to whether there are other sorts of reasons for belief (e.g. practical). So, I think that is one source of confusion when talking about epistemic reasons. And I think we should use the term in the second way because it more clearly leaves it an open question whether there are practical reasons for belief.

    And yes, I think you’re absolutely right that the question of whether there are epistemic reasons for action CAN’T be the question of whether a consideration R, which is an epistemic reason for some belief, can also be a reason for action. Because as you point out, that seems like a question to which the answer is obviously yes. (And I see how I stated things too roughly here in a way that suggested that that’s the question.)

    So, one way of thinking about what the question is just as you proposed: that we should think that there are two relations the BEING AN EPISTEMIC REASON FOR relation and the BEING A PRACTICAL REASON FOR relation and then when we ask the question of whether there can be epistemic reasons for action, we’re asking can a fact R bear the BEING AN EPISTEMIC REASON FOR relation to an action (or only to a doxastic attitude)? That’s actually how I used to think about things, except I thought they’re best understood as species of a common genus, rather than determinates of a determinable, for nit-picky metaphysical reasons that I won’t bore people with.

    But then I came around to thinking about things in terms of just one relation – the BEING A REASON FOR relation – which is multiply realizable. So, now the way I think of things is that a fact R, whether it’s a practical or epistemic reason, can bear the BEING A REASON FOR relation to an act or an attitude, but what makes it an epistemic reason vs. a practical reason is not what it’s a reason for, but it’s the ground (what makes it bear the BEING A REASON FOR relation). So, when I ask whether there can be epistemic reasons for action, I’m saying take that particular-epistemic-kind-of fact that grounds R’s BEING A REASON FOR believing p, which makes it an epistemic reason for believing p, and now ask, “can that ground also ground some fact R*’s BEING A REASON FOR doing some action?”

    And I actually think that this second way of thinking about things is really just one way of reframing the first. Because suppose there are two relations: the BEING AN EPISTEMIC REASON FOR and the BEING A PRACTICAL REASON FOR relation. You might think that what it is to bear the BEING AN EPISTEMIC REASON FOR relation is to have the genus property BEING A REASON FOR and the differential property BEING GROUNDED IN THIS-EPISTEMIC-SORT-OF-FACT (and likewise for BEING A PRACTICAL REASON FOR). (In fact that’s the way that I used to frame my “different source view” in an earlier draft of that paper. But then I just decided that presenting it in terms of the one relation seemed cleaner.)

  3. Hey Stephanie! Thanks for the interesting post, and apologies for the late comment. I typed something out last week and pressed POST COMMENT as my plane took off, and the comment was POSTED irretrievably into the aether. So this is my attempt to remember what I said.

    I had a concern about the way you conceive of epistemic reasons. Cards on the table: I’m a bit skeptical of the idea of epistemic reasons for action, if they’re not just reasons to bring about knowledge (a nice state). As I think of epistemic reasons, there isn’t even an open question of whether they could directly favor actions.

    Your gloss:

    R is an epistemic reason for S to A if R indicates that S’s A-ing would make S more likely to believe the truth and avoid error with respect to some proposition p.

    But I worry that this is too broad, since the proposition p doesn’t have to have any connection to A-ing. For Selim Berker-ish reasons, it seems to me that epistemic reasons to believe p have to consist in evidence for p in particular. Suppose a despot offers to shower me with knowledge about whether q if only I’d just believe p. That doesn’t strike me as an epistemic reason to believe p at all.

    If that’s right, then we want a gloss more like this:

    R is an epistemic reason for S to believe p if R indicates that S’s believing p would make S more likely to believe the truth and avoid error with respect to p.

    Where the neutral act of ‘A-ing’ is replaced by ‘believe p’, where ‘p’ is the complement of the attitude verb ‘believe’. But now there is no way to have epistemic reasons for action. Action verbs don’t typically have propositional complements; there isn’t any proposition in ‘go to the store’ that I could gain or receive evidence for. That’s why I think there’s something funny about the idea of an epistemic reason to go to the store.

    Anyway, that’s what I remember from my lost comment. Thanks again for the thought-provoking post!

Comments are closed.