Chisholm and Epistemic Obligations

Here’s an immodest proposal: there aren’t any true epistemic obligation principles. Not even when the antecedent includes everything involved in the complete true theory of justification.

An epistemic obligation principle cites certain conditions in its antecedent, and has as consequent the claim that believing a certain proposition is required or obligatory. My claim above is not meant as expressing some doubt about the coherence or possibility of epistemic obligations, as one finds in criticisms of deontologism. Instead, my proposal is meant to grant deontologists their conception of justification, claiming that even given this conception, there aren’t any epistemic obligation principles.

To argue against such a claim, one might try to take Chisholmian principles and turn them into principles of obligation. For example, Chisholm holds that if you are appeared to F’ly with no grounds for doubt concerning the claim that something is F, then it is acceptable to believe that something is F (where acceptability is, if I remember correctly, the condition where believing is more reasonable than withholding). Then, if this belief is congruent with other things you believe, believing it can rise to the level of the evident. Finally, if nothing is more evident, it will be certain as well.

So, one idea would be to say: if you’re appeared to F’ly without grounds for doubt, you ought to believe that something is F. But why think that? What is phenomenologically manifest in our experience is varied and multiple–why think we have to form beliefs for every manifest feature of our experience, subject only to a grounds for doubt qualifier? A more realistic approach is that our powers regarding appearances vastly outstrip any need we have to register their contents in beliefs, so that there is nothing epistemically wrong with forming such beliefs, but to insist that we form all of them is too much.

But what if we add a qualifier here. Start by saying that S is appeared to F’ly and has no grounds for doubting that something is F. Add also that S takes an attitude toward the claim that something is F–either believing, disbelieving or withholding. In those conditions, can’t we say that believing is obligatory? It is obligatory, we might argue, because that attitude is more reasonable than the other two.

More is needed, however. Why think we have an obligation to max out on the reasonableness scale? If we were told that all other attitudes are unreasonable, we’d be in a better position here, but we haven’t been told that. All Chisholm tells us is that one attitude is superior to the others in terms of reasonability. Can we assume that satisficing epistemology has to give way to maximizing epistemology? Or, to put the concern another way, why not think that there are lots of intellectual virtues, one of which is reasonability, and there’s no reason to think that reasonability trumps everything else.

This last point may bring out the epistemic Rossian in some of us: it’s not that there are all things considered obligations that devolve from facts about reasonability, but rather prima facie obligations. So then, if we fix all other issues as irrelevant, the facts about reasonability will imply all things considered obligations if they generate prima facie obligations.

So here’s the best picture for the deontologist: you satisfy the antecedent of a Chisholmian principle, and you take some attitude toward the claim in the consequent of such a principle. In such a case, you are prima facie obligated to believe the claim in question, since the principle, we assume, says that believing is reasonable and more reasonable than the other attitudes. Even this position is subject to objection, however. Suppose we merely describe the situation in evaluative, rather than deontic, terms: believing the claim in question is a good thing, in fact, maybe even the best thing, to do from the point of view of achieving the epistemic goal. Why would we want more than that for our epistemological theory?

Chisholm is typically thought of as an adherent of epistemic deontology, but it is interesting to note that his principles themselves don’t yield such a conclusion. The only place I can find the deontologism is in his characterization of the epistemic goal, where he writes of being subject to the “purely intellectual requirement” of doing one’s best to get to the truth and avoid error. The principles are supposed to tell us what constitutes achievement of the epistemic goal, but the principles themselves don’t tell us what to believe and don’t imply any obligations–all we can conclude is that if we satisfy the principles, we will have satisfied any obligations we have. We don’t have a basis, I think, for holding that we have violated any obligations if our cognitive lives go in a different direction.

So, at most, Chisholm only gives us one epistemic obligation. Each of us has an obligation to pursue the epistemic goal. But that obligation need not imply any specific obligations about what to believe on any given occasion. That is, it implies no principle having as a consequent “S ought to believe p.”


Comments

Chisholm and Epistemic Obligations — 34 Comments

  1. Jon,

    It seems odd to me to think that there is some categorical end on rational agents that they pursue some epistemic goal. Someone who just sits on a rock thoughtlessly doesn’t seem to be violating any epistemic obligation at all. Why not think the obligations will all be of the form: insofar as one has taken up an epistemic pursuit one must _________ [insert material from your theory of epistemic duty here]?

    Also, you didn’t say anything about negative epistemic obligations or prohibitions. What is it that exempts Chisholm from the commitment to the ‘No false beliefs’ principle?

    (NFB) If p is false, one must not believe it.

    I suppose the status of this principle in Chisholm’s framework depends somewhat upon whether we emphasize the requirement to do one’s best to acquire true beliefs and avoid false ones (where ‘best’ is understood in terms of effort and not outcomes) or the requirement to successfully acquire true beliefs and avoid false ones. I do not have my many editions of his Theory of Knowledge at the moment, but from what I can recall, his conception of this requirement changed to one that emphasized one’s best efforts while his conception of what constitutes success remained constant and he characterized success and failure in terms of truth or falsity. If one held that there are no duties to successfully fulfill one’s adopted ends, I can understand why Chisholm rejects NFB, but then Chisholm is saddled with the questionable thesis about the impossibility of duties to succeed.

    The only other way that comes to mind for Chisholm to resist NFB given his conception of our aims is to adopt something akin to rule-consequentialism and the satisfaction of the intellectual requirement is a matter of believing in accordance with a rule that is part of a system of rules which, if adhered to, would constitute an enlightened strategy for acquiring true beliefs in the long terms and in a variety of situations. Such a strategy would clearly allow us to form the occassional false belief. I think this rule-consequentialist idea is problematic but at least I can understand why Chisholm would reject NFB if he adopted it.

  2. Hi Jon,

    Here’s one worry. The view you seem to be defending will apply equally well to what is epistemically impermissible. And I don’t think you want to hold that nothing is epistemically impermissible. Right? You’d probably endorse a principle to the effect that it is epistmically impermissible or forbidden to believe that there is a tree in from of you when (under normal perceptual circumstances, etc.) there is no tree in your perceptual field. But as soon as it is conceded that there are some broad rules describing what is epistemically impermissible, you can conclude that there are some rules describing what is epistemically obligatory. After all what you’re forbidded to do you are obligated not to do.

  3. Mike, note that I said in the post that the principles I’m interested in have as consequent the requirement to believe a certain claim. That’s all the proposal is meant to rule out. That doesn’t imply that beliefs are sometimes forbidden, or that sometimes you’re not obligated not to believe, as you point out. I’m concerned here only about positive obligations to believe.

  4. Clayton, in the 3rd edition, Chisholm changed from the goal of getting to the truth and avoiding error to the goal of believing reasonably and avoiding believing unreasonably. I am certain that he would reject your principle, as would I; and if you could convince him that his characterization of the goal implied that principle, he’d take that as a decisive argument that he’d gotten the goal wrong.

    On your first point about categorical ends, I doubt they are any more implausible in epistemology than in ethics…

  5. Jon,

    If you do not mind, I’d like to press you on your last remark. I cannot tell whether you think it is implausible to think there are categorically presribed ends in ethics or plausible to doubt there are such ends in epistemology. If the former, what duty or requirement binding on all rational agents is violated by some Humean character utterly indifferent to the truth or falsity whatever claim crosses his mind or indifferent to the prospect of finding interesting claims whose truth values he might be concerned to discover?

  6. It’s hard to believe that there isn’t an epistemic obligation in the vicinity. You say,
    “All Chisholm tells us is that one attitude is superior to the others in terms of reasonability. Can we assume that satisficing epistemology has to give way to maximizing epistemology? Or, to put the concern another way, why not think that there are lots of intellectual virtues, one of which is reasonability, and there’s no reason to think that reasonability trumps everything else”.
    But, on the other hand, why think epistemic satisficing is the default position? If anything needs more justification, it is the denial of the maximizing position, as far as I can see. But set that aside. Suppose we are satisficing and specify the epistemic obligation as holiding in cases where there are no goals competing with reasonability. It does idealize away lots of realistic situations, but that’s no objection to the principled challenge to find some positive epistemic obligation or other.

  7. Jon,
    As far as I can see, in the next paragraph you concede that there might be some prima facie epistemic obligations and urge the following,
    “Even this position is subject to objection, however. Suppose we merely describe the situation in evaluative, rather than deontic, terms: believing the claim in question is a good thing, in fact, maybe even the best thing, to do from the point of view of achieving the epistemic goal. Why would we want more than that for our epistemological theory?”
    You’d want more because the purely evaluative position tells you nothing about what to believe. The fact that believing P is a good thing does not entail that it is so much as permissible to believe P. Strictly, it remains unclear that the value of a belief is at all relevant to whether one should believe it. Forming Pascalian beliefs is also valuable (or course in a different way), but it would be nice for an epistemic theory to tell me why I nonetheless shouldn’t form those beliefs.

  8. Mike, nothing I wrote implies that there aren’t permissibility principles, all I was considering was the question of whether there are obligation principles. Your response is that you want a theory to tell you what to believe. That would be nice, but why think there are things that you ought to believe? Why not think, instead, that something like the Quine/Duhem thesis shows that, though we often find ourselves in a situation where we have to make doxastic changes, there is always optionality as to what changes are permissible?

  9. I mentioned permissiblity above only for emphasis. I realize your focus is on positive obligation. I’d like a theory that would tell us what we ought to believe since I’d like it to be true that there is a rational resolution to belief conflict. I’d like it to be true that if S believes T on evidence E and S’ believe ~T on E, then either S or S’ is believing something they ought not to believe. Exceptions perhaps when the evidence is more or less balanced. Anything short of that would leave us with either coarser forms of persuasion or an incredible tolerance for dissonance. I can’t believe that anything like Quine-Duhem is close to being true. I’ve never been persuaded, for instance, that there is no sustainable analytic/synthetic distinction or that just about any belief is up for revision. I’ve certainly never been persuaded to this by Two Dogmas.

  10. Mike, I think you can get what you want without epistemic obligation principles. In the case you describe, it can be permissible to believe T but not permissible to believe ~T, given the same evidence. What I don’t see is why you have to believe T, given any particular evidence. Suppose, for example, that your evidence entails T. As Harman is fond to point out, that fact doesn’t require believing T–maybe modus tollens is a permissible alternative.

  11. Jon, you say,
    “I think you can get what you want without epistemic obligation principles.In the case you describe, it can be permissible to believe T but not permissible to believe ~T, given the same evidence”.
    I agree. But ~P~T (not epistemically permissible not-T) moving negations through and defining (as usual) PT ~O~T is just O~~T is just OT (epistemically obligatory T).
    So we have an epistemic obligation here.

    But then,
    “What I don’t see is why you have to believe T, given any particular evidence. Suppose, for example, that your evidence entails T. As Harman is fond to point out, that fact doesn’t require believing T–maybe modus tollens is a permissible alternative”.
    But how long is MT-ing MP reasonable? That seems to be the question. I’ve no doubt that it can reasonably be done sometimes. Very shortly, either the MP becomes unreasonable or the MT does. Most disputes resolve. And more complex and interesting ones get closer to resolving. But how? This happens I’m sure because we slowly recognize that some dear beliefs are after all incredible. That is, in short, they ought not to be believed. I frankly can’t imagine what all the argumentation is about if we don’t share the opinion that there is something we both ought to be believing.

  12. Mike, you say,
    “I agree. But ~P~T (not epistemically permissible not-T) moving negations through and defining (as usual) PT ~O~T is just O~~T is just OT (epistemically obligatory T).
    So we have an epistemic obligation here.”

    Won’t work, I think. What’s not permissible is B~T, so what’s obligatory is not believing ~T. You forgot the belief operator.

    As to the rest, I’d just have to repeat what I said above about impermissibility of believing as an explanation.

  13. We need an epistemic possiblity operator AND a belief operator to represent this sentence? ‘It is epistemically permissible to believe that p’ seems to me redundant. I’ll work around it and propose a principle.

    P. If O~B~T & PBT then OBT

    If it is forbidden to believe ~T and permissible to believe T, then it is obligatory to believe T. The principle assumes, correctly I think, that if I’m not required to believe T then I’m permitted to believe ~T. But the first conjunct in the antecedent makes clear that I am not permitted to believe ~T. The antecedent of (P) you’ve conceded above (in the last two posts). I conclude,
    OBT.

  14. Mike, P strikes me as obviously false, for Harmanian-like reasons. Just think of entailment situations where your evidence entails T. Restrict that class to those where believing ~T is impermissible. That still leaves a lot of cases. Among these will be cases where you’re permitted to believe T on the basis of that evidence. It is surely false, though, that you are required to believe everything you are permitted to believe on the basis of that evidence.

  15. Yikes, “obviously” false? I must really be losing my touch.
    Yes, it is surely false that you are required to believe everything you are permitted to believe on the basis of the evidence. I hope I didn’t say you were. My argument for principle (P) goes this way.
    1. O~B~T Assume for CP
    2. PBT Assume for CP
    3. If ~OBT then PB~T Theorem
    4. ~OBT Assume for reductio
    5. PB~T 3,4
    6. ~PB~T 1, Def.
    7. PB~T & ~PB~T 5,6 Conj. !@# Contradiction
    8. OBT 4, by reductio
    9. If(O~B~T & PBT) then OBT 1,2 Conditional proof

    You might deny (3), but all it says is that if I am not required to believe T then I’m allowed to believe ~T. That has to be true, as far as I can see. In any case, if your position requires denying that, then I’m not so worried. I put it down as a theorem.

  16. I would suggest that cases of extreme ignorance — where we have pretty much no evidence one way or another about T — would be counterexamples to 3. We’re certainly not obligated to believe T in such circumstances, but it might in fact be required of us to withhold judgment about T altogether, and thus not be permissible for us to believe ~T.

  17. I think Jonathan’s point is right, but I think it is also true that the interdefinability of the operators is going to be denied by people who think there are no correct obligation principles. I’m not quite sure though–I need to think about it more…

    In any case, the Harman reasons are also reasons for denying (3).

  18. Surely one could deny that there are positive obligation principles of belief formation without denying that there are obligations more generally? E.g., “one is obligated to consider all relevant evidence, to whatever extent permitted by circumstances”? And if one does allow obligation at all, then I think that OA ~P~A should be uncontroversial.

  19. Jonathan you say,
    “I would suggest that cases of extreme ignorance — where we have pretty much no evidence one way or another about T — would be counterexamples to 3.”

    I can’t see the counterexample. Having no evidence one way or another regarding T entails nothing about the relative probablity that T is true. For instance, I can’t conclude from having no evidence one way or the other that probablity of T is about equal to the probability of ~T. Doing so leads directly to Bertand’s Paradox. Being in extreme ignorance might require us not to make any knowledge claims about T but it doesn’t require us to withhold judgment about T altogether. As you describe the case (i) I do not have reason to believe that T is more probable than ~T,(ii) I do not have reason to believe that ~T is more probable than T and (iii) I do not have reason to believe that that T and ~T are equiprobable. From (i)-(iii) I doubt we can conclude that it is impermissible for me to believe ~T.

  20. Jonathan, I certainly don’t want to deny obligations altogether, but here’s the inference that worries me. It’s the inference of
    OBp
    from
    ~P~Bp.
    As already noted, I don’t think you can get OBp from ~PB~p, so maybe I shouldn’t worry about the inference in question. But whenever I see negations dropped, the intuitionist-sympathizer in me sees a red flag. And if I then follow the horrendous and objectionable practice of reading an intuitionistic negation sign as saying “there is no proof that,” then I will balk at the inference above.

    I know, I know… too many ill-considered steps here to really warrant worrying about the inference…

  21. Jon, it seems to me that the intuitionist-type worries are fairly independent from the worries about there being no positive obligation principles; and anyway, wouldn’t the intuitionist worry not so much about
    OBp ~P~Bp
    but only about further versions that implicitly involve double negation elimination, e.g.,
    ~OBp P~Bp ?
    (I am certain you’re right about ~PB~p -> OBp, on the other hand.)

    Mike, I must have the wrong paradox in mind, as I thought that the Bertrand paradox was about making mistakes in reasoning about probability with planar geometry! Anyhow, I don’t see how my basic point above needs to make any claims about probability whatsoever. All I need is that, in at least some cases, radical ignorance about p requires of us to withhold both the belief that p and the belief that not-p. This might just be a part of our evaluative practices that need not detour through probability theory to have its force.

    For example, I don’t see how it’s epistemically permissible to me to have a belief one way or the other about whether the current number of hairs on my head is odd or even. (Basically I don’t see why you think that “Being in extreme ignorance might require us not to make any knowledge claims about T but it doesn’t require us to withhold judgment about T altogether” can apply to all T’s in all cases of ignorance. It seems to me that, in general (with maybe a few special exceptions) the opposite of what you say holds.)

  22. Jonathan, the way I wrote the inference was misleading, since I put OBp first and ~P~Bp second. But the inferences that bother me are just the ones you mention, using double negation, including the one I mentioned: ~P~Bp |- OBp. To get a positive obligation principle from information about what is impermissible will always require such an inference, but I don’t have any specific cases that intuitionists ought to balk at. In the usual trouble cases involving undecidables, it will be false, I would expect, that it is impermissible to not believe them. So I’m now thinking that my intuitionist sympathies are just a red herring here…

  23. Jonathan, you seem to be appealing to a principle like B1 or B2.
    B1. S is epsitemically permitted to believe p only if S has more evidence for p than for ~p.

    B2. S is epistemically permitted to believe p only if S has some evidence for p.

    But I can’t see where I do anything wrong in adhereing instead to B3.

    B3. S is epistemically permitted to believe p only if S has does not have more evidence for ~p than for p.

    So, yes, if you believe that the number of hairs on your head is even then you violate no epistemic norm that I know about. If you think–more interestingly–that theism is false and concede that you’re not sure what the overall balance of evidence favors (there’s so much, who does?), then I again see nothing epistemically wrong.

  24. you seem to be appealing to a principle like B1 or B2.

    *scratches head* Well, no, I don’t think I’m appealing to any such principles at all. Rather, I think I’m appealing to the cases directly, in order to figure out which principles are or aren’t right. I mean, if we already knew which principles we could appeal to, we could just evaluate your 3. directly. But we don’t already know which principles to appeal to. And so we investigate by means of hypothetical cases. Isn’t that how the game is played?

  25. Let’s see. I think the game goes this way. You offer a claim about cases of ignorance. I propose that you SEEM to be assuming that B1 or B2 is true. I’m assuming that you are making a principled claim, but I’m not insisting that these specific assumptions are being made. I’m suggesting that it looks that way. At this point in the game you have the option to say, yippee, that’s my principle or I don’t think these principles are true. Each is a permissible move, as far as I understand this game. My next move is to urge that B3 is true, rather than B1 or B2. Your next move might be to show me that B3 is wrong. These seem to be the rules.

  26. The principle B3 seems to be too logically weak to be false. The interesting principle is its converse:

    (B3-) If S’s evidence that ~p is no stronger than S’s evidence that p, then S is epistemically permitted to believe that p.

    That sounds like the sort of principle William James would have endorsed in “The Will to Believe,” but even he would have wanted to weaken it in some way. He would say that (B3-) holds when the decision between believing p and believing ~p is a momentous, live, forced option.

    In its full generality, (B3-) is way too permissive. I’m not sure how it needs to be weakened, but there seem to be two likely routes. One is to insist that something in neighborhood is correct and weaken it along pragmatic lines (as James does). Another is to weaken it by also adopting principles such as (B1) or (B2), which impose a more stringent requirement. Not to weaken (B3-) at all would make leave the wishful thinker who judiciously avoids acquiring all relevant evidence within his epistemic rights.

  27. ” Not to weaken (B3-) at all would make leave the wishful thinker who judiciously avoids acquiring all relevant evidence within his epistemic rights”.

    Yes. But that’s way ahead of the discussion. So far it has been urged that much more is *necessary* for permissibly beliving p than that there is not more evidence for ~p than there is for p.

  28. Well, if you are convinced by Chase’s wishful thinker case, then you do have to agree: more is necessary for permissibly believing p than that there is not more evidence for ~p than there is for p.

    All the principles under consideration so far are the sort of thing that we don’t evaluate directly, but by means of how they apply to cases, which we do evaluate directly. Perhaps sometimes principles have basic intuitive status — perhaps some anti-circularity principles are that way — but things like B1 – B3 just aren’t of that kind. (Indeed, if they were, and we could just evaluate the principles directly, then this whole argument gets a lot shorter — since to the extent that I (and Jon, I think) have intuitions here, they say that 3. is false!)

    So the way the game needs to be played (if we are to play this game at all), we need to test the principles against cases. My case of someone radically ignorant about a simple fact is meant to have evidential status independent of any principle that I may or may not be willing to assent to. Chase’s case of the intentionally ignorant wishful thinker is another. We consider the cases, see how we judge them, and stary by seeing, at a minimum, what principles are at least consistent with those judgments. We don’t engage in introspective cognitive psychology, pondering, ‘hm, what principle does it feel like I was appealing to, in making that judgment?’, and then intuit about the speculated principle. To do so is to swap an intuition that we might have at least some reason to suspect might be true (about a concrete case) for a combination of two cognitions for which we have no such reason (about our underlying psychological processes, and about abstruse epistemic principles).

  29. “Well, if you are convinced by Chase’s wishful thinker case, then you do have to agree: more is necessary for permissibly believing p than that there is not more evidence for ~p than there is for p”

    Chase’s case is interesting by beside what I took to be the main disagreement. I thought you were arguing that, all evidence in (nothing overlooked and no one negligent, etc.) S is not permitted to believe p in cases where the evidence for ~p is not greater than the evidence for p. This I think is the more interesting claim, and as I said, I thought that you were defending somethign like this.

    As for this,
    “All the principles under consideration so far are the sort of thing that we don’t evaluate directly, but by means of how they apply to cases, which we do evaluate directly. Perhaps sometimes principles have basic intuitive status — perhaps some anti-circularity principles are that way — but things like B1 – B3 just aren’t of that kind”.

    It just strikes me as highhanded. “B1-B3 just aren’t of that kind” according to who? In ethics or moral theory, for instance, some theorists compare entire principles to each other: Peter Carruthers does this in trying to decide specific issues on animal rights, for instance. But these moral principles (in his case, utilitarian and contractualist) are every bit as complex as B1-B3. And this of course is an epistemological aproach to deciding among moral theories. Who declared that principles cannot be compared to other principles in a useful epistemological approach? But all I find are these declarations about what we can know about B1-B3 or how we could know about them.

  30. But on what basis are such principles to be examined? As I said already, if you think that these are the sorts of principles for which we can just put direct credence in our intuitions, then I have no problem just saying that your 3., appealed to in the main argument above, is wrong. And that’s that. We’d find ourselves in a fairly unsatisfying sort of cross-intuition argumentative stalement, but that would be the situation.

    But I take it that we don’t do that, as a matter of general course. And we precisely don’t do that, because although the principles generate a fairly lukewarm phenomenology at best, many particular cases generate stronger intuitions in us. And so what we do to confirm or reject the principles is by confirming or rejecting the predictions it makes about specific cases. Now, I did say that sometimes principles have an intuitive pull of their own, but this is, I suspect, fairly rare. (And would more properly be a matter of empirical investigation, anyhow! But put that aside.) And I just don’t know the bits of the ethics literature you’re appealing to — on closer inspection they might well turn out really to be appealing to particular cases, just in more indirect ways, but I just haven’t read them — but my generalization is that in epistemology at least, we tend to go by the cases when deciding between principles at this level. (I don’t think it’s mere complexity that makes the difference between the intuitively scrutable and the intuitively in-, though I think it is a factor.) One might just intuit, e.g., that something like closure must be true, but then in deciding between particular formulations of principles of closure, authors don’t generally just write up the formulas, take a gander, and say, ‘yep, that one sounds good’. Rather, they write them up, work out the predictions each one would make about particular cases, and evaluate them accordingly.

    You’ve also gotten the dialectic a bit crossed up here, I think. You write, “I thought you were arguing that, all evidence in (nothing overlooked and no one negligent, etc.) S is not permitted to believe p in cases where the evidence for ~p is not greater than the evidence for p”. Well, that’s right about what I’m arguing, iff we read it as an existential claim, that there are some such cases. But I explicitly allowed that any universal principle of that sort might have exceptions, and have avoided committing myself to anything like that as a principle, as opposed to merely an empirical generalization. And all that’s needed, to disprove your 3. (which is the main point of contention here), is the existential claim. Which is why Chase’s example would be completely sufficient by itself in settling the main matter under consideration.

  31. “And all that’s needed, to disprove your 3. (which is the main point of contention here), is the existential claim. Which is why Chase’s example would be completely sufficient by itself in settling the main matter under consideration.”

    Sorry about that. I mistakenly thought your view was the interesting position that, all evidence in, not having more evidence for ~p than p does not make it permissible to believe p.

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