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F. The Original Position

Suppose (with an apologetic bow to John Rawls) we call this position the ‘original position’. Our question, specified to the standard package, is something like this. Suppose I am in the original position: I know (or at any rate believe truly) that it is within my power to stop forming beliefs in the ordinary way, via SP, memory, and reasoning (the standard package). Perhaps I also know that it is within my power to choose some other way of forming belief. Then what would be the rational thing to do: continue to form beliefs as I have all along, try some other way, or give up on this whole belief-forming enterprise?

The answer, as we have seen, depends at least in part on my aims, ends, and goals. If my aim is psychological comfort, feeling really good about myself, perhaps I should choose some belief-forming mechanisms that lead me to think I am a really fine fellow. Perhaps I should choose a way that will bring it about that I believe I have just won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, heroically overcoming such serious obstacles as that I have no training in the subject and know next to nothing about it. Naturally I should carefully avoid any belief-forming practices on the basis of which I would come to see the true extent of my failures and ineptness, my sins and miseries, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it. In the present context, of course, my aim, according to Alston, is not personal comfort, or happiness, or psychological well-being, but getting properly in touch with the truth.

The rational course depends on my aims and goals; it also depends on what I believe—that is, what I believe at the time I take the decision in question. If my aim is to feel good about myself, it would be irrational to choose belief-forming mechanisms that, as I believe, would lead to a 123proper knowledge of my sins and miseries. To make the rational choice, I must figure out which course is most likely to lead to the accomplishment of my goal(s), and then act on that belief by taking that course. And this leads to an important question about the main premise. As you recall, it begins thus: It is prima facie rational (practically rational) to engage in a socially established doxastic practice. . . . But why this emphasis on socially established doxastic practices? True, if in the original position I think socially established practices are especially likely to yield true beliefs, then the rational thing for me to do, in that position, is to choose socially established doxastic practices. But what if I don’t think that? I unwisely read Nietzsche, becoming convinced that the common herd is commonly wrong; I develop a lordly Nietzschean disdain for the ways in which the generality of humankind form their belief. Then presumably the rational thing would be to choose practices that are not socially established. I should, instead, choose practices that are enjoyed only by the fortunate few whose Promethean efforts have taken them far beyond hoi polloi. Why is social establishment important or relevant? What counts, for practical rationality, is what I think will achieve my goal; in the original position, it may or may not be the case that I think socially established practices are especially likely to achieve my goal of believing the truth.

Here we see the connection between the first and second of Alston’s arguments for the practical rationality of SP and CMP. The main premise of the second argument, we might say, takes it for granted that in the original position I believe that socially established practices are as likely to lead us to the right relationship to the truth as any alternative; and indeed I suppose most of us do in fact believe that. The main premise of the first argument is different; it is that I don’t know that SP (or CMP) is subject to any massive unreliability, and I also don’t know of any alternative practice I could adopt which is such that I could show with respect to it that it is reliable. In the original position (the first argument continues), I would have this belief (I would believe that I know of no better alternative practice); therefore, the rational thing to do is to stick with what I’ve got. (Or if that seems a bit strong, it is at any rate true that sticking with my present practices is a rational thing to do.) The first argument is the basic one; the second argument takes for granted the main premise of the first argument and then incorporates something else most of us are in fact inclined to believe, namely, that socially established doxastic practices have a good chance of being reliable, perhaps a better chance than idiosyncratic doxastic practices.

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