Plantinga on Dentologism and Internalism

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m going to look at whether epistemic deontologism entails epistemic internalism. If having a justified belief is a matter of having fulfilled one’s epistemic duties, does it follow that the grounds of justification for the belief must be accessible upon reflection?

In Warrant: The Current Debate Alvin Plantinga answers the question above in the affirmative. Deontologism implies internalism. He does this by considering classical deontologism according to Descartes and Locke. The first internalist Motif (M) Plantinga derives from Descartes and Locke is:

(M1) Epistemic justification (that is, subjective epistemic justification, being such that I am not blameworthy) is entirely up to me and within my power. (p. 19)

(M1) is supported by the idea that whether a person has a justified belief is within the person’s control. Even if a person is a victim of a Cartesian demon, the person can still do her best with regard to her epistemic duties. This makes the person blameless regarding what she believes. Not being blameworthy is tied to the subject’s perspective. The idea of subjective epistemic justification is supported by two principles from moral theory:

(a) You are properly blamed for failing to do something A if and only if it is your duty to do A (and fail to do it). (p. 15)

You cannot be justly blamed for not doing something that it was not your duty to do. In addition, being a target of the reactive attitudes of guilt and blame hinges on what your mental states were toward what’s required or permitted by moral duty.

(b) If a person nonculpably believes that doing A is morally required or permitted, then she is not guilty (not to be blamed) for doing A; and if she nonculpably believes that refraining from doing A is morally required or permitted, then she is not guilty (not to be blamed) for refraining from doing A. (p. 16)


If I believe that it is my duty, all things considered, to do A, then I am guilty, culpable, morally blameworthy if I do not do A. (p. 16)

So nonculpable belief or knowledge regarding what duty requires excuses one from blame when one does something wrong. You have to know that it was your duty or that you were violating your duty in order to be blameworthy for doing so. It helps to note that this idea goes against the idea from legal theory that ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating the law. Plantinga claims legal duty differs from moral duty in this regard. He uses the example of stealing to indicate that you are only blameworthy for violating a duty if you knowingly violate that duty:

Assume, just for the purposes of argument, that the ground of the obligation not to steal is the divine command “Thou shalt not steal.” I could hardly be blamed for stealing if I (nonculpably) didn’t know that stealing is wrong or didn’t know, of a given act of stealing I am performing, that it is wrong, or didn’t know, of a given act of taking something, that it is indeed an act of stealing. You are guilty, or to blame or properly subject to censure only if, as we say, you knowingly flout your duty. Ignorance may be no excuse in the law; but nonculpable ignorance is an excusing condition in morality. (pp. 16-17)

Principles (M1), (a), and (b) show that justification is a matter of not being blameworthy and not being blameworthy is a matter of what’s within one’s ken, what’s within one’s control. Plantinga lands this point on the Ought Implies Can (OIC) principle, as he indicates:

All that is required is that I do my subjective duty, act in such a way that I am blameless. All I have to do is my duty; and, given that ought implies can, I am guaranteed to do that. So justification is entirely within my power; whether or not my beliefs are justified is up to me, within my control. My system of beliefs may be wildly skewed and laughably far from the truth; I may be a brain in a vat or a victim of a malicious Cartesian demon; but whether my beliefs have justification is still up to me. (p. 19)

Next Plantinga puts on the table another motif from classical deontologism and three corollaries of that motif. The second internalist principle ties together subjective and objective duty. Objective duty holds that success, not a mere attempt, is what counts regarding doing one’s duty. Objective duty requires succeeding in matching assent or belief to the support that belief receives from one’s total evidence.

(M2) For a large, important, and basic class of objective epistemic duties, objective and subjective duty coincide; what you objectively ought to do matches that which is such that if you don’t do it, you are guilty and blameworthy. (pp. 19-20)

(M2) has three corollaries. According to the first Corollary (C):

(C1) In a large and important set of cases, a properly functioning human being can simple see (cannot make a nonculpable mistake about) what objective epistemic duty requires. (pp. 20-21)

Descartes and Locke think I do not directly determine whether a belief is justified. Instead I indirectly determine whether its justified by figuring out whether, for Locke, “it is probable with respect to what I know”, or, for Descartes, “whether it is clear and distinct for me”. This way of figuring out whether a belief is justified is the ratio cognoscendi of justification. Whether a belief has the ratio cognoscendi of justification is something that a cognitively well-functioning person can readily determine.

(C2) In a large and important class of cases a properly functioning human being can simply see (cannot make a nonculpable mistake about) whether the proposition has the property by means of which she tells whether a proposition is justified for her. (p. 21)

In addition, the means by which you determine whether a belief has the property of justification (i.e., the ratio cognoscendi) coincides with what makes the belief justified (i.e., the ratio essendi, the cause or ground of justification). A properly functioning epistemic agent is inerrant when it comes to figuring out whether a belief has the property that makes it justified. This leads to the last corollary.

(C3) In a large, important and basic class of epistemic cases a properly functioning human being can simply see (cannot make a nonculpable mistake about) whether a proposition has the property that confers justification upon it for her. (p. 22)

Plantinga proceeds to connect the classical deontological view of justification with contemporary theories of epistemic justification. Regarding justification as something involving duty fulfillment and evidential support finds its way into many contemporary views. The result being that deontologism entails internalism. It entails that the grounds that make a belief justified, and that the belief is justified, are things that are accessible upon reflection or otherwise internal to the subject.

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