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The Ethics of Belief and the Morality of Action: Intellectual Responsibility and Rational Disagreement

  • Robert Audi (a1)

The contemporary explosion of information makes intellectual responsibility more needed than ever. The uncritical tend to believe too much that is unsubstantiated; the overcritical tend to believe too little that is true. A central problem for this paper is to formulate standards to guide an intellectually rigorous search for a mean between excessive credulity and indiscriminate skepticism. A related problem is to distinguish intellectual responsibility for what we believe from moral responsibility for what we do. A third problem is how to square intellectual responsibility in retaining our views with the realization that peers we respect disagree with us. Much of the paper is directed to articulating principles for dealing with such disagreements.

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1 Why explaining our control over our own beliefs is a challenge is indicated by my account of our voluntary powers regarding beliefs, provided in Doxastic Voluntarism and the Ethics of Belief’, Facta Philosophica 1, 1 (1999), 87109; I have extended it in The Ethics of Belief: Doxastic Self-control and Intellectual Virtue,Synthese 161 (2008), 403418.

2 Only prima facie because my original failure to believe might be incontinent: perhaps, even in the face of judging my evidence excellent, I simply cannot bear to believe p.

3 For a response to the skepticism supported by the frequency of rational disagreement, see Kelly Thomas ‘The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement’, in Hawthorne John and Gendler Tamar Szabo (eds.), Oxford Studies in Epistemology, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 167196.

4 In ‘Doxastic Voluntarism and the Ethics of Belief’ (cited in note 1), I indicate in some detail how such virtue may be exercised. I should add that I take ‘ground’ to be broader than ‘evidence’, e.g. in including false beliefs and their propositional objects; nor need grounds be truth-valued, whereas some take evidence to be or at least require (as do facts) truth.

5 In The Architecture of Reason: The Substance and Structure of Rationality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), I have defended this point in the context of a unified theory of theoretical and practical rationality.

6 This point is made by Kant in the Groundwork, Secs. 399 and 407; and Aristotle and Hume make points in, respectively, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Treatise, which also imply that a kind of creditworthiness requires motivational grounding of the element that merits it.

7 For informative discussion of the similarities and differences between belief and action in relation to the will see Montmarquet James A., Epistemic Virtue and Doxastic Responsibility (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993) and Russell Bruce, ‘Epistemic and Moral Duty’, in Steup Matthias (ed.), Knowledge, Truth, and Duty. Essays on Epistemic Justification, Responsibility, and Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 3462.

8 This idea is developed in detail in my ‘Doxastic Voluntarism’, cited in note 1.

9 See Alston William P., ‘Audi on Nondoxastic Faith’, in Timmons Mark, Greco John, and Mele Alfred R., (eds.), Rationality and the Good: Critical Essays on the Ethics and Epistemology of Robert Audi (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007), 123–39. Alston argues that each ‘belief-forming practice’ has a kind of epistemic autonomy; and my response is in ‘Justifying Grounds, Justified Beliefs, and Rational Acceptance’, in Timmons, Greco, and Mele, esp. 243–47.

10 For further critical discussion of the independence requirement, see Hilary Kornblith, ‘Belief in the Face of Controversy’, forthcoming in Richard Feldman and Ted Warfield (eds.), Disagreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press), and Jennifer Lackey, ‘Disagreement and Belief Dependence’, forthcoming. Both cite Thomas Kelly as a proponent; see his ‘Peer Disagreement and Higher Order Evidence’, forthcoming in Feldman and Warfield. My points here seem consistent with theirs.

11 Roger Crisp, in ‘Intuitionism and Disagreement’ (in Timmons, Greco, and Mele, 31–39) forcefully raises this kind of problem, and I have responded in ‘Intuition, Reflection, and Justification’, in the same volume, 206–209. For extensive discussion of the nature and epistemic status of disagreement see King Nathan, The Epistemology of Disagreement: Puzzles, Solutions, and Applications, a doctoral dissertation (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2009).

12 Recent epistemological literature has said less than one might expect about dogmatism. I have provided a partial account in Foundationalism, Coherentism, and Epistemological Dogmatism’, Philosophical Perspectives II (1988), 407442.

13 My thought here is that where you have some reason or ground for believing p, and you adequately understand the obvious entailment of q by p (as where q simply is not-p) then you have some ground or reason, even if not as good ground or reason, for believing q. To be sure, for the higher-order belief that you have this ground or reason, you may well need to seek justification. But this justification is commonly achieved in cases of or approaching peer disagreement.

14 The reference to evidence here must be taken to designate grounds of an internal kind, such as the ‘evidence of the senses’. For evidence, conceived as publicly accessible supporting fact, I am not suggesting that any one person is necessarily in a better position than another to appraise it, though we may each still have a kind of intrinsic advantage in appraising our own response to it. But for assessing rationality, the central concern is the person's experience, memory impressions, reflections, and other internal elements.

15 The status of the view that knowledge is the norm of assertion is critically discussed by Bradley Rettler, ‘No Epistemic of Assertion’ (American Philosophical Association, Central Division, 2010). ‘Knowledge as the Norm of Assertion’ (forthcoming). For an influential statement of the view see, e.g., Williamson Timothy, Knowledge and Its Limits (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000).

16 Hume David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sec 10, Part I (73 in the edition edited by Steinberg Eric [Indianapolis: Hackett: 1977]).

17 This is an idealized notion. Degrees of support are not in general precisely measurable; they cannot even be represented as degrees of probability having whole numbers from 0 to 1. But there is this much determinacy: if you and I are epistemic peers having the exactly same relevant evidence for p, then whatever the degree to which it supports p for me is the same as the degree to which it supports p for you. To be sure, if phenomenal states are evidence – and ‘the evidence of the senses’ should be considered phenomenal – then we will not have exactly the same evidence even if we have evidence of exactly the same kind.

18 For helpful comments on earlier versions I thank Martin Blaauw, Sanford Goldberg, Thomas Kelly, Nathan King, Jennifer Lackey, Derek Parfit, and Baron Reed. I have also benefited from comments by the Editor and from discussions with the participants at an international conference on the Ethics of Belief at the Free University of Amsterdam in 2009 and at a seminar at Northwestern University in 2010.

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