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Value beyond truth-value: a practical response to skepticism


I aim to offer a practical response to skepticism. I begin (in section one) by surveying a family of responses to skepticism that I term “dogmatic” and argue that they are problematically evasive; they do not address what I take to be a question that is central to many skeptics: Why am I justified in maintaining some beliefs that fail to meet ordinary standards of doxastic evaluation? I then turn (in section two) to a discussion of these standards of evaluation and to the different kinds of doxastic value to which they appeal. While there is something good about having a true belief and something bad about having a false one, I argue the value of true beliefs is not intrinsic or final. Truth and knowledge are valuable because they contribute to both individual and collective flourishing. But if contributing to flourishing is what ultimately provides truth with its value, then we have discovered another doxastic value. I call this kind of doxastic value “practical.” The practical response addresses the skeptic’s question by claiming that some beliefs can be justified by appealing to their practical, rather than alethic, value. In fleshing out this practical response (in section three) I contrast it both with dogmatic responses as well as some seemingly similar “practical” alternatives, namely Crispin Wright’s appeals to entitlements and Susanna Rinard’s “pragmatic skepticism.” I end (in section four) by addressing some objections.

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  1. 1.

    For an extremely helpful discussion of Moorean responses and how to make the response most plausible see Kelly (2005).

  2. 2.

    Bergman offers a response by distinguishing between questioned source contexts and unquestioned source contexts. If you question the trustworthiness of a particular source (e.g. perception) then to rely on this source to appease your doubts is problematically circular. But if a person who has no doubts at all about the trustworthiness of her sense perception—in fact, she has never before considered the proposition that her sense perception is reliable—comes to believe that her sense perception is reliable and then discovers that her belief was formed in a way that involved epistemic circularity, then this is not problematic because she “wasn’t looking for some independent verification of the reliability of her senses.” Ultimately Bergman looks to Reid and his view of “common sense” for explaining why we are justified in believing our first principles. Reid takes it that it is built into human nature that we find views that contradict our first principles absurd and, since he takes it, that God provided us with this “emotion of ridicule” then what we find absurd must be so. That people’s encounters with and reactions to skeptical arguments vary so widely belies this view.

  3. 3.

    While both ancient and early modern philosophers in the skeptical tradition differ in their claims and aims, it is significant that most contemporary responses to skepticism take something like Descartes’s first meditation to be the exemplar of the skeptical argument in need of defeat. But, of course Descartes is not a skeptic. I think it is important, when thinking about the nature and significance of skepticism to look to those who embrace skepticism. While one may attribute some of these stronger claims to the Pyrrhonians (as did Hume), Sextus would deny that he makes any such positive assertions. The skeptical arguments set forth in the Outlines of Pyrrhonism are given as tools to help the reader adopt a way of life free from agitation. I focus here on Hume since his views have been almost as influential on contemporary discussions as Descartes’s first meditation but he, unlike Descartes, identifies as a skeptic.

  4. 4.

    In McCormick (2005), I discuss Hume’s normative claims about beliefs and how they can be reconciled with his view of belief as essentially passive.

  5. 5.

    A notable exception is found in Littlejohn (2018a, b). While this is a minority view among contemporary epistemologists, perhaps the view that one cannot be justified in having a false belief is, historically, more common. This is hard to assess because it is not clear what concept matches up with the contemporary notion of justification. One can be an infallibilist about knowledge, as Descartes was and still think holding beliefs that do not reach the level of certainly required for knowledge is “reasonable.” For many early modern philosophers “moral certainty” was seen as sufficient for belief; these are beliefs that are not reasonable to doubt but fall short of absolute certainty that admits, for example, of mathematical proof. Op. cit Pasnau, especially chapter 2.

  6. 6.

    See Chapter 2 of McCormick (2015).

  7. 7.

    I will expand on what is meant by flourishing when responding to objections below but, for my purposes, I do not need a theory of flourishing, or a list of conditions that need to be met for a life or a society to count as flourishing. One pre-condition for flourishing is survival and, quite plausibly, truth and knowledge, are needed to survive. For Aristotle a flourishing, or excellent human life is one that succeeds in performing the distinctive human function of actively exercising reason excellently. We can eschew both Aristotle’s teleology and rationalism but still agree that a life where one is able to fully exercise one’s potential and capacities is more flourishing than one that does not. And a society that is structured in a way that allows its members to so fully exercise their potential is more flourishing than one that does not.

  8. 8.

    Very closely connected to the idea that there is an external world is that this world operates with a kind of regularity. I believe that if I close my eyes and open them again that my computer will still exist and, more generally, that what has happened in the past helps me predict what will happen in the future.

  9. 9.

    When developing an argument for why we are justified in believing that a belief system that retains long-term coherence would be one that also correctly describes reality, Lawrence Bonjour tries to develop an argument which reveals that the external world hypothesis is a priori more likely than any other hypothesis. When he first introduced this idea he admits philosophers are likely “to have qualms about” the idea of a priori probability (1985, p. 181). We are just supposed to “see” that skeptical hypotheses are “antecedently less likely to be true than the correspondence hypothesis.” Of course this is how it seems given that we believe one and not the other. I am not sure if other’s qualms have been assuaged over the last 40 years but I still cannot make sense of this idea.

  10. 10.

    For a detailed discussion of these responses which concludes that most fail easily see Beebe (2009).

  11. 11.

    For an overview of the current state hinge epistemology see Coliva and Moyal-Sharrock (2016).

  12. 12.

    See Marušic (2015, pp. 175–208) for a discussion of the difference between beliefs formed in the context of trust and those that are based only on the evidence. For further discussion of the nature of trust and when it is rational see Hawley (2014), Holton (1994) and Longworth (2017).

  13. 13.

    In McCormick (2004) I argue against this interpretation of Hume’s skepticism.

  14. 14.

    Rinard says this is only one version of the Pragmatic skeptic. It is also possible, she says, to think of such a character as believing “Evidential Skepticism at all times and in all circumstances, and so they always regard certain ordinary epistemic claims as false, though they sometimes see good reason to make them.” This version of the skeptic makes assertions for practical purposes but does not believe them. I don’t see how this version squares with what Rinard takes to be the main goal of the paper which is to apply pragmatism about reasons of belief to skepticism. What is interesting and contentious about her view is that it says we have practical reasons to believe. Many would agree that we have practical reasons to act in certain ways or to make certain assertions.

  15. 15.

    Some have tried to apply James’s response to skepticism about religious belief to skepticism about knowledge more generally. I think this is a mistake since James makes it clear that his argument for the permissibility of religious beliefs rests on assuming that truth and knowledge is attainable. For a discussion of possible Jamesian responses to skepticism and their weaknesses see Olsson (2005).

  16. 16.

    This is the main topic of my discussion in Chapter 3 of McCormick (2015), and I discuss it further in McCormick (2019).

  17. 17.

    Trevor Hedberg makes this point when criticizing my view here:

  18. 18.

    In McCormick (2019) I answer this question in the affirmative.

  19. 19.

    The view that practical reasons cannot justify depends on thinking of reasoning as akin to arguments with premises and conclusions. But the idea that this is how best to think about the mental movements of reasoning is questionable. See McCormick (2019) for further discussion.


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I am grateful for all the valuable feedback and comments I received when I presented earlier versions of this paper at The Ethics Working Group, University of Richmond (October 2018), The Philosophy Department at Union College (October 2018), the COGITO Epistemology Group, University of Glasgow (November 2018) and at The Value of Truth conference Budapest, Hungary (November 2018). I am also thankful for comments from anonymous referees of this journal.

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Correspondence to Miriam Schleifer McCormick.

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McCormick, M.S. Value beyond truth-value: a practical response to skepticism. Synthese (2020).

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  • Skepticism
  • Pragmatism
  • Truth
  • Belief