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A dubious internalist assumption

Notes on:
Matthias Steup, “A Defense of Internalism”

Steup takes “internalism to be the view that J-factors [things that make beliefs justified or not] must be directly recognizable, that is recognizable on reflection.” The idea is that if one has available now, or could deduce from what is available now, information to justify a belief then one is indeed justified in having it. The justifying information may be a priori (rules of deduction, concepts) or introspective (memory).

The temporal indexical “now” marks two different questions. Suppose the issue was what I had for breakfast, the two questions would be:

1. Am I justified in believing I had cornflakes for breakfast?
2. Did I have cornflakes for breakfast?

The first could be answered without any appeal to external information. But if I asked someone else to corroborate what I had for breakfast, I would be trying to answer the second question. The first one can be answered on the basis of what I know or can justifiably believe now. No further investigation is needed.

J-factors would include wishful thinking (tending to disqualify) and undefeated perceptual experience (tending to affirm), but the reliability of cognitive processes (dear to the reliabilist species of externalist), for example, would not be included because these may not always be assessed on reflection.

Steup draws an analogy between epistemic and moral justification: What is epistemically permissible, like what is morally permissible, is something for which one cannot justly be blamed. And likewise there may be epistemic duties, just as moral duties.

Steup, thus, alludes to a point made by Linda Zagzebski that “responsibility and duty fulfillment require direct recognizability.” Supposedly, “No one defends the view that what makes an action morally justified or unjustified is something the agent cannot directly recognize.”

[I argue, in fact, that no less a moral theoretician than Kant held such a view. Kant made it a requirement of the knowledge that a moral act had occurred that its true motivation be transparent. The only correct motivation was a feeling, viz, respect for the moral law… (Not to be confused with its objective criteria spelled out in the categorical imperative.) This, right from the start, disqualifies external observers and places a burden on an internalist conception of knowledge. But at the same time he cited so many practical obstacles to self-transparency (most critically, the possibility, even probability, of self-deception) on the part of the agent—so many and so practically insurmountable that when all is said and done Kant was driven to confess repeatedly that for all he knew not a single moral act had ever occurred in human history. Theoretically, nothing stands in the way of such knowledge, but there are enormous presumptions against it, stemming from the fact that the only qualified judges of it are, at the same time, the least qualified because they cannot help being the most self-interested. And note that this is not ordinary self-interestedness but that of the highest kind available to humans, according to Kant: the interest in being moral. (Note to myself: look up the citation in Steup’s note 4: Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp 41ff.)

Does the judgment that an action is morally worthy (something unknowable in the strict Kantian sense), require knowledge that it is morally justified? Is there any connection between moral worthiness and justification? Moral justification is often so rigged as to make it accessible by definition in the interest of salvaging responsibility. When that happens, the less effable concept of worthiness is forced to pick up the slack. But this is an embarrassment which mobilizes resistance.

I have argued elsewhere that the concepts of sincerity and honesty are radically different. The former is amoral, almost transcendental. Honesty has a more common sensical claim to ethical significance. But if this is true, it is so only under the auspices of a very non-Kantian moral scheme. This is so because judgments of honesty are amenable to, if not defined by, empirically accessible justification of a sort that does no work in any assessment of sincerity. One need only not lie to be considered honest. To be sincere is another matter. (I mention this because the problem, noticed by Kant, reappears in concepts taken from ordinary language. It is not just a problem internal to his theory.)

We are forced to conclude that the impossibility of self-transparency precludes the success of internalist theories of knowledge, at least where the stakes are highest. Or, as I suspect what motivates many externalists, they lose patience with the transcendentalism involved in the effort and assert that the stakes are never that high. One fails to solve a real problem, the other denies it is there.]

Posted by luno in epistemology, Moral Consciousness, Deontology, Kant (Friday December 23, 2005 at 2:54 pm)

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