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The Practical Foundations of Epistemic Normativity

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We often criticize others for beliefs that are dogmatic, biased, or wishful. What, exactly, are we criticizing? Many epistemologists accept that such believing is problematic because it is not appropriately responsive to epistemic reasons. But why care about that? Or, to put it another way, why are epistemic norms authoritative for us? An adequate account must capture the way in which epistemic norms are universal and binding. According to what I call the Correctness View, the authority of epistemic normativity arises from the nature of belief: A belief is correct just in case it is true. By contrast, proponents of what I call the Instrumentalist View argue that epistemic normativity is authoritative because it is a special instance of a more basic normative principle, the principle of instrumental reasoning. Contrary to both of these views, I argue for Epistemic Constructivism: the authority of epistemic normativity comes from the very nature of agency. Epistemic normativity is not authoritative because epistemic considerations are instrumental to our practical ends. Rather, epistemic considerations have authority over us as reasoners because they are constitutive of our ability to formulate and pursue those ends. The Correctness View captures the universal nature of epistemic normativity. The authority of epistemic normativity arises from the nature of belief. An agent counts as believing p only if she takes truth-related considerations to be the only ones that bear on whether she should believe that p. However, I show that the Correctness View cannot explain how these norms are binding on us. Just as we could accept that cakes are supposed to taste good, while making cake that does not taste good, we could accept that beliefs have a constitutive norm without accepting that that norm is binding on us. For agents like us, agents who are frequently under conflicting norms, the Correctness View cannot explain why it matters to have correct beliefs. Thus, it fails as an account of the authority of epistemic normativity. According to the Instrumentalist View, epistemic normativity is a species of instrumental reasoning. Agents have goals – either the cognitive goal of believing truths, or the eudemonic goal of living well – and to achieve those goals, the agent ought to believe according to epistemic reasons. Thus, epistemic normativity is just a special case of a general sort of practical instrumental reasoning. Since instrumental reasoning is the most basic form of practical reasoning, the Instrumentalist View captures how epistemic considerations are binding on us. Because instrumental reasoning is contingent on our goals, though, the Instrumentalist View cannot capture how epistemic norms are universal. Additionally, I argue that the Instrumentalist View fails because it presupposes the very sort of normativity it is trying to explain. To apply the instrumental principle, the agent must consider whether some means actually is instrumental to her ends. And the only way she could rightly settle that question is by viewing epistemic reasons as authoritative for her deliberation. Thus, any use of the instrumental principle is going to rely on the authority of epistemic reasons for its application. Instrumental reasoning cannot ground the authority of epistemic norms because the principle itself is governed by epistemic norms. While the Correctness View and the Instrumentalist View are insufficient, their failures point us forward to a better view: Epistemic Constructivism. According to Epistemic Constructivism, agency itself (the capacity to set and pursue ends) requires that we regard epistemic norms as authoritative for our beliefs.. Epistemic Constructivism accepts a constitutive relation between belief and epistemic norms. Like the Correctness View, it can capture the way in which epistemic norms are universal. But it also accepts a constitutive relation between action and epistemic norms. Like the Instrumentalist View, it can capture why epistemic evaluation binds creatures like us. Epistemic normativity is not merely instrumental towards achieving our ends – seeing such normativity as authoritative is constitutive of formulating and pursuing those ends.

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  • 03/26/2018
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