Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"Should know"

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “x should know that s”. (There is probably a literature on this, but blogging just wouldn’t be as much fun if one had to look up the literature!) We use this phrase—or its disjunctive variant “x knows or should know that s”—very readily, without its calling for much evidence about x.

  • “As an engineer Alice should know that more redundancy was needed in this design.”

  • “Bob knows or should know that his behavior is unprofessional for a librarian.”

  • “Carl should have known that genocide is wrong.”

Here’s a sense of “x should know that s”: x has some relevant role R and it is normal for those in R to know that s under the relevant circumstances. In that sense, to say that x should know that s we don’t need to know anything specific about x’s history or mental state, other than that x has role R. Rather, we need to know about R: it is normal engineering practice to build in sufficient redundancy; librarians have an unwritten code of professional behavior; human beings normally have a moral law written in their hearts.

This role-based sense of “should know” is enough to justify treating x as a poor exemplar of the role R when x does not in fact know that s. When R is a contingent role, like engineer or librarian, it could be a sufficient for drumming x out of R.

But we sometimes seem use a “should know” claim to underwrite moral blame. And the normative story I just gave about “should know” isn’t strong enough for that. Alice might have had a really poor education as an engineer, and couldn’t have known better. If the education was sufficiently poor, we might kick her out of the profession, but we shouldn’t blame her morally.

Carl, of course, is a case apart. Carl’s ignorance makes him a defective human being, not just a defective engineer or librarian. Still a defective human being is not the same as a morally blameworthy human being. And in Carl’s case we can’t drum him out of the relevant role without being able to levy moral blame on him, as drumming him out of humanity is, presumably, capital punishment. However, we can lock him up for the protection of society.

On the other hand, we could take “x should know that s” as saying something about x’s state, like that it is x’s own fault if x doesn’t know. But in that case, I think people often use the phrase without sufficient justification. Yes, it’s normal to know that genocide is wrong. But we live in a fallen world where people can fall very far short of what is normal through no fault of their own, by virtue of physical and mental disease, the intellectual influence of others, and so on.

I worry that in common use the phrase “x should know that s” has two rationally incompatible features:

  • Our evidence only fits with the role-based normative reading.

  • The conclusions only fit with the personal fault reading.


Michael Gonzalez said...

Are the two senses really distinct? When I say an engineer should know X, qua engineer, I do not simultaneously call out what is expected of people in her role AND the fact that if she doesn't know better than it's her own fault for not paying better attention in engineer school or doing whatever else it takes to actually be a worthy engineer?

She isn't living up to the role, which is her own fault.

In the moral case, I think we are indeed saying that the person isn't properly living up to their role as a human being, AND that it is their own fault. For example, if a person is mentally ill, and they kill someone, we treat it differently (and may even shy away from the "should know better" sort of statements).

As far as punishment goes, are there not levels of addressing a breach of role? An engineer might just lose their current job. A black mark might be on their record and they may have trouble being trusted in future jobs. Etc. She may not be completely removed from her role. Likewise, we might punish humans to different degrees for breaching their role and failing to know some moral fact that they should have known (again, this still presumes it's their fault). Capital punishment is usually withheld until someone commits a very serious breach indeed, or indicates that they DO know better but wish to go against what they know and do wrong intentionally.

Dax Bennington said...

Sandy Goldberg talks about this in his paper Should have known.