Justification as faultlessness


According to deontological approaches to justification, we can analyze justification in deontic terms. In this paper, I try to advance the discussion of deontological approaches by applying recent insights in the semantics of deontic modals. Specifically, I use the distinction between weak necessity modals (should, ought to) and strong necessity modals (must, have to) to make progress on a question that has received surprisingly little discussion in the literature, namely: ‘What’s the best version of a deontological approach?’ The two most obvious hypotheses are the Permissive View, according to which justified expresses permission, and the Obligatory View, according to which justified expresses some species of obligation. I raise difficulties for both of these hypotheses. In light of these difficulties, I propose a new position, according to which justified expresses a property I call faultlessness, defined as the dual of weak necessity modals. According to this view, an agent is justified in \(\phi\)-ing iff it’s not the case that she should [/ought] not \(\phi\). I argue that this ‘Faultlessness View’ gives us precisely what’s needed to avoid the problems facing the Permissive and Obligatory Views.

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  1. 1.

    I’ll be assuming that constructions such as (1) and (2) ascribe ex ante justification. That is, the most natural reading of (1) is one on which it’s true as long as the UN has sufficiently strong reasons for intervening; the UN need not actually intervene. Likewise, the most natural reading of (2) is one on which it’s true as long as Poirot stands in a sufficiently strong epistemic position towards the proposition that the butler did it; Poirot need not actually believe this proposition. (In Sect. 5, I briefly discuss ascriptions of ex post justification.) I’ll also be assuming that the ex ante justification in question is ultima facie rather than prima facie: on its most natural reading, (2) is false if Poirot has some evidence that the butler did it, but this is trumped by countervailing evidence that the maid did it.

  2. 2.

    By now there’s a large literature on deontological approaches to justification. See e.g., Alston (1988); Plantinga (1993): chp.1; the papers in Steup (2001); Littlejohn (2012a): chp.1.

  3. 3.

    Alston (1988) and Steup (2012) are both clear that they understand deontological approaches in this way.

  4. 4.

    Most of the epistemology literature on deontological approaches focuses on Alston’s (1988) objection, according to which deontological approaches to justification entail an implausible form of doxastic voluntarism. For responses to Alston, see Kim (1994); Chuard and Southwood (2009); Nottelman (2013).

  5. 5.

    One sometimes encounters the view that justified is a technical notion, not a term in ordinary discourse. Presumably proponents of this view will think the project of trying to determine the correct semantics for justified is misguided. However, it seems to me that this view can’t be right. First, epistemologists regularly appeal to pre-theoretical intuitions about justification to support or refute particular views—a practice that would be hard to explain if we had no pre-theoretical concept of justification. Second, the term justified is used fairly frequently ‘in the wild’, as evidenced by the fact that it occurs 5613 times in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies 2008, retrieved May 1, 2016). (For comparison, heroic occurs only 4230 times, and appalling occurs only 1659 times.) While the majority of these occurrences are broadly moral/practical in nature, at least some are clearly epistemic. Some examples:

    • “It follows that a professional school counselor is not justified in believing that the student is incapable of taking proactive action…”—Empowerment Theory for the Professional School Counselor

    • “Republicans are taking over the House of Representatives with a justified belief that the American people have given them a mandate…”—The Democrats and Health Care.

  6. 6.

    See Sloman (1970); Horn (1972, 1989); Harman (1993); McNamara (1996); von Fintel and Iatridou (2005, 2008); Copley (2006); Portner (2009); Lassiter (2011): chp. 6; Chrisman (2012); Silk (2012), among others.

  7. 7.

    See Sadock (1978); Stanley (2008); Littlejohn (2011).

  8. 8.

    There is an interesting research program exploring whether the difference between weak and strong necessity modals is cross-linguistically robust. See von Fintel and Iatridou (2008) for the view that a number of languages express weak necessity by augmenting a strong necessity modal with counterfactual morphology (e.g., French Il devrait faire la vaisselle (weak) versus Il doit faire la vaisselle (strong)).

  9. 9.

    For the purposes of this paper, I’ll avoid taking a stand on how we should conceive of these normative standards or ideals. However they’re understood, I assume they not only serve to distinguish between different ‘flavors’ of deontic modality (e.g. moral obligations versus epistemic obligations), but that they can also—at least in principle—distinguish between different norms of the same flavor (e.g., distinguishing between different moral duties, or different epistemic norms). They thus correspond to Kratzer’s notion of an ordering source.

  10. 10.

    Arguably, the Optimality Interpretation also offers a way of understanding supererogation. According to one way of thinking about supererogation, an agent A’s action \(\psi\) is supererogatory iff A should \(\psi\), but A doesn’t have to \(\psi\). According to the Optimality Interpretation, this amounts to saying that all of the very best worlds are worlds where A \(\psi\)s, but there are acceptable worlds where A doesn’t \(\psi\). While this nicely captures one facet of the notion of supererogation (in particular, the idea that supererogatory actions are ‘above the call of duty’), it doesn’t appear to capture what all authors mean by the notion. At least some authors tie supererogation to notions of praiseworthiness and blamelessness. As we’ll see shortly, these notions don’t neatly map onto the notion of optimality.

  11. 11.

    This example also illustrates how faultlessness comes apart from weak necessity. ‘You should [/ought to] give 15 % of your income to GiveDirectly’ is false, since there’s an optimal world where you don’t give 15 % of your income to GiveDirectly (\(\hbox {w}_{2}\)).

  12. 12.

    I borrow the term ‘hypological’ from Zimmerman (2002), who uses it refer to notions relating to responsibility.

  13. 13.

    In general, a distinction between faultlessness and blamelessness will arise whenever it’s possible to have reasonable false beliefs about whether one is doing what one should do.

  14. 14.

    Kratzer claims that weak necessity modals in English and German lack duals (2013: 184), but offers no evidence for this claim. (Perhaps her evidence is the absence of any obvious candidates.)

  15. 15.

    It’s a bit hard to find explicit endorsements of the Permissive View. However, see Goldman (1986): 60–61; Steup (2000); Kroedel (2012, 2013a, b) for sympathetic discussions. Even when it isn’t explicitly endorsed, I think the Permissive View is frequently assumed; certainly many epistemologists appear to use the expressions epistemically justified and epistemically permitted interchangeably.

  16. 16.

    A number of philosophers have discussed versions of what I’ve been calling the Faultlessness View. (See Ginet 1975; Moser 1989; Alston 1988; Steup 2012.) Perhaps the earliest endorsement of a view along these lines is Chisholm (1956a, b), though Chisholm couches the view in terms of what’s acceptable rather than what’s justified.) However, none of these authors explicitly distinguishes weak from strong necessity modals; hence none of these authors distinguishes this view from the Permissive View. Indeed, some clearly conflate the two—see e.g. Moser (1989): 35; Steup (2012).

  17. 17.

    While both the Permissive View and the Faultlessness View validate the inference from from (13a) to (13b), the Faultlessness View is the logically strongest semantics for justified that does so. To see this, note that on the Faultlessness View, (13a) is just equivalent to (17), which is in turn equivalent to (13b). Since negation reverses logical strength, any stronger semantics for justified would entail that (13a) is weaker than (17), and hence weaker than (13b).

  18. 18.

    Pryor (2012) calls such cases, ‘epistemic tragedies.’

  19. 19.

    For relevant discussion, see White (2005); Feldman (2007); Matheson (2011); Ballantyne and Coffman (2011, 2012); Kelly (2013); Meacham (2014); Horowitz (2014); Schoenfield (2014). (Note that while some epistemologists in this debate use justification talk, others formulate the question in terms of rational permission.)

  20. 20.

    This is an intra-subject version of an example from Kelly (2013).

  21. 21.

    See e.g., Nelkin (2000); Sutton (2005, 2007); Littlejohn (2012b).

  22. 22.

    See e.g., Kyburg (1961); Hill and Schechter (2007).

  23. 23.

    See Littlejohn (2012b, 2013) for reservations. For responses to Littlejohn, see Kroedel (2013a, b).

  24. 24.

    Our preservation of MPC is made possible by the way we formulated MPC within a permissive framework. Suppose instead we had formulated MPC as follows:

    • Permissive MPC*: If ([S is permitted to believe \(p_{1}\)] & [S is permitted to believe \(p_{2}\)]…& [S is permitted to believe \(p_{n}\)]), and \(p_{1}\)-\(p_{n}\) obviously entail \(p_{z}\), then S is permitted to believe \(p_{z}\).

    Clearly, the view that permissions don’t agglomerate is inconsistent with this way of understanding MPC. (Presumably, those who maintain that a denial of the agglomeration of rational belief entails a denial of MPC (e.g., Williamson 2015) have something like Permissive MPC* in mind.) But even though Kroedel’s solution is not consistent with every way of formulating MPC, it is still compatible with one fairly natural formulation. In my eyes, this remains an important advantage.

  25. 25.

    Note that any view on which necessity modals are universal quantifiers over a set of worlds will predict that necessity modals agglomerate. If all the worlds in a certain domain D are \(\phi\)-worlds, and all the worlds in D are \(\psi\)-worlds, then it follows that all the worlds in D are \(\phi\) & \(\psi\)-worlds.

  26. 26.

    If we follow the Optimality Interpretation in taking expressions of faultlessness to be existential quantifiers over the optimal worlds in the modal base, it becomes clear why faultlessness doesn’t agglomerate. Just because there’s a \(\phi\)-world in domain D and a \(\psi\)-world in D, it doesn’t follow that there’s a world in D where both \(\phi\) and \(\psi\) obtain.

  27. 27.

    Harman (2016) calls cases along these lines, ‘morally permissible mistakes.’

  28. 28.

    Here I assume that weak necessity modals can be used to express weak epistemic necessity. For reservations, see Yalcin (2016).

  29. 29.

    Note that this data also count against Fantl and McGrath’s view that justification ascriptions are ambiguous between permissive and obligatory readings (2009: 89). If justification ascriptions had permissive readings, we’d expect some instances of (37) to have readings on which they’re coherent.

  30. 30.

    See Kratzer (1977) for discussion of the interactions between in view of-phrases and modals.

  31. 31.

    The standard-shifting diagnosis is similarly ill-equipped to explain why (40) sounds worse than (34).

  32. 32.

    See Sutton (2005, 2007); Littlejohn (2012a).

  33. 33.

    This isn’t to deny that we can induce a ranking over worlds using the truth norm—of course we can. Nor is it to deny that such a ranking would be, in some perfectly legitimate sense, epistemic. The idea is rather that epistemic uses of justified are most plausibly sensitive to a distinct epistemic ranking, induced by a distinct epistemic norm.

  34. 34.

    One might worry that by saying that epistemic uses of justified are sensitive to an evidential ranking, I am incorporating a substantive epistemological commitment into the semantics of justified. However, it should be noted that the commitment in question is pretty minimal. In particular, our semantics takes no stand on how we should conceive of evidence; it also takes no stand on what it is for a particular body of evidence to support a belief. What’s more, we can provide a principled motivation for incorporating a connection between epistemic uses of justified and the evidence norm into our semantics: as we’ve seen, forging this connection enables us to explain incoherence of (46), which would otherwise go unexplained.

    For those who remain skeptical that epistemic uses of justified are sensitive to an evidential ranking, I should stress that my response to the Second Objection does not stand or fall with the idea. All my response requires is that epistemic uses of justified are sensitive to a ranking that doesn’t care about the truth-value of a belief. The evidence norm is just one way of inducing such a ranking.

  35. 35.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this objection.

  36. 36.

    Presumably, the knowledge norm is not entirely independent of the evidence norm. After all, whether a belief counts as knowledge depends, at least in part, on that belief’s degree of evidential support. And so the knowledge ranking (that is, the ranking induced by the knowledge norm) will take into account all the factors that influence evidential ranking. However, the knowledge ranking will also look at further factors—in particular, the truth-value of the belief—that do not affect evidential ranking.

  37. 37.

    An anonymous referee raised the question of whether the Faultlessness View rules out the possibility of epistemic supererogation. As suggested in fn. 10, one way of understanding supererogation is in terms of the gap between weak and strong necessity modals: it’s supererogatory (relative to some normative standard N) for A to adopt doxastic attitude D towards p iff A \(\hbox {ought}_{N}\) adopt D towards p, but it’s not the case that A \(\hbox {must}_{N}\) adopt D towards p. (In terms of the Optimality Interpretation: A adopts D towards p in all of the N-optimal worlds, but there’s at least one N-acceptable world where A doesn’t adopt D towards p.) Proponents of the Faultlessness View can happily allow for the possibility of epistemic supererogation, thus understood.

  38. 38.

    Many epistemologists endorse a conception of doxastic justification along these lines, though it’s often formulated in terms of believing p on the basis of reasons or grounds that propositionally justify believing p (e.g., Korcz 2000; Kvanvig 2003; Conee and Feldman 2005). I formulate the account in terms of methods so as to side-step problems involving agents whose beliefs are improperly based on good reasons. (For relevant discussion, see Turri 2010.)

  39. 39.

    Note that at least some of the data we used to motivate the Faultlessness View can be replicated using ascriptions of doxastic justification and knowledge. To my ears, the following sound just as incoherent as (37):

    • ?? S has a justified belief that p, but S (epistemically) should suspend judgment on p.

    • ?? S knows p, but S (epistemically) should suspend judgment on p.

    The view that doxastic justification and knowledge ascriptions entail mere permissibility (rather than faultlessness) is unable to explain this incoherence.

  40. 40.

    And there may well be an etymological explanation for the fact that both right and justified serve this function, given justified’s original meaning as made just or right.


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Special thanks to Andy Egan, Alvin Goldman, Simon Goldstein, Carlotta Pavese, Kat Przyjemski, Jonathan Schaffer, Max Sechman, Susanna Siegel, Paul Silva, Ernie Sosa, and an anonymous referee at Philosophical Studies for extensive comments. My thanks also to David Black, Will Fleisher, Daniel Fogal, Georgi Gardiner, Mike Hicks, Ezra Keshet, Nico Kirk-Giannini, Thomas Kroedel, Stephanie Leary, Martin Lin, Kurt Sylvan, and audiences at UC-Boulder, the University of Edinburgh, the National University of Singapore, and the 2016 meeting of the Eastern APA for helpful feedback and discussion.

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Beddor, B. Justification as faultlessness. Philos Stud 174, 901–926 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-016-0713-4

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  • Justification
  • Permission
  • Weak necessity
  • Strong necessity
  • Duals
  • Lottery paradox