What good are the stakes-shifting cases?

Cases used to motivate contextualism or the denial of what Jason Stanley calls “intellectualism” are often referred to as “stakes-shifting cases” or “standards-shifting cases.”  Typically, such cases tend to go schematically, like this: LOW, for whom not much hinges on whether p is true and for whom various counterpossibilities to p are not salient, says of some S who is fairly well situated epistemically with respect to p, “S knows that p.”. HIGH, for whom much is at stake or for whom various counterpossibilities have been made salient, says of either the same subject, or some subject equally well situated epistemically with respect to p, “S doesn’t know that p.”. According to those who are trying to draw epistemological lessons from these cases, LOW’s attribution and HIGH’s denial are both true.

I don’t want to get into the lessons people draw from this. My concern is how we should view the cases themselves – as data or as something like the conclusions of arguments.

The CASES-AS-DATA approach:

The usual use of the cases is as data. Either the data involves the intuitive truth of the attributions and denials presented in the cases (e.g. Stanley: “In Low Stakes, our reaction is that Hannah is right; her utterance of ‘I know the bank will be open’ is true.”) or the data involves the intuitive accuracy of the cases with respect to how we talk; intuitively ordinary and competent language users will normally talk in the ways suggested in the cases (e.g. DeRose: “As we can sense, perhaps with even more certainty than that with which we judge the truth-values of the claims, speakers do in fact use ‘know(s)’ in the way described, and appropriately so.”).

Much of the critical literature attempts to explain why our intuitive reactions cannot teach us the lessons they’re supposed to teach us: 1) we might wrongly think that the attributors speak truly in the cases, 2) even if we’re right in thinking that they speak truly, we can’t trust that fact to be consistent with stipulated features of the cases – e.g. that the subject maintains belief or the same epistemic standing across the cases, and 3) even if normal attributors might talk that way, talking that way does not indicate that what they say is true.


The Cases-as-Data approach is not the only way to use the cases, however. They can also be conclusions of arguments in the following sense: there may be true principles that entail that there are cases of the required sort – cases in which LOW truly says that S “knows” and HIGH truly says that S “doesn’t know” but in which S’s epistemic standing and belief remain constant. Here it is irrelevant whether there is reason to think that our intuitive reactions to such cases might be misguided. The mere fact that there must be such cases gets us to the desired conclusions.

What might a principled argument that there are such cases look like? Here’s a four-step strategy-type.

FIRST, start with an assumption of something like fallibilism – the claim that S can know p even if S’s epistemic position is lacking in some crucial way (perhaps there is a chance that p is false or p is less than maximally justified for S or S’s evidence doesn’t entail that p is true). It doesn’t matter for the general strategic outline exactly what fallibilism is. The only thing this strategy needs out of fallibilism – whatever your favored conception is – is that,

SECOND, if S fallibly knows that p then there is some other subject, T, with the same epistemic standing with respect to p who is in some important sense not rational to act on p or not justified in acting on p or not justified in taking p for granted in reasoning or not acting properly if basing her action on p, even though S is so rational (or justified or proper), because the stakes for T are higher. Why is this a reasonable thing to say? Because it is reasonable to say that, on some very important senses of “rational,” “justified,” and “proper,” what a subject is rational or justified or proper to do is determined by two factors: 1) the subject’s epistemic standing with respect to some relevant propositions and 2) what the various costs and benefits are of acting in certain ways. And that seems to indicate that, if one’s epistemic standing is lacking in some relevant ways, what one is rational or proper or justified in doing can be changed by tweaking the costs and benefits of acting while holding one’s epistemic standing constant. Perhaps this is false: perhaps it is literally impossible for a LOW subject to fallibly know that p while a HIGH subject with the same epistemic standing with respect to p isn’t, say, rational to act as if p. This might have to be fought over. But fighting over this possibility is not the same as fighting over whether intuitions about the cases are trustworthy or can teach us lessons.

THIRD, argue for a principled connection between knowledge (or knowledge-attributions) and actionability. These can be anti-intellectualist-friendly (e.g. S knows that only if S is rational to act as if p) or contextualist-friendly (e.g. S truly says “S knows that p” only if S is rational to act as if p). But, in conjunction with the SECOND step and fallibilism, the result will be that “S knows that p” is true in one case and “S doesn’t know that p” is true in the other, even though S’s epistemic standing remains constant. The result is not motivated by intuitions about whether various attributions or denials are true or whether normal speakers would talk this way, or whether it is the case that if normal speakers would talk this way, then that counts as evidence that they speak truly.

FOURTH, if one is so inclined, argue for further third-person knowledge-actionability links (e.g. something like S truly says “T knows that p” only if what S reasonably takes T’s epistemic standing to be is sufficient for S to act as if p). If the principles are chosen carefully enough, we can generate the third-person cases that are so helpful for contextualists.

Some ways of executing this strategy might be less promising than others, and some steps might be more fraught with difficulty. There can always be worries about the knowledge-actionability links. But the important point is that the worries about those links need to be addressed at the arguments for those links, NOT at the intuitions about the cases, because the cases are not used in the arguments for the links. The existence of the cases, rather, follows from fallibilism, reasonable connections between fallibilism and what possible epistemic twins are justified or proper or rational or reasonable in doing, and reasonable links between knowledge (or “knowledge”) and actionability.


What good are the stakes-shifting cases? — 9 Comments

  1. Hi Jeremy,
    Just a clarificatory question — when you say that the third step in the “Cases as Conclusions” approach asks us to “argue for a principled connected between knowledge (or knowledge-attribution) and actionability”, what are you thinking of as the ultimate support for such an argument? Would it involve intuitions about particular cases — intuitions about whether it is rational to act in certain ways in certain circumstances? (I’m curious about whether you see yourself as setting aside intuitions about the acceptability of knowledge ascriptions in favour of intuitions about the rationality of actions, or whether you think you are getting away from reliance on case intuitions altogether.)

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    I wouldn’t want to be too restrictive about what sorts of arguments, consistent with this strategy, could be used to derive the knowledge-actionability principles. Perhaps they could even use case intuitions (as long as they didn’t use the relevant intuitions about stakes-shifting cases). My own preference would be to eliminate reliance on case intuitions as much as possible and argue directly for the principles.

    In case it helps, here are some principles that seem amenable to more direct support:

    1) If you know that p is a conclusive reason there is to phi, then you have some reason to phi (namely, p).

    2) If you know that doing A will have the best consequences of all available acts, then you have some reason to do A — namely, that it will have the best consequences of all available acts.

    3) If you know that p, then you have some reason to believe that either p or q.

    4) If you know that p, then p is at least some reason you have for believing any suitably connected q.

    It’s not obvious that case-intuitions would be required to argue for principles like these, and even if they are, stakes-shifting cases don’t seem essential. There might be direct intuitive support for the principles or perhaps arguments deriving from some plausible purpose of knowledge-attributions or arguments deriving from what would be required for knowledge to be important or valuable.

    More fully fledged knowledge-actionability links can follow from these and further principles governing the interactions of reasons and actionability.

  3. Jeremy,

    I am in agreement with you that one should minimize reliance on case intuitions. I think that there are distinct arguments for pragmatic encroachment, and some rely on only very uncontroversial case intuitions (e.g. about the the rationality of acting on certain beliefs), whereas others rely on more controversial case intuitions. For example, the argument you and Matt give in your book relies on only very uncontroversial case intuitions I think. Anyway, I’m trying to straighten this out (the different kinds of arguments for pragmatic encroachment) in the paper I’m writing now. I’ve discussed this stuff with Jennifer, and she does insist that there are still appeals to case intuitions – as she notes above, they are appeals to intuitions about the rationality of acting on certain beliefs in certain practical situations. But I think these case intuitions are ok to reply upon, since they are as uncontroversial as possible (such as – don’t bet your family’s life on your belief that your car is parked around the corner).

  4. I’m not opposed to relying on case intuitions in general, but I’m not yet entirely persuaded that intuitions about the rationality of action are going to be less controversial or less problematic than intuitions about knowledge or rational belief. Yeah, it feels pretty bad to take even a one-in-a-billion risk of one’s family’s death in a bet on some belief of mine, but we might wonder about the best interpretation of those bad feelings (e.g. see George Loewenstein et al.: “Risk as Feelings” Psych Bulletin 2001 — perhaps the emotionally laden prospect short-circuits our ordinarily rational assessment of probabilities and payoffs). I say this as a mom who routinely drives the kids miles on the highway in order to engage in activities of very questionable value. Of course I’m not typically framing it to myself as a situation involving a one-in-a-billion risk of death for an afternoon of glow-in-the-dark minigolf. And OK, if I were thinking of it that way I might be more inclined to stay home, but I’m not convinced this would be rational on my part.

    Anyway I’m just highlighting the concern that intuitions about what is rational might also be subject to certain kinds of controversy — but I see that Jason is just saying that these intuitions are “as uncontroversial as possible”, not that they are wholly uncontroversial. If I wanted to be more aggressive I think I’d try to argue for something a bit stronger. Perhaps case intuitions about rational action will always be *at least as* problematic as corresponding case intuitions about what is known/rationally believed because we need to do a prior intuitive calculation of what is known/rationally believed by an agent in order to generate an intuition about what it is rational for that person to do (plus we also have to represent what that person wants). It’s not exactly “out of the frying pan, into the fire” (because I’ll agree that intuitive assessments of knowledge/rational belief and of rational action have the same status, even if a higher level of complexity attaches to the latter); but I feel like it’s “out of the frying pan, into a slightly hotter frying pan”.

    But of course I don’t think the fact that case intuitions are somewhat controversial should make us avoid reliance on them, any more than I think that the fact that sensory perception is prone to illusion should make us rely less on sensation.

  5. It doesn’t seem realistic to suppose we’ll be able to ditch intuition entirely; it is philosophy after all (though the intuitions resorted too need not be case-intuitions). But the sorts of worries that have been raised about the intuitive responses to the stakes-shifting cases seem peculiar to those cases. For example, worries about HIGH and LOW that are generated by noticing the different mechanisms or modules we use to form beliefs in high vs. low-stakes contexts won’t necessarily have force when applied to arguments for single principles; those arguments, after all, won’t necessarily involve contrasting reactions to distinct cases that vary only in how much is at stake in those cases. And, again, nor should we assume that the only arguments available for the relevant principles will involve case-intuitions; they could involve direct intuitive support for the principles themselves or other possibilities I suggested above.

    On your “more aggresive” approach, Jennifer: if the relevant principles are just conditional ones — principles about what reasons a subject has IF the subject knows that p or principles about what a subject is rational in doing IF the subject knows that p — then there won’t have to be a prior calculation about what the subject knows in order to figure out what the subject is rational in doing or to figure out what reasons the subject has. We will assume knowledge (say, that A has the best consequences of all available acts) and then ask what reasons the subject has (say, whether the subject has any reason for doing A).

  6. Distinguishing types of intuitions in this way (ones based on cases versus general principles) does seem quite helpful and important here. For what it’s worth, though, I agree with Jennifer that it’s not clear why fosucing on the latter should be priviledged, whether or not the general principles rely on less controversial case-intuitions.

    Just a question of clarification here: Would focusing on the Cases as Conclusion approach be a better route just in this area, or are you thinking this is a better route generally in most areas of philosophy? My sense is that it depends on the topic. I would worry, though, for any topic, including this one, whether it would ever be advisable to rely on intuitions about principles in a way that’s independent of any case-intuitions at all, especially if they entail something about the specific case. Personally, I tend to be more confident in case-intuitions than about principle-intuitions, unless of course I ground the latter in the former! Perhaps a sort of reflective equillibrium approach is most fitting, all else being equal.

  7. Basically echoing what Jennifer and Josh are saying here, I don’t think it’s especially likely that either principle-intuitions, or reasons-oriented-case-intuitions, will be on the whole in better epistemic standing than knowledge-oriented-case-intuitions.

    Regarding the former, a bit problem is going to be that you’d need those principles to be very general & exceptionless. But all you’re going to be able to get (I conjecture) is that _something_ in the neighborhood of the things you listed in comment #2 might be true, yet not in a way that secures for them more than a kind of “ceteris paribus” or “in general” strength.

    Regarding the kind of case intuitions that might be needed to secure the third step of the argument in the main post, it seems to me that our practices with the attributions of (or withholding our attributions of) knowledge are much more robust than our practices of attributions of reasons; accordingly, I expect our reasons-intuitions to be much more pliable, context-sensitive, subject to framing effects, etc. than our knowledge-intuitions are. This also might make for a further sort of trouble: _if_ (and it’s a big if) it turns out that our knowledge-intuitions just don’t really manifest any anti-intellectualist flavor, then we might have grounds to defer to the intellectualism manifested in our knowledge-intuitions over the (ex hypothesi) anti-intellectualism that might be justified by our reasons-intuitions.

    Now, none of this is any reason whatsoever to preemptively dismiss the Fantl & McGrath argumentative strategy! But I think it undermines the idea that it should be taken as prima facie preferable for epistemologists to switch to that sort of argument.

  8. Jonathan, good point about the relative complexity and diversity of judgments about reasons versus knowledge. Setting intuitions aside, though, I for one am extremely exited and welcoming of the rise of reasons-talk in epistemology. I do share Jonathan’s worry that our thinking here might be a bit more difficult to sort out (and connect with knowledge and justification exclusively as opposed to morality and prudence, e.g.). But there are many theoretical tools involving reasons-talk from moral philosophy and related fields that seem to be proving very interesting and useful in the context (no pun intended!) of epistemology.

  9. I definitely don’t want to recommend a blanket methodological presumption in favor of principle-intuitions over case-intuitions. I just want to offer a different use for the stakes-shifting cases. (In my case, I have much stronger intuitions in favor of some of the principles I mentioned than I do about, say, whether the attributors speak truly in the various cases.) And direct intuitive support for the principles is only one way to argue for them.

    Obviously, whether the arguments in favor of the principles are any good would have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Even if the intuitions in response to the cases are problematic, this doesn’t bear on the worth of the principles. Nor is it fair to assume that the case for the principles will fall victim to the same ills that the case-intuitions (might) fall victim to. The arguments for the principles will differ, so the problems with those arguments (if any) will differ.

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