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Responsible belief and epistemic justification

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For decades, philosophers have displayed an interest in what it is to have an epistemically justified belief. Recently, we also find among philosophers a renewed interest in the so-called ethics of belief: what is it to believe (epistemically) responsibly and when is one’s belief blameworthy? This paper explores how epistemically justified belief and responsible belief are related to each other. On the so-called ‘deontological conception of epistemic justification’, they are identical: to believe epistemically responsibly is to believe epistemically justifiedly. I argue that William Alston’s criticism of a deontological conception of epistemic justification in terms of our influence on our beliefs is unconvincing. Moreover, such a conception meets three criteria that one might put forward in order for an account of epistemic justification to be plausible: it shows a concern with the Jamesian goal of having true rather than false beliefs, it is relevantly similar to accounts of justification in non-doxastic realms, such as action, and there is good reason to think that, if spelled out in sufficient detail, it may well provide a necessary condition for knowledge. I conclude that the deontological conception of epistemic justification is stronger than is often thought: it is worth exploring whether epistemically justified belief is epistemically responsible belief.

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  1. See Feldman (2004).

  2. See Goldman (1986).

  3. See Adler (2002), Nottelmann (2007). For my own account, see Peels (2013a, 2014, 2016).

  4. For a recent edited volume on these issues, see Matheson and Vitz (2014).

  5. According to BonJour (1985, p. 8), for instance, the core of the concept of epistemic justification is epistemic responsibility.

  6. See Clarke (1986), Dretske (2000), Kornblith (1983), Leon (2002), Stocker (1982). Kornblith uses the word ‘justification’, but he does not seem to have in mind what epistemologists mean by ‘epistemic justification’ and he does not address Alston’s argument against understanding epistemic justification in terms of doxastic influence.

  7. Of course, the same applies mutatis mutandis to the other two doxastic attitudes, those of disbelief and suspension of belief. For this argument, see Alston (1989d, pp. 115–136; 2005, pp. 58–60).

  8. See Peels (2016).

  9. See Alston (1989d, p. 143).

  10. See Chisholm (1977, p. 14).

  11. See Hall and Johnson (1998, p. 133).

  12. See BonJour (1985, p. 42), Kim (1994, p. 284).

  13. See Nottelmann (2013, p. 2229).

  14. Alternatively, Nottelmann may object that if the deontological conception of epistemic justification is cashed out in terms of intellectual obligations, it is not clearly a conception of distinctively epistemic justification. I return to this worry below.

  15. For denials of (1), see Chrisman (2008, pp. 358–370), Chuard and Southwood (2009, pp. 601, 614–619),

    Feldman (2008, p. 346). For denials of (2), see Ginet (2001, pp. 64–75), Ryan (2003, pp. 70–76), Steup (2008, pp. 379–391).

  16. Alston (1989d, p. 143).

  17. See Alston (1989b, pp. 83–84; 1989d, p. 116).

  18. I think (5) and (6) are somewhat problematic; few externalists and internalists would be willing to embrace these accounts as they stand. My criticisms, however, do not hinge on these issues.

  19. For the entire argument, see Alston (1989d, pp. 145–152).

  20. Alston (1989d, p. 145).

  21. Alston (1989d, pp. 146–147).

  22. Alston (1989d, p. 148).

  23. They are: (a) Someone who believes that socialism is contrary to Christianity, for the reasons that are often given by the New Right, and he is incapable intellectually to figure out how bad these reasons are. (b) People form perceptual beliefs in deceiving circumstances. (c) People form irresistible beliefs, for instance, because of strong emotional attachments. (d) I am deontologically justified in holding beliefs that it takes (much) time to scrutinize, even though they might not be held on truth-conducive grounds (see Alston 1989d, pp. 147–149).

  24. Alston (1989d, p. 149).

  25. Alston (1989d, pp. 149–150).

  26. Alston (1989d, p. 150).

  27. Alston (1989d, p. 151).

  28. Alston (1989d, p. 152).

  29. See Alston (1989b).

  30. See Vahid (1998, p. 289). My (7) is a fully spelled out version of his \((DJ_{d})\).

  31. See Alston (1989d, p. 143).

  32. See Feldman (2004).

  33. See Alston (1989b, p. 84).

  34. See Alston (1989a).

  35. Alston (1989a, p. 232).

  36. This view is widely shared, as rightly noticed by Riggs (2003, pp. 342–345).

  37. There has been some discussion about whether the cognitive subjects in these examples, as described by Alston, are in fact blameworthy for their beliefs. See, for instance, Steup (1988, pp. 78–79). For present purposes I assume that the examples do indeed show that there are or could be subjects who are deontologically justified in holding certain beliefs, although their beliefs are not justified on (5) and (6).

  38. Thus also Heil (1983, pp. 362–363).

  39. That we can distinguish between original and derivative responsibility is accepted by many philosophers. See, for instance, Alston (1989d, pp. 137–140), Rosen (2004, pp. 298–299), Zimmerman (1988, pp. 50–61). Given that this distinction is widely accepted, I will not discuss objections that might be levelled against it (that would require a separate paper, if not more).

  40. On an alternative construal of the situation, one that is not endorsed by Alston, I do have an obligation to do so in that situation, since I am blameworthy for the absence of the relevant kind of control. On this construal, having an obligation to \(\phi \) does not entail having voluntary control over \(\varphi \)-ing.

  41. And it seems that Alston, given his acknowledgment that the term ‘justified’ is most naturally understood deontologically, both with respect to actions and with respect to beliefs (Alston 1989d, pp. 115–116, 143), would have to agree with this.

  42. See Alston (1989c, pp. 172–182; 1989d, p. 144). This view is also defended by Robert Audi; see Audi (2011, pp. 270–282).

  43. See Plantinga (1993, p. 45). For a highly similar example, see Alston (1989d, p. 179).

  44. That the violation of moral obligations does not entail the absence of knowledge has been rightly pointed out by Bergman (2000, p. 93). Only, his view is cast in terms of doxastic rather than intellectual obligations.

  45. Elsewhere, I have addressed in detail some further objections that one might level against (4), such as objections that have to do with problems that seem to arise from its counterfactual formulation. See author’s paper. See Peels (2013b, 2016).


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For their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, I would like to thank Anthony Booth, Jan Bransen, Sanford Goldberg, Amy Flowerree, Christopher Hookway, Joel Katzav, Andrea Kruse, Miriam McCormick, Anne Meylan, Philip Nickel, Nikolaj Nottelmann, Michael Pauen, Herman Philipse, Hans Rott, Matthias Steup, Krist Vaesen, Hamid Vahid, Verena Wagner, René van Woudenberg, Heinrich Wansing, David Widerker, Jan Willem Wieland, and two anonymous referees for this journal. This publication was made possible through the support of a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

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Peels, R. Responsible belief and epistemic justification. Synthese 194, 2895–2915 (2017).

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