Praising the Greats

Here is one way to run the New Evil Demon argument against externalist theories of justification. Let S be a normal person, with a justified belief that p, and S* her brain-in-vat twin.

1. If S’s belief that p is justified, then S*‘s belief that p is justified
2. If S*‘s belief that p is justified, then externalism is false.
C. So externalism is false.

Now how might we motivate premise 1? One way is by something like the following argument.

1. The same reactive attitudes are appropriate towards S and S*‘s doxastic states.
2. Whether a belief is justified supervenes on the reactive attitudes that are appropriate towards it.
C. So if S’s belief that p is justified, then S*‘s belief that p is justified

‘Reactive attitudes’ is a fairly broad term here. But not so broad as to be trivial. I take it that the anti-deontological conception of epistemology, tracing to important work by William Alston, basically thinks that this argument fails at step 2, although step 1 is false. One of the points I wanted to make in my epistemic deontology paper is that really we should be challenging it at step 1. In particular, I think that to the extent that this kind of reasoning is popular, it is because of too simple a picture of doxastic attitudes. (And I think the is popular, both among internalists who endorse all the steps, and externalists who think it works if we have a deontological conception of justification.)

To see the problem with the argument, let’s think about a simpler case where we have clear reactive attitude, namely sports. We’ll do this with some YouTube help.

Let’s consider three great plays from different sports. First Shane Warne’s “ball of the century” to dismiss Mike Gatting (it’s the first delivery discussed on this video).

Second Diego Maradona’s “goal of the century” against England.

And finally Willie Mays’ great catch in the 1954 World Series.

Now consider a nearby possible world where there are three similar people, Warne’, Maradona’ and Mays’. None of them quite make the plays that their actual counterparts make, although they are intrinsic duplicates of those counterparts. But in the other world, Gatting changes his shot at the very last second and gets a little bat on the ball; the trailing defender makes a great lunge to stop Maradona’s goal going on; and a crazy fan throws a beer bottle that deflects the ball at the last instant away from Mays’ glove. In such a world, Warne’, Maradona’ and Mays’ are not praised anywhere nearly as much as Warne, Maradona and Gatting are praised.

Of course we don’t just praise Warne, Maradona and Mays for their results. People take wickets, score goals and make catches all the time without getting that kind of praise. Rather, what we are praising is a great performance that led to a great result. Since the counterparts did not have the same result, they don’t get praised as heavily.

What makes the argument I started with look more plausible than it actually is is, I think, the thought that a person and their BIV twin are equally blameworthy for anything they do. I’m not sure that’s right, but it is plausible. But there’s a praise/blame asymmetry here. It isn’t plausible that praiseworthiness supervenes on intrinsic features.

I think the same holds true for doxastic cases. Imagine a murder case where there are two prima facie reasonable responses to the evidence. One detective thinks that the doctor did it, the other that the lawyer did it. Both beliefs can be supported by the evidence. It seems to me that the detective who gets it right is praiseworthy in a way that the other detective is not. They aren’t praiseworthy if they are just guessing. But one is praiseworthy for getting the right result the right way.

Now consider that detective’s BIV twin. She can’t be praiseworthy for getting the right result, since by hypothesis her beliefs are systematically false. So to the extent that praiseworthiness is success-dependent, and I think the sporting cases should already make us think that it is, we shouldn’t praise the BIV. So it isn’t true that in general we should have the same reactive attitudes towards the BIV and the person who gets it right.

Of course this doesn’t immediately show that the evil demon argument fails. All it directly does is undermine one argument for one premise. But I think once we see that some of our reactive attitudes are tied to success, the new evil demon argument looks weaker than it might do.

4 Replies to “Praising the Greats”

  1. I think when we last discussed this, I had meant to send you a note about why I thought we don’t praise people for doing what is permissible, justified, etc… Rather, I think that deontic status is negatively dependent upon the grounds that make reactive attitudes fitting (i.e., if the grounds of praise obtain, it doesn’t follow that the attitude is permissible/justified; if the grounds of blame obtain, that might itself make the otherwise permissible/justifiable impermissible/unjustified). My thought at the time was that if you didn’t say that you’d end up saying crazy things about luck and responsibility, but hadn’t anticipated that you’d run with those claims I had antecedently thought were crazy.

    I guess I don’t know what to say if you’re willing to say that the proper application of praise/blame can depend upon the effects. I had hoped to say that IF you take praise to suffice for justification, this is the view you’ll be forced to take. I only wish I was in the nearby world where I had the chance to say that still under the impression that this meant you had to bite the bullet. So I guess I still want to say that strictly speaking people aren’t praiseworthy for getting the right result but only for going about trying to get the right result in the right way.

    I suppose I might ask this question. The nice thing about ‘internalizing’ praise and blame while ‘externalizing’ justification/permission is that you can try to do justice to both internalist and externalist intuitions without having to say that those who have such intuitions are entirely off base. However, if you take praise to suffice for permission/justification and externalize the pair, what can you say to try to explain why otherwise seemingly reasonable people have the internalist leanings that they do?

  2. So my explanation of the intuitions is as follows. People think

    (1) We should be internalists about blame.

    and that’s (to a first approximation) correct. I’m a bit worried about Nagel-style moral luck cases, but let those pass for now, since people find those unintuitive as well. They also think

    (2) Justification is a kind of blamelessness.

    and that’s at best half right. Perhaps the agent being justified is a kind of blamelessness. Or perhaps there is an important component of belief justification that is a kind of blamelessness. But the justification of the belief itself is not a kind of blamelessness.

    And what I really want to say is that (2) isn’t the kind of thing that we should take prima facie intuitions to have much probative value concerning. It’s just a false philosophical theory people have, and that’s ultimately what explains the intuitions they have.

  3. Hi, Brian — I doubt the praise/blame asymmetry. The moral luck cases show pretty conclusively, I think, that an agent’s degree of moral blameworthiness depends on the consequences of his act. But if you want to stick to sports, take a case that’s the flipside of the cases you discuss.

    In the actual world Buckner misses an easy grounder at first that would have been the last out of the inning. Ray Knight scores and the Mets win Game 6 of the 86 World Series. Buckner* is Buckner’s internal duplicate, but … the right fielder is standing right behind Buckner*, fields the ball and makes the play at first; the inning is over and the Red Sox go on to win the series. Buckner* deserves a knock for the muffed play; but he’s not nearly as blameworthy as the real Buckner. Isn’t this intuition exactly parallel to your intuitions about the positive cases?

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