Thursday, February 21, 2013

Begging the Question and Justification

As previous posts indicate, we're discussing a piece by Russ Shafer-Landau in my class this term.

He there discusses an objection to moral realism involving moral disagreement.  Consider a case in which two agents are embroiled in a moral dispute that seems intractable--neither can convince the other to change her mind.  Shafer-Landau contends that one agent could be justified in believing that X is wrong even if her defense of the view that X is wrong begs the question.  As he put it, "'s belief might continue to be justified, even if defending it to others has one begging questions."

This is only part of his reply to the objection and I don't consider the point I'm about to make to be much of a criticism of Shafer-Landau's response.  Indeed, I think he successfully shows that the objection is extremely weak.  I'm here simply expressing my confusion and hoping that others will weigh in on the issues that I'm about to raise.

Suppose that an agent believes that slavery is wrong and she believes this for various reasons (e.g., that people have a right not to be enslaved, that slavery is not conducive to overall utility, that it violates the categorical imperative, etc.).  Suppose that her opponent does not believe that slavery is wrong and she believes this for various other reasons (e.g., that some groups of individuals are morally inferior to others, that there's no such thing as a right not to be enslaved, that both utilitarianism and deontology are false, etc.).  So we have a moral disagreement about slavery.  And we might imagine that neither party will budge.

Of course, this case is distinct form the one which Shafer-Landau apparently has in mind.  His case (it seems from his very brief discussion) is one in which one of the agents is only able to offer question-begging arguments when trying to convince her opponent.  His claim is that such an agent can nevertheless be justified in thinking that, say, slavery is wrong.

Now, what would justify her belief that slavery is wrong?  Is it these question-begging arguments?  How can a question-begging argument confer justification?  One of my students suggested that such arguments are only question-begging when presented to the other agent.  And when "presented" to the agent herself, they are not question-begging.  I'm not sure what to make of this suggestion.  It seems to me that arguments are question-begging in virtue of their structure, not in virtue of the audience.  (Well, maybe that's not quite right, since begging the question is taken to be an informal fallacy---But one way to think about arguments that beg the question is as a type of circular argument where an explicit or implicit premise of the argument entails the conclusion and so the argument should be seen as entirely unsatisfactory.)  So, again, why think that the agent is justified in believing that slavery is wrong if she isn't able to offer anything but question-begging arguments?  Perhaps she could be justified because, on one way of thinking about them, question-begging arguments are valid.  Here's an example of a question-begging argument:
(1) Y.
(2) Therefore, Y.
It's valid, but is it the sort of argument that could confer justification (even when you "offer" the argument to yourself)?  I suppose you might be confident of the truth of Y and you could think that you are justified in believing Y on the basis of such an argument.  But the question is whether you could actually be justified in believing Y on the basis of this question-begging argument.

The case I gave seems like a paradigm case of moral disagreement.  I take it that what usually happens in such cases is that agent A finds agent B's arguments unpersuasive because she thinks B's arguments are not sound (and vice versa).  Of course, an agent might be justified in believing that slavery is wrong even if she cannot provide reasons that her opponent finds compelling.  Her reasons might be good ones even if her opponent doesn't agree that they are good.  Of course, the reasons the agents in my case have for their beliefs don't involve arguments that beg the question.

But Shafer-Landau's point is about a different kinds of case than the one I've offered.  It's a peculiar instance of moral disagreement and I'm having trouble making sense of how an agent can be justified in believing something when she is stuck with only question-begging arguments.

Our conversation in class got cut short and I found it really interesting, so I thought I'd open it up to folks reading this blog.  Comments on these issues are most welcome.        


Claire Stein said...

The question-begging justification for one's beliefs seems a lot like moral intuition to me - the justification of the belief is based on the subject's prior, known or unknown moral scales. In this way it seems like the justification for a question-begging moral belief would be unsatisfactory for anyone with a different moral scale, which seems to boil the view that it can be justified to a relativistic view of morality. The really interesting question though is what happens when there is disagreement involved. Using your question-begging argument: 1) Y. 2) Therefore, Y. if the other person decides Y is true then the argument is valid and sound. If the other person thinks Y is false then the argument is valid because both premises are false, but it is not sound. The dissenter would make a similar argument: 1) Not Y. 2) Therefore, not Y. and believe it to be sound. But according to the law of excluded middle Y is necessarily either true or false, and Y and not Y cannot both be true. This seems weird and sort of extinguishes the value of using logic in investigating morality, so maybe this could be a reason to reject a view that considers these kinds of question-begging arguments to be justifiable, and perhaps undermine relativistic views.

T. Stoehr said...

I think the concept of providing a question-begging argument as support is, exactly as Claire said, an appeal to personal intuition on a certain matter. I think that, though a question-begging argument would most likely not convince an individual in opposition, the individual herself can still be justified in believing Y on the basis of this kind of argument. I view moral intuition to be a strong justification for believing in something, and see this kind of argument as personally convincing, though not when it comes to convincing an opponent of one's justifications for an argument.
That being said, I think it is a last resort kind of argument. As we discussed in class, there have to be other reasons that an individual has for believing a certain action to be moral/immoral. Maybe moral intuition is the strongest predictor of an individual's moral compass, but behind intuition lies beliefs about the morality of related consequences of said action (i.e. slavery is wrong because it strips in individual of his freedom, etc.). When it comes to convincing one's opponent of an action's morality/immorality, a question-begging argument is not the best support, though I do think it holds weight when it comes to self-justification.

J. P. H. Stephens said...

Perhaps RSL is simply going the route of innocent until proven guilty. I view this statement as something akin to "One is rational to continue in their belief even when the cannot prove its truth", with an implied "...unless other arguments prove the falsity of the belief in question".

When RSL uses the word "justified", some of us may think it to mean "backed up by proof". Instead, I believe that the statement that "'s belief might continue to be justified, even if defending it to others has one begging questions" is to mean that agent "A" is rationally allowed to believe "X", so long as other arguments do not exist which prove that "X" is untrue, even if every argument provided by agent "A" is a question-begging argument.