According to epistemic deontologism, attributions of epistemic justification are deontic claims about what we ought to believe. One of the most prominent objections to this conception, due mainly to William P. Alston, is that the principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ (OIC) rules out deontologism because our beliefs are not under our voluntary control. In this paper, I offer a partial defense of Alston’s critique of deontologism. While Alston is right that OIC rules out epistemic deontologism, appealing to doxastic involuntarism is not necessary for generating that tension. Deontologists would still have a problem with OIC if doxastic voluntarism turned out to be true or if deontologism did not require voluntarism. This is because, in short, epistemic justification does not imply ‘can’. If, as deontologists maintain, epistemic justification implies ‘oughts’, then epistemic justification must also imply ‘can’ given OIC. But since epistemic justification does not imply ‘can’, OIC dictates that we reject deontologism. I end by exploring the possible consequences of this incompatibility between OIC and deontologism. My conclusion is that at least one of the following claims must be true. Either (1) ‘ought’ does not imply ‘can’, (2) attributions of epistemic justification are not deontic claims, or (3) epistemic claims lack necessary or categorical normative authority.
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As opposed to non-epistemically (i.e. ‘morally’, ‘prudentially’, ‘aesthetically’, ‘legally’, and the like). Although I only mention belief, I take these epistemic ‘oughts’ to govern disbelief and withholding or suspension of belief as well. Another thing worth clarifying is that while ED is a thesis about both propositional and doxastic epistemic justification I will mainly focus on propositional justification. Therefore, unless specified otherwise, I use ‘epistemic justification’ to refer only to propositional justification. I return to this distinction below.
Where ‘ought’ is a deontic ‘ought’ or an ‘ought to do’ and not an evaluative ‘ought’ or ‘ought to be’. I also assume that according to ED, epistemic ‘oughts’ are categorically or necessarily normative—much like e.g. moral ‘oughts’—and not ‘oughts’ that lack necessary normative authority like those provided by etiquette or the law. Finally, for simplicity, I will restrict my focus to synchronic epistemic justification and ‘oughts’ in what follows. I return to these distinctions below.
Note that many philosophers, including Alston, take the deontological to include hypological notions like blameworthiness, praiseworthiness, and responsibility. However, this conflation is controversial. Many think that claims can be deontic without being hypological. That is, it is common to make a distinction between what we ought and ought not to do and what we would be blameless or blameworthy for doing. See e.g. Zimmerman (2002), Srinivasan (2015), and Littlejohn (Forthcoming) for discussion. My target in this paper will only be the claim that epistemic justification is deontic, not that it is also hypological.
Some have argued that although there are epistemic permissions and prohibitions, there are no such things as positive epistemic obligations or duties. That is, although there are things we may believe and things we ought not to believe, there are no propositions that we epistemically ought to believe. See for instance Wrenn (2007), Nelson (2010), and Littlejohn (2012a). If this is right, then epistemic deontologism only entails that attributions of epistemic justification are deontic claims about what we are epistemically permitted or forbidden to believe. What I say in this paper is entirely compatible with this possibility. For one thing, it is plausible that ‘may’ also implies ‘can’ if OIC is true. For another, OIC clearly applies to prohibitions or ‘ought nots’ and my argument below could be put exclusively in terms of what is epistemically unjustified for agents to believe.
It is worth pointing out that towards the end of his article, Alston (1988, pp. 277–294) considers and rejects an alternative version of deontologism, which is not vulnerable to his involuntarism argument. Although we typically lack voluntary control over our beliefs, Alston recognizes that we can still exert indirect influence over what we end up believing. That is, we still have voluntary control over things like the quantity and quality of epistemic reasons we end up having and the quality of our belief-forming habits and tendencies. This opens the door to an alternative form of deontologism that construes epistemic justification not directly in terms of obligations or permissions to believe, but rather in terms of what Alston calls ‘intellectual obligations’, i.e. obligations to act so as to end up believing the truth and not what is false. On such a conception, very roughly, S is justified in believing that P if and only if S’s belief is not the result S’s violating her intellectual obligations. Call this alternative form of epistemic deontologism ED*. Alston also rejects ED*, but not because of OIC. For more on this and on how to understand deontologism, see Vahid (1998), Nottelmann (2013), and Peels (2017). As I explain below, my aim in this paper will be to defend the ‘OIC rules out ED’ thesis, where ED is the conception of epistemic justification in terms of doxastic obligations, permissions, and prohibitions (not in terms of intellectual obligations). So, my target will only be ED, not ED*. Since the latter focuses on intellectual obligations instead of doxastic obligations, it falls outside the scope of the argument I offer in this article. I return to this issue below.
One notable exception is Levy (2007).
While it is not an argument that Alston explicitly puts forward, the germ of that argument can be found in Alston’s article. I return to this point at the beginning of Sect. 2.
As I mentioned above, my main concern in this paper is with propositional justification. However, this raises a potential worry. Even if propositional justification does not imply ‘can’, doesn’t doxastic justification imply ‘can’? After all, you can’t be doxastically justified in believing a proposition unless you do believe that proposition. But if doxastic justification implies ‘can’, then couldn’t we remain deontologists about doxastic justification even if we give up deontologism about propositional justification? My main reply to this suggestion is that my case against EOIC will, in fact, cover doxastic justification. This is because my counter-examples to EOIC involve attributions of doxastically unjustified beliefs. If ‘S ought not to \(\upphi \)’ implies ‘S can avoid \(\upphi \)-ing’ (as OIC states) and if ‘S is doxastically unjustified in believing that P’ implies ‘S ought not to believe that P’ (as ED states), then S is doxastically unjustified in believing that P only if she can avoid believing that P. However, I will offer cases where S is doxastically unjustified in believing that P even though S cannot avoid believing that P. So, although the Justification-OIC argument is primarily about propositional justification, it does extend to doxastic justification.
Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for bringing this to my attention.
See Zimmerman (1996) and Haji (2002) for a defense of that condition. A related condition is what philosophers such as Lavin (2004) call the error constraint on normativity. As Lavin puts it: “an agent is subject to a principle only if the agent can go wrong in respect of it” (2004, p. 425). If a norm requires you to \(\upphi \), in other words, then you can violate that norm.
Note that these last two examples also happen to cast doubts on the alternative form of deontologism formulated by Alston, which I labelled ED*. Recall that according to ED* epistemic justification should be construed not in terms of doxastic obligations, but rather in terms of intellectual obligations, i.e. obligations to act so as to end up believing the truth and not what is false. But in both ‘Impostor syndrome’ and ‘Michael Jackson’, it does not seem like Anne and Michael have voluntarily broken any of their intellectual obligations in coming to believe what they believe. After all, their incorrect beliefs are mainly the results of unfortunate circumstances beyond their control, namely a psychological disorder and an accident. Crucially however, their respective beliefs are still clearly epistemically unjustified.
Mizrahi (2012) also provides a counter-example to EOIC-ability-opportunity. It is a case inspired by the 2010 film The Next Three Days. His example is the following:
In this movie, the life of a family of three takes a turn for the worse when the wife is accused of murder. The forensic evidence against the wife, Lara, is compelling, and it includes fingerprints, an eyewitness account, ballistics reports, DNA from blood samples, and a clear motive. Lara is convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. But her husband, John, cannot believe that she is a murderer. Now, in the film, there are hints pointing to Lara’s innocence. For the sake of argument, however, suppose that she is in fact guilty of murder. [...] What we have here is a scenario in which John ought to believe that Lara is guilty of murder, but he simply cannot believe that his wife is a murderer. [...] John ought to believe that his wife is a murderer, and yet he cannot believe that his wife is a murderer. In other words, as an epistemic agent, John is required to believe that Lara is guilty of murder, but John lacks the specific ability and opportunity to believe that his wife is a murderer (Mizrahi 2012, pp. 832–833).
Although John lacks the ability to believe that his wife is a murderer, that belief is clearly epistemically justified for him. Moreover, although John seems unable to avoid believing that his wife is innocent, that belief is still epistemically unjustified for him (doxastically and propositionally).
Note that those examples work against EOIC and ED even if we formulate them in diachronic terms. So far I have assumed that those theses are best understood in synchronic terms. However, one might argue that EOIC only requires that S had the ability (and opportunity) to believe that P in order to have justification for that belief. This won’t be enough to save EOIC, however. Examples like Impostor syndrome, Michael Jackson, and Evidential blindspot are just as effective against this diachronic formulation of EOIC. Even if we specify that the protagonists never had the ability to form the appropriate beliefs, these beliefs clearly remain justified (or unjustified) for them. Perhaps Anne has had her impostor syndrome since she was a young child and therefore never had the ability to believe that she is smart and to avoid believing that she is worthless. This, however, does not change the fact that she is clearly epistemically unjustified in believing that she is worthless, and that the belief that she is smart is epistemically justified for her.
Isn’t there a fourth possibility, namely adopting ED*? Since my argument only targets ED, isn’t ED* another possible upshot of the Justification-OIC argument? I would say three things in response to this suggestion. First, as I pointed out above, some of my counter-examples to EOIC also happen to cast doubts on ED*. Second, as Alston (1988, pp. 277–294) points out, ED* seems incompatible with both internalism or externalism about epistemic justification. His point, very roughly, is that having met your intellectual obligations is neither necessary nor sufficient to form a belief in a truth-conducive way, either from an external perspective (which externalism requires) or from your own perspective (which internalism requires). But if ED* is not compatible with either externalism or internalism then it is hard to see how it could be an adequate conception of epistemic justification (although see Vahid 1998; Peels 2017, pp. 237–250) for criticisms of this argument). Finally, even if you are not convinced and still view ED* as a genuine possibility, then you can simply interpret the second possible consequence of Justification-OIC as the idea that ED is false and that attributions of epistemic justification are not doxastic deontic claims.
Other labels used in the literature for this distinction include normativity versus mere norm-relativity (Hattiangadi 2007), reason-implying versus mere rule-implying normativity (Parfit 2011), robust versus merely formal normativity (McPherson 2011), strong versus weak categoricity (Joyce 2001), normative requirements versus mere requirements (Broome 2013), and irreducible versus merely reducible normativity (Olson 2014).
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Thanks to three anonymous referees at Synthese for their helpful and insightful feedback. I am also grateful to Simon-Pierre Chevarie-Cossette, Clayton Littlejohn, Ernest Sosa, and Jonathan Way for comments on earlier versions of this paper.
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Côté-Bouchard, C. ‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ against epistemic deontologism: beyond doxastic involuntarism. Synthese 196, 1641–1656 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1531-8
- Epistemic deontologism
- ‘ought’ implies ‘can’
- Epistemic justification
- Doxastic involuntarism
- Epistemic normativity
- Epistemic norms