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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The "Conrad the Conformist" and "Robotic Robert" cases in Fairweather's "Epistemic Motivation"

In “Epistemic Motivation,” (taken from ‘Virtue Epistemology’ eds. Zagzebski and Fairweather, 2001), Abrol Fairweather advances an argument that goes (something) like this:

1. To be able to adequately characterize what an intellectual virtue is, we must first have some understanding of what virtue (in general) is.
2. To meet the project in (1), there are three main options: Aristotle’s account of virtue as an excellence of character, Plato (Gorgias and Republic)’s account of virtue as a skill (techne); thirdly, there is Aquinas’ teleological account of virtue as the “power to bring about a certain end” (65)
3. If epistemic motivation is a necessary condition for knowledge, then the only account of virtue capable of subsuming epistemic motivation within the domain of intellectual virtues is the Aristotelian account.
4. Epistemic motivation is a necessary condition for knowledge.
5. Therefore, the only appropriate account of virtue to which VE theorist ought to give recourse in understanding the nature of intellectual virtue is the Aristotelian account.

Fairweather’s defense for P4:

1. There are (basically) three types of epistemically motivated beliefs: (a) belief with improper motivation; (b) non-motivated belief; (c) belief with good epistemic motivation.
2. If an agent is epistemically deficient in (a) and (b), then (c) is a necessary condition for knowledge (given that knowledge is incompatible with epistemic deficience on any VE account).
3. An agent is epistemically deficient in (a) and (b).
4. Therefore, epistemic motivation is necessary for knowledge.

It is now (3) in Fairweather’s defense for P4 that requires a defense. Fairweather outlines his defense just as one would expect: he argues via reductio in cases (a) and (b) to emphasize the epistemic deficiency associated with being motivated to some non-alethic (i.e. improper) end, or to have no motivation; in each instance, Fairweather hints that what is needed for the beliefs (associated with these two types of deficient motivations) to be candidates for knowledge is that the proper, alethic-ended motivation should be present. His cases are both quite clever, and do well to illustrate his point. I do want to point out a few spots in these examples, though, which appeared problematic to me, and which I think invite a bit of revision.

First off, consider Fairweather’s “Conrad, the Doxastic Conformist” case, a case intended to delineate an individual with non-alethic epistemic motivation (i.e. improper motivation), and allow the reader to see the ‘absurdity’ of deeming Conrad’s beliefs as knowledge in light of the epistemic motivation that engendered them. In short: Conrad wants to believe whatever Mr. Cool believes; his desire is significant to the extent that Conrad desires to bring his “whole belief system in to conformity of Mr. Cool’s”, and is, by virtue of this obsession, not concerned with the truth or falsity of his beliefs, per se, but simply whether they are isomorphic with Mr. Cool's. Given this, suppose that Mr. Cool believes that X will win the election in November; automatically, Conrad wishes to believe this, and would believe it independent of whether Cool offers evidence for it. Now, suppose that Cool does, in fact, articulate his evidence for believing X will win the election (i.e that the opponent Y is lagging in the poles and is involved in scandal, etc.). Conrad, in this revised situation, holds a belief we would think to be justifying evidence (i.e. that Y is lagging in the polls, etc.), but Fairweather’s contention is that Conrad is not justified; this is because the grounds Cool gave him for believing that X would win “play no role as evidence in exploaining Conrad’s acquisition of the belief…. Being supported by good evidence is a purely accidental feature of his belief since Conrad would be just as inclined to believe that X will win without possessing any evidence at all, so long as “X will win in November” is believed by Mr. Cool” (74). And so, Fairweather wishes to show, possession of good evidence for a belief is insufficient for achieving justification; the missing element is epistemic motivation. Fairweather defines the sort of epistemic motivation, necessary for justification, and lacking in the Conrad case, as follows:

EM*: A person has an epistemic motivation if and only if they have a desire (or kindred emotive state) for truth or for states whose value is derived from truth, and this desire effectively directs and controls the person’s belief formation and revision.

One point at which I take issue is Fairweather’s reasoning for why it is that Conrad lacks justification in the revised case in which Conrad is given by Mr. Cool Mr. Cool’s grounds for believing that X will win. Even in light of Conrad’s improper motivation, and even in light of the fact that he believes the grounds for the belief (i.e. that Y is lagging in the polls) decisively because Cool believes it, it seems reasonable to conclude that Conrad (insofar as he is rational, which Fairweather has given us no reason to doubt) would (importantly) “recognize” that “X will win” follows inferentially from “Y is lagging in the polls” (combined with Conrad’s assumed background knowledge that X is competing against Y). It seems to me, at least intuitively, that Conrad’s recognition of the evidential relation between the grounds of the belief (that x will win), and the belief that x will win would be sufficient (combined with Conrad’s believing the grounds of the belief, and the belief) for Conrad’s being justified in his belief that X will win in November. Now, if Fairweather had explicitly said that Conrad, due to some strange irrationality (perhaps he is inductively challenged) believed both the grounds for X will win in November, and the proposition that X will win in November, but nonetheless did not recognize that the grounds serve as evidence for the belief, then I’d agree with Fairweather that Conrad is not justified. But until Fairweather makes explicit that the recognizition of this relation I mentioned is not present in the Conrad case, then even given Conrad’s improper epistemic motivation, I’d be inclined to think he is justified (at least insofar as the evidential recognition condition I mention holds.)

Fairweather’s next step in the argument is to offer the reductio against (b) [in P3 of his defense of p4 in the initial argument]. Simply: Fairweather must show that an individual with no epistemic motivation is epistemically deficieint to the extent that beliefs arising out of this lack of epistemic motivation are not justified. Enter Robotic Robert, Fairweather’s protagonist to this end, who holds and abides by the following rule “Adopt an attitude of acceptance toward a proposition P iff I have evidence that strongly indivates that P is true.” Fairweather thinks here that Robotic Robert, who he stipulates is unable to explain why he forms beliefs according to that particular rule, rather than some other rule, is unjustified in his beliefs. Robotic Robert, Fairweather thinks, by virtue of his inability to provide a reason for adhering to his rule, has no sense that truth is the appropriate aim of belief, and hence, should not be said to be justified.
Here is my problem with this case: Fairweather indicates (p. 76) that, if Robert could have given a reason for why he formed beliefs according to that rule, then his beliefs would be epistemically motivated to the extent that they would (probably) satisfy EM* and be justified. But this is a dubious step to make. Consider this: suppose we grant Fairweather’s wish and program into Robotic Robert a response to the question Fairweather didn’t have him answer… suppose his response to the question of why he forms beliefs according to the rules to which he appeals is this: “Because I am motivated to believe what is true.” This robotic response would seem, based on what Fairweather says, to satisfy him. But what if we were to then ask, “Why do you want to believe what is true?” Robotic Robert would have no answer. And, to add here a concern at a practice al level, many epistemic agents would be left scratching their heads when asked to explain, decisively, why they wish to believe what is true.
One response Fairweather could give to my criticism here is that the chain of necessary explanation ends at the question of “why” one forms beliefs according to rules. Giving this response would help Fairweather to avoid the pragmatic problem of committing to the position that all those epistemic agents who can’t explain why they are motivated to truth (i.e. many agents we want to say are justified in a majority of their beliefs) aren’t justified; however, this response saves the practical problem at the expense of allowing Robotic Robert to be properly epistemically motivated merely because he is programmed to give an explanation for why he forms beliefs according to particular rules—a counterintuitive suggestion.
What I’ve mentioned are the two major concerns I had with Fairweather’s Conrad and Robert examples (and I’d be interested to get any opinion on these). However, I do wish to point out one more area of difficulty in the paper. In Section V, Fairweather concedes that the bold proposal of holding epistemic motivation as a necessary condition for knowledge requires an investigation into the question of: “Does a motivational requirement apply to all types of knowledge?” I’m inclined to think certainly not. (i.e. Suppose I want to believe everything Mr. Cool believes… Mr. Cool tells me that bachelors are unmarried women, however my recognition of the truth of bacherlor’s being unmarried men as analytic leads me to believe it is true, even though my epistemic motivation is merely to match my belief set with Mr. Cool’s. Shouldn’t we say I’m nonetheless justified in my belief?” And so, for a starting point, we’d probably want to say that analytic, or a priori truths, are probably exempt from any motivational requirement. All for now…

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