Thursday, 29 October 2015

Conscience in Moral Life

In this post, Jason Howard (in the picture below) presents his recent book Conscience in Moral Life (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2014).


My name is Jason Howard and I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in the United States. I have long thought that one of the most fascinating things about human beings is the power that moral appeals and obligations have in shaping our identity. My specific interest in conscience —what it is, why it appears so pervasive, how it functions—is one with my larger curiosity about moral agency, especially what such agency might tell us about the ontological complexity of human beings.

One of my principle motivations in writing Conscience in Moral Life was to capture the pivotal role that conscience continues to play, both positively and negatively, in contemporary society.

In brief, my book explores where our widespread confidence in conscience stems from, examining the history of conscience as a moral concept and its characteristic moral phenomenology. Looking at the rich conceptual history of conscience, theories about its relationship to moral development, and the role of conscience claims in the history of U.S. legislation, I make the case that many of our beliefs concerning conscience exaggerate its capacity for moral guidance. Rather than a trivial problem, our overconfidence in conscience has a detrimental impact on how we see the role of moral reasoning, the value of moral consensus and even the function of moral education.

I argue that Western culture has inherited a number of assumptions about conscience that first gained widespread currency during the Enlightenment. These assumptions can be grouped under what I call a “faculty” conception of conscience, where conscience is seen as a unique faculty of moral insight, and whose defining characteristics are its infallibility, innateness and ontological distinctiveness. The first section of the book is focused on showing that such a faculty view is indefensible and that accepting such a picture of conscience, even if only some aspects, leads to seriously misunderstanding the nature of moral obligation.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

PERFECT Year Two: Magdalena



I start the second year of my PhD on Project PERFECT with curiosity and enthusiasm. My plans for this year are largely focused on the continuation of my on-going research on the epistemic and pragmatic benefits of affective disorders, including depression, dysthymia, and bipolar disorder.

I spent my first year with PERFECT investigating the phenomenon of depressive realism. The question which I attempted to address relates to the ‘sadder but wiser’ dilemma: are those, who suffer from depression, ‘wiser’ in any way than healthy people? The answer appears to be more complex than I initially expected: certain symptoms associated with light depression (e.g. low mood) contribute to more accurate beliefs with regards to the self and self-related circumstances, but not in other contexts.

My findings have been published in an article which I co-authored with Lisa Bortolotti and were presented at The British Society for the Philosophy of Science 2015 annual conference and the Cognitive Futures Conference in Oxford. I also had a chance to represent the Department of Philosophy at the Birmingham Graduate Poster Conference 2015, where my poster picturing epistemic and psychological benefits of depression was awarded the peer prize for the best poster.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Epistemic Consequentialism: Interview with Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij


In this post we hear about a project on problems and prospects for epistemic consequentialism whose principal investigators are Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij (University of Kent), in the picture above, and Jeff Dunn (DePauw University). The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and running from August 2014 to July 2016. So far, one paper has been published as part of the project—‘A Defence of Epistemic Consequentialism’, Philosophical Quarterly 64 (257), 2014.

An edited volume entitled Epistemic Consequentialism is due to be published at the end of 2016 or early 2017 by Oxford University Press. It will feature papers by Clayton Littlejohn, Christopher Meacham, Michael Caie, Nancy Snow, Richard Pettigrew, Ralph Wedgewood, James Joyce, Hilary Kornblith, Julia Driver, Amanda MacAskill, Alejandro Perez Carballo, and Sophie Horowitz. The plan is to publish two other journal articles as part of the project.

Kristoffer has kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

LB: How did you first become interested in epistemic consequentialism?

KA-V: I became interested in epistemic consequentialism as a result of thinking about epistemic value. It’s a bit difficult to define ‘epistemic value’ without taking a stand on substantial and controversial questions, but one historically popular view is that things—including beliefs, character traits, and social arrangements—are epistemically valuable in so far as they enable people to form true beliefs.

In fact, I’ve argued that true belief is unique in being of intrinsic epistemic value, i.e., the type of epistemic value possessed independently of what else it might get you (see, e.g., my ‘In Defense of Veritistic Value Monism’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 94, 2013). So, for example, while having justification for your beliefs might be valuable because it makes it more likely that your beliefs will be true, and as such is of (mere) instrumental epistemic value, having a true belief is epistemically valuable in and of itself. But here’s the thing: being told that something is valuable, even intrinsically valuable, doesn’t in itself tell you anything about what you should believe.

To say anything about what we should believe, we need a normative theory that takes us from what’s good to believe to what we should believe. Epistemic consequentialism is a family of such normative views. For example, on a very simple version of such consequentialism, analogous to classical utilitarianism in ethics, we might say that we should believe in such a way as to maximise the good. As it happens, I don’t think that’s a very plausible version of epistemic consequentialism, but it illustrates nicely the general idea behind epistemically consequentialist views.


Tuesday, 20 October 2015

PERFECT Year Two: Kathy


I am delighted to be joining Project PERFECT in its second year. My previous research focussed on issues at the intersection of philosophy of psychology and epistemology. I am extremely excited about joining a team of researchers who work in closely related areas.

I am joining PERFECT at the beginning of the second strand of the project, which will focus on distorted memory. During the next year, I will begin working on two new projects relating to this topic.

For the first project, I will be collaborating with Lisa on cases of memory distortion in the non-clinical population. In cases of memory distortion, individuals form false memories. They recollect things that did not happen. The recollections are false but can be strongly believed. We will consider potential epistemic benefits that might follow from false memories of this sort. This means that we will consider whether the possession of false memories can lead to the formation of other true beliefs, leading to an overall increase in understanding or knowledge.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Epistemic Vices Conference

The Epistemic Vices Conference, held in Durham in September 2015, put epistemic vices in the spotlight, with a series of talks on both what makes something an epistemic vice and the nature of specific epistemic vices.




On day one Heather Battaly argued that virtues and vices are traits that express who someone is as a person, even if the person is not responsible for the possession or exercise of the traits. She argued that this view—personalism—is better equipped than existing forms of virtue epistemology to tackle some examples where people display intellectual vice, e.g. where a person is prejudiced due to their upbringing in a racist society.

Quassim Cassam argued that intellectual vices are traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. He described how intellectual vices perform a significant role in explaining poor epistemic conduct. Responding to the situationist challenge, he claimed that virtues are often local rather than global traits.

I highlighted a family of virtues and vices relating to the way that people respond to the effects that features of their local situation can have on their cognition: virtues requiring appropriately attending to and controlling these situational influences, and vices displayed via lack of appropriate attention and control.


Ian James Kidd outlined how it is possible to successfully charge others with epistemic vice but claimed that it is difficult because it requires many conditions to be in place, e.g. speaker and target must share a concept of vice.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

PERFECT Year Two: Ema


In this post I give an overview of what I did as a Research Fellow in the first year of project PERFECT, as well as my plans for the coming year. 

My research for the duration of my time working on PERFECT will focus on belief. Last year, Lisa and I worked together on three papers. The first, together with Matthew Broome and Matteo Mameli, was on the moral and legal implications of the continuity between delusional and non-delusional beliefs. The second, together with Rachel Gunn, was on what makes a belief a delusional belief. The third paper was on the status of beliefs from fiction and the teleological account of belief.

My main focus this year though was on defending the one-factor account of monothematic delusion formation. According to this view, the only abnormality we need to appeal to in order to explain why a subject comes to hold a delusional belief, is the anomalous experience she has. We do not need to appeal to any abnormal deficit or bias in the subject’s mechanisms of belief production or belief evaluation, since the psychology involved in these processes is within the normal range. I have worked on defending this view via an investigation into alien abduction belief. My view is that the delusion formation debate can be informed by this phenomenon. Last October we published my interview with Max Coltheart on this topic, split into two parts: the first on delusion formation, and the second on alien abduction belief

Also this year, Lisa and I organized an event at the Arts and Science Festival in Birmingham on Sight, Sound, and Mental Health. Here I gave a short talk entitled 'A Strange Encounter: Explaining Alien Abduction Belief'. Project PERFECT also sponsored the Philosophy of Psychology strand at the mentoring and networking workshop for women in philosophy which I co-organised (reports from the workshop were published on the blog here and here). This strand featured Imperfect Cognitions network members Hanna Pickard (mentor) and Anna Ichino (mentee) discussing Anna’s paper which argued for a non-doxastic account of religious attitudes (a topic Anna has written on in a post for Imperfect Cognitions).

Saturday, 10 October 2015

World Mental Health Day 2015

In this post we shall report on some of the initiatives promoted by mental health charities to celebrate this year's World Mental Health Day and we will point to some resources from the blog that could be of interest. One of the objectives of project PERFECT is to undermine the theoretical foundations for the current stigma associated with mental illness and argue for the continuity between so-called 'normal' and 'abnormal' cognition, so we feel we are making a small contribution to progress in this area.

The Mind Charity has announced that on Mental Health Day the Duke and Duchess of Kent will participate in a special event, meeting young people who have faced mental health issues and now volunteer for Mind.

The Mental Health Foundation focuses this year on children's mental health issues, and raising the problem that children may find it particularly difficult to gather information or ask for help due to stigma. See the campaign poster below:



Thursday, 8 October 2015

A Luxury of the Understanding


In this post, Allan Hazlett, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico, presents his book, A Luxury of the Understanding (Oxford University Press, 2013). Allan (in the picture above) works on the value of accurate representation, deference and disagreement, and political epistemology.

Philosophers have for some time acknowledged the possibility of irrational and false beliefs that are nonetheless beneficial to the believer. A familiar case is that of the over-confident athlete: it is easy to imagine that Karen is better off over-estimating her tennis abilities, than she would be were her evaluation of her abilities accurate, given the boost to her confidence that this over-estimation provides. However, it is standard for philosophers to argue that, since Karen’s belief is irrational and false, although it may be all-things-considered best for her, it is nevertheless “epistemically” bad.

In A Luxury of the Understanding (cover pictured below), I appeal to cases like the case of the over-confident athlete to motivate an argument that true belief is at most sometimes, and not always or even generally, good for the believer. The basic idea is that there are systematic patterns of cases in which false belief is better for the believer than true belief – in particular, I focus on the phenomenon of self-enhancement bias, studied by social psychologists (Chapter 2).

I argue that many people’s tendency for unrealistic optimism, for example, is best for them, despite the fact that this tendency is manifested in false beliefs. The reason, I propose, is that true belief is at most of the things that matters when it comes to most people’s well-being: other things that matter include subjective satisfaction, motivation, and the ability to cope with negative events. These benefits, it seems to me, often outweigh the “epistemic” costs of unrealistic optimism.


However, some philosophers have suggested that self-enhancement bias is beneficial for a person only on a mistaken hedonistic or subjectivist view of well-being. For this reason, I also argue that biased belief is sometimes valuable both from the perspective of friendship and from the perspective of morality (Chapter 3) – which, in philosophy, are relatively uncontroversial contributors to well-being. The idea is that friendship and morality sometimes require us to have overly positive views of other people. The upshot of all this, again, is that true belief is only sometimes good for the believer.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

PERFECT Year Two: Lisa


The second year of ERC-funded project PERFECT (logo above) has just started and it is time to look back at what we have done so far and make plans for the future.

What we have done so far

Ema, Magdalena, Michael and I have had a very busy time, delivering talks, writing papers, and sponsoring a series of really interesting, interdisciplinary events, including a public engagement event on Sight, Sound and Mental Health for the Arts and Science Festival 2015, a Delusion lunchtime seminar with experts on delusion formation, and a session on the Function of Delusions as part of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Annual Congress.

We had three papers published open access: a review paper on costs and benefits of realism and optimism in Current Opinion in Psychiatry, a paper on the ethics of delusional belief in Erkenntnis, and a review paper on the nature and development of delusions in Philosophy Compass. Many more are in progress!

We continued to disseminate our work on the blog, and also created an Imperfect Cognitions playlist on YouTube highlighting our network members' work, and an app for iOS and Android, called PERFECT, free to download, with information about events, links to relevant sites, videos, blog posts, links to papers, and some interactive features (e.g., "Ask PERFECT"!)

What I plan to do next

Ema, Magdalena, and Michael will tell you about their own plans in the next few Tuesday blog posts, and I will say something about mine here. 

I am increasingly interested in what irrational cognitions mean for agency. Overly optimistic beliefs ("I am a talented football player" when I am just a mediocre one) and explanations that are not grounded on evidence ("I offered the job to Jim and not to Julie because he was better prepared" when my selection was based on implicit biases due to gender stereotypes) are good examples of cognitions that do not seem to get us any closer to the truth but play some role in helping us achieve other goals, some of which turn out to be epistemically worthwhile.


Monday, 5 October 2015

A Tale of two Optimists



In our everyday conception, an optimist is someone who looks at the bright side and expects good things to happen. The psychological literature distinguishes between different kinds of optimism: dispositional optimism and unrealistic optimism (also known as the optimism bias). Which of these types of optimism corresponds to our lay conception and how are they related to each other? Do these types of optimism differ in their effects? 

Dispositional optimism is conceptualized as a general tendency to expect good outcomes and as a fairly stable personality trait. The optimism bias on the other hand is supposed to be a cognitive bias whereby people overestimate the likelihood of encountering specific positive events and underestimate the likelihood of encountering specific negative events. This unrealistic estimate can either be comparative or absolute. In the first case, we rate our own prospects as better than those of comparable others, in the second, we overestimate our prospects relative to the actual likelihood.

While these two types of optimism sometimes coincide, a dispositional optimism does not predict unrealistic optimism and vice versa (Shepperd 2002). Nevertheless, there are some intriguing parallels between trait optimism and unrealistic optimism: Both seem to require the perception that we exert control over events. Trait optimism is linked to an optimistic explanatory style, which stresses the possibility of personal control over events (Forgeard et al. 2012). Unrealistic optimism is frequently associated with the illusion of control, the illusion that we control events to an extent that we don’t in fact. Furthermore, a correlation between trait optimism and optimism bias in belief updates of predictions concerning oneself compared to predictions for others have been observed (Kuzmanovic et al. 2015).

Both dispositional optimism and unrealistic optimism have been claimed to have beneficial consequences for individuals (Carver et al 2010, Taylor and Brown 1994). But findings are far more mixed in the case of unrealistic optimism. Especially in the literature on health and optimism, unrealistic optimism has been linked to dangerous complacency regarding health risks.

Importantly, in contrast to unrealistic optimism, dispositional optimism is not conceptualized as intrinsically unrealistic, though it may be if it coincides with unrealistic optimism. This may seem puzzling at first; we might think that dispositional optimism and the optimism bias are just two ways of measuring the same thing: One looks at general, one at specific expectations for the future. We would expect that specific positive expectations lead to a positive general outlook and the general expectation also manifests itself in specific predictions.

But a generally positive outlook and specific expectations need not be linked in this way: ‘The optimist thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds, the pessimist fears he may be right.’ As this wonderful joke illustrates, optimism does not necessarily entail error, it is just as much about the spin we put on events.

A general expectation of good things happening to me is much harder to disappoint then a very specific prediction. If I overestimate my chances of getting a specific job, I may end up being disappointed when I don’t. If I expect ‘more good things then bad things to happen to me’, then I might focus on the valuable feed-back I got when I was rejected and therefore have something to add to my stock of good things happening to me despite experiencing rejection. This flexibility of outlook and evaluation in general optimism may make it more beneficial to individuals, as it does not set them up for disappointment in the way very specific unrealistically optimistic expectations can.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Epistemic Utility Theory: Interview with Richard Pettigrew


In this post I interview Richard Pettigrew (in the picture above), who is Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bristol, and is leading a four year project entitled “Epistemic Utility Theory: Foundations and Applications”, also featuring Jason Konek, Ben Levinstein, Chris Burr and Pavel Janda. Ben Levinstein left the project in February to join the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford. Jason Konek left the project in August to take up a TT post at Kansas State University. They have been replaced by Patricia Rich (PhD, Carnegie Mellon) and Greg Gandenberger (PhD, Pitt; postdoc at LMU Munich).

LB: When did you first become interested in the notion of epistemic utility? What inspired you to explore its foundations and applications as part of an ERC-funded project?

RP: It all started in my Masters year, when I read Jim Joyce's fantastic paper 'A Nonpragmatic Vindication of Probabilism' (Philosophy of Science, 1998, 65 (4):575-603). In that paper, Joyce wished to justify the principle known as Probabilism. This is a principle that is intended to govern your credences or degrees of belief or partial beliefs. Probabilism says that your credences or degrees of belief should obey the axioms of probability calculus. Joyce notes that there already exist justifications for that principle, but they all appeal to the allegedly bad pragmatic consequences of violating it -- if your credences violate Probabilism, these arguments show, they'll lead you to make decisions that are guaranteed to be bad in some way. 

The Dutch Book argument, as put forward by Frank Ramsey and Bruno de Finetti, is the classic argument of this sort. As his title suggests, Joyce seeks a justification that doesn't appeal to the pragmatic problems that arise from non-probabilistic credences. He's interested in identifying what is wrong with them from a purely epistemic point of view. After all, suppose I violate Probabilism because I believe that it's going to rain more strongly than I believe that it will rain or snow. It may well be true that these credences will have bad pragmatic consequences -- they may well lead me to buy a £1 bet that it will rain for more than I will sell a £1 bet that it will rain or snow, for instance, and that will lead to a sure loss for me.

But there also seems to be some purely epistemic flaw in my credences. Joyce wishes to identify that flaw. To do this, he identifies a notion of purely epistemic utility for credences. This is supposed to be a measure of how good a set of credences is from a purely epistemic point of view; how valuable they are, epistemically speaking. His thought is that we value credences according to their accuracy. Very roughly, a credence in a true proposition is more accurate the higher it is, whereas a credence in a falsehood is more accurate the lower it is.

So if I believe that it will rain more strongly than you, and it does rain, then I will be more accurate than you because I have a higher credence in a truth. Joyce then proves a startling result: he shows that, if you have credences that violate Probabilism -- that is, if your credences do not satisfy the axioms of the probability calculus -- then there are alternative credences in the same propositions that are guaranteed to be more accurate than your credences are; that is, however the world turns out, these alternative credences will be more accurate; that is, you know a priori that those credences outperform yours from the point of view of accuracy. From this, he infers that such credences must be irrational. This is his nonpragmatic vindication of Probabilism.

So that was the starting point for me. I read about it in my Masters year and played around with the framework for a few years after that. But it was only when I started talking with Hannes Leitgeb about the project that things took off. We wrote two papers together proposing alternative accuracy-based justifications for Probabilism and other norms ('An Objective Justification of Bayesianism I: Measuring Inaccuracy', 2010, Philosophy of Science, 77: 201-235; 'An Objective Justification of Bayesianism II: The Consequences of Minimizing Inaccuracy', 2010, Philosophy of Science, 77: 236-272). And since then, this topic has been the main focus of my research for five years. I find so many aspects of Joyce's argument and technical result compelling. For one thing, the conclusion of the argument seems to lie far from the premises, so it seems to make real philosophical progress -- from an account of how to assign epistemic value or utility to credences, we get a very specific and mathematically precise norm. 

Another appealing feature of the argument, and the one that launched the project I'm currently exploring, is that it suggests a way in which we might argue for other credal principles. Joyce's argument essentially has two premises. The first is an account of epistemic utility: the epistemic utility of a credence is its accuracy. The second is a principle of decision theory: it is the dominance principle, which says that it's irrational to pick an option when there is an alternative option that is guaranteed to have greater utility -- that is, it is irrational to pick a dominated option. Using a mathematical theorem -- which shows that the options that aren't dominated are precisely the probabilistic sets of credences -- he derives Probabilism from these two premises. But the dominance principle is just one of many decision principles. Thus, a natural question emerges: which principles for credences follow from the other decision principles?