Logical and non-logical justification

Abpraxis asked:

I read and hear “logical justification” and I can’t find a definition for it. Is it as pedestrian as it sounds (can be put in the form of logic and makes a valid argument), or is it a term of art? When a philosopher insists that there is no such thing as “empirical justification” and that the “only justification is logical justification”, I’d like to know just what exactly the latter is.

Answer by Graham Hackett

Abpraxis, the more I read about epistemology, the less I think I really know. I think you are right in asking whether an expression like “logical justification” has any real precise meaning, which is invariable from one context to another, or whether it is a “term of art”, only acquiring meaning when we know the context in which it is used. Even more unhelpful if you are looking for a precise meaning, is the suspicion that it might have become a folk term — a well-known phrase or saying — used without much concern for exploring meaning.

You mention empirical justification, and logical justification as though in comparison, and imply that the former is not real, proper, trustworthy justification, whilst the latter is. I assume that you’ve done some background investigation on the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. For example, a form of argument such as;

All men are mortal
Socrates is mortal
Therefore Socrates is mortal

is a famous example of classical logic. My conclusion that Socrates is mortal is based on previous propositions, in this case, that all men are mortal, and that Socrates is a man. No empirical evidence needs to be gathered; the conclusion is justified purely by the structure of the argument, and by the assumption that our propositions are incorrigibly and self-evidently true. 

In comparison, an argument like “all ravens are black” needs empirical evidence, real hard data gathered from many observations of ravens, before we can conclude that it is justified. You can easily see that this kind of reasoning, although it might falsify our assertion that all ravens are black (we might observe some non-black ones), can never prove conclusively that our assertion is true, because any smart Alec (there are many of them) could just suggest that even after a huge number of sightings of black ravens, we have no way of knowing whether the next raven to come will be black or non-black.

So I suppose that you could use this conclusion to hold that empirical justification is never really justification at all. But here we come to the tricky part of the argument. What does justification really amount to? What has to be the case before we can say we are justified in some conclusion we have made? This is where the ground really starts to slip from under our feet.

I don’t wish to become too entangled with questions about the new and old epistemology, but you might like to do a little research on Alvin Plantinga, and his observations on justification, and his preference for using the term “warrant” instead. Although we use both terms often in much the same way — that we are warranted or justified in the things we assert, Plantinga asserts that “justification” has often been too much tied up with evidence. We claim to be justified by our evidence. Plantinga wishes to attach the term “warrant” to our beliefs. Our beliefs can be warranted in many ways. To use Plantinga’s own examples, we can be warranted in our belief that God is speaking to us personally when we read the Bible, or that he disapproves of some action of ours, or that our feeling that God has forgiven us is warranted. What makes us warranted in our beliefs (according to Plantinga) does not always have to be grounded in empirical evidence, or testimony. Our beliefs can be “properly basic” (Plantinga’s own expression) without evidential support.

Plantinga’s ideas on warrant have been much discussed. Many have criticised them as being a case of special pleading for religious claims. Plantinga himself recognises that the idea of warrant cannot be used indiscriminately to declare beliefs as properly basic. The famous example given is that we might easily be led to conclude that belief in the Legend of the Great Pumpkin (Schultz’s Peanuts cartoon) is just as warranted as any other belief, unless we establish some rules about the use of the term “warrant”.

We still have to show that we have used reliable methods, and that our beliefs in some way “track the truth”.

I am sorry that my remarks may be a little disappointing, and I am conscious that I may have muddied the waters rather than clearing them. But my main conclusion I hope is clear; logical justification is no more than a popular phrase. People think they are warranted, or not in believing something, and “warrant” however vague it is, includes more than just the traditional rules of logic and empirical data.

British EU Membership Referendum

Frank asked;

What would be a philosopher’s take on the British EU Membership Referendum?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Frank; where to start? I could write a large essay on political philosophy, and compare the value of decisions which are taken by majority vote with those which are taken by knowledgeable experts. Also, I could hold forth on whether a simple once-and for all majority referendum is better than a lengthier more measured procedure. For example, in the USA, changing an important matter like an article of the constitution requires extended discussion, and consent by two thirds of state legislatures. Deciding on whether to leave the EU or stay would merely require a simple majority of the UK electorate.

I would like to look at the question of the referendum from an ethical viewpoint. Have we an obligation to vote? We all know that the results of votes can lead to important results; governments can fall, wars can be started and lives lost. Remember that before he assumed power and banned all elections, Hitler and his Nazi party were elected by the German people. So it does seem that we have some kind of obligation to make our voice heard in the referendum. However, it is difficult to see where this obligation might come from, unless we quote Gilbert Harman’s view about the contractual nature of moral obligation and argue that voting is one of the obligations we implicitly contract to perform if we belong to a democratic state. Note that this would make only the act of voting a moral obligation, not the direction of our vote.

Also, the decisions we might take in an election or referendum might vary from being disastrously wrong to being brilliantly beneficial. Just look at the majority voting decision to call the NERC polar vessel “Boaty McBoatface”. The director of NERC felt that this compromised the reputation and integrity of his organisation so much, that he felt he had no option but to ignore the democratic choice in favour of the name “RRS David Attenborough” – which had only been the fifth most popular choice in the electors list. What does this tell us about democracy, and its ability to deliver correct decisions?

So far, this might suggest that a decision to actually cast a vote is actually a correct moral decision, a Kantian duty perhaps. However, it leaves us in the difficult position of having to say that voting in the referendum is (arguably) a moral duty, but the collective nature of these votes might be a disaster. Of course, this is a problem for all elections, and that the importance of the decision to be taken in an EU referendum just exacerbates it

So we have not only a duty to vote in the referendum but a duty to carefully deliberate our decision. But good intentions are not enough. A benevolent 1933 German voting for Hitler might act from good intentions, thinking that Hitler would not only restore the integrity of Germany, but also contribute to world peace. So voting for whether we leave or remain in the EU is different from what program I choose to watch on the TV. Or what meal I order in a restaurant. These decisions only affect me, and are nobody elses business. However, your choice to leave or remain in the EU is very much my business, not just yours.  Peoples voting decisions can cause hurt to other innocent people, so that it just seems plain wrong to say, as many people do, “go out and vote; It doesn’t matter if you know little about politics. The important thing is to vote.”

The result of the above is that I would hold that voting in a democracy is a public moral duty. However, because of the importance of the results of such decisions as that of remain or leave the EU, I would qualify this by saying that it is a public moral duty to vote well. What would voting well mean? I would argue that it places a heavy obligation on voters to pursue a policy of “due diligence” to ensure that they are convinced that they are morally and epistemically justified in the decision they have taken. As an elector, can you put your hand on your heart and claim that you have sufficient warrant for your belief? Can you truly say that you have done enough work to claim that the decision you are about to vote for will be for the public good?

You can see that this is a tall order, and makes democracy one of the more difficult political systems to pull off. Whenever I contemplate decisions such as the one in the EU referendum, It becomes pertinent to ask whether democracy can cope with it, and whether a simple blunt mechanism like a majority referendum can cope. There is no justification for believing that a majority decision will be the better because of the size of the majority in favour.

But what are the alternatives?