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Second best epistemology: fallibility and normativity


The Fallibility Norm—the claim that we ought to take our fallibility into account when managing our beliefs—appears to conflict with several other compelling epistemic norms. To shed light on these apparent conflicts, I distinguish two kinds of norms: norms of perfection and norms of compensation. Roughly, norms of perfection tell us how agents ought to behave if they’re to be perfect; norms of compensation tell us how imperfect agents ought to behave in order to compensate for their imperfections. I argue that the Fallibility Norm is a norm of compensation, and that thinking of it like this helps us make progress in debates surrounding disagreement, higher-order evidence, and coherence.

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  1. 1.

    See Lewis (1986b: 586, 1999: 404) on Jeffrey Conditionalization.

  2. 2.

    Whereas Lewis’s (1971) arguments about immodest inductive methods are often discussed in the context of fallibility’s significance, this side of Lewis’s work hasn’t been discussed.

  3. 3.

    Lipsey and Lancaster (1956).

  4. 4.

    As far as I know, only Egan (2008) and Titelbaum (2015) explicitly address this sort of view, and both do it by way of conclusion.

  5. 5.

    A norm makes substantive doxastic requirements if there is some doxastic attitude A and some proposition P such that the norm implies that if an agent takes any doxastic attitude toward P at time t, the agent ought to take A toward P at t.

  6. 6.

    Christensen (2010), van Wietmarschen (2013), Sliwa and Horowitz (2015) and DiPaolo (2017).

  7. 7.

    Lasonen-Aarnio (2014), Worsnip (2015) and Weatherson (Do judgments screen evidence? unpublished manuscript). Conditionalization and Single-Premise Closure are other examples. See Lewis (1999) and Schechter (2013), respectively.

  8. 8.

    See Elga (2010) and Titelbaum (2015).

  9. 9.

    Zynda (1996) and Christensen (2007) model these conflicts with an epistemic version of Rossian pluralism. Worsnip (2015: 32–37) models the conflict by analogy to the conflict between prudential and moral norms.

  10. 10.

    Schechter (2013) seems to endorse Pessimistic Conflict regarding Single-Premise Closure. But, regarding certain kinds of coherence, Schechter endorses a version of Optimistic Conflict. See Sect. 5.2.

  11. 11.

    Norms are expressed by declarative statements, saying what is and isn’t permissible in certain circumstances. Individual agential norms, for instance, might take the following form: ‘In circumstances C, agent A ought to ϕ’. I will speak as if norms are truth-evaluable. Expressivists can reinterpret things in the standard ways.

  12. 12.

    Rawls (1999a: 216).

  13. 13.

    See Casteneda (1981) and Feldman (1990). This case is analogous to Lewis’s conceptual discovery case (Sect. 1).

  14. 14.

    Should all normative domains recognize secondary norms? Chisholm (1963: 35) notes that ordinarily game rules don’t say how to proceed if those rules have been violated (games of sport are an important exception). Presumably, this doesn’t imply that these rules are faulty. But we don’t have to play games, and when we do, often enough we can easily comply with their rules. However, we do have to believe, act, and coordinate our actions with others, and, unfortunately, doing these things in the best way isn’t always feasible. Rawls was on the right track: secondary norms are needed when conditions are unfavorable or noncompliance is a real possibility.

  15. 15.

    For simplicity, I’m assuming the Limit Assumption, that there’s a highest ranked set of worlds, rather than an infinitely ascending sequence.

  16. 16.

    I’ll remain neutral on other questions about norms of perfection and norms of compensation.

  17. 17.

    Titelbaum (2015) argues that, necessarily, false beliefs about the requirements of rationality are irrational beliefs.

  18. 18.

    Cf. Christensen (2007: 21).

  19. 19.

    Compare two familiar imperatives: “Pack everything you need” and “Remember to pack your toothbrush”. The latter is a case-specific application of the former that provides more guidance.

  20. 20.

    Since the Fallibility Norm can be understood as equivalent to the conjunction of its applications, I’ll refer to it as a norm of compensation.

  21. 21.

    Cf. Rawls (1999b: 90) on ideal political theory. However, whereas Rawls believed that nonideal societies should be working toward the ideal society, such a transitional nonideal theory in epistemic rationality is less promising, given the relative permanence of the fallible cognitive mechanisms that call for nonideal epistemic theory in the first place.

  22. 22.

    I discuss this more below (Sect. 5).

  23. 23.

    See Egan and Elga (2005).

  24. 24.

    Cf. Zynda (1996: 190, 191) on probabilism.

  25. 25.

    Anderson (2010: 155).

  26. 26.

    Indeed, I’ll argue that we should interpret Right Reasons as a norm of perfection even though Titelbaum (2015) intends for his defense of Right Reasons to apply to imperfect agents. As will become clear, I don’t think the arguments support applying Right Reasons to fallible agents. But Right Reasons is plausible to a certain extent. Capturing that plausibility is one aim of the framework I’ve developed.

  27. 27.

    Another perspective is that neither is true. But I’m focusing on the debate between Right Reasons and Conciliationism, leaving discussion of more moderate positions like the “Total Evidence View” for another day. I want to investigate what we should think about disagreement if receiving evidence of disagreement, or other forms of higher-order evidence, doesn’t change what your total evidence supports. Whereas Right Reasons theorists and some Conciliationists accept this assumption, the standard Total Evidence View doesn’t.

  28. 28.

    RR theorists include Titelbaum (2015), Weatherson (Do judgments screen evidence? unpublished manuscript, 2013) and Lasonen-Aarnio (2014). Conciliationists who accept this conclusion include Christensen (2010, 2011) and van Wietmarschen (2013). If Sliwa and Horowitz (2015) don’t accept this conclusion, they accept a similar conclusion. Vavova (2015) is a Conciliationist who rejects this claim.

  29. 29.

    This feature of epistemic systems is characterized as immodesty: they always recommend full trust in themselves. See Lewis (1971). I can only speculate, but I suspect Lewis’s position on these matters is more nuanced than the one often attributed to him (see Sect. 1).

  30. 30.

    Egan (2008) defends compartmentalization for fallible subjects with certain kinds of cognitive structures. The bracketing Conciliationists call for is a sort of compartmentalization, as well. Foley (1993) recommends compartmentalizing in Lottery and Preface cases where (he thinks) inconsistent belief is acceptable. Greco (2014) argues that epistemic akrasia is a “species of inconsistent” belief; if that’s right, and if Foley is right about inconsistent belief, then this is some additional reason to think compartmentalization in the case of epistemic akrasia is acceptable.

  31. 31.

    A condition is luminous for an agent just in case whenever it obtains the agent is in a position to know that it obtains. Proponents of such arguments include Williamson (2000) and Srinivasan (2015).

  32. 32.

    Smithies’s account implies that whether IRAs must violate ideals depends crucially on how Integration and other level-connecting norms get cashed out. This is noteworthy because another argument Christensen (2010) has advanced for the claim that IRAs must violate epistemic ideals depends essentially on understanding a level-connection ideal in a particular way. But Elga (2013) has undercut this argument by identifying a better-motivated, modified level-connection principle that avoids the problems with the principle discussed by Christensen. These observations suggest that insofar as Unavoidable Violation-style arguments depend on level-connecting norms we should carefully scrutinize these norms when evaluating these arguments.

  33. 33.

    Unfortunate terminology in this context, I admit.


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I owe thanks to many people for helpful comments, discussion, and encouragement concerning this paper. Thanks are especially due to Hilary Kornblith, Chris Meacham, and Katia Vavova. Thanks also to Jeff Behrends, Asia Ferrin, Bruce Glymour, Scott Hill, Daniel Immerman, Graham Leach-Krouse, Han Li, Jon Mahoney, Luis Oliveira, Gina Schouten, Robert Simpson, Mike Titelbaum, and several anonymous referees. Finally, I’m grateful to Doug Portmore for initiating my reflection on the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory. As an undergraduate in Doug’s Ethical Theory class in the early 2000s, I made a bad inference about the normative relationship between the ideal world and our non-ideal world. I’ve learned a lot from thinking about the brief discussion I had with Doug as a result of making this inference.

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DiPaolo, J. Second best epistemology: fallibility and normativity. Philos Stud 176, 2043–2066 (2019).

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  • Fallibility
  • Normativity
  • Imperfection
  • Disagreement
  • Coherence