Monday 17 May 2010

On Justification and Explanation: Ben's Reply to Me

The following is Ben's response to my previous post, On Justification and Explanation: My Reply to Ben.

Thanks for the reply. It clears things up for me a bit. Let me offer the following remarks in response.

I intend to be using the terms 'justification' and 'explanation' with respect to reasons for action in a sense that is nicely captured by Raz in 'Reasons: Explanatory and Normative'. I'll quote from that paper:
[Reasons] are both normative and explanatory. They are normative in as much as they guide decision and action, and form a basis for their evaluation. They are explanatory in that when an action for a purpose occurs the purpose for which it is performed, the reason for the action as the agent sees things, explains its performance.
Raz goes on to argue that 'reasons' has two meanings. I agree, but I put the distinction in terms of explanation and justification instead of explanatory and normative.

By the way, I do not claim that these different meanings pick out different considerations. The same fact may both justify and explain--that is, one consideration can be both the purpose that explains an agent's action from that agent's perspective and it can guide performance of the action and serve as a basis for evaluation of that action (and the agent who guided her behavior on its basis). So the distinction between justifying reasons and explanatory reasons is not a distinction between different sorts of considerations.

I don't quite know what you mean to signal by a distinction between the folk psychological concept of explanation and the concept of explanation used by the sciences. But I do not want to make any sort of distinction like this. On my favorite view (cf., e.g., van Fraassen; Wright; Scriven) explanation is a matter of filling gaps in understanding. So a consideration explains when it answers a why-question. I am taken by the fact that explanations are given. And this presupposes that there is someone to give the explanation to. So what counts as a good explanation can depend on the needs of the one it is given to.

Why did the monkey jump into the tree? Because he saw the poacher coming through the bushes. Or: In order to grab the bananas that were in the tree. Why does water turn to steam when it reaches 100 degrees Celsius? Because the movement of the particles … The form of explanation is the same in both cases. I think this is the correct, general account of explanation.

As for justification, perhaps I am thinking of it as a special sort of explanation. It plugs a special sort of gap in the understanding. And in order to have this sort of gap in one’s understanding, one must have certain capacities—e.g., to recognize reasons as such. So where we have someone with these reflective capacities asking why an agent did something we can not only offer a consideration that explains why the agent did what he did but also why the cited consideration shows the behavior to be appropriately responsive to reasons. The why-question that signals a request for justification is situated in a normative context.

Why did the monkey jump into the tree? Because he saw the poacher coming through the bushes. This can both explain and justify. Given background assumptions about the monkey’s motivation to stay alive, the poacher’s goal of killing monkey, etc., it is intelligible in a special sense why the monkey jumped into the tree. This behavior is appropriate given the facts. What I have been insisting on is that the fact that he saw the poacher coming can explain the monkey’s behavior, both to us and to the monkey. But this fact cannot justify the monkey’s behavior to the monkey because the monkey cannot have the relevant sort of gap in the understanding. His perspective is not relevantly normative in that he does not guide his behavior on the basis of reasons as such. No fact can provide a basis for evaluation of behavior for him of the sort that justification involves. But it can for us because we do guide our behavior on the basis of reasons as such.

This brings me to perspective. When I say that we adopt the monkey’s perspective in judging that the fact that the poacher was approaching justified his jumping into the tree, I do not mean either (i) to deny that the monkey has a perspective of his own (this is what we adopt if we do things right) nor (ii) that we import our desires into the monkey’s perspective (again, insofar as we do things right). I mean that we adopt the monkey’s perspective, as we take it to be, which we can be wrong about, and this involves assuming his motivations, which, again, we can be wrong about. Think of this as the relevant background understanding, the gap in which is filled by the fact that is purported to be a reason. The answer to the question why the monkey jumped into the tree is only explanatory (and so also only justificatory) insofar as it fills a gap in understanding. The fact that the poacher was approaching can do this, on the assumption that the monkey represented this fact to himself and also that the monkey had the relevant motivations (e.g., not to be killed by the poacher, which we are assuming he recognized as a threat). If we are assuming that the monkey sees bananas but no poacher, then the fact that the poacher was approaching cannot explain (and so also cannot justify) his jumping into the tree. So my view allows that we can get it wrong and has something to say about what is wrong when things do go wrong.

Notice that my view can agree with you that a transition (e.g., from the representation of the poacher to an intention to jump into the tree) can be rationally assessable even if the agent making the transition cannot assess it. We seem to disagree about whether the transition is reason-providing for the agent. You say it is in that it provides the monkey with an entitlement. I say it depends on what sort of reason you have in mind. It provides the agent with an explanatory reason. But since the monkey cannot receive justifications, it cannot provide him with a justifying reason. Some of the disagreement may be only apparent, depending on how your view of entitlements vs. justifications lines up with my view of explanation vs. justification.

One last point about to-be-doneness and justification. I think it is correct that if there were no reflective creatures than there would be no justifications. There would be no one to receive the justifications if there were no one with the relevant gaps in the understanding. But this does not mean that the same considerations that do justify given the presence of reflective creatures fall out of the picture entirely. They could still explain, supposing that there were creatures that could be given the relevant sorts of explanation. Barring that, they could still motivate behavior in the sense necessary even for them to explain it. The lion can still recognize that eating his paw is not to be done, even if there is no one capable of posing the question why he did not eat his paw. If this amounts to the consideration making the behavior intelligible, in some sense of ‘intelligible’, then I am good with that. But on the assumption that there are no creatures intelligent enough to be given explanations (and so also justifications) then this consideration does not explain (or justify) anything because there is no gap in understanding to be filled by it.

Monday 10 May 2010

On Justification and Explanation: My Reply to Ben

What follows is my response to the questions posed by Ben in the comments following his post.

I’m not sure how you’re using the words ‘justification’ or ‘explanation’ here; these are terms of art and philosophers tend to define them in different ways. Moreover, on the way I’m inclined to use the word ‘explanation’, your question as to whether entitlement falls on the justification or explanation side of the divide does not lend itself to a straightforward answer. In fact, given my way of carving things up, the question would be somewhat ill-formed; the distinction between justification and explanation is simply not salient. Instead of talking about explaining a belief or action, I prefer to speak about making a belief or action intelligible. (The 'making intelligible' locution is meant to highlight the difference between the types of explanation implicated in our folk psychology, and that offered by the natural/physical sciences). The difference is not simply terminological. The philosophically interesting respects in which my preferred way of carving things up differs from your own may be seen in the following summary of the view I find most attractive.

When we ask why an agent believes such and such (at least in the sense of ‘why’ I presently have in mind), the question presupposes that the transitions that give rise to the belief are subject to certain norms relating to truth. Analogously, when we ask why an agent performs some action, the question presupposes that the transitions that give rise to the agent’s intentions are subject to certain norms relating to what ought to be done (what I refer to as ‘goodness-conditions’). I refer to both the norms relating to truth and goodness as ‘rational norms’. This way of putting things involves broadening the applicability of reason-talk to include more than the norms relating to truth. Moreover, I hold that a transition may be subject to a rational norm even if the agent engaged in the transition lacks the conceptual resources necessary to understand that norm. The upshot is that even the psychological transitions of animals may be subject to rational norms.

On the present view, a transition’s being subject to a rational norm does not entail or require that the agent performing the transition be able to assess whether or not that transition is rational. (Assessment is, of course, reserved for agents with the required conceptual capacities; namely, rational agents.) Thus, I distinguish between the conditions necessary for performing a transition that is rationally evaluable and the conditions necessary for evaluating a transition’s rationality. The first set of conditions are met by all agents with beliefs and intentions, while the second is met only by those agents that can reflect on (i.e., rationally evaluate) their beliefs or intentions. Moreover, it is only agents capable of evaluating their own beliefs and intentions that may be correctly described as ‘rationally responsible’. To say that an agent is rationally responsible is to say, not only that the agent’s beliefs or intentions, but also the agent herself is rationally evaluable. Thus, I also distinguish between the necessary conditions for an agent’s beliefs and intentions being rationally evaluable and the necessary conditions for an agent being rationally evaluable in the light of her beliefs and intentions. The latter are only met by rational agents.

To say that a transition is rational is, on the present view, to say that it is reason-providing. This reason provides the agent with an entitlement to beliefs or intentions based on that transition. When a suitably equipped agent comes to recognise her reasons as such, her entitlement (eo ipso) becomes a justification. Thus, a justification is what an entitlement becomes when an agent comes to recognise her reasons as reasons. In sum, I hold that the reasons that provide an agent with an entitlement to a certain belief or intention also constitute an agent’s justification just in case the agent recognises those reasons as reasons. The upshot is that the very reasons that constitute an agent’s entitlement may also constitute her justification; this leaves no room for a distinction between the kind of reasons that justify and kind that explain.

The preceding upshot – namely, that the account on offer leaves no room for the distinction between explanatory and justificatory reasons – may seem like a glaring omission. However, I believe that the intuitions that motivate the standard distinction between explanatory and justificatory reasons may be accommodated (without violence) by the distinction between theoretical and practical transitions. Time won’t allow me to fully unpack the view here. But the gist of it is that the content of theoretical transitions roughly corresponds with the kind of reasons that fall on the justificatory side of the traditional divide, and the content of practical transitions roughly corresponds with the kind of reasons that fall on the explanatory side of the traditional divide. Another way the point may be put (though it does not get things quite right) is to say that while theoretical transitions justify, practical transitions explain. This does not get things quite right since, as I noted above, I prefer to say that theoretical and practical transitions are salient to our respective attempts to render an agent’s beliefs and intentions intelligible. Both represent modes of folk-psychological explanation (which, again, must be contrasted with the types of explanations in the natural/physical sciences). In sum, I hold that the concepts of entitlement and justification (whether theoretical or practical in form) are explanatory concepts; they represent a fundamental part of our folk psychological attempts to render beliefs and intentions intelligible.

With regards to your second question, I believe that the notion of entitlement, like all normative notions, can only be applied by an agent equipped with the necessary concepts. But the question that presently concerns us is not who may apply a normative concept, but rather what a normative concept may have application to. I believe a certain state of affairs can be described as being good for a cat (in the most literal sense imaginable), even if the cat lacks the conceptual resources necessary to understand this fact or apply the concept of goodness in its own case or anyone else’s. Moreover, when we say that a certain state of affairs is good for a cat, we do not mean that it would be good for us if we were in the cat’s place. We mean it is good for the cat. For example, if I were in the corner of the room chewing on a freshly killed mouse, this state of affairs would not be good for me. But given the desires and needs of the cat, it may certainly be good for it. In short, when I say that “chewing on a freshly killed mouse” is good for the cat, I mean from the cat’s perspective (given the cat’s needs, beliefs and desires), not my own.

The need to distinguish between our perspective and that of an animal, whose beliefs and intentions we happen to be evaluating, becomes important when one considers that the evaluations in each case may actually be at odds. For example, a die-hard vegan may believe that it would be bad for her (or any other human being) to ingest the flesh of another animal and yet hold that it is good for a lion to do so. When the vegan says it is good for the lion to do so, she is not putting herself (with all her human capacities and desires) in the lion’s place, for if she were to do so, then whatever moral qualms she has about humans consuming animal flesh would continue to apply. Thus, her assessment of the lion cannot simply be a result of her projecting human capacities to the lion. Rather, she reflects on the lion’s needs, beliefs and desires (not her own) and concludes that the act of ingesting animal flesh is good (from the lion’s perspective. Moreover, reflecting on the lion’s perspective presupposes that it has one, and that this perspective belongs to the lion; not to the human being evaluating the lion’s actions.

The problem I have with your claim that talk of a lion’s reasons is simply metaphorical is that it threatens to obscure the above observations; it gives the impression that the lion really does not have a perspective, independent of the perspective of the human being evaluating the lion's beliefs or actions. This is why I emphasised that the human evaluator could get things wrong when she attempted to attribute certain beliefs and desires to an animal. The possibility that the human evaluator may be mistaken entails that there is something (independent of the human evaluator) that she could be mistaken about. Moreover, I maintain that the lion would continue to have a perspective even if there were no humans around to make evaluations based on it. But your view seems to entail that if all human beings died tomorrow, lions would no longer have a perspective from which certain states of affairs could be evaluated as good or bad. Of course, there would be no one around to carry out the evaluations, but that would not mean that ingesting wood chips and animal flesh would suddenly be seen as on a par by lions. Lions would continue to see ingesting wood chips as something not to be done (which, on my account, constitutes a certain state of affairs being represented as bad) and ingesting animal flesh as something to be done (which, on my account, constitutes a certain state of affairs being represented as good). In brief, when I say that a lion has a reason to stalk and kill a gazelle (for example, in order to feed its cubs), I am saying something about the lion, not about myself.

Monday 3 May 2010

On Reasons and Animals: Ben's Reply to Me

What follows is Ben's response to my previous post:

Thank you for paying such close attention to my comments and for such a thorough and thoughtful reply. Let me mention that I really do not want to deny that animals are agents (that would be absurd) or that we can give explanations of animal behavior using ‘reason’ in (one of) its ordinary meanings. That is, animals are properly and non-metaphorically spoken of as agents and as behaving intelligibly (i.e., in ways that make sense given certain considerations).

That said, I still have a complaint about your conclusion that the monkey’s transition of thought in Hurley’s case (from A is dominant over B and B is dominant over C to A is dominant over C) gives the monkey a reason to believe that A is dominant over C—or, as you take them to be equivalent, justifies the monkey’s belief that A is dominant over C.

You’ve brought out two nice distinctions in your last two posts: first, the distinction between responding to reasons and responding to reasons as such; second, the distinction between reasons-for-which and reasons-with-which. I assume that these are not identical distinctions, but they share something important in common. In both cases, it takes an extra capacity to be the sort of creature to which the latter terminology is applicable. Human beings but not all agents act for reasons as such, and the same is true with respect to reasons-with-which. And this is the case because human beings have the capacity for reflection. I think this is all important and true.

But I also think that it does not show that a transition of thought like the one in the monkey case is reason-giving for the monkey. This is the claim at issue. You say that the transition of thought is reason-giving, but you deny that the monkey acts on the recognition of a reason as such (and so also, I assume, you deny that the monkey acts with a reason). I agree that the monkey does not act on the recognition of a reason as such (or with a reason). But I deny that the transition of thought gives the monkey a reason. The reason that I deny this is that I do not think that the rationality of the transition (i.e., its intelligibility in response to the relevant considerations) gives the monkey anything. From the monkey’s perspective, nothing is more or less justified before or after the transition of thought. Equivalently: nothing is justified for the monkey.

I think there is a similarity between the inanimate object and the monkey. Neither the monkey nor the knife, say, can gain a reason on the basis of a transition of thought. The explanation of why this is so in each case reveals a difference between the monkey and knife. The knife cannot gain a reason based on a transition of thought because the knife cannot have thoughts. The monkey cannot gain a reason based on a transition of thought, I claim, because the monkey cannot have reasons in the relevant sense. The relevant sense is, by your own lights, that the monkey’s belief is justified.

Now I can see two ways of making sense of the claim that the monkey’s belief is justified. First, the belief may be justified for the monkey. But this, I claim, requires that the monkey be able to countenance a reason as such. And we both deny that. Second, the belief may be justified for us when we consider things from the monkey’s perspective. This is the view I tried to advocate for in my comment to your previous post. You quote a sentence from those comments to the effect that we project our deliberative perspective on the monkey when thinking about the intelligibility of the monkey’s behavior. I stand by this claim. And I don’t think that it ignores the distinction between the monkey and the knife. We might project on both, even if the one can have thoughts and the other cannot.

To press you further, I think that there is an important distinction missing from this discussion. We might cite a reason for the monkey’s behavior in the sense of a consideration that explains why the monkey did such-and-such. But this is not yet to say that the consideration justifies anything. A justifying explanation requires that the one to whom the explanation is given has the capacity to take up and evaluate the explanatory considerations. And the monkey cannot do this, I think. We can, I think, because we have the capacity to reflect on possible determining grounds of our behavior and choose between them—we have the capacity for reflection.

My view allows us to still account for the ordinary practice of saying things like the reason for which the monkey leapt into the tree was that there was a predator approaching, where ‘reason’ has justificatory force here. This explains the monkey’s behavior in terms that engage our rational, reflective capacities. When we think about the circumstances from the monkey’s point of view, we take the approaching predator to be a reason to jump into the tree, in the sense of a consideration that justifies doing this. We talk as though the monkey took this as a justifying consideration as well. But this talk is metaphorical. (The same goes for the transition of thought regarding dominance.)

What might not be metaphorical is talk that attributes an explanatory role to the consideration that the predator is coming. I think that is the case. But then this consideration does not give the monkey a reason in the sense you are after. You claim that reason-givingness involves justification. And explanation of the sort we have here does not justify anything to the monkey. The monkey is not a proper recipient of justifying explanations because the monkey cannot take them up and assess them in the right way. The monkey does not have the relevant capacity for reflection. We do have this capacity, and we also have the capacity to take up the monkey’s perspective from within our own deliberative point of view. And when we do this, the same considerations that explain things about the monkey’s behavior also justify this behavior to us. But the move from explanation to justification requires the capacity for reflection. And I want to insist that if the monkey does not have this capacity, then the monkey cannot be given a reason, where this involves justification. I also want to insist that this does not undermine the propriety of our talking about the monkey having a justification so long as we recognize that our language is in this case metaphorical.

The upshot is this: we can talk of the monkey having a reason for doing something in both a metaphorical and non-metaphorical sense. In the first case, it is metaphorical because we take reasons to be justifying and the monkey cannot receive justifications. In the second case it is not metaphorical because we take reasons to be explanatory and the monkey’s behavior is explained by certain considerations engaging the monkey’s motivational states and issuing in the relevant behavior. (In case you are worried that the two collapse because, say, a good explanation justifies, I should note that I don’t think the monkey is given an explanation of his behavior here, and for similar reasons—the monkey does not have the requisite capacities to receive this sort of explanation. So I suppose I would still take issue with the (perhaps weaker) claim that the monkey receives a reason, where this involves the monkey receiving an explanation. The sense in which I think the monkey receives a reason is that he is made aware of a consideration that engages his motivational states and issues in the relevant behavior. This reason both explains and justifies his behavior, but the explanation and justification are given to us, not to the monkey.)

One last point. You are right that we may be incorrect about why the monkey leapt into the tree. Perhaps it missed the predator but saw some food in the tree. So we might mistakenly attribute mental states to the monkey, and our ordinary linguistic practices are sensitive to this. But I don’t see how this bears on the issue of whether or not our talking as if the monkey gains a justification is metaphorical or not. If we misattribute a mental state to the monkey, this impugns both the claim that the relevant consideration is justifying and the claim that it is explanatory. If there is no representation of a predator to justify the leap into the tree, then there is equally no representation of a predator to engage the motivational states of the monkey. I don’t see a special problem for my view here.