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Epistemic ethics
By Nick Shackel

What is good and bad? What is virtue and vice? How should we live? These are the big questions of ethics. They are also deeply practical questions. The point is not simply to know the answers but to do what is right and to avoid what is wrong. Through action we pursue ends, manifest character and live life. Action is the nexus of ethical concern. Agents are the authors of action and are also the objects of ethical evaluation. The ethical standing of an agent bears a complex relation to their actions, to how they were sensitive to the ethically relevant facts in coming to their actions and to their general inclinations to act. But agency and action also require believers and belief. What is the ethical status of believers and belief, as such? And what relation do these evaluations surrounding action and belief have to one another?

Historically we have been inclined to demand conformity of belief to right belief, just as we are inclined to demand conformity of action to right action, and to blame and even to punish wrong belief. However, there are significant contrasts to be drawn between the case of belief and the case of action. First, and as Locke pointed out in his letter on toleration, unlike actions, our beliefs are not under our control. How then can it be fair to subject belief to ethical demands? Second, the freedom of action which is held to be valuable is only the freedom to choose among permissible alternatives, not the freedom to do what is wrong. The freedom of belief which is held to be valuable, however, includes the freedom to believe wrongly and in error. Indeed, some value the freedom of thought so highly that they claim belief should always be at complete liberty, and complete liberty implies that belief is always blameless. Third, there is a significant conflict between liberty of belief and the apparently reasonable demand that you should proportion your belief in accordance with the evidence. Believing against the evidence seems to be blameworthy whilst believing with the evidence seems to be a defence against criticism.

In addition to the contrasts between belief and action, the significance of belief for action may have consequences for the ethical status of belief. First, effective action is highly dependent on true belief and so true belief has ethical import for right action. This can cut both ways. On the one hand, since true belief is hard to come by, it may be that freedom of belief is necessary for discovering truth. On the other hand, since false belief can result in wrong action, regimenting belief can be necessary for right action. Second, some truths undermine the flattering views we might wish to have of ourselves and others, or might bring us unwanted explanations that undermine the political or moral views we want to hold. For example, loyalty to those close to us appears to demand that we believe better of them than perhaps the evidence warrants. Third, since speech can lead others to action the ethical restraints on action may have consequences for restraints on speech. However, if belief is free, and if belief is the norm of assertion (it is permissible to assert what you believe) then the freedom of belief implies a correlate freedom of speech.

So, whilst belief appears to be an object of ethical concern, natural views of the nature of belief and of the normativity of belief (that it is constrained by, and only by the aim to believe truly) entail significant conflicts between rightness of belief and rightness of action, more generally, between epistemic normativity and moral normativity. The ethical status of belief is, therefore, no simple issue; it has its own special difficulties.

Regrettably, and because of the significance of belief for action, these difficulties are often lumped in with ethical problems about action, and, as a consequence, are often poorly dealt with. When your focus is on the action difficult philosophical questions about belief become an annoying sideshow on the way. And that’s fair enough, provided that those difficult questions are addressed somewhere. It is a worthwhile project to separate out those questions and address them as the main attraction. Secondly, and perhaps also somewhat regrettably, these questions have been pursued in isolation from rich ethical contexts by epistemologists, with a bare assumption that whatever is the true theory of knowledge or epistemic justification will settle the matter. Well, perhaps that is right, but I suspect we need some discussion and argument to show it to be right. In general, I think we need to formulate the area somewhat more broadly and more self consciously.

My suggestion is that there is something properly called epistemic ethics. Epistemic ethics takes belief as the nexus of its concern, just as ethics takes action as the nexus of its concern. Believers and beliefs are the objects of epistemically ethical evaluation. The epistemically ethical standing of a believer bears a complex relation to their beliefs, to how they were sensitive to the epistemically ethically relevant facts in coming to their beliefs and to their general inclinations to believe.

Epistemic ethics includes meta-normative questions such as the whether epistemic normativity is exhausted by epistemology as presently practised, whether the ethics of action and the ethics of belief are one and the same ethics or whether they are distinct, and if so what is their relation. It also includes normative questions about the justification of believer and belief as such, and the delicate relations between those and the justification of agent and action as such. However, epistemic ethics is concerned not only with such purely philosophical issues. It is also concerned with the issues of the specific epistemic duties had by us all, had by special classes of us (such as experts, journalists and politicians), had by us with respect to specific questions of belief, and had by us with respect to different arenas, such as private belief and public knowledge. Finally, just as applied ethics seeks to apply ethical theory to issues in the wider world (and has given rise to bioethics, animal ethics, environmental ethics, neuroethics, etc), epistemic ethics includes the epistemic side of issues in the wider world such as medicine, the economy, the climate, the relation of science and policy, and more generally, the epistemic roles, rights and duties of social institutions concerned with knowledge such as think tanks, research institutes, schools and universities.

When put like this I think it is clear that there is significant work already being done in this area, mostly by epistemologists who have made use of analogy with standard ethical issues. Virtue epistemology is clearly a matter of thinking in ethical terms about belief, as too is the recent work on the value of knowledge. Nevertheless, I think something important is added by drawing attention to the unity of epistemic ethics: namely, that philosophical issues that have been under-explored come clearly into view. At the moment I think there are at least three obvious issues (from work in progress on which I have extracted some of these remarks). First of all, the relations between moral and epistemic normativity are, on their face, complex and intricate, and yet there is a widespread assumption that this normativity is a unity. Secondly, within social epistemology, and perhaps within experimental philosophy, attention is being paid to epistemology in practice, for example, rules of evidence in the law, intuitions, etc.. But to know how such work is to have genuine philosophical significance requires some theoretical conception of the unity of epistemic ethics. Finally, the epistemic side of issues in the wider world is significantly under-moralised in that world. For example, politicians, journalists, advocacy researchers, civil servants, businessmen, none of whom would ever think of acting immorally, routinely resort to the production of bogus evidence, to tendentious misrepresentation and to bullshit, seemingly without the slightest thought that in doing so they might be engaging in unethical behaviour.


Comments

  1. 1. Posted by Ben Bayer | February 2, 2009 9:32 pm

    There’s much I disagree with in here, but I’d like to just point out that it is misleading if not false to characterize Locke as an anti-voluntarist about belief. Perhaps you had Hume in mind. Here’s what Locke says about the voluntariness of *knowledge* in Book IV, chapter 13 of the Essay (and I think we can assume that knowledge implies belief):

    http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/ac.....r0413.html

    “1. Our knowledge partly necessary, partly voluntary. Our knowledge, as in other things, so in this, has so great a conformity with our sight, that it is neither wholly necessary, nor wholly voluntary. If our knowledge were altogether necessary, all men’s knowledge would not only be alike, but every man would know all that is knowable; and if it were wholly voluntary, some men so little regard or value it that they would have extreme little, or none at all. Men that have senses cannot choose but receive some ideas by them; and if they have memory, they cannot but retain some of them; and if they have memory, they cannot but retain some of them; and if they have any distinguishing faculty, cannot but perceive the agreement or disagreement of some of them one with another; as he that has eyes, if he will open them by day, cannot but see some objects and perceive a difference in them. But though a man with his eyes open in the light, cannot but see, yet there be certain objects which he may choose whether he will turn his eyes to; there may be in his reach a book containing pictures and discourses, capable to delight or instruct him, which yet he may never have the will to open, never take the pains to look into.

    2. The application of our faculties voluntary; but, they being employed, we know as things are, not as we please. There is also another thing in a man’s power, and that is, though he turns his eyes sometimes towards an object, yet he may choose whether he will curiously survey it, and with an intent application endeavour to observe accurately all that is visible in it. But yet, what he does see, he cannot see otherwise than he does. It depends not on his will to see that black which appears yellow; nor to persuade himself that what actually scalds him, feels cold. The earth will not appear painted with flowers, nor the fields covered with verdure, whenever he has a mind to it: in the cold winter, he cannot help seeing it white and hoary, if he will look abroad. Just thus is it with our understanding: all that is voluntary in our knowledge is the employing or withholding any of our faculties from this or that sort of objects, and a more or less accurate survey of them: but, they being employed, our will hath no power to determine the knowledge of the mind one way or another; that is done only by the objects themselves, as far as they are clearly discovered. And therefore, as far as men’s senses are conversant about external objects, the mind cannot but receive those ideas which are presented by them, and be informed of the existence of things without: and so far as men’s thoughts converse with their own determined ideas, they cannot but in some measure observe the agreement or disagreement that is to be found amongst some of them, which is so far knowledge: and if they have names for those ideas which they have thus considered, they must needs be assured of the truth of those propositions which express that agreement or disagreement they perceive in them, and be undoubtedly convinced of those truths. For what a man sees, he cannot but see; and what he perceives, he cannot but know that he perceives.”

  2. 2. Posted by Richard Chappell | February 3, 2009 8:15 am

    I’m not sold on the alleged contrasts between action and belief. You claim:

    Second, the freedom of action which is held to be valuable is only the freedom to choose among permissible alternatives, not the freedom to do what is wrong. The freedom of belief which is held to be valuable, however, includes the freedom to believe wrongly and in error. Indeed, some value the freedom of thought so highly that they claim belief should always be at complete liberty, and complete liberty implies that belief is always blameless.

    If we’re talking about political freedom here, i.e. freedom from external coercion, then the first sentence seems false. There are many minor acts of wrongdoing that ought not to be prohibited. That is to say, there’s value to having freedom even to do (some) impermissible things.

    The last sentence strikes me as even more confused. If we take ‘liberty’ in a radical ‘deliberative’ sense, i.e. such that we shouldn’t feel any inclination to even restrict ourselves over the matter (we’re “blameless” either way), then it just doesn’t seem true that we value liberty of belief in this sense. Some propositions really shouldn’t be believed, after all, and we’d do well (as rational agents) to recognize this.

    Stronger still: I’d be quite happy if my brain were wired such that I was strictly incapable of believing some blatantly irrational thing — a contradiction, say. Freedom of thought, like freedom of action, is instrumentally valuable — insofar as it enables us to follow reasons. But not all freedoms will promote this end, and there’s no reason to value those we know to be useless in this respect. Indeed, some freedoms (e.g. to sell ourselves into slavery, or the intellectual equivalent) may be outright self-defeating, in ways that may inspire us to rule them out in advance.

    P.S. At times you seem to be comparing true belief with right action. This seems the wrong comparison, at least insofar as ‘right action’ is being used to mean something like the weak notion of ‘permissible action’, rather than the more stringent ‘ideal action’ (which is the real analogue of correct, ideal, or ‘true’ belief). This becomes clearer if we translate it into talk of what we have “most reason” (or the weaker, “sufficient reason”) to believe/do. I discuss the structural analogies in more detail here.

  3. 3. Posted by Clayton Littlejohn | February 3, 2009 7:13 pm

    Nick (if I may),

    This is a really interesting post and you address a number of issues that are near and dear to me. I’m curious about this remark and was hoping you might say more about what you meant. You wrote, “On the other hand, since false belief can result in wrong action, regimenting belief can be necessary for right action.” I don’t know what the “regimenting belief” suggestion means. If we focus on the rightness of an action, I thought that acting from a false belief does not matter so far as the action is concerned provided that the false belief leads to the right action. If, however, we focus on false beliefs that lead to wrongful action (e.g., the false belief that I must A rather than B), I sort of like the idea that insofar as you are obliged to B rather than A you are obliged to refrain from believing that you ought to A rather than B. (Actually, I’ve tried defending this in a few papers on the issue.) Is your suggestion here that we “regiment” belief by adding some requirement to the effect that the right/justified/permissible belief is, inter alia, one we are not obliged to keep out of practical deliberation? If so, I’m on board. I rather like the view that if you believe you ought to A and it’s not the case that you ought to refrain from so believing, it’s not the case that you must refrain from A-ing. With this principle I think we can do a lot of work in epistemic ethics. (And, in evaluating the status of this principle we can do even more work in epistemic ethics.)

    At any rate, what did you mean by “regimenting belief”? Did you mean something like specify the norms of belief in such a way that the normative status of a belief depended upon its relationship to the normative status of the actions that belief could potentially rationalize?

  4. 4. Posted by Nick Shackel | February 4, 2009 3:08 pm

    Ben: Thanks for your apposite quotation from Locke. That is a very helpful reference for me. Doxastic voluntarism holds that belief is, at least sometimes, under the *direct* control of the will, where the notion of direct control in play is supposed to be the same as the will has over action. I’m not a Locke scholar so I don’t want to make any strong claims about what Locke’s position is. What I had in mind was his Letter on Toleration. Looking at your quotation, he still sounds like a doxastic involuntarist to me, when he says ‘all that is voluntary in our knowledge is the employing or withholding any of our faculties from this or that sort of objects, and a more or less accurate survey of them: but, they being employed, our will hath no power to determine the knowledge of the mind one way or another’. Compare this with Feldman type examples where you can indirectly make yourself believe the light is on by switching it on, but not by simply willing yourself to believe it.

  5. 5. Posted by Nick Shackel | February 4, 2009 3:09 pm

     Richard: Thanks for these points. I’m not sure that I have to disagree with you. Insofar as I am attempting to sketch out a topic called epistemic ethics I don’t have to assert the contrasts, but point out that prima facie there are these contrasts between the kinds of things which are said about action and belief. So I would regard the issue of which freedoms of belief are valuable and to what extent there are similarities and differences with valuable freedoms of action to be an issue within epistemic ethics. You are advancing a specific position in that issue, which I call rationalistic instrumentalism: If I have understood you correctly you are suggesting that freedoms are *only* instrumentally valuable, and freedom of action and belief is freedom to follow practical and theoretical reasons respectively. (I know you didn’t say ‘only’, but I took it that upshot of the brain wiring case implied it.) Similarly, I’m not advancing any position on whether right belief is true belief or how it compares to right action: again, the issues of right belief and how it relates to truth and to standard epistemological views on justification, and whether the normativity of right action and right belief is a unity, are issues in epistemic ethics.

  6. 6. Posted by Nick Shackel | February 4, 2009 3:13 pm

    Clayton: Glad you liked it! Thanks. Well I guess that’s a good question. Here I intended to raise just that question rather than offer any specific answers. That is to say, we do seem to think that practical normativity bears, in some way or another, on belief; hence it is externally? internally? constitutively? related to the normativity of belief properly so-called? hence we are practically justified in applying causal pressures on belief? Or perhaps we are just mistaken in thinking this.

    I chose the word ‘regimentation’ because I thought I could cover a lot of ground with it: that it alludes to some kind of practical restriction and control whilst leaving open for discussion its nature (causal, normative; personal, social), its normativity (none, permissible, forbidden, obliged), and the source of its normativity (epistemic, moral). In fact, I should have left it yet more open, because it is not just false belief, but true belief than can result in wrong action, and as you mention, also false belief can lead to right action— and we also need to include practical pressure on the justifiedness of belief.

    Historically the kind of causal regimentation that has been thought to be necessary is indoctrination and I think it has been thought to be justified straightforwardly by the requirement to do right (more accurately, by the rightness of what you do as a result of believing what you have been indoctrinated into). This relies on a naïve and perhaps empirically false view of the relation of belief and action, namely that if you believe the right things you will do the right things.

    I have my doubts about the principle you propose, although I’m interested to hear that it does work in epistemic ethics—where is your work on this?

  7. 7. Posted by Ryo Chonabayashi | February 5, 2009 1:21 am

    Thank you for an interesting post. Let me ask you a few questions for clarification. Probably I am totally misunderstanding what you are suggesting.

    Would you say that there are three normativities now at stake: [1] the Normativity in Epistemology (what kinds of belief we epistemically ought to have, if I take your words ‘by the aim to believe truly’), [2] the Normativity in Ethics of Action (what kinds of action we morally ought to take), and [3] the Normativity in Ethics of Belief (what kinds of belief we morally ought to have)? Or, would you say [2] and [3] are fundamentally the same kind? I was wondering what kinds of issues Epistemic Ethics would deal with. The candidates are as follows:

    On the relation between [1] and [2]:
    ‘Whether [1] is the same kind of normativity we should follow when we are pursuing [2]’, etc.

    On the relation between [2] and [3]:
    ‘Whether there is any [3] which is independent of [2], or [3] is necessarily affected by [2]’, etc.

    On the relation between [1] and [3]:
    ‘Whether epistemically warranted belief is necessarily morally permissible or not’, etc.

    I’ve got a question on [2]:
    I wonder how we develop such a research area. Do you think the Normativity of Ethics of Belief would change depending on which normative ethical theory one endorses? For instance, if one endorses consequentialism, belief one morally ought to have would be belief which produces the best consequence somehow, regardless of belief’s being true or false. On the other hand, if one endorses virtue ethics, belief one morally ought to have would be belief which contributes to one’s moral character. Or, can we assume that there is the independent normativity in Ethics of Belief which does not depend on the currently dominant normative ethical theories?

    Sorry for asking you rather too general questions! Excuse me for some English mistakes.

  8. 8. Posted by Clayton Littlejohn | February 5, 2009 4:22 am

    Nick,

    The issues you raise are all issues that I find very interesting. The principle I mentioned is not one that I’ve defended in print (not yet, I’m working on it and hoping some referees will be kind enough to say ‘Yes’. I rely on it in one paper where I argue that epistemic externalism follows from some assumptions about the ontology of practical reasons), but there was some discussion of it over at PEA Soup (here).

    One way to motivate the principle is something like this. Suppose one of the lessons you take from the toxin puzzle is that the reasons that bear on whether to A bear on whether to intend to A. (It’s your knowledge that you will have no reason to A and good reason not to A at the later time that explains the present inability to form the intention to later A.) Now, consider Davidson’s view that identifies intention and practical judgment. If you accepted that view, you’d get the further conclusion that the reasons that bear on whether to intend to A bear on the judgment that you should A. (Let’s suppose that judgment requires the belief that you should A.) If we accept this, then we get that the reasons that bear on whether to A bear on whether to believe you should A. That view about intention and practical judgment can’t be right (or so say some) because cases of weakness of will show that it’s possible for the judgment that you should A to fail to produce the right intention. Note, however, that we tend to think that the cases in which the judgment fails to produce the intention are cases in which the subject fails to satisfy some normative requirement/wide-scope ought. And, if you buy that, then even without the mistaken Davidsonian thesis you still get that the reasons that bear on whether to intend to A bear on whether to believe you should A. So, now we have a link. Among the facts that determine whether we permissibly believe what we do are facts that determine what we are permitted to do. I’d say that this is a non-causal kind of dependency and that there is an internal connection between reasons that bear on belief and those that bear on whether to act. Interestingly (to me), I’d say that the reasons in light of which a subject oughtn’t A are practical reasons not to A and epistemic reasons to refrain from believing that you ought to A, but the reasons for this classification are complicated. (Well, not really. If we think that a reason that bears on whether to believe counts as an epistemic reason if it is related to the truth of the belief, the considerations that bear on whether to A are related to the truth of the practical judgment that you should A.)

  9. 9. Posted by James Gray | February 15, 2009 12:18 pm

    I agree that freedom of belief must allow us to believe falsely, but not necessarily without justification. In other words, we can believe falsely when we can’t know better. What we really need is a serious attempt to enlighten ourselves. A serious attempt to learn ethics, for example. That is a moral obligation. Once we have given our serious attempt, we will try to believe what is most justified.

    But I disagree that actions must always be “right.” Once a serious attempt is made to know what should be done, we have an obligation to do what we believe is best. To do otherwise would be absurd. The action must be justified just like the belief must be justified. It seems pretty symmetrical to me.

  10. 10. Posted by Nick Shackel | February 17, 2009 11:54 pm

    Ryo: Thanks for your questions. It seems to me that the natures of these normativities and the relations between them is under explored. Are these different *normativities*? Are they different *sources* of requirements whose normativity is all of a single kind? Are they all *normative*, properly so-called? What should we make of the competing conceptions of normativity and incompatible stipulations deployed by philosopher’s working here?

    I chose to express this in terms of ethics, and what I had in mind is the rather broader conception of ethics to which Williams directed our attention, rather than the narrower notion of moral duty. Ethics starts not from the question of what is our duty or what will make us happy but with how we should live, where the answer to that question is not to do this or that particular thing but is a way of life, taken broadly and as a whole. Since our intellectual life is a significant part of our lives it falls within this broad ethical concern. My intention was thereby to take a particular line, namely that there are not distinct normativities of ethics of action and ethics of belief, and the problem might be how they interact, but there is the normativity of ethics, which applies to both action and belief. From this point of view the question is perhaps how exactly do considerations of morality, prudence or epistemic justifiedness contribute to ethical determinations.

    Taken as an ethical theory in this sense, consequentialism would seem to be committed to right belief being best consequence producing belief, and some consequentialists do hold to that. However, consequentialism perhaps doesn’t fit well with this conception of ethics. Virtue ethics fits much better and then the question might be whether intellectual virtues are beholden to virtues of action or are independent and beholden only to aiming at truth or knowledge. That being said, presumably the normativity of the ethics of belief depends not on whatever is currently the dominant ethical theory but simply on whatever is the truth.

  11. 11. Posted by Nick Shackel | February 17, 2009 11:56 pm

    Clayton: thanks, that’s very interesting. I also had a quick look at the Pea soup blog. I suppose I am more sympathetic to the consequences of what Feldman says than you are. I don’t find it peculiar that it might be that you ought to A but you ought to believe the you ought not to A. You might just not be well placed to know what reasons bear.

    Here is what seems to me to be a difficulty for the principle you propose. Its contrapositive is O(not-A)—>[not-BO(A)or O(not-BO(A))]. (‘O’ for ought, ‘B’ for believe.) But that you ought not A is independent of whether you believe or don’t believe that you ought (judging by your remarks on Pea soup, here is perhaps where you part company from me!). Nor is it sufficient for O(not-BO(A)), since it need not preclude you having very good evidence that you ought to A, so you ought to believe that you ought to A. Hence O(not-A)and BO(A) and O(BO(A)) could all be true together and since I hold that O(X) iff not-O(not-X), O(not-A)and BO(A) and not-O(not-BO(A)) could all be true together, and they are incompatible with the contrapositive.

  12. 12. Posted by Nick Shackel | February 17, 2009 11:57 pm

    James: thanks for your remarks. I wonder whether it is true that ‘we have an obligation to do what we believe is best’. As I mentioned to Clayton, we might not be well placed to know what we ought to do, and so perhaps justifiably believe we ought to A when in fact it is not the case that we ought to. If what you say is true then we ought to A (because we justifiably believe we ought to) and it is not the case that we ought to A. But that is a contradiction.

  13. 13. Posted by Richard Chappell | February 18, 2009 12:11 am

    I think Clayton’s principles are fine so long as we’re consistent in talking about only objective or only subjective ‘oughts’. (This point came up in a previous discussion here.)

    Nonetheless, I agree that it’s mistaken to claim that “we have an obligation to do what we believe is best” — as becomes clear when we consider cases where the latter belief is irrational. (This raises the possibility of Rational Akrasia.)

  14. 14. Posted by Clayton Littlejohn | February 18, 2009 12:31 am

    I’m with Richard.

    That probably isn’t going to come as a surprise. It seems to me that if you deny the relevant principle, you’ll have to deny at least one of these three claims:

    Pro: The reasons that count in favor of beliefs and intentions count in favor of intentions and actions these states rationalize.
    Con: The reasons that count against an action or intention count against the beliefs and intentions that rationalize them.
    Deon: If there is an undefeated reason not to A and no equally good reason to A, you oughtn’t A.

    Putting those together, we do get an argument for my principle:
    Link: If you judge that you ought to A and it’s not the case you oughtn’t so judge, it’s not the case that you oughtn’t A.

    It seems (to me) that if we focus on the links between intention and action we can say that you lose an attractive story about the toxin puzzle if you deny Pro, Con, and Deon. It seems also that if we focus on the links between intention and judgment, you find yourself in the awkward position of saying that there’s not reason to follow the lead of the weak willed who intentionally act against their own better judgment. But, as there is reason to refrain from acting against your own better judgment, I think we’re either going to have to say that the ‘ought’ that governs intention and action depends only on the evidence or say that the beliefs depend on more than just the evidence.

    One note about Feldman’s article on the issue. I think he argues that evidence gives us reasons to believe. He never addresses the issue as to whether facts that don’t supervene on the evidence could give us reason to refrain from believing. It seems like a glaring oversight since even crazy externalists such as myself would say that evidence can give us reasons to believe. Presumably in determining the permissibility of belief, we also have to ask whether there are cons or reasons not to believe. I’d say there are–if the belief rationalizes performing an impermissible action, there’s a reason not to believe.

  15. 15. Posted by James Gray | February 18, 2009 7:42 am

    Nick: You need to say more about this because you are currently begging the question. You say something like, “What you ought to do is not dependent on what you believe.” That is merely the opposite of what I said. Of course what we believe does not entirely determined what we ought to do. What we “justifiably believe” is the only way you can decide what to do. If you know that an action will “probably do good,” then you should do it. You don’t actually know what will really happen. What you did might actually cause harm, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

    Richard: Objective “oughts” seems to merely try to erase our position of insufficient data. In other words, yes there are considerations other than “belief” itself, but we ought not do what an omniscient being knows we should do. We can certainly try to do this, but it is going to be futile at some point. Simply put, objective “oughts” are only about a kind of ideal, such as maximized goodness. An objective “ought” are for omniscient beings rather than human beings.

    You say, “Nonetheless, I agree that it’s mistaken to claim that “we have an obligation to do what we believe is best” — as becomes clear when we consider cases where the latter belief is irrational.” I agree with this as well. I never said that belief is the only consideration of what we “ought” to do and I have never met any philosopher believed that “oughts” were entirely determined by belief. I said that “justified belief” is what determines what we ought to do. Justified belief implies that we have to try to figure out what we ought to do, but knowledge can’t be required because its impossible.

    One reason that we “ought not” necessarily do what is considered an objective “ought” is because its sometimes impossible to know that kind of an ought. If it is impossible, then we ought not do it (when it conflicts with our subjective oughts.) We ought not do the impossible. “Ought implies can.”

    If it is possible to know an objective ought (and we know it), then we have a justified belief about what we ought to do.

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