Sunday 30 July 2023

Improving Wellbeing in Pregnancy and Early Motherhood: an Interview with Fiona Woollard

Fiona Woollard (University of Southampton) is a moral philosopher who has worked in areas that have been traditionally neglected by analytic philosophy, such as pregnancy and motherhood. See for instance, her recent piece for The Conversation

In this interview, she shows us that philosophy can make a difference to how we think about maternal duties and choices in pregnancy and early motherhood.

Fiona Woollard

Lisa Bortolotti: To start with I'd like to ask you how you got interested in pregnancy and motherhood.

Fiona Woollard: Thank you, Lisa. It feels to me that I was part of a fortunate group of women philosophers who felt able to be philosophers while still being women, without having to downplay the interests that we have as women. In the past it had been seen as possible to succeed as a woman in philosophy. But it was harder to get recognized as a philosopher if you were dealing with things that were thought to as women's issues. 

And it felt as if there was almost a wave of women philosophers saying: "We want to look at these topics that are interesting to us as women." I remember one paper that really influenced me was Laurie Paul's “What you can't expect when you're expecting” and that was a paper which really looked quite deeply at the maternal experience. So I felt like the time was ripe for interest in the philosophy of pregnancy. And, to be honest, it was my own experience that that really drove me.

I was first thinking about becoming pregnant, and then I was actually pregnant, and I was going through birth and early motherhood and I just can't help but reflect on what I see, and I experience in my own life. I try to make sense of it philosophically. It’s just how my mind works and I was also really fortunate to have a great colleague else in Elselijn Kingma, who was also working on the philosophy of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood. She was really receptive to the things that I was thinking about, and encouraged me to pursue them. So it was just really lots of things coming together at the right time.

LB: It sounds brilliant to have the opportunity to think philosophically about experiences that you are having as a human being. It's one of the good things about what we do. One amazing feature of your work is that as well as writing and publishing papers for peer-reviewed journals, and contributing to the scholarly literature on these topics, you're also doing a lot of work with partners outside academia, finding innovative ways to use philosophy to improve the wellbeing of pregnant women and new mothers. So I was wondering whether you could tell us more about your recent and current projects.

FW: I have always wanted philosophy to be practical. I originally started doing maths and philosophy, and I thought I was going to be a mathematician, and then I just got drawn into philosophy. It was because it just seemed to me to be dealing with issues that mattered, and things that affected our lives. And so I think one thing I love about the philosophy of pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood is that I really believe that it has the potential to help people. 

One of my key areas of interest is infant feeding decisions. So decisions about how you should feed a new baby. Should it be a breastfeed or bottle fed, or some combination. I'm particularly interested in that, because it's a place where people end up feeling very hurt and very judged, and often very ashamed. And that was something that I experienced myself in my own journey with my first child. I started to think about how philosophy might give us a framework for thinking about infant feeding decisions. One thing I I thought was that we seem to get into these traps. 

People would find themselves defending that decision either to breastfeed or not to breastfeed, to use formula. And often they would defend that in a way that amount to: "This is what I had to do." Either I had to breastfeed because breastfeeding is absolutely morally necessary. Or I had to use formula because I couldn't breastfeed for these reasons, or because breastfeeding isn't any good, anyway. We have this situation where people are defending their decisions in ways that end up attacking other people's decisions.

Part of the reason why this is happening is that we mistakenly think that these are decisions that we need to justify at all. So we treat not breastfeeding as if it's something that requires justification by assuming that there is a defeasible duty to breastfeed. A defeasible duty is where you're required to have some justification for failing to do it, for not doing it; and if you don't have that justification you are subject to blame and guilt. On the other hand, we treat breastfeeding as if it is a deviant activity which is only okay if it is absolutely necessary. We treat breastfeeding as if breastfeeding is only permissible if breastfeeding had all these amazing benefits, if it was morally required.

We should reject both of those assumptions, we should reject the assumption that there is a defeasible duty to breastfeed. I think we can recognize the benefits of breastfeeding without assuming that there's a defeasible duty to breastfeed because we shouldn't assume that mothers have the defeasible duty to do anything that might benefit their child, or each thing that might benefit their child.

We should reject the idea that breastfeeding is this deviant thing, because that's wrapped up in lots of mistakes about how we should think about breastfeeding, breastfeeding as kind of sexual. There is a failure to recognize the right to have these kinds of interactions with your child. So I think if we could reject both of those premises. Then we wouldn't get this need for defense. Which means people wouldn't feel attacked. Which means that the conversations about infant feeding could be much much better. 

That's one example of the ways in which philosophy might point out ways that we seem to be thinking about motherhood that lead to problems, and recognizing these, might in some ways provide help to mothers. It provides a way of thinking about what's happening and what they're experiencing. Just last week somebody said to me: "Oh, I sent your papers to a friend who was going through a hard time, and they said they were really helpful." So it does seem like people do find like this reframing of the discussion helpful.

LB: Yes, it definitely sounds like it's helpful, especially for interpersonal relationships, because thinking about my experience with infant feeding as well, which was not easy, there was a lot of tension with healthcare professionals who were putting pressure on me to do things, and other mothers who also suggested things for me to do. And all that tension is exactly what you don't want at a time in your life when you are particularly vulnerable. What you do sounds like it's definitely something that can be helpful.

Working as an academic with non-academic partners can often be quite challenging. It's challenging to find a shared language. It's challenging to find ways of working together and not necessarily because people do things differently, but because they haven't worked together before, or they haven't had that the same type of audience before. So I was wondering about your own experience. I know that you have worked with the NCT and the Breastfeeding Network. What did you find challenging, and also what did you find rewarding, about working with these organizations? What do you think junior women philosophers should expect if they want, like you, to try and bring philosophy outside academia?

FW: One thing I learned was that I was a bit arrogant when I first started this. I was like: "Oh, I've noticed as a problem here." But then I talked to people, they knew there was a problem. They'd been thinking about this problem for decades. Realizing that people often have been thinking about things and have been trying to sort things out and not assuming that you're coming in with something they haven't thought about before is really important, but it's also important to think about what contribution we as philosophers can make. 

What can I do that might not have been done before, that might be different? I did find that even though people had been thinking about this for quite a while, there were still things which I was able to notice as an analytically trained philosopher, that they wouldn't have seen and equally I was able to learn a lot from the things that that they were able to bring. So it's a matter of respect for both the practitioners and activists who are already in the space and for people in other disciplines. We need also a clear sense of what we can bring to the table as philosophers, and we need to be comfortable with what we don't. We don't have to be the first people to discover the problem, but we are able to contribute.

LB: That sounds a really good advice: not being arrogant to start with, but also carving a space for ourselves which at times may not be easily recognizable by everybody. I know you have contributed to producing a number of different resources, that can be helpful to pregnant women and new mothers. I was wondering whether you'd be happy to share some with us, and maybe tell us a little bit about you came to be involved in making them, and again, what the difficulties and the goods points were in producing them.

FW: One of the first things I made was a series of posters. This was for a science festival. We had the posters on display, and we ran a cake and a chat activity where we basically sat down and talked to mothers while their children decorated cakes, and they could also decorate the cakes, and we talked about their experiences and talked about the philosophy. 

LB: What was your role in making these posters like? Did you contribute to the choice of images? Did you contribute to the text? I'm just curious how a philosopher works with other professionals in producing this kind of resources

FW: I wrote all of the text, and then I got advice on anything that didn't seem clear from the people who ran the the the festival, who had more experience. They came up with a choice of different images. We talked about what we were looking for and they came back to us with a few different options, and then I made the choice. But the really big challenge when making something like this is to be concise and yet clear. When you're doing public facing stuff, you just need to work out just exactly what you want to say and how to explain it as clearly and simply as possible. 

The same challenge applied to the website I made, Feeling Good about Feeding Babies. For this, I wrote the text with my collaborators, Heather Trickey from Cardiff University and the NCT and Phyll Buchanan from the Breastfeeding Network, and I also drew the cartoons. There wasn't a budget for a professional artist so I stepped up. The website conveys my philosophical idea. This is the idea about not having to justify your decisions. It also includes Heather's research on factors that constrain people's decision about how to feed their babies and stories from people with lots of different experiences. It has a structure where there is very little text on each page and there are also links to more detailed information.

A page from the Feelings about Feeding Babies website

LB: Amazing! The illustrations are beautiful. Did you get feedback on different drafts from the people you were working with? Did you show it to some of your target audience?

FW: Yes, Heather and Phyll and I wrote the text together and had a lot of discussions. Some psychologists from the University Southampton ran focus groups in person where we explained what our idea was and discussed how this idea might be helpful, how to present it. Then we had a trial run of the website--like a beta version of the website--and people gave feedback on each page and made suggestions.

LB: It sounds like a really long process.

FW: It did take a long time. We also made a very short video (you can watch it below).

LB: Wow! This was incredible. I must have been a lot of work as well. So you scripted the whole thing, and then they produced images to go with them. Do you have any insight into feedback from people who watched it? Did they like it? Did they recommend it?

FW: Yes, we got good feedback. One thing that was really difficult was that we had to be careful about how we framed things, because it's such a sensitive issue. It's sensitive in that it has the potential to make mothers feel very bad. But it's also sensitive in that there are a lot of people who are campaigning in these issues, and there's a lot of division, and if you phrase things wrongly, you might be taken to be saying something that you don't want to say so it was really hard to try and get the video short enough. 

LB: That makes a lot of sense. One last question. It's about your future projects, and I know you're writing a book on a modest account of maternal duties, and I was wondering whether you'd like to share with us what your thoughts are about the book, what we're trying to do with it.

FW: Yes, there are a few different things I want to do in the book. My view is that a lot of the problems that we have in, for example, the infant feeding area, but also in other areas like in birth, in alcohol and pregnancy and in all of these many, many different areas, stem from mistakes about maternal duties. I think we implicitly accept this ideal of motherhood as involving huge amounts of self sacrifice and self sacrifice, which comes naturally to mothers and makes them feel happy. There is this assumption (what I call the maximal duty to benefit) that if there is something that could benefit the child the mother has a defeasible duty to do that thing. And I think that's a misinterpretation of the maternal duty.

I don't think that you have a duty to each thing that might benefit your child. I think that's just a massively over demanding understanding of maternal duty which leaves mothers having to justify pretty much every decision they make, and it leads to mothers feeling hugely under scrutiny. And I'm so specifically talking about mothers here, because I don't think that this is a general problem that parents in general are over scrutinized. 

I want to offer an alternative account of maternal duties. One of the pushbacks, when I was arguing against this extreme version of maternal duties, was this: "Well, surely there are some things that mothers are required to do!" and I think that's right. I do think that there are some things that mothers are required to do, but we can come up with something that's not just a free for all and is not the extreme version. 

There is a lot of overlap with something that I worked on in my earlier professional life, which was on a moderate account of duties to aid, to respond to global poverty. That's a really well-established debate in a moral philosophy. You've got your Peter Singer approach which is basically give away until giving any more would be such a great sacrifice that it would justify not to pull a drowning child out of a pond. And then you've got people kind of thinking: "Well, that seems a bit much, but we do want to say that there are duties to aid." I'm trying to draw on the lessons from that area of philosophy to come up with an account of what mothers owe to their children. 

Another thing that I want to do in the book is to look what a mother is and who is subject to maternal duties. I've been reading some really interesting work in the metaphysics of gender and trying to think about how that applies to this area. There are people who are affected by these over demanding ideals of motherhood who aren’t mothers but are seen as mothers or treated as mothers in various ways.

Lots of people respond to my overall project by saying: "Why do you want a moderate account of maternal duties? Why not just say there are no maternal duties. There are duties, but just parental duties, and we need gender neutral accounts of parental duties." Part of my account is that you can be a woman and a parent, but not a mother. But I think some people find a lot of value in motherhood, the identity of mother is a really deep part of who they are, and they want to hang on to that. They don't find it an entirely negative, oppressive thing and they think that there are distinctive duties that go along with that identity.

So what I draw on some work by Florence Ashley, and they have this account of gender identity, which is gender identity as interpretation. And I love this account of gender identity because it means that you can say: "This is why I am a woman." And you can say the things that you interpret as being important to you for understanding yourself as a woman, without having to say anybody who doesn't have these features that they are not a woman. So the idea is that you have this kind of gender subjectivity that applies to all your gendered experiences. You interpret those, and you say: "This is the gender identity that makes sense of those."

This is important when it comes to motherhood because there isn't one thing that all mothers have in common. Even many mothers will find their motherhood is very strongly linked to maybe a certain embodiment or a certain role in the reproductive process. But there are mothers who have different bodies, who have different roles, and what I think drawing on Ashley's account allows me to do is to say: "You can say I'm a mother, and these are the things that make me a mother." 

You can recognize the importance that the embodiment has for some people without saying that for everybody that's the only thing. And you can also recognize people who understand themselves as mothers, either because of that gender identity, or because of the way they feel their relationship is gendered. And there's just many, many different things that can and make you a mother. But then it's really challenging to say that there are maternal duties because they have to relate to this very individual understanding of what makes someone a mother.

LB: It sounds really interesting, Fiona. I will be looking forward to the book. Thank you so much for sharing with us your philosophical ideas, but also your attempts at actually improving the wellbeing of new mothers, and your collaborations with external partners. Your work is very inspiring.

If you want to hear the whole interview with Fiona, please watch this video:

Tuesday 25 July 2023

Conspiracy Beliefs, Delusions, and Testimony

The second day of the workshop on Conspiratorial Ideation and Psychopathology (Birmingham, 25th April 2023) opened up with a talk by the organisers, Anna Ichino from the University of Milan and Ema Sullivan-Bissett from the University of Birmingham. The talk addressed heads-on the theme of the workshop: does the overlap between conspiracy beliefs and delusions mean that conspiracy beliefs are pathological?

Anna Ichino and 
Ema Sullivan-Bissett

Why do we think that delusions are pathological? They flout epistemic norms, but many other (non delusional) beliefs do the same, so this is not a promising criterion for pathology. Another option is that delusions have strange content, but again other beliefs also have strange content such as paranormal beliefs or QAnon beliefs. A more promising criterion of pathology for beliefs is an etiological one: pathological beliefs involve a malfunction.

Monothematic delusions can be considered as pathological because they may arise out of anomalous experiences (hallucinations, alien control, absence of emotional feelings). Conspiracy beliefs seem to emerge from epistemic mistrust, which is sometimes described as paranoia in the literature. But paranoia concerns a feeling of being personally threatened, where the feeling is excessive or ill-grounded, and epistemic mistrust, instead, is usually socially shared, targets something specific, and does not need to be ill-grounded.

But is the anomaly of experience enough for pathology of belief? If there is a pathology, this is in the perceptual experience, not in the formation of the belief itself. In delusions, the anomalous experience fixes the content of delusions whereas epistemic mistrust does not fix the content of the conspiracy belief. In the case of conspiracy beliefs, there is an explanatory gap to be filled by the testimony of others. Whereas delusions are perceptually based, conspiracy beliefs are based on testimony.

When it comes to whether the beliefs are pathological, Ichino and Sullivan-Bissett conclude if delusions are pathological, then conspiracy beliefs are too (but they prefer a de-pathologising approach). Whereas delusions lack testimonial support, they have a strong link to profound experiences that cannot be easily explained otherwise. Conspiracy beliefs have more social currency, but there is no specific experience that motivates them. 

Kengo Miyazono

Next, philosopher Kengo Miyazono presented on delusions, conspiracy theories, and testimony. He approached the question whether conspiracy beliefs are pathological by assuming that delusions are pathological; asking what features make delusions pathological (the fact that they are harmful and due to malfunctioning mechanisms); and establishing whether conspiracy beliefs share those features with delusions.

One overlapping feature between delusions and conspiracy beliefs are insensitive to evidential persuasion but there are some subtle differences between them: delusions are insensitive to all testimonial evidence and conspiracy beliefs are typically shared through testimony. Delusions are a case where there is testimonial isolation (loss of epistemic interaction with others) and testimonial discount (failure of trusting testimony). The discounting can be caused by feelings of paranoia, grandeur, and failure of group identification.

Is shared psychosis a counterexample to this? In some cases, delusions and hallucinations can be shared within family members and people affected by it are socially isolated. For Miyazono, in such cases, all the people who report the delusion have the delusion, not just the person who reports the delusion first. There seems to be a testimonial abnormality in the sense that the people who get the delusion from their family member are disconnected from other forms of testimony and are exceedingly reliant on the testimony of the family member.

In all cases, delusions, shared psychosis, and conspiracy beliefs, there is an asymmetry: people trust in-group testimony more than out-group testimony to a greater extent than usual, where the in-group is one person in delusions, a small group of people in shared psychosis, and a larger group of people with the same non-mainstream belief in conspiracy beliefs.

Joe Pierre

The last speaker of the workshop was psychiatrist Joe Pierre who asked whether conspiracy beliefs are a sane response to an insane world. Pierre started from the observation that "pathology" is a value-laden term which negative connotations, that we often contrast with "normality". However, as applied to conspiracy theories, pathology cannot be the opposite of normality, because conspiracy theories are very widespread and so statistically normal. 

Another way to characterise pathology is to refer to dysfunction: this can also apply to conspiracy beliefs, and psychologists often use a deficit model. There are many biases or psychological or social needs that are factors in the formation of conspiracy beliefs. But the deficit model does not answer the question why if we all have the same biases and needs, only some of us are attracted to conspiracy beliefs.

A third issue is harmfulness: in some cases conspiracy beliefs are associated with harm such as political disengagement, health risks, and disruption to social interactions. But it is not clear whether conspiracy beliefs are always harmful and it is not clear whether it is behaviour that is harmful (and the belief just rationalises it) or the beliefs themselves are harmful.

One way of interpreting the pathology question is to ask whether conspiracy theories are a mental health issue. Pierre argued that it is not helpful to think of conspiracy beliefs as delusions. The reasons for this are as follows: different from delusions, conspiracy beliefs are statistically normal; not necessarily false; held with variable conviction; shared; based on information that is out there and lack of faith in official accounts; not self-referential. However, delusions and conspiracy theories are not mutually exclusive.

To drive home the idea that conspiracy beliefs are a normal phenomenon, Pierre presented his socio-epistemic model: the first component is epistemic mistrust (impacted by hypervigilance, tribalism, politics, and trust violations) and the second is misinformation (to which confirmation bias and motivated reasoning contribute). The key message of Pierre's talk is that misinformation is out there and people don't know how to assess sources of information: as in the flea market, the loudest and most outlandish seller gets more customers.

Tuesday 18 July 2023

Conspiracy Beliefs, Democracy, and Confabulation

As part of a British Academy project on Conspiratorial Ideation and Pathological Beliefs, Ema Sullivan-Bissett (University of Birmingham) and Anna Ichino (University of Milan) organised a workshop in Birmingham with speakers from philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry. In this post, I summarise the workshop talks on day one, 24th April 2023.

Workshop poster

Psychologist Karen Douglas kicked off the workshop talking about the psychology of conspiracy theories, asking why people believe in conspiracy theories and what the consequences are of believing conspiracy beliefs. Douglas started with a psychologist's definition of a conspiracy theory: "A belief that two or more actors have coordinated in secret to achieve an outcome. It is a conspiracy that the public should know about." For Douglas, conspiracy beliefs respond to three types of needs:

  1. Epistemic needs: finding meaning and explanation, addressing uncertainty, seeing patterns, wanting closure. People more likely to endorse conspiracy theories have lower levels of analytic thinking, lower levels of education, and tend to perceive agency and intentionality when they are not there. Intelligence does not seem to be related one way or another with the tendency to believe conspiracy theories.
  2. Existential needs: placating anxiety, feeling powerlessness, lacking socio-political control, having an avoidant coping style. People who are anxious and feel less in control of their lives are more likely to believe in conspiracies.
  3. Social needs: wanting to belong and maintaining an image of ourselves and our group as moral competent. Often this happens by blaming other people or other groups when things do not go well. People who are ostracised, disadvantaged, excluded are attracted to conspiracy theories too. People also want to feel like they are unique and special and everybody else are in the dark.

Karen Douglas

But are conspiracy theories helpful or harmful? They do not satisfy the epistemic or existential needs people have: people still feel uncertain and do not behave prosocially in relation to the context of the conspiracy theory; moreover, people continue to feel anxious and powerless, and fail to engage in mainstream political action but tend towards extremist views. The same is true for social needs: people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to engage in minor crimes and violent protests, are less likely to trust others, and are prejudiced against other groups.

New research also suggests that believing a conspiracy theory makes people less attractive in interpersonal relationships, and they appear less intelligent, sociable, honest, and trustworthy.

Kathleen Murphy-Hollies

Next, Philosopher Kathleen Murphy-Hollies argued that conspiracist claims can be understood as confabulations. Agents confabulate when they give reasons for a choice, action or belief of theirs but get something wrong about the world and don't capture other factors which were efficacious in bringing about that choice or action about. Confabulators don't intend to deceive others and believe in the account they give to others. Confabulations fill a cognitive gap which agents have where a more accurate explanation would be. Kathleen argued that confabulations are mostly justificatory. 

Kathleen suggested that in a similar way, when conspiracy theorists give reasons for thinking that certain conspiracies are true, they are providing reasons which justify their position and fill a cognitive gap they have around other factors which are driving their conspiracist claims (seeking patterns and meaning, high need for cognitive closure, feeling powerless etc). This explains a number of bizarre features of conspiracy theorists found in empirical studies, such as: (i) that conspiracy theorists tend to eagerly elaborate on their claims of conspiracy, just as confabulators engage in secondary confabulation when put under pressure from others; (ii) in these elaborations, conspiracy theorists tend to posit more conspiracy and deception, as part of an over-arching monological belief system which is guided by higher-order beliefs about deception. 

Confabulations, in the same way, are claims which are guided by higher-order beliefs with an over-arching theme - of understanding oneself and the world around oneself. Finally, (iii), conspiracist claims made by the same agent can often be self-contradictory. For example, a conspiracy theorist may believe both that covid-19 was a complete hoax but also a bio-chemical weapon released by China. Understanding these claims as confabulations also helps here, because although these claims are contradictory when taken as explanations of the world, not so when they are taken as justifications. Confabulations are not just explanations but justifications, and these claims are perfectly consistent when taken as parts of higher-order overarching beliefs focused on the theme of justifying that the agent understands herself and the world around her. 

Kathleen discussed a few upshots of this. It makes conspiracist claims a little bit less bizarre and othering, and a bit more understandable. It shifts the focus for interacting with conspiracy theorists away from trying to set the facts straight about explaining the workings of the world, and instead towards talking about one's values and justifications which are being invoked in conspiracist claims. Finally, with regards to pathology, both options are left open, as is the case with confabulation. The cognitive gap which confabulation fills might be due to pathology (such as dementia or anosognosia), or due to everyday cognitive limitations (such as having implicit bias, or knee-jerk intuitive thinking). 

Stephan Lewandowsky

Psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky talked about conspiracy theories and democracy. He started by differentiating between rhetoric and belief: people sometimes deploy the rhetoric of their political party to dismiss scientific views but there are also people who genuinely endorse conspiratorial alternatives. And mistrusting one governmental source means mistrusting all of them: people who tend to doubt an official account are primed to doubt more, which leads to political disengagement.

Another worrying feature is that there is basically no violent extremism without a conspiracy theory and, among the people who are predisposed to violence, the more they endorse conspiracy theories the more they are likely to react violently to the views they oppose. 

Does this suggest that believing conspiracy theories is pathological? Some have argued that some conspiracy theories are true, but if we look at the famous examples (such as Watergate), they were discovered by official sources of information (journalists) and not people protesting in the streets or in a blog. They were discovered by people who are sceptical about things, respond to evidence, and strive for coherence. Not by people who are subject to conspiratorial ideation, reject contrary evidence, and embrace inconsistencies. Paranoia and narcissism are associated with the endorsement of conspiracy theories, as well as schizotypy personality and pseudoscientific beliefs.

So people who endorse conspiracy theories are different from people who don't, though none of their behaviours meets the clinical threshold. What can we do to stop the spreading of conspiracy theories? One promising strategy is inoculation, by which we warn people that they may be misled and we tell them how they are likely to be misled. This is an effective strategy to stop people from being influenced by conspiracy theories in their thoughts and decisions.

Miriam McCormick

Philosopher Miriam McCormick focused on how to engage with a conspiracy theorist, starting from her views about disagreement. First, she argued that there are good reasons to engage with people who hold very different views, because it helps us reflect on our own beliefs and it shows respect for our opponents. That said, there is no obligation to engage--for instance when people report conspiracy theories in bad faith (without really committing to the conspiracy theories) engaging seems fruitless.

One thought is that the type of engagement we should adopt is not an open-minded one (where we are open to changing our views as a result of the interaction) but a closed-minded one (where we listen empathetically and are interested in why the person has those beliefs but we are not open to changing our views). Closed-minded engagement is done for the purpose of focusing on the believer, not the belief, trying to get them to see their own beliefs as problematic.

The important thing here is to engage in a way that is neither insincere (faking interest in the belief) nor disrespectful (considering the person unworthy of a different type of engagement, a lost cause). It consists of an exploration of the view and the reasons for the views being endorsed. The challenge to the problematic belief is made indirectly, not via a direct confrontation, but by considering the experiences and feelings that make the belief attractive and showing that, although the experiences and feelings are valid, they do not need to lead to the belief.

Tuesday 11 July 2023

Irrationality and Indecision

Today's post is by Jan-Paul Sandmann (Harvard University), on his recent paper "Irrationality and Indecision" (Synthese, 2023).

Jan-Paul Sandmann

What is wrong with preferring some option a to option b, b to c, but c again to a? Why shouldn’t one cling on to such cyclical preferences? The standard response is that one ought not hold on to cyclical preferences because one could be money pumped as a result. By focusing on the binary comparisons alone, it would seem reasonable to pay some amount of money for b rather than c, a rather than b, as well as c rather than a

If the agent however takes these actions, she ends up with the option she started with, c, while having paid some money. And that clearly does not seem sensible: acting upon a preference cycle would not be in the agent’s interest. The money pump argument thus draws one to conclude that the agent should get rid of her cyclical preferences. 

The argument is powerful, but it also makes some constraining assumptions. Cyclical preferences lead to a self-defeating situation just in case the agent acts while holding on to these preferences. Moreover, when concluding that the self-defeating action implies that the person should give up on the preferences, we assume that only outcomes matter to the agent’s evaluation of a given choice.

In my paper, "Irrationality and Indecision", I suggest a different way of looking at an agent who holds cyclical preferences. Rather than being straightforwardly irrational, such preferences could indicate that the agent entertains conflicting views about some options. If the agent, moreover, deems these views to be important for justifying her choice, and upon further consideration fails to resolve the cycle, then her preferences ground indecision rather than irrationality.  

Yet, one may ask, are the irrationality and indecision interpretations necessarily irreconcilable? The answer I give is: “no, they need not be.” It is perfectly conceivable that the agent ends up indecisive because of underlying irrationality. And so, instead of drawing a clear conceptual wedge between irrationality and indecision, I hope to show that viewing cycles through the lens of indecision offers a valuable explanatory alternative. 

When deeming someone to be undecided because of a preference cycle some non-instrumental consideration come into play: An agent may be unwilling to choose on the basis of the preference cycle independent from the outcomes to which her choices lead. These justificatory considerations, moreover, matter from the first-personal viewpoint of the agent, rather than from that of a third-personal adviser (a perspective the money-pump argument encourages one to take on). 

Tying cycles to indecision also changes our normative evaluation of an agent. In some cases, it may be defensible to cycle among some options if doing so brings out the salient aspects of a choice to oneself. In particular, if one resolves the corresponding indecision not merely by a coin toss, but by further deliberation about the options, then preference cycles could benefit agents. Insofar as cyclical preferences provoke one to revise or reinforce one’s views, they are crucial aspects of developing standards to justify one’s choices. As such, they are an important part of becoming a reasoning agent. 

Tuesday 4 July 2023

Non-ideal Epistemology

In this post, Robin McKenna presents a new book, Non-Ideal Epistemology (Oxford University Press 2023).

I started thinking about the ideas that became Non-Ideal Epistemology when I was teaching social epistemology for the first time. I wanted to cover more than just the epistemologies of testimony and disagreement. I also wanted to do more than simply finish with a unit on epistemic injustice. 

I wanted to cover the bits of social epistemology that overlap with philosophy of science and political philosophy, the bits that engaged with social psychology, the bits that asked political questions about knowledge and knowledge production. I wanted to help students identify and question the assumptions underlying the kind of approach to social epistemology that is more interested in how things might work than in how they actually work.

But I didn’t want to do too much. I didn’t want to lose the students. A grand narrative was needed. But what would this grand narrative look like? What unifies the diverse and disparate questions, approaches, and ideas that constitute “social epistemology”?

The answer I came up with was: nothing, really. There is a sharp divide between idealised and non-idealised approaches to social epistemology. Idealised approaches work with idealised models of human beings, the social interactions between them, and the social spaces in which they interact. Non-idealised approaches work with more realistic models—models that recognise the ways in which human beings depart from these idealised models and are interested in the implications this has for social epistemology.

One of the central claims of my book is that, in many ways, this distinction—the distinction between ideal and non-ideal epistemology—is more useful than the distinction between “traditional” and social epistemology. The ideal epistemologist usually works within the same “problem space” as the traditional epistemologist but has a few more tools. The non-ideal epistemologist is interested in a different problem space and develops new tools with which to tackle it.

Robin McKenna

The first part of the book (Chapters 1-3) develops the distinction between ideal and non-ideal epistemology using the debate between ideal and non-ideal theory in political epistemology. Ideal epistemology is (roughly) analogous to Rawlsian ideal theory—it is interested in ideals (e.g. knowledge) and its normative claims are conditional on idealistic assumptions (e.g. of universal norm-compliance). Non-ideal epistemology is (equally roughly) analogous to non-ideal theory—it is less interested in ideals and its normative claims are based on more realistic assumptions.

The second part (Chapters 4-8) has two aims. The first is to demonstrate the value of doing non-ideal epistemology. I take up several important questions, such as: How should we respond to science denialism? Should we try to be intellectually autonomous? When do we need to engage with challenges to our views? Are we responsible for our intellectual characters? How many of us have justified beliefs about controversial matters? While I think there is something to be said for the answers I give to these questions, my overarching aim is to demonstrate the role that non-ideal epistemology can play in addressing them. 

The second aim is to highlight some problems with ideal epistemology that (roughly) parallel the problems Charles Mills identified for ideal theory in political philosophy. Ideal theory only has implications for what we, in a non-ideal world, should do if the assumptions on which it is based aren’t too distorting or idealistic. While it is perfectly possible to do ideal theory while recognising that the underlying assumptions are unrealistic, there is an unfortunate tendency to downplay how unrealistic the underlying assumptions really are. As a result, ideal theorists, whether in epistemology or politics, tend to exaggerate the extent to which they provide any sort of normative guidance for humans.