Tuesday 13 September 2022

Moral Encroachment and Unified Agency

Today's post is by Cory Davia, who is a visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College and the Director of Summer Programming for the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies. He works on metaethics, philosophy of action, social epistemology, and the philosophy of sports.

Cory Davia

When we are making up our minds about some issue, we look at the evidence. But we’re not just concerned with what evidence there is; we also need to think about whether this evidence is good enough. For example, suppose I want to know whether it will rain tomorrow. I haven’t checked the weather report, so my evidence is just what’s provided to me by my familiarity with the seasonal weather patterns in Southern California where I live. Is this evidence good enough to justify me in believing that it will be sunny? Or for that belief to count as knowledge? 

Many philosophers have thought that the answer is: it depends on the practical stakes. If being wrong about this would ruin my plans for tomorrow (say, I plan to go to a baseball game) then this evidence isn’t good enough. If, instead, I’ll be in my office all day anyway, it might well be. Recent work in social epistemology has extended this idea to moral stakes as well. If what I believe about you can wrong you, or might lead me to take actions that wrong you, then the evidential bar for those beliefs is higher. This idea has come to be called “moral encroachment” – if it’s right, then moral questions about what we owe to each other encroach on epistemic questions about what it takes for a belief to be justified.

The debate about whether to accept moral encroachment often revolves around how we should think about particular cases. To borrow an example from my colleague Rima Basu, suppose that you attend an academic conference and go out to dinner with the other attendees afterward. Your racial background is underrepresented in your academic discipline, so a fellow attendee mistakes you for a member of the restaurant’s waitstaff. Intuitively, even though in this setting there is a correlation between one’s race and one’s status as a conference attendee, that correlation is not enough to justify your colleague’s inference the way it would in a case where your belonging in the discipline were not at stake. 

Defenders of moral encroachment point to cases like this where moral considerations seem to make a difference to a belief’s justification, while their critics come up with alternative ways of explaining our judgments about such cases. If we don’t need moral encroachment to explain what’s going on in these cases, critics argue, we shouldn’t accept it. In a recent paper, I argue that this way of carrying out the debate risks missing an important part of the appeal of moral encroachment. There are theoretical reasons for finding the moral encroachment thesis plausible, so if we’re faced with a choice between it and alternative explanations of the motivating cases, we have reason to prefer the moral encroachment explanation.

These theoretical reasons come into focus if we think about other kinds of cases where the practical and the epistemic come into contact. We sometimes face decisions about how to manage the process of inquiry. To adapt an example from Amy Flowerree, if I want to believe something (say, that I’m a good philosopher) I can decide to seek out evidence for it (like in the opinions of my friends) and to avoid sources that I expect might provide disconfirming evidence (like the opinions of journal reviewers). 

On the one hand, such decisions are decisions about what to do, so they’re answerable to practical reasons. If believing that I’m a good philosopher will help me achieve my ends or contribute to my well-being, that counts in favor of taking steps to bring it about that I believe it. On the other hand, such decisions have predictable effects on what we believe, so they’re answerable to epistemic reasons as well. If the way I carry out inquiry leads me to ignore or misinterpret the evidence, that’s a bad way of carrying out inquiry.

These decisions are puzzling because philosophers have tended to think that practical and epistemic reasons are incommensurable – what to do is just a different question from what to believe. If that’s right, then decisions like these are fundamentally intractable: there’s the way of carrying out inquiry that would be best from a practical perspective and the one that would be best from an epistemic perspective, end of story. In other kinds of practical reasoning, though, there is more to the story. 

When two practical ends of mine conflict (say, when my end of revising a paper before a conference deadline conflicts with my end of spending the afternoon bottling a batch of homebrewed beer), I can see both my reasons to revise and my reasons to bottle as on the same scale, each capable of outweighing the other depending on the circumstances (like how polished the paper already is, or how bad it will be for the beer to sit in the fermenter for another day).

I argue elsewhere that the kind of adjudication that’s possible in the more typical cases is a central part of practical agency. When we face conflicts between our ends, questions about how to pursue them over time, or questions about how to coordinate with other agents, we step back and exercise our powers of reflection. When we do, we aim to come up with a general conception of who we are and what we’re doing. If that’s right, then it would be a disappointment if this kind of reflection were not possible for decisions about how to manage inquiry. It’d make such cases a weird outlier for our theory of agency.

Thankfully, we can see decisions about managing inquiry as continuous with other kinds of practical reasoning if we accept moral encroachment. Which strategies for managing inquiry are appropriate depends in part on which standard of evidence is in play. For example, the higher the standard of evidence, the stronger my reasons to inquire further before making up my mind. 

So, if the moral stakes can move the standard of evidence, they can thereby count in favor of different inquiry management practices. If that’s right, then questions about how to manage inquiry are not intractable after all: we’ve identified a mechanism by which moral reasons can weigh against epistemic ones in making such decisions.

So, it seems to me, the moral encroachment thesis is attractive, whether or not it’s the only way to explain the cases defenders of moral encroachment have wanted it to. It’s attractive because it allows us to unify our thinking about ordinary practical reasoning with our thinking about practical reasoning about inquiry.

1 comment:

  1. Moral encroachment or microaggression? In reviewing what I have found on both, I can't see much difference. The distinction, as it is, seems to hinge upon intent, encroachment appearing somewhat more overt---but, it does get tricky.


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