Normative and Evaluative Justification in Belief-Practice

Or, a gloss on William Alston’s essay, ‘Christian Experience and Christian Belief’.

– Call it J(N) when we think of epistemic justification in terms of norms of intellectual obligation. This is primarily a negative justification – doing your intellectual duty means doing what is allowed. As Alston puts it:

‘Stated most generally, this is the notion of not having violated one’s intellectual obligations. We have to say “not having violated” rather than “having fulfilled” because in all normative spheres, not just the epistemic, being justified is a negative status; it consists in one’s behavior not being in violation of the norms; otherwise put, it consists in what one has done being permitted by the relevant norms, rules and regulations.’ (‘Christian Experience and Christian Belief’, in ‘Faith and Rationality’, pp. 113-114)

– Call it J(E) when we think of justification in terms of belief formation occurring in circumstances such that the belief is likely to be true. Alston says that:

‘…it is rather to assess her condition as a desirable or a favourable one from an epistemic point of view, vis-a-vis the aim at the attainment of truth and the avoidance of falsity…S is justified in the evaluative (E) sense in holding a certain belief provided that the relevant circumstances in which that belief is held are such that the belief is at least likely to be true.’ (pp. 115)

– On this account, a belief can be J(N) without it being J(E), and vice versa.

– J(N) can be expanded into J(NS) – we are justified iff we have an adequate reason (to hold the belief) – and J(NW) – we are justified unless we have an adequate reason (to reject the belief). J(NS) = guilty until proven innocent, J(NW) = innocent until proven guilty.

– Alston concludes that, so far as non-circular justification goes, J(NW) is the best we can do. In a somewhat Wittgenstein-ish vein, he argues that perceptual practices – practices of forming beliefs on the basis of experience proves itself:

‘Perceptual practice proves itself, insofar as it does, by providing us with a “map” of the physical and social environment that enables us to find our way around in it, anticipate the course of events, and to adjust our behaviour to what we encounter so as to satisfy our needs and achieve our ends. This is the basic function of sense perception in our lives, and it carries out that function with reasonable success, as it itself testifies.’ (pp. 131)

– I think we can call this ‘internal self-justification’ – the justification is internal to the practice. Perhaps we might call it coherentism-in-practice?


3 thoughts on “Normative and Evaluative Justification in Belief-Practice

  1. Rod Lampard November 30, 2015 / 9:37 pm

    Does J(NS) & J(NW) have any connection with Aristotle’s dictum?


    • whitefrozen November 30, 2015 / 9:40 pm

      There is definitely an Aristotelian-ish slant here overall (it wouldn’t be a stretch to call this a kind of virtue epistemology), but which specific dictum were you thinking?


      • Rod Lampard November 30, 2015 / 11:05 pm

        I’m only familiar with one: benefit of the doubt.


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