Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Values and Factual Beliefs

Bryan Caplan asks: "How would the world change if everyone shared your factual beliefs?" He adds: "In the hypothetical, values remain unchanged."

However, one of my factual beliefs is that our values are responsive to reason, so that others would ultimately share my values if only they thought a bit more carefully about it. (Or vice versa, in cases where I am the mistaken one. But naturally I don't believe that this is so in any particular case!) Part of sharing all my factual beliefs is to believe that you would - on further reflection - share my values.

But there's something incoherent about believing something that you think you would reject on further reflection. The latter meta-belief implies that your original belief is unjustified. And as soon as you appreciate that fact, you can no longer hold the belief. (To believe something is to judge that it's true; you can't do that if you've just judged that it's probably false, or at least that you have no grounds for thinking it true.)

So, anyone who shared all my factual beliefs would be rationally compelled to also share my normative beliefs (values)!

12 comments:

  1. Are we talking about entailment of normative facts from desciptive facts, or merely that you think we all happen to share the same fundamental normative beliefs and disagree because we either have wrong beliefs bout the way things work or fail to properly derive specific normative beliefs from our shared fundamental ones?

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  2. The former: normative facts are entailed by descriptive facts about what we would conclude on ideal rational reflection. (I guess one might insist that the latter fact is really "normative" too? The distinction seems to break down around this point, though...)

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  3. What would an ideal rational reflection of that sort consist of? My intuition is that it would revolve around deriving the rational consequences of a fundamental normative belief,
    or trying to trace a specific normative belief to a fundamental one. But it seems your thinking about a sort of rational reflection that would generate fundamental normative beliefs based on something, no?

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  4. I have in mind a reflective equilibrium process. (I tend to favour 'coherentist' rather than 'foundationalist' accounts. So, rather than there being some unquestioned "fundamental" layer of beliefs from which the rest are derived, we have a whole "web of beliefs" where the justificatory links go in all directions.) As Michael Smith puts it, the aim is to have a maximally unified and coherent belief/desire set.

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  5. Can it never be the case the somebody has a web of normative beliefs that's different enough from yours so its reational equiilibrium would be different than yours? Surely a rational psycopath is possible [not in a Kantian account, of cours, but in most others].

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  6. Yeah, that's the big question! Arguably the psychopath's values are less than maximally coherent (which is not to deny that they may be instrumentally "rational"). But if I'm wrong about this, then my meta-ethical commitments imply some form of relativism in such a case. (See also my response to Richard B. in comment #10 here.)

    Here's a tricky case: what if reflection leads the psychopath to a "local maximum", such that any individual step towards the maximally coherent web would (temporarily) decrease coherence? Can we shift from one worldview to another with one giant leap? If not, the rational ideal may be inaccessible given only rational means. I'm not sure what to make of this possibility, but it may at least undermine some of the assumptions in my main post!

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  7. "one of my factual beliefs is that our values are responsive to reason, so that others would ultimately share my values if only they thought a bit more carefully about it."

    You really are Kantian!

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  8. Richard,

    I am curious why you think that "there's something incoherent about believing something that you think you would reject on further reflection."

    Many epistemologists and meta-logicians would disagree. Here are some potential counterexamples.

    (1) Quantum mechanics and general relativity are empirically and logically incompatible. Still there are many scientists who believe all of the tenants of quantum mechanics and of general relativity--thinking perhaps that they are accepting good though not perfect theories. And these scientists will tell you that they think that in the future, on further refection, they will reject some of these tenants. It doesn't seem to them very inconsistent (I met one, actually).

    (2) I accept the inference from it is true that P to P. But this is inconsistent. I do believe that in the future, on further reflection, I will reject my acceptance of this inference--perhaps replace it with a more subtle inference rule. But for now, I believe something and think that I will, on further reflection, reject it.

    I guess I think that many inference rules or general principles are precisely what you call incoherent. So I wonder what moves you to be so confident in the incoherence of that epistemological position.

    To put it another way, my objection is this: one can ?coherently? ?justifiably? believe a inference rule or general principle P on the grounds that it is reliable (which we can imagine it is) and yet believe that on further reflection, one will be able to find counterexamples to P and consequently believe that on further reflection one will reject P. Right?

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  9. Jack, presumably if you think you would reject P on further reflection, this is because you already recognize P to be false (or at least unjustified). So there is something Moore-paradoxical about believing it nonetheless. Compare:
    A) "I believe that P, but P is false."
    B) "I believe that P, but there are no grounds for judging P true."
    C) "I believe that P, but a more rational agent wouldn't."

    Aren't these all incoherent, in more or less the same fashion?

    Your first case sounds more like the preface paradox to me -- the scientists recognize that they've made a mistake somewhere, but they don't know where. So they believe each particular claim of their theories even though they don't believe they're all (collectively) true. There's not any particular tenet that they actually believe despite thinking that they'd reject it on further reflection.

    I'm not sure whether I've understood your (2) correctly, but it sounds more like a matter of practice than belief. You already think there are counterexamples to be found, so you don't really believe the universal claims to be strictly true. But they provide sufficiently reliable rule of thumbs for you to employ.

    Is that a fair characterization?

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  10. (Or should it be 'rules of thumb'?)

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  11. I deny the premise that our 'values are responsibe to reason' - or, as I would put it, that our desires are responsive to reason.

    You write:

    [T]here's something incoherent about believing something that you think you would reject on further reflection.

    This is true. But this only says that believing a proposition is incompatible with believing that the same proposition is false. This is certainly the case.

    However, it does not imply that everybody who reflects on their values will come to the same values, any more than it implies that people who reflect on their height will come to have the same height.

    As a moral realists, I hold that if two people had identical factual beliefs that this would include identical beliefs about morality. They would both assign the same truth value to all moral statements.

    Yet, even here, they need not care about those statements in the same way. This is true just as two people with identical factual beliefs will share the same beliefs about the location of Sydney. Yet, this would not imply that they would both take the same route to get to Sydney (or that they stand in identical relationships to Sydney). They would share the same beliefs about the average height of the people of New Zealand, but they would not thereby both come to have the same height.

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  12. Alonzo - "But this only says that believing a proposition is incompatible with believing that the same proposition is false" [i.e. not belief-worthy]

    And likewise, desiring a proposition is incompatible with believing that the proposition is not desire-worthy.

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