Saturday, March 21, 2009

Believing that p, when you believe that you're not justified

If somebody believes it's morally wrong to φ, it may still be right for them to φ. People can be mistaken about what it's morally wrong to do. We have a great example in the Huck Finn case, where the title character firmly believes that he is wrong to not send his friend Jim back to slavery, and does the right thing even when he believes it's wrong. There are certainly many more prosaic cases.

If somebody believes it's irrational to φ, I think (contra Michael Smith) that it may still be rational for them to φ. They may accept a bad theory of practical rationality. If Humeans are right about practical rationality, Kantians may falsely believe that they're acting wrongly in a variety of cases.

Now it's looking to me like justification for belief will have to go the same way. If I believe that I am unjustified in believing that p (or even that I am justified in believing not-p), I may still be justified in believing that p. I could merely be in the grips of a bad theory of epistemic justification. Maybe I just talked with a very convincing and charismatic external-world skeptic. That won't make me generally unjustified in my beliefs about the world. (If it does, the skeptic is in a better position than we usually take him to be!)

I think this conclusion would probably be a little more surprising to people, because it sounds like some kind of Moore's paradox variant. And since the mental states in question here are both beliefs (a belief about justification, and a belief that p) we might think that they're supposed to interact with each other in the mind of a rational agent, with one causing the other to be revised. One needs some controversial stuff from moral theory and the theory of practical rationality to get the beliefs about justification and the motivational elements to interact appropriately in the first two cases, and this difficulty is absent in the third case. But even if one wants to accuse me of an error of rationality somewhere in my belief set, it's not at all clear that I'm unjustified in believing that p. Maybe the mistake is somewhere else, like in my acceptance of the normative principle.

I actually want there to be something wrong with believing that p when you believe that you lack epistemic justification for p or believe that you have epistemic justification for not-p, because there's an argument I'd like to build that relies on things going that way. But I don't think it's going to work, for the reasons in the third paragraph. So tell me why I'm wrong!


Jonathan Ichikawa said...

Sorry to disappoint, but I think you're right. :P

Aidan said...

You could look at the first few chapters of Adler's 'Belief's Own Ethics' for an attempt to argue to the contrary, leaning heavily on Moore's paradox. I don't think it's all that persuasive, though. EJ Coffman has a draft up on his website called 'Two Mistakes about Belief and Assertion' in which he argues that one can be justified in believing Moore-paradoxical sentences for the kinds of reasons you offer here.

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

The claim that it's possible justifiably to believe Moore-paradoxical propositions is considerably stronger than the claim in this post. It may well be that any time I justifiably believe p and believe that it is unjustified to believe that p, that latter belief is unjustified.

Aidan said...

Right, it was the similarity of EJ's argument to Neil's I meant to draw attention to. I agree Neil's claim is weaker.

Anonymous said...

If you're convinced by a skeptical argument that for all we know we're living in the matrix then you should give up your belief that we're not living in the matrix, no? To do otherwise seems completely irrational to me in a Moore-paradoxical way. This view doesn't strike me as putting the skeptic in a particularly strong position. So long as all skeptical arguments are unsound and we can spot their flaws, we the enlightened philosophers will have nothing to fear from them.

Ed said...

I've always held that issues like this are simply limitations of the model combining folk psychology and practical reason).

Trying to eliminate that talk is silly, but so is trying to apply it universally. Just as Newtonian mechanics will not tell you how transistors work, folk psychology will give you nonsensical or ambiguous results about various kinds of second-order beliefs, self-deception, etc, etc. It's just not really designed to describe these things well.

Because these things don't quite work, there's an entire cottage industry devoted to 'explaining' them by carefully adjusting or specifying conceptions of belief, justification, epistemic rationality, etc. Often these adjustments do in fact explain the phenomenon in question. This is analogous to how Ptolemeic epicycles explain the motion of the planets. Unfortunately this makes the participants in this cottage industry feel that they are being productive.

If you want me to actually justify these claims, instead of blithely asserting them, you should talk to me.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Thanks, Aidan and Jonathan.

Anonymous, you may still be justified in believing that the furniture around you exists. You just aren't justified in believing the skeptical hypothesis, or in believing yourself unjustified.

Anonymous said...

(Justin Tiehen)

Hey Neil, long time since I last commented.

I too think that what you say in the post is right. For the sake of trying to help you out, though, how about this: what if you inserted "justified belief" in place of "belief" in your examples? Maybe this could preserve the contrast you want between the belief case and the other cases.

Here's how this would go on the Huck Finn case. On the proposed revision, not only does Huck believe that what he does is wrong, it's also the case that Huck's belief is justified (although surely false). Maybe it's justified because that's what the "moral experts" tell Huck; whatever. On this revised scenario, I take it that even though Huck justifiedly believes that his action is wrong, it's still the case that his action is right.

Now take your belief case. On the proposed revision, I *justifiedly* (but perhaps falsely) believe that I am unjustified to believe P. Now, crucial question: can my belief that P still be justified? Arguably not. For, if it were, then presumably my belief that I am unjustified to believe P would itself be unjustified, in violation of the stipulation of the scenario that I justifiedly believe this proposition.

In short then, here is my claim: My belief that P cannot be justified if I justifiedly believe that I'm not justified to believe that P. In contrast, my action A can be right even if I justifiedly believe that A is wrong.

I'm not sure whether the revision would suit your broader purposes; it may be that packing in justification from the get-go ruins what you're going for. But I thought I would float it.

Anonymous said...

Neil, if I'm understanding I guess I just don't share your intuitions about justification in the face of a convincing skeptical argument at all. (Though you might be right about your broader point.) It seems to me that if you find a skeptical argument convincing, you are not justified in believing the furniture around you exists, and presumably you won't believe that. (Of course you'll say things like "there's a chair" when you're not doing philosophy, but you'll insist you are not to be taken literally, just like a compositional nihilist would.) Presumably you aren't justified in believing the skeptical hypothesis because most skeptical arguments don't even try to establish that the skeptical hypothesis is true, only that for all we know it is. Are you justified in believing that proposition (which we are presuming to be false)? That might depend on exactly how the case is specified. If you're a reliable proofreader of mathematical arguments then I think reading mathematical arguments you don't find a flaw in will give you a justified belief regardless of whether the argument is flawed and of whether its conclusion is true. If anyone were a reliable proofreader of philosophical arguments, presumably the same would be true of them.

Neil Sinhababu said...

That's an interesting suggestion, Justin. I'll have to think about it more, because at first glance my intuitions on the cases are unclear. My initial thought is that some justified beliefs about justification will do work that unjustified beliefs wouldn't, but some won't.

Anonymous, suppose somebody offers me a skeptical scenario which for some reason is wildly appealing to me. I accept it out of wishful thinking, and believe that I am therefore unjustified in believing that my sofa exists. Do you want to say I'm unjustified in believing this?

Anonymous said...

Neil, I think if you accept the skeptical scenario but retain your belief that your sofa exists, you are irrational for having a pair of inconsistent beliefs, as well as for going in for wishful thinking. And I guess I have a relatively weak intuition that you would be unjustified in believing your sofa exists if you also believe a skeptical scenario, even if you only believe the skeptical scenario because of wishful thinking. But I think the best thing to say in this case is probably whatever leads to the smoothest theory, or it might even be a "don't care". There can surely be cases where you have two inconsistent beliefs and one or both is justified. So I guess I'm responding to the blatancy of the inconsistency.

Clayton said...

I actually want there to be something wrong with believing that p when you believe that you lack epistemic justification for p or believe that you have epistemic justification for not-p, because there's an argument I'd like to build that relies on things going that way. But I don't think it's going to work, for the reasons in the third paragraph. So tell me why I'm wrong!

I said something like this in my dissertation and everyone thought it was stupid. I don't remember them putting the point that nicely. (The quantifier ranges over a very small domain of discourse or something.) But, I think there's something to this.

You shouldn't believe p and believe that your belief is unjustified. That doesn't seem wrong. You shouldn't, however, take that as my way of endorsing the claim that when you believe the belief to be unjustified that shows that the first-order belief is defective.

Assuming that 'justified' amounts to 'not obligated to refrain' or 'permissible', we can say this:

(1) You shouldn't both: believe p and believe that you shouldn't believe p.

All that follows from this is that if there's nothing wrong with believing p, there's something wrong with the evaluative judgment. To say that it follows from the fact that you believe that your belief that p that it is unjustified that your belief that p is unjustified is to trade in the true wide-scope ought for this dodgy one:

(2) If you believe you shouldn't believe p you shouldn't believe p.

That, to my mind, is better but not better enough than an epistemic Ewing's Principle:

(3) If you believe you should believe p, you should believe p.

Charles said...

"My initial thought is that some justified beliefs about justification will do work that unjustified beliefs wouldn't, but some won't."

The special class consists in justified beliefs about justification that are false?
This class has `one function more´ (authority) than the class of unjustified beliefs about justification?

But equivalent:
Unjustified belief about justification can still be right.
And if you think you have unjustified beliefs about justification, you can still be right about them.
(Unjustified: (a) you have something for justification, but you believe it is wrong, or (b) you have nothing to justify.)

Am I wrong?

Charles said...

Hello Neil,

my questions were/ are just questions for understanding.