The Value of Hammers and True Beliefs

In each hand, you hold a hammer.  As far as their intrinsic qualities are concerned, the two hammers are indistinguishable.  Hence, they would seem to be equally useful for doing things like pounding in nails, tearing down walls, and “fixing” crashed Macintosh computers.  However, the hammers do differ in one respect: the hammer in your right hand belongs to you, the hammer in your left hand belongs to a neighbor, who has explicitly told you that you may not use his hammer.  Here, then, is a question:

Is the hammer in your right hand more useful (to you) than the hammer in your left hand?

I claim the answer is ‘yes’.  But I do not wish to disagree with you if you say that there is a sense in which they are equally useful.  I only wish to claim that there is a sense in which the hammer in your right hand–the one that you have the right to use–is more useful than the hammer in your left hand.  Let us call the sense of ‘useful’ according to which the hammer in your right is more useful than the hammer in your left ‘instrumental-cum-normative usefulness’.  And, if you believe there is such a thing, we can call the sense of ‘useful’ according to which the two hammers are equally useful ‘pure instrumental usefulness’.

That’s enough about hammers.  What about true beliefs?  You and I both truly believe that P.  Also, let us assume that in each of our cases, our true belief that P is useful–suppose, for example, that each of us wants to get to Larissa, and P is the true proposition about how to get to Larissa.  However, there is one important difference between us: your belief that P is justified and mine is not–suppose, for example, that you formed your belief on the basis of conclusive evidence and I formed my belief on the basis of a fortune cookie.  Now I have a question:

Is your true belief that P more useful (to you) than my true belief that P (is to me).

As before, I claim the answer is ‘yes’, in the very sense that the hammer in your right hand is more useful than the hammer in your left: although our true beliefs that P might be equally useful in a sense–by acting on them, we will both get to Larissa–there is also a sense in which your true belief is more useful than mine.  Having a true belief that P, I claim, does not automatically make it rational for one to act on the basis of one’s true belief that P.  For if to be rational to let one’s true belief that P guide one’s action, one must have a justified true belief that P.  Hence, it is rational for you to act on your true belief that P, but it is not rational for me to do so.  Hence, you have the epistemic right to act on your belief–just as you have the right to use the hammer in your right hand–but I do not have the epistemic right to act on my belief–just as you do not have the right to use the hammer in your left hand.  Hence, there is a sense in which your true belief that P is more useful than my true belief that P: it is more pragmatic-cum-normatively useful.

Note 1.  Notice that on the above account, the value of a justified true belief is not merely the value of a true belief plus the intrinsic value of a justified belief (if there is such a thing).  The value of justification, on the above account, is extrinsic, because it’s value is essentially tied to the value of getting what you want–for example, getting to Larissa.  This of course allows that justification might also be intrinsically valuable.

Note 2.  Assuming Gettier was right, the above account does not account for the distinctive value of knowledge–that is, it does not account for the alleged fact that knowledge is more valuable than any proper subset of its constituents.  In fact, I reject that claim.  However, I do think that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief, and, assuming that knowledge is at least justified true belief, the above account does account for the fact that knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief.

Note 3.  I have assumed that true beliefs are valuable because acting on them will make you more likely to get what you want than acting on false beliefs.  Where this assumption does not hold, the above account does not apply.

Note 4.  Lately I’ve been perusing Jonathan Kvanvig’s The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding (2003).  Kvanvig agrees that justified true belief is more valuable than mere true belief, but his account is, as far as I can tell, importantly different from the one I’ve presented here (see chapters 3 and 4).  See also chapters 1 and 2 for a great discussion of the swamping problem for views that try to account for the value of knowledge/justified true belief over true belief in terms of objective likelihood of truth.  The swamping problem is roughly that once a belief is assumed to be true, the value of a belief that is objectively likely to be true is completely swamped.

Note 5.  This post was composed using Google Docs.

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5 Responses to The Value of Hammers and True Beliefs

  1. Steve C. says:

    So, in the hammer case, I was thinking you had in mind that the left-hand hammer isn’t “instrumental-cum-normative useful” because I believe my neighbor forbid its use and thereby am not willing to use it. That made pretty good sense of the “usefulness” language–since the normative fact is keeping me from using that hammer.

    But looking at the belief case, I’m now wondering what’s going on. Because presumably one needn’t know whether or not s/he’s justified in believing P.

    Now, if you didn’t mean the subject’s awareness of neighbor’s prohibition to play a role in the hammer case (though you explicitly write it into the case), then I’m not sure I see the justification for using “useful” language.

    Does that make any sense?

  2. dtlocke says:

    Hi Steve, sorry it’s taken me a bit too respond. I didn’t intend the fact that the subject is aware of the prohibition to play a crucial role (and, in fact, I didn’t built it into the case that he has such an awareness). All I intended was to stipulate whatever needed to be the case in order to make it true that the subject does not have the right to use the hammer–this is the fact that I think plays the crucial role. If you think an awareness of the prohibition is required to make it the case that the subject does not have the right to use the hammer, then OK, I’d rather not argue about that (although, fwiw, I do disagree).

  3. Steve C. says:

    Hey Dustin,
    Well, my deeper worry has to do with the use of “use” and “useful.” On the face of it, it strikes me as odd, and even downright inappropriate. However, perhaps you’re gesturing towards something like the following: Were you an ideal normative agent, you would (or could?) not use the hammer. Were you an ideal epistemic agent, you would (or could?) not use the belief. While this requires development, it would seem to make good sense of the “useful” language. Is this in the ballpark of what you have in mind?

    If not, what is the “use” talk doing for you? Why not just say “normatively justified” rather than “normatively useful”? (Granted, unjustified beliefs may tend to be less useful on the whole, but you’re addressing particular cases in which this doesn’t apply.)

  4. Jon says:

    Dear Uncle Dusty,

    I don’t see how Note 1 meshes with the point you seem to be making. In the sense of usefulness in which you are interested, a justified true belief that p beats a fortune cookie’d true belief that p. But note 1 says the value of justification is that it gets you what you want, which is a job for which both beliefs are equally useful.

    My problem boiled down to two quotations: “our true beliefs that P might be equally useful in a sense–by acting on them, we will both get to Larissa”, and “the value of justification, on the above account, is extrinsic, because it’s value is essentially tied to the value of getting what you want–for example, getting to Larissa.”

    I s’pose you want to say that getting what you want in a way that you have a right to get it beats getting what you want because Jason stole my ex girlfriend. (Hi J!) (Returning to the subject at hand), I s’pose I would be happier with your claims if you explained what you mean when you say that the value of justification is extrinsic because it “is essentially tied” to the cash value of the belief. (Maybe note 4, which I am not in a position to understand, is relevant?)

    Best,
    Jon

  5. dtlocke says:

    Steve, Jon, thanks for the thoughts.

    Jon, contra what you say above, note 1 does not say that ‘the value of justification is that it gets you what you want’. As you say in the second paragraph, it says that the value of justification is essentially ‘tied’ to the value of getting what you want. You rightfully demand clarification of what I mean here, and I wish I had such clarification to offer. So far all that I have is what’s stated in the post: you value (or you ought to value) your belief’s justification because it gives you the *right* to use that belief in decision making.

    Steve, maybe you’re right, the ‘usefulness’ talk might be a bit out of place here. But I was trying to capture the distinction between two ways in which you value the justification of your belief: (1) for its own sake and (2) for the sake of having the right to use that belief in decision making. The ‘usefulness’ talk was in inference to (2). I agree that there is a sense in which your belief is equally useful regardless of whether it is justified. But isn’t there also a sense in which a justified belief is more useful?

    I say in the post that it seems (to me at least) that there is such a sense. But what sense is that? Here’s one way I’m toying with answering this question. What does it mean to say that X is useful? I suppose it means, roughly, that X *can* be used (to get Y). But of course ‘can’ admits of different readings. One of those is the normative reading: X can be used if and only if it is *permissible* to use X. So perhaps what I’m saying amounts to this: a justified belief is useful in decision making in the sense that a justified belief is one that it is permissible to use in decision making.

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