Evidentialism in action


Sometimes it is practically beneficial to believe what is epistemically unwarranted. Philosophers have taken these cases to raise the question are there practical reasons for belief? Evidentialists argue that there cannot be any such reasons. Putative practical reasons for belief are not reasons for belief, but (to use a distinction from Pamela Hieronymi) reasons to manage our beliefs in a particular way. Pragmatists are not convinced. They accept that some (or perhaps all) reasons for belief are practical. The debate, it is widely thought, is at an impasse. But this debate fails to address what is puzzling and interesting about the cases. By focusing on reasons for belief, the debate completely overlooks the role of action in relation to belief. We should be talking about the reasons for actions that shape our beliefs, which I will call belief management. I argue for three related theses: (1) the interesting cases that motivate the debate are about belief management; (2) Evidentialism is irrelevant to belief management; (3) agents have practical reasons to manage their beliefs with the aim of forming true beliefs. These reasons are categorical in nature and result in the tension of conflict cases.

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  1. 1.

    Evidentialists give various defenses of this claim. Nishi Shah, for example, argues something could be a reason to φ just in case one could φ for that reason, (Shah 2006). Since we cannot bring about belief on the basis of practical reasons, practical reasons cannot be reasons for belief. See also Shah (2011). Hieronymi (2008) argues that reasons for belief are reasons that would settle for me whether p? Berker (2019) has endorsed a similar picture. See also Wedgewood (2002, 2013) and Scanlon (2014). This is not the strategy of the original evidentialist, Clifford (1877), and I set him aside for this paper.

  2. 2.

    Shah (2006) and Hieronymi (2005). For a Pragmatist criticism, see Rinard (2015).

  3. 3.

    Shah (2011).

  4. 4.

    Rinard (2015).

  5. 5.

    For an overview of the complexities of Pascal’s Wager, see Hájek (2018).

  6. 6.

    See Hazlett (2013) for a version of this case.

  7. 7.

    If you have difficulty seeing this as a real dilemma, at least recognize that many decided to convert, and many decided to die. For a different case of high stakes, see James’s Chasm Jumping case (James 1897).

  8. 8.

    Many views are labeled “Evidentialist.” I am concerned with those listed in footnote 1. Conee and Feldman-style evidentialists straightforwardly accept that their version of evidentialism does not extend to action (see Feldman 2000, p. 688–690). Another version of evidentialism might think that practical and epistemic evaluation are simply two different standards of assessment, so that we can evaluate any attitude or action from the epistemic point of view, or the practical point of view (See Alston 1989, pp. 83–84). While I think similar arguments can be made against this version, it is not my target here.

  9. 9.

    Rinard (2015) and Leary (2017) both make a similar point. They take this to show that the distinction between reasons for belief and reasons for belief management is superficial. I disagree with this conclusion; I think the distinction is conceptually and normatively important. Instead, I think this point illuminates that the normative pressure on the agent is fraught. More on this in the next section.

  10. 10.

    Hieronymi (2011). The distinction is implicit in Hieronymi (2005).

  11. 11.

    She is primarily interested in the kind of agency we display when forming beliefs and intentions, in contrast to the kind of agency we display when we act. For Hieronymi, the distinction illuminates two kinds of control, one she calls evaluative control (which is the kind of control we enjoy over our beliefs) and managerial or manipulative control (the kind we enjoy over ordinary objects). See Hieronymi (2008). Here, Hieronymi calls it manipulative control. See also Hieronymi (2006).

  12. 12.

    Hieronymi (2011, 17).

  13. 13.

    I use “alethic” as a neutral way of characterizing a close connection to truth. The precise status may be truth, knowledge, justification, understanding, or some further thing.

  14. 14.

    See Fricker (2007).

  15. 15.

    Bennett (1990), Williams (1973) and Hieronymi (2005, 2009a, b).

  16. 16.

    An example of this view would be (Rinard 2015).

  17. 17.

    This is true even if, in some cases, the aims recommend the same actions and the same beliefs. While I can’t treat the issue fully here, the distinction is roughly the one that (White 2010) examines between features that are relevant for the epistemic status of belief, and those that are irrelevant.

  18. 18.

    Hazlett (2013) is an example, as well as Rinard (2015, 2017)

  19. 19.

    For a defense of similar principles, see Schroeder (2010), Locke (2015) and Whiting (2014).

  20. 20.

    It is a commonplace that belief is a constituent of action. See for example, Davidson’s seminal piece where he suggests that an action is caused by a belief/desire pair (Davidson 1963).

  21. 21.

    Aristotle noted that wishing is not subject to epistemic constraints in the way that practical reasons are. In Nicomachean Ethics, III.ii, Aristotle reflects that one can wish for the impossible, but one cannot decide to do something that one believes is impossible (Aristotle and Irwin 1999).

  22. 22.

    Hope may be viewed as a doxastic attitude. It is the shadow between belief and disbelief, and it can be rational or irrational, proportional to the likelihood of p. Hopes grow dim as the likely hood of p diminishes, and are irrational when there is no possibility of p.

  23. 23.

    Locke (2015) argues that one may premise p iff one is practically certain that p. Jason Hawthorne and Stanley (2008) argue that you can premise p iff you know p. See also Williamson (2000), Stanley (2005), and Smithies (2012). Fantl and McGrath (2009) only endorse half of the biconditional, arguing that if you know p, you may premise p. Lackey (2010) argues that one should premise p just in case it is reasonable to believe p. Whiting (2014) argues that the aim of belief is to believe p only if p is a practical reason. Whiting’s view has the upshot of uniting practical reasons and epistemic reasons, though he approaches it from the standpoint of the aim of belief, rather than as a constitutive feature of practical reasoning. Way and Whiting (2016) defend a similar claim. Bok (1997) argues that when S engages in practical reasoning, S must believe that her premises are true (otherwise her reasoning is unsound, by her own lights).

  24. 24.

    See, for example, Brown (2010). While Brown offers powerful arguments against particular versions of the epistemic requirement, she accepts that there is some epistemic requirement, even if it isn’t unitary. See also Alvarez (2010). Maria Alvarez argues that the difference between theoretical and practical reasoning is not the form or the premises, but the aim for which it is undertaken. Theoretical reasoning is about what is the case, and practical reasoning is about what to do, but both share the same form and premises. The difference is that practical reasoning results in an action (or the formation of an intention to act). Thus, Alvarez argues, practical reasoning is subject to the same epistemic standards as theoretical reasoning. A notable exception to this remarkable agreement is Parfit (2011, pp. 112–113). See Mueller (2017) for an argument against Parfit’s view. See Robertson (2011) for a general argument in defense of an epistemic requirement on practical reasoning.

  25. 25.

    Here, I wish to remain neutral on the precise output of practical reason. I myself am drawn to Alvarez and Hieronymi’s picture, that practical reasoning involves answering a question, “what should I do?” See also Anscombe (1957). But nothing in my argument hinges on this.

  26. 26.

    This point is made by Aristotle, see Nichomachean Ethics, Book III, III3a. Aristotle writes, “For the end cannot be a subject of deliberation, but only the means; nor indeed can the particular facts be a subject of it, as whether this is bread or has been baked as it should; for these are matters of perception. If we are to be always deliberating, we shall have to go on to infinity.”

    One might object that of course we can evaluate in the moment of deliberation. Suppose I deliberate about what to do, and the conclusion I come to is that I ought to punch myself in the face. I might pause here and think, “Surely something went wrong in my deliberation; I better check again.” My point is that while it may be possible (as a reasoning failsafe) to pause and rethink, this is a double-checking mechanism, not a first checking mechanism. If it were the first check, Aristotle’s point stands. Reflective reasoners have multiple ways to intervene on reasoning to double check, but this is not the primary or required way to go. Thanks to Daniel Singer for raising this objection.

  27. 27.

    See Young (2014) and Colvin and Block (1994).


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This paper received generous feedback at many venues, and I am grateful to more people than I can name. I am especially thankful to Baron Reed, Selim Berker, James Fritz, Jessica Wright, Luis Rosa, Andy Mueller, Andrea Robitzsch, Lisa Benossi, Jakob Ohlhorst, Cory Davia, and an anonymous referee for formative conversations that shaped this paper.

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Flowerree, A.K. Evidentialism in action. Philos Stud 177, 3409–3426 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-019-01376-z

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  • Ethics of belief
  • Evidentialism
  • Pragmatism
  • Practical reasons for belief
  • Philosophy of action