«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. ...»
Disagreements of all kinds have just this structure, where the two parties disagree about p in virtue of some prior disagreement over a principle that plainly entails p. Hence Impartiality often requires setting aside more than just the claim at issue; it seems also to require setting aside the truth of all the steps in reasoning that led to that claim.
Christensen, “Disagreement, Question-Begging and Epistemic Self-Criticism,” op.
cit., p. 10: “I relied on the claim that I arrived at my answer to the math problem by a very reliable method. But my reasoning did not rely on the results of my calculations at all. I did not say, ‘Well I’m very sure the answer is $43. My friend says it’s $45, so something screwy must have gone on with her.’ That sort of reasoning would indeed violate Independence.” For a recent extended argument against Christensen’s principle, see Thomas Kelly, “Disagreement and the Burdens of Judgment,” in David Christensen and Jennifer Lackey, eds., The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays (Oxford: University Press, 2013), pp. 31–53.
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For an attempt to honor this constraint, we might consider Adam Elga’s version of the Impartiality thesis. Elga argues that an assessment of comparative reliability between yourself and a rival must take into account “the circumstances of the disagreement.” But he insists that these circumstances “should not include a detailed specification of the chain of reasoning that led you to your conclusion. For if they did, then making the relevant conditional probability judgment would involve thinking through the disputed issue…”19 So in considering Problem #9, I am allowed to consider the kind of problem that it is, the extent of my confidence in my answer, and the care that I took in answering the problem. I should consider all of these “circumstances” and compare them with the circumstances of your approach. But I am prohibited from taking into account the steps in my reasoning, because that would lead me to insist on my answer to #9, rather than giving equal weight to your answer. On Elga’s approach, “thinking through the disputed issue” effectively begs the question.
But Elga’s approach also fails to resolve the low end of the Generality Problem, because it excludes factors that are vital for a rational appraisal of some disagreements. Suppose Anna has no information about Tommy’s ability at math. Since she regards her own abilities as average, she reasonably expects him to be her peer.
Then Anna learns that they gave different answers to Problem #9, which causes her rightly to fear she got that problem wrong. But suppose Anna now considers “a detailed specification of the chain of reasoning” that led her and Tommy to their respective conclusions. She considers that whereas she tried to solve the word problem by plugging the constants into an equation and then solving for the variable, Tommy’s method was simply if it’s a word problem, go with c. Recognizing this, Anna clearly should cease thinking of Tommy as her peer. But Elga’s approach, absurdly, would not let her consider these specific features of the disagreement.
We face a puzzle, then, of the following shape. On the one hand, a rational appraisal of disagreement sometimes requires that I compare my line of reasoning against your line of reasoning. Such a comparison may sometimes give me reason to discount your answer, as in the Anna–Tommy case, even if I had antecedently judged you to be my peer. On the other hand, taking my line of reasoning into account sometimes seems to involve begging the question just as surely as would taking into account the truth of p itself. That Elga, “Reflection and Disagreement,” op. cit., p. 490.
line of reasoning, after all, may be precisely what generates our dispute. It is easy to see, then, why Elga would entirely exclude reflection on the details of one’s reasoning. And perhaps this is why Christensen’s Independence Principle insists rather vaguely that I may not “rely on [my] reasoning.” What we want, it seems, is for parties to a dispute to be able to consider everything about the dispute, on down to the most precise details that might be relevant, but somehow without begging the question in favor of the truth of their own views. This would honor the initial idea that the Generality Problem for peer disagreement should be solved in the direction of maximal specificity. But how can I take into account all the details of a dispute over p, without thereby assuming the sort of pro-p attitude that is to beg the question? My suggestion is that we borrow a page from political theory and consider cases of peer disagreement from behind a veil of ignorance. In that spirit, let us imagine ourselves informed about all the factual circumstances of the situation—what is agreed upon, what is contested, what the opposing arguments are, what the credences are of the contending parties—but without knowing who we are in the dispute. To say that we would not know who we are means more than that we would be blocked from knowing certain autobiographical facts. It means as well that we would know neither where we stand on the proposition in dispute, nor on any other relevant propositions that are contested by the two sides. We would recognize that one of the parties takes p to be highly likely and regards p as supported by strong evidence, but we would also recognize that the other party thinks none of these things. We ourselves would enter imaginatively into a state of neutrality on such questions, setting aside our intuitions in one direction or the other.20 Here then is my ultimate proposal for how to solve the Generality Problem for peer disagreement. In evaluating my reliability in comparison with yours, I should make that evaluation in the context of the very dispute in question, taking into account all the available information about how I made my decision and you made your decision, and my confidence versus your confidence—leaving out of this picture only the self-locating facts about where I am in The sort of information to be excluded could be characterized more precisely in terms of the theory of self-located beliefs set out in John Perry, “Frege on Demonstratives,” Philosophical Review, lxxxvi, 4 (October 1977): 474–97; and subsequently developed in terms of centered worlds by David Lewis, “Attitudes De Dicto and De Se,” Philosophical Review, lxxxviii, 4 (October 1979): 513–43. Of course, only the disputed self-locating facts must be excluded.
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the debate. Insisting that disagreement be adjudicated from behind
such a veil is a way of honoring the core motivation for Impartiality:
the idea that my own beliefs should not get special weight just because they are my own, or just because they follow from what seems right to me. Of course I must ultimately believe the things that strike me as true—there is no other course of action—but Impartiality insists that we should modulate those judgments in light of our disagreements with other seemingly intelligent people. Reasoning from behind the veil allows us to consider enough of the details of those disagreements to see when we should be worried by disagreement and when we should ignore it, while blocking the distorting influence that arises out of self-bias.
Political theorists differ over exactly what information should be allowed behind the veil. It should be clear by now that, in cases of peer disagreement, it is essential to allow full information about the circumstances of the dispute and the nature of the evidence, but also essential to block self-locating information with regard to all the contested issues. So far, I have mentioned as contested only belief in p itself and in those propositions that serve to support or rebut p. There may, however, be more than this that should be excluded. When you and I disagree, I may suspect that the real reason you think you are right is not because your arguments are stronger, but simply because you are white or male, or because your degrees are from the Ivy League, or because you have an impressive job. Although the literature on peer disagreement has hitherto ignored such issues, they clearly play a role in disagreements of all kinds. The veil does not entirely exclude such sociological facts from consideration, inasmuch as they are among the details that are potentially relevant to a full evaluation of the dispute. What the veil excludes are any disputed attitudes toward such facts, when those attitudes are relevant to the disagreement. Applying this heuristic of a veil to the phenomenon of peer disagreement allows us to give a place in our theory to these kinds of social biases.
In political theory, it is sometimes objected that there is something problematic about decision-making behind a veil. Such an objection might arise here too, in three kinds of ways. First, one might want a fuller account of what information gets excluded. No doubt there is much more that might be said about that, but I will not attempt it here. Second, one might complain that it is simply not possible to screen off the sort of self-locating information I propose to exclude.
As a psychological matter, no doubt that is true. Barring radical neurological failure, it is not humanly possible, even for a moment,
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to enter fully into the mindset that the veil prescribes. We know who we are, and how the evidence strikes us, and we cannot really forget that. What the veil describes, then, is an epistemic ideal to which we might aspire in attempting to respond rationally to disagreement.21 Third, one might charge that the veil, beyond describing an unachievable ideal, offers a heuristic that cannot coherently be followed in any way. Here I must disagree. Given that we cannot really forget who we are and what we think, the heuristic of the veil asks us, in effect, to engage in reasoning for a time without adopting a particular perspective. This seems no more mysterious or problematic than the familiar request that we, for the purposes of an argument, suppose that p, and see what follows. Instead of making a supposition, the veil asks us to refrain from certain suppositions, and to see what follows from that. This will not necessarily be easy to do, inasmuch as it will often be difficult to figure out just what self-locating information needs to be walled off, and difficult to know whether one is in fact walling it off. But the fact of such difficulties is no objection to the heuristic. Indeed, our chronic tendency to respond irrationally to disagreement should lead us to expect that the proper approach often will be difficult to follow.
To put these remarks on a more concrete footing, let us revisit some cases. If Maureen puts herself behind the veil, she will be able to consider all the facts about her confidence in the restaurant’s location, just without taking into account that she is the one who is confident. If she does not know much about Tim’s evidence and confidence level, then even from behind the veil she would rationally adhere to her own belief. But if she had information that Tim’s belief was based on similarly strong evidence and held with equal confidence, then she should judge herself uncertain about the correct answer, having no basis for choosing between one person’s confidence and another’s. The cases being symmetrical, from behind the veil, she would have no grounds to favor one side or the other. That intuitively seems rational.
Anna, from behind the veil, sees two methods for solving the word problem: the familiar approach taught in the schools, and Tommy’s idiosyncratic method. Clearly my proposal would be in some trouble if Anna, behind the veil, were forced to give Tommy’s answer equal weight. We would then seem to be confronted once again with the absurd-disagreement objection against Impartiality. In the real world, On the place of ideals in epistemology, see Robert Pasnau, “Epistemology Idealized,” Mind, cxxii, 488 (October 2013): 987–1021.
however, there is no risk of that outcome. Anna, in imagining herself behind the veil, has to adopt a stance of provisional neutrality regarding any relevant matters of disagreement between her and Tommy. But if we are talking about the world as we know it, then we should not suppose that Tommy is going to adhere steadfastly to his method. He employs his method, we can assume, for lack of anything better, and we can assume that he would cheerfully concede Anna’s method to be vastly preferable. (Indeed, we might think that Tommy never even believed his answer.) Hence in any real-world case of this kind, the comparative reliability of the two methods would not be a contested issue, and so there would be no need for Anna to remain neutral on the two methods. Anna could embrace her own method from behind the veil, and Tommy too could embrace Anna’s method, and both could come to share Anna’s original credence in her answer.
The hard case is the otherworldly situation where Tommy stubbornly believes that his method is reliable. In that case it can look as if Anna must, behind the veil, give the two methods equal weight, inasmuch as she must set aside her own views about which method is preferable. But for this to stick as an objection against Impartiality, we would have to formulate the example in even more otherworldly terms. For in the world as we know it, there will be other agents beyond Tommy whose views Anna can factor into her thinking, and whose preference for her orthodox textbook approach will swamp whatever weight Tommy’s idiosyncratic method might carry.
There will also be a vast number of background beliefs that make his method seem incredible, and even if these background beliefs are themselves controversial between her and Tommy, there will again be countless agents on Anna’s side, whose agreement with her will swamp whatever weight her disagreement with Tommy might have.