Competence is neither necessary nor sufficient for most of the successes we care about. Good outcomes can come about as a result of good luck, and the best, most expert efforts can be thwarted by bad luck. But what about successes like knowledge, rational belief, understanding, and morally right action? Could one, for instance, believe competently, while failing to believe rationally? Or, is there such a thing as incompetent knowing? A core hypothesis of this project is that there is: cases of both competent failure and incompetent success arise for any success we might care about.

The project demonstrates how this recognition can solve a cluster of key problems in epistemology relating to so-called higher-order evidence, and how it allows accommodating internalist evaluations in more externalist frameworks, thus bridging perhaps the most significant divide in epistemology. The project generalizes some of the lessons learnt to the study of structural requirements of rationality. The approach is also deployed to investigate the relationship between morally right and morally worthy action.

The work will be organized around four work packages:

(W1) Two kinds of evaluations

This work package aims to give a theory of competence in general, and of epistemic competence in particular. A general case is made for the possibility of incompetent success in the epistemic domain, thus laying the ground for the dual-evaluations approach. The resulting view is contrasted with existing virtue-theoretic accounts.

(W2) A reorientation in epistemology

We investigate the theoretical cross-pressures that the notions of justified and rational belief are under. We show how the dual-evaluations approach untangles puzzles raised by attempts to take into account higher-order evidence, putting forth a systematic account of the rational impact of such evidence. We also demonstrate how focusing on success-conducive competence allows answering some of the deepest challenges for externalist views, like the so-called new evil demon problem. A distinct position is developed that weds the dual-evaluations approach with a knowledge first framework. Finally, we investigate what role remains for the notion of a reason in the epistemic landscape emerging from the project.

(W3) Structural rationality

Many philosophers have thought that structural requirements of rationality are the least controversial norms of both practical and theoretical reason. We investigate the notion of coherence that structural requirements attempt to capture, and the question of whether there is any reason to be structurally coherent as such. We argue that such requirement should be rejected. This raises a challenge to offer an alternative explanation of the seeming irrationality of certain combinations of mental states. We develop an extensive criticism of existing attempts to carry out the explanatory project, putting forth a novel, competence-based strategy for meeting the explanatory challenge.

(W4) Generalizing some of the lessons

In this work package core aspects of the approach developed in previous work packages are generalized to the practical and moral domains. Do cases of competent failure and incompetent success arise in these domains? We develop a non-coherentist view of practical reason in line with the dual-evaluations approach. We also look at the distinction between morally right and morally worthy action, exploring a competence-based view of the latter.

Projected outcomes

Recognizing the categories of competent failure and incompetent success transforms our understanding of a large range of challenges and problems in epistemology, the study of rationality, and meta-ethics. Some of the projected outcomes of the project are as follows:

  • The project pioneers a novel, systematic study of competence, drawing on cutting-edge work on the metaphysics of dispositions.
  • The project shows how various evaluations that appear internalist can be explained and accommodated from more externalist starting points using the notion of success-conducive competence. In addition to undercutting core support for a picture in epistemology in which an internalist notion of justified belief plays a central role, this allows overcomes the most pressing challenges for externalist views (e.g. new evil demon problem). In particular, the project shows how some of the most serious objections raised for a knowledge first epistemology can be answered by focusing on knowledge-conducive competences.
  • The project challenges contemporary trends in epistemology by uncovering deep problems with attempts to accommodate systematic defeat, particularly acute in connection with higher-order evidence. We develop an alternative, competence-based account of the epistemic failure involved in ignoring higher-order evidence.
  • The project offers a systematic study of structural requirements of rationality across theoretical and practical domains. Such requirements have had enormous influence, and are often presented as self-evident first principles. The project puts forth a novel view rejecting such requirements.
  • The project puts forth a framework unifying the norms of theoretical reason, practical reason, and morality under the dual-evaluations approach. For instance, it is not at all atypical for philosophers to be drawn to a coherentist view of practical rationality (“maximize subjective expected utility!”), while rejecting coherentism at least when it comes to epistemic norms (“proportion your beliefs to your evidence”). The dual-evaluations approach rejects coherentism across the board, while accommodating more internal kinds of evaluations, including ones appealing to coherence, from a more externalist starting point.

For more information on the research, please contact Maria Lasonen-Aarnio