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February 24, 2010


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I don't see that you've told us what the fourth condition is. (Though I can make an educated guess.) Would you mind editing the post to make it explicit?

Great point. Somehow I seemed to have failed to cut and paste the whole text from Word. Will edit the text immediately.

Done. Sorry about this.

Hi Jussi, nice post.

It seems to me that this social deliberation view could be made true in the following way: if we view the normative facts about what you have reason to do as a kind of intersubjective facts about what the norms generally accepted in your community instruct you to do. This could explain why thinking about normative questions in social settings could help you to figure out you have reason to do since you could get a sense of what these social norms are by seeing what kinds of things people around you approve of etc.

But, I suspect, knowing you, that this is not your view, and it is also not, as you know, my view. So, I wonder what exactly the social part does.

Here are two things, which may or may not be part of what you have in mind: first, in social settings we are sometimes/often challenged to defend our views about things, which can cause us to think harder about why exactly it is that we hold these views, which might then make us less comfortable about some of them, more comfortable about others.

Second, in discussion with others, we can come to think of things we otherwise wouldn't have attended to since we needed other people to bring the relevant considerations to our attention. The range of considerations we will reflect on, in other words, is likely to be more limited when we do our normative reflecting on our own, as compared to when we do it together with others.

Are these the kinds of things you have in mind, or are there further features you think that social settings have that settings in which we engage in reflection in private lack?

I'm unclear about the role of consensus in your view. Is it valuable because it helps tracking the objective reasons we have to believe that p (a kind of Condorcet's jury theorem), or is because consensus adds something (gives a reason, or strengthens the reason) we have to believe that p?

Thanks Sven.

First, the first point is true. If some kind of normative relativism was true, then there would be an easy explanation of reliability of belief-formation methords that generate consensus. But, you are right, I don't accept that view. I'm assuming that there is some set of objective normative facts. If there were such facts, then there would also be non-relativistic facts about which social belief-formation methods were reliable. We might not know those facts any more than we do the normative facts.

I was thinking that the sociality of normative epistemology runs deeper especially in the moral realm. This kind of counter-factuals are hard to verify, but I'm not sure if on our own we even would have normative beliefs (at least not very many of them). We come to learn our normative ways of thinking through education, and what normative beliefs we have greatly depends on our upbringing. So our intuitions about what normative truths seem certain under conditions 1-3 are shaped by the social process. Of course we can come to reject the views of our society but this too seems to depend on our upbringing. So, maybe I'm thinking that normative beliefs have a social origin through and through and for this reason, how the society has formed its normative beliefs matters for how justified our beliefs are. Even when the individual assesses the justification for their beliefs about reasons, this process is shaped by their social setting.

But, you are also right that there are many other epistemic advantages at least with respect to some valuable social methods of forming normative beliefs. One is the availability of alternative views and considerations offered in support of them. I much like what Mill says about this in On Liberty.

I also like the second point you make and I did have this in mind. Whatever beliefs we have about reasons will have consequences on what kind of standpoints are created for others in their lives. So, we do need input from those standpoints for assessing out beliefs about reasons. I think the Kantian ideal that we can work the morality out in principle as lone individuals have to mistaken for this reason. I wish I'd read more Habermas on this point.


that's a good question. I'm thinking that consensus per se does not matter with respect to justification. This is because if the consensus results from brainwashing, violance, or adding individuals who individually were not justified in their normative beliefs, then no justification is given for the beliefs.

Yet, I want to say that the intuition that there is some sense in which people in consensus can be more justified in holding their beliefs. Sometimes the consensus can have been formed by epistemically valuable processes. And, it is those processes that give justification.

Of course, these processes can have been the grounds for some beliefs even when there still is disagreement in the community, and that's fine. Disagreement itself seems to be part of the valuable belief-formation process of open dialogue. The perhaps overly optimistic hope I had was that there is rather more agreement once the whole process has been run for a sufficient time.


I wonder why you pick out social reliabilism as the key feature here, rather than reliabilism as such. After all, the salient factor for reliable social belief-formation seems to be that they tend to produce accurate results. The method of obtaining those beliefs is social in nature, but why is that more important than *any* reliable method of coming to certain beliefs? (e.g., reflection conducted in a way that tends to get at the truth) Such would still be a significant departure from the Crispwick framework, which has no reference as presented to objective normative truths. In other words, why not have as the fourth condition that the process of belief-formation be reliable, and social belief-formation (of the third, non-brainwash/sword kind) is an example of one such reliable process?

Right. Maybe I was looking for something between the options you seem to be offering. I think I want to argue first that:

1) Normative belief-formation processes of even individuals are inherently social in their nature. Even if you think of normative questions really hard on your own, your starting position, the relevant considerations available for you for and against different views, how you are disposed to react to these considerations are all determined by (i) your current social environment, and (ii) your education which dependent on what kind of views were available for your parents in their social environment.


2) This means that the reliability of how you form your normative beliefs depends on how reliable the social environment around you is in forming its views.

I could then accept your suggestion that
3) only reliability of the belief-formation matters. But, given 2), this depends on the reliability of the social process.

It is interesting though that intuitionists tend to combine internalist epistemology to robust metaphysical facts (though Crisp is more reserved about this). I've always wondered about this. If you already buy the facts, why not use them in epistemology? I think Russ Shafer-Landau does exactly this if I remember this right.

Also, come to think of it, I wanted to emphasise the social aspect because I do think that consensus matters but not all kinds of consensus. So, I wanted to have a view that can explain this. If I have a view that relies merely on reliability of the individuals belief-formation process, then it is hard to make sense of why consensus matters in any sense.


A couple of thoughts. First, it seems to me that your view as stated lends itself to a Harman-style skepticism about normative reasons. If the whole explanation of normative beliefs can be traced to upbringing and socialization, why not leave it there and dispense with normative facts?

Second, it seems to me that one way normative justifications are social, or society-dependent, is that many norms are about living together in society. Furthermore, one thing that humans in society do together is reason together about how to live together, and so there is a role for norms in creating a society in which we can reason together about the social norms we’ll live under. Arguably, this process cannot be completed in the individual armchair.

Third, I agree with you that there are good and bad varieties of consensus. If you lack the good consensus, that’s a justificatory red flag; if you have the bad consensus, it makes no difference. It seems to me that this places a burden of argument on those who have a view but lack consensus for it: part of their view needs to be some explanation for why the disagreement of others is the bad kind and doesn’t count. This is what you get with e.g. Marxism: the Marxist doesn’t anticipate the capitalist agreeing with him, but feels able to explain why that is in a way that shows this disagreement isn’t a defeater.

Hello Jussi,

Interesting post! You claim the following:

"The Crispwick view is by and large an internalist view. Just by doing a priori reflection we can know that the first three conditions are satisfied, and we can do little polling to see if there’s consensus. So, on that view, it is easy to know whether we have justified beliefs or not."

I'm not sure it is so easy to determine whether we have justified beliefs on this account. In fact, it seems ridiculously hard. The clarity condition requires that we have a precise understanding of the concepts that participate in whatever normative proposition is at issue. It also requires that we know the inferential connections between this and other normative propositions, and the broad practical upshot of accepting the proposition. Suppose the proposition in question 'One should not be cruel to one's friends'. The clarity condition seems to require us to have a precise understanding of the concepts 'cruelty' and 'friendship', knowledge of the inferential connections of the proposition, and of exactly when certain actions towards others would violate the prescription. Even if one could do this a priori, it would really difficult.

The reflection condition requires hard and unprejudiced reflection. But is it easy to determine a priori whether reflection is unprejudiced? It isn't if this requires us to rule out the possibility of an insidious prejudice, moral blindspots, or a penchant for seeing ourselves in the most flattering light, etc. It is the nature of these defects that they are hard to detect via reflection alone.

The consistency requirement also seems difficult to meet a priori. One can introspect to make sure the negation of the proposition in question is not believed, but I suspect that meeting the consistency requirement needs more than this. Presumably it also requires that we make sure than none of our other normative beliefs, singly or as a set, entail the negation of the proposition in question. But this requires a grasp of our entire moral framework, and the ability to determine the entailments of our framework. If this is possible, it's probably hard work.

Of course, if the good type of consensus requires us to know that our fellows are epistemic peers, and that they have themselves met the previous three conditions, then the difficulties mentioned above are multiplied.

Presumably, these difficulties will require any intuitionism committed to these criteria to be fallibilist. But if that's right, then intuitionists can be modest.


first, I don't think the view I'm putting on the table requires a commitment to normative facts. If there are no normative facts, then those social methods of belief-formation that end up believing in such will not be reliable and as a result the beliefs adquired through them not justified. In that case are reliably achieved consensus would be abolishing normative beliefs. Maybe this is where we all will end.

I agree with the second point, but not everyone does. The third one is interesting and something I've started to think about. I think people who disagree can be justified in their normative beliefs if these too are part of the right kind of consensus formation process. What I have in mind is that if the disagreeing person is committed to the rules of that system - open for giving and taking reasons - then her beliefs can be justified even if they are not part of the consensus view. They can still be produced by the right kind of a process that just hasn't ran its course yet.


that's a good point. I overstated my claim. Traditional internalist views have been assumed to enable higher-order knowledge a priori but you may be right that this is by no means easy - just in principle perhaps possible.

I think we should keep two things separate though. First, there is the question of how difficult it is to meet the four conditions, and second there is the question of how difficult it is to know that the conditions have been met when they have been met. Some of your points seem to address the first question - meeting the conditions is very hard. Maybe it follows from this that it is also hard to know when they have been met and when one has fallen short of them. But, this would need a further argument (your last two arguments seem to address this more). It may however be that your arguments show that it is easy to know that we fall short of these demanding conditions.

Of course, if meeting these conditions really is as hard as you make it out to be, then these seems to be a problem for intuitionism. It was supposed to give an account of how we can be justified in our normative beliefs and now it turns out that the requirements are almost impossible to meet.

I have two questions:

(1) Isolating the matter of consensus, I'm wondering if your desert island criticism would apply to cases of scientific knowledge, where many think that consensus is an important criterion for justification. Surely a scientific theory developed in complete isolation would gain by having more epistemic peers (in the relevant senses corresponding to the first three criteria) added with the same view, and would lose justification as peers are added with opposing views. To me this doesn't seem like a bad bullet to bite, so why should it be in the moral case?

(2) I was also wondering why (or whether) you think it's relevant that the new people added to the island weren't "justified" in their pre-island belief that p. You seem to find the alleged reductio implausible at least partly because the consensus-building newcomers were previously unjustified. But it seems to me that everyone is unjustified until they satisfy all criteria for justification, whatever they are. So, again, what's different about this case?

Hope at least one of these comments is clear and interesting enough to elicit a response.


Here's a third comment:

(3) In the post and comments some worry is expressed about the value of consensus in justification, in light of the possibility that consensus might come by way of brainwashing or other coercion. But I take it that the first three "Crispwick" criteria (clarity, reflection, and consistency) will largely preclude the unsavory effects of such uncongenial epistemic environments, to borrow Plantinga's phrase. In other words, a brainwashed person is not thinking clearly, etc.


Neat stuff. I've never read the Crisp (nor the Sidgwick, for that matter), but I subscribe to a view not dissimilar to what you describe, so you've gotten my wheels turning. This means both that I've written a lot here (sorry) and that what I say may turn out not to agree with the actual Crispwick view, though I hope it addresses your points nonetheless.

First. You offer conditions for the justification of normative beliefs that supposedly explain the need for consensus:

"[A]n individual has a justified normative belief when her belief is formed through education and reflection within a reliable social system (and it satisfies the first three conditions from Sidgwick)."

It seems to me that this does not explain the condition of consensus. Why should we think that the "social normative-belief-formation-systems" that are reliable are also (some of) those that tend towards consensus?

Second. You offer this (I take it) as a way to make sense of the intuitionist's desire for consensus. Here is an alternate explanation which does not require the move to reliabilism, along with a re-interpretation of the island case:

Intuitionists believe that intuitions are our access to the moral truth. Unfortunately, intuitions can be faulty. They may, for instance, be distorted by emotions, by experience, and so on. In order to help guard against such distortion, we insist that intuitions be scrutinized in keeping with the first three conditions of the Crispwick view. Intuitions that survive this process are more likely to be genuine cases of "‘seeing’ the synthetic truth of the proposition" in question.

Of course, even constant scrutiny cannot safeguard against all faulty intuitions. I may, for example, suffer some cognitive deficiency that does not allow me to recognize a particular emotional influence. To help safeguard against this possibility, I turn to others to see where their intuitions lie. Assuming they likewise scrutinize their own intuitions, consensus bolsters our justification; lack of consensus undermines it.

This effect comes in degrees. Certainly, if I consult one friend who agrees with me, then my justification is bolstered. But it is not bolstered as much as when I consult 100 friends or, better yet, consult those from another region, background, class, etc., who are less likely to be subject to the same distorting factors as I.

Given all this, it seems to me that the proper thing to say about Chris and David is that they are coming from communities consisting only in themselves, rather than from no communities at all. Thus Chris and David were each justified (to some extent at least) in believing that p because they meet the first three criteria and achieved "consensus" (1/1) within their respective "communities." Before Chris and David arrive on the island, Ann isn't justified in believing that p because her disagreeing with Ben undermines the value of her intuition. When Chris and David arrive, her justification is bolstered. Chris and David's justification is either raised or lowered (is 3/4 better or worse than 1/1?), presumably to the same level as Ann's.

I don't see anything implausible about the island case when I read it this way. In fact, it seems to make perfect sense of the fourth condition of consensus.


"It is interesting though that intuitionists tend to combine internalist epistemology to robust metaphysical facts . . . If you already buy the facts, why not use them in epistemology"

I would have thought that intuitionists do use the facts in the epistemology: They might believe that intuitions, once all distorting factors have been dealt with, are always reliable. If they go your route, then intuitions are only contingently reliable when they are formed by certain social processes. But why think that the processes in question might not give rise to beliefs that bypass intuition? What if just believing what my priest tells me is reliable?

It looks like we can answer in two ways. First, we can reject intuitionism and just be reliabilists (or social reliabilists). Alternatively, we can insist on the indispensability of intuition. This is taken care of, I believe, by the retention (in your view) of the first three conditions from Crispwick. It seems plausible that intuitions are necessary to meet these, especially the condition of reflection. What my priest says might be true, but unless I reflect and recognize that truth for myself, the belief doesn't count as justified. And this reflection requires intuition.

But, of course, there has to be some reason for going this route beyond an obsession with intuitions. The justification, it seems to me, is that moral justification makes demands on us that the justification of other beliefs might not. When it comes to morality, it is not enough for the moral truth to have a causal connection with our moral beliefs; we want to be aware of and understand the moral truth. This is why reflection, etc. are necessary for moral justification.

Of course, you might maintain that no set of conditions (either the four offered or improved ones) that help ensure the internalist viability of intuitions is sufficient for moral justification, and that's why we still need reliabilism. But this would mean that even at the limit case after all possible scrutiny, including the scrutiny of others, our intuitions might be wrong because they are not reliably informed by the moral truth. If I believed that, though, why would I bother being an intuitionist, rather than a skeptic?


thanks - you are right in pushing this issue. I take it that in the scientific case, the individual scientists are already justified in believing whatever they believe. This is why adding more of them can increase the level of justification each has, and why in the disagreement cases everyone's justification is undermined. The relevant difference to the case I had in mind is that in that case, by the lights of the theory we are assessing, the individuals are not justified in holding their beliefs. We then get justification out of many individuals none of whom has justification for their beliefs. This is what I find implausible, but it seems like you are ok with this. Maybe the objection then needs some strenghtening.

The third comment is interesting. It seems to me that the satisfaction of the first three conditions can be brought about by brain-washing for instance. That is someone might be brought to believe that, for instance, it is right to torture others by brainwashing in such a way that they would a) clearly understand what it is for an act to be right and what torture is and the inferential connections between this claim and others and its practical consequences, b) believe truthfully that their belief is stable under reflection, and c) have a coherent set of beliefs. So, I sceptical about whether the first three conditions can rule out the bad kind of mechanisms to bring about consensus.


thanks for the comments too.

First, I thought that a social belief-formation system that didn't result in a consensus could not be reliable. Such a system would have as an outcome both beliefs that p and not-p. Given that both beliefs cannot be true, the system that produces them cannot be reliable.

The second point is clever and certainly sounds fairly plausible. The idea would be that the consensus would be merely a way of checking whether the first three conditions have been satisfied. Maybe I would want to argue that in some contexts it is a good way of checking the epistemic status of one's beliefs and in others it is not. It is a good way of checking one's intuitions in contexts in which others have formed their beliefs in a reliable environments but not so in a community of brainwashed people who too satisfy the conditions 1-3. If this were right, then the reliability of the community would still be more basic.

I think I agree with most of the last comment, so I'm not sure what more I can add.


Thanks for the response. On brainwashing, I take your point. I still suspect that the three criteria could be construed in such a way as to preclude processes like brainwashing, but perhaps those formulations would be too ad hoc, or outside of common usage terms like clarity.

You rightly identify what might be the chief disagreement I have:
"We then get justification out of many individuals none of whom has justification for their beliefs. This is what I find implausible, but it seems like you are ok with this. Maybe the objection then needs some strengthening."

Just to make sure my worry is clear: It is conceivable that a believer can have all but one criterion of justification satisfied (whatever the criteria are). What's peculiar in the consensus case is that adding the final criterion can mean adding other believers who themselves have only satisfied the first three criteria. But because there's nothing wrong with finishing a process of becoming justified, we need an explication of precisely what oddities in the consensus case make this problematic.

I have doubts that the lack of justification in the consensus-builders is a problem, because in mundane cases it doesn't seem to be. Take for example cases where something improbable is witnessed, say, something otherwise resembling a hallucination. Surely it is the case that on a plausible scheme of justification (1) a lone individual is not justified in believing what she sees and (2) she can gain justification by the confirmation of others. If everyone was, before conferencing, in a state of epistemic loneliness and therefore unjustified in believing the bizarre experience they had, I don't think that means they can't become justified upon mutual confirmation.


Consider a case where all members of a community initially form a true moral belief through a reliable method. Afterwards, through faulty scrutiny, some community members reject this belief. In your original post, you implied that scrutiny is a condition of justification distinct from the condition that the system of belief-formation be reliable. I took this to mean that the scrutiny of a belief, and any alterations to one's beliefs that results from such scrutiny, are not part any social belief-formation system. If this is correct, then there remains the possibility (as in the case above) of a reliable system's failing to lead to consensus. This is why I think your view has trouble accounting for Crispwick's fourth condition.

You could, of course, insist that the conditions of scrutiny are a part of the belief-formation system in such cases, and thus maintain that such systems are ultimately unreliable (and thus that all reliable systems lead to consensus). But if this is not to be entirely ad hoc, I think you would have to agree that the conditions of scrutiny always count as just one more possible aspect of a belief-formation system; some systems will have them, some won't.

Unfortunately, if this is your position, I don't see how you can grant the conditions of scrutiny the special place necessary to retain your view's appeal for intuitionists (and to address the need for transparency of justification I pushed for in my last comment). Scrutiny could turn out never to be a part of any reliable system, just like brainwashing or bullying. At that point, I think your view would be forced to collapse into whole-hog (social) reliabilism.

The only way out, I think, would be to claim that we somehow know antecedently that all reliable systems include the conditions of scrutiny. But it's hard to see how such a move could be justified, or that the resultant view would have any appeal over Crispwick.


I think you got the disagreement clearly. I like the perception case too. In that case, I would like to say that the individuals have some justification for their belief on their own even if the perceived fact is unlikely. It is just that in the typical hallucination cases there is a debunking explanation for being in a seemingly similar state of perception. Given that each individual then has some justification for their beliefs, it seems no wonder that this justification can add up and be mutually supporting.

Maybe that's what the intuitionists should say too. The individuals have some justification already when they satisfy the first three conditions. They could then say that this justification adds up in consensus. They could also say that the disagreement per se does not undermine justification of the individuals - but rather only potential debunking explanations of the beliefs of some of the disagreeing parties.

Your last sentence is revealing though. I agree that the parties can become justified in their beliefs 'upon mutual confirmation'. This sounds though like a reference to a social process.


I'm sorry but I may have lost the dialectic a bit now. But, on the first look, it doesn't seem like your case is one in which a reliable system does not lead to a consensus. Those who reject their beliefs by scrutiny have not formed their new beliefs in the reliable social system. So, everyone who has, still agrees, right?


I apologize; I had a worry and was trying to couch it in terms of the argument about consensus, but in doing so I made some assumptions I perhaps should not have. I thought that your goal was to explain why consensus is a good practical indicator of reliability. Since we usually look for consensus after some scrutiny, that would mean that errors in scrutiny could disguise the reliability of a particular sytem. But perhaps your point was more theoretical: that our intuition that consensus is important can be explained by the fact that reliable systems will, as you say, initially (prior to scrutiny) lead everyone to the same truth. If you'll bear with me, I'll try to explain my worry again, setting consensus aside.

Here's a slogan for externalism: Truth Trumps Transparency. Externalism tells us to be modest and acknowledge that justification is about whether our beliefs have captured the truth and that no amount of internal scrutiny can guarantee that we've gotten there.

But your view, and the intuitions you've shared, don't all seem to run this way. First, you explicitly say that you believe brainwashing has no epistemic merit, while open dialogue does. But surely one could brainwash everyone into believing the truth. Second, you demand that, in addition to reliable sytems of belief formation, we subject our beliefs to scrutiny, even though that scrutiny might lead us away from the truth. Third, you said you agreed with much of what I said in my first comment, in which I championed transparency (at least to some extent) for moral justification. To me, this all says: Transparency Trumps Truth.

Now, I can't say that your view is untenable; but I do think it suffers from some internal tension. You end up saying that justification comes from the reliability of the belief-formation system (seemingly allowing that this could turn out to be any system), but then stacking the deck by insisting that we also scrutinize those beliefs, even at the expense of truth (so now certain systems, no matter how reliable, might never give us justification, because they wouldn't survive scrutiny). So what really matters, that our beliefs be true or that we are aware of them as such?

Let me just end by offering an alternative. Can't we just take the intuitionist view and add an externalizing caveat that allows for epistemic modesty? It might look something like this:

Intuitions are in principle reliable but can be distorted by various cognitive, social, emotional, etc. factors. By meeting the four conditions of scrutiny, we can avoid much of this distortion. Of course, mass brainwashing, etc. is possible, so we should be aware that only those beliefs that are (a) informed by intuition, (b) subjected to intense scrutiny, and (c) thereby in fact free from all distortion are justified.

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