Contemporary Epistemology
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Contemporary Epistemology

An Anthology

Ernest Sosa, Jeremy Fantl, Matthew McGrath, Ernest Sosa, Jeremy Fantl, Matthew McGrath

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eBook - ePub

Contemporary Epistemology

An Anthology

Ernest Sosa, Jeremy Fantl, Matthew McGrath, Ernest Sosa, Jeremy Fantl, Matthew McGrath

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About This Book

A rigorous, authoritative new anthology which brings together some of the most significant contemporary scholarship on the theory of knowledge

Carefully-calibrated and judiciously-curated, this strong and contemporary new anthology builds upon Epistemology: An Anthology, Second Edition (Wiley Blackwell, 2008) by drawing a concise and well-balanced selection of higher-level readings from a large, diverse, and evolving body of research.

  • Includes 17 readings that represent a broad and vital part of contemporary epistemology, including articles by female philosophers and emerging thought leaders
  • Organized into seven thoughtful and distinct sections, including virtue epistemology, practical reasons for belief, and epistemic dysfunctions among others
  • Designed to sit alongside the highly-successful anthology of canonical essays, Epistemology: An Anthology, Second Edition (Wiley Blackwell, 2008)
  • Edited by a distinguished editorial team, including Ernie Sosa, one of the most influential active epistemologists
  • Highlights cutting edge methodologies and contemporary topics for advanced students, instructors, and researchers

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Part I
The Ethics of Belief


In 1877, the mathematician William Clifford published “The Ethics of Belief” in which he argued that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Clifford’s contention concerned the morality of belief on insufficient evidence; just as actions can be morally wrong, beliefs can be morally wrong, as well. Furthermore, it was because actions could be morally wrong that beliefs could be morally wrong. Belief, Clifford thought, was partly characterized by a willingness to act in ways suggested by those beliefs. So for the actions based on those beliefs to be morally wrong, the beliefs would have to share in that wrongness. If the believer is blameworthy for the actions based on the beliefs, they can also be blameworthy for the beliefs themselves.
When contemporary epistemologists talk about the ethics of belief, they not only have in mind the moral wrongness of belief, but an epistemic wrongness, as well. While Clifford thought that beliefs (and believers) could be morally blameworthy, many contemporary epistemologists think that beliefs and believers can be epistemically blameworthy – blameworthy in a distinctively intellectual or epistemic way. But whether it’s epistemic or moral blameworthiness at issue, the view that beliefs and believers can be blameworthy is subject to a central worry: it doesn’t look like beliefs can be blameworthy, because it doesn’t look like believers are in control of their beliefs.
The view that people can control their beliefs is sometimes referred to as “doxastic voluntarism.” A majority of philosophers think that doxastic voluntarism is false. They point, for example, to the obvious difficulty of, while situated in a well‐lit room, choosing to believe that the lights are off. Furthermore, some argue, a plausible control condition on blameworthiness has it that you can only be blamed for something if you can voluntarily choose to do it. It follows that believers can only be blamed for their beliefs if they can choose what to believe.
This is the central contention of William Alston in the selection reprinted here. Alston argues against what he calls a “deontological conception of justification.” According to the deontological conception, justified belief is a matter of believing blamelessly – of believing as one ought. But, argues Alston, on the deontological conception of justification, we only have justified (or unjustified) beliefs if we are in control of those beliefs. And, he argues, we aren’t. We lack direct (or, in his word, “basic”) immediate control over our beliefs – the kind we have over simple movements, like raising our arm. And the kinds of long‐term, non‐basic control we might have over our beliefs is not sufficient to ground a robust deontological conception of justification.
Richard Feldman is more sympathetic toward a deontological conception of justification, though he does not think that we have the kind of control over our beliefs that Alston seems to require. Instead, Feldman argues that there is a natural deontological conception of justification that doesn’t require satisfaction of a control condition. According to Feldman, there is a range of obligations that accrue to us in virtue of our occupying certain roles. For example, parents might have certain obligations to take care of their children, etc. Feldman calls these obligations “role oughts.” Importantly, we might fail to satisfy role oughts even though we can’t help but do so. This, argues Feldman, does not get us off the hook; if our role demands certain acts of us, and we don’t do them, then we don’t do as we ought, regardless of whether we could have.
According to Feldman, one of our roles is believer. As believers, there are certain obligations we accrue. Though Feldman doesn’t want to take a stand in this paper on the nature of those obligations, we know from his other work what he thinks the primary – indeed, the only – doxastic obligation is: to believe what fits the evidence. This is an obligation whether or not you’re able to believe what fits the evidence or can control whether or not you believe what fits the evidence. If you can’t believe what fits the evidence, then you can’t believe in accord with your duty, and you have failed to fulfill the duties of a believer.

Further Reading

  1. Clifford, William. (1886). The ethics of belief. In: Lectures and Essays. Macmillan.
  2. Firth, Roderick. (1978). Are epistemic concepts reducible to ethical concepts? In: Values and Morals (ed. Alvin Goldman and Jaegwon Kim), 215−29. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  3. James, William. (1979). The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Vol. 6). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Ryan, Sharon. (2003). Doxastic compatibilism and the ethics of belief. Philosophical Studies 114: 47−79.
  5. Wolterstorff, Nicholas. (1996). John Locke and the Ethics of Belief (No. 2). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Deontological Desiderata

William Alston

i. Preliminaries*

I now begin the detailed treatment of the items on my initial list of alleged epistemic desiderata. I will be concerned with clarification of the nature of each desideratum, how it should be construed. Where there are serious questions as to the viability of an item, those will be addressed. I discuss the deontological group first because it gives rise to crucial problems about viability, as a result of which I postponed consideration of it in Chapter 3 until and unless they can be resolved.
Here are the deontological candidates for epistemic desiderata of belief (B) that were listed in Chapter 3.
  1. B is held permissibly (one is not subject to blame for doing so).
  2. B is formed and held responsibly.
  3. The causal ancestry of B does not contain violations of intellectual obligations.
First a word about my terminology. ‘Deontology’ and ‘deontological’ come from the Greek deon – ‘what is binding’ or ‘duty’. In ethics, deontology is the study of duty or obligation, and a deontological theory of ethics is one that takes duty or obligation to be the most basic ethical concept and treats it as an intrinsic ethical value of an act rather than in terms of the consequences of the act. My use is broader. I use it to range over any kind of requirement, not restricted to moral obligation, and not excluding requirements that are based on consequences of what is required. And I identify deontological considerations as having to do with the triad of statuses – required, forbidden, and permitted. Thus any way in which it would be epistemically desirable (desirable from the standpoint of an aim at true belief) for a belief to be required or permitted (i.e., not forbidden) would count as a deontological desideratum in my terminology.
Back to the above list, I think it will suffice to concentrate on 9 and 11. Each of these can be construed as focusing on something’s being permitted, not being in violation of any intellectual requirements. Desideratum 9 is matter of the having or the acquiring of the belief being permitted. Desideratum 11 is a matter of the permissibility or lack thereof of what one did that led to the acquisition of the belief. Although 10, the formation in terms of responsibility, is familiar in the literature, I think it is ambiguous between 9 and 11 and so does not require separate treatment. The basic difference between 9 and 11 is what is said to be permitted – either the believing itself or what led up to it. Thus, to foreshadow a major point in the ensuing discussion, 9 gives rise to problems about voluntary control of belief whereas 11 does not.
I have already pointed out […] that it is plausible to suppose that ‘justified’ came into epistemology from its more unproblematic use with respect to voluntary action. I am justified in doing something, for example, appointing someone to a Teaching Assistantship on my own, provided my doing so is in accordance with the relevant rules and regulations, provided it is permitted by those rules and hence that I could not rightfully be blamed or held to account for it, and was acting responsibly in doing so.1 The rules could be institutional, as in the above example, or legal or moral. Thus I would be morally justified in failing to make a contribution to a certain organization provided my doing so doesn’t violate any moral rule. Because of this provenance it is natural to think of believing, when taken to be subject to being justified or unjustified, as subject to requirement, prohibition, and permission. We say things like “You shouldn’t have supposed so readily that he would not return”, “You have no right to assume that”, “You shouldn’t jump to conclusions”, and “I ought to have trusted him more than I did”. Locutions like these seem to be interchangeable with speaking of a belief as being, or not being, justified. These considerations were introduced in this book prior to the abandonment of a justification‐based epistemology of belief, and in the new dispensation they have no force. Since we are thinking of 9 and 11 simply as states of affairs that are, or may be thought to be, important goals of cognition, the fact that they have often been thought to constitute a belief’s being justified, with all the associations that brings from talk of the justification of actions, has lost whatever meta‐epistemological significance it had under the old dispensation. The idea of a belief’s being required, permitted, or forbidden will have to swim or sink on its own, without support from the etymology of ‘justified’. I will now enter onto the elucidation of 9 and a critical discussion of its credentials as an epistemic desideratum. The criticism will mostly hinge on whether we have effective voluntary control of believings. I will argue that we do not.
It seems clear that the terms of the deontological triad, permitted, required, and forbidden, apply to something only if it is under effective voluntary control. By the time‐honored principle “Ought implies can”, one can be obliged to do A only if one has an effective choice as to whether to do A. It is equally obvious that it makes no sense to speak of S’s being permitted or forbidden to do A if S lacks an effective choice as to whether to do so. Therefore, the most fundamental issue raised by the claim of 9 to be an epistemic desideratum is whether believings are under effective voluntary control. If they are not and hence if deontological terms do not apply to them, alleged epistemic desiderata like 9 do not get so far as to be a candidate for an epistemic desideratum. It suffers shipwreck before leaving port. I will argue that believings are not subject to voluntary control. But before that, there are some preliminary points to be made.
First, if I considered the possibility of deontological ED for beliefs to...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Table of Contents
  3. Preface
  4. Part I: The Ethics of Belief
  5. Part II: Practical Reasons for Belief?
  6. Part III: Reliance
  7. Part IV: Epistemic Dysfunctions
  8. Part V: Virtue Epistemology
  9. Part VI: Disagreement
  10. Part VII: Permissivism About Belief ?
  11. Index
  12. End User License Agreement