Belief, Control, and Evidence: Miriam McCormick’s Believing Against the Evidence
1. Two Connected Puzzles about Belief
It seems, when we come to consider the notion of responsible belief, we are faced with a puzzle. First, we approve and disapprove of some people’s beliefs, and not just in terms of whether we think they believe truths or falsities, but whether they’ve appropriately arrived at those beliefs. We ask, “How could you believe that?” or “What in the world makes you think so?” And yet we also realize that our beliefs are not up to us, as we, it seems, cannot directly control whether we believe, say, the moon is spherical or water is wet. Now, given that we cannot morally praise or blame people for things they cannot control, it seems we have a problem of sorts. How is it that we can both acknowledge that we don’t have direct control over our beliefs and nevertheless praise or blame people on the basis of their beliefs and the reasons they have for them?
A related puzzle arises for the conditions for belief assessment, good or bad. A longstanding view has been that the judgment of responsible belief is entirely a matter of how well the belief fits the evidence (and only the evidence) at hand. Call this view evidentialism, and there are many concerns about the evidentialist’s stark commitment. There are many beliefs, it seems, we may hold that themselves have little or no evidential backing. They may even run contrary to the evidence. But they may help us be better people. It may be a faith in the goodness of others, an unshakable optimism about our own capacities. And these commitments may, even when unrewarded with successful action or proper treatment by others, still be good attitudes to have, good beliefs that lead to good actions. Call this view pragmatism.
These two puzzles, that whether or not it makes sense to morally assess beliefs and what criteria are appropriate for assessment, are old puzzles, and they constitute the core issues of the problem area of the ethics of belief. The ethics of belief is a domain in the liminal zone between two of philosophy’s historically central, but usually distinct, subject areas: epistemology and ethics. In many ways, the name for the problem area displays the puzzles, as it seems there is a cross-categorical judgment one must make in producing practical or moral judgments about theoretical movements of reason. Moral categories are for actions, theoretical categories are for representations, and these seem, at least on their face, not to overlap. How is the ethics of belief even possible?
2. McCormick’s Two-Part Argument
Miriam McCormick’s project with Believing Against the Evidence is to answer the two puzzles of the ethics of belief. Her book has two parts, each devoted to one of the two problems. McCormick first argues that if we are to normatively assess beliefs, we must determine what beliefs are for. Establishing this “teleological framework” requires that we see what role belief has in a complete human life. For the most part, McCormick is in agreement with the evidentialist’s thought that beliefs aim at truth, so beliefs should be formed with that goal in mind—i.e., on the basis of good evidence. However, she believes that evidentialism’s default role with belief management is due to truth’s “practical value.” Given that there are many reasons that may bear on whether a belief is desirable, given its practical consequences, “it is possible for practical considerations to override the evidential (reasons) in favor of believing it” (31). Two important consequences follow. The first is the purely instrumental value of truth. As McCormick frames it:
If we lived in a world where true beliefs had no benefits, then, in my view, a proposition being true would not count at all in favor of it being believed. (45)
The second consequence is that in cases where believing the truth (or in accord with what the evidence points to as the truth) has bad practical consequences, we are permitted to believe otherwise. In particular, McCormick identifies what she calls “meaning-making beliefs”; exemplary are:
- AIDS patients who did not believe according to the evidence that they have a short life expectancy had longer lives than those who believed according to the evidence.
- Plane crash survivors who hold on to the belief that they will be rescued.
- The belief that one’s child (as opposed to a stranger) is a drug dealer.
- The belief that humans have a greater capacity for love and kindness than evil.
Not all of these meaning-making beliefs are on equal footing, however. Only the last, on McCormick’s view, is permissible without qualification. McCormick characterizes our freedom with regard to these meaning-making beliefs as:
When it comes to questions about . . . what if anything provides meaning or significance in life . . . we have some flexibility in what we can permissibly believe. (56)
Further, McCormick includes what she calls “framework beliefs,” that resist radical skeptical challenge, such as:
- The belief that there is an actual world of external objects
- The belief that one’s children are not automata
Once we have seen the role that belief plays in our living complete lives, McCormick holds, we see that a kind of pragmatism follows, one that puts belief into contact with a flourishing and meaningful life.
To the second puzzle, how it is even possible to normatively evaluate beliefs (which she calls “the puzzle of doxastic responsibility”), McCormick makes the case that, though we do not have direct control over what we believe, we nevertheless are capable of appraising and finding fault with each other’s beliefs. We are responsible for “the mechanisms that issue in evidentially based beliefs” (114). This is first because we can change our first-order beliefs about what we’ve seen, remembered, heard, or inferred, on the basis of reflecting on whether those sources were functioning well under the circumstances. And so, if one discovers that someone believes something on the basis of an acknowledged badly functioning perceptual system, we would think that person is blameworthy. The second reason is that we internalize these practices of holding each other to account, and so we have developed not only those reflective capacities of epistemic (and moral) self-monitoring, but we internalize how others monitor us.
McCormick concludes by noting that because she sees both practical and theoretical norms as eudaimonistic, responsibility for our actions and the character we reveal with them is symmetric with the way we are responsible for our beliefs and the intellectual character we display in assessing, assenting, and maintaining them. “That we correctly hold each other responsible for the views we have about what is true, worthy, and good, reveals that we can exercise control over these central aspects of what we are” (123).
Are Non-Evidentially Based Beliefs Epistemically Evaluable?
In Believing Against the Evidence, Miriam McCormick presents a modest alternative to strict evidentialist views regarding the ethics of belief. These views hold that the norms that govern the practice of believing are strictly evidential. Roughly, our beliefs should track our evidence, and no practical considerations may count in an epistemic evaluation of a belief. McCormick argues, however, that “it is sometimes permissible to violate evidentialist dicta when faced with neutral evidence or no evidence at all” (52). In these instances, it can be permissible to believe without sufficient evidence. I will ultimately argue, however, that McCormick has failed to articulate a non-evidentialist criterion sufficient for epistemic evaluation.
The Evidentialist—Pragmatist Tension
McCormick does not outright defend pragmatism regarding the ethics of belief. Rather, her view is very narrowly construed to cover only a certain class of beliefs that arise under a very special set of circumstances. The very special set of circumstances is when one considers a proposition for which the evidence for its truth is lacking or when the evidence is neutral regarding the truth of the proposition. McCormick, then, does not eschew evidentialism. In fact, she says “if one has evidence that one’s belief is false, and maintains the belief by deliberately ignoring that evidence, then one’s practical belief is impermissible” (52). McCormick, then, seems to be arguing not that it is permissible to believe against the evidence, but rather, that it can be permissible to believe without evidence.
I now want to ask whether McCormick’s view actually gains anything over the evidentialist. Here is, roughly, the contrast that is being drawn by McCormick:
(1) “Any belief formed against the evidence is impermissible.” (1)
(2) “If a belief helps us flourish without being evidentially based, it can be permissible to hold that belief.” (52)
The first claim is, of course, the evidentialist view. The second is McCormick’s. And if the second is correct, then, presumably, the first one cannot be correct. I will argue that, as they’re presented, (1) and (2) are not as incompatible as McCormick suggests. I will argue that the perceived incompatibility stems from a subtle equivocation in the notion of “permissibility” occurring between (1) and (2).
Identifying Impermissible Beliefs
If the evidentialist labels a potential belief as impermissible, she is claiming one of two things. Either that the belief lacks sufficient evidence, or that it just isn’t the kind of mental state that can be subjected to epistemic evaluation. Consider the former claim first. This is just the basic evidentialist idea—beliefs must be proportioned according to one’s evidence. If there is insufficient evidence for p, then believing p will be impermissible. In such circumstances, the potential believer must simply suspend belief. However, the more relevant claim for the ethics of belief is the second claim—that certain mental states should be necessarily excluded from epistemic evaluation. I will argue that this second kind of impermissibility is the type found in (1). But, in (2), McCormick is referring almost exclusively to moral permissibility. And while McCormick may succeed on (2), because of the equivocation, this does not necessarily undermine (1).
Let’s consider a kind of belief McCormick contends lacks sufficient evidence but would nonetheless be permissible to hold: my daughter is not an automaton. Unfortunately, my belief that my daughter is not an automaton “cannot be grounded in evidence” (60). Yet, according to McCormick, “[this belief] is not faulty in any way” (60). So, since this apparent belief is not grounded in evidence, the evidentialist must explain why it would nonetheless be impermissible to hold such an important belief.
The evidentialist could first deny that my belief about my daughter constitutes a belief at all. McCormick, however, rejects this move in chapter 1 and I accept this argument. Thus, the evidentialist must contend with what appears to be a genuine, though evidentially groundless, belief. I think the evidentialist has an out. If this is a genuine belief, then the mere fact that I believe it does not necessarily make it permissible. This is surely not enough to make a belief epistemically appropriate. So, the mere fact that I do believe my daughter is not an automaton does not make it epistemically permissible for me to hold this belief. Thus, whether or not a belief is permissible to hold will depend on there being some independent epistemic criteria for evaluating that belief.
McCormick argues that holding this belief about my daughter would be permissible because it contributes to the overall value of my life. This belief likely allows me to flourish. But this doesn’t seem epistemically helpful. Every belief that contributes to the overall value of my life would then be permissible on this account. The evidentialist would surely insist that McCormick show that this belief could be, in some way, epistemically evaluable. Here, I think, is where the evidentialist will appeal to the second understanding of permissibility discussed above. For a belief to be epistemically evaluable, there must be some epistemic criteria that can be employed to evaluate the belief.
Epistemically Evaluable Beliefs
If a belief is not epistemically evaluable, then even if it may be beneficial to hold for some other reason, it will be nonetheless epistemically impermissible. It could be called a belief, but it would be substantively no different than an emotion. There is no epistemic criteria, for instance, for evaluating the love I have for my daughter. So, even if we could construe that emotion as a belief, this will not make it epistemically evaluable. Thus, if there are no epistemic criteria available to evaluate some particular belief or mental state, then the belief or mental state would simply be out of bounds epistemically. Or simply: impermissible.
McCormick argues that the evidentialist, however, cannot separate epistemic norms from moral norms (chapter 2). The evidentialist, she says, cannot evaluate a belief without linking epistemic value to some other (moral) value. So, the evidentialist cannot simply say that some belief is impermissible on purely epistemic grounds. I have argued, however, that it is possible for the evidentialist to determine what is and is not potentially evaluable. Namely, if there are no independent epistemic criteria for evaluating a belief, then the belief will necessarily be epistemically impermissible. The evidentialist, then, may admit that McCormick is correct about the beliefs that are actually evaluated by the evidentialist. Those beliefs that evidentialism deems appropriate may be appropriate in part because of their furtherance of some other and greater (moral) value. Nonetheless, the evidentialist may still be able to deny that some beliefs (and mental states) are open to epistemic evaluation.
In circumstances in which there is no evidence that points in favor of any particular belief, there can no basis for an epistemic evaluation. Thus, the evidentialist recommends suspending belief in such circumstances. This, however, is not an epistemic evaluation itself. It is a predetermination as to whether the belief in question can actually be subjected to epistemic evaluation, and so is not then subject to McCormick’s attack. To determine whether or not a non-evidentially based belief can be epistemically evaluated is just to ask whether there are some epistemic criteria that can be employed to evaluate such a belief. McCormick, however, supplies no such criteria.
McCormick does claim that moral evaluation can sometimes overtake or stand in for epistemic evaluation. So, for instance, assume that evidence regarding p and ~p is either neutral or insufficient. Assume, however, that I nonetheless believe p for reasons that make believing p good for me as a person. McCormick argues that I could permissibly believe p because it is good for me as a person. But this is not an epistemic evaluation. This is no different than claiming that it’s permissible for me to love my daughter because it will be good for me to do so. And this is not an epistemic criterion.
I have argued that McCormick has plausibly linked epistemic value to some other and greater (moral) value. I have denied, however, that this necessarily makes it impossible for the evidentialist to determine what kinds of beliefs (or mental states) are epistemically evaluable. To the extent that there are no independent epistemic criteria for evaluating non-evidentially based beliefs, the evidentialist can thus appropriately describe such beliefs as impermissible.
McCormick, Miriam. 2015. Believing Against the Evidence: Agency and the Ethics of Belief. New York: Routledge.
Why Do We Value True Beliefs?
In chapter 2 of Believing Against the Evidence, Miriam McCormick argues that truth does not have non-instrumental value. In other words, she argues that truth is not valuable for its own sake: it is only valuable insofar as it leads to some other good. She ultimately argues that the value of a true belief is tied to its practical benefits: “If we lived in a world where true beliefs had no benefits, then, in my view, a proposition being true would not count at all in favor of its being believed” (45).1 She views the value of truth as “tied to what believers value” and denies that truth is valuable when it serves no further purpose (45). In this short commentary, I press McCormick on this view and consider the implications for her account if in fact truth does have non-instrumental value.
My objection to McCormick’s position is a variation of Michael Lynch’s (2005) claim that we cannot properly explain how we care about truth if we appeal only to its instrumental value. Lynch’s notion about truth is that a proper caring about it is something analogous to how we might care about our children. We care about our children for their own sakes and not because of how they help us attain some other good; their value is not dependent on any other value. McCormick responds to Lynch by highlighting the way in which other things we value—self-respect, integrity, authenticity, happiness, and so on—are usually invoked to explain the value of truth. As she rightly points out, the value of truth appears to be instrumental if its value stands or falls with these other values (46–47). After all, if this picture is accurate, then the epistemic value of truth is dependent on non-epistemic value.
I believe, however, that there is a way to capture Lynch’s underlying idea that does not appeal to non-epistemic values. My argument uses the method of reflective equilibrium.2 This method involves trying to explain our considered judgments—those convictions that survive sustained critical reflection under conditions conducive to good reasoning (e.g., no manipulation, an absence of social biases)—in terms of principles that can be unified into a coherent system. A state of perfect coherence among all our theoretical principles and considered judgments is the ideal equilibrium at which the method aims. The argument begins with a considered judgment that I believe virtually everyone shares: truth is valuable.
We then have to determine which account of truth’s value best explains this judgment: an instrumental account or a non-instrumental one. McCormick stresses that true beliefs often have high instrumental value in our daily experiences. Following Kornblith (1993, 2002), she suggests that true beliefs usually have considerable value because they contribute to our ability to achieve our goals, whatever those happen to be. She also expresses skepticism about the value of trivial, instrumentally useless true beliefs (43–44). But I am not sure her points on these matters are ultimately convincing.
We certainly need some true beliefs to pursue our goals, but I am not sure that truth is really so central to their fulfillment as McCormick would suggest. Many people live successful and fulfilling lives despite having worldviews grounded in substantially false belief systems. As one illustration, consider the vast diversity of religious belief. Since religious beliefs vary so much and there is no consensus about which of these worldviews (if any) is correct, it follows that the majority of people have incorrect religious beliefs. This same observation can be made about many other complex belief systems concerning ethical and political matters. Religious, moral, and political beliefs can radically alter the life plans that people pursue. The problem is that flourishing lives take many forms, and it is clearly possible for some people to flourish even when the worldviews that they have based their lives upon are dominantly false. People are also prone to various behaviors, such as self-deception or rationalization, in which they avoid confronting the truth to avoid psychological distress. In these ways, it seems that truth is not as tightly connected to human flourishing as McCormick supposes. Thus, I worry that the value of true beliefs will prove to be much more fragile than McCormick believes.
Additionally, I do not share McCormick’s judgment about seemingly trivial true beliefs. I lean toward the view that all true beliefs are prima facie good to hold but that they may not be good to hold all things considered. There can be cases where the instrumental value of a belief is negative and overrides this non-instrumental goodness (e.g., having true beliefs about how to make nuclear weapons), and there can be cases where the costs of acquiring a true belief are so high that trying to learn the truth is not prudent. But McCormick rejects this picture.
One of her crucial points against the prima facie goodness of true beliefs concerns an analogy between morally good actions and true beliefs. Many morally good actions have prima facie value but are not what one has most reason to do all things considered. As suggested in the prior paragraph, many wish to say something similar regarding true beliefs. McCormick argues that this is mistaken:
I think this analogy, rather than supporting the view that even the most trivial true beliefs have value, actually highlights problems with it. If I had superhuman powers and could help anyone who would benefit from crossing the street without sacrificing other things of importance, I would do it. If the same powers allowed me to acquire beliefs about numbers of threads in carpets, or grains of sand on the beach, it is not at all clear that I would be motivated to employ my powers in such a way. Why is it even prima facie good to believe the most trivial truth? (43–44)
I will admit that McCormick’s remarks here are persuasive at first glance. When a true belief does not clearly contribute to some other good, it seems reasonable to question why it would be even prima facie good to hold that belief. But McCormick’s verdict also follows too quickly. One complication with beliefs is that our brains have a limited cognitive capacity. We might worry that filling our minds with true beliefs that have no practical value will make it more difficult for us to retain those true beliefs that do have practical value. In our day-to-day lives, we usually have to focus on collecting true beliefs that are of practical use to us. But if we suppose in the thought experiment that we have an extraordinarily robust cognitive capacity, I do not share the intuition that there would be nothing gained by using superpowers to acquire these so-called trivial beliefs.
Nevertheless, the question that McCormick poses at the end of her thought experiment needs an answer. What exactly is it that explains why true beliefs have non-instrumental value? McCormick does a commendable job showing that explanations appealing to human flourishing are unlikely to succeed. My alternative proposal is that their non-instrumental value is tied to true beliefs accurately reflecting reality. I believe that most human beings have a strong desire for their understanding of the world to accurately reflect the way that the world actually is. Consider some well-known skeptical hypotheses: my perceptions are all a result of systematic deception by an evil demon, I am actually dreaming and merely imagining all my supposedly real experiences, or I am actually a brain in a vat being fed sense data by an evil scientist to create the illusion of other experiences.3 Were any of these scenarios true, I think it fair to say that it would cause someone a great deal of distress to learn this truth, and it may well not be possible to do anything to change one’s circumstances. But even when it would hinder someone’s flourishing to learn the truth in these scenarios, it does not strike me as obvious that people will generally want to avoid the truth in these scenarios. They might ultimately reason to that conclusion, but I doubt that everyone will have a straightforward intuition that they should not care at all about learning the truth in these scenarios.
The mere fact that some deliberation seems necessary to conclude that we should shun the truth in extreme skeptical scenarios indicates that there must be something about truth that we value beyond its ability to promote our flourishing or make us better off. In these scenarios, learning the truth may impede those goals. So why might we still want to know that our perceptions and beliefs are so thoroughly misguided? The only explanation I can offer is that we think it good for its own sake that we have an accurate perception of the way the world is: even when having an accurate perception of reality makes us unhappy or otherwise hinders our ability to live well, we still recognize that there is something good in having an accurate picture of the world around us. If the value of truth is only instrumental, then it should be clear that the truth ought to be avoided when it lacks instrumental usefulness. But we are often drawn to pursuing the truth even when we believe that what we are likely to learn will make our lives worse. Since there are scenarios where people are still compelled to seek the truth even when true beliefs lack instrumental usefulness, truth must have at least a little non-instrumental value. Or at least, this explanation appears to better capture our considered judgments about pursuing the truth than a merely instrumental account.
Suppose that this non-instrumental account of truth’s value is correct. What follows for McCormick’s view? In some respects, it might not have a huge impact on her position. She describes her anti-evidentialism as “modest” and claims, “Most of the time, if one believes against the evidence, one is doing something wrong” (129). I am inclined to think that exceptions to evidentialism will be rarer on this non-instrumental account than on McCormick’s because the non-instrumental account implies that some value is always lost when one endorses a false belief rather than a true one. But without greater specificity on what McCormick means by “most of the time,” the relative degree to which exceptions to evidentialism are permitted on each account is difficult to determine.
A bigger implication of endorsing a non-instrumental account would be that part of truth’s value is uniquely epistemic in nature. As a result, it would be more plausible for at least some of the norms governing what we ought to believe to be solely epistemic in nature, which would make it more difficult for McCormick to collapse epistemic norms into moral and prudential norms. This result could prove quite significant since a central task in other chapters of Believing Against the Evidence is defending the claim that the ethics of belief is not different from ethics in general—that the same considerations that guide our actions should likewise guide what we should believe and how we should approach epistemic inquiry. For this reason, I believe McCormick needs to provide a stronger argument against the non-instrumental account of truth’s value if she wishes to maintain her overall position.
Descartes, René. 1641 . Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Translated by John Cottingham. Rev. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goodman, Nelson. 1955. Fact, Fiction, and Forecast. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Kornblith, Hilary. 1993. “Epistemic Normativity.” Synthese 94, no. 3: 357–76.
Kornblith, Hilary. 2002. Knowledge and Its Place in Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lynch, Michael. 2005. True to Life: Why Truth Matters. Cambridge: MIT Press.
McCormick, Miriam. 2015. Believing Against the Evidence. New York: Routledge.
Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Putnam, Hilary. 1981. Reason, Truth, and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University Press.
Unless otherwise specified, page numbers refer to those in Miriam McCormick’s (2015) Believing Against the Evidence.↩
Nelson Goodman (1955, 65–68) appears to be the first philosopher to explicitly describe and endorse this method, though Goodman employed it as a means of justifying principles of deductive and inductive inferences. John Rawls (1999, 18–19, 42–45), however, is responsible for popularizing the term.↩
The evil demon and dream hypotheses originate with Descartes (1641). The most well-known presentation of the brain-in-a-vat hypothesis likely comes from Putnam (1981, 5–6).↩
Evidence and Emotion
The governing project within Believing Against the Evidence: Agency and the Ethics of Belief is to give an account for the ways in which individuals develop beliefs that are contrary to evidence. What distinguishes McCormick’s evidentialism from other familiar brands is the foundation of a more pragmatic approach to epistemic concerns. Rather than launching a theory of evidentialism from epistemic ideals or notions of doxastic virtues, McCormick proposes that we begin our inquiry into the ethics of belief with a pragmatic methodology. The utilization of pragmatism, for McCormick, proposes “the opposed view that some non-evidentially based beliefs are permissible and that doxastic norms are not wholly evidential” (1). The approach suggests that we must turn to our doxastic practices in order to more fully grasp the nature of belief and doxastic responsibility. This is a project that not only examines doxastic practices and responsibilities, but it also blurs the lines between ethics and epistemology. McCormick argues strongly for an examination of believing that is not bereft of action or ethical concerns.
While I agree with McCormick’s conclusions that inquiries into our doxastic practices should not and cannot merely operate on an epistemic level and “we cannot believe at will, but we still maintain some activeness within the beliefs that we form,” I am extremely leery with the steps taken to arrive at these conclusions (8–9). The primary focus of this response is in regards to the foundational role of a pragmatic methodology shaping our doxastic responsibilities. When is an individual considered a member within a community which renders them subject to particular doxastic norms? Does one have to recognize themselves as operating within such a space? Must the community at-large identify the individual agent as a member of the community?
The majority of the cases I have in mind are instances involving Trump supporters who view political issues such as Black Lives Matter, Trans Rights, Reproductive Rights, or Immigration Rights as mere ramblings of “political correctness liberals.” That is to say, what I perceive as evidence to support some of these issues, other individuals view the same content to be emoting. I believe such cases of Trump supporters are of the relevant kind to McCormick’s concerns for this book. The views of these supporters are presented as facts—statements of truth pertaining to our external world, some of which offer up “evidence,” be it climate change, immigration, or evolution. It seems that we want to hold them responsible for holding non-evidential beliefs. That believing that climate change is merely change of weather—humans play no role, or “immigrants are stealing American jobs,” or “evolution is an elaborate ruse orchestrated by the devil” is believing badly. McCormick does not cache out an answer to the question “What ought one believe?” in a strictly evidential manner; rather, she relies on pragmatic notions to develop an account of doxastic agency and doxastic responsibility. So in order to determine how we can or if we should hold them responsible, we need to first turn to our doxastic practices already in place. But how do we determine who is in and who is not within our community? If we rely on pragmatic approaches, that is looking to see what the community does, then I believe many problems will arise. My concern is that epistemic oppression will occur, moreover, the people we hope to hold accountable will not be found responsible in a doxastic sense, because “that’s how our society now plays the game” or “they weren’t aware.”
For pragmatist Robert Brandom, in order to qualify as a player, you have to be perceived as a player. If you are not perceived to be playing the game of giving and asking for reasons, then nothing you communicate will be intelligible to an attributor. Members within your community must see you as a member. For Brandom, you are either in or you are out. When I make an assertion and it is recognized by another as an assertion (they grant me entitlement and conceive of me as making a commitment), then I am implicitly being authorized as a “knower.” Brandom states, “When we grant another individual to a commitment and to be entitled to that commitment then we ‘treat the sort of claim involved in asserting as an implicit knowledge claim’” (MIE, 200, emphasis in original). McCormick runs a similar line; however, with a self-reflective Strawsonian twist—i.e., “as seeing an agent as responsible if he is an apt candidate for a reactive attitude” (87n1). McCormick states, “By viewing oneself as an appropriate target for the consequence of a particular mechanism (say, ordinary practical reasoning), one thereby takes responsibility for it and the behavior resulting from it” (112, emphasis my own). When one sees themselves as an “appropriate target” or a particular member within the community that has certain norms of reasoning and reason giving, then one takes up the mantle of responsibility within doxastic practices. McCormick describes such as taking ownership, which “extends to future operations of the mechanism” (112). But what happens when the Trump supporter (1) does not see me as an equal player in the game of giving and asking for reasons; therefore, does not see my evidence qua evidence, or (2) does not see themselves as an appropriate target for particular doxastic responsibilities (or even my reactive attitudes for that matter)?
A quick response to these concerns would be to highlight that one need not view themselves as appropriate targets consciously, that “the ways we react to others and feel about ourselves reveal whether we have taken responsibility for the mechanism in question” (113). An individual’s facial expressions, tone, or body language could help to indicate that they view themselves as appropriate targets for the social rules regarding doxastic responsibility regardless to whether or not they knowingly see themselves as beholden to those rules. If they do not see themselves as responsible on either an intellectual or affective level, then blame becomes very difficult to assign. McCormick states,
[EXT]That some notion of control is in play when assigning blame to beliefs is reinforced if we consider when and why we mitigate such blame. If you cannot make your higher order judgments effective about how you ought to believe, there is a sense in which your belief is no longer your own; you are divided and over powered. I would blame you less if you really are compelled to believe against your better judgment. (114)[/EXT]
If we use the example of a racist Trump supporter, it is very plausible that the only frame of reference they have is one that is laden with racial ignorance.
As Strawson notes, we tend to attribute ignorance to those who “didn’t mean to,” “didn’t realize,” “didn’t know,” “weren’t aware,” “couldn’t help it,” or “had no alternative frame of reference” (7–8). How can we engage with racist agents who find the communication of and reasons for particular evidence intelligible? If we are to take up these excusing conditions, then we are unable to account for such individuals, and these seem to be the very individuals that we hope to be able to blame for believing badly. But McCormick argues that we are more likely to blame them less if “the belief isn’t really their own.”
One could say that such an ignorance is actively willful, which would not fall under McCormick’s exceptions. That it involves a hermeneutical lack; however, it is not a conceptual gap in the sense in which Miranda Fricker describes where the conceptual tools are lacking within a society at large for individuals to accurately understand particular wrongdoings (1). Gaile Pohlhaus Jr. offers an account of willful hermeneutical ignorance where “marginally situated knowers actively resist epistemic domination through interaction with other resistant knowers, which dominantly situated knowers nonetheless continue to misunderstand and misinterpret the world” (716). Resources are made available by the marginalized groups; however, dominantly situated knowers still actively possess and maintain hermeneutical gaps. However, I am not so sure that individuals are actively being ignorant within their meta frameworks. I believe resources such as testimonial experiences, scientific data, and academic theories are at the individual’s disposal and the individual has the capacity to distinguish between varying degrees of evidential justification; however, these resources are not seen as resources. They are either unintelligible or seen as emotive nonsense. Nonetheless, the individual still remains ignorant about a particular epistemic object. José Medina describes this phenomenon as meta-level ignorance which is “produced by meta-attitudes that limit our abilities to identify and correct our ignorance about others” (149). He situates such an ignorance as a passive first-order ignorance, which is the realm McCormick is concerned with regarding doxastic blame.
McCormick contends that if an individual, such as a racist Trump supporter, should consistently find themselves in a position where their beliefs are being shown as incorrect, then they should correct the reasoning that is causing them to believe badly. “If I find this mechanism is regularly leading me astray, something is wrong with me; it is not appropriate for me to insist ‘but these beliefs result from perception over which I lack control and so it is not my fault that I keep forming false beliefs’” (115). But this approach requires that the racist Trump supporter first recognize that they are believing badly as opposed to everyone else just spewing liberal propaganda. As Benjamin Sherman notes, it is not necessarily “obvious that we are equipped to directly identify correct credibility judgments, if our pre-reflective faculties of judgment are biased” (14). McCormick stresses that there is a presumption that we check to make sure our reasoning mechanisms are not going awry; however, this is on the assumption that individuals such as the racist Trump supporter views particular players within their epistemic sphere as reliable knowers. If they are prone to view assertions from Black Lives Matters activists as mere emoting, then they will be unable to see their mechanism as failing.
I am very sympathetic to the overall project within this book. The twisting and fabrication of “facts” within this most recent presidential election cycle should raise several alarms for those of us who work in epistemology. However, I do not believe that a pragmatic driven methodology to work out doxastic responsibility will yield results we find to be satisfying. With a pragmatic approach, the community becomes the barometer of the practices. And within this epistemic climate, I find that troubling. Issues arise when assertions are being made, but for prejudicial reasons, lack of intelligibility, or hermeneutical resources the hearer/attributer does not see the speaker/asserter as making assertions, but is instead taken to merely be expressing, which bears no epistemic capital. Moreover, if we rely on a more second-personal standpoint, or Strawsonian conception of responsibility, then I highly doubt those we hope to hold responsible will in the end see themselves as responsible.
Berenstein, Erica, Nick Corasaniti, and Ashley Parker. 2016. “Unfiltered Voices from Donald Trump’s Crowds.” New York Times, August 3, 2016. Video, 3:11. http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000004533191/unfiltered-voices-from-donald-trump-crowds.html?smprod=am®ion=img. Accessed December 21, 2016.
Brandom, Robert. 1994. Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.
Fricker, Miranda. 2009. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McCormick, Miriam Schleifer. 2015. Believing Against the Evidence: Agency and the Ethics of Belief. Routledge: New York.
Medina, José. 2013. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Pohlhaus Jr., Gaile. 2014. “Discerning the Primary Epistemic Harm in Cases of Testimonial Injustice.” Social Epistemology: A journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy. 28:2, 99–114.
Sherman, Benjamin R. 2015. “There’s No (Testimonial) Justice: Why Pursuit of a Virtue Is Not the Solution to Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy, online, 1–22.
Strawson, Peter. 1974. “Freedom and Resentment.” In Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays. Methuen: London.
 The New York Times featured a video containing unfiltered commentary from Trump supporters at his political rallies. Some of the comments included “The safest place in the world to be is at a Trump rally” and “Muslim is not a religion partner, it is an ideology” (Berenstein, Corasaniti, and Parker, 2016).
 McCormick states, “It is not the religious beliefs that I find disturbing or bizarre; these are familiar enough when living in one of the most deeply religious countries in the world. Rather, it is when highly contentious views are presented as facts that I am amazed. Listeners are told there is no evidence at all for human-caused climate change, that there are no similarities between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, and that the theory of evolution contradicts basic laws of nature” (xi, emphasis in original).
One of the most significant contributions of Miriam McCormick’s book is the claim that belief does not require its own separate ethics, and McCormick gives an excellent case against there being a doxastic or epistemic normativity to which we must appeal when assessing the (im)permissibility of a belief. She also persuasively argues that belief is not as intimately tied to truth as many have supposed in the literature, and that the evolutionary purpose of belief is more complex and varied than truth. On these points, among others, I agree with McCormick, and on these points alone, her book represents a serious and compelling contribution to the literature on the nature of belief.
In this short piece I focus on McCormick’s discussion of transparency, making two points with respect to it. First, McCormick’s explanation of transparency which appeals to the desires of believers does not work, since the phenomenon goes further than any interest of a subject that could be endorsed in deliberation over what to believe. Second, McCormick’s cases do not show that transparency does not always hold, and this is important for the account of doxastic control she develops later in the book.
1. Permissibility and Possibility
Before we turn to transparency, let us go over some claims McCormick makes about what is permissible and what is possible when deliberating over what to believe. McCormick claims that the truth of a proposition does not always count in favour of believing it (6), and that it is permissible to violate evidentialist dicta when faced with neutral or no evidence (52). I am not going to take issue with such claims being merely about what is permissible to believe, since I agree with McCormick that (insofar as we can think of beliefs as being permissible or impermissible), there is no reason that it should always be impermissible to violate evidentialist dicta, and thus, the truth of a proposition does not always count in favour of believing it.
However, I take issue with these claims as claims about what is possible in deliberation. I agree that the truth of a proposition does not always count in favour of believing it, and I agree that there is nothing in the nature of belief which speaks against this. However, my view is that it is impossible for us to fail to treat the truth of a proposition as counting in favour of believing it in deliberation over what to believe. So, though I might note that the truth of the medication will not cure my illness does not count in favour of believing it (if I also know that positive thinking can have a positive effect on health), if, in deliberation over what to believe, I answer the question whether it is true that the medication will not cure my illness in the positive, I cannot but both treat that as a reason to believe, and, also, go ahead and believe.
McCormick also makes some claims which are more straightforward about what is possible in deliberation over what to believe. She says that it is possible to form a belief even when one’s recognized evidential reasons do not support it, and that non-alethic considerations can be a part of doxastic deliberation (27). What we should understand by such considerations being a part of deliberation is important, and to be discussed below (§2.2). She also claims that when evidence is neutral, freedom is involved in what we believe (56), that reasoning is not centered just on the truth of a proposition but on what would be best to believe (111), and that practical advantages can override the disvalue of false beliefs (50n18). It is these claims, about what is possible in doxastic deliberation that I will discuss in what follows.
Transparency is the putative fact that “when asking oneself whether to believe that p” one must “immediately recognize that this question is settled by, and only by, answering the question whether p is true” (Shah 2003: 447). I am going to frame the discussion here in terms of transparency since, though McCormick mentions it explicitly only a few times in the book (26–27; 30; 110–11), it is clear that much of what she says about doxastic deliberation speaks to the question of whether and why transparency holds.
Importantly, proponents of transparency do not deny that non-alethic factors can play a role in the fixation of beliefs, their claim is only that “one cannot deliberatively, and in full awareness…let one’s beliefs be guided by anything but truth” (Steglich-Petersen 2006: 503). So though the formation of beliefs may well be influenced by non-alethic factors, they are not acknowledged as reasons to believe. It is on this point that McCormick challenges proponents of transparency, and that I reply on their behalf.
2.1 McCormick’s Explanation
McCormick denies that transparency holds as a matter of conceptual truth about belief but goes on to say that she does not deny that “deliberating about whether to believe something is often the same as questioning whether it is true” (30, my emphasis). So she seeks to give an explanation of transparency at a reduced strength (that is, as contingently characterizing the belief formation of actual world believers, and as not always doing so). Though I agree that transparency is a contingent feature of belief, I disagree with McCormick’s claim that it does not always characterize the doxastic deliberation of actual-world believers, a point I will take up in the next section.
Before that, let us turn to McCormick’s explanation of transparency. She claims that transparency can be explained by appeal to the interest we have in our beliefs being true (30–31). Nishi Shah objects to such an account on the grounds that though it can explain truth’s relevance in deliberation over what to believe, it cannot explain truth being dominant in such deliberation (Shah 2006: 490). In response, McCormick draws on Hilary Kornblith’s claim that insofar as one has goals, one has a reason to care about one’s beliefs being true (Kornblith 1993: 161, cited in McCormick 2015: 31). She takes it that this “general interest” in truth is enough to explain transparency (31).
I have argued elsewhere (Sullivan-Bissett 2017b) that an appeal to an agent’s intentions or desires cannot explain transparency. My discussion there takes place in the context of the teleological account of belief, according to which it is necessary to belief that it aims at truth, and this aim is realized in the intentional aims of the believer. Though McCormick disagrees with this characterization of what is necessary to belief (21–23), her explanation of transparency is similar to that given by this account. Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen has argued that transparency in doxastic deliberation can be explained “by the aim one necessarily adopts” in asking oneself the question whether to believe that p “because the only considerations that could decide whether believing p would further promote that aim are considerations that bear on whether p is true” (Steglich-Petersen 2008: 546). However, if belief had an aim, then given that aims are by their very nature weighable (Owens 2003), other considerations could weigh into the deliberation which results in the fixation of belief. Transparency though is the immediate and non-inferential collapsing of one question into another, and so it cannot be an aim which explains this.
What is especially interesting about McCormick’s position is that such a line of attack will not work, because she allows for the possibility of other aims or desires entering deliberation over what to believe. Where the evidence is neutral or absent, she thinks one can be permitted (and presumably it is possible to) go ahead and believe for non-alethic reasons. The above objection to explaining transparency by appeal to believers’ interests then has not yet gotten a grip.
However, we only have to change the point a little to see that even on McCormick’s account—with her freedom to believe for non-alethic reasons under certain conditions—cannot withstand this kind of worry. If it were my interest in believing truly which explained why I moved from whether to believe that p to whether p is true in deliberation over what to believe, I ought to be able to ignore that interest or prioritize a different interest, especially as McCormick thinks that this is possible in cases of neutral or absent evidence. However, consider the following case: I offer you one billion pounds to believe that I am seven feet tall. You can see me, and so you have very good evidence that I am not seven feet tall, indeed, I am probably not even very close to six feet tall. So this is not a case where the evidence for the proposition is absent. Nor is it a case where the evidence is neutral, since you have no reasons to think that I really am seven feet tall and that you might be undergoing a visual illusion. So we are not in one of the cases where McCormick thinks it is permissible (and possible) to go ahead and believe, and indeed, she notes that it is not possible to believe that p when one takes p to be false (56).
However, if it were an interest in truth that explained the nature of deliberation over what to believe, in a case such as this, you ought to be able to go ahead and believe that I am seven feet tall. But you cannot do this, as McCormick notes when she says that we cannot believe for money (57). This claim occurs in the context of a discussion about what is required for control, McCormick’s point here is that not being able to believe for money does not speak against our being able to believe for practical reasons. That might be right. But my point here is that it is implausible that a subject’s general interest in having true beliefs could always trump her interest in, for example, being hugely rich.
2.2 McCormick’s Cases
McCormick offers some cases which she claims are ones in which the subject believes for non-alethic reasons, and therefore transparency does not always hold. I will suggest that where non-alethic considerations look to be playing a role in affecting what the subject believes, they do so by changing the standards required for believing in a particular context, they do not do so by providing non-alethic reasons for believing, which are considered as such from the deliberative perspective. This characterization of such cases preserves transparency.1
I do not deny that a subject can take some pragmatic factor to be a reason for believing in one sense. For example, consider a subject offered a huge financial prize for believing something for which the evidence in support and against it is closely balanced. I think that such a subject could recognize that the prize represents excellent reason for belief, and that if she could cause herself to believe, then she would have reason to do so. I only deny—and McCormick endorses—that the subject could note that the prize represents excellent reason for believing, when deliberating over whether to believe, and that she could respond to that as a reason to believe.
Let us look then to cases which McCormick takes to be cases of believing for practical reasons. One such case comes from Carl Ginet:
McCormick suggests that there is no reason, other than some assumed view of the nature of reasons, not to take Sam to be treating the practical considerations in this case as reasons to believe that the defendant is innocent.2
Another kind of case is that of so-called meaning making beliefs, for example, survivors of a plane crash believing that they can live (against overwhelming evidence suggesting that they cannot). McCormick notes that in cases like this we should excuse believers, even if some of such cases might result in pernicious believing (55). Other beliefs of this kind include those about what provides meaning in life or what happens after death. In such cases, when the evidence is neutral, McCormick claims that there is some freedom in our beliefs on these matters, and it is permissible to believe for practical reasons.
Finally, consider also beliefs about loved ones. Drawing on discussion by Sarah Stroud (2006), McCormick suggests that believing well of a friend may well involve ignoring or suppressing evidence, and would thus be a case of pernicious believing (though again, perhaps excusable). In cases where the evidence is closely balanced though, McCormick claims that, providing the motive is good (feelings of love and generosity), believing good of one’s loved one is permissible (61).3
Though McCormick considers a number of explanations offered by Shah of these putative cases of believing for practical reasons which preserve transparency, there is an alternative route for the transparency proponent to take in light of such cases. She could (and, I think, should) say that in cases like these practical considerations are not being treated by the subject as reasons to believe in doxastic deliberation. Rather, these considerations function to modify the standards for sufficient evidence required for belief, and not as reasons for the subject to go ahead and believe.
We should prefer this explanation, since such an account would also have the resources to accommodate our not being able to believe for monetary reward. After all, as mentioned earlier, McCormick herself notes that we cannot believe something if we think it is false (56). Also, as has already been noted, it is open to the friend of transparency to allow non-alethic factors to play a role in the fixation of a belief, this is something all sides of the debate recognize (indeed, deliberation being transparent to truth considerations does not even rule out that the subject could note that such a thing is going on! [Archer 2015: 11–12]).
So an alternative account of these cases might look something like this: when there is practical cost or benefit at stake, one’s standards for belief are altered, but the reasons which motivate going ahead and believing are purely alethic. Practical considerations can affect a subject’s standard for being a believer, without those considerations functioning as reasons for which the subject goes ahead and believes from the deliberative perspective.
It is important then to distinguish practical reasons for believing, and the influence of non-alethic considerations on standards for belief. Once we do that, it is very much up for grabs to describe McCormick’s cases as ones which do in fact exhibit transparency. They are cases in which non-alethic considerations change what the subject requires as sufficient evidence to form a belief, and not as cases in which such considerations function as reasons for belief from the deliberative perspective.
It might be thought that the way we describe these cases is immaterial; why should we worry whether these practical considerations enter deliberation as reasons for belief, as McCormick suggests, rather than merely change the evidence required to be a believer, as I suggest? We should worry because how these cases get described matters for the work which comes later in the book. In particular, McCormick’s account of doxastic responsibility is based on the idea of guidance control, and this kind of control requires reasons-responsiveness in deliberation over what to believe (112). This means that if practical considerations change the standards required to be a believer across contexts, and are not reasons to which the deliberator can respond in forming beliefs, then we do not have the kind of doxastic control McCormick claims that we do. So it matters for McCormick’s project that she shows that her way of characterizing these cases is the correct way of doing so. I think she has not yet shown this.
I have raised two points about McCormick’s work on transparency in doxastic deliberation. First, her explanation of the phenomenon falls short, since it is implausible that our interest in truth could trump other interests in certain cases. Second, McCormick has not shown that transparency does not always characterize doxastic deliberation, the cases she suggests as examples of non-transparent doxastic deliberation are better understood in a transparency-preserving way.
I acknowledge the support of the European Research Council (Grant agreement: 616358) for funding the research of which this is a part.
Archer, Sophie. 2015. “Defending Exclusivity.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. doi: 10.1111/phpr.12268.
Ginet, Carl. 2001. “Deciding to Believe.” In Steup, Matthuas (ed.), Knowledge, Truth, and Duty: Essays on Epistemic Justification, Responsibility, and Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 63–76.
Kornblith, Hilary. 1993. “Epistemic Normativity.” Synthese. Vol. 94, no. 3, pp. 357–76.
McCormick, Miriam. 2015. Believing Against the Evidence: Agency and the Ethics of Belief. New York: Routledge.
McHugh, Conor. 2012. “Beliefs and Aims.” Philosophical Studies. Vol. 160, no. 3, pp. 425–39.
McHugh, Conor. 2013. “The Illusion of Exclusivity.” European Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 1117–36.
Owens, David. 2003. “Does Belief Have an Aim?” Philosophical Studies. Vol. 115, no. 3, pp. 283–305.
Shah, Nishi. 2003. “How Truth Governs Beliefs.” Philosophical Review. Vol. 112, no. 4, pp. 447–82.
Shah, Nishi. 2006. “A New Argument for Evidentialism.” Philosophical Quarterly. Vol. 56, no. 225, pp. 481–98.
Steglich-Petersen, Asbjørn. 2006. “No Norm Needed: On the Aim of Belief.” Philosophical Quarterly. Vol. 56, no. 225, pp. 449–516.
Steglich–Petersen, Asbjørn. 2008. “Does Doxastic Transparency Support Evidentialism?” Dialectica. Vol. 62, no. 4, pp. 541–47.
Stroud, Sarah. 2006. “Epistemic Partiality in Friendship.” Ethics. Vol. 116, no. 3, pp. 498–524.
Sullivan-Bissett, Ema. 2017a. “Aims and Exclusivity.” European Journal of Philosophy. doi: 10.1111/ejop.12183.
Sullivan-Bissett, Ema. 2017b. “Explaining Doxastic Transparency: Aim, Norm, or Function?” Synthese. doi: 10.1007/s11229-017-1377-0.
Elsewhere I have argued in a similar away against Conor McHugh’s claim (2012; 2013) that exclusivity to truth does not characterize deliberation (Sullivan-Bissett 2017a).↩
However, towards the end of the book, in considering more of Ginet’s cases, McCormick suggests that such cases are not, after all, cases of deciding to believe. Rather they are cases of deciding to act a certain way, and belief then follows (80–82).↩
I think that the case of different doxastic treatment of loved ones muddies the water, discussion here is complicated by the idea that the relationship itself might be evidence of the friend’s or loved one’s good standing (Archer 1015: 8n11). Also, McCormick does not talk here of practical reasons for believing, but rather talks of motives stemming from “feelings of love and generosity” (61).↩