July 20, 2005

Burning Ears

What with one thing and another--vacation, getting ready to move, etc.--I haven't checked Certain Doubts in a long time. When I do, what should I see but a big thread about the distinction between primary and secondary propriety, as Keith DeRose and I invoke it to defend our respective accounts of the norm of assertion. Oops.

I have a couple of things to add to what Keith says there. First, my account of the norms of assertion isn't exactly the truth account--in "Must We Know What We Say?" I'm using the truth account in large part as a stick to beat the knowledge account with. (And I've changed my mind a little.) Though, given the way I argue in MWKWWS, it's a fair cop.

(I tend to write papers that are not quite consistent with each other. For instance, I often write as though 'knowledge' were a consistent concept, which in another paper I argue it isn't. But I don't want to explain what's going on with that every time I talk about knowledge--it would take too much space and also seem crazy. Maybe I will eventually have to write a book to explain My Official View. If I've worked it out.)

Second, and not unrelated, I think this argument shows that we need to do more than just specify the norms of assertion are. We need to specify what should happen to someone who violates them--blame, opprobrium, contempt, loss of credibility (my favorite!), forced sitting in the corner, fifty lashes with a wet noodle?

If we just say "An assertion is proper iff it is blah," then there's no room for saying that a non-blah assertion is somehow proper if the asserter believes it's blah. Propriety is propriety, full stop. But we also haven't said anything about the cash value of impropriety. It might be--to borrow Keith's example--that the person who doesn't know he's speeding should be fined for breaking the law, but shouldn't earn additional condemnation as a scofflaw.

And I think that lack of attention to what propriety amounts to can be a real problem for a theory. Without it, we can be left with vague intuitions about propriety--the philosopher's intuitions--and maybe a few loopholes about why we sometimes don't condemn assertions that are really improper. Used unscrupulously, this strategy could be used to defend any account of the norms of assertion (like Keith's observation that even the most hopeless semantic theory could be defended by unscrupulous deployment of the idea that true assertions aren't always warranted).

I'm working on a paper where I try to explain not only what the norms of assertion are, but what it means to violate them. Specifically, I want to talk about when an asserter can be blamed for an assertion and when an asserter can lose credibility for an assertion. These sanctions, I think, indicate specific norms. Those norms put some flesh on the bones of the idea that an assertion is proper or improper.

This is more or less what Jon means by "us[ing] some other normative notion to explain away problem cases," I think--except I'm just replacing propriety with other normative notions. Or, perhaps, saying that propriety by itself is just a placeholder for some normative notion with real teeth.

The discussion has been very helpful, though. In previous drafts of this paper I've argued that credibility depends primarily on the truth of your assertions; it's a reflection of secondary propriety that you can gain credibility with a false justified assertion, or lose credibility with a true unjustified one. I'm pretty convinced now that that's a bad way to think of it. What I should say is that the norm that your assertions should be true, enforced by the loss of credibility, is defeasible. The defeater comes if the assertion can be shown to be justified or unjustified. As to why truth should be considered the primary norm--I think I can use that term--well, you'll have to read the paper. When I write it. Unless you've heard me give it as a talk, or want me to e-mail you the version I gave, or something.

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 20, 2005 01:15 PM