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Deontology in epistemology: some confusions

Linda Zagzebski1 maintains that theories in epistemology have parallels in ethics. She holds that theories in normative epistemology are either deontological or reliabilsts. She also holds that deontological theories in epistemology are analogous with deontological theories in ethics and relaibislist theories in epistemology are analogous with consequentialist theories in ethics. Zagzebski thinks that Sosa’s theory is a combination of deontology and consequentialism2. Zagzebski notes that deontological and consequentialist theories in ethics are act based and analogous theories in epistemology are belief based. All the theories in epistemology are modelled on either deontological or consequentialist theories in ethics. Virtue ethics seems to have advantages over other ethical theories. Zagzebski thinks that an epistemology which is modelled on virtue ethics might have similar advantages over other epistemological theories.

Zagzebski thinks that deontolgical theories and consequentialist theories in epistemology ask the following question.

Deontology: Does the belief violate any epistemic rules or any epistemic duty? Is the belief epistemically permissible within one’s epistemic right?

Consequentialism: Was the belief formed by a reliable process for obtaining truth?

It is not clear to me that how major theories in epistemology and accounts of knowledge provided by them can fall under deontology as Zagzebski claims it to be. I am not sure that what would it mean to say that one violates epistemic rules or duty.

Epistemic rule: is epistemic rule the rule to be followed for forming a belief? If it is, it is doubtful whether belief formation takes place always in a rule following way. It is also doubtful whether belief formation to be rule bounded is important for any epistemic reasons. Let me elaborate the point. Let us consider the way a scientist holds a theory. First a hypothesis is formed. The formation of the hypothesis may not be a rule based one. (S)he might have got it from her/his dream. Arguably, (s)he believes in the hypothesis which (s)he got from her dream. One might object that the scientist does not believe in the hypothesis until (s)he test the hypothesis and get some evidence in favour of the hypothesis. But one might think that it is a too stringent characterisation of the term belief. The fact that the scientist put the hypothesis in to test shows that (s)he thinks that it is possible/likely to be for the hypothesis to be true. That means that the scientist has some degree if belief in the hypothesis prior to the testing of the hypothesis. Further suppose that the scientist is not holding the belief because of any evidence (h)he has for the hypothesis. (S)he holds it because of her/his optimism. Hence the belief formation need not follow any epistemic rule. What makes it knowledge would be this hypothesis being justified and being true. The availability of justification might increase the degree of belief of the scientist, but that is not how (s)he formed the belief. So in forming the belief (s)he has not followed any epistemic rule but still she can have knowledge. I don’t think that norms in epistemology are to be understood as providing rules for belief formation. Norms in epistemology looks more like norms for the evaluation of the belief (once the belief is formed). If this is the way the ‘rule’ mentioned by Zagzebski is to be understood it is not clear that which theory in epistemology she is referring to.

Another way to understand the epistemic rule might be as follows. One follows certain rules (such as having justification) in holding a belief (not forming the belief). Though no rule is followed in forming the belief certain rules are followed or not violated in sticking to the belief. The scientist is keep believing the theory since there is evidence for her to believe it. So her holding that belief does not violate the rule that one should have an evidence for the belief one holds. If this is the way rule is to be understood, I think there is a point.

Epistemic duty: It is not clear to me that how is the notion of epistemic duty important in theories in epistemology. Discussions on ethics of belief talks about epistemic duty, but it is not clear whether the notion has any role to play in the majority of the discussions in epistemology. Majority of the discussions in epistemology attempts to evaluate one’s belief. The point is that if one’s belief satisfies certain criteria it is knowledge. It is not clear that how the notion of duty will come in there. To bring in the notion of duty, it seems to me, one will have to bring in assumptions which traditional epistemology does not seem to hold. One such assumption will be that one ought to pursue knowledge. Then not violating epistemic rules will become one’e duty. Another way to present the duty may be as follows. It is one’s duty for not to violate the epistemic rule that one ought to have justification for one’s beliefs if one is interested in the pursuit of knowledge. It becomes a duty only if one is interested in pursuing knowledge. Hence it is optional and does not look like a deontological theory unless one add a further condition that it one ought to pursue knowledge. Epistemology does not seem to make such demands. Hence it is not clear that how the notion epistemic duty applies to traditional epistemology as Zagzebski claims.

John Greco3 also seems to think that deontology is pervasive in epistemology. It is not clear whether he agrees with Zagzebski in claiming that who of epistemology can be classified as deontology and consequentialist. Greco presents deontological theories in epistemology as follows.

Weak deontology D(W): S’s belief that p has knowledge relevant normative status if and only if S’s belief violates no correct cognitive rule.

Strong deontology D(S): S’s belief that p has knowledge relevant normative status if and only if S’s belief is governed by correct cognitive rules; i.e. S’s belief is the result of following such rules.

Strong deontology characterised by Greco holds that they provide rules for belief formation. It is not clear whether theories in epistemology (other than discussions on the ethics of belief) provide rules for belief formation. It seems to me that theories in epistemology provide criteria for the evaluation of the belief.

Greco criticise D(W) for the following reason. He argues that it does not satisfy the normative status that knowledge requires. He argues that it is possible that one has reason for what one believes but that is not the reason why (s)he believes it. In such cases the belief fails to have the sufficient normative status which knowledge requires.

He critics D(S) for the following reason. He thinks that it is possible that some of the cognitive processes are not rule governed. He argues in the following way. Suppose that perception is not rule governed4. Still we will hold that the perception is a proper source of knowledge. He argues that this shows that to have knowledge one’s belief need not be governed by cognitive rules.

It is not clear to me whether the ‘cognitive rule’ which Greco mentioned is the same as the ‘epistemic rule’ which Zagzebski talks about. Let us suppose it is. When one forms a belief through perception one is having a justified belief. It may be argued that one’s belief formation is governed by the epistemic rule called believing on the basis of justification. That would mean that though the perception is not a rule governed process the belief one forms through perception is governed by some epistemic rules. However it is not clear whether most theories in epistemology is deontological in this strong sense.

1Zagzebski (1996)

2 Zagzebski thinks that Sosa’s theory has a consequentialist element since he characterises intellectual virtue in terms of is quality of being able to increase the surplus of truth over error.

3Greco (2010)pp.17-46

4 He points out that the connectionist model in cognitive science suggests such a possibility.

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