Evidence and Agency:

Norms of Belief for Promising and Resolving

(Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

Evidence and Agency is concerned with a philosophical problem at the intersection of epistemology and ethics, a problem that each one of us faces yet that eludes an easy solution. Here is a way to see the problem: Can we responsibly promise to do something when we have evidence that there is a good chance that we won’t do it? For short, can we responsibly promise against the evidence? The answer, it seems, must be no. That is because if we believe, as our evidence suggests, that there is a good chance that we won’t do what we are promising to do, we seem to be insincere in promising to do it. After all, if we believe that there is a good chance that something won’t happen, it seems that we can’t sincerely say it will happen. Yet if we believe that we will do it, we seem to be irrational. After all, if we have evidence that there is a good chance that something won’t happen, it seems that we can’t rationally believe that it will happen; we can only rationally believe that it will possibly or probably happen, depending on what our evidence is. Yet whether we are insincere or irrational, we are blameworthy because we fail to exercise due care and are liable to mislead the person we are making our promise to. Hence, it seems, we cannot responsibly promise against the evidence.

Yet we make such promises all the time! Indeed some of our most important promises are of this kind: We might promise to be financially more responsible, to spend the rest of our life with our spouse, or to resist temptation. In each of these cases we have evidence that there is a good chance that we won’t follow through. For instance, we know that any temptation worthy of its name is such that there is a good chance that we’ll succumb. This suggests that our practice is deeply at odds with the norms that we hold ourselves to.

In Evidence and Agency, I examine this problem in detail and consider also how it arises for resolutions. I then discuss several prima facie plausible responses to it and I explain why, contrary to the earlier argument, it is nonetheless possible to responsibly promise against the evidence. Developing a line of argument from Kant, Sartre and Richard Moran, I argue that our evidence doesn’t determine what it is rational for us to believe about matters that are up to us. When considering matters that are up to us, we should look to our practical reasons, not to our evidence alone, to determine what we will do. We should decide what to do, not seek to predict what we will do—and it may be rational for us to decide to do something despite evidence that there is a good chance that we will fail. That is why, if something is up to us and it is important enough for us to do it, we can be in a position to rationally believe that we will do it—despite having evidence that there is a good chance that we won’t follow through.

The implications of this argument are substantial. First, if successful, it shows that we needn’t be irrational, insincere, or irresponsible if we promise or resolve against the evidence, because we can rationally believe against the evidence. Hence our practice needn’t be at odds with the norms that we hold ourselves to. Second, this argument challenges a doctrine that is usually considered orthodoxy in epistemology—the view that evidential or other epistemic considerations alone determine what it is rational for us to believe. Finally, the argument reveals an interesting limitation on taking a fully naturalistic or third-personal perspective on ourselves. We cannot be scientific observers of ourselves, without distorting our agency. In particular, when matters are up to us, we distort our view of what we will do if we try to predict our behavior—even if our predictions are based on excellent evidence.