The contemporary debate over the constitutive norms of assertion, as well as related debates about the norms of belief and action, and the nature of epistemic value, deal with deep and important questions about the nature of normativity, especially constitutive normativity, about value, and about whether there really is an essential distinction between epistemic evaluation on the one hand, and practical rationality or ethical evaluation on the other. Some of these questions might be broadly categorized under the familiar heading 'ethics of belief', but that really doesn't do justice to the breadth of issues at stake.

For the most part, participants to these debates work in epistemology, philosophy of language and, to a lesser extent, social philosophy. Moreoever, I've been informed by more than one editor of more than one journal devoted to ethics (broadly understood) that work on these issues just isn't a good fit for their journal or audience.

I'm curious why this is so. Is it just an accident? Have the debates just not had quite enough time to percolate through various subdiscplinary borders? Do ethicists just not view these questions as genuinely ethical questions? Or are they viewed as ethical, but somehow derivative or secondary to other, more long-standing debates in the ethics literature?

2 Replies to “Why the disconnect?

  1. One problem might be that the debates aren’t genuinely ethical debates since we’re told that we’re to focus on a distinctively epistemic norm in thinking about warranted assertion. Another is that the papers are in the wrong place. Another is that the data that we’re supposed to think about in testing competing theories might be data that ethicists don’t think much about (e.g., Moore’s Paradox, lottery cases).
    It’s unfortunate that the “ethics” filters in via the epistemologists. It seems to me that there are two distinct issues running through the literature on warranted assertion. First, there’s the “point” issue. Do assertions and beliefs aspire to be true or should we think of the aim of these things in terms of knowledge? Second, there’s the more distinctively normative issue. Even once we settle the T vs. K dispute, there’s the normative question as to whether we should hold to something like a strict liability standard or operate instead with something like a due care standard. I don’t think anyone really denies that assertions and beliefs are supposed to be true, aim at the truth, etc… (not exclusive of K, mind you), but you’ll find plenty of folks who think that an assertion/belief can be permissible even if it fails to live up to these standards. Indeed, in some papers you get the sense that the authors think that it is obvious that there can be false warranted assertions even if the point/aim of assertion involves expressing a truth.
    I wish more ethicists would get involved on that second issue and say something helpful about whether we should work with a strict liability standard or something more “forgiving”. (I’m a big fan of a strict liability standard that takes there to be no fault requirement on warrant/permissibility. I think this is a live option in ethics, but not one taken terribly seriously in epistemology.)

  2. Quick follow up. Judith Thomson discusses assertion in her new book, Normativity. As is typically the case with her writing, it is hilarious and filled with valuable insights.

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