Thursday, October 28, 2010

Knowledge Norms and Pragmatic Encroachment

I'm thinking a bit more today about the point I made in a post yesterday about the use of intuitions about cases to evaluate knowledge norms. That point was basically that facts about whether S knows p and whether S is well-enough situated epistemically in order appropriately to X don't by themselves say anything about the knowledge norm of practical reasoning; S may know p without X's being appropriate just by virtue of p's not being a good enough reason to X. Yesterday I used this observation to rebut a certain kind of argument against knowledge norms.

I now think that, in addition to that use, this observation undercuts certain implications sometimes drawn from knowledge norms. In particular, I think it points to a lacuna in one of the central arguments of Fantl and McGrath's defense of pragmatic encroachment. I think this is a pretty fair reconstruction of their §4.3:

  1. KJ: If you know that p, then p is warranted enough to justify you in phi-ing, for any phi.

  2. Consider some low-stakes action, X, for which LOW has q as a sufficient reason; LOW can appropriately perform X. (Their example: Matt knows the train is a local; this justifies his boarding it.)

  3. There is a possible counterpart of LOW in the same epistemic position but with higher stakes, HIGH, such that HIGH cannot appropriately perform X. (Their example: Jeremy really needs to get off at a local stop; the stakes are too high for him to risk boarding.)

  4. So q is not well-enough warranted to justify X in phi-ing.

  5. So HIGH does not know q.

  6. So two subjects in the same epistemic position can differ with respect to knowledge of q.

  7. So purism is false.

(For maximum faithfulness to F&M's broader intentions, we should understand this entire argument, including its conclusion, as being offered under the conditional assumption that fallibilism is true -- that it's possible to know that p, even though there is some epistemic possibility that not-p.)

I'm concerned with the move from (3) to (4). It has pretty much the same form as the arguments sketched above, except that it's holding different bits fixed. Jessica Brown argued from what she saw as intuitive verdicts about knowledge and appropriate action against the knowledge norm; Fantl and McGrath argue from intuitive verdicts about appropriate action and the principle of the knowledge norm against the knowledge verdict Brown found intuitive. My argument shows the flaw in both of these arguments. (In a sense, they are instances of the same argument, run in different directions.)

The move from (3) to (4) relies, like Brown's surgeon case argument, on the assumption that the knowledge of q, the non-actionability of X, and the knowledge norm are incompatible. But as I've shown, they're not. They're incompatible only on the assumption that q is, if possessed as a reason, a good enough reason to X. And there just aren't obvious intuitive verdicts about facts like these; neither are there clear theories that dictate which claims like these to accept. It's obvious enough whether S knows q, and whether S would be justified in Xing -- but whether q itself is well-enough justified to be among the reasons S has for Xing is an esoteric question on which naive intuitions are silent.

Everybody who accepts (2) and (3) has to think there's some important difference that derives from a change in the stakes that bears on actionability. But you can think this without giving up on KJ, fallibilism, or purism, if you want to. You can say that what propositions are good enough reasons to X depends in part on the stakes. That is: whether p is known is stakes-independent; so too is whether p is warranted enough to be a reason for phi-ing, for any phi. What varies by stakes is whether p, supposing that it is a reason, is by itself a good enough reason to phi. When the stakes are high, p, though still genuinely a reason, isn't a good enough reason. In lower stakes, p is a good enough reason. Insensitive knowledge; insensitive reasons for action; sensitive needs of actions for reasons.

This does look to me like a significant and substantive gap in F&M's argument. I'm generally pretty sympathetic to F&M-style views -- I'm a different sort of contextualist than those who are motivated by 'intellectualism' -- but this does look to me to be a potentially promising avenue for resisting pragmatic encroachment from F&M-style arguments.

It will not obviously help, however, with the knowledge intuitions about bank cases and the like. Lots of pragmatic encroachment people seem to be turning their emphasis away from these cases recently, in favor of broader theoretical arguments. Certainly, this seems to be one of F&M's aims. I rather suspect, though, that the pragmatic encroachment theorist may end up needing to rely on judgements about cases more than they think. (I don't know that that's a problem.)


  1. Hi Jonathan. I knew there was a reason I felt like defending Brown in the previous post. It all makes sense, now.

    Anyway, I do see the possibility that in some cases, raising the stakes can change whether p is a good reason to phi. But I guess I don't see the hole in either Brown's argument or ours. And that's because I think that, for both Brown and us, in the high stakes cases it's still the chance that p is false that's standing in the way of p justifying S in phi-ing. So, I think Brown would think that, at least in some versions of her surgeon case, if p had probability 1, the surgeon would be justified in refraining from checking the chart. So, the explanation of why the surgeon is required to check the chart is, in part, that p's epistemic status is too low.

    We explicitly include an ancillary assumption in the book: "(A3) If a subject is in a position like Jeremy's, then p isn't warranted enough to justify him in doing the 'efficient' act, A." (86) and then defend it on pp. 87-88 (though not against the worry you raise; but the defense, I think, also works against the worry you raise). The point is that raising the probability of p to 1 and keeping everything else relevant fixed, makes it the case that Jeremy is justified in A-ing.

    Does this address the concern?

  2. Hi Jeremy, thanks for your thoughts. What you say about your principle (A3) is relevant here, but I'm not fully convinced. I think we need to get a bit clearer on just what exactly the relevant "is warranted enough to justify" comes to. (I'm away from my copy of the book at the moment, so I'm working from memory and your quotation.) You're right, I think, to read me as objecting to your (A3) -- or at least, to one interpretation of it. I agree that raising the epistemic position vis-a-vis p in the relevant case can make the difference for the high-stakes subject, but I'm skeptical about that counterfactual heuristic for the relevant notion. That is to say, I suspect there are cases like this: p can be warranted enough to be a reason for S to X, even though S doesn't have good enough reason to X, even though, were S in a strong position with respect to p, S would have good enough reason to X. This could be because, were S so to improve with respect to p, some other things would change as well -- for example, maybe S's position with respect to other propositions (including, for instance, some involving S's epistemic position with respect to p).

    I think this points to an ambiguity in principles like (A3). You say:

    (A3) If a subject is in a position like Jeremy’s, then p isn’t warranted enough to justify him in doing the ‘efficient’ act, A.

    Of course, the relevant question isn't whether p ALL BY ITSELF justifies the subject in A. Sometimes, p is warranted enough to justify, even though only if q is also warranted enough will there by sufficient reason to A.

    We can distinguish:

    (A3a) If a subject is in a position like Jeremy's, then p isn't warranted enough to be a justifier for A.
    (A3b) If a subject is in a position like Jeremy's, then the subject's failure to be in a position appropriately to A would be resolved, given an increase in Jeremy's epistemic position with respect to p.

    You have a good argument for (A3b). But I think my critique effectively blocks any argument for (A3a).

  3. Hi Jonathan,

    I'm still not quite getting it, I think. We have a positive test for whether p isn't warranted enough to justify A (when p doesn't justify A): raise p to 1, _holding everything else fixed_, and see if p would justify A. If it would, then p isn't warranted enough to justify. If it wouldn't, then we don't have an answer yet (multiple things might stand in the way).

    In our case, this test seems to be passed: raise the probability that the train is a local to 1, hold everything else fixed, and that it's a local justifies Jeremy in boarding. I guess you must be thinking that we're sneakily failing to hold "something else" fixed. What is it? (In Brown's example, the "something else" might plausibly be whether a given norm on surgical procedure is satisfied: that surgeons always double check. But there's no such norm that plausibly applies in our case. Even if Jeremy hasn't double checked, if it's certain for Jeremy that the train is a local, then that it's a local justifies Jeremy in boarding. Actually, I don't think that norm is all that plausible in Brown's case, either. Even if the surgeon hasn't double checked, if it's certain for the surgeon that the left kidney is the one to remove, then that it is justifies the surgeon in not double checking.)

  4. I wonder, Jeremy, whether this shows that you're thinking of the knowledge-action links differently than I am. Let's set aside for a moment whether the argument given in your book goes through; can I just ask you about (A3a) and (A3b) from the previous comment? Do you agree that they're nonequivalent? It sounds like you're mostly interested in (A3b). (And there's a corresponding reading of KJ that matches it.) But I've been thinking primarily about things like (A3a) and its corresponding KJ.

    My argument was targeted against discussions of links like this one: "if S knows p, then p can be an appropriate reason for action, for any action." I'd been tacitly reading KJ in something like that way, which is why I thought your argument was relevantly like Jessica's, which is given explicitly in those terms. But maybe you had the stronger interpretation in mind.

    So, just for the purpose of clarifying the views under discussion: setting aside the language of "warranted enough to justify acting," do you think I have a good case against Jessica's argument that knowledge is sufficient for being a practical reason, and for an argument that might not be yours, arguing from knowledge's sufficiently for practical reason to pragmatic encroachment?