Inquiry under bounds (Part 3: A theory of rational inquiry)

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1. Introduction

Yesterday’s post developed five characteristic claims of the bounded rationality approach. This revealed the need for a theory of rational inquiry to defend, clarify and apply those claims.

Today’s post develops a reason-responsive consequentialist theory of rational inquiry for bounded agents.  This approach has three main components and three subsidiary components.

2. Three main commitments

The reason-responsive consequentialist view begins with (1) a consequentialist theory of rightness. On this view, acts are right just in case they are best. Acts are best just in case they promote the most value. Inquiry is an activity, and the fact that inquiry is often a mental activity should not change its rightness conditions. Inquiries are therefore right just in case they are best, and best just in case they promote the most value.

We can extend a consequentialist theory of rightness to a theory of rationality through (2) a reason-responsiveness theory of rationality. On this approach, rationality consists in doing what we have most reason to do in response to the reasons which favor it. But actions are right just in case we have most reason to perform them, so an equivalent way to state the reason-responsiveness view is that acts are rational just in case they are (a) right and (b) taken in response to the reasons which make them right.

On this view, acting rationally is strictly more demanding than acting rightly. The rightness condition (a) is supplied by a consequentialist theory of rightness. The responsiveness condition (b) requires that agents not act randomly or for bad reasons, but rather in response to the reasons which make their actions right.

From what perspective should rightness and reasons be assessed? Traditionally, two answers have been given: agents should do what actually promotes the most value (objective consequentialism) or what they believe or expect will promote the most value (subjective consequentialism). I argue that a recently-popular third option is more successful for bounded agents. (3) An information-sensitive account of deontic modals evaluates deontic modals, and probably also reasons, relative to a body of evidence. For example, we might say that acts are right just in case they promote, in expectation, the most value, where the probabilities used to compute expectations are derived from the agent’s total evidence. 

3. Three further commitments

For the reason-responsive consequentialist view to be plausible, we need three further commitments.

Consequentialists have traditionally urged (4) a strict level separation between normative questions about processes of deliberation and the attitudes they produce. To say that a process of inquiry is right, rational or virtuous is not to say that the attitudes it produces are right, rational or virtuous, and the same is true in the other direction.

Level separation allows us to defend a consequentialist theory of right and rational inquiry without thereby implying that right and rational belief are sensitive to the consequences of belief. Given level separation, the reason-responsive consequentialist view  is fully compatible with most leading theories of rational belief, including evidentialism.

Consequentialists are also not (all) hedonists, welfarists, or pragmatists. Consequentialists can adopt as rich and varied an axiology as anyone else. I adopt (5) a rich axiology on which many things, such as health, wealth, knowledge and understanding may bear final value. This allows a consequentialist view to give due consideration to traditional mainstays of epistemic theorizing without taking the intellectualist stance that only truth, knowledge, understanding or coherence matters.

Finally, like most consequentialists I have (6) a consequentializing program. This is not the trivializing program of using broad mathematical arguments to show how most or all normative theories can be given an apparently consequentialist reformulation. Rather, it is a traditional program of showing how the right consequentialist theory can give detailed, plausible and explanatorily powerful accounts of a broad range of normative phenomena that other theories struggle to account for. A successful consequentializing program will lend plausibility to consequentialism, while at the same time showing how the program may be much less revisionary than feared.

4. Looking ahead

Today’s approach developed a reason-responsive consequentialist approach to rational inquiry. The next post will give three arguments for the reason-responsive consequentialist view: the argument from minimal criteria, the explanatory argument, and the vindicatory argument.

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