«1 veiled disagreement VEILED DISAGREEMENT * H ow I should weigh my disagreement with you depends at least in part on how reliable I take you to be. ...»
The demand for fine-grainedness may look on its face as if it solves the neglected-evidence objection by making cases of true peer disagreement exceedingly hard to find. Your reliability may be the same as mine in arithmetic overall, but that counts for nothing, as far as assessing disagreement goes, unless our reliabilities correspond all the way down to the most fine-grained level, so that I have to consider whether your reliability matches mine on this very problem, on this very day, at this very time of the morning. What was supposed to be a pervasive phenomenon may look like quite a special, recherché case. Here again, however, it is crucial to remember that what matters is my and your expected reliability, from my (and your) very limited vantage point. For peer disagreement to disappear in the way just imagined, we would have to be able to make comparative
Master Proof JOP 587 veiled disagreement
assessments of reliability in an exceedingly fine-grained way. Perhaps this is how it is for the angels—perhaps they understand their own minds and the minds of their fellow angels so well as to leave no room for doubt about the true celestial hierarchy of intelligences.
Perhaps, as a result, the angels are able to spend more time teaching and learning and loving, and less time arguing. For us, the situation is sadly otherwise. Although I can discern myself to be better at some kinds of math problems than others, and a better philosopher in some areas than others, I am frequently unable to discern whether I am comparatively better at such things than you are. Given such limited insight into questions of comparative reliability, it is often reasonable to treat one another as epistemic peers.
iii. absurd disagreement A second prominent line of objection to Impartiality arises from cases of absurd disagreement—that is, situations where the view of one’s opponent seems not just false but manifestly false. Consider this
case, modeled after an example from Jennifer Lackey:
Maureen and Tim disagree about where the restaurant My Thai is located. Maureen insists that it is on Michigan Avenue, and vividly remembers walking past it there on countless occasions, and eating there many times. Tim is equally adamant that it is on State Street, and appeals to equally vivid memories. Each has been living in Chicago for many years and knows the city well. Discussion makes it clear that neither is supposing the restaurant to have recently moved; both are contending it has been in that location for a long time; both seem to be entirely serious. They are clearly talking about the same streets and the same restaurant.12 From Maureen’s perspective, this disagreement is absurd because she has utterly vivid memories of My Thai’s location on Michigan Avenue. She is nearly as confident about the restaurant’s location as she is about where she herself lives. Lackey takes this to be a case where Impartiality goes wrong. Given how certain Maureen is about the truth of her position, it would not be rational to give Tim’s view equal weight, even though she would have antecedently accepted him as her epistemic peer with respect to local geography. Lackey concludes that Impartiality fails in cases like this, because Maureen’s confidence that she is right ought to overcome her antecedent belief that she and Tim are epistemic peers in this domain.
This is my version of the case described in Lackey, “A Justificationist View,” op. cit., p. 308.
Lackey gets this result because she too is working with the wrong resolution of the Generality Problem. She supposes that Impartiality assesses whether the two agents are peers in general on topics of this kind, independently of the present disagreement. As she puts it, the two agents count as peers “in the abstract,” even though “in the context of the actual disagreement itself ” this judgment of peerhood collapses.13 When the situation is so conceived, then of course Impartiality will fail. After all, prior judgments of expected reliability get overridden all the time by disagreement. It is perfectly common to suppose someone one’s epistemic peer until he opens his mouth, and then consequently to ignore his views entirely. But this is not how the Impartiality thesis should be spelled out. One needs to take into account as much information as possible, including the present disagreement and all of its attendant circumstances, and then make an overall decision about what is rational. It is clearly appropriate for Maureen to weigh her confidence in her memory against her confidence in Tim’s knowledge of Chicago, and against Tim’s own memories, and she might well be right to downgrade Tim’s reliability as a result. This is what Lackey says she would do in such a situation, and that seems both plausible and consistent with Impartiality, properly understood, since Impartiality requires assigning equal weight to another’s view only if the other is one’s epistemic peer in the present situation.
It is also imaginable that Maureen, on reflection, would start to doubt herself. If Tim, in discussion, shows every sign of being equally confident and competent, then Maureen might reasonably come to fear that she’s as likely to have gone badly astray as Tim is. Lackey suggests that this is the less rational response, on the grounds that Maureen will have personal information about her own case that she will not have about Tim: details about her own evidence that she cannot articulate, for instance, and knowledge about her own current Ibid., p. 314. Lackey is quite explicit in supposing that the Impartiality thesis must measure an agent’s reliability generally, prior to the disagreement. She treats it as a constraint on giving equal weight that “the disagreement itself should not change one’s beliefs about the probability that one is right” (ibid., p. 313). In support of this reading, she quotes Elga, “Reflection and Disagreement,” op. cit., p. 488: “Suppose that before evaluating a claim, you think that you and your friend are equally likely to evaluate it correctly. When you find out that your friend disagrees with your verdict, how likely should you think it that you are correct? The equal weight view says: 50%.” Lackey does not notice that, later in that same paper, Elga proceeds quite differently, making the outcome “conditional on what you later learn about the circumstances of the disagreement” (ibid., p. 491). He in fact employs this move precisely to handle the sort of case where “an advisor you treated as a peer comes up with a conclusion that you find utterly insane” (ibid., p. 490). I consider the details of Elga’s approach in section iv.
Master Proof JOP 587 veiled disagreement
mental acuity that she will not have about him.14 In some kinds of cases such information may well be decisive. In this restaurant example, for instance, it seems particularly likely that Tim is either joking or not really paying attention, possibilities that Maureen can categorically dismiss in her own case. It seems doubtful, however, that this sort of first-person information creates such an asymmetry across the board, since we face equally serious handicaps in justly appraising our own reliability. If Tim, for instance, were starting to lose his mind, Maureen would likely have heard people talking about it. But if Maureen herself were losing her mind, she might well be the last to know, or might never know. Such self-blindness is particularly poignant in cases of mental deterioration, but extends more widely. We notoriously exaggerate our own competences.
And the difficulty in getting honest feedback about oneself makes it, in many contexts, easier to evaluate the reliability of others than to evaluate one’s own reliability.15 Impartiality can welcome all of these reflections and can accept any number of outcomes in the restaurant case. Both Maureen and Tim may rationally continue to insist they are correct, or one or both may decide to abandon their belief in light of the disagreement. All that Impartiality insists on is equal consideration for the views of others, which is consistent with giving one’s own view more (or perhaps less) weight when the circumstances warrant it. It is only if one of the two regards the other as an epistemic peer that she or he must weigh the other’s view equally to her or his own. Lackey gets a violation of that principle because she assesses peerhood at a general,
level, independently of the disagreement itself, but then assesses what ought to be believed in light of that disagreement.
This is essentially the same mistake made by the neglected-evidence objection; indeed, one might think of these as alternative versions of the same objection. Each employs the strategy of measuring reliability in a general way and then introducing specific details that make Impartiality look implausible. The solution in each case is to insist on a sufficiently fine-grained measure of reliability that takes into account the specific circumstances of the disagreement.
“How often does it happen, for instance, that I know that my colleague…is not depressed, exhausted, distracted, and so on, on any given day?” (Lackey, “A Justificationist View,” op. cit., p. 311). Rarely, she thinks. For similar remarks see David Christensen, “Disagreement, Question-Begging and Epistemic Self-Criticism,” Philosophers’ Imprint, xi, 6 (March 2011): 1–22, at pp. 9–10.
For a useful popular discussion of the various obstacles to self-evaluation, see Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: Free Press, 1991), chapter 7.
Master Proof JOP 58714 the journal of philosophy
iv. behind the veil of ignorance
These two objections against Impartiality fail for the same reason:
they presuppose the wrong solution to the Generality Problem.
When comparative reliability is measured finely enough, in light of the current disagreement, the objections dissolve. It is, however, not perfectly clear what counts as “finely enough” for purposes of measuring expected reliability. We have, in section ii, discovered one minimal condition: measures of expected reliability must be sufficiently specific to satisfy White’s Calibration Rule. This leaves unclear, however, what lower limits there might be to the appropriate degree of specificity. We have seen that the specific circumstances of the present disagreement cannot be entirely ignored, but surely some matters must be held in abeyance. If nothing else, I am obviously not entitled to take for granted the truth of p, when p is the thing we disagree about. To suppose that p is true begs the whole question.16
David Christensen, in an effort to get clear on the proper formulation of Impartiality, offers what he calls the Principle of Independence:
In evaluating the epistemic credentials of another’s expressed belief about P, in order to determine how (or whether) to modify my own belief about P, I should do so in a way that doesn’t rely on the reasoning behind my initial belief about P.17 Although Christensen supports Impartiality, this principle looks on its face to lead directly to the sorts of objections we have been considering, inasmuch as it would seem to preclude an agent from considering the present disagreement. To say that I cannot “rely on [my] reasoning” seems precisely to enjoin neglecting the evidence, and seems to preclude discounting absurd disagreements. So understood, Christensen’s principle would get the Generality Problem wrong.
But Christensen himself does not understand his Independence Principle in quite this way. The point of the principle, Christensen says, is to block agents from blatantly begging the question about the proposition in question. In saying that I should evaluate my Although this point might seem uncontroversial, it is surprisingly denied by Enoch, “Not Just a Truthometer,” op. cit., p. 982. In a case where I believe p and you, my epistemic peer, believe ∼p, Enoch holds that I should not give your view equal weight, simply for the reason that p is true. He seems not to mind begging the question in this way, on the grounds that otherwise we will be mired in skepticism. I would suggest to the contrary that, if skepticism does follow, then in cases where we find ourselves locked in irresolvable peer disagreement it is better to admit those consequences forthrightly.
Christensen, “Disagreement, Question-Begging and Epistemic Self-Criticism,” op. cit., pp. 1–2.
opponent’s reliability without letting myself “rely on [my] reasoning,” he seems to mean only that I should not rely on the conclusion of my reasoning. I may consider the immediate circumstances of the disagreement, and may even reflect on the path that led me to my conclusion, and to compare that path to my opponent’s path. All this information is allowed in calculating my and my opponent’s expected reliability. What I may not do is take for granted the correctness of my conclusion.18 Hence Christensen’s Principle of Independence does after all allow assessments of reliability that are sufficiently fine-grained to handle both cases of absurd disagreement and the charge of neglecting the evidence.
Unfortunately, the lower limits of the Generality Problem cannot be defined as simply as this. The Impartiality thesis requires that parties to a dispute set aside more than just their contending beliefs regarding p; they also must to some extent set aside the reasoning that led them to those beliefs. Suppose I am going over my answer to Problem #9 in an effort to sort out why you and I disagree. I am prepared to set aside my answer, but in going over my reasoning step by step I may well become all the more confident that this answer is correct. Suppose that you go over your reasoning at the same time and become all the more confident that your answer is correct. If we judge ourselves epistemic peers, then Impartiality will recommend that we each adopt a credence in p of 0.5. But for that to seem right to me, I must set aside more than just my antecedent confidence in p. I also have to set aside my confidence in the reasoning that led me to p. For we can imagine that it might be clear as day that, if my reasoning is correct, then p clearly follows, whereas if your reasoning is correct then ∼p follows.