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According to the phenomenal conservative, our beliefs are justified by non-doxastic states we might speak of as ‘appearances’ or ‘seemings’. It is said that it is self-defeating to deny phenomenal conservatism (PC) and that the view accommodates certain internalist intuitions. Against this, I shall argue that the self-defeat argument fails, the view engenders a crude kind of cultural relativism, and that PC does not accommodate any internalist intuitions we should try to accommodate.
Consider the principle of phenomenal conservatism: PC: If it seems to you that p, then, in the absence of defeaters, you thereby have at least some degree of justification for believing p (Huemer 2007: 30).1 Someone might think that this formulation of conservatism is preferable to Harman’s (1986: 46) on which believing p gives some reason, albeit a defeasible one, to believe p. A modified version of one of Foley’s (1983) examples shows that we shouldn’t think that believing p is a pro tanto reason for believing p.2 Suppose that years after a trial in which you sat as a member of the jury, you believe that the man who stood accused of the crime was guilty. Because it has been years since the trial, the details of the case are now quite foggy. God comes down for a chat and the conversation
1 Huemer thinks that the justificatory status of a belief strongly supervenes on the facts in virtue of which things seem to you the way that they do so the defeaters that threaten a belief’s justificatory status cannot be inaccessible to you and defeat the belief’s justification while remaining inaccessible to you. 2 Vahid (2004: 102) usefully distinguishes between perseverance and generation conservatism. Perserverance conservatism he understands as the view that one should stop believing once one positively believes the reasons for believing are no good. Generation conservatism is instead the view that says that acceptance is itself sufficient for there being a justification for continued belief. While Harman sometimes speaks as if he endorses the view that beliefs generate or provide a pro tanto reason, he seems more concerned with defending the view that by believing p, there is a defeasible justification for continued acceptance. It’s unclear whether Harman is more concerned with defending the apparently weaker view that we have the right to believe in the absence of negative judgments about one’s own reasons or the stronger view that there is something that ‘counts in favor’ of a belief simply in virtue of the belief’s being held. Phenomenal conservatism does not fit neatly into Vahid’s taxonomy because the phenomenal conservative seems to deny generation conservatism and is not committed to any of the other principles of conservatism he introduces.
comes around to the trial. ‘Was I right?’, you ask. ‘Won’t say’, says God. God then goes on to say, ‘I’ll let you get a look at all the reasons you had back then for believing that the man was guilty.’ You are now given a list of all the reasons you had originally when you first formed the belief. Looking at them again you now think that they seem equally balanced. It seems odd to suggest that the belief you now hold could be the thing that tips the balance if it remained in place. According to phenomenal conservatism (PC), it is non-doxastic states we can describe as ‘appearances’ or ‘seemings’ that provide the justification for beliefs. When it seems to you that p because of perception, introspection, memory, or intuition, the states that you avow by saying ‘It appears/seems to me that p’ are what provide justification for belief. According to PC, beliefs break no ties and provide no reasons without non-doxastic appearances supporting these beliefs. If you think, as seems plausible, that you were rational to believe just on the basis of memory prior to God’s visit that the guy was guilty, this is consistent with PC. The justification derived from its seeming that he was guilty because of a memory impression. If it seems after God’s visit that you cannot rationally believe that the guy was guilty, this too is consistent with PC because the seemings that contribute to the justification of your beliefs are now equally balanced.3 Perhaps as conservative views go, phenomenal conservatism really is phenomenal. It is one thing to say that it is preferable to other conservative views, however, and quite another to say there is good reason to endorse it. In this paper, I shall explain why the case for PC is not persuasive and show that it does not give us an adequate account of the justification of our beliefs. My focus will be on the justification of our moral judgments.4 In the paper’s final section, I shall explain why PC does not accommodate any of the internalist intuitions we ought to accommodate. PC might be a decent account of rational belief, but it cannot give us an adequate account of justified belief.
THE SELF-DEFEAT ARGUMENT
What reason is there for accepting PC if we’re not already enamored with conservatism? One of Huemer’s main arguments is not an argument that PC is true, but instead an argument for thinking
3 McGrath (2007) argues for conservatism that treats memory impressions as sources of justification or reasons on the grounds that that conservatism offers a better account of these sorts of cases than evidentialist accounts of justification and preservationist accounts of memorial justification. He doesn’t endorse phenomenal conservatism across the board, but thinks that PC gets this case right and thereby enjoys a serious advantage over rival views. 4 For critical discussion of PC and the justification of perceptual belief, see Markie (2005).
that it would be self-defeating to deny it. The argument purports to show that it would be selfdefeating to not accept PC in light of certain considerations. Here it is: (1) (2) When you form beliefs, your beliefs are based on the way things seem to you. If your belief about p is based on something that does not constitute a source of justification for believing p, then your belief about p is not justified. (C1) No belief is justified unless you may have a justification for believing p in virtue of its seeming to you that p (Huemer 2001, 2007). Huemer then adds: (3) If you deny PC, you do so on the basis of how things seem to you—how they seem intuitively to you. It is supposed to follow that: (C2) Your denial is self-contradictory as it is a denial, inter alia, that the way things seem to you constitutes a justification for the belief you hope to justify (i.e., that PC is false). Does the argument work? I think not. Compare it to this one: (5) Because Don Diego assured her that the dangerous and dishonest Zorro is nowhere around and she believes him, Elena believes she is safe. (6) (C2) It would be self-defeating for Elena to base her beliefs on the word of a man that she believes to be untrustworthy. Elena’s belief that she is safe is unjustified for reasons of self-defeat because she bases it on the word of someone she believes is untrustworthy. This second argument does not establish what it purports to because while Don Diego is Zorro, this is a fact that is obscure to Elena. Her belief will not fail to be justified for reasons having to do with self-defeat because she is cognizant of no connection between Zorro and Don Diego.5
5 Her belief might be unjustified for other reasons. Whatever reasons those might be, they don’t concern us.
The problem is that (6) is false. To fix the argument we would have to replace (6) with: (6’) It would be self-defeating for Elena to believe she is safe basing this belief on the word of a man when she acknowledges that this man’s word is not a source of justification. It is not enough for self-defeat that she have some de dicto attitude that represents the man to whom she speaks as untrustworthy, she needs to identify the man as being untrustworthy. She needs to believe of her way of coming to believe that this way does not confer justification. Replace (6) with (6’) and the argument still won’t work. And the reason that the argument still will not work as an argument for (C2) is that while (6’) isn’t false, it is inapplicable. Elena has no idea that Zorro and Don Diego are one. The same problem arises for Huemer’s self-defeat argument. It’s supposed to address those who won’t accept PC, either those who reject it or those who refuse to accept it having given the matter careful consideration. If you believed both that your beliefs were based entirely on how things seemed to you and you believed that the ways things seemed to you did not provide any degree of justification for your beliefs, your epistemic house would be in disarray. You might have a wide range of beliefs that are unjustified for reasons having to do with self-defeat. But, those who deny PC tend not to believe that their beliefs are based on nothing but the way things seem to them. Without such additional beliefs, the self-defeat argument cannot get off the ground. Maybe this problem can be solved. The phenomenal conservative could convince us that our beliefs are based (at least in part) upon the way things appear to us. Further, they might argue convincingly that facts that can come apart from appearances cannot be part of the basis of our beliefs. Finally, they might argue that facts that are not part of the basis for our beliefs are irrelevant to the justification of our beliefs. In other words, the justification of all our beliefs depends wholly on the ways things seem to us. With this in place, the denial of PC would be selfdefeating, for it would amount to the denial that none of the properties relevant to the justification of our beliefs could provide us with justification for those beliefs. We couldn’t justifiably accept this set of beliefs. Note that what the argument would do now, however, is say that it would be self-defeating to accept a rather large set of claims while also denying PC. It would be self-defeating to deny PC while at the same time insisting that the justification of our beliefs depends entirely on the basis of our beliefs (JB); that the basis of our beliefs consists entirely of how things seem or appear to us
(BS); and that if it seems to us that p, we thereby have some degree of justification for our beliefs (PC). Note that if we give up one of these, our beliefs are no longer self-defeating and the selfdefeat argument gets no traction. I have to confess that I’m somewhat sceptical of some of the elements of this set. I’ll argue that we ought to reject one of the assumptions essential to the success of the self-defeat argument.6 In the next section, I shall argue that we ought to reject PC on the grounds that it commits us to a crude sort of cultural relativism. PC is supposed to give us an account of justified moral belief, and it fails to give us one that is consistent with objectivism. PC commits us to condoning all manner of morally atrocious behavior. It seems to commit us to saying that subjects who have the right (i.e., wrong) sorts of intuitions and are isolated from defeaters act with justification in acting in heinous ways. You cannot consistently say that PC is true while insisting that it’s objectively wrong to engage in acts of terrorism and cannibalism. Once that argument is in place, I think it will be clear what we ought to say to undermine the case for crude cultural relativism. We ought to reject both PC and one of the assumptions underwriting the self-defeat argument against the denial of PC. In the paper’s closing section, I shall suggest somewhat tentatively that there is something that PC is right about even if it’s wrong about the justification of our beliefs.
DO PHENOMENAL CONSERVATIVES CONDONE CANNIBALISM AND TERRORISM?
According to PC, if it seems to you that p, you thereby have some justification for believing p. It doesn’t follow that the belief that p is justified for you if it seems to you that p. According to phenomenal conservatives, this depends on whether there is something in light of which it seems that particular seemings are untrustworthy or whether the seemings that support p are flimsy and wavering. If, however, you have the robust appearance that p and no available reasons to suspect that p is false or appearances are in this sort of case misleading, the belief that p is justified for you if it seems that p. Suppose that it seems intuitively that p is true and you judge that it is accordingly. Let’s suppose that this judgment is a moral judgment, one that is at odds with the moral judgment
6 This is not a mystery novel, so I shall give away the ending. I think we ought to reject JB and think that giving up an analogous view about the justification of action is the key to resisting the argument for the sort of crude relativist view we all know better than to accept. My case for rejecting JB is not just an argument from analogy, but I will not object if the reader finds such an argument compelling.
of another whose intuitions support their judgment that ~p. conservatives say about such cases of conflicting intuition?
What should phenomenal
This all depends on the particulars. Here are some. Suppose you and I have what seems to be a reasonable moral disagreement. You think we oughtn’t eat meat from factory farms. I think it’s permissible. We talk it over and it becomes clear that there is no factual disagreement that underlies our moral disagreement. What we have is, at bottom, a bare difference in moral intuition. Maybe you are caught in the grips of the intuition that while you cannot prevent the evil of animal suffering from coming into the world, you cannot let the evil of animal suffering come through you. I think that if you cannot subtract suffering from the world by abstaining from eating meat, there is no reason not to enjoy the occasional steak. What should the phenomenal conservative say about this sort of case? This is a tricky question. They could say that my intuitions justify me, your intuitions justify you, and we both leave with justified beliefs about the matter. They might instead say that since neither of us can see any reason to discount the intuitions had by the other we might think that this is a kind of case in which the intuitions we have to go on won’t allow us to justifiably come to a conclusion. I can see the phenomenal conservative going either way. These kinds of cases of moral disagreement are tricky. We’ll return to these kinds of cases of disagreement shortly. It’s not clear that such cases give us verdicts that cause trouble for phenomenal conservatism because it’s unclear what the epistemic status of the judgments are in these cases and unclear what PC commits us to saying about such cases. We can change the particulars of the case. I think changing the particulars of the case of disagreement will show that PC is a bit too PC, as it were, because it commits us to a form of moral relativism we shouldn’t take seriously. Think about terrorists and cannibals. I suppose that one reason someone might be a terrorist is that they feel obliged to engage in acts of terrorism. I suppose that one reason someone might be a cannibal is that they have a hankering for human flesh and judge that they should feel free to eat human flesh and brain. I suppose that it’s possible that these judgments are in line with moral intuitions quite unlike those that I have and (hopefully) unlike those that you have.7 Further,
7 Just to make this a bit more vivid, our terrorists might feel that they are on a mission from God that justifies performing actions that involve targeting innocents. They might also think that since we’re God’s property, there is nothing wrong with aiming directly at innocents to serve God. They needn’t think this, and so we cannot simply attribute this moral difference between the
I concede that I have no reason to think that if they are surrounded by those who condone terrorism and cannibalism they will ever acquire a sufficient stock of undermining or overriding defeaters for the phenomenal conservative to say with any plausibility that their abhorrent moral attitudes are anything less than perfectly justified. In case you couldn’t tell, this is a case of moral disagreement because I myself don’t condone either terrorism or cannibalism. I suspect that only cannibals, terrorists, and crude relativists have different moral attitudes. As I suspect that the reader not a cannibal, a relativist, or a crude relativist, the reader will likely agree that if I can show that PC leads to one of these views, we oughtn’t endorse PC. Here’s the argument: (1) If a subject judges that she should Φ and it’s not the case that she should refrain from judging that she should Φ, it’s not the case that the subject shouldn’t Φ.8 (2) There are some subjects whose intuitions suggest that they should feel free to engage in cannibalism or suggest that they are obligated to engage in acts of terrorism, in which case they should judge that she should feel free to engage in cannibalism or judge that she is obligated to engage in acts of terrorism unless the
terrorists and us to a factual disagreement. They could also believe that political ends give overriding reason to perform acts of terrorism and agree that innocent lives have value while having different intuitions about how respect for that value is best expressed. As for the cannibals, it might be that they lack intuitions that suggest that they owe all persons respect and recognize only agent relative reasons for showing respect for some persons. The combination might be that they feel free to eat the flesh of strangers and their moral mistake might not be attributable to any mistaken beliefs about the causal consequences of consuming brains. (As if that might make a difference even if they were right.) 8 What I have in mind here is something akin to Smith’s (1994: 61) practicality requirement on judgments about what ‘should’ be done or would be ‘right’ to do. On this view, there is a necessary, albeit defeasible, connection between judgment and motivation. So as to avoid the difficulties presented by the possibility of the amoralist, the ‘should’ I’m interested in is an all things considered ‘should’ that may or may not be the same thing as the moral ‘should’. My agents make moral judgments, but they are also judging that they should do something all things considered because they do not think that the moral reasons at issue decisively count against their actions or decisively make the case for acting in the way that they intend to act. The kind of irrationality that someone would suffer from if they judged that they should Φ without being motivated to Φ is not like the irrationality that can be attributed to failures in reasoning. It’s rather the kind of irrationality that is typically not grounds for criticizing an agent for failures of reasoning or correctable through better reasoning. It is a failure that arises when practical reason and deliberation cannot exert control over intention and action.
justification provided by their intuitions is defeated by further intuitions or further seemings. (3) If these subjects live in cultures that condone or encourage cannibalism or terrorism, it is unlikely that these subjects will have defeaters in light of which the justification provided by intuition would be overridden or undermined. (C) If a subject lives in a culture that condones or encourages cannibalism or terrorism and has the relevant intuitions, it is permissible if not obligatory for these subjects to engage in the acts of cannibalism or terrorism that they judge they should engage in. The idea behind the argument is this. Given the necessary, albeit defeasible, connection between practical judgments (e.g., judgments about what should be done, what is right to do, etc…) and motivation, unless an agent suffers from some sort of failure of practical control, her judgments about what ought to be done will motivate her to act in accordance with these judgments. Only someone suffering from a disturbing lack of control could satisfy the complex obligation one would be under to judge that Φ-ing should be done while overcoming any motive to Φ. Yet, if we accept that agents can have the kinds of psychological profiles I’ve suggested (i.e., psychological profiles that the phenomenal conservative will either give the subject the right to judge or require the subject to judge that cannibalism or terrorism is either permissible or required), the phenomenal conservative will either have to recognize these odd obligations that require belief and will to part ways or endorse crude relativist views they oughtn’t. As he should, Huemer (2005) rejects this sort of crude relativism apriori. Unless he’s prepared to reject (1), he would have to say that we know apriori that there cannot be subjects of the sort I am imagining. He would have to say that he knows apriori that there cannot be subjects who have robust intuitions that ‘justify’ believing that cannibalism isn’t impermissible or believing that terrorism is obligatory unless they also have psychological states that provide overriding or undermining justification. You can’t say with any plausibility that you have apriori knowledge of such contingent matters. So, what should the phenomenal conservative say? Should they say that moral intuitions can justify moral beliefs, but only if they also happen to correspond to objective moral principles? That looks suspiciously like the view that intuitions can only justify beliefs that
turn out to be correct, a view that looks suspiciously like the denial of phenomenal conservatism.9 Should we instead say that it’s possible for someone to be epistemically obligated to believe that they are under certain moral obligations or free to engage in certain kinds of behavior even if they are forbidden from acting on the beliefs they ought to hold? That seems the only option for PC if PC isn’t going to lend support to the sort of crude relativist view that accepts the conclusion of the argument above. It seems that you must deny (1) to defend PC, but it also seems that (1) isn’t the sort of thing that can sensibly be denied. It seems that if you judge that you ought to Φ and are not suffering some failure of practical rationality you will thereby be motivated to Φ.10 It seems that if you held that (1) is false, you would have to say that while someone ought to have judged that they ought to have Φ’d, or at the very least oughtn’t have refrained from this judgment, they nevertheless were obligated to refrain from Φ-ing. This complex obligation, however, is one that it is impossible to fulfill if you satisfy the conditions necessary for being a practical agent capable of exercising rational control over your actions. Who would believe in such obligations? I don’t know. It’s often said that one of the lessons of the toxin puzzle is that the reasons that bear on whether to Φ bear on whether to intend to Φ.11 It’s because you oughtn’t drink the toxin that you oughtn’t intend to drink the toxin. And, it’s because you know that you oughtn’t drink the toxin that you know you oughtn’t intend to drink it. Owing to the connection between normative judgment and motivation, you cannot just form the intention. To form the intention, you have to engage in the sort of mental misdirection that you must in order to form the normative beliefs in light of which you’d thereby form the ‘prize winning’ intention. If you think this is right, note that
9 Audi (2004) defends the view that ethical intuitions justify because they are grounded in selfevident propositions. Bedke (2008) argues that a liability for this view is that it seems to give us no account of how we could have justification for mistaken moral judgments since self-evident propositions are true. It is not entirely clear to me that this is a liability for Audi’s view. It is often said that ignorance is no excuse. When this is said, it is often refined in the following way. Factual ignorance might excuse, but normative ignorance cannot excuse in the same way because someone who acts from mistaken factual beliefs has not shown themselves willing to act against the kinds of reasons we think are genuine reasons whereas someone who is motivated by a defective conception of the good is willing to act against those things that we value. For discussion, see Duff (1990). 10 Huemer (2005: 161) agrees. He accepts that there is a necessary, albeit defeasible, connection between moral judgment and moral motivation but denies that the Humean theory of motivation on the grounds that he thinks that there is not a desire for each motive. 11 The original presentation of the puzzle is found in Kavka (1983). For discussion of the normative requirements linking belief, intention, and action, see Broome (2001) and Hieronymi (2006).
just as you can’t say that the reasons that bear on whether to Φ are different from the reasons that bear on whether to intend to Φ you have to say that the reasons that bear on whether to judge that you should Φ are just the reasons that bear on whether to intend to do what you judge you should. I can’t assume that everyone draws this lesson from the toxin puzzle, so let me offer a few more points in defense of (1). If you deny (1) while denying crude relativism and we can have moral obligations we would be deeply irrational to try to fulfill. Reject cultural relativism and (1) and it seems we ought to expect two things. First, we should expect that sometimes the correct advice to give someone is of the following form: you must believe that you must Φ but you absolutely mustn’t Φ. Second, if you reject (1) and the crude relativism I’ve claimed is a consequence of PC and we should expect that sometimes questions of the following form should be open: while I know he absolutely must accept that he should Φ rather than Ψ, I wonder if he might be obligated to Ψ instead? I submit that it would be absurd to offer advise such as this. I submit that questions such as this one aren’t open. Finally, let me note that those who deny (1) are committed to a very odd sort of view. In the course of offering positive reasons for endorsing phenomenal conservatism, Huemer remarks that any externalist view such as reliabilism will be committed to denying something he takes to be obvious. He observes that if any externalist view is true, it would be possible for situations to arise in which one had adequate justification for believing p, but not for believing q, when there is nothing available to the subject that could clue them in that this is so. And, it seems that because a subject who treated these attitudes differently knowing that there was no available reason to do so would not be the slightest bit rational for doing so, the externalist view is seriously flawed. He claims, “If one has adequate justification for believing that p and none for believing that q, it follows that one rationally should (or at least may) believe that p while refraining from believing that q” (Huemer 2006: 150). Externalism cannot respect this constraint and so it cannot accommodate the central intuition behind internalism: It is that there cannot be a pair of cases in which everything seems to a subject to be the same in all epistemically relevant respects, and yet the subject ought, rationally, to take different doxastic attitudes in the two cases—for instance, in one case to affirm a proposition and in the other to withhold (2006: 151).
If he were to deny (1) while rejecting the crude relativist’s view, he’d have to recognize cases in which a subject judges she should Φ and a subject judges she should Ψ, even though there is no internal difference that suggests to her that she oughtn’t judge that she should Φ or that she oughtn’t judge that she should Ψ. But, under the scenario where Φ-ing and Ψ-ing differ in deontic status, one is justifiable and the other is not. So, it seems that on Huemer’s view, the agent rationally should not perform an action On the other hand, if he accepts (1), he cannot reject crude moral relativism and phenomenal conservatism cannot respect the internal constraint. In denying (1), the phenomenal conservative would have to accept the possibility of obligations we could not possibly fulfill without exhibiting the deep kind of irrationality one would if one judged that one ought to Φ while Ψ-ing instead of Φ-ing. I think we oughtn’t believe in such obligations, of course, so I think we ought to accept (1). It’s perhaps also worth noting that the internalist intuition that the phenomenal conservative appeals to in the hopes of motivating phenomenal conservatism is itself deeply problematic. Insofar as the positive case for this view consists largely of arguing that PC does a better job accommodating this intuition than rival views, I’d like to argue not only is PC apparently unable to accommodate that intuition insofar as it denies (1), it’s not an intuition we ought to try to accommodate. Think about Sophie’s choice. If we muck with the literary details just a bit, we can say that this is an example in which an agent is under a pair of symmetrical moral requirements such that satisfying one precludes satisfying the other. If you don’t think that a certain kind of deontic dilemma is possible (i.e., one in which an agent can be all things considered obligated to Φ, all things considered obligated to Ψ, but incapable of Φ-ing and Ψ-ing), you might think that the reasoning that satisfactorily resolves this ‘dilemma’ is easy. As there is nothing about either of the two choices available that makes the other all things considered wrong, morality could not condemn you if you chose to Φ or chose instead to Ψ. This choice is in certain respects easier than a moral quandary, a case in which you are certain that there is a uniquely right choice but are having a devil of a time deciding whether the case for Φ-ing or Ψ-ing is decisive.12 Cases of reasonable
12 I’m following Blackburn (1996) in distinguishing a moral quandary from a moral dilemma. We don’t have to believe in dilemmas in the strict sense to believe that there are moral quandaries in which we face a difficult moral decision that cannot be resolved by any reasoning available to us. In essence, what I’m arguing is that the phenomenal conservative will have a difficult time affirming that such things exist and avoiding the traps of saying either that we are obliged to pursue two incompatible courses of action or that there is nothing to get worked up over once we realize that the ‘correct’ response to a quandary cannot be beyond our grasp.
disagreement are often good examples of this. While I might have come to the view that I ought to stay and care for mother rather than run off and join the resistance, those who disagree seem reasonable. They seem reasonable, in part, because I don’t find it hard to imagine how they might have been led to judge that they ought to join the resistance rather than stay home to care for their mother. That both parties conceive of this as a genuine disagreement, however, suggests that while they might be uncertain as to which option is the option we are obliged to take we are most certain that there is an option we are obliged to pursue. If they thought of this as a symmetric case akin to Sophie’s dilemma, it seems they wouldn’t think there was something there to miss that rationalized thinking hard about what is to be done. What is the phenomenal conservative to make of such a case? As I said earlier, it’s difficult to say. But, it’s clear, I think, that they shouldn’t endorse this sort of reasoning: (4) We both know that we both know that there is not some option that is rationally compulsory to regard as obligatory. (5) If we know that we know that there is not some option that is rationally compulsory to regard as obligatory, it’s not the case that we are obligated to Φ and it’s not the case that we are obligated to Ψ. Among the reasons that the phenomenal conservative doesn’t want to say such reasoning is acceptable is that our agents are more certain that it’s not the case that: (6) Neither Φ-ing nor Ψ-ing is uniquely right. To avoid having to say that this case is not a quandary (i.e., a case in which it is rational to agonize over the details even when it seems there is no reasoning available that could justify picking one option over the other) and to avoid saying that there could be no uniquely required course of action, the phenomenal conservative should say that there’s some unique option that’s obligatory even if it cannot be rationally identifiable as such. So, it’s not the case that we even ought to aspire to accommodate the internalist intuition. We’ve covered a fair amount of ground, so let me briefly sum up. An argument suggests that the phenomenal conservative is either committed to saying that we know on apriori grounds that agents never have the psychological profiles my imagined cannibals and terrorists have or must accept a crude sort of cultural relativism that would force us to condone the behavior of cannibals
and terrorists as being permissible if not obligatory. It seems that the crucial assumption in that argument, (1), is an assumption we have independent reason to accept. Moreover, denying it would lead the phenomenal conservative to recognize a kind of obligation we are rationally forbidden from believing in and trying to fulfill. No view can recognize such obligations while accommodating the internalist intuition that is offered as the positive reason for endorsing PC. I think it’s clear that if phenomenal conservatives are committed to the sort of moral epistemology that it seems they are, phenomenal conservatism is no more defensible than crude relativism. It’s clear that something has gone wrong for the phenomenal conservative, and if we think a bit about the justification of action I think we’ll see where the view gets into trouble. Recall from the section previous I pointed out that the self-defeat argument for PC relied on two claims: that the justification of our beliefs depends entirely on the basis of our beliefs (JB); that the basis of our beliefs consists entirely of how things seem or appear to us (BS). Anyone who wants to reject the sort of argument I’ve offered for relativism above would probably want to say that when it came to the justification of action we would not accept the practical analogues of JB and BS: that the justification of our actions depends entirely on the basis of our actions (JBA); that the basis of our actions consists entirely of how things seem or appear to us (ABS). We know how things seem to the terrorists and the cannibals and when they try to justify their actions we simply do not care that no matter how long we rummage around in their motivational set we cannot find overriding reasons they accept not to engage in cannibalistic or terroristic acts. We do not care that we cannot find reasons they now accept that undermine the justifications they offer for their repugnant moral beliefs. It’s because terrorism and cannibalism are wrong that nothing they can draw from their subjective motivational states can give a justification for this sort of conduct. We know full well that there were reasons that spoke against their actions and that he feeble reasons they offer in the hopes to show that the case in favor of cannibalism and terrorism was sufficient to justify their actions could do no such thing. So, while it might be that reasons to Φ only justify Φ-ing if they are motivationally efficacious, reasons not to Φ can threaten the justification offered for Φ-ing even if they are motivationally inert. If reasons not to Φ can get their ‘normative work’ done by removing permissions and setting the justificatory standards it would take for there to be a sufficient case for Φ-ing without playing any motivational role in the agent’s psychology, why think that these sorts of reasons have to be found in the agent’s psychology at all? Why not think that they can be found in the facts found in the situation regardless of whether the agent is aware of them or not?
If we’re prepared to say that objective moral standards determine whether an agent’s actions can be justified and the most the agent can hope to do by telling us about what led him to act is an excuse or exemption, we have to reject JBA if we are to retain ABS. And, if we are to reject JBA while accepting (1), we have to reject JB as well. Maybe nothing counts towards the justification of a belief unless it is part of the reasons for which the agent believes, but maybe something counts against the justification of a belief even if it is not part of the subject’s basis for believing. Perhaps it needn’t even be part of the subject’s psychology. I know that as soon as you say that external facts or conditions can prevent an individual’s belief from being justified even if those facts or conditions are obscure to a believer, epistemologists with internalist sympathies will object that such conditions matter only to things like warrant or knowledge. However, it seems that anyone who is going to think of justification in deontological or normative terms will think that the justification of action depends, in part, upon whether an action conforms to objective moral norms. If (1) is true and practical justification depends on conformity to objective moral norms, it seems that we have to say that the justification of belief also depends on external matters. To those who say that facts obscure to an agent can never have any bearing on the justification of a belief, I’ll offer this for consideration. In cases of reasonable moral disagreement, there is often a fact that is obscure to parties to such disagreements, and it is the fact that one duty is more stringent than a conflicting duty. Saying that there can be such facts that bear on the permissibility of action seems to be the price you pay if you want to say that there are objective facts of the matter about which of two competing duties is stronger. If such facts have normative significance even when they are obscure to an agent, why can’t this very fact have normative significance for this subject’s judgments about which of the two competing duties to fulfill?
I realize that many if not most epistemologists are caught in the grips of internalist intuitions that suggest that there cannot be much distance between the conditions that determine whether our beliefs are justified and the conditions that determine what our perspectives on the world are like. This is not the place to argue that such intuitions are not to be trusted, but I worry that the arguments I’ve offered will be dismissed by those who see them as appealing to considerations only the externalists would accept. Maybe phenomenal conservatism isn’t the right account of
justification, you might be thinking, but surely something in the neighborhood of it is? At the very least, isn’t there something the phenomenal conservative might be right about? Perhaps there is. Phenomenal conservatism is, I submit, not the right theory of justified belief. There must be more to the justification of our beliefs than the phenomenal conservative says, because there must be more to the justification of our actions than the crude cultural relativists say, and the crude sort of relativism we rightly reject can only be rejected by phenomenal internalists who say that the judgments we can be epistemically required to make about our obligations could fail to correspond to actual obligations. They cannot consistently appeal to the intuition that all obligations are rationally identifiable as such as theirs is a view that clashes dramatically with this intuition unless we concede that the crude relativists are right about what our obligations are. Perhaps what the phenomenal conservative ought to aspire to is a theory of epistemic rationality, rather than justification. The distinction between the rational and the justified is one that many epistemologists put little stock in. According to Cohen, ‘reasonable’ and ‘rational’ are just synonyms for ‘justified’ (1984). I can see that for some purposes, little could turn on distinguishes the justified beliefs from the rational beliefs. From the inside, they look very similar. Of course, the same can be said for belief, truth, true belief, knowledge, and mistaken belief. From an external perspective, there might be good reason to distinguish these concepts. If we venture a bit outside of epistemology, justifications are often contrasted with excuses in the following way. To offer a justification for someone’s behavior (e.g., when there was something prima facie wrongful about the behavior) is to show that in spite of the criticism we might make of that behavior, it was nevertheless right. To offer an excuse, we do not aspire to show that the action was right, but that the wrongness of the action does not give us any reason to blame the agent or believe that the agent is properly held accountable for the wrongdoing. Where does ‘rationality’ fit into this picture? Can the conscientious moral agent fail to act with justification without being irrational? If so, it seems that on the practical side, rational actions are either excusable actions or somewhere in between the justified and excused. For what it’s worth, I think it’s clear that we can fail to act without justification without being less than fully rational or reasonable. Think about cases of reasonable moral disagreement. These seem like clear cases in which one of two agents might fail to act with justification. Forced to choose between staying at home or joining the resistance, two agents might come to different
conclusions, there might be some ‘fact of the matter’ as to which obligation is more pressing, yet it seems we would not want to say that either decision was less than fully rational or reasonable. We can say that whichever agent failed to identify the overriding obligation, they are excused because they did all that could be reasonably expected in trying to identify it. In the context of the larger debate between the externalists and internalists, I think the internalists can concede everything I’ve said in the previous sections and say that what they really want to offer is an account of epistemic rationality, an account of the rationally held belief. They often say this, but aspire to do more, saying that in offering an account of the rationally held belief they have thereby offered an adequate account of justified belief.13 I think they are overreaching. I also think they run the risk of being uncharitable to externalists if they thought that externalists such as Goldman (1986) were aspiring to offer an account of rationality in suggesting that justification requires reliability. No one thinks that you are irrational for believing p merely because an unreliable process produced the belief. Let me conclude by noting some of the oddities that arise if you insist that rational Φ-ing and justified Φ-ing amount to the same thing. If I’m right and cases of reasonable moral disagreement are cases in which someone’s Φ-ing can be both rational and impermissible, those who identify the rational and the justified have to say that the justified action falls short of some normative status. What normative status could it be? In the course of defending what he calls a ‘deontological’ theory of justification, Steup (1999) says that the justified belief is the belief that it’s not the case that you ought to drop and identifies the justified belief with the rational belief. He then concedes (1999: 383, n. 5) that carving up things his way, we might have to distinguish justification from rightness. He’s just bucked the trend since ethicists use the concept of rightness to explain the distinction between excuse and justification. That would be find if there was some gain to doing things different. But, does it really make any sense to distinguish justification from rightness? I don’t think so, and I think it’s evident that it doesn’t make sense to do this having identified justification with permissibility. For on his view, we now have to distinguish rightness from permissibility. The questions ‘I know this is what I should do, but is it right?’ and ‘I know this is right, but should I do it?’ do not make a bit of sense to me. Alternatively, someone might say that justification and rationality both fall short of rightness and permissibility. This seems to be the thing you are committed to if you insist that there is more
13 For a recent example of this, see Langsam (2008).
to rational belief and action than excusable belief and action.14 Some authors say that there must be more to rational action than mere excusable action and point to examples such as those involving temporary insanity to illustrate the difference. While I don’t think it’s clearly an abuse of the language to say that infants and insane individuals ought to be excused for their behavior, I do think it is a bit off to suggest that they ought to be excused for engaging in wrongdoing. Better, I think, to say that we offer denials of responsibility and reserve excuses for something else. At any rate, if you think of cases of temporary insanity, how are you going to classify the case of reasonable moral disagreement? If you say that the person who acts on reasonable but mistaken judgment about which reasons are overriding and acts against the overriding reason is to be excused, it now looks like the excusable is a gerrymandered category. I can see that we shouldn’t blame infants or the insane. I can see that we shouldn’t blame either the youth that stay home or the youth that join the resistance even if only one gets things right. I can’t see there being much that unites the pleas we offer on behalf of all of these individuals that would warrant our conceptualizing these pleas all under the single heading of ‘excuse’. Note that if we don’t think that the parties to the disagreement are being reasonable but can be reasonable, we don’t think an excuse is even in order. But, if we won’t say that they are excused in light of their non-culpable ignorance, are we going to say that a justification should be offered instead of an excuse? That seems like an odd suggestion. For presumably the point of offering a justification is to establish that in spite of any possible conflicts among the reasons, the action being justified will serve some undefeated reason. But, we’ve conceded that in cases of reasonable moral disagreement, the reasonable action and belief can fail to serve such a reason. I have a hard time seeing the merits of such a view when it seems we know full well that three things are true. First, our judgments about rationality are sensitive to judgments about whether there were flaws in an agent’s reasoning. Second, judgments about justification are sensitive to judgments about which reasons truly won out. Third, the proper application of reason and correct reasoning is no guarantee that we will always identify whether the reasons before us contain one that overrides the others or which one is the overriding reason. Combined, this suggests that the rational action and belief is not necessarily thereby the justified
14 Both Audi (1997) and Wedgwood (2002) insist on drawing a distinction between the rational and the excusable. Audi offers examples of brain manipulation as examples where an excuse is appropriate and Wedgwood points to examples of temporary insanity as an example of an excuse. I think both are better classified as ‘denials of responsibility’. For defense, see Gardner (2007).
action or belief.
And, so even if we insist that the phenomenal conservative’s account of
justification is flawed, we might allow that they offer the beginnings of an account of rational belief.
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Steup, M. 1999. A Defense of Internalism. In L. Pojman (ed.), The Theory of Knowledge. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Vahid, H. 2004. Varieties of Epistemic Conservatism. Synthese 141: 97-122. Wedgwood, R. 2002. Internalism Explained. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 65: 349-69.
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