Monday, November 24, 2008


Every day, at a significant expense of time and effort, George engages in activity E. We ask him whether he does E because he is morally required (whether absolutely or prima facie) to do so? He denies it. We ask him whether he does E because he desires to do E or desires something else which the doing of E promotes? He denies it. We suggest to George that perhaps he simply sees E or something promoted by E as good, whether instrumentally or not, and that's why he does it. George responds that whether E has value or not, that value is not why he engages in it. Finally, we query whether George does E because it is pleasant. George denies it, emphasizing that E is only sometimes pleasant.

Assuming George's answers are correct, and not merely a reflection of insufficient insight into himself, it seems that George is being irrational in engaging in E. In fact, we may even think that too many questions are given above since we may think more simply that if someone does something not for the sake of a good, then she is not acting rationally. (We may even go one step further and say that this situation is impossible, and hence the conditional is a per impossibile one.)

But now suppose that E is the activity of living one's doxastic life in accordance with epistemic norms. If the above judgments are right, then unless one does E out of moral duty, or for the sake of a good, or to fulfill a desire or for pleasure, then I act irrationally. But of course to engage in E is a paradigm of rationality, and to fail to engage in E is a paradigm of irrationality. It would not be plausible to explain the rationality of people in engaging in E by means of desire or pleasure. Whether it is rational to engage in epistemically rational practices does not depend on one's desires or pleasures, and one shouldn't engage in E merely out of desire or for pleasure.

So the appropriate reason for engaging in E is a moral duty or a good. Now I submit that genuine norms (as opposed to, say, the norms of SS officer practice) are reasons for acting on the norms. Thus, if epistemic norms are genuine norms, they are reasons for E. But the appropriate reason for E is moral duty or a good. Therefore, epistemic norms are moral duties or express goods.


jawats said...

Prof. Pruss,

You note the following about George and the claims concerning his activity:

1. He is not morally required to engage in E.
2. He is not engaging in E to achieve a further personal desire / object.
3. He is not engaging in E to achieve some other good not already named.
4. He is not engaged in E because it is directly pleasurable.

If we assume they are correct, and not merely a failure to reflect properly, then it seems like you contradict yourself in arguing that the reason to do E is that it related to epistemic norms, which are moral duties. Why is the latter not covered by the questions above?


Alexander R Pruss said...

The form of my argument is convoluted. Sorry.

Suppose that epistemic norms give genuine reasons not reducible to moral reasons or to considerations of the good. Then, one could be rationally following epistemic norms even though George believes that (1)-(4) hold. But it is absurd to suppose that George could be acting rationally even though he believes that (1)-(4) hold. Therefore, epistemic norms either do not give genuine reasons, or they give reasons reducible to moral reasons or to considerations of the good. I think they give reasons reducible to moral reasons.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Or. more precisely, I think epistemic reasons are just a species of moral reasons.

adam said...

Prof. Pruss,

Even if (1)-(4) hold, couldn't George be engaging in E for its practical necessity? What I have in mind here is perhaps considered transcendental: although he is not engaging in E to acheive a further personal desire (2), it seems like he must engage in E in order to have a doxastic life at all.

Is it possible to have a doxastic life without adherence to epistemic norms? And if not, then the reasons for E need not be moral, but solely practical.

Is this not a plausible way of approaching the problem?

Alexander R Pruss said...

But practical reasons still involve goods, and so in this case E promotes a good. Why bother having a doxastic life unless a doxastic life is good?

adam said...

That's a good point but I am having difficulty understanding how a person could exist without a doxastic life. That is, is having a doxastic life not a necessary condition of being a rational agent?

What I was trying to get at was that the only way a person could have beliefs, desires etc, is by having them in virtue of having epistemic norms as well. Moral norms may play the role of filling in the content for those beliefs or desires. But in order to have them at all requires epistemic norms. In other words, we can't bother to have a doxastic life at all, it is a precondition for rationality (broadly construed).

I may be off the mark, but how can a person be rational without doxastic commitments, and how can they have those commitments without an appeal to epistemic norms?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I expect that being subject to epistemic norms is needed for having beliefs. But it is one thing to be subject to epistemic norms, and another to obey epistemic norms. One can be a rebellious subject. :-)

But let's even grant that some obedience to epistemic norms is needed for having beliefs. Then, consider the following practice: EW -- the practice of following epistemic norms on Wednesdays. EW is an onerous practice. Moreover, it's not a practice necessary for having beliefs. Taking a break from rationality every Wednesday is quite compatible with having beliefs.

Why bother being epistemically rational on Wednesdays, then?