On the Rationality of Word-Taking, Part I, Juha Räikkä


It is rather commonly assumed that “trustworthiness” is a trait among others and can be appraised with evidence, although trust may go beyond evidence in some cases. It is also rather commonly assumed that a sort of estimation of a speaker’s trustworthiness is needed when a person’s word is rationally taken. However, it has recently been argued that the idea of estimating a person’s trustworthiness by assessing evidence is problematic. Maybe (1) it is questionable to estimate “trustworthiness” by applying the usual methods that investigate a person’s past verbal and other behavior? And perhaps (2) there are cases in which it is rational to take another person’s word even if one does not vindicate one’s belief in a word-giver’s trustworthiness by assessing evidence? In this paper, I briefly discuss these two objections and argue that they both fail. The objections do not show that in ordinary conversations people cannot estimate a speaker’s trustworthiness simply by assessing evidence, nor that it can be rational to take another person’s word and believe her even in cases where one does not vindicate one’s view about the speaker’s trustworthiness by assessing evidence … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Andrea Kirkbyvia Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Räikkä, Juha. 2022. “On the Rationality of Word-Taking.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (12): 68-81. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7t2.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Juha Räikkä’s “On the Rationality of Word-Taking”, will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part I. Please read Part II. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.

Telling and Word-Taking

When a person tells you something, say “I was at the movies yesterday,” you are provided with a reason to believe that. The reason may not be very good, but you have it, just because someone has simply told how things are. Telling is more than reporting one’s beliefs (Ross 1986, 72). When a person tells us something, she also implicitly offers a guarantee that this is so. She assures that what she says is true and assumes responsibility for the acceptability of her claim. By telling, she gives her word and invites us to trust her.[1] At least in principle, we can blame her should we find out that we got wrong information (Hinchman 2005, 562; Moran 2006, 295).[2] Telling alters a speaker’s responsibilities, just as promises and explicit agreements may change them (Moran 2006, 289; Hawley 2019, 50; Watson 2004; Friedrich and Southwood 2011). Suppose that we could reveal what beliefs a person has by secretly using a handy brain scanner. It would not be fair to blame her should we notice that we were thus misled and formed wrong beliefs. She would not be responsible for telling us falsehoods if she has told us nothing. In the absence of a decision to tell, we would not have a right to complain. This shows that when someone tells us something, the question is not merely about evidence of the possible fact that ‘this is so.’ Although people can and sometimes do treat what other people tell them as evidence, they normally learn things simply by taking the speaker’s word.[3]

Of course, a rational person does not believe whatever she is told if she has no idea about the trustworthiness of the speaker. But often we have some idea, either because we do not have any evidence that the speaker is untrustworthy or because we have a reason to think she is sincere and possesses relevant knowledge (Hinchman 2005, 578–579; Moran 2006, 289). We can estimate a speaker’s trustworthiness and use all the evidence we happen to have, however weak it may be (“usually strangers that give directions do not lie”). This process is natural and usually goes unnoticed, and it does not mean that, after all, we are using what we hear merely as evidence for what we are being told. Our typical relation to what we are told is non-evidential, although we have tacitly evaluated the speaker by using some evidence. The speaker’s guarantee that her claim is true is what counts, but her words and intentions do not, in themselves, give us a reason to believe her.[4] If someone tells you that it is cold outside and you believe it, then it is natural to say, if asked, that you believe it because you were just told. But what you really mean is that you believe it because you were told, and you have some grounds to think that the speaker is trustworthy (or at least you do not have grounds to think that she is untrustworthy) and you do not see an overriding reason to doubt what she says (Moran 2006, 289; Moran 2018, 58).[5]

This picture of everyday conversations may seem innocent and obvious. And perhaps the picture is innocent and obvious. However, it has recently (and before) been argued that the idea of estimating a person’s trustworthiness by assessing evidence is problematic (Dannenberg 2020).[6] The picture above assumes that “trustworthiness” is a trait among others and can be appraised like many other traits, say, curiosity.[7] The picture also assumes that an estimation, however vague, is needed when a person’s word is taken rationally. But, perhaps both assumptions are wrong. Maybe it is questionable to estimate “trustworthiness” by using evidence? And perhaps there are cases in which it is rational to take another person’s word even if one does not vindicate one’s belief in a word-giver’s trustworthiness by evaluating evidence?

In this paper, I briefly discuss the two objections against the received understanding of everyday conversations, one by one. I argue that both fail. The objections do not show that:

(1) in ordinary conversations people cannot estimate a speaker’s trustworthiness simply by evidence, nor that;

(2) it can be rational to take another person’s word and believe her even in cases where one does not vindicate her view about the speaker’s trustworthiness by evidence.

My project here is largely negative. I do not argue for the thesis that people can always estimate other people’s trustworthiness, in all meanings of the term ‘trustworthy,’ merely by assessing evidence. Nor do I argue that it cannot be rational to take another person’s word and believe her even in cases where one does not have or rely on any empirically enlightened view about the speaker’s trustworthiness. Perhaps it can be rational; the objection I am interested in just does not show it. Before concluding, I briefly discuss the possibility of using moral grounds in belief formation.

Issues such as how to define ‘trust’ and ‘word-taking,’ and what the relation between trust and belief in trustworthiness is, are beyond the scope of this paper. The aim here is merely to critically evaluate two objections against the ordinary picture of what happens when a person tells something to another person, who rationally believes what she is told. According to the ordinary picture, we believe what we are told by trusting the speaker, but not blindly, if we are rational.[8]

Estimating Trustworthiness

Both objections discussed below have been recently presented by Jorah Dannenberg (2020).[9] The objections are not new, but here I concentrate on the new formulations of them. The discussion is not meant to be merely a critical response to a single paper but also (1) a contribution to a debate that has a long history and (2) a general comment on the view that trust and evidence have an uneasy relationship.

It is fair to say at the start that Dannenberg’s discussion concerns issues of ‘telling’ and ‘assertions’ only indirectly. The main topic of his discussion concerns our ability to believe by word-taking. He argues that “we have no good understanding how both ethical and epistemic considerations can be brought to bear when someone makes up her mind to take another at her word” (Dannenberg 2020, 119). This sounds plausible.[10] In what follows, I do not consider this thesis but rather the two objections Dannenberg proposes against the ordinary understanding of everyday conversations. They are not side issues if we want to understand how to describe everyday conversations in which we learn things by trusting others. Dannenberg comments especially on Richard Moran’s views about the nature of ‘telling,’ but many others have defended similar descriptions.[11] The view that “the assuming of responsibility” is “present in every genuine assertion” derives from Charles Pierce.[12]

Let us start with the first objection. According to it, the idea of estimating a person’s trustworthiness by using evidence is questionable. Some authors have assumed that “even if the rational significance of someone’s word is non-evidential, the question of her trustworthiness might still turn on evidence about her” (Dannenberg 2020, 127). However, according to Dannenberg (2020, 127), “the idea is problematic.” A conclusion that a speaker is trustworthy should not be made by “considering one’s evidence that she is trustworthy” (Dannenberg 2020, 127). More generally, “seeking out more evidence for another’s trustworthiness is often self-defeating,” although our usual ways of talking about trustworthiness “can obscure this” (Dannenberg 2020, 132).[13] Dannenberg (2020, 132) writes:

Trustworthiness might seem like any other trait, ascribed on the basis of observations about someone’s character—as we might ascribe tenacity or curiosity. That, however, cannot be how the question presents itself from the perspective of the one confronting it. Suppose that you said to someone, ‘Sure, your partner says she is faithful. But can you be sure she is trustworthy?’ What sort of reply would it be to say, ‘Yes, because I did extensive interviews with her previous partners, and hired a private investigator just to make sure.’ If it were a straightforward matter of evidential grounds for ascribing a trait, he would have unimpeachable reason for counting trustworthiness among her virtues. Yet his methods of securing those grounds reveal anything but an affirmative answer to the question of her worthiness of trust for him.

The man in the example wants to trust his partner but is unable to do so. Dannenberg (2020, 133) explains that “the pursuit of more evidence of his partner’s good character in order to reassure himself puts, tragically beyond his reach, the kind of security that he actually wants.” In this way “he is led to self-defeat.” The point is not to say that evidence is irrelevant; the point is that the active pursuit of evidence would likely be self-defeating. According to Dannenberg (2020, 132), this result (i.e., self-defeat) is not necessary, but seeking out more evidence is “often” self-defeating.

Three points are in order here. They all suggest that the idea of estimating a person’s trustworthiness by considering evidence can indeed be challenging.

First, using and seeking out evidence can be simply counter-productive. When a person has a suspicious mind, like the man in the example, seeking out evidence for trustworthiness makes the possibility of untrustworthiness vivid. To an extent, the situation resembles cases in which a person tries to forget something but actively thinks about it. Active thinking of the issue is not a way to forget it—the process secures that the issue will stay in her mind. Similarly, pondering someone’s trustworthiness easily causes feelings of distrust, at least if a person thinks that he really needs further evidence about trustworthiness. Of course, seeking evidence is a process, and surely there is a chance that he will soon find arguments to assure himself. The process can end happily, and the result need not be counter-productive even if the start may be.

Second, using and pursuing evidence about another person’s trustworthiness may be difficult, because reasons to trust can be personal. As Linda Zagzebski (2012, 129) and others have pointed out, my reasons to trust a person need not be good reasons for you to trust that person.[14] Suppose that your colleague asks you whether the new manager is trustworthy, and you reply that “Well, I trust her.” This answer gives your colleague some reason to trust the manager—after all, you trust her—but on the other hand, she has not been provided with a personal reason why she should trust her as well. In this respect, considering a person’s “trustworthiness” resembles considering whether someone is friendly. Perhaps we can distinguish friendly people from those who tend to be less friendly, but even friendly people need not be particularly friendly toward all of us. Similarly, trustworthy persons need not be worthy of trust for everyone. This does not mean that estimating trustworthiness (by using evidence) is generally problematic, but it can be complicated.

Third, judging a person’s trustworthiness by considering evidence can lead to a situation in which one treats what one is told merely as evidence. Suppose that business partners are chatting, and one asks the other whether their new customer has already visited the office. The questioner is certain that her partner knows what the right answer is—she checked that the partner was at the office at the relevant time. The questioner also realizes that the partner has a strong reason to tell the truth—she has ensured that the partner has no incentive to mislead her in this matter. In this situation, the questioner believes what she is told, but not because she accepts the invitation to trust and realizes the importance of her partner’s assurance. Her careful background work has led her to a state of mind in which she treats what she hears only as evidence: a plausible ground to think that what she just heard is true.[15] In this situation, she takes a risk of making a mistaken conclusion about the visit, but the risk is minor. Furthermore, there is no risk that she would feel betrayed if she finds out that her conclusion is wrong. Such risk is absent, as she never accepted her partner’s invitation to trust and did not care about the given assurance.[16] We could say that she is not vulnerable in the sense people who trust are vulnerable. These kinds of examples suggest that active investigations about other people’s trustworthiness can result in situations in which the issue of word-taking is irrelevant. This need not happen, but surely it is possible.

This said, however, it seems unlikely that the idea of estimating a person’s trustworthiness by using evidence is somehow generally problematic. At least, Dannenberg’s example does not show any problems. The man in the example conducts interviews and hires a private investigator in order to find out whether his partner is faithful. Because of his background work, he replies (when asked) that he trusts his partner when she says that she is faithful. But, the reply is nonsense, as Dannenberg correctly suggests. The man believes what he believes because of evidence about his partner’s faithfulness. Her words have nothing to do with his beliefs, and the partner’s assurance is not used even as evidence. It is not used at all, because the man has independent reason to think that the partner is faithful. Trust or a conviction that the partner is trustworthy does not play a role in the man’s belief formation process, although he believes what the partner says, namely, that she is faithful.

The problem with the example is that it does not concern the estimation of another person’s trustworthiness. The man in the example checks facts (or at least, one fact), but he does not really study at all whether the partner is trustworthy. Suppose that you would like to hire someone for your business enterprise, and you ask a potential employee how old she is. When she tells you she is 35 years old, you check her birth date in her passport and notice that she did not lie and remembers her own age. Do you now know that the jobseeker is trustworthy? Of course not, and it is unlikely that anyone who would like to learn about another person’s trustworthiness would use such a silly strategy in the investigation.

If you want to know whether the jobseeker is trustworthy, you should talk with her at length to learn what kind of person she is; you should carefully read any letters of recommendation; you should check her level of knowledge and skills; you should find out how committed she would be to the job; you should use your previous experiences of new employees in your estimation; and so on. The list of how you can rely on evidence in your estimation of another person’s trustworthiness is almost endless, but, unfortunately, even careful work does not guarantee that you end up with the right conclusion. Possibly, someday you will be disappointed with the person you hired. There is always a chance that you will painfully learn that she could be more trustworthy (but you may also learn that she is actually more trustworthy than you originally thought).

The idea of estimating a person’s trustworthiness by evaluating evidence is unproblematic, or at least, the example of a distrustful man does not show that it is problematic. The distrustful man in the example does not estimate his partner’s trustworthiness; he is merely interested in whether she is faithful. The ordinary picture of telling seems correct, although the picture assumes that “trustworthiness” is a trait among others and can be estimated like many other traits. Sometimes, the estimation of trustworthiness may be challenging or even self-defeating, but usually it is possible, and it can even be easy.

The fact that we use evidence in the estimation of trustworthiness does not mean that we treat what we hear as evidence. We take another person’s word and are optimistic. But the optimism implies that we are vulnerable—a person who invites us to trust her can always betray us. Seeking out evidence for another’s trustworthiness does not prevent frustration. Maybe this is only a good thing. By relying on evidence, we avoid gullibility, but we can still trust others, which is often required by morality.

❧ Please refer to Part II of “On the Rationality of Word-Taking.”


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[1] Carson (2010, 36) writes that “[w]arranting the truth of a statement presupposes that the statement is being used to invite or influence belief. It does not make sense for one to guarantee the truth of something that one is not inviting or influencing others to believe.”

[2] Moran’s paper was originally published in 2005 in Philosopher’s Imprint.

[3] Almost anything can be treated as evidence. See Zagzebski (2012, 129); Owens (2006, 119). Roughly, here the concept of evidence covers anything that can be counted by someone as grounds for belief, except moral (and other practical) grounds.

[4] “Your telling me that P can only said to provide me with knowledge if you know that P”

(Ross 1986, 82). Moran (2006, 289) argues that it is not the case that “the speaker’s words ‘all by themselves’ should count as a reason for belief, or that the speaker’s authority over the constitution of the particular speech act he is performing (e.g. as assertion rather than recitation) shoulders the epistemic burden all by itself.” Moran (2006, 289) explains that “as with any public assumption of responsibility, the appropriate abilities and other background conditions must be assumed to be in place for it to amount to anything. For the speaker to be able to do this it must be assumed by both parties that the speaker does indeed satisfy the right conditions for such an act (e.g. that he possesses the relevant knowledge, trustworthiness, and reliability). These background conditions can themselves be construed as evidential” (Moran 2006, 289).

[5] Hinchman (2005, 578) writes that trust “is epistemically reasonable when the thing trusted is worthy of the trust – as long as there is no evidence available that it is untrustworthy.”

[6] For an earlier objection that trust should not be “justified in an evidential way,” see Faulkner (2007, 879). For a view that ‘blind’ trust can be rational, see Baker (1987). Baker (1987, 5) asks, how can “trust be significantly independent of evidence”.

[7] The starting point here is that ‘trust’ and ‘trustworthiness’ can be used in different senses. The discussion is based on the ordinary language idea that a person is trustworthy (with regard to a certain issue and in a certain context) when one can rely, at least to some degree, on what he says. A person can also be trustworthy in the sense that she is likely to do something that is expected. Her being trustworthy in that sense does not imply, as such, that she is a trustworthy person. For a definition of ‘trust,’ see e.g. Uslaner (2002); Hardin (2006); Jones (2006); Faulkner (2011); Hawley (2014a).

[8] The “assurance view” of testimony is often misdescribed as a position that claims that we can rationally believe someone without evidence that the speaker is trustworthy. As Dannenberg points out, however, those who emphasize the special elements of word-taking do not think that the process is independent of evidence (Dannenberg 2020, 127, fn 8). For a discussion, see Lackey (2011).

[9] The online version of the paper was published in 2019.

[10] One can add that we have no good understanding of how both ethical and epistemic considerations can be consistent in situations in which beliefs seem to wrong someone. For a discussion, see Basu (2018); Marusic and White (2018). Similar issues arise in the context of epistemic partiality (see e.g. Stroud 2006; Arpaly and Brinkerhoff 2018; Goldberg 2019) and in the debate concerning the thesis that the epistemic status of an opinion can depend on its moral features. About moral encroachment, see e.g. Moss (2018); Basu (2019); Fritz (2020). Obviously, the arguments presented in these debates are highly relevant in the present context as well, but it is not possible to introduce them here.

[11] Moran (2006, 273) writes that his paper does not concern mainly “the conditions for knowledge”; he wants “to understand what ‘telling’ is.” Other authors who have defended similar views about the nature of “telling” include Angus Ross (1986) and Edward Hinchman (2005). McMyler (2011, 167) emphasizes that a word-taker should evaluate a speaker’s trustworthiness: “We shouldn’t believe just anything another person tells us, just as we shouldn’t do anything another person commands us. We are always rationally responsible for assessing the competence of the speaker and for determining the relevant extent of her practical and theoretical authority.”

[12] Pierce C. Belief and Judgment. In: Collected Papers V. Cambridge: Harvard, 1934. Cited by Watson 2004, 57.

[13] Cf. Hawley (2014b). Her starting point is the observation that searching for evidence for trustworthiness is often taken as an indication of mistrust.

[14] See also McMyler (2011, ch. 5). Personal relationships and history matter.

[15] The questioner treats her partner as though the partner were a camera that can present verbal reports when asked.

[16] Moran (2006, 298) discusses a case in which a person does not accept a promise. There is no risk that she would feel aggrieved and let down.

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