I’ve been thinking over the past few months about the notion of epistemic obligations and permissions, and will record a few thoughts here. There’s also a quite nice discussion going on at TAR about the subject, prompted by Roger White’s piece in the new Philosophical Perspectives.
Quite a few epistemologists think we have intellectual obligations regarding what to believe. I won’t object here to the idea that there are intellectual obligations, but what interests me more is the idea of epistemic permissions. In particular, I’m interested in the restrictive view that limits permissions to obligations, that (purely intellectual) permission can’t outrun obligation. Such a view would seem to be at a disadvantage, since the concepts of permission and obligation do not usually coincide. How fast you are legally permitted to drive is usually faster than the speed you are legally obligated to drive; your moral permissions vastly outstrip your moral obligations, etc.
What interests me about the restrictive view is what the view is, precisely, and what a theory of evidence will have to look like for the view to look plausible. Here I’ll comment on the first, and maybe get to the second point in another post. The goal I’m aiming for is to show that nobody holds the restrictive view.
So first a bit about the logic of the restrictive view. If we let P be an operator having to do with permissibility, O with obligatoriness, and F with forbiddenness, with psychological attitudes operators B and W (for belief and withholding) and a variable A ranging over these attitudes, the restrictive view wishes to endorse:
RV: P(Ap) iff O(Ap).
First, a bit of review of some axioms we’ll need in order to see whether a proposal counts as a version of the restrictive view (i.e., whether it is committed to RV). First, every view needs to start here:
Axiom 1a: P(Ap) iff ~F(Ap).
That is, permissibility needs to be understood in terms of failure of forbiddenness. One more that everyone should agree to:
Axiom 2a: O(Bp) iff F(B~p) & F(Wp).
That is, obligation to believe should be understood to involve the forbiddenness of disbelieving or withholding. To complete our explanation of the O operator, we can add:
Axiom 2b: O(Wp) iff F(Bp) & F(B~p).
Two final ones. First, if one attitude is forbidden, then one of the other two must be permissible:
Axiom 3b: F(Bp) only if P(B~p) v P(Wp).
Axiom 3b: F(Wp) only if P(Bp) v P(B~p).
(One interesting fact: if RV is true, then these ‘only ifs’ can be replaced by ‘iffs’.)
Finally, it can’t be permissible to both believe and disbelieve the same claim:
Axiom 4: ~(P(Bp) & P(B~p)).
(I have some doubts about this one, but it is so standardly assumed that I’ll use it below.)
The obvious way to endorse RV is to adopt the standard interpretation of the operators above. Doing so yields the claim that for every proposition, one must take one, and only one, of three attitudes toward it: belief, disbelief, or withholding. This is obvious enough, I think, but here’s a proof just for the fun of it.
Proof: Either the attitude is forbidden or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then it is permissible and hence obligatory. If it is forbidden, then there are only two attitudes left, and our proof requires three branches, depending on what is forbidden. Start with believing. If believing is forbidden, then what about disbelieving? If it isn’t forbidden, then it is permissible and hence obligatory; if it is forbidden, then only withholding remains and is obligatory by 2b. The argument when we start with disbelieving mirrors this one, so we can turn to withholding as the last possibility. If withholding isn’t forbidden, then it is permissible and hence obligatory. So it must be forbidden. But if withholding is forbidden, then either believing or disbelieving have to be permissible, by Axiom 3, and whichever one it is, it is obligatory. Hence, as advertised, the simple interpretation of the operators in RV requires that one hold one and only one attitude toward every proposition.
That view is, of course, crazy: it demands way too much of us to be plausible at all. A more plausible view is that for every proposition one considers, there is only one permitted attitude to take toward it. That’s a pretty restrictive view, but not one that identifies epistemic obligations and permissions. It leaves room for obligation and permission to come apart for propositions one has not considered.
Here’s something close to Roger White’s proposal: for every proposition, if you take any attitude toward it, there is only one permitted attitude to take (among those we’re discussing here). Is this view a restrictive view? Again, I think not. Take all the claims toward which you take no attitude. This view leaves open the possibility that permissions and obligations come apart here.
Notice the interpretations I’ve given of these last two proposals place the obligation operator in the consequent of a conditional. Perhaps a more charitable reading is to place the obligation operator out front, governing a conditional. But what conditional would it be? The antecedents are clear–either “propositions you consider” or “propositions you take an attitude toward”–but what is the consequent? Perhaps, for example, this: it ought to be the case that, if you take an attitude toward p then that attitude is the one and only attitude dictated by your total evidence.
There are two points to note about such a proposal. First, putting the obligation operator out front has a logical cost. Suppose you take an attitude toward p. If the obligation operator is only out front, we can’t infer anything about whether the attitude is appropriate. To do that, we need a principle with the operator on the consequent of a conditional.
Second, note the language of the consequent: the attitude dictated by the totality of one’s evidence. If there is such an attitude dictated in this way, then shouldn’t we be endorsing the simple account of RV above? Of course, we can’t, since that view places ridiculous demands on us. Yet, if we think the consequent of the conditional is necessarily false, we can’t use that conditional to explain the view in question.
In short, I doubt that anyone holds the restrictive view. Instead, some views are more restrictive than others. For example, what we might call experimentalists think that experience rarely speaks with singular clarity about what to believe, so that there is (almost) always rational optionality in one’s doxastic responses to experience. The alternative thinks of experience as placing more of a straightjacket on rational responses. How much more is where the action is, since the truly restrictive view–the view that collapses the logical distinction between epistemic permissions and epistemic obligations–is so hopelessly mistaken that no one should be tempted by it.