Epistemic and Ethical Justification: A Puzzle

Here’s a puzzle for the philosophers out there, a request for your intuitions.

  1. Suppose that we accept a minimal moral realism according to which moral propositions are bivalent on a correspondence theory of truth.
  2.  Now suppose that I’m epistemically justified in believing that p, where p is a moral prescription of some kind–an injunction to take a particular action. It doesn’t matter what the action is.

Puzzle: Does being epistemically justified in believing that p entail that I am morally justified in taking the action enjoined by the prescription? Or is the moral justification a separate issue? Put another way, is it coherent to say that I am epistemically justified in believing that p, but not morally justified in taking the action recommended by p?

Yin: On the one hand, there’s a temptation to say that epistemic justification and ethical justification are two distinct (and unrelated) species of justification. Given this, being epistemically justified in believing that p doesn’t entail being ethically justified in performing the action prescribed by p. Belief is one thing, and action is another. If you took a strong enough line here , you might even deny that being epistemically justified in p was a necessary condition for being ethically justified in enacting the action it prescribes. Action is one thing, belief (about action) another.

But whether you take the strong line or the weak one, the party line here is that there’s definitely no entailment. Epistemic justification is epistemic; ethical justification is ethical; and never (if ever) do the twain meet.

If ethical justification and epistemic justification are radically distinct sorts of justification, then ethical justification (justification in the performance of an action) is not reducible to possession of epistemically justified ethical beliefs recommending the action. We’re talking two different games, two different sets of rules, two different objects. It almost begins to sound like we’re talking about two different sets of players. In practice, that’s how a lot of epistemology and ethics gets done.

Yang: On the other hand, there’s a temptation to think that being species of a common genus, there’s got to be some connection between epistemic and ethical justification. I mean, why else would they be called justification? You’re telling me that’s an accident? Come on.

Those who takes this line will likely vary amongst themselves in interpretation they give to “some connection.” To some, “some connection” could mean “oh, some, vague, attenuated connection.” To others, it could mean “no, a strong connection, like entailment.”

My own hunch is that the rationale for espousing a strong connection between the two sorts of justification is a focus on the agent, and in particular a view of justification (epistemic and ethical) that treats it as applying paradigmatically to persons or agents, and only derivatively to beliefs/actions detached from persons.

We (meaning contemporary Anglophone philosophers) sometimes speak as though beliefs or actions were justified, full stop, leaving the justified agent out of the equation, as in: “p is justified,” or “p is a justified belief,” “Self-defense is justified,” or “Shooting can be justified in self-defense,” etc. But this language could very well  be elliptical for saying that a person is justified in holding a belief or performing an action: “S is justified in believing that p,” or “S was justified in shooting suspect Smith in self-defense.” In other words, the formulations that omit the S could all just be (misleading) facons de parler which get their real meaning from the fully explicit versions that factor the agent back in.

Suppose that’s right. If so, it does seem odd to say that a person is justified in holding a prescriptive belief p but not justified in acting on what p prescribes. One could of course insist that, well, she’s epistemically justified in holding the belief but not ethically justified in acting on it. There’s no obvious logical contradiction involved in saying that, true.

But once we focus on the-beliefs-and-actions-of-agents rather than beliefs-bracketing-agents (full stop) and actions-bracketing-agents (full stop), this epistemic/ethical bifurcation yields a strange picture of agency–one in which beliefs seem strangely disconnected from action, so that the justification of the one is strangely disconnected from the other.

Put another way, it leads to a picture of the world in which the evidence that justifies a prescriptive proposition has no bearing on (or at least can be radically detached from) the reasons for performing the action that the proposition prescribes. It’s as though the truth-conditions for the proposition had nothing to do with what makes it morally obligatory. E.g., my knowledge that I should respect your rights has nothing to do with my obligation to respect them. I don’t have an argument against the claim that the world is like that. All I can say is that it doesn’t seem to me that it is.

What we seem to lack is a term for the agent’s being justified, all-things-considered, i.e., being in a cognitive-affective-doxastic state such that being in it justifies the actions she takes. By “we,” I mean contemporary Anglophone analytic philosophers qua contemporary Anglophone analytic philosophers, not our non-philosophical contemporaries (including ourselves), and not our pre-contemporary philosophical forbears. Arguably, Aristotelian virtue/phronesis is an instance of the sort of broad, unified conception of justification I have in mind here. But I wouldn’t insist on that as a scholarly matter, especially given the number of Aristotle scholars crawling around this blog.

The underlying problem here is the relation between epistemic and ethical justification. They look like species of a common genus–justification. But if they are, it’s unclear what generic connection they bear to one another. I mean, cats and dogs are both mammals, and a good biologist could explain what it is that makes them both mammals. (Actually, I’m pretty sure my twelve-year-old nephew could do it.) But even if we suppose that epistemic and ethical justification are both forms of justification, I’m not sure a philosopher could explain what makes them both species of the same genus.

In any case, the fact that they look like species of a common genus doesn’t really mean that they are species of a common genus. They might be related by something less logically determinate than a genus-species relationship, e.g., Wittgensteinian family resemblance. The weaker the connection between them, or the less clear we are about the connection, the deeper the puzzles we face about the work that “justification” is supposed to do outside of the seminar room and lecture hall, in real life. Once we venture into the real world, we can pedantically correct people on how they use the word “justification,” demanding that they distinguish epistemic from ethical justification. But that will probably annoy them, and in the process raise the question: pedantry aside, why are we doing this, again?

I’m rambling, and it’s time for lunch anyway (or so I believe). Thoughts?

6 thoughts on “Epistemic and Ethical Justification: A Puzzle

  1. For me, this is one of those situations where the terms can be an impediment.

    Epistemic/epistemology refer to knowledge, but not what “knowledge” is of. Epistemic justification of a proposition in chemistry requires different knowledge from the epistemic justification of a proposition in French/English translation.

    If some proposition is a “moral prescription”, can one be “epistemically justified in believing the truth of that proposition” if morality is not part of one’s epistemic justification? I don’t see how; I doubt the question is whether knowledge of chemistry can justify a moral proposition, any more than it could justify a proposition in French/English translation.

    Morality refers to distinctions between right & wrong or good & bad; so that is the domain which our knowledge must include.

    So, a moral proposition is epistemically justified only when morality is part of the knowledge used to justify the proposition; let’s say such a moral proposition is “properly epistemically justified”.

    If a moral proposition is properly epistemically justified, then that proper epistemic justification would entail moral justification to take the action prescribed by the moral proposition.

    Given the construction of your two-point hypo, I assumed initially that you are asking about a “proper epistemic justification”; but your Yin/Yang discussion opposes that assumption. If the epistemic justification is “proper” (as I refer to it) then the ethical justification is a part of the epistemic justification and the Yin objection is defeated.

    BTW, why switch from “moral justification” to “ethical justification”? Are “morals” and “ethics” interchangeable?

    sean s.

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  2. I take it that ‘Michael morally ought to keep his promise to Ami’ (call this P) is the right sort of proposition. Suppose I’m epistemically justified in believing this (say, because I know it). One way to get a true common property between belief-states and intention-states (and thereby action-states) is by cashing out justification in terms of rationality.

    So my being justified in believing that P comes to my believing that P rationally. Now if one believes a first-personal all-in ‘ought to PHI’ proposition (where PHI-ing is some action), a rational inference is to intending to PHI (not to PHI-ing on the supposition that good rational inference pertains to mental attitudes, not actions; but we can relax this if we wish). Principles of good rational inference “transfer” rational status. So, when I rationally believe that P, it would be rational for me to intend to (and attempt to) keep my promise when the time comes. And, if, when one would rationally intend to PHI (or PHI) one would be justified (generically practically justified) in PHI-ing, then we have the strong connection. The common element is simply holding an attitude in a rational manner (and the auxiliary principle that, when the attitude is intending to act, the rational and justificatory status normally applies to the action itself as well).

    I suppose that, if we screw our skeptical philosophers’ caps on very tightly, there are lots of ways in which such a picture could be wrong. But I think something like it is right, that the common factor is simply rationality (holding an attitude rationally).

    But perhaps you are concerned with a particular species of practical rationality or justification — moral rationality or justification — not generically practical rationality and justification. Does this make a difference? I don’t think so. For, assuming that ‘morally ought’ does not mean simply ‘ought relative only to the moral considerations (so that perhaps I ought not to do what I morally ought to do)’, the moral nature of the ‘ought’ in P means that part of what is asserted is that all of the relevant pro-social considerations have been taken into account (and perhaps as well, if the term ‘moral’ is used, that the moral considerations weighed heavily, determining the verdict). So, if I know (and hence am justified in believing) that what I morally ought to do (ought to do all-in, having accounted for the moral considerations and these being prominent) is to keep my promise to Ami, then I am morally justified (not just practically justified in some generic sense) in keeping my promise to her as well. So I think we get a solution to the puzzle in the special case as well as the general case.

    (One worry I have, however, is that, especially in the moral case, it seems essential to justification that it is to persons — to some particular person, to any given moral agent, etc. And it is not obvious that rationality is like this. And so cashing out any given justificatory status of an agent holding an attitude (or performing an action) in terms of the rationality of that agent holding that attitude might be suspect. However, as indicated in my recent post regarding rationality and cases of culpable ignorance, I suspect that rational evaluation has an essential element of accountability. If so, then, even if it is not immediately evident, rationality does have a to-persons accountability element as well. Perhaps we just do not stress this feature when we say things like ‘she was rational, and moral, in keeping her promise’ instead of ‘she was justified in keeping her promise’. Perhaps the language of justification tends to underline the accountability or to-persons element in some contexts, like that of moral action. So I’m not *that* worried about cashing out justification in terms of rationality to get the true common element between epistemic and moral justification.)

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  3. I just want to collect comments for now. I have another post brewing on this where I offer my own Yang-like solution, maybe next week.

    To answer the question at the end of Sean’s post: I use “ethics” and “morality” pretty much interchangeably, as well as “ethics” and “moral philosophy,” “ethical justification” and “moral justification,” and so on. Some philosophers make a distinction, but I don’t. Nothing substantive intended by any changes in terminology on that point.

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