It is officially Spring Break for us at SMU and while my students party on islands so exclusive their names are unknown to me, I’ll be heading to Oklahoma for the Epistemic Goodness Conference. I’m not jealous, by the way. Riggs and Pritchard have put together what promises to be a really exciting conference and I won’t have to worry about sunburn. I thought I’d do a quick post on something that I’ll be discussing next Saturday.
In old paper of Richard Feldman’s (‘Subjective and Objective Justification in Ethics and Epistemology’), he stakes out a view concerning the relationship between the justification of belief and action that I’d like to discuss here. In criticizing some recent work on ‘actionable intelligence’ (e.g., Neta’s forthcoming proposal about when it’s permissible to treat something as a reason for action and a similar view defended by Fantl and McGrath in their forthcoming book), I’ve worked from the assumption that considerations that bear on the justification of action bear on the justification of beliefs about the justification of that action. If because of certain facts, someone cannot justifiably A, I’ve claimed that these very facts prevent someone from justifiably believing that they must A. (And, of course, whatever it is that ensures that your belief that you must A is justified will thereby provide an adequate justification for the intention to act in accordance with this judgment as well as the action itself.) Feldman thinks this isn’t right.
Concerning the justification of action, he writes:
With regard to ethical justification, it is clear that there are cases in which what is moderately subjectively justified differs from what is objectively justified. Such cases occur when a person has reasonable but incorrect beliefs about what action is morally best. One may have reasonable but incorrect beliefs about what the consequences of an action will be or about the values of correctly identified consequences. In such cases, one may have a good reason to believe that an action is best when it actually is not best. Thus, there can be actions that are subjectively justified, but are not objectively justified (1988: 415).
Concerning the justification of belief, however, he insists, “all subjectively justified beliefs are also objectively justified.” This isn’t because he has an unforgiving account of subjectively justified belief on which someone can fail to have subjectively justified beliefs even if they are unaware of that which prevents their beliefs from being justified. Instead, he thinks that whatever it is that ensures that our beliefs are subjectively justified will thereby ensure that our beliefs are objectively justified. Here’s his argument:
Whenever one is [moderately] subjectively justified in believing p, then one is objectively justified in believing that one’s reasons for believing p are good ones. But then the evidence for this [second-order] belief together with the reasons for thinking that those are good reasons constitute an objectively good reason for believing p. Hence … moderate subjective justification implies objective justification (1988: 416).
There’s a bit of jargon here that I should explain. Feldman distinguishes between two kinds of subjective justification. If you believe that you are objectively justified in A-ing, this is a kind of subjective justification but not one that is all that interesting. If you have evidence or good reasons to believe this, this is a more interesting kind of subjective justification and we can say that when you have this your belief is moderately subjectively justified.
If Feldman’s view is correct, I can’t say that because S’s A-ing is beyond justification, S’s believing that she must A is also beyond justification. That’s too bad because I like to say this. Here’s what I don’t get. The argument I’ve sketched here is an argument that there’s no gap between moderate subjective justification and objective justification for belief. If successful, why shouldn’t a parallel argument erase the (alleged) distinction between subjective and objective justification of action?
If you say, as Feldman does, that there’s a gap between objective and subjective justification for action but not belief, then it seems that if you think of justification in deontological terms (i.e., it’s never permissible to act/believe without justification and permissible always to act/believe with justification) you have to deny (at least) one of these two principles:
Detox: If you intend to A and it’s not the case that you shouldn’t so intend, it’s not the case that you shouldn’t A.
Krasia: If you believe you should A and it’s not the case that you shouldn’t so believe, it’s not the case that you shouldn’t intend to act in accordance with this belief.
I like Krasia and Detox. Deny Krasia or Detox and it seems you’ll have to deny one of these three claims:
Pro: If some reason, R, counts in favor of a belief, judgment, intention, or intention, R counts in favor of the beliefs, judgments, intentions, or actions that it rationalizes.
Con: If some reason, R, counts against some action, intention, judgment, or belief, it counts against any intention, judgment, or belief that rationalizes that action, intention, judgment, or belief.
Deon: If S’s A-ing is justified, there is no unmatched or undefeated reason not to A.
I think you shouldn’t deny Krasia or Detox because you shouldn’t deny Pro, Con, or Deon. So, bracketing any qualms I have about Feldman’s argument for identifying objective justification of belief with moderate subjective justification, I’d say that this better be right for action and belief if it is right for either. For what it’s worth, I think there’s a serious problem with Feldman’s argument for the claim that moderate subjective justification entails objective justification. There’s a hole in it. It seems that the passage above contains an argument for the claim that reasons to believe that there are reasons to believe just are among the reasons there are to believe. Suppose that’s right. That might tell us that whenever there is a reason to believe there are reasons to believe there must be some reason to believe, but that’s perfectly consistent with the presence of reasons not to believe. And, if permissibility is a function of both the reasons for and the reasons against (i.e., the pros and the cons), there’s nothing in the passage above that addresses the crucial point. If you think there’s a difference between objective justification for belief and a more subjective notion, that’s probably because you think there can be reasons to refrain from believing that aren’t provided by the subject’s evidence. I see nothing in the passage above that addresses that possibility. That’s the hole.
Now, maybe you think that this doesn’t need to be addressed because you think that (alleged) reasons against aren’t really going to prevent something from being justified unless it is provided by the subject’s evidence, available, accessible, within the agent’s perspective, etc… Okay, that’s a sensible thing to say on Feldman’s behalf. That’s what I’d say about action if I was sympathetic to the view that took the justification of action to be an internalist notion. If I thought that stuff of which the agent is non-culpably ignorant can’t prevent a belief from being justified but only show that there are sometimes unfortunate consequences that follow in the wake of forming a justified belief I’d say the same for action. If I unwittingly bring about some bad set of consequences, that’s bad and unfortunate but not wrong. If it’s not wrongful, it doesn’t threaten the justification of the action. For some reason, Feldman doesn’t think this shows that moderate subjective justification for action suffices for objective justification for action. He rejects that view and so asserts that it is possible for actions to fail to be justified because of faultless wrongs. (He must if he’s to say that moderate justification doesn’t entail objective justification.) Whatever his reason is for dismissing the argument for internalism about the justification of action, that’s the reason I’d steal and offer for saying that there is a gap on the epistemic side as well.
So, are there ways of filling in the hole in Feldman’s argument so we can say that subjective justification of belief is just justification while saying that there’s a real difference between subjective and objective justification in ethics?