Moore’s Paradox, First-person Plural

We all know that G.E. Moore famously pointed out that there is something extremely odd about statements like ‘It’s raining, but I don’t believe it is’, even though such statements would often be true. Unger, Williamson, and others have claimed that the same applies to statements such as ‘It’s raining, but I don’t know that it is’.

If we switch to the third-person, such statements don’t sound odd at all: ‘It’s raining, but she doesn’t believe it is’ and ‘It’s raining, but he doesn’t know it is’ both sound just fine. Likewise, the sense of paradox disappears even in the first-person when we speak in the eternal present, as I would, for example, were I asked to describe what I was doing in a video recording of my past self (‘Oh, look, how quaint: it’s raining, but I don’t believe it!’)

The sense of paradox isn’t limited to statements of the form ‘Q, but I don’t believe/know that Q’. It also infects statements such as: ‘not-Q, although I believe Q’ and ‘Q, although I believe that not-Q’.

I’m not aware of any discussion of the correlative first-person plural statements, such as the following one I came across in a recent article:

“Kids are kids,” said Danielle Kessenger, 39, a mother of three young children from Jacksonville, Fla., who supports providing contraceptives to those who request them. “I was a teenager once and parents don’t know everything, though we think we do.”

So, two questions.

    First, do you think that statements of the form ‘Not-Q, but we believe Q’ likewise sound odd?
    Second, do you know whether the the first-person plural version is discussed in the literature?

I’ll reserve expressing my opinion about the first question, although I don’t believe I will.


Moore’s Paradox, First-person Plural — 7 Comments

  1. I think the quote makes sense, but as a variation on the preface paradox (“Not everything in this book is true, though I believe everything in it.”)

    Statements with “know what” in them sound more odd though not completely odd, e.g. “Parents don’t know what to do with teenagers, though we think we do”. (I think “know where” “know how” etc. would sound the same.)

    But “know that” statements sound odd: “Parents don’t know that teenagers are wacko, though we think we do.” (NB if we change this last example to “…they think they do” it makes perfect sense; so the “we” statements may be a form of disguised or ironic third-person stance.)

  2. I don’t think they sound odd and I suppose I’m not surprised. If for “us” to think something requires most or all of us to think it but ‘It’s raining’requires only requires me to believe/know it for it to be appropriate to say, it can both be true that I know it while we don’t think it. And if “we” can think something without all of us thinking it (this is less plausible but not obviously wrong)then it can go the other way round as well. It can be appropriate for me to say we don’t know X because I think it false or unjustified even while enough of us think it that we think it.

    Attributing attitudes to groups, corporate entities and the like is tricky and perhaps metaphorical, but it seems to me that the rules for doing it don’t rule out dissenters in the ranks.

    As to #2 I don’t know of any relevant discussion of the plural case off the top of my head.

  3. Hi John,
    I think it is important to establish what it is that makes the example you give sound as acceptable as it does. First, it could be that one or more of the terms are being used loosely, while the content of the paradoxical assertion is meant to be rather precise. In this I agree with Mark. Second, there could be various ways of reading the sentence as saying something unobjectionable, if we make explicit what could have been left implicit in the assertion. For example,
    (1) Parents don’t know everything about teenagers, though we think we do [in our less reflective moments].
    (2) Parents don’t know everything about teenagers, though we think we do [when we act in our parental capacity].
    (3) Parents don’t know everything about teenagers, though we [often] think we do.
    As far as what could really make the paradox disappear in the plural case, I think that it could be the fact that the plural equivalent would involve a group all asserting or thinking:
    (M) It is raining and we don’t believe it.
    But if we interpret attribution of belief to the group as attribution of beliefs to individuals composing it, then each individual asserting (M) must require all or a large enough fraction of members of the group to believe that it is raining, in which case the assertion of (M) is made appropriate if those asserting it believe that enough of the rest of the group fail to believe that it is raining.
    Even if we make it a requirement to consult other members of the group before asserting that it is raining, it could be that each member is justified in taking the consultation as indicative of both that it is raining and that they, as a group of which one is a part, do no believe it.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Heath, I hadn’t thought of it as relating to the preface paradox. Interesting suggestion.

    Mark and Pavel, I think you’ve accurately diagnosed why it’s easy to hear such statements as acceptable. I wonder if this variant will elude such treatment while still sounding acceptable:

    All us parents think we know everything, but we don’t.

    Pavel, one final thing. Wouldn’t your strategy (3) also work to alleviate the paradox in first-person singular cases, too? Why couldn’t we hear ‘It’s raining, though I don’t believe it is’ as ‘It’s raining, though I [often] don’t believe it is’? Or extending strategy (1), why couldn’t we hear it as ‘It’s raining, though I don’t believe it [when I’m not paying attention]’ or some such thing?

  5. John, The new variant sounds slightly off to me. But note that it could be taken to say that each parent thinks that s/he her/himself knows everything but that they’re not all right in thinking that, in which case it could be true and the speaker could at the same time think that s/he knew everything and was right about that.

    If you make it ‘All us parents think we all know everything . . .’ we can rule that interpretation out. But then it sounds at odd to me or at least purposely hyperbolic and not meant literally.

  6. John,
    I think you’re right to suggest that there are these “dispositional” readings of the Moore sentences as well. These readings (naturally!) aren’t the ones that make assertion of the original Moore sentence paradoxical. It must be read/intended “occurrently” to be such. However, I think that it is much less natural to read first-person plural sentences like the ones in question occurrently, though this is just a linguistic point. No doubt someone could in principle try to make a first-person plural assertion that is just as paradoxical as the singular one would be. But when we refer to beliefs of groups, the synchronic aspect that is the source of the assertion’s paradoxicality is much harder to maintain in most natural contexts.
    I also think that it is not just easy to hear such statements as acceptable, but that they usually are acceptable, precisely because it is so unnatural even to intend them in the paradoxical sense.

  7. I might not have a good grip on the synchronic condition Pavel mentioned, but what about this example: You are a reporter covering a fashion show and you’ve got this quote from backstage:

    “We are not fat, but we all believe we are.”

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