Suppose David and Nates disagree about the morality of Capital Punishment. David thinks that CP is unjustifiable, whereas Nates–ever the Kantian–thinks that CP may under certain circumstances be not only justified but morally required. David and Nates are aware of their disagreement with each other–they’re facing off in the seminar room. Now consider this question: does the mere fact of their disagreement give them reason to suspend judgment on the morality of CP?
We can certainly imagine contexts in which it would not. Suppose, for example, that David is thoroughly familiar with the philosophical literature on the morality of CP, as well as the legal history of its uses and abuses, and, finally, all the statistical data concerning deterrence etc. Nates, on the other hand, is unfamiliar with just about all of that stuff, save for some spirited passages from Kant in which Kant talks about avoiding the “serpent windings of utilitarianism” and the importance of the punishment ‘fitting’ the crime. In that case, we can probably agree, David should not be too troubled by Nates’s disagreement, since he is clearly in a better epistemic position than Nates vis-a-vis the available arguments and evidence with respect to the moral justification of CP.
Alternatively, suppose David and Nates are in the same epistemic position with respect to the arguments and evidence, but that Nates is much smarter and/or better trained in evaluating philosophical arguments and statistical data than David. And suppose, further, that both David and Nates are aware of this difference between them. In this case, again, we can probably agree that not only should Nates not be troubled by David’s disagreement, but that David may even have reason to suspend his judgment in the face of disagreement with someone much smarter and better trained than himself.
But now suppose that neither of these differences between David and Nates obtain. That is, suppose that David and Nates are in the same epistemic position vis-a-vis the arguments/evidence and that they are equally smart and equally well-trained. Suppose, that is, that David and Nates are what the literature I’ll be discussing calls epistemic peers, and that David and Nates regard each other as epistemic peers. Suppose, finally, that David and Nates do not only regard each other as epistemic peers generally, but that they regard each other as such in the specific context of forming judgments about the morality of CP. In other words, facing off in the seminar room and trying to convince each other of their respective positions, neither believes that in this case the other is simply confused, or biased, or has made a mistake, or is being uncharacteristically dense, argumentative, etc.
In the case I’ve just described–David and Nates are epistemic peers when it comes to forming judgments about the morality of CP–does the mere fact of their disagreement give David and Nates a reason to suspend judgment about the morality of CP? This is the central question being addressed in the contemporary literature on disagreement, which I’ll be discussing in a series of upcoming posts. In this initial post, I give a brief overview of an essay by the philosopher Hilary Kornblith, titled “Belief in the Face of Controversy.” Or perhaps I shouldn’t say ‘overview,’ since in these posts I’ll just be highlighting aspects of the essays I’m reading that struck me as most interesting.
On Kornblith’s view, it is very often (more often than not) rational to suspend judgment about philosophical issues in the face of epistemic peer disagreement (hereafter, EPD). Here’s an extremely simplified version of his argument (as I understand it, and using considerable constructive license):
1. EPD (absent certain complicating conditions that I won’t get into) calls for a suspension of judgment in the context of perceptual disagreements, mathematical disagreements, and disagreements within the empirical sciences.
2. Either there is a crucial disanalogy between these areas of inquiry and philosophical inquiry that affects the relevance of EPD, or there is not.
3. There is not.
4. Therefore, EPD calls for a suspension of judgment in the context of philosophical inquiry.
One might say: But in the perceptual, mathematical, and scientific contexts judgments are right or wrong, correct or incorrect, and that’s why EPDs put such pressure on judgment. But philosophical judgments are different–they’re not right or wrong, correct or incorrect, but rather ‘open to interpretation,’ etc. The trouble with a response like this is that it might seem to embrace a kind of relativism that a lot of philosophers wish to avoid. Many philosophers really want to think of philosophical inquiry as an inquiry into a kind of objective truth–not the truths revealed by perception, mathematics, or the empirical sciences, but objective nonetheless. These philosophers will not want to overstate the differences between philosophical inquiry and the paradigmatically objective forms of inquiry.
So why shouldn’t these philosophers simply accept (4)–that is, accept that like in other contexts, EPD concerning philosophical issues calls for a suspension of judgment? Well, the problem is that unlike in the other contexts EPD in philosophy is so pervasive and persistent. It’s pretty much a joke that philosophers cannot agree on anything. So the worry is, as Kornblith puts it, that if EPD in philosophy calls for a suspension of judgment, then “a broad skepticism about philosophical matters threatens” (33).
So from the fact of philosophical disagreement, Kornblith has generated an uncomfortable dilemma, with skepticism about philosophical knowledge residing on one horn, and relativism about philosophical matters residing on the other.
Toward the end of his essay, Kornblith says the following:
I do not mean to suggest that we should stop thinking about [philosophical] issues, or that thinking about them, and trying to work out tenable views, is not intellectually respectable. That is not my view at all….
Alas, he doesn’t say anything else about why that is not in fact the reasonable practical conclusion to draw from his arguments about the epistemic relevance of EPD.