Many thanks to the Daves for inviting me to contribute to the PEA Soup community!
One major focus of my past and current research is pragmatism: the view that there are practical reasons for and against belief and other doxastic attitudes like disbelieving, suspending judgment, etc. I think it’s true: if believing that there’s an afterlife would make you happier, this is a genuine normative reason for you to believe it, and if believing that your daughter won’t succeed as an actress would harm her, that’s a normative reason against you having that belief. But while some folks opt for a robust pragmatism according to which practical reasons are the only genuine normative reasons for doxastic attitudes, I’m more attracted to a pluralist pragmatism according to which both practical and epistemic reasons for doxastic attitudes are genuinely normative, but different in kind.
The reason I’m interested in pragmatism is that it has important upshots for how to think of the divide between practical and epistemic reasons. Many anti-pragmatists assume that practical and epistemic reasons are individuated by their objects: epistemic reasons are normative reasons for doxastic attitudes, while practical reasons are normative reasons for action and other attitudes. But if there are both practical and epistemic reasons for doxastic attitudes, this can’t be right.
So, I propose instead that practical and epistemic reasons are individuated by their grounds (in “Grounding the Domains of Reasons” in Australasian Journal of Philosophy). The basic idea here is that a fact’s being a normative reason is multiply realizable, and what makes a consideration R a normative reason for an agent S to do something A is one kind of fact for epistemic reasons (presumably something having to do with truth), but a very different kind of fact for practical reasons (something that has nothing to do with truth). For example, one might think that, for practical reasons, what makes R a normative reason for S to A is that R indicates that S’s A-ing would promote some value (or the satisfaction of some desire), whereas for epistemic reasons, what makes R a normative reason for S to A is that R indicates that S’s A-ing would make S more likely to believe the truth and avoid error with respect to some proposition p (where this isn’t a matter of promoting some value or satisfying some desire).
What I’ll talk about here, though, is a puzzle that I’m currently thinking about in relation to this pragmatist view. The puzzle arises from noticing that this view allows not only for practical reasons for doxastic attitudes, but also for epistemic reasons for action. After all, if practical and epistemic reasons are not individuated by their objects, and there are both kinds of reasons for belief, why can’t there also be both kinds of reasons for action too? And some potential accounts of what grounds epistemic reasons straightforwardly imply that there are epistemic reasons for action. For example, consider the view that I sketched above. If doing some action A would give S evidence about whether p, then this fact indicates that S’s A-ing would make S more likely to believe the truth and avoid error with respect to p. So, even if there’s no practical reason whatsoever for S to know whether p, the fact that A-ing would give S evidence about whether p is an epistemic reason for S to A.
But this seems problematic because, unlike with belief, epistemic considerations just don’t seem to matter to how we ought to act. Epistemic considerations seem to play a large role in determining what we ought to believe, especially when the practical reasons are weak or nonexistent. For example, even if there’s no practical reason for or against you having any belief about how many roses are in the garden, if Lily tells you she counted 100 roses, you ought to believe that there are 100 roses. But epistemic considerations seem comparatively idle when it comes to action. Suppose you have no testimony, butyou could easily count the roses yourself in just a few minutes, and you don’t have anything else better to do. Even when there’s no practical reason for or against you counting the roses, it doesn’t seem like the fact that counting the roses would give you evidence about how many roses there are makes it so that you ought to count them. Maybe you’re permitted to do so, but you’re not required.
So, here’s the puzzle. The pluralist pragmatist must either accept or deny that there are epistemic reasons for action, and both options leave her with a significant explanatory challenge. If she opts for acceptance, she must explain why epistemic reasons nonetheless fail to determine what we ought to do, even in the absence of competing practical reasons. If she opts for denial, she must explain why there are no epistemic reasons for action, even though there are both kinds of reasons for doxastic attitudes.
One might think that denial is the easier route because epistemic reasons are commonly thought of as right-kind reasons (RKRs) for doxastic attitudes, which are reasons that indicate that a certain attitude is fitting or correct, given the kind of attitude that it is. (This is in contrast to wrong-kind reasons (WKRs), which are reasons for attitudes that don’t indicate that the attitude is fitting or correct, given the kind of attitude it is – e.g. practical reasons for belief.) So, one might think that there are no epistemic reasons for action because there can’t be fitting-qua-doxastic-attitude-reasons for action. But this explanation assumes that all epistemic reasons are right-kind reasons for doxastic attitudes. And that is precisely what the pluralist is being challenged to explain (if she opts for denial). After all, practical considerations can be both right-kind reasons for attitudes and reasons for action: e.g. the fact that getting the job will make you happy is a right-kind reason to desire that you get the job and a reason for you to send in an application. So, the question for the pluralist is why can’t epistemic considerations be both right-kind reasons for doxastic attitudes and reasons for action too?
Instead, I think the pluralist is better off accepting that there are epistemic reasons for action and explaining why epistemic reasons do not play much of a role in determining what we ought to do, even in the absence of competing practical reasons. While I’m still fixing ideas, I think the explanation lies within three features about epistemic reasons for action. First, just about any action whatsoever can give you strong evidence about some proposition (even sitting still and thinking gives you conclusive evidence that you’re a thinking thing). So, in any choice situation, there’s strong epistemic reason for you to do each available alternative. Second, epistemic reasons for doing some action are not epistemic reasons against the available alternatives. For example, if library A and library B both contain good evidence about whether p, I have an epistemic reason for going to library A, but it’s not an epistemic reason againstgoing to library B (and vice versa). Third, being epistemically justified amounts to having epistemic reasons of a strength that is above a certain threshold.
Putting these thoughts together, then, I think the pluralist can explain why epistemic reasons for action don’t matter much to what we ought to do: in any given choice situation, there’s strong enough epistemic reason for you to do each available action (and these reasons are not reasons againstthe alternatives), so that you are epistemically justified in doing any available action. This explains why you’re only permitted, and not required, to count the roses in the garden, even when you have an epistemic reason to do so and no competing practical reasons. It’s because there are other things you could do instead that would give you just as good evidence about other propositions, and so, you have strong epistemic reasons for those alternatives too, making you epistemically justified in doing any of those alternatives.