Sunday, March 22, 2009

Personal vs. Objective Justification

I wonder if we can distinguish two important senses in a which a philosophical (a priori) belief may be justified. Most obviously, there is a person-relative sense, whereby some particular person is justified in their holding of a token belief. Such 'personal justification' may be attributed to an agent who has exhibited sufficient epistemic virtue in the forming of their belief, even if the proposition in question generally ought not to be believed. This latter assessment, by contrast, concerns what we might call 'objective justification' or warrant, and attaches to the proposition in general rather than anyone's particular believing of it.

One may object that this latter notion makes no sense: each person should believe whatever is best supported by their evidence, and that's all there is to say about epistemic justification. There is no more sense to be made of 'general justification' than 'general evidence' (unless this simply means 'evidence shared by most people', but there's nothing especially significant about that -- my notion of objective justification is not merely that of widespread justification), or so the objection goes. I think we actually may be able to elucidate an epistemologically significant notion of generally available (in circumstances C) evidence for a proposition, i.e. evidence that an epistemically virtuous inquirer (in C) would quickly acquire, such that any person (in C) in some sense really ought to believe the proposition even though -- due to their negligence in acquiring all relevant evidence -- their personal epistemic situation excuses or even licenses their contrary belief.* But I don't need to make so strong a claim. It suffices for present purposes to restrict our attention to a priori justifiable propositions, and so avoid these complications.
* (Clayton might say that their belief is rational but unjustified.)

The propositions of a priori philosophy and mathematics don't seem to be supported by evidence in the ordinary sense. Compare: our contingent experiences provide evidence for some empirical beliefs over others, and what we ought to believe about the world depends on these contingent observations. But truths of reason seem importantly different. Whatever "evidence" or reasons there are to believe one philosophical claim over its negation don't seem contingent in quite the same way; rather, they are presumably available (broadly speaking) to any rational agent as such -- hence the label 'truths of reason'. This allows us to drop all that complicating talk of "evidence available in circumstances C"; a priori justifications are "generally available" in the strong sense of being universally available (to sufficiently rational agents). We can thus understand talk of a proposition's being 'objectively justified' as simply a matter of its being a priori justifiable.

Importantly, we are not perfectly rational agents, and so our cognitive limitations might prevent us from subjectively grasping the objective justifications for believing some philosophical proposition. This creates a need for "non-ideal" epistemological theory (by analogy to non-ideal moral and political theory). Although the proposition may (ideally) warrant believing in virtue of the existence of an objective justification, we personally - as non-ideal agents - may justifiedly believe its negation, say due to our having a non-culpably incomplete or distorted understanding of the matter. Our non-ideality is revealed by the fact that we don't believe the objectively justified proposition. Nonetheless, our believing of its negation may be epistemically virtuous in its own way -- we may be successfully following epistemic rules (or heuristics of reasoning) that are generally more fit to our limited rational powers, even if they lead us astray in this particular case.

So I think we can make sense of a distinction between 'objective' and 'personal' justification, at least in relation to a priori beliefs. Note that this now opens a new position in logical space -- besides old-fashioned foundationalism and coherentism -- for the hybrid view that objective justification has a foundationalist structure, whereas personal justification has a coherentist structure.

(Aside: I'm inclined to attribute something like this hybrid view to Sidgwick, for reasons detailed here [II].)

P.S. Do epistemologists standardly make this distinction, or something like it? I don't think I've ever seen it explicitly discussed, but if you have, please pass along the reference!


  1. Mylan Engel makes a related distinction, but in a different context. See his "Personal and Doxastic Justification in Epistemology", Philosophical Studies 67 (1992).

  2. Ah, that looks very helpful -- thanks!

  3. I don't think it's exactly the same distinction, but your discussion above reminds me a bit of what David Christensen says in "Does Murphy's Law Apply in Epistemology? Self Doubt and Rational Ideals"

    Basically, the idea is that there are multiple respects in which epistemic agents might be ideal, and these respects are not always (never?) jointly satisfiable. In particular, the ideal of logical omniscience seems to conflict with the ideal of respecting one's evidence (in particular, one's evidence about one's own fallibility). Roughly, logical omniscience requires one to be perfectly confident in logical truths, but it seems that just about any reasonable agent (even an ideal one) would have some grounds for doubt that she was ideal, and so would have some grounds for doubting that she had reasoned correctly in coming to believe any particular logical truth.

    The paper's worth checking out. Your distinction reminds me of it because it suggests that being ideal in one respect (believing those a priori propositions that are objectively justified) may conflict with being ideal in another respect(following those heuristics best suited to our epistemic situation, or something along those lines).

  4. Hey Richard,

    I defend the coherence and utility of that distinction between personal and doxastic justification in my forthcoming CJP piece, "The Externalist's Demon". I got it from Engel and Kent Bach uses that distinction to defend reliabilism in his 1985 Monist article. I only later discovered that Catherine Lowy used that distinction to defend Gettier from critics in her 1979 article in Mind, "Gettier's Notion of Justification". That article was for me a real eye opener.

  5. Daniel and Clayton - thanks for the references!

  6. It seems I am in need of clarification as to what it is you are considering in this post. Does it extend beyond what we know when we read? Would personal subjective justifications stand in need of a body of convention beyond that of the language employed? How would you distinguish fact from fiction?

    I am not employed as a student or teacher of philosophy and as such I am well placed to understand just how hard philosophy is to do. Also it seems to me that there is no such thing as making it easier. I believe that philosophers have found ways out of their impossible puzzles in the past and that they will continue to do so but once a solution or answer is found such matters as are the application cease to count as being matters for philosophy. Mathematics has been treated as a method independent of its application since ancient times and the mathematician has never figured in the calculations. Are mathematicians "perfectly rational agents". It seems to me that when I do maths I do not consider any questions of belief and that as I write it occurs to me that I am not doing so now. I might say that if I am interested in the web I need not consider the spider nor need I consider how the spider makes the web.

    I should admit that I am not sure what the story is here but I now have a piece on my website which may be relevant to these matters. It may be found at

  7. I think this distinction is really interesting, but I'm a little skeptical. Given the limits to our cognitive capacity, what kind of epistemic access would warrant us to say that there was an objective justification in addition to the personal justification? If the former is beyond a person's cognitive capacities, presumably that person will be unable to assign any truth-values to the objective justification (i.e. will be unable to conceive of it). I guess we can say that different people's cognitive capacities are sufficiently different to allow for some fine-grained information to be introduced. But wouldn't this just reduce objective justification to a conversation between different people with different personal justifications? (This is something like a pragmatic/quasi-Rortyan point.)

    I am assuming we are distinguishing what is a priori knowable from what it is possible to know given our cognitive limitations (is this distinction warranted?). But that's just to impute objective justification to something like a noumenal status. But if it is in that noumenal sort of status, and we don't have full (although maybe partial) epistemic access to it, what sense does it make to call it justificatory, given the disjunction between the set of propositions that may be (perhaps counterfactually) justifying and our actual knowledge that is supposed to be justified (can there be justification without any knowledge to justify?). The only other defense for holding a presumably inconceivable objective justification would be to say that it is in-principle, if not in-fact ascertainable. I'm not sure that answer quite works either (I respond to the similar idea of conceivability-in-principle on my blog).

    It seems that, at least, we should be able to say that objective justification finds some grounding in personal justification. Davidson says something to the effect that coherence is the precondition for correspondence. I know I am posing responses that have not been made, but they raise a number of very interesting issues, I think.

  8. Kevin - most of your comment seems confused. (Forget Rorty. Note instead the distinction between something's being so and our subjective ability to tell that it is so. This holds of normative properties no less than physical ones: people can be mistaken about what's rational.)

    One bit I can make sense of. You ask: "what sense does it make to call it justificatory", if we can't always recognize objective justifications? The answer: plenty. Here's a possibility that makes perfect sense: I ought to φ, though I don't realize it. Here's another: I ought to believe that p, though I don't realize it. There can be reasons to act and believe in ways other than how we actually do. Sometimes, we believe what we ought, and then our justified belief may constitute knowledge. But questions of justifiability also apply to propositions that we might, but don't actually, believe

  9. Richard, I appreciate the response, and I take confusion to be a good thing! However, I think you are being a bit dismissive of the point (I mean that in the most respectful, non-provocative way). First, I am not claiming a relativist position that all objective knowledge is reducible to what is true for a particular individual. Nor am I claiming that we can never be mistaken about what's rational. I agree with many of the points you make in the posts that you have referenced. The question is: in cases where we have no epistemic access to the objective justification, what sense does it make to say that it exists at all? I posed a few possible responses and tried to address them. So I'm not sure where it is you are getting confused. If you could let me know I can try and clarify.

    In the case where "I ought to x, though I don't realize it" you are presuming that in fact someone can realize that, even if it is not the actor in question. This is common enough: I believe I am justified in buying a rose to please a girl, but you know that she would prefer a tulip. In that case what you call objective justification is perfectly accessible. But what about cases where the objective justification, for whatever reason, is not accessible to anyone? You response seems to skirt the issue of justifications that are beyond our cognitive ability to reach. That is to say, justifications that neither you nor I nor anybody could point out - which is to say that presumably we would not even recognize that they may be out there. And if those cases can’t be accounted for, the sharp distinction between subjective and objective justification seems somewhat off, for any case of objective justification would be coterminous with an actual case of subjective justification (which is not to say that truth is what is true for someone).

    I certainly agree that many people's personal justifications don't match what we might find to be a more grounded justification. But in the case of an unknowable justification, it seems nonsensical to call it a justification at all, insofar as it would lack any possible connection to our actual behavior. Any justification should, in principle (!), be able to be used to justify an act. If it is inaccessible, it cannot be so used. In cases where we might recognize a certain justification, there is still the capacity to recognize it even if we don’t actually do so. But the claim about objective justification seems to suggest that there are cases where we might not be able to recognize that justification. I look forward to your response. This is a fascinating issue.

  10. Kevin -- I'm not seeing any coherent objection here. You seem to be assuming that if the question whether p is beyond our capacity to answer, then "we would not even recognize that [an answer] may be out there". But this is obviously false. It's beyond our capacity to determine whether there are an odd or even number of stars in the universe [assuming it's finite]. Nonetheless, we can well understand that there must be a fact about this, one way or another.

    In short: we can understand a question without necessarily being able to answer it. There may be truths beyond our grasp. So what, exactly, is the "issue of justifications that are beyond our cognitive ability to reach"? I don't see any special 'issue' here.

    P.S. Actually, I agree that normative facts are special in the following sense: reasons must be "accessible" in the broad sense that one would be able to access them if one were sufficiently rational. But I deny that they must be actually accessed (i.e. by any actually existing observer). Even if nobody knows that my girlfriend would prefer a tulip, it is enough that this is true (from a "God's eye perspective", so to speak). It would then be true that I ought (in the objective sense) to buy her tulips, even though nobody is in a position to assert this fact. And exactly the same point holds when it comes to objective justification for beliefs. They are 'accessible' in the broad sense, and that is all that's required.

  11. I think I've figured out the root of our disagreement. As I note here, you take a distinction between objectivity and our conditions of access to facts for granted, while I take it that the latter is a precondition for talking about the former. I am not sure this dispute will be resolvable here.

    In fact, you seem to be gravitating toward a position that I will take as acceptable. Namely, when we can already understand that there is a fact, we still need not know what that fact is. As long as we do understand the question, we may or may not answer it. But I wonder if there are any questions of justification that, due to our cognitive capacities, we cannot in fact understand. Presumably, on your position, objective reality outruns the limits of our comprehension, so there must be cases where an act may or may not be justified objectively, but where we would not even know how to approach that reality (we would not understand the question). Of course, this may sound overly-theoretical, but there would be no way to give a case study of one of these instances, for the reasons stated (we would not have any access to them).

    If we wander away from that, then we can say something like "Objective reality is coterminous with our comprehension," in which case any instance of objective justification matches with a possible instance of subjective justification (accessible in the broad sense, I take it). But then what are the grounds for saying that the objective interpretation really is distinct from just a type of subjective interpretation, subject to tests of coherence? How would we know that one was distinct from the other? In other words, when I buy the girl tulips, and those are in fact her favorite flowers, would I be two things (objectively and subjectively justified) or just one thing, and how could we tell?

  12. Well, again, "not knowing how to approach" a question is not the same as "not understanding" it. (Cf. Zombies; more detail in my old post on verificationism.)

    But in any case, I'm not at all interested in the question of whether there might be some agents so impaired that they can't understand the distinction I'm floating here. I (and my interlocutors) understand it, and that is enough for us to put it to philosophical work.


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