Friday, July 15, 2011

Naturalistic Reduction of Justification

I'm starting work on a new project on epistemic justification. I'm trying to begin by laying out various perceived or actual desiderata for theories of epistemic justification. Here's one, laid out in Alvin Goldman's classic paper, "What is Justified Belief?": a theory of justification should give necessary and sufficient conditions in non-epistemic terms. We could call this a "naturalistic reduction" constraint. Goldman writes:
The term 'justified', I presume, is an evaluative term, a term of appraisal. Any correct definition or synonym of it would also feature evaluative terms. I assume that such definitions or synonyms might be given, but I am not interested in them. I want a set of substantive conditions that specify when a belief is justified. Compare the moral term 'right'. This might be defined in other ethical terms or phrases, a task appropriate to metaethics. The task of normative ethics, by contrast, is to state substantive conditions for the rightness of actions. Normative ethics tries to specify non-ethical conditions that determine when an action is right. A familiar example is act-utilitarianism, which says an action is right if and only if it produces, or would produce, at least as much net happiness as any alternative open to the agent. These necessary and sufficient conditions clearly involve no ethical notions. Analogously, I want a theory of justified belief to specify in non-epistemic terms when a belief is justified. This is not the only kind of theory of justifiedness one might seek, but it is one important kind of theory and the kind sought here.

I am not sure I feel the motivation for this constraint. I can certainly see why we might not be satisfied by a theory of justification that is circular (justification is justification) or otherwise uninformative (justified belief is belief that is epistemically good), but barring all epistemic notions from the right-hand-side seems like a pretty strong constraint. But perhaps I've misunderstood Goldman's motivation here? Is the naturalistic reduction constraint motivated by something other than informativeness?


  1. One motivation for the naturalist reduction constraint that I've heard in conversation goes like this:

    Justification is a normative property. A decent account of any normative property will include an explanation of that property in terms of non-normative properties. So a decent account of justification will include an explanation of justification in terms of non-normative properties.

  2. Whoops, part of my comment was cut out.

    Here's the gist: if an account of a normative property doesn't include an explanation of that property in terms of non-normative properties, then it is objectionably brute. There are at least two ways to object to the brutenesss: to claim that irreducible normativity is queer (in Mackie's sense), or to claim that irreducible normativity is unparsimonious (all other things being equal, it's better to have a theory with fewer kinds of primitives---so a theory that posits no primitive normativity is better than those that do).

  3. Thanks, Andrew.

    I think there's a pretty decent gap, however, between declining to provide a naturalistic reduction of justification and committing to brute normativity. After all, mightn't it be the case that justification is best explained in terms of normative states, but ultimately, those states are grounded in non-normative ones? (I think, by way of analogy, that facts about combustability are best explained in chemical, rather than physical, terms -- but I do not think that chemical facts are brute.)

    So I don't see much reason why someone offering a theory of justification thereby takes on the project of reducing epistemic normativity to non-epistemic properties. The viability of that latter project just looks to me like a separate issue.