Evidence for Moral Claims Part 2: Coherentism

Overview of Coherentism
The issue on the table is to figure out what it takes for a moral claim to be epistemically justified. The coherentist offers the following general account of justification. A moral belief is justified to the degree that it coheres with the believers other beliefs. In short, justification is cashed out in terms of a belief’s inferential relations to other beliefs. Central to the coherentist position is that there is no privileged set of beliefs that ground other beliefs. All beliefs are justified in terms of other beliefs–regardless of what kind of beliefs they are.

Coherentism is perhaps best understood in contrast to foundationalism. A foundationalist holds that certain kinds of beliefs are–well–foundational while others are either inferred from or not as privileged as the foundational set. For example, in terms of justificatory status, Descartes foundationalism privileges a priori beliefs over empirically derived beliefs. That is to say, if an empirically derived belief conflicts with an a priori (or derived from a priori) belief, the latter belief is more justified because a prior beliefs have more justificatory status (i.e., they’re more foundational). In contrast, the coherentist would say that the best justified belief is the one which best coheres with the totality of your beliefs–regardless of kind.

I want to emphasize that the coherence theorist (of the type advocated by Sayre-McCord) isn’t a theory of truth rather it is a theory of justification.  Coherence doesn’t make beliefs true, coherence simply justifies a belief for an agent.

Emotional Experiences, Justification, and Coherentism
In my previous post I argued that it’s plausible that our emotional reactions to certain situations play an evidential role for moral beliefs. In short, in some cases we use emotions to support moral claims or emotional experiences can change our moral positions.  If we think that emotions can sometimes count as evidence for moral claims then, I will argue, coherentism isn’t able to capture this type of evidence in its account of how moral claims are justified. In other words, coherence is sufficient for justification but not necessary. The reason for coherentism’s difficulty in accounting for emotions as evidence is that (obviously) emotions are very different sorts of things as beliefs. And, on a simple version of coherentism, only beliefs can justify other beliefs.

Let me briefly make explicit the problem. Beliefs–moral or otherwise–are propositional in nature thus can, in principle, have a truth value. Emotions, on the other hand, are not propositional and so cannot have a truth value.  So, (obviously) emotions are not the same sort of thing as beliefs. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious way on the coherentist model that something non-propositional could count as evidence for a proposition because the only thing that can justify a belief is its relationships to other beliefs.

Coherentism and Perceptual Experience
Well, not so fast. In some cases–namely perceptual experience–it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that something non-propositional could justify a proposition. For example, the experience of seeing red seems to support the proposition “I see red”.  Or maybe the experience of stubbing your toe plausibly supports the proposition “I’m in pain”.

So, even though perceptions aren’t–strictly speaking–propositional, the tight connection between direct observation and propositional beliefs should make us willing to allow such experiences as able to justify certain beliefs. (More on this later.)

However, even if we allow perceptual experience to justify beliefs on the coherentist model two problems arise. The first problem is general to all types of experience as evidence and the second regards only extending coherentism to allow emotional experience to play a justificatory role. Let me address the first problem…uh…first.

The Isolation Problem
Suppose all my life I’ve believed that brick walls are soft.  Maybe my parents are the world’s greatest pranksters or I was home-schooled or something…Anyway, I’ve never actually seen a brick wall but I’ve read a lot about them. As an toddler I was lulled to sleep with stories about their pillowy softness. At dinner my father would regale me with tales of the Great Wall of China which is the longest man-made pillowy structure. In short I have many many beliefs about the pillowy softness of brick walls.

Anyhow, one day I go off into the world and encounter a brick wall, which is perfect timing because I’m really sleepy and could use something comfortable to rest against. I can’t wait to feel that pillowy softness. I triumphantly yell “Geronimo!” and sprint head first into the brick wall. To my shock and awe, the wall does not feel pillowy soft. In fact, it feels as hard as a cloud (my parents also taught me that clouds are very very hard).  On the coherentist model, despite my experience of hardness, I shouldn’t reject my belief that brick walls are pillowy soft. Why? Because I only have one belief “walls are hard” yet I have many many more beliefs that brick walls are pillowy soft and that support “walls are pillowy soft”. If justification is a matter of coherence with other beliefs then the latter belief coheres better with the totality of my beliefs than the former.

In short, a problem for coherentism is that there will be at least some cases (perhaps not as far-fetched as my example) where we think a single experience-derived belief warrants over-riding many beliefs. However, on the coherentist model, we shouldn’t do this because the single belief won’t cohere as well with the totality of beliefs as will the contrary proposition. The single (recalcitrant) belief will not be justified.

It may be that a sophisticated account of coherentism can handle this objection but it’s not clear that it can. I’ll leave the matter as it is for now and move to my next point.

Emotional vs Perceptual Experiences
Earlier, I suggested that we should allow coherentism to admit perceptual experiences as being capable of justifying beliefs because of the short inference from the experience to the belief. In fact, Sayre-McCord says as much:

It’s true, coherentism doesn’t allow experience as relevant to justification unless and until the experience comes into the person’s cognitive economy. Yet, especially in its recognition of cognitively spontaneous beliefs, coherentism leaves room for experiences to enter that cognitive economy unbidden, either thanks to the experiences themselves having cognitive content (in which case it is the content of the experience that serves as evidence or by their being the content of an appropriate cognitive attitude (in which case it is the fact that such an experience occurred that serves as evidence). (Ibid, p. 122)

Ultimately, the coherentist is able to admit experience as evidentiary but its justificatory status will still be cashed out in terms of its relations to other beliefs. Let’s accept this. Now, what about emotions? They’re a kind of experience and so if we’ve admitted experience it looks like my objection has been met.

Nevertheless, I want to argue that the category “experience” is too vague and is unable to satisfactorily capture both emotional and perceptual experiences.  Lumping both into the same category relies an an implicit analogy between the two types of experiences. However, it’s not obvious that these two types of experiences share any properties relevant to our purposes. For example, the inference from the experience of seeing a red pen to the belief “I see a red pen” or “the pen is red” is short and obvious (philosophy of perception aside). It’s not going to be so obvious in the case of emotions.

Perception is, at its core, representational, yet it’s not clear what it is that emotions are representing. Here’s where I think the analogy falls apart.  Because of this disanalogy, it’s not obvious to me how an emotional experience gets us to a propositional belief.  Think back to the three ways I suggested emotions function as evidence in our moral reasoning. In the first way we ask our counter-part how they would feel if they were in such and such circumstances. In the second, a feeling (e.g., love) overwhelms a consistent set of beliefs (e.g., that gay marriage is wrong)In the third type of case, visceral images or experiences evoke strong emotions such that we come to endorse a position inconsistent with all our other beliefs. Suppose we are in a debate about the moral permissibility of drones.  For example, a proponent of drones might be shown interviews and footage of what families in a small Yemeni village endures on a daily basis as a consequence of drones and reverse his endorsement. To be clear, these interviews and images don’t come in the form of argument, rather they are a montage that elicit certain powerful emotions.

In none of these cases is it clear how the emotional experience translates to a propositional belief. (I need to expand on this). And even if we can give some sort of account of how it might we’re left with the isolation problem from above. There will be cases where all my previous beliefs cohere best with my previous position on the issue at hand yet the emotional experience over-rides them. The coherentist model tells us that I should reject my new position.

I suppose the coherentist could (coherently) reply that, “yup, you aren’t justified in endorsing your new position because it doesn’t cohere with the totality of your beliefs.” At this point I’m not sure where to go. It looks like the issue turns on who can pound their fists hardest on the table.  I want to say that the person’s post-emotional experience view is justified by the experience while the coherentist will pound back, with equal vigor, no it isn’t!

It seems like we’ve ended up back at the normative/descriptive divide. As a matter of anthropology, yes, humans do use emotional experience as evidence for beliefs. Whether we should is another matter. And so we return to my conditional claim: If we think that emotions ought to count as evidence for moral claims, coherentism can’t accommodate them as such.

1. I’m equivocating on what it is for a belief to be justified and what it is that justifies a belief.

2. What’s the phenomenology of adopting a new belief in response to an emotion? How would you characterize it. In many cases it doesn’t seem as though any of your other beliefs have changed, yet you adopt a new position.  In some cases, is the emotional reaction simply highlighting or giving greater weight to some beliefs rather than others?

3. Coherentist can say “yup, emotions are important to moral reasoning in that they can get us to reflect more deeply on the beliefs we ascribe to yet the emotions themselves don’t justify beliefs.” In which case I need to throw this whole paper away and start from scratch.  But still I want to resist this and say (while pounding my fist on the table) that at least in some cases the emotional experience is providing evidence for a new (?) moral belief.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s