Saturday, July 4, 2009

Praise and relativism

Hartry Field agrees with Putnam that values are non-factual. Of course, there is a fact of the matter about whether x values F, but there is no fact of the matter about whether x's valuing F is correct. This includes epistemic values. Field thinks this is not a problem. One simply relativizes epistemology to an "evidential system". Then, making use of a non-relativistic concept of truth, one defines the reliability of an evidential system. Finally:

if there is any "highest epistemological praise" it will be something like "is justified relative to some highly reliable evidential system" (or "is justified relative to all highly reliable evidential systems", or some such thing). This isn't really an adequate formulation of what "the highest epistemological praise" (if there is such a thing) would be, for (among other things) reliability is not the only feature we want our evidential systems to have; but it gives the general flavor. (Journal of Philosophy 79 (1982), p. 564)

Field is cautious about whether there is any such thing as the "highest epistemological praise". His caution could have two sources: he could be cautious about whether there is such a thing as "high epistemological praise" or about whether there is such a thing as the "highest epistemological praise". I shall take the latter to be his worry. Thus, on my reading, Field thinks there is such a thing as high epistemological praise, and to give it is to say something of "the general flavor" of the claim that a belief is "justified relative to some highly reliable evidential system (jrtshres)".

But now let me raise this question. What makes saying that a belief is jrtshres be a case of praise, while saying that it is justified relative to some evidential system (jrtses—note that every belief has this property) or that it was acquired during a full moon (adafm) are, presumably, not praise?

To answer this question we need to figure out the sense of the word "phrase". I see two prima facie plausible answers. On the first, to praise something is to attribute to it a property that is valued (individually or socially)—this is the relativistic notion of praise. On the second, to praise something is to attribute to it a property that is in fact valuable—this is the objective notion of praise.

Let's start with the second. This clearly has difficulties. Thus, it is easy to imagine (and I remember a claim that there is a code of honor among Russian thieves according to which this is so) a criminal subculture where to say that something was earned through honest work got is not praise, even though it is the attribution of a property that is in actual fact valuable. Similarly, it seems to be genuine praise if I say, misunderstanding the aim of checkers: "Great! You've just managed to get yourself into a position where you have no valid move." Nonetheless, there may be a sense of "objectively correct praise" on which to praise something is to attribute to it a property that one believes to be objectively valuable. But then by engaging in epistemic praise, we are presupposing something incompatible with Field's relativism about epistemic values—we're taking a belief's being jrshrtes to be objectively valuable.

On the other hand, here is a difficulty for the relativistic notion of "praise" as a reading of what Field is claiming. It seems that on a relativistic notion of praise, what is going to be the highest epistemological praise is not that a belief is jrtshres, but that it is justified according to one's own evidential system (on the individual relativist reading—the social case needs a modification in the argument). The evidential systems in Field's paper embody different individuals' evidential values, and so if one praises by attributing properties that one values, then one will be praising compliance with one's own evidential system.

I suppose Field could object that it is possible to see one thing as valuable for one's own beliefs and another as valuable for another's. Perhaps one sees epistemic caution as good in one's own case but values incaution in others, being glad that others explore crazy hypotheses, as that gives one a richer fund of ideas to work with. This example, by itself, is no good, though. Instrumentally valuing something that others do, on account of its benefits to oneself, is not really praise (unless one has an overinflated ego and one equates oneself with God or the universe or something like that). It is not, for instance, praise for the conman to say, once the con is done: "You have made me rich", though the conman values being rich. It would, on the other hand, be more like praise for the conman to say to someone: "You have made yourself rich." As long as we see others as being relevantly like ourselves, it does not seem that we can coherently praise in another what we do not value in ourselves.

Moreover, let's simplify and assume that what it is to value something is to have a certain kind of preference for it. A more sophisticated theory of subjective value will need a more sophisticated version of this argument, but I suspect the basic point will still be possible to make. Then on the relativistic reading, the force of the praise comes down to something basically like one's preference for jrtshes beliefs. But the following statement seems to me to be performatively inconsistent: "I praise you for F, because I prefer F." The relativism in the second clause undercuts the praise in the first. Epistemic praise, however, can be made both of oneself and of another. If made of another, one can hold back on the "because I happen to prefer jrtshes beliefs" clause. But if we praise ourselves in a clear-headed way, then we cannot hold back on it, and we indeed are being performatively inconsistent.

Of course, if to value something is to believe that it is objecitively valuable, the performative inconsistency disappears. But Field cannot take this route.

If all this is correct, we get a more general result: If relativism about values is correct, praise is insincere, manipulative or in some way inconsistent.


Alexander R Pruss said...

"objectively correct praise" should be, simply, "praise"

Alex said...


Pardon the off-topic nature of my comment, but seeing as no one has replied yet, I'd like to know your thoughts on this question, if you have time. Since in this post you talk about "objective" and "subjective", I'd like to know what you make of this "trilemma". I'm pretty sure someone has thought about this in-depth before, but I can't find where.

Let S be a proposition that many would regard as subjectively true e.g. "Steve Martin is funnier than Bill Cosby" or "coffee tastes better than tea". Would God hold beliefs like S? Does he have "opinions"?

Consider 3 options -

(a) God holds beliefs like S, and they're objectively true. But these types of propositions seem inherently subjective.

(b) God holds beliefs like S, but they're only subjectively true. But it seems to me that if God has such beliefs, they must be objectively true in light of being held by God.

(c) God has no beliefs like S, because he only believes objective propositions. But it seems a bit strange to think that God shouldn't also have such opinions, since we do.

I know I haven't formulated the question as rigorously as I could've, but I hope you get the idea. I'm not sure how to answer this. Maybe we need to distinguish between what's objective and subjective (on a case-by-case basis)? I'm pretty sure some aesthetic/moral propositions are objectively true e.g. "Mozart's music sounds better than nails on a blackboard", "St. Paul was more righteous than Hitler", "C. S. Lewis was a good writer" etc.

Would you be so kind as to share your thoughts? Thanks.