Thursday, April 22, 2010

The promise theory of assertion

I am not claiming that this theory is correct. But it seems to generate all the right normative predictions. Observe that there is no way to reduce the illocutionary force of promises to that of assertions. To promise is not just to assert that one will do something or that one intends to do something or anything like that. But there appears to be a way to reduce the illocutionary force of assertions to that of promises.

I can promise to do all sorts of things For instance, I can promise to raise my right hand only when my left ear itches. Among the things I can promise is the making of an utterance. For instance, I can promise that I will only utter "I am bored" on Saturday afternoons. I shall use "utter" in a way that does not imply assertion: when one asserts "I am bored", one also utters it, but one can utter it without asserting it. One can utter it in denial. (A: Tell me something false. B: I am bored.) One can utter it as an example of a sentence when teaching a language. One can utter it on stage. Etc.

The basic theory is that the normative effect of asserting s is exactly the same as the normative effect of:

  1. I promise to next utter only something true. s.
Here, the "s" is not an assertion, but a mere utterance, like when one uses a sentence as an example. More strongly (and some of what I say below applies to that strengthening), we can take every assertion of "s" to be contextual shorthand for something like (1), where "s" is explicitly uttered, and the promise is implicit in the tone of voice, context, etc.

If you are drawn to belief, justified belief or knowledge norms of assertion, replace "true" with "believed by me", "justifiedly believed by me" or "known by me" in (1). This will lose you some of what the theory can do for you, but it may still be a better theory than other theories of assertion.

The promise theory of assertion explains why it's typically morally wrong to assert something one doesn't believe. For if one doesn't believe that s is true, in making the promise in (1) while intending it to be followed by s, one is making a promise that one intends to break. Thus, we also get a reduction of the moral wrongness of lying to the moral wrongness of insincere promising.

Next consider retraction. Here it matters that we have "true" instead of one of the doxastic or epistemic things in (1). Observe that there are multiple kinds of cases where an apology is called for in a promise, including these:

  1. I promised to A, never intending to A.
  2. I promised to A, I failed to A, and I was culpable because I was not justified in believing that I was in fact Aing when I wasn't.
  3. I promised to A, I failed to A, but I wasn't culpable because I justifiedly believed that I was in fact Aing when I wasn't.
  4. I promised to A, and then I acted in a way that I didn't know was fulfillment of the promise.
  5. I promised to A, I did A, but I shouldn't have promised or done A, because promising and doing A was bad for some other reason.
The kind of apology is different in these cases. For instance, in cases 2, 3 and 6, I offer something more like a mea culpa. In case 4, I offer something closer to an "excuse me". What I offer in case 5 depends on further details. Taking (1) to be equivalent to asserting "s", the above cases yield the following cases where apology is needed for assertion:
  1. I asserted "s", not intending to assert something true. (This divides into two subtypes. On one subtype, I intended to assert something that I believed false—this correponds to intending to do something that one believes to be a breaking of the promise while making the promise. On the other subtype, I simply didn't care about truth and falsity, which is BS, and that corresponds to simply failing to intend to keep the promise one is making.)
  2. I asserted "s", but "s" was false, and I was culpable because I was not justified in believing that "s" is true.
  3. I asserted "s", but "s" was false, but I wasn't culpable because I was justified in believing that "s" is true.
  4. I asserted "s", but I didn't know that "s" was true.
  5. I asserted "s", but I shouldn't have said "s", even though "s" is true, but I shouldn't have asserted "s", because asserting "s" was bad for some other reasons. (E.g., it was the revealing of privileged information.)
Retraction on this view is a form of apology. One has at least two reasons for apologizing for not keeping a promise: one is to express an appropriate form of regret (different in the difference cases) and the other is to inform the other that the promise wasn't kept (the other could have relied on it). Exact analogues hold for assertion.

Dan Johnson points out to me that the above lets one accommodate the insights behind norms of assertion other than truth, by giving a variety of modes of assertion failure, which modes fit with the failure to act in accordance with these modified norms. I don't think one can do this if one replaces "true" in (1) with anything epistemic, so (1) with "true" is the best version.

Here now is an interesting consequence. If someone I justifiedly trust promises to do something, I have reason to believe that she will do it. The present account implies that if someone I justifiedly trust asserts something, I have reason to believe that the assertion is true. For she has promised to utter only something true, and so when I learn that she has uttered "s", I have reason to believe that "s" is true. So trust in testimony reduces to trust in promises.

The account predicts that just as there are varying strengths of promises, there will be strengths of assertion. This prediction is borne out. Further analysis is needed to see how to flesh out the parallel strengths. And we can take the colloquial form of assertion "I promise you that p" as a shorthand for a stronger version of (1).

Likewise, denial can be handled very similarly: a denial involves a promise to utter something false.


Heath White said...

I think this is a very promising theory. :-)

More seriously, can (1) be modified to

(1') I promise next to utter something [N].s.

where [N] is *all* the norms of assertion? E.g. "true and known by me." Then I think you can incorporate as many varieties of failure as there are norms and ways to violate them.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I have reasons why I'd prefer "true".

First, we don't have reason to say sorry when we've been Gettiered (I think this argument is due to EJ Coffman). But we do have reason to say sorry when we've broken a norm, even unwittingly. So knowledge isn't the norm.

Second, and this applies both to the promise theory and to other normative accounts of assertion, we would expect language to be flexibility. A significant aspect of the flexibility of language is allowing us to finely control exactly what we become committed to when we speak. (Lawyers are really good at this, but most of us are lawyers sometimes in this sense.) Now, if we build in something other than truth, say knowledge, then we are no longer able to use assertion to commit ourselves to the bare claim that snow is white (commitment version of normative theory) or to saying snow is white only if it is true (my version): we automatically get committed to our knowing that snow is white or to saying snow is white only if snow is white. On the other hand, if all we have is truth in the norm, then we have lots of flexibility. We can commit (I won't give the promise variant) to snow being white, to us believing snow is white, to us justifiedly believing snow is white, to us knowingly believing snow is white, etc. That flexibility seems an advantage. Granted, an argument that it would be better if language worked in way X, therefore language works in way X, only raises the probability that language works in way X. But it does raise the probability.

Third, my earlier posts giving counterexamples to Moore and to the belief account of honesty in speech also apply here.

What is also cool about the truth version is that if we put just truth in, and then use the promise account, we get varieties of assertion failure simply from the varieties of promise failure. So we don't need to put the other stuff in for N, because we get that for free, and in a somewhat richer way (if they're all in N, then whenever I go against any of them, I am failing to fulfill a promise, and so the failure is of the same sort--promise non-fulfillment; but I think it is a different kind of failure to say the false and to say the unknown).

Alexander R Pruss said...

The account also gives a judgment in the following case. We know that Patricia is listening in on our conversation through the keyhole, but she thinks we don't know. So we say something to each other that someone who is listening but not watching our body language will misunderstand, in order to mislead Patricia. Have we lied?

On this account, not. For a promise is always made to someone, and a promise-breaking is always a breaking of the promise as promised to that someone. But we don't break any promises to each other, because our body language modifies the meaning of what we say from its lexical meaning. And we don't break any promise to Patricia because we haven't promised anything to Patricia, since we're not talking to her (nor does she take us to be talking to her).

So, this is deceit, but it is in no way a failure in assertion, and in particular it is not a lie. Whether it is morally justifiable depends on the moral norms governing deceit, not the moral norms governing lying.

For me, this judgment adds confirmation to the theory, because I came to this ethical conclusion before I had the theory (and a friend whose opinion carries great epistemic weight for me in ethics agreed at the time in a similar case), and now the theory predicts it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If the following is true, it's fatal to theory (but also to some of the competitors):
(*) The concept of truth presupposes the concept of assertion.

Is there reason to think (*) is true?

Heath White said...

I am not sure whether (*) is true but I am also not sure it is fatal to the theory. It did occur to me that

(**) the concept of meaning presupposes the concept of assertion.

More generally, I am sympathetic to the idea that propositional content is inferential potential, and inferences begin by being made between assertions. You can of course make inference between other sorts of items but those are parasitic.

Still, off the cuff I would say that there could be a network of concepts here, so that even if we give up strictly reductive ambitions it's not like there's no progress being made.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the following is a pretty strong argument against the theory. imagine a language where a merely uttered formula has no force (or maybe has the force of "Consider the claim that ..."), but there are markers that come after the formula which indicate the force: "Query", "Request", "Deny", "Guess", "Promise", "Assert". So, we say "Snow is white. Assert" and "A hamburger is brought to me by you. Request". "You ate x for breakfast. Query(x)" But it makes no sense--unless one can backwardly cause--to promise about the past (except in the sense you note, but there, the promise is simply a more firm assertion, and so the proposal becomes circular).

Still, I think there is something to the story: a completed assertion seems very much like a finished promise to speak only the truth (a promise is "finished", I stipulate, when either it is fulfilled or broken).

Douglas said...

Alex, could you clarify the difficulty about backwards causation? I feel like I am missing something.

Suppose I speak a language with postfixed force markers. If I accept the promise theory, then perhaps all I am committed to is: the normative effect of uttering "Snow is white. Assert" is the same as the normative effect of uttering "Snow is white. Promise". If that's right, then a promising need not happen after---and so need not backwardly influence---an utterance whose force is completed by a use (tokening) of the assertion marker.

The theory only seems to demand that any use of the assertion marker has the same normative effect as a use of the promise marker would have had, had it been used instead. And since the promise marker no more requires backward causation than does a sincere utterance of "I'll do the dishes. I promise", I am having difficulty in seeing how the problem you raise threatens the promise theory.

Alexander R Pruss said...

On the original theory, it wasn't that I promised that p. Promises, in the central sense, are about actions. The content of the promise on the theory that I wouldn't perform a certain kind of action: saying something not true. But in the case where I say "Snow is white. Assert", by the time the "Assert" comes, I've already spoken, and so it's too late to promise I'll only say it if it is true.

Still, maybe I can promise something in the past without backwards causation? Suppose you keep on nagging me to do A. I've already done A today, but for some good reason I don't want to reveal that I've already done A. So I say: "I promise that by tomorrow I will have done A." Is that an insincere promise? Maybe not.

But this case is different from the assertion case. Here's why. The promise "by tomorrow I will have done A" has some force even if I've already done A. For maybe I'll come to falsely believe that I haven't done it, and then it'll impel me to do it.

Douglas said...

It seems that I can promise to do something that I have done already. Suppose I finish baking a cake at 4:00pm. At 4:30pm I forget that I have baked the cake. At 4:45pm I promise to bake a cake by 5:00pm. At 4:47pm I find my cake cooling and remember my earlier baking of the cake. It seems that I do not break my promise if I don't bake another cake by 5:00pm. In this case, there is no backwards causation.

I agree that a promise has force even after one has done what one promised to do. By contrast, if you assert that you will have baked a cake by 5:00pm and you bake a cake by then, then your assertion is true, and the norms of assertion demand no more of you. I guess there are some bumps in the theory after all.

Alexander R Pruss said...

See the comments here for a powerful criticism.