Evidentialism doesn’t make an exception for belief


Susanna Rinard has recently offered a new argument for pragmatism and against evidentialism. According to Rinard, evidentialists must hold that the rationality of belief is determined in a way that is different from how the rationality of other states is determined. She argues that we should instead endorse a view she calls Equal Treatment, according to which the rationality of all states is determined in the same way. In this paper, I show that Rinard’s claims are mistaken, and that evidentialism is more theoretically virtuous than its opponents sometimes give it credit for. Not only does evidentialism not make an exception for belief, but it fits naturally into a unified, explanatorily powerful account of the rationality of intentional mental states. According to such an account, the rationality of all intentional mental states, including belief, is determined by the right kind of reasons for those states. Since the right kind of reasons for belief just are evidential considerations, this unified account entails evidentialism. I conclude, contra Rinard, that evidentialism can be (and often is) situated within a general account of rationality that is at least as theoretically virtuous as pragmatism, if not more so.

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  1. 1.

    I’ll understand evidentialism (as Rinard does), as the thesis that the rationality of belief is determined solely by evidential considerations. I’ll understand pragmatism as the thesis that the rationality of belief is determined at least partly by practical considerations.

  2. 2.

    Although Rinard is (to my knowledge) the first to motivate Equal Treatment by levelling the charge of ‘exceptionalism’ against evidentialism, she is not the first to propose such a view. Stich (1990) argues for something like Equal Treatment on the grounds that only practical considerations (and not truth) have normative force. Stich’s argument differs in important ways from Rinard’s, but comes to the common conclusion of a hard pragmatist view about the rationality of belief. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

  3. 3.

    The word ‘belief’ is missing from Rinard’s formulation of Equal Treatment, but it is clear from context that it should be present. Rinard discusses the principle throughout her paper as if it is present, and it is difficult to make sense of the “in particular” clause of the principle without its presence.

  4. 4.

    See Marcus (2009) and Setiya (2013).

  5. 5.

    By ‘intentional mental states’ I mean mental states that have intentionality, in the sense of having objects at which they’re directed. I clarify this because ‘intentional’ also sometimes means ‘having to do with intention,’ which isn’t what I mean here. This is an unfortunate coincidence of philosophical terminology.

  6. 6.

    I owe this way of phrasing my point to Alex Worsnip.

  7. 7.

    Of course, there may be some mental states, such as perceptions, that are intentional but not rationally evaluable. Those obviously shouldn’t be part of the relevant comparison class. All future references to intentional mental states should be read as referring only to those that are rationally evaluable.

  8. 8.

    Of course, certain intentional mental states, such as desire and intention, are standardly thought of as rationalized by some kinds of practical considerations. But even states like desire and intention are not standardly thought of as rationalized by practical considerations in the way Rinard argues. Cases like Kavka’s (1983) toxin puzzle are often thought to show that incentives to desire or intend to φ that are not also incentives to φ can’t rationalize desiring or intending to φ. The crucial point is that even if states like desire and intention are rationalized by a certain kind of practical consideration, they’re not rationalized by practical considerations concerning the value or utility of being in those states per se. Thanks to Alex Worsnip for helping me clarify this.

  9. 9.

    For an overview of the literature on right and wrong kinds of reasons, see Gertken and Kiesewetter (2017).

  10. 10.

    For arguments that wrong-kind reasons are not really reasons at all, see Skorupski (2007), Parfit (2011), and Way (2012). For dissent, see Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen (2004), Howard (2016), and Leary (2017).

  11. 11.

    For examples of correctness-based accounts of the right/wrong kind of reasons distinction, see Danielsson and Olson (2007), Schroeder (2010), and Sharadin (2016).

  12. 12.

    Although I favor the correctness account of the right/wrong kind of reasons distinction, one need not accept it to accept my arguments here. The important thing is that such a distinction can be made. If you don’t like this particular account, simply replace it with any other plausible account of the distinction and my arguments should still go through.

  13. 13.

    If wrong-kind reasons are not genuine normative reasons at all, the explanation is even simpler: only genuine normative reasons bear on rationality. Since so-called wrong-kind reasons are not genuine normative reasons, they do not bear on rationality. Thanks for an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to clarify what the upshot of drawing this kind of distinction is supposed to be.

  14. 14.

    For example, see McHugh (2014, 2017), Nolfi (2015), and Neta (2018). Countless others make similar points, though not always using the terminology of reasons.

  15. 15.

    Of course, Rinard could simply deny this and insist that all states, including intentional mental states, are rationally evaluable in virtue of being constituted by actions. But this would be at odds with her insistence that her argument doesn’t rely on the claim that beliefs are rationalized in the same way as actions. Furthermore, it would be far too revisionary a view for her to be entitled to rely on without substantial further argument.

  16. 16.

    For instances of the view that action doesn’t admit of the right/wrong kind of reasons distinction, see Heuer (2010) and Hieronymi (2005, 2013).

  17. 17.

    On the other hand, Schroeder (2010) has argued that at least some actions do admit of the right/wrong kind of reasons distinction, because like intentional mental states, these actions have constitutive correctness conditions. For example, activities like playing chess might have constitutive correctness conditions such that chess-actions can only be rationalized by reasons that bear on their correctness. If a view like Schroeder’s is right, then there are at least some actions (and so also action-constituted states) for which practical considerations are the wrong kind of reasons, and so don’t rationalize such actions/action-constituted states. This would also be a pragmatist-unfriendly conclusion, and would be incompatible with Equal Treatment. It may even support something like Equal Treatment*, which is fully compatible with evidentialism.

  18. 18.

    Again, this isn’t meant to imply that the very same considerations rationalize all of these different states. Rather, if all intentional mental states are rationalized by reasons of the right kind, then as long as we have a unified account of what makes some considerations the right kind of reasons, all intentional mental states are, at bottom, rationalized in precisely the same way.

  19. 19.

    It’s worth noting that I’ve actually established something broader than my primary claim that evidentialism doesn’t make an exception for belief. My argument shows that no view that satisfies Equal TreatmentINT (or Equal Treatment* for that matter) makes an exception for belief. So, my argument should be of interest to anyone who is sympathetic to such approaches, even if they are not at all sympathetic to evidentialism itself. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

  20. 20.

    I owe these analogies to Ram Neta.

  21. 21.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pushing me to respond to this worry and, more generally, to take account of Rinard’s discussion of Different Senses. Thanks to Ram Neta and Alex Worsnip for helping me to formulate my response to this worry.

  22. 22.

    Kelly puts things in terms of propositional attitudes rather than intentional mental states, but I don’t think this difference matters for the point I’m making here.

  23. 23.

    I should note that Kelly doesn’t explicit commit himself to such an argument. He only explicitly commits himself to do the more modest claim that practical considerations about the value or utility of being in some intentional mental state can’t serve as bases for that state. A correspondingly more modest version of the argument I’ve given could be formulated using that more modest claim as a premise. But I think Kelly’s remarks at least hint at the more ambitious version. Either way, his remarks strongly suggest that he has a unified account in mind.

  24. 24.

    Of course, there are objections to the kind of argument Kelly gives for evidentialism. As mentioned before, Rinard argues briefly against the basing constraint Kelly defends. See also Leary (2017) and Reisner (2018) for further criticism of Kelly’s strategy. My goal here is not to defend Kelly’s argument but rather to note that, whatever problems it has, making an exception for belief is not one of them. This is particularly worth noting given that Kelly is one of Rinard’s primary evidentialist foils. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting that I clarify the point of discussing Kelly here.

  25. 25.

    For example, see Schroeder (2012) and Sharadin (2016). Some remarks made by Parfit (2001) suggest a similar view. Hieronymi’s (2005) view is slightly more complicated. While she claims that reasons of the right and wrong kinds cannot be distinguished on the basis of whether they bear on rationality, she does not deny that only the right kinds of reasons bear on rationality. Instead, she holds that “For an appeal to justification or rationality to be satisfactory, we would need an independent account of why only some of the reasons that count in favor of an attitude justify or rationalize it—which is just to say, we would need an answer to the wrong kind of reasons problem” (p. 443). I think that independent account is just what is provided by the identification of the right kinds of reasons with ones that bear on states’ correctness. But other plausible accounts of the right/wrong kind of reasons distinction can also provide such answers.

  26. 26.

    It’s worth reiterating that in this paper, I understand evidentialism as the claim that only evidential considerations can rationalize belief. It would be compatible with the kind of view I’ve described here to concede that non-evidential considerations can be reasons for belief (in other words, to deny skepticism about wrong-kind reasons). This is because I’m not understanding evidentialism as a view about what can be a reason (of any kind) for belief.


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I owe thanks to Ram Neta and Alex Worsnip for providing extensive comments on several drafts of this paper throughout the writing process. My thanks also to Chris-Blake Turner, Lindsay Brainard, David Faraci, Daniel Greco, Daniel Muñoz, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful discussion and comments.

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Correspondence to Keshav Singh.

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Singh, K. Evidentialism doesn’t make an exception for belief. Synthese (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02416-1

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  • Evidentialism
  • Pragmatism
  • Rationality
  • Reasons
  • Belief
  • Epistemology