Saturday, 3 April 2010

Burge's Alternative to M-rationalism

In my previous post, I presented a number of objections to the M-rationalist account suggested by R. J. Wallace. An alternative to Wallace's account is provided by Tyler Burge, who maintains that “a norm need not be understood or intentionally adhered to by the individual that it applies to or governs.” By Burge’s lights, the inference performed by Hurley’s monkey may be described as governed by the principle of transitivity even though the monkey performing the inference lacks the concept of transitivity and is not guided in its cognitive activity by its recognition of the concept. Hence, Burge’s slogan: “norms need not guide.” If we assumed that being governed by a rational norm is sufficient for a psychological transition to be rational (i.e., reason-conferring), then Burge’s account of what it means for a psychological process to be governed by a rational principle would entail that the transitive inference of Hurley’s monkey is a rational transition. However, as we shall soon see, things are not so simple on the Burgean account.

Burge distinguishes between two types of epistemic warrant; entitlement and justification. Regarding the former, he writes:
Individuals can be epistemically entitled to a belief without having reasons warranting the belief, without having the conceptual repertoire necessary to have relevant reasons for the belief, and without having the concepts needed to understand or even think the entitlement.
By contrast, Burge defines justification as “warrant by reason that is conceptually accessible on reflection to the warranted individual.” By his lights, Hurley’s monkey may be entitled to its inference-based belief. But insofar as Hurley’s monkey lacks the conceptual resources necessary to recognise that the inference is generalisable, it does not have a justified inference-based belief. And herein lays the rub. Burge only applies the label “reasons” to warrants that are conceptually accessible to the warranted agent—i.e., justifications. The upshot is that while Hurley’s monkey is entitled to its inference-based belief, it does not have reasons for this belief.

In this respect, Burge appears to be on the same page (albeit not the identical paragraph) as the Wallace. When Wallace conceives of a rational norm “governing” a psychological transition, he specifically has something akin to Burge’s notion of justification in mind. By contrast, when Burge conceives of a rational norm “governing” a psychological transition, he has not only justification but also entitlement in mind (the latter failing to even enter Wallace’s consideration). Thus, we have two different conceptions of what it means to be “governed” by a rational principle, the first (due to the Wallace) confined to transitions that take place within the space of justifications and the second (due to Burge) that includes transitions that take place within the space of entitlements.

Apart from Burge’s introduction of the notion of entitlements, the differences highlighted thus far between the two thinkers strike me as primarily terminological. Insofar as Hurley’s monkey lacks the appropriate concepts, both thinkers are committed to saying that it lacks reasons for its inference-based belief and both thinkers are ultimately committed to denying that the monkey’s inference-based belief is justified. However, Burge goes beyond Wallace in identifying a category of epistemic warrant that the latter simply fails to consider; namely, entitlement. Consequently, Burge has the resources to say that the inference-based belief of Hurley’s monkey is warranted, while Wallace does not.

There is also a substantive difference in the conception of justification adhered to by both thinkers. According to Wallace, a psychological transition is reason-conferring only if the agent engages in the transition because she recognises that it accords with a rational norm. By contrast, Burge only requires that the agent possess the conceptual resources necessary to recognise that the psychological transition is generalisable; it is not necessary that the agent engage in the transition because she recognises that the transition is generalisable or accords with a rational norm. Thus, Burge's account lacks the motivational implications of Wallace's account.

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