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The Problem of Massive Deception for Justification Norms of Action

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In this paper, I argue against recent versions of justification norms of action and practical deliberation (Neta, Noûs 43:684–699, 2009; Gerken, Synthese 178:529–547, 2011, Synthese 189:373–394, 2012; Smithies, Noûs 46:265–288, 2012). I demonstrate that these norms yield unacceptable results in deception cases. However, a further modification of justification norms in the light of these results appears to be ad hoc. Hence, I claim, we should reject justification norms of action and practical deliberation.

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  1. See, for instance, Unger (1975), Hyman (1999), Hawthorne and Stanley (2008), Stanley (2005) and Hawthorne (2004). See Ichikawa (2012) for an overview.

  2. “Let us say that a choice between options x 1...x n is p dependent if the most preferable of x 1...x n conditional on the proposition that p is not the same as the most preferable of x 1...x n conditional on the proposition that not-p.” (Hawthorne-and-Stanley 2008, p. 578).

  3. For counterexamples and arguments against the knowledge norm, see Brown (2008), Neta (2009), Littlejohn (2009a), Gerken (2011) and Smithies (2012).

  4. See, for example, Neta (2009); Gerken (2011, 2012), forthcoming a and b, Smithies (2012) and Smith (2012). See also Gibbons (2010) and Littlejohn (2009b) for an overview.

  5. The proponents of knowledge norm have argued that in some controversial cases (i.e. false belief cases where we tend to judge that the subject’s action or deliberation that is based on the falsely believed proposition is still rational) a subject is excused for acting/deliberating on p, even though her action/deliberation is not fully rational (see, for example, Hawthorne and Stanley 2008). The main idea is to concede that in such cases the subject’s acting/deliberating on p is not as bad (irrational) as in cases where she has no excuses for her acting/deliberating on ignorance. This strategy has, however, been strongly criticized by the opponents of knowledge norm (see, for example, Gerken 2011; Smithies 2012). The main objection against it is that there is nothing to be excused in such cases, hence this line of defence is ad hoc. A more complete defence of knowledge norm should address this criticism in details.

  6. JBKRP is a justification norm of a restricted kind since it specifies that only justified beliefs about one’s knowledge (a type of higher-order beliefs) constitute the relevant epistemic constraint on treating p as a reason for action. But as it relies on justified belief (even if it is only a certain type of justified belief), it is still a version of a justification norm.

  7. The JK rule also restricts justification to assert and to act on P to a certain type of higher-order justification to believe. Hence, we can observe that despite their differences, the JK rule and the JBKRP are similar in this significant aspect: both state a requirement in terms of higher-order justification. Now, this higher-order requirement itself faces a certain kind of objection, namely, the objection of over-intellectualization. More specifically, it can be objected that, counterintuitively, the JK rule and the JBKRP seem to imply that children and animals (i.e. agents who do not possess higher-order beliefs) cannot treat a proposition as a reason for acting in a rationally permissible way (the JBKRP) or cannot have justification to assert and to act on P (the JK rule). Smithies responds to a similar challenge against his account of justification to believe in Smithies forthcoming. A congenial line of defence here would be to insist that the objection of over-intellectuaization does not raise a problem for the JK rule since the JK rule appeals to propositional rather than to doxastic justification. The problem of over-intellectualization is a potential problem only to views about doxastic justification (see Smithies, forthcoming). Neta for his part, might avoid the problem in a different way. His norm, the JBKRP, concerns higher-order practical deliberation (as we will clarify it in a while). It is not unreasonable to suppose that animals and children do not engage in higher-order practical deliberation. Hence, as long, as one is willing to restrict higher-order practical deliberation in this way (i.e. not ascribing it to children and animals), one can also maintain that the objection of over-intelectualization does not have a bite on the JBKRP. Thanks to an anonymous referee for this journal here.

  8. Here, I will focus on action in general, leaving aside a more specific question about epistemic norms of assertion. However, see “Conclusion”, where I indicate how a similar problem might affect justification norms of assertion.

  9. See Gerken (2011), p. 530; Gerken forthcoming b: 3 and Gerken (2012), p. 374, fn.1, where he states that he uses “warrant” as a genus for internalist and externalist justification. Gerken follows Burge (2003) for this terminology and dissociates it from Plantinga’s and Wright’s uses of “warrant”. Gerken also notices that Hawthorne and Stanley (2008) have used the term “justification” in a similar sense to Burge’s “warrant” (Gerken 2011, p. 530, see also Gerken 2012, p. 381-386 for a more detailed characterisation of “warrant” and “justification”). The problem with the term “warrant” as used by Gerken, however, is that it cannot subsume all externalist and internalist uses of “justification” or “entitlement”. For Gerken states that “[t]he term [“warrant”] is non-factive”, (Gerken 2011, p. 530). This seems to be incompatible with at least some versions of externalist views according to which justification is factive, for recent examples, see Sutton (2007) and Littlejohn (2012). In what follows, I will not pursue this consideration further. I will assume for the sake of argument on Gerken’s sense of “warrant” —a genus term for non-factive justification and entitlement, where to say that a warranted belief is non-factive means that it does not entail the truth of its content. Thanks to an anonymous referee for this journal for suggesting to clarify the notion of “warrant” as used by Gerken.

  10. “To assess Neta’s discussion, it is crucial to note that he changes the topic. His account concerns S’s ‘treating p as a reason’ in the higher-order sense of S’s conceiving herself as having p as a reason. In contrast, (WA) as well as Hawthorne and Stanley’s knowledge account are concerned with ‘treating p as a reason’ in the first-order sense of using or relying on (the belief that) p. So, Neta does not address the issue that Hawthorne, Stanley and I are concerned with” (Gerken 2011, p. 535, fn.9 (original italics)).

  11. The New Evil Demon thought experiment was introduced into contemporary epistemology by Lehrer and Cohen (1983) and Cohen (1984). It is widely accepted, by both internalists (as for example, Cohen and Lehrer 1983; Cohen 1984; Wedgwood 2002) and externalists (as Goldman 1986; Burge 2003; Comesana 2002), that the subject and her deceived counterpart are both justified (or warranted). The thought experiment constitutes a problem for any externalist account of justification (warrant) because it appears to demonstrate that it is possible for a subject to have epistemic justification for believing without satisfying any externalist criteria for justification (it is supposed, for instance, that a deceived counterpart’s belief forming process is not reliable). There have been an impressive number of externalist attempts to deal with this major problem (for some paradigmatic examples see, Goldman 1986; Bach 1985; Mylan Engel 1992; Williamson 2000; Littlejohn 2009a, 2009b; Weatherson 2008; Henderson et al. 2007; Comesana 2002, 2005; Graham 2012). In what follows, we will not, however, enter into that debate. Thanks to an anonymous referee for this journal here.

  12. If one is willing to deny the sameness of justification in the deception case, then my argument does not manage to establish its conclusion. However, it is also reasonable to assume that those who are willing to endorse justification norms of action are also willing to accept that brains in a vat can have justified beliefs. This seems, for instance, to be the case with Smithies. For he defends an internalist conception of justification for believing, see Smithies forthcoming.

  13. This argument can be easily adapted also to work against the JK rule, which is another justification norm of action. Here is one way how it can be adapted against the JK rule:

    1. (1.1’)

      The JK rule [Assumption]

    2. (1.2’)

      S, a brain in a vat, is justified in believing that she is in a position to know p [BIV scenario].

    3. (1.3’)

      S has justification to act on P (= S meets epistemic conditions on rational use of p as a reason for acting [the JK rule, 1.2’].

    4. (1.4’)

      However, if a subject cannot realize any action, then the subject does not meet the epistemic conditions on rational use of p as a reason for acting ( = has no justification to act on p) [rationality of action implies the possibility to perform action].

    5. (1.5’)

      And crucially, in a BIV scenario, subject S cannot realize any action [BIV scenario].

    6. (1.6’)

      Therefore, S does not meet the epistemic conditions on rational use of p as a reason for acting [1.4’, 1.5’].

    Premisses 1.1’—1.5’ are mutually inconsistent and lead to absurdity. To avoid the contradiction, I advocate the rejection of the JK rule.

  14. Thanks to an anonymous referee for this journal and to Robin McKenna here

  15. Gerken seems to endorse the idea that there should be an audience for an act to be an act of assertion: “Assertions are, at least typically, uttered in conversations (broadly construed) and they do, at least typically, have an audience (broadly construed)” (Gerken 2012, p. 378).


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Thanks to Santiago Echeverri, Robin McKenna and an anonymous referee for this journal for useful comments and discussion. The research work that lead to this article was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) grant number 100015_131794 (project “Knowledge, Evidence, and Practice”).

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Logins, A. The Problem of Massive Deception for Justification Norms of Action. Acta Anal 29, 457–468 (2014).

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