Transparency and the ethics of belief


A central dispute in the ethics of belief concerns what kinds of considerations can be reasons for belief. Nishi Shah has recently argued that the correct explanation of transparency in doxastic deliberation—the psychological phenomenon that only considerations bearing on the truth of p can be deliberated from to conclude in believing that p—settles this debate in favor of strict evidentialism, the view that only evidence can be a reason for belief. I argue that Shah’s favored explanation of transparency fails to imply this result—that it leaves open the possibility that there can be non-evidential reasons for belief. The upshot is that practical non-evidentialists—those who hold that there are at least some non-evidential, practical reasons for belief—can happily accept the fact of transparency, and Shah’s explanation of it, without having to abandon their view.

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  1. 1.

    Recent defenders of this view include Adler (2002), Kelly (2002), Parfit (2001, 2011), Skorupski (2010).

  2. 2.

    Recent defenders of this view include Foley (1987), Reisner (2009).

  3. 3.

    I borrow this way of characterizing transparency from Steglich-Peterson (2006, p. 502).

  4. 4.

    That Moran (1988) thinks transparency alone implies the truth of evidentialism can be seen in the following passage: “The transparency of belief places certain constraints on the sort of active stance I may take towards my belief, and hence qualifies the ‘practical’ nature of the practical questions. Transparency means that I must treat the practical question ‘Shall I believe p?’ as the impersonal theoretical question about p, and this means that the reasons I may have for adopting the belief are restricted to reasons connected with the truth of p” (p. 146). Beyond his remarks in this passage, Moran provides no further explanation for the move from transparency to the conclusion that only evidence can be a reason for belief, and cites nothing other than transparency in support of this conclusion. But since it’s not at all obvious how a descriptive fact about our doxastic deliberation could alone imply the normative result that Moran’s after, the inference from transparency to evidentialism is one that calls for further explanation.

  5. 5.

    In anticipating this line of reply, Shah argues that no such alternative explanation is plausibly forthcoming (2006, p. 490). I agree with Shah that none of the non-evidentialist-friendly explanations that he entertains are satisfactory.

  6. 6.

    For extended discussion and defense of this idea, see Shah (2003), Shah and Velleman (2005). For an earlier defense of the same idea, albeit one that proceeds on very different grounds, see Boghossian (2003).

  7. 7.

    According to Shah, this possession condition for belief—viz., “endorsing the truth norm” and its prescription to believe that p only if p—is to be understood along norm-expressivist lines. For discussion of this proposal, see Shah and Velleman (2005). As the metaethical issue of how to understand “endorsing the truth norm” is, as far as I can tell, irrelevant to the discussion in this paper, I set it aside here.

  8. 8.

    More specifically, Shah (2003) claims that the truth norm is the sole objective norm for belief, not that it’s the sole norm for belief, as such: “I suggest that we think of the prescription that one accepts in framing one's deliberation about whether to believe p in terms of an objective norm. The objective norm of belief prohibits believing that p unless p is true. But since we can’t directly check our representations against the truth, we need subjective norms by which to guide our doxastic activities. The role of the objective norm, whose acceptance is expressed in the phenomenon of transparency, is to provide a standard of success for subjective norms of good evidence that an agent can directly apply in his doxastic deliberation” (p. 471). So, Shah holds that while there are other, subjective norms for rational belief—in particular, evidential norms derivative of the objective norm of truth—the truth norm is the standalone objective norm for believing.

  9. 9.

    See Korsgaard (1986), Smith (1994), Kelly (2002), Persson (2004), Kolodny (2005).

  10. 10.

    See Millgram (1996), Schroeder (2007), Markovitz (2010).

  11. 11.

    See, for example, Foley (1987, 1993).

  12. 12.

    A reader might wonder whether wishful thinking strictly qualifies as a process of belief-formation. Perhaps episodes of wishful thinking can result only in the formation of mere wishes that p (or something of the like), rather than in beliefs that p. This is a defensible view. But Shah (2003), at least, is committed to the view that wishful thinking, and other non-deliberative processes, can result in the formation of belief. Indeed, this commitment figures prominently in his (2003) case against rival, teleological explanations of transparency of the sort defended in Steglich-Peterson (2006) and Velleman (2000).

  13. 13.

    Cf. Ferrero (2009).

  14. 14.

    That there must be “antecedently” good enough reason to be engaged in an activity in order for the norms that govern that activity to have binding force for us is just to say that our reasons for engaging in the relevant activity can’t have their source in the relevant norms themselves.

  15. 15.

    Enoch (2006) defends this intuition at length, specifically in the context of arguing that norms constitutive of the concept of action (or agency) are to be understood as merely conditionally rather than categorically binding norms for action. Marmor (2001) makes a similar point.

  16. 16.

    Note that I’m not here denying that false beliefs (including those formed as a result of non-deliberative processes) can rightly be called ‘incorrect’, nor that true beliefs can rightly be called ‘correct’. Rather the point is just that, in any given case, such ex post assessments won’t carry any categorical prescriptive force—they won’t imply anything about what we ought simpliciter to believe—unless there’s antecedently good enough reason for us to maintain/revise the relevant belief(s) via a belief-forming activity that’s governed by this standard of correctness. So in this respect, my proposal might qualify as a deflationary view about the normativity of correctness, similar to that put forward in Papineau (2013), and discussed in Rosen (2001) and Hattiangadi (2007). Though my proposal may also be compatible with a view on which the normativity of correctness is to be fundamentally understood in evaluative, rather than in prescriptive terms. For a defense of this latter sort of view, offered as an account of the normativity of the truth norm in particular, see McHugh (2012).


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I’m grateful to Michael Brady, Juan Comesaña, Terry Horgan, Conor McHugh, and Mark Timmons for valuable comments on earlier drafts. Thanks also to audiences at the 4th Annual Edinburgh Graduate Epistemology Conference and the 5th Annual Northwestern/Notre Dame Epistemology Conference.

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Howard, C. Transparency and the ethics of belief. Philos Stud 173, 1191–1201 (2016).

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  • Reasons for belief
  • Evidentialism
  • Non-evidentialism