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.”