So you are considering quitting your secure middle class job and going to Tahiti to become a painter. You have a strong hunch that once you go there, you’ll flourish as an artist and produce truly great work. Let’s take morality out of the equation: you are not deserting dependents. You are just considering a high risk of bankruptcy and, just as bad as far you are concerned, ridicule. If you go to Tahiti, are you being rational in so doing?
Bernard Williams suggests that there is no fact of the matter until you have already gone to Tahiti and succeeded or failed. That is, in some respects, a truly scary idea. I have proposed an idea which is not as scary, but might be, to some philosophers, more annoying: there is a fact of the matter, but you, the agent in the story, can’t know it – not before you succeed or fail and, in many circumstances, not afterwards either. When I say you can’t know it, I do mean to imply that no theory of rationality can guide you into this kind of knowledge. This, however, does not mean that there can’t be a good theory of whether, given that certain beliefs, desires, emotions, etc. are in your head, you would be rational or not in going to Tahiti. If I know what’s in your mind – perhaps because I am an omniscient narrator and I made you up – then I do, given the right theory, know before you leave the house whether or not you are being rational. Since you are not akratic in this story, the more precise question is likely whether your action is based on an irrational belief about your talent or the chances that the journey to Tahiti would help.
A rule that tells you not to start a career as a painter unless you are reasonably convinced that you are a great painter, says Williams, would be pretty much unusable. To continue his thought: it would be unusable because being “reasonably convinced” is indistinguishable, in terms of how it feels to the agent, from being unreasonably convinced. Even the best artists are not reliable or rational witnesses to the quality of works they produce, and being convinced of your greatness through wishful thinking – perhaps intertwined with some midlife crisis and being sick of your job – does not always feel any different from being convinced rationally. It is in the nature of epistemic irrationality – for the moment, let’s stick to epistemic irrationality – that there are limits on your ability to know if you are irrational or not, to the point that sometimes it’s simply impossible for you to know it. Think about the sort of irrationality originated by depression or anxiety or insecurity, the sort originated by intoxication or sleep deprivation, the sort originated in schizophrenia. Take depression as an example:
Tristan: I am a terrible person.
Tristan: I forgot to buy milk today.
You: That doesn’t make you a horrible person.
Tristan: You are just saying it to be nice.
You: My roommate also forgot to buy milk yesterday. Does it mean she is a terrible person?
You: well, then –
Tristan: I don’t know your roommate. She is probably just fine. But given all I know about myself, forgetting the milk is just a symptom of how horrible a person I am.
You: What you know about yourself? Like what?
Tristan: I used a horrible mixed metaphor in pro-seminar today. It was embarrassing. I am clearly wasting the money of the people paying for my fellowship. I should stop committing this crime.
You: You are a really good student. All your teachers say so.
Tristan: They are wrong. No, seriously, I have given a lot of thought to that.
You can argue till the cows come home, but Tristan is, as far as he can tell, “reasonably convinced” that he is an all- around horrible person and a failure at all he does. He has thought about it a lot. Advice along the line of “do not quit the program unless you are reasonably convinced that you are not a good student” would be wasted on him.
There are, to be sure, some heuristics that improve the chances of a moderately irrational person to diagnose herself. A lovely eastern European saying I was taught as a child was “if three people say you are drunk, go to sleep!”. I am sure the saying has rescued some people who knew it from major debacles. It also failed to rescue many others who knew it: perhaps they were so drunk they could no longer count to three, or perhaps they were merely tipsy enough to think “Oh, yes, three people say I’m drunk, sure, but Yuan and Liz always agree with each other, so they really should count as the same person, right?”. So basically I’m saying that no putative “rational agent’s manual” can be expected to guarantee its follower rational belief (and thus, action based on rational belief) because it cannot guarantee that the agent won’t be drunk, or depressed, or any number of things that can sneak on you, at the time she consults the manual.
So, I’m worried about the claim that all epistemic norms need to be “follow-able” or that when they are unfollow-able to one, one is not to be charged with irrationality for not, well, following them. One reason I decline to adopt the bright shiny new expression “epistemically blameworthy” in place of the dry-as-dust, old-style expression “epistemically irrational” is that it obscures an unfortunate Williams-esque fact: epistemic life is unfair. Epistemic irrationality is both a failure to respond to reasons and a predicament that can be forced on one – say by putting a drug in one’s coffee or by taking away the prescription drug one usually puts in one’s coffee. We feel compassion for Tristan and do not, hopefully, “blame” him for anything, as his condition is “not his fault”, but we do treat the reasoning implied in “I forgot to buy milk so I’m a terrible person” as flawed and as a symptom of irrationality.
Some would find it disturbing – not just annoying – to think that unfairness is implied by epistemic norms. But should it really be so disturbing? It shouldn’t be remotely as disturbing as a suggestion that unfairness is implied by moral norms. The connection between fairness and morality is pre-theoretical and intuitive, at least in the sense that people would agree that being fair is part of being moral, an unfair action is immoral, and fairness is particularly important when it comes to punishment and other actions related to blame, as in moral blame. It “just seems” unfair to say that something is ever both (morally) blameworthy and a predicament that isn’t the agent’s doing (“not her fault”) and you don’t need to be a philosopher to think that. On the other hand, the idea that it is always unfair to say that something is both epistemically irrational and not the agent’s doing is an idea rarely spotted in the wild, a postulate of (only some) sophisticated theories of normativity that require that epistemology and ethics be similar, analogous, with isomorphic components: blame here and blame there. Non-Philosophers would raise their eyebrows at the sentence “it’s not her fault she is blameworthy” but “it’s not his fault that he is irrational” would seems fine to them. The asymmetry that bothers some theorists won’t normally be an issue for them. Judgments of irrationality can be “fair” or “unfair” in the sense of “accurate” or “inaccurate”, or in the sense of “biased” or “unbiased”, but when we say Tristan is irrational, even though he didn’t bring his depression about, we are not unfair – we just are just pointing out that life is.
P.S I think one complication is that one ultimately needs to distinguish rationality from intelligence, and drugs that promote/impair one of them or the other. A 13 year old is mostly smarter than a 10 year old, but less rational. See: https://theviewfromtheowlsroost.com/2017/08/13/raw-reflections-on-rationality-and-intelligence-plus-two-cat-pictures/
P.P.S Can “epistemically blameworthy” be a good title for a person who neglects to google, go the library, or deliberate long enough as she tries to figure something out? After all she neglected to do something what we under her control. Well, I can see the why one might want to use the term this way, but I think deep down the problem with her is that she is practically irrational in her search for knowledge. See: https://theviewfromtheowlsroost.com/2017/10/29/epistemology-and-sandwiches/