Brueckner Against Plantinga’s Argument that Deontologism Entails Internalism

In the previous post, I discussed Plantinga’s argument that epistemic deontologism entails epistemic internalism. In this post, I consider Anthony Brueckner’s response to Plantinga.

In “Deontologism and Internalism in Epistemology”, Brueckner counters Plantinga’s claim that a duty-based view of epistemic justification entails that the justification of belief hinges on things cognitively accessible to the agent. As you may recall, Plantinga derives this claim by looking at the classical deontologism of Descartes and Locke. One big idea that emerged from Plantinga’s exposition is that a normally functioning cognitive agent cannot make a nonculpable mistake regarding whether a belief has the property of being justified. This is because 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 or the cause or ground of justification). For clarity, we can call the ratio cognocendi the determining property of justification. By “seeing” that a proposition has this property (e.g., being supported by one’s total evidence) one determines whether a belief in that proposition is justified. We can call the ratio essendi the conferring property, as this property confers justification on the belief in relation to the proposition.

Brueckner argues against Plantinga’s view on two accounts. First, he argues that Plantinga’s argument fails to generalize to epistemic deontologism at large. Second, Brueckner shows that even if the ratio cognoscendi for justification coincides with the ratio essendi for justification, this does not saddle deontologism with epistemic internalism regarding what makes a belief justified. Let me look at each of Brueckner’s claims.

Brueckner points out that Plantinga’s argument must generalize if it’s to avoid being trivial. If Plantinga’s argument fails to generalize to all epistemic deontological views, then Plantinga’s argument amounts to historical exegesis; it amounts to the claim that Descartes and Locke were internalists, which is a claim that “seems uninteresting and unambitious” (Brueckner 1996: 532).

Brueckner argues that even if deontologist motif (M2) and its corollary (C1) hold for classical deontologism they fail to hold for alternative conceptions of deontologism. According to (M2) objective epistemic duty and subjective epistemic duty match:

(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. (Plantinga 1993: 19-20)

Something that follows from (M2) is:

(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. (Plantinga 1993: 20-21)

The general form of objective epistemic duty is: “It is one’s epistemic duty to form only beliefs having feature F” (p. 531). Different conceptions of deontologism result from characterizing ‘F’ differently. Brueckner lists some possibilities:

  • beliefs of true propositions, or perhaps of those propositions that are objectively likely to be true;
  • beliefs that are produced by reliable cognitive processes;
  • beliefs that cohere with the rest of one’s belief system;
  • beliefs whose correctness is revealed by, or at least consistent with, divine scripture;
  • beliefs that would be held in the limit of scientific inquiry. (p. 532)

A deontologist might endorse the idea that a properly functioning cognitive agent cannot make a nonculpable error regarding her general objective epistemic duty. That is, a person can just “see” (i.e.,cannot nonculpably err) regarding her general objective epistemic duty. For instance, she cannot make a mistake that she ought to form only beliefs consistent with scripture. Yet, that same deontologist will likely reject the idea that a properly functioning cognitive agent can just “see” what her objective epistemic duty is in a specific situation. A cognitive agent is capable of nonculpably erring regarding which belief is consistent with scripture, produced by a reliable process, or coheres with her belief system (and so on). Brueckner’s take away is that:

it will be possible, on such deontological theories, for a properly functioning human to be non-culpably mistaken about how to conform to his general objective epistemic duty in a great many particular cases. Thus, under such theories, the subjective epistemic duty regarding which particular belief(s) may be formed will often come apart from his objective epistemic duty, contrary to M2. (p. 532)

The second part of Bruecker’s critical commentary on Plantinga’s argument involves assuming that M2 is true. Assuming that objective epistemic duty and subjective epistemic duty accord does not guarantee that the ratio cognoscendi is identical to the ratio essendi. In this regard, Brueckner considers a moral duty regarding torture:

I can just see that (cannot be nonculpably mistaken as to whether) it is my moral duty to refrain from torturing a prisoner in order to save innocents…Does it follow that my ratio cognoscendi for whether such refraining is morally justified coincides with the ratio essendi for whether the refraining is morally justified? In other words, does it follow that the property by which I determine the moral status of the refraining is the same property which confers that moral status on the refraining? It is not at all clear how to answer this question. One source of the difficulty is the problematic, contested metaphysical status of moral properties. Another source is the widespread disagreement concerning the nature of the ratio essendi for moral justification. In the moral sphere, then, it is not at all clear whether there is any necessary connection between my ability to just see (in Plantinga’s sense) that an action is morally justified, on the one hand, and the alleged identity between my ratio cognoscendi and the ratio essendi for moral justification, on the other. (p. 534)

Though Brueckner does not flesh out the details, we are to imagine that trouble in the moral realm indicates trouble in the epistemic realm. Difficulty in applying Plantinga’s view to the moral realm should make suspect his view in the epistemic realm regarding the commitments of deontologism. However one might argue that this is because of the vexed nature of metaethical problems. One might hold that similar difficulties do not arise in the epistemic realm. Perhaps this is because the metaphysical status of epistemic properties is less problematic than the metaphysical status of moral properties. This is one way for Plantinga to resist Brueckner on this score.

Again, Brueckner addresses Plaintainga’s claims by looking at their implications in the moral sphere. Assuming that the property that determines an action’s moral status coincides with the property that confers that status on that action, the question arises: Does this entail that one has privileged epistemic access to that property? Does this lend support to the truth of access internalism? Brueckner thinks it does not. He does this by invoking the following considerations:

My ratio cognoscendi for whether John is married might well be listening to his wedding vows. The property by means of which I determine whether he is married is the property of his uttering those vows in a special context. That property is also the property in virtue of which he is married. Similarly, in the moral sphere, my ratio cognoscendi for an act’s being morally justified might be to determine whether it has the property of maximizing happiness. On a consequentialist view, that property would also confer justification on the act. But the identity of ratio cognoscendi and ratio essendi in these two cases requires nothing like epistemological internalism about being morally justified or about being wed. In Plantinga’s paradigm cases of classical deontologism, an internalist account of epistemic justification-making properties is true. But it is far from clear that this is somehow guaranteed by the coinciding (in these cases) of the ratio essendi for justification and one’s ratio cognoscendi. (p. 535)

Brueckner’s use of examples involving wedding vows and moral action is puzzling. In this cases the ratio essendi and cognoscendi coincide yet this coinciding between the two properties does not establish that the agent has special cognitive access to the properties. The coinciding of the properties and epistemic internalism are disjoint in cultural contexts and moral actions. But why should we think this sheds light on the epistemic domain, which is Plantinga’s target? Plantinga is not making the case for deontologism in all domains. He is making the case for deontologism in the epistemic domain. To Brueckner’s credit, Plantinga’s formulations of the deontologist’s principles are misleading. Perhaps it is Plantinga’s formulations of the principles that leads Brueckner to cases involving moral action. Plantinga formulates (M2) in terms of what the agent must do, not in terms of what the agent must believe. Only corollaries (C2) and (C3) directly address the justification of propositions.

In conclusion, Brueckner has cast doubt on Plantinga’s argument that epistemic deontologism entails epistemic internalism. However, I think there is room for Plantinga to push back. Plantinga could argue that Brueckner needs to show how the conclusions he draws using moral cases are applicable to cases in the epistemic domain. After all, the moral domain might be a special case, and this might further shed light on the struggles of ethical deontologism without directly impugning epistemic deontologism.

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