Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Epistemic Supererogation

It's commonly thought that epistemic normativity lacks the structure of moral normativity. We should believe in proportion to the evidence, and that's that. But most moral theorists will carve things up further, e.g. into the impermissible, the (minimally) permissible, and the supererogatory.

I'm not convinced there's any great difference here, however. In both cases, we ought to believe/do whatever we have most reason to believe/do. Nevertheless, we can distinguish between reasons that are more or less stringent, and failures or imperfections that are more or less forgivable. This is so even in the epistemic sphere. Some biases or errors in reasoning are worse - more blameworthy - than others. Young-earth creationists, holocaust deniers, etc., might be considered especially egregious offenders, for example. Moral and epistemic offenders alike may warrant censure -- blame in the one case, and ridicule or scorn in the other, perhaps.

Further, it seems pretty clear, in both ethics and epistemology, that not all imperfections (or failures to believe/do as we ought) call for such censure. There is a significant range of 'permissible', or tolerable, belief and action -- even though within this range, some options may be determinately superior to others.

I think we can even extend the notion of supererogation, or going "above and beyond the call of duty", to the epistemic sphere. Consider such ordinary optimistic biases as that of parents exaggerating the virtues of their children. What should Mother believe about the aptitude of her little Joe-Average? She certainly shouldn't consider him a genius -- that would be a bit too unhinged. But she may be forgiven for considering him a little above average, even if he's not (and the evidence is sufficiently clear about this). Indeed, we probably can't reasonably expect or demand much more from her than that.

But now suppose Mother is unusually dedicated to overcoming her biases, and reasons thusly: "Joe seems above-average to me, but mothers are known to overestimate such things, so I really should compensate for my own bias here. This suggests that Joe is really about average." Here it seems to me that Mother is going above and beyond the call of (epistemic) duty. A normal, adequately reasonable agent would probably have just stuck with their conveniently over-optimistic initial judgment. But she really went the extra mile. Doesn't that sound like supererogation?


  1. I think we should distinguish clearly between two claims. The first claim is that the force of a normative requirement, whether moral or epistemic, is determined by the relative weight of the reasons for and against acting in the way required. The second claim is that the degree to which someone deserves censure for failing to comply with a requirement of morality or epistemology is determined by the force of the requirement in question.

    I believe the first claim, but disbelieve the second. Indeed, I disbelieve one because I believe the other. Whether someone deserves to be blamed for acting against a moral requirement, or ridiculed for acting against an epistemic one, is itself something that has to be decided on the basis of the reasons for and against censuring the offender. And I don't think there's a special moral or epistemic requirement to censure those who deserve moral or epistemic censure, let alone a requirement to censure them in proportion to the censure they deserve.

  2. In both cases, we ought to believe/do whatever we have most reason to believe/do.

    I don't think that's right. There's a nice discussion of this point in Adler's Belief's Own Ethics. When it comes to action, it's like poker. The best hand wins. When it comes to belief, it's like rummy. Only a certain kind of hand will do.

    I take it that Adler is building on something that Bernard Williams noted long ago. In the practical case, the decision to A in spite of (apparent reasons to refrain from A-ing) is compatible with the awareness of genuine reasons not to A. In the theoretical case, believing that p is not something you can know you ought to do while recognizing that there are genuine reasons not to believe. From the perspective of the true believer, any apparent reason not to believe p is just that--misleading evidence.

    Putting the point in a slightly different way, if you know that the case for A-ing is stronger than the case for the alternatives you can know without a doubt that it is right to A. You might regret that you could not get certain things by choosing to A, but that's a different matter. If you know that the evidence for believing p is stronger than the belief that ~p, you are not thereby in a position to knowingly judge that you should believe p. (And if _that_ doesn't move you, think about ties. In the practical case, a tie means you cannot go wrong by picking one over the other. In the theoretical case, the equally balanced evidence means that there is a decisive reaosn not to believe one way or the other. That seems to show that reasons that bear on whether to act are nothing like bits of evidence.)

  3. The point about ties is a neat one.

  4. Clayton - Whenever I talk of 'belief' I'm really thinking of credences. So: you ought to have that degree of belief that's recommended by your total evidence or reasons. (0.5 is an option.)

    You're right that there are some interesting differences between theoretical and practical reasons. I especially like the Williams point that (as we might put it) practical reasons get overruled whereas theoretical reasons get undermined.

    (I'm not sure if this counts as a difference in the structures of the normative spheres, though? It's at least very different from the kinds of categorizations discussed in the main post.)

  5. Pablo - I don't follow your reasoning, as the two claims are compatible. Note that one may warrant or deserve censure (in the sense that it is fitting) without it being the case that one should be censured (all things considered). When it comes to action, meting out just deserts is but one consideration among many, after all. So we can acknowledge this without denying that the degree to which someone deserves censure is determined by the stringency of the norms they violated.

    It's worth noting that blame is logically prior to expressions of blame. So the question to consider is what considerations provide reasons for blame, righteous anger, and similar moral emotions. Here it seems clear that the relevant considerations do not concern the utility of the state. To borrow Raz's terminology, we're dealing with 'adaptive', not practical, reasons.


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