Normativity: Epistemic and Practical
In recent years, a literature has emerged on the nature of reasons, rationality, and normativity that cuts across ethics and epistemology. This meta-normative turn got started in the work of a handful of leading ethical theorists, and it is now taking hold in epistemology. But while more and more epistemologists are participating, it is safe to say that epistemology has only begun to profit from the insights that the turn has precipitated.
Much of my research has aimed to help bring epistemology up to speed, showing how old topics can be illuminated by insights from the meta-normative turn and how new topics open up in light of it. But I also think that there is a lot that ethics has to learn from epistemology, and a good deal of my research has been devoted to showing what ethicists should take away from epistemology (and especially from virtue epistemology).
What follows is an overview of my completed research at the intersection of epistemology and ethics. This research is either published/forthcoming, under review, or going under review soon. Some of it draws from my dissertation, which I describe here. Over here, I talk about some projects in progress and on the horizon, beginning with some projects in individual epistemology and ethics and ending with a couple in other areas (viz., in social epistemology and metaphysics).
1. Reasons, Rationality, and Justification
In "What Apparent Reasons Appear to Be" (now out in Philosophical Studies), I develop an account of subjective reasons on which they are constituted by exercises of competences to correctly respond to objective reasons. Specifically, I claim that subjective reasons are apparent facts that we are competently attracted to treat like objective reasons. Owing to the competence/performance distinction, it is possible to be competently attracted to treat apparent facts as if they were objective reasons even when they are not objective reasons. Indeed, it is even possible to exercise our competence to correctly respond to objective reasons when we systematically fail to act or think for reasons that are objectively good. This fact is what explains why one's non-factive mental duplicate in a skeptical scenario has the same subjective reasons that one has: for one’s duplicate will retain the competence to respond to objective reasons that one has.
Following many meta-ethicists, I understand rationality in terms of subjective reasons. Hence, I think that we should deny that being rational amounts to correctly responding to reasons that are objectively good—at least barring certain radical ideas about the norms that explain when reasons are objectively good (namely, my own radical ideas described in §5). In “On Divorcing the Rational and the Justified in Epistemology”, I rely on this picture to provide an account of the difference between rationality and justification. The difference is that while rationality turns on the balance of subjective reasons that one possesses, justification turns on the balance of objective reasons that one possesses.
What is it to possess an objective reason? Here again I rely on a distinction from virtue epistemology. While subjective reasons are considerations that we merely competently treat like objective reasons, possessed objective reasons are considerations that we aptly treat like objective reasons: that is, we treat them like the objective reasons that they actually are in virtue of manifesting competence. On this view, possessing an objective reason is itself an achievement. I develop this account of possession in my new paper “The Achievements of Reason”. This paper unifies themes from the two aforementioned papers in a larger view that I call Rationalist Virtue Epistemology.
This view emerged from collaborations and interactions with Ernest Sosa. In “The Place of Reasons in Epistemology” (forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Reasons and Normativity but written years ago), Sosa and I stress that reasons must be possessed in order to do most work in epistemology, and argue that possessing a reason has to be understood as an exercise of competence. We also claim that this competence is not essentially reasons-based: manifestations of that competence need not themselves be based on reasons. While I still endorse that claim, I think it is misleading. Indeed, our picture was too pessimistic. As "The Achievements of Reason" illustrates, competences can be Reason-based without being reasons-based in the narrower sense that Sosa and I had in mind, and there are good reasons to take competences to be Reason-based.
Although Rationalist Virtue Epistemology gives reasons an important role, the view is distinctive in regarding Reason as being at least as fundamental and explanatorily significant. Like Joseph Raz, I am inclined to think that Reason and reasons are a package deal. Reasons are the things that it is Reason’s job to heed, and Reason heeds them through competences to correctly respond to reasons. The dependence of reasons on Reason gives the view a genuine virtue epistemological cast that distinguishes it from reasons-first approaches like Mark Schroeder's. And the dependence of Reason on reasons sharply distinguishes the view from orthodox virtue epistemology in a way that yields numerous payoffs documented in “The Achievements of Reason”.
A final issue I've worked on under the heading of Reasons, Rationality, and Justification is the topic of what it is to believe something for normative reasons. One might be surprised to see someone working on this topic in its own right, since one might have thought that this topic is merely a special case of the broader topic of believing for reasons. But this attitude would have to rest, I believe, on a highly substantive view: namely, the Composite View, which holds that to believe something for a normative reason is nothing more than (i) to believe something for a reason and (ii) for that reason to correspond to a normative reason, where (i) and (ii) are independent conditions. In a joint paper with Errol Lord called "Believing for Normative Reasons: Prime, Not Composite", I argue that this view is false and defend an alternative conception of believing for normative reasons on which it is prime, not composite. A key motivation for this view is thematically related to my other work above: namely, the thought that believing for normative reasons is naturally viewed as an achievement.
If believing for normative reasons can naturally be viewed as an achievement, some important implications follow for epistemology that I discussed in the first chapter of my dissertation. Perhaps most importantly, I think it follows that it is a mistake to treat evidentialism and virtue epistemology as being rivals at all. Evidentialists can without revising their core view make room for competence by viewing it as a necessary condition for being sensitive to evidence-for relations, which is itself required for the achievement of heeding the evidence. Even if the founding fathers of evidentialism (viz., Conee and Feldman) failed to notice this place for competence in their core view, it does not follow that evidentialism must take an impure, hybrid form to exploit competence.
2. Truth and Epistemic Value
To explain the significance of rationality from the epistemic point of view, I argue that we need to reject some widely assumed views about epistemic value. Many epistemologists working on epistemic value assume that derivative value has to be grounded in fundamental value via instrumental relations. I think this assumption—which I call Instrumentalism about Derivative Value—is mistaken. Rejecting Instrumentalism is not uncommon in the wider value-theoretic literature, but epistemic value theorists have continued to assume it and have not explored what follows if it is rejected. In "Veritism Unswamped" (forthcoming in Mind, and which is a long successor to a short critical piece published in Thought), I develop a theory of epistemic value that dispenses with this assumption and show how it solves long-standing problems. I rely on Thomas Hurka’s idea that properly valuing fundamental value is itself derivatively but non-instrumentally valuable. Using that idea, I argue that central epistemic properties like justification, coherence, and substantive rationality derive non-instrumental epistemic value in virtue of the fact that they manifest different epistemically fitting ways of valuing accuracy.
This theory of derivative epistemic value leads to a simple account of why rational belief necessarily has value from the epistemic point of view. The picture honors the intuitive thought that we care about rationality because we care about accuracy. But it is perfectly consistent with the thought that someone whose belief-forming processes are unreliable might be fully rational. I argue that this story is the same story we need to explain the epistemic value of forms of belief that are instrumentally connected to fundamental epistemic value. Once Instrumentalism is abandoned, we can have a unified and truth-oriented account of epistemic value. The concluding chapter of my dissertation, "Rationality and Fundamental Epistemic Value", explains why the value of rationality seems especially puzzling, why Instrumentalist accounts of the value of rationality fail, and how the framework from "Veritism Unswamped" solves the puzzle.
3. Responsibility, Respect, and Virtue
In “Responsibilism out of Character” (forthcoming in the OUP collection Epistemic Situationism), I develop a new version of responsibilism that dispenses with the assumption that there is a connection between epistemic responsibility and character traits, and so sidesteps the empirical challenges of situationists. By dispensing with that assumption, I argue that responsibilists can provide satisfactory accounts of central epistemic properties like justification and rationality, thereby answering Jason Baehr's doubts about ''strong conservative'' virtue epistemology.
There is a close connection between the view I develop in this paper and the Rationalist Virtue Epistemology I develop in “The Achievements of Reason”. This connection illustrates that the dichotomy between competence-based virtue epistemology and responsibilist virtue epistemology is a false one. Once we see that a competence-based virtue epistemologist can be a Reason-based epistemologist, it is easy to see how competence-based virtue epistemology could converge with responsibilist virtue epistemology. Responsibilist virtues and Reason-based virtues are one and the same virtues, described at different levels of analysis.
4. Discretion, Agnosticism, and Pragmatic Reasons for Belief
Discretion is the thesis that if one has sufficient evidence for p, it can be epistemically permissible for one either to believe p or to be agnostic on whether p. Many epistemologists treat Discretion as a datum. But as several writers have argued, if it is true, it may have important implications for whether we can exercise direct control over our doxastic attitudes without irrationality. Roughly, the thought is that if sufficient evidence does not decide whether we should believe or be agnostic, we can simply will to go either way with no irrationality. In my new paper "The Illusion of Discretion'' (forthcoming in Synthese), I argue that Discretion is not a datum and, indeed, is false.
5. The Normativity of Rationality in General
While my dissertation focused on explaining why epistemic rationality matters from the epistemic point of view, I am also interested in why rationality (period) matters (period). I think the broader problem about the normativity of rationality is not restricted simply to requirements of coherence, as the literature often assumes. The broader problem is well posed by this question: how could it be true that we necessarily have real reason to comply with the requirements of rationality if rationality only requires us to respond to apparent reasons?
In “Respect and the Reality of Apparent Reasons”, I take a shot at answering this broader question. The answer relies on two key suggestions. The first is the suggestion that there are kinds of duties---which I call duties of respect---of which it is true that if one appears to violate a duty of this kind, one is in fact violating a duty of this kind. To see an example of this phenomenon, consider the loyalty called for by some relationships. It is easy to argue that if it appears to you that X-ing would constitute disloyalty and you decide to X anyway, you are thereby in fact violating a real, not merely apparent, duty of loyalty. The following case illustrates this:
(DISGUISE) A and B agreed to have a monogamous relationship. But A worries that B would cheat if B got the chance. A decides to test this hypothesis. With the help of some extraordinary costuming, A manages to dress up like a totally different person on whom B would have an instant crush. Disguised, A has been showing up around B's workplace to make advances. B believes on the basis of this misleading evidence that this is a fascinating person distinct from A. B now seems to be having a date with this distinct person when A had planned to be out of town....
Suppose that A suddenly reveals the truth and demands an explanation. The following would not be a convincing response on B's behalf: “Look, I was not really disloyal. After all, it is you I am showing to a fine evening!" Plausibly, this is because loyalty calls (objectively!) for us to respond to the appearances in certain ways. Hence, for duties of loyalty, if it appears that one is violating a duty of this kind, one is in fact violating a duty of this kind.
The second key suggestion is a suggestion that allows us to generalize this point. I argue that there is an objective norm of respect for objective reasons that we violate whenever we fail to correctly respond to apparent reasons. What is wrong with someone who violates the norms of rationality is that this person violates this objective norm. For that reason, when one has an apparent reason to X, one in fact has a real objective reason to X. And this reason is not merely a slack one, since reasons of respect generally are peremptory rather than enticing. I argue that this story gives rationality all the significance that we could reasonably demand of it.
In "Knowledge as a Non-Normative Relation" (forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research), I argue against the view that knowledge is constituted by normative properties/relations or is itself a normative relation, and develop a positive non-normativist account of the nature of knowledge.
What Apparent Reasons Appear To Be
On Divorcing the Rational and the Justified in Epistemology
The Achievements of Reason
The Place of Reasons in Epistemology
Reasons in Epistemology
Believing for Normative Reasons: Prime, Not Composite
Truth Monism without Teleology
Rationality and Fundamental Epistemic Value (Concluding Dissertation Chapter)
Responsibilism out of Character
The Illusion of Discretion
Respect and the Reality of Apparent Reasons
How to Be a Redundant Realist
Skorupski on Spontaneity, Apriority, and Normative Truth
Knowledge as a Non-Normative Relation