Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Epistemic and moral reasons: An Aristotelian view

I've previously argued that epistemic reasons are a kind of moral reason. But thanks to conversations with a patient colleague, I'm starting to see the plausibility of the standard view that they are different things. The only problem is that this is leading me to the view that epistemic reasons when distinguishable from moral ones are only reasons in an analogical sense.

The following argument moves me:

  1. Moral reasons always concern something up to the will.
  2. Epistemic reasons do not always concern something up to the will.
  3. Therefore, some epistemic reasons are not moral reasons.

What was stopping me previously from paying attention to arguments like this was that I had a very hard time seeing how a reason could fail to be a reason for the will. But consider the following statement:

  1. That the muscle received an electrical impulse from a nerve was a reason for the muscle to contract.
This statement seems to make sense. Moreover, "reason" here does not simply mean "cause". One way to see that is that causation is factive: A causes B only if both A and B occur. But (4) is compatible with the muscle not contracting. Rather, (4) states a teleological connection: it was the proper function of the muscle to contract upon receipt of the electrical impulse from a nerve.

So, the suggestion is that epistemic reasons insofar as they do not concern something up to the will are simply teleological connections that specify what it is normal to believe or not believe (or take some other attitudes towards) in the given circumstances.

At the same time, teleological connections within the human being also give rise to reasons for the will when that which is concerned in the connections is voluntary. Thus, suppose it is normal for human beings to breathe 12 breaths per minute at rest. You're overexcited, but at rest. If you are capable of controlling your breathing rate, the normalcy fact gives you a reason to breathe at 12 breaths per minute, and this is a reason for the will, not just a reason for the lungs. For it is good to function properly, and we always have a reason to will a willable good. Similarly, sometimes to believe or cease to believe a proposition is under partial or complete voluntary control, and in those cases the teleological connections that constitute epistemic reasons give rise to reasons for the will.

Still, there is something weird about talking about reasons for muscles or lungs. These are "reasons" in an analogical sense. And to the extent that epistemic reasons are exactly the same sort of non-voluntary thing, they too are reasons in an analogical sense.

This has the interesting consequence that because empirical data about how humans function gives evidence for claims about how humans ought to function (e.g., if we find out that the heart usually pumps blood, this gives us evidence for the claim that the heart should pump blood), likewise empirical data about humans think gives evidence for epistemically normative claims. Of course, this evidence is defeasible, in both cases.

10 comments:

enigMan said...

I think you're right about that; but what about such epistemic reasons as those of the hypothetico-deductive method of science? There we have some data, obtained in some way, and some hypotheses, obtained in some way, and we go from there to some reason to believe something. There are moral dimensions to all five of those things, but surely they are quite different to the scientific aspects, which make the data and the justifications of the hypotheses and reasoning epistemic reasons for having the balief. Furthermore, such things are not automatic, like most of the examples in philosophical epistemology (as when we look at a tree and believe it is a tree), and so they are rather under the control of the will. How we exercise that control will certainly involve moral aspects (most notably the ethical value of pursuing truth, and the ethics of experimentation), but it will also involve a lot of other stuff, e.g. theories of probability and inference and reflection upon them. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about such things to be more precise; but perhaps you get my drift? I'm just wondering why you don't consider such to be a good reason to think that there are non-moral epistemic reasons (at least at the present stage of science)?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Are you thinking of epistemic reasons like this: That experiment E is likely to yield knowledge whether p is a reason to do experiment E?

If so, then I say that it gets its force as a reason from the value of truth, and hence is a moral reason.

enigMan said...

I was thinking more of the data from E being possibly some reason to believe p, and it being quite a complex question whether or not it is (and to what degree). Various paradoxes indicate that we should not just believe what we automatically believe when faced with such data. Those paradoxes therefore yield epistemic reasons too, when we think about them.

But therefore I am also thinking of such a reason as you gave. There will be various reasons to do some such experiment, which as you say get their force from reasons to pursue the truth of this matter of whether p. But there will be other reasons to do E rather than some other experiment, which are about how good E is as an experiment, stuff to do with what is extraneous noise, or with representative sampling, etc.

This seems analogous to philosophising generally. E.g. we have moral reasons to help others, but then we have to work out what will help them, and so we have other kinds of reasons to do particular acts (with the aim of helping them). We are then trying to find out what will be of help to them, trying to find epistemic reasons for performing certain acts rather than others (all of the same general kind).

enigMan said...

I think you are right in a sense, but that there is still a useful distinction between moral and epistemic reasons. Suppose E and F are two experiments to help us to find out more about what will help people. E eliminates more potential errors, by being more expensive. There is a moral reason to do E or F, but there is also a very similar moral reason to do neither but to rush out to feed the poor now. There is also a pragmatic reason to do F, and give the money saved to the poor. And there is some reason to do E (rather than F, or no experiment at all), which is well called an 'epistemic' reason.

The general case is that reasons, beliefs and meanings are usually contrastive. Meanings of words are clarified as necessary, and to be precise we often contrast (e.g. by 'x' I mean y rather than z). Beliefs are often contrastive, e.g. I see a horse rather than a cow, but not rather than a painted zebra. And the reason to E is moral, but it is also pragmatic and epistemic. In some contexts, we would say it was epistemic, in other that it was moral. The reason breaks down into various reasons, and some of them are epistemic.

We might say that an immoral man had a reason to do E, in that it might further his career to do so. That reason to do E is not moral, but it is pragmatic (like a reason to eat fruit), perhaps also personal (like a reason to eat your favourite fruit), and epistemic (which is why it would further his career: it is of wider interest, to all sorts of people with all sorts of ultimate motivations). He has the same epistemic reason to do E as you, but his reason is not a moral reason and yours is (presumably).

Heath White said...

Still, there is something weird about talking about reasons for muscles or lungs. These are "reasons" in an analogical sense.

I don't think it's so weird. It sounds a little weird because normally, when we say "reasons for N" where N is a substance and the phrase is otherwise unmodified, we are talking about reasons for the agent N to do something. Obviously, muscles and lungs are not agents. But the phrases "reasons for muscles to contract" or "reasons for lungs to absorb oxygen" sound pretty normal to me.

I think you are on to something, that the root notion of reasons is proper function. Then epistemic reasons have to do with the proper functioning of the intellect, and moral reasons have to do with the proper functioning of the will. Insofar as the will is under the control of the intellect, or vice versa, these will overlap, and insofar as they are not, they won't.

So it seems to me that you have identified the genus and two species of reasons. Alternatively, we could say that one of these is the root notion and the others are analogical, but then it is not clear which notion is the root.

enigMan said...

You put that very well, I think, Heath. I was less clear. In my last scenario, there is a moral reason for the immoral man to do E, contra what I wrote; it's just that he doesn't act on that reason, or on any moral reason.

Alexander might say that he was irrational, acting for no real reason; and yet our natural language does not support that thesis. In ordinary talk, a banana being ripe is a reason for me to eat it, but it is not a moral reason (and if I am alergic to bananas then it is not even a good reason for me to eat it, which does not stop its ripeness being a reason for eating it:)

And I also think that an apple being heavy is a reason why it fell from the tree (as is the fact that the wind was up, and the fact that the apple was denser than the surrounding air:)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Prudence is a virtue, and hence prudential reasons are moral reasons. :-)

enigMan said...

Yes; but I guess you're joking (from the smiley). Honesty being a virtue does not imply that epistemic reasons are moral reasons, not without begging the question. And my personal taste for pears is a reason for me to eat pears. And it would help to make me happy, and the good life may be the truly happy life (and God may have given me my taste for pears); but surely my personal taste for pears is not in itself a moral reason to eat pears.

We distinguish between personal reasons, prudential reasons (eating fruit helps to keep one healthy) and moral reasons (one should aim to eat fairtrade or locally grown pears). Prudential reasons may (or may not) in practice always amount to moral reasons, but they are analytically different. E.g. we must begin with that distinction in meaning if we are to be able to show that prudential reasons do always amount to moral reasons in practice.

enigMan said...

...of course, as there is a God (of necessity), even your questionable epistemic reasons are moral reasons (in a sense), because they always concern something up to the will. God freely chooses to create and sustain a world in which, e.g., muscles contract upon receiving certain impulses.

Epecially under Presentism, God freely chooses to let the muscles react that way, to sustain such physical laws. But even Eternalists like Paul Helm (for whom free will is not Libertarian) and Tim Mawson (for whom it is) think that creation is contingent.

However, this sense reminds me of the sense in which everything is political, and there is clearly another sense in which people can act for other than political reasons.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Prudential reasons are reasons of prudence. Prudence is a virtue, so they are moral reasons. It seems to me that the only relevant difference between prudential reasons and other moral reasons is that the other moral reasons concern goods and bads to other persons (or beings?), while prudential reasons concern goods and bads to self. But goods and bads to self are not somehow different from goods and bads to others, so I don't see why they should give rise to a different kind of reason.

In fact, there seems to be pretty much a continuum between reasons concerning myself, reasons concerning close friends and family (who are "other selves"), reasons concerning more distant friends and family, and reasons concerning strangers.

Now, if you think one cannot have moral duties regarding only oneself, then you will have to make a distinction here. The view that one cannot have moral duties regarding only oneself is supported by only a minority of the major ethical theories. Kantianism, Natural Law and utilitarianism all hold that there are duties to self. Those versions of divine command theory on which we can have duties to beings other than God are likely to have duties to self. Maybe contractarian theories don't.


For a reason to be moral, it doesn't just have to concern a will. It has to concern the will for which it is a reason. My epistemic reasons don't become moral reasons just because they concern God's will.