It’s increasingly common for epistemologists (both formal and traditional) to explore analogies between epistemic justification (rationality, warrant, etc.) and moral rightness. These analogies highlight the normative character of epistemology; they’re also fun to think about.
This post is about a commonly discussed analogy between reliabilism about justification and rule consequentialism. I’ve started to think that reliabilists have good reason to reject this analogy . But I’m not sure how they should go about doing this. Let me explain.
Begin with reliabilism:
S’s belief that p is justified iff S’s belief that p is the output of a reliable belief-forming process.
A belief-forming process is reliable iff its immediate outputs tend—when employed in a suitable range of circumstances—to yield a balance of true to false belief that is greater than some threshold, T.
Compare this with satisficing hedonistic rule consequentialism:
S’s a-ing is right iff S’s a-ing conforms to a justified set of rules.
A set of rules is justified iff its internalization by most people would produce a balance of pleasure to pain that is greater than some threshold, T’.
The similarity in structure between these two theories speaks for itself. Further, it’s standard to assume that reliabilists endorse veritism, the claim that having true beliefs and not having false ones is the fundamental goal in epistemology. Reliabilism, then, might be said to be an instance of satisficing veritistic process consequentialism.
The starting point for many discussions of consequentialism about justification is a simple counterexample to a naïve consequentialist theory (e.g., Firth, Fumerton, Berker, among others).
According to the naïve theory:
A belief is justified if, of the available options, it leads one to have the highest ratio of true to false beliefs.
I am an atheist seeking a research grant from a religious organization. The organization gives grants only to believers. I am a very bad liar. The only way for me to convince anyone that I believe in God is to form the belief that God exists. If I receive the grant, I will form many new true beliefs and revise many false ones. Lucky for me, I have a belief-pill. I take it and thereby form the belief that God exists.
According to the naïve theory, my belief is justified. But my belief is obviously not justified. So much the worse for the naïve theory.
This brings me to my interest—or puzzlement—with the reliabilism/consequentialism analogy. It’s clear that reliabilism renders the intuitively right result in the grant-seeking case, namely, the result that my belief is not justified. The belief-forming process that generated my belief in God—popping belief-pills—is not a reliable one, and for that reason my belief is not justified. So far, so good. But how can the reliabilist, qua veritistic consequentialist, say this? As far as I can tell, this question hasn’t really been discussed. And that seems strange to me. If reliabilists really are veritistic consequentialists, then shouldn’t they give my belief in God high marks? And given the analogy—one that treats “justified” as analogous to “morally right”—wouldn’t this amount to saying the belief is justified?
One might think that in asking this I’m ignoring an important feature of reliabilism and rule consequentialism, namely, the fact that they are instances of indirect consequentialism. Indirect consequentialists aren’t interested in directly assessing the consequences of individual actions or beliefs, the response goes. Rather, they assess actions, beliefs, etc. indirectly, by reference to the overall consequences of the rules, processes, etc. that generate them.
This point is well-taken. But the problem persists. Satisficing hedonistic rule consequentialism loses its appeal as a consequentialist theory if it doesn’t at least sometimes allow us to break certain general moral rules when complying with them is disastrous (viz. Brandt 1992 87–8, 150–1, 156–7). Similarly for reliabilism, qua an instance of veritistic consequentialism, right? If the view doesn’t sometimes endorse jumping at an opportunity like the one presented in the grant case, it’s hard to see how it’s really committed to the idea that having true beliefs and not having false ones is the fundamental goal in epistemology.
So, I suspect the following:  if reliabilists are veritistic consequentialists, they must say something awkward about the grant-seeking case (or at least some case like it—maybe the demon possibility I mention in fn. 4). And I don’t think reliabilists should identify my belief in God as justified. Rather, I think they should push back on the reliabilist/consequentialist analogy itself. More specifically, they should deny—or maybe give a sophisticated reinterpretation of—at least one of the following:
1. Epistemic justification is analogous to moral rightness
2. Having true beliefs and not having false ones is the fundamental goal in epistemology
3. If 1. and 2., then reliabilism is the epistemic analogue of satisficing hedonistic rule consequentialism
4. If 3., then reliabilists have to say something awkward about the grant-seeking case (or some case like it).
And this is where I’m stuck. 1-4 seem quite reasonable to me. Thoughts?
 Berker thinks these cases can be generalized: “all interesting forms of epistemic consequentialism condone […] the epistemic analogue of cutting up one innocent person in order to use her organs to save the lives of five people. The difficult part is figuring out exactly what the epistemic analogue of cutting up the one to save the five consists in.”
 We can play with some details and make it epistemically disastrous to not take the pill—suppose that if I don’t get the grant the philosophy department will sic a Cartesian demon on me.
 I don’t think I’ve made an iron-clad case here!