MacFarlane on the norm of assertion

In this paper, John MacFarlane proposes the following account of assertion (though he later amends it to accommodate relativity to a context of assessment as well as a context of utterance, but the amendments don’t touch on what I’ll comment on, so I’ll give the simpler characterization),

(Assertion-2) To assert a sentence S (at a context U) is (inter alia) to commit oneself to providing adequate grounds for the truth of S (relative to U), in response to any appropriate challenge, or (when appropriate) to defer this responsibility to another asserter on whose testimony one is relying. One can escape this commitment only by withdrawing the assertion.

MacFarlane then says something I think is quite astonishing:

Note that as far as (Assertion-2) goes, a liar is breaking none of the norms of assertion, provided she abides by the conditional task-responsibility to vindicate her claim when it is appropriately challenged, and withdraws her assertion when it is shown to be false. Here the present account diverges from the “knowledge account of assertion,” which takes both lies and unintentional falsehoods to violate the constitutive norm of assertion, “assert only what you know.” I think this is a point in its favor. Lying is not like cheating in baseball; it is more like stealing a base, which is a legal move in the game, but one that can be hard to get away with. Telling an unintentional falsehood is also not like cheating; it is more like an error in baseball.

This passage distinguishes MacFarlane’s view from Williamson’s view on the norm of assertion. In doing so, MacFarlane says that lying is like stealing a base in baseball, as opposed to, say, moving the fences farther back when the other team is at bat. It is this analogy that I find astonishing, since I can’t imagine crying “foul” over a stolen base but I certainly do cry “foul” when lied to. Unintentional falsehoods are one thing (I don’t think such assertions violate an appropriate norm of assertion), but there is critical difference between unintentional falsehoods and lies, a difference that MacFarlane’s account masks. Unintentional falsehoods are like errors in baseball, but lies are simply not like stolen bases in the relevant way.

This seems so obvious and MacFarlane is a really good philosopher, so one might suspect there is an easy reply to the objection. Here’s one such try: one might try to save Assertion-2 by attempting to explain my crying “foul” when lied to as traceable to norms of a different sort–moral norms, for example, rather than norms of assertion. But that move is too easy, I think: it would, by itself, bar any norm from being a norm of assertion, since one could always find some label other than ‘norm of assertion’ to undergird one’s complaints in the face of objectionable assertions (including cases where the conditional requirement posited by Assertion-2 is not met).

What MacFarlane’s examples show, I think, is that neither view is quite right, but Williamson’s view is much closer to the truth. The truth, I claim, is that epistemically justified belief is the norm of assertion. This view implies that in asserting p, one represents oneself as, or one commits oneself to, knowing that p is true, though it takes a bit of work to show that this implication holds. What’s good about this account is that it properly sorts unintentional falsehoods as akin to errors in baseball, which violate no rules, from lies, which are like moving the fences every half-inning, which is a violation of the rules.


MacFarlane on the norm of assertion — 13 Comments

  1. Pingback: Certain Doubts » Some Norms of Assertion

  2. I like the ‘easy reply’, actually.

    You say that (if made) “it would, by itself, bar any norm from being a norm of assertion, since one could always find some label other than â��norm of assertionâ�� to undergird oneâ��s complaints in the face of objectionable assertions…” I don’t understand that objection.

    Suppose someone thought that it was against the rules of baseball to send e-mail to the opposition’s ace the day before game day, threatening to harm his family if his team wins. (Hm. Anybody know Johann Santana’s e-mail address?) We explain that although that would be highly immoral, it is not actually against the rules of baseball. She tells us that our reply is too easy, because it would debar any norm from being a rule of baseball. Huh?

    I’m not convinced that MacFarlane is right, but I don’t think the ‘easy reply’ can be disposed of as easily as you do.

  3. Jamie, I don’t think I understand your email example, and so don’t see the analogy. So let me try again. The norms of assertion are not moral norms; they’re supposed to be constitutive rules of the practice of assertion. Assertions can be wrong in a number of ways–morally, aesthetically, pragmatically, etc. But there’s a special way in which they can go wrong that is supposed to be accounted for in terms of constitutive rules of the practice of assertion, just like there are constitutive rules of games and other social institutions. So, emailing a pitcher would be wrong, but not violate any constitutive rule of baseball.

    So, what are the constitutive rules of assertion, and how can you tell when you’ve violated a rule that has this special status? Well, take an assertion that is objectionable, and tell my why it’s objectionable. If your explanation generalizes in such a way that it can be used to explain away any purported attempt to isolate the constitutive rules of assertion, then it’s too broad. So if you say that lying doesn’t violate a constitutive rule of assertion, but is only morally objectionable, we deserve to know what candidate proposal couldn’t be explained away in that way. Without the additional explanation (and I claimed that there isn’t one to be found here, though I didn’t give an argument for that claim), the explanation is unsatisfying.

    Even so, there’s still the problem of trying to say what the constitutive rules of assertion are, if any. Progress on that score can be made, however, by considering paradigm cases in which a person takes back, or apologizes for, the speech act itself. The primary cases are those in which a person says what they don’t believe (“I’m sick of trying to play baseball, I’m just no good at it.” “You know that’s not true; you’re just depressed by the hitting slump you’re in.” “Yeah, I guess you’re right, I shouldn’t have said that.”) or don’t have adequate evidence for (“There’s been more earthquakes in the 20th century than in any prior century.” “You shouldn’t say that; the only reason you think that is because you think it’s prophesied in the Bible.” “OK, maybe you’re right; I’ll take it back until I check it out.”) If one rejects these as good guides to the constitutive rules of assertion, then one ought to argue for the simpler view that there aren’t any such rules at all, I think.

  4. There seems to be some slippage in this discussion from “the norm of assertion” to “the constitutive rules of assertion”. Aren’t constitutive rules the rules that one has to follow in order to count as engaged in the practice at all? If so, it doesn’t seem to me that lying can be a violation of a *constitutive* rule of assertion, because if it were, then we couldn’t hold liars responsible for perjury (assuming that perjury is morally wrong, in part, because one has *asserted* something that one knows to be false). This leads me to think that, as far as the constitutive rules go, MacFarlane’s proposal is a much better proposal than Williamson’s.

    Also, I doubt that cases where one takes back or apologizes for an assertion will highlight the *constitutive* rules of the practice of asserting, because if one has violated a constitutive rule then there’s a sense in which one hasn’t put foward or done anything that can be taken back or apologized for. (Of course, one might apologize for misleading one’s audience into thinking that one is asserting something when one is merely uttering sentences for the aural pleasure of it, but that’s apologizing for something in a practice other than that of asserion.) For example, if I knock over the chess-board in rage (and thereby violate a constitutive rule of the practice of playing chess), I don’t apologize for my action qua chess-move (I haven’t made a chess move) but rather qua interaction with a friend (and I have made a move in this practice).

  5. Matthew-

    As Williamson uses the term, a constitutive rule of practice P is not a rule one must *obey* in order count as participating in P. Rather, the practice is such that one must be *bound by* the rule to count as participating in it. What is analytic is not ‘All who participate in P obey rule R’ but ‘All who participate in P, insofar as they are participating in P, ought to obey rule R.’

    When Williamson says that knowledge is the norm of assertion, he is saying ‘One ought to assert only what one knows’ is a constitutive rule (in his sense) of asserting. It is possible to make an assertion of something you do not know, but you ought not to. The fact that you can, but shouldn’t, assert what you don’t know is supposed to be part of what makes assertion assertion.

    If McFarlane is using ‘norm of assertion’ the way I think Williamson does, he’s saying that it is constitutive of the practice of asserting that one ought to assert only what one can give adequate grounds for (etc.), rather than that one ought to assert only what one knows. So, I don’t think the “slippage” from ‘norm of assertion’ to ‘constitutive rule of assertion’ is a problem.

    The terminology might be misleading, though. I remember doing a double take when I first read Williamson on assertion. In my idiolect, ‘norm’ means ‘rule’ and ‘constitutive rule of X’ means ‘rule you must obey to be X-ing’. Consequently, I had to concentrate hard to understand what TW was up to.

  6. Matthew and Chase, this distinction is crucial to the discussion, and it may be that MacFarlane and Williamson don’t intend to talk about the norms of assertion in the same way. Chase’s account of Williamson is very good, and all I’d add is that for Williamson, a constitutive rule is distinctive to the practice in question, the kind of norm that explains in part what kind of activity one is engaging in, and there is no argument he gives to show that every practice has such distinctive norms governing it. If MacFarlane is thinking of norms of assertion in this way, it gives him the option of trying to explain what is wrong with lying in terms other than the norms of assertion–moral norms, for example. If he isn’t thinking of norms of assertion in the way Williamson is, then it is harder to see how he can say what he does about lying, since on any decent account, lying is objectionable, at least prima facie.

    So I think MacFarlane needs to side with Williamson on there being constitutive rules of the practice of assertion. Chase’s account of MacFarlane’s proposal is a good gloss on it, and shows both it’s connection to the “justified belief” account and the difference between the two. On the justified belief account, you violate the norm of assertion by asserting what you don’t believe, but not on MacFarlane’s view. In addition, on the justified belief account, you can satisfy the norm of assertion even if being questioned caused mental apoplexy so that you can’t defend what you say at all.

    This latter point is connected, of course, to my constant harping on the conditional fallacy. Viewed from this perspective, one can view MacFarlane’s proposal as resulting from trying too hard to “operationalize” the notion of justification. If he avoided the fallacy, he’d be suggesting that justification alone is the norm of assertion, I think; and that’s too weak in comparison to the justified belief account and the knowledge account precisely because of the example of lying.

  7. For some reason I am still not getting your rebuttal of the ‘easy reply’.

    We agree, of course, that threatening the pitcher is wrong but violates no constitutive rule of baseball. If someone alleges that there is a constitutive rule of baseball forbidding the threatening e-mail, we reply (easily) that the threatening is a different sort of wrong. Ok so far.
    Now, what if our interlocutor tries to rebut our easy reply, saying: “Jon and Jamie, that reply is too easy. If we allow it, then we will eliminate all constitutive rules of baseball, since some such alternative sort of wrongness will always be available as an alternative to the (for example) corking of the bat’s violating a baseball rule.”
    That would not be a very good rebuttal.

    How is your rebuttal to the Easy Reply better than the bad rebuttal? (That’s easy for you to say.)

    By the way, it is quite easy to imagine cases in which lying is not morally wrong. Off hand, it seems to me that in such cases there is nothing wrong with lying. Doesn’t this support MacFarlane’s view? That view sounded wacky to me at first, but it’s growing on me.

  8. Jamie, hey, I just saw the email you inserted–very nice, and I’d like to see a trolling algorithm figure that one out!

    So, back to rules. Yes, we agree on the baseball example completely. So, let me see if I can answer your question. Let’s do it as a dilemma: either there are constitutive rules of assertion (in Williamson’s sense) or not. If not, the “different sort of wrong” response isn’t available. So, let’s suppose there are constitutive rules of assertions, opening up the “different sort of wrong” response to a proposed rule, such as Williamson’s knowledge rule. Here’s my “that’s too easy” rebuttal: you could use the “different sort of wrong” move to avoid any proposed constitutive rule. You just say, “no, even though that constitutive rule predicts that, say, lying is wrong, it’s wrongness consists in violating some other rule other than the constitutive rule of assertion.”

    Note that I don’t claim that this response is mistaken, I only claim that it’s not well-motivated. The problem is that, unlike baseball, there’s no definitive manual to look up the rules in; too bad! So such a response is too easy if it’s not accompanied by some way of deciding which wrongs are wrongs against constitutive rules and which are not. To decide that, we need some functional account of the point of the game of assertion, and I don’t see how any such account can go that won’t make lying a violation of the constitutive rules of assertion.

    Lying is also morally wrong, at least prima facie, and I also think that even constitutive rules need only be prima facie (Williamson thinks otherwise, though I’m not quite sure why). So the fact that some instances of lying are appropriate won’t help settle the question.

    I suspect, from reading what you right, that deep down you are suspicious of the idea that there are constitutive rules of assertion. I am too; I don’t know how to tell when a particular practice has constitutive rules and when it doesn’t. I don’t think Williamson does either, since he doesn’t give an argument that there are such rules for assertion.

    So, after writing this, I realize I was supposed to give an easy answer to your easy question. I didn’t. But maybe it helped some?

  9. The problem is that, unlike baseball, there�s no definitive manual to look up the rules in; too bad!

    But surely there could be a game exactly like baseball, with exactly the same constitutive rules, and no official rule book. Would the “that’s too easy” rebuttal then defeat the Easy Reply? Would we then have to accept that sending threatening letters to opposing pitchers (which apparently the Yankees failed to do) violates the rules of baseball?

    By the way, I don’t exactly see what being prima facie has to do with this issue. I thought it was interesting that in cases where lying is not morally wrong, it is not wrong at all. That suggests that its wrongness when it is wrong (its inappropriateness when it is inappropriate), is moral wrongness. Obviously, it could just be a coincidence, or there could be some other explanation for why the wrongness/inappropriateness disappears altogether when the moral wrongness disappears. Still, the correlation is suggestive.

  10. Jamie, you’re right that there could be a game like baseball with no official rule book. Then, when someone claims that threatening a pitcher doesn’t violate the rules of baseball, they’d owe us an explanation about how they determine which bad things to do violate the rules of baseball rather than violating more general norms.

    I’m intrigued by your last paragraph, and let me see if I can get you to say more about how you think of these things. It’s your phrase “not wrong at all” that I think I need help with. I’m thinking of two cases of prima facie conflict: one where both sides of the conflict are moral, and the other where the conflict is between moral and non-moral considerations. In both cases, assume that doing A is not morally wrong. Is it your view that in cases of conflict, doing A is still in some sense wrong? For it to be “not wrong at all”, does that disallow such conflicts?

  11. Jamie, I see better now what you’re after, and the suggestiveness of the example. The more I concentrate on the suggestiveness of your example, though, the less inclined I am to think that there are constitutive rules of assertion. But I really don’t see my way through these issues, and don’t really know how to determine whether there are constitutive rules of any practice, in Williamson’s sense.

  12. In the Diplomacy case, I’d say that the assertion does violate a norm of assertion in this way: It (should) make it harder for you to achieve the aim of future assertions. That is, anyone who finds out that you lied about the planned Russian attack should be less likely to believe what you tell them in the future course of the game–and that’ll make your future assertions less effective (even if they’re true!). My sloganistic way of putting this is that you stake your credibility on your assertion–and that’s something that continues to hold even when the moral sanctions go away.

    Is this a constitutive norm of assertion, even if you accept my argument that it is a norm? I sort of think it is, in this way: Assertion couldn’t be the kind of act it is without being subject to this norm. Because assertions are presented as reasons for belief, they provide a yardstick for measuring the teller’s credibility for future assertions; and because they’re supposed to be reasons for belief, it matters if you lose your credibility.

    In fact, I sometimes think that the best way of defining assertions as a genus is “Acts on which you stake your credibility.” So that might really make this norm constitutive. But then, even given Chase’s excellent explanation of Williamson in terms of norms you’re bound by, there remains the question of exactly how you have to be bound by the norms; perhaps the credibility norms don’t bind in the right way.

  13. Matt, very interesting ideas here, the upshot of which is, I think, that some thought needs to be given to the notion of a consitutive rule. We now have at least three slightly different ones: Williamson’s, Chrisman’s above, and yours. It may be that yours and Williamson’s are not that far apart, but the relationship is not clear to me. I like your proposal about what you stake your credibility on; if fits well with other claims made about assertion, such as that in asserting p, you represent yourself as knowing p, and the like.

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