Testimony and Morality
Let us now turn to the second objection. According to it, 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. If this claim is correct, then the ordinary picture of telling is not. The ordinary picture assumes that at least some sort of estimation of a person’s trustworthiness is needed when her word is rationally taken. The estimation justifies trust and word-taking … [please read below the rest of Part II].
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 II. Please read Part I. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.
Dannenberg’s starting point in the second objection is Judith Baker’s example in which a person takes her friend’s word, although (1) she has evidence that what her friend says is not true, and (2) she does not vindicate her belief in the word-giver’s trustworthiness by assessing evidence. Baker (1987, 3) writes:
Suppose I trust a friend who has been accused of wrongdoing, with an impressive amount of evidence brought against her. Typically, I am faced with a novel situation, where there is no prior set of tests or testing situations that she has come through with flying colours. Suppose she is accused of telling secrets to a foreign government. It is unlikely that I have ever seen her approached by foreign agents, offered vast sums of money or other inducements, indeed, unlikely that I have witnessed any situations offering great temptations. I trust her in such a situation, I do not merely stand by her, acting in ways that support her, either materially or emotionally. I believe she is innocent.
Of course, friends have evidence of each other’s trustworthiness. Although, “by hypothesis, there is precious little relevant past record,” Baker (1987, 4) does not deny that beliefs regarding a friend’s trustworthiness are “supported by plain facts – that we come to know what people are like, that we witness a growth of understanding and knowledge of people when we do things with them, live with them, and that part of the process of becoming friends with someone is finding out who they are, when and how much we can rely on them and trust them.” However, in Baker’s view, beliefs concerning these facts do not really have a major role when a person decides to trust her friend.
The person who takes her friend’s word does not come to believe that her friend is innocent, “despite the evidence, by weighing or balancing present evidence against her past record,” and by concluding then that the friend is innocent (Baker 1987, 3). On the contrary, according to Baker (1987, 3), “we think it rational to hold beliefs in the face of counter-evidence.” Although it is not easy to see “what makes the beliefs of the trusting individual rational,” they are rational, in cases like the one in the example (Baker 1987, 6).
Dannenberg (2020, 120) tends to agree. Even when there “is considerable evidence that indicates the friend’s guilt” and you are “well aware of the incriminating facts, and your friend has no alternative explanation of them to offer you,” it might be rational to take her word and believe her. Dannenberg’s (2020, 128) interpretation of the example is that the decision is primarily ethical. The person who takes another’s word decides “to set aside doubt in the name of loyalty or friendship.” “In the position of Baker’s protagonist, you might treat loyalty as among your grounds for choosing to take your friend at her word when she proclaims her innocence” (Dannenberg 2020, 121). The warrant of word-taking is moral. A person willing to stand by a friend “might be thought to exhibit an admirable kind of heroism, remaining in someone’s corner when others will not believe her” (Dannenberg 2020, 121).
Dannenberg (2020, 121–122) confesses that some of us “might not be moved by the original intuition” about Baker’s example, but he finds it “intuitively compelling.” The “image of rationality must somehow allow a conscientious person to knowingly bring ethical considerations directly to bear on the question she confronts” (Dannenberg 2020, 121). This means problems for the ordinary picture of telling. As opposed to the message of the picture, there seem to be cases in which it is rational and appropriate to trust someone and take her word, even if one does not vindicate one’s belief in the word-giver’s trustworthiness by evidence (and has evidence that what is said is not true). Dannenberg (2020, 132) argues:
Whenever we take another’s word, we are vulnerable to that person’s causing us to fail in our most basic responsibility as believers. On any plausible account, the insufficiency of the grounds for believing to which you on your own have access puts you at the mercy of the person whose word you take: you let the goodness of her will stand between you and false belief. In believing her, you thus show confidence in her not to abuse, exploit, or neglect your vulnerable position. Still, it is tempting to think that this confidence needs underwriting. When it does, can it be underwritten by some further evaluation of whether the would-be word-giver is honest and judicious, rather than reckless or mendacious? One problem with thinking in that way […] is that it cannot vindicate the choice to trust in an example like Baker’s.
According to Dannenberg (2020, 130), a person “in the position of Baker’s protagonist will feel pulled in one direction by friendship and loyalty, in another by her take on the evidence and the doubt it seems to support.” Of course, we can imagine that the word-taker finds so much evidence about her friend’s trustworthiness that, taken as a whole, the evidential considerations, after all, support the view that the friend is innocent. But, in Dannenberg’s view, this does not solve the problem. The idea that taking another person’s word can be warranted by evidence about her trustworthiness cannot vindicate the choice in the example, because the choice is made on ethical rather than epistemic grounds. Relying on evidence about trustworthiness could make the choice (epistemically) rational, perhaps, but then it would no longer be primarily an ethical choice anymore. According to Dannenberg (2020, 128), if a belief in what another swears to is “ultimately backed up by straightforwardly evidential considerations,” we have moved away from the problem that Baker’s example raises (and do not explain how rational acceptance of beliefs can in some cases be ultimately ethical).
Does Baker’s example show that it is not the case that rational word-taking requires evidential backing, and that it is sometimes rational to believe what does not seem to be true, given the evidence available? If this is so, then the ordinary picture of telling and word-taking should be revised. According to the ordinary picture, rational word-taking implies that the word-taker warrants her belief in a speaker’s trustworthiness through evidence and does not see an overriding reason to doubt what she is told.
For a start, obviously, there are cases of belief acquisition in which ethical considerations seem to override epistemic considerations. A mother who believes that her son has not committed a serious crime, even if she saw aggravating proof a few days prior and understood it, is not a bad person. Her belief is understandable and perhaps we could even expect it. Self-deception can seem ethically admirable, as it can mirror virtuous hopes, values, and emotions. But, of course, such self-deceptive belief is not rational. Our (possible) tendency to give moral credit to mothers who care about their sons so much that they end up with wrong conclusions does not mean that we need to revise our conception of doxastic rationality. It suffices to notice that not all beliefs that may seem ethical are epistemically rational. However, these kinds of examples do not concern “telling” and word-taking. Baker’s example does. Let us consider it more closely.
Two points are particularly interesting.
First, it is not clear that Baker’s case is an example of a situation in which loyalty or friendship plays a crucial ethical role. Instead, it seems that, as far as we are willing to ethically approve the word-taker’s decision, much depends on the content of what is believed. In Baker’s example, a person believes that the friend is innocent, which is a very respectful way to see another person.
But suppose that the friend says that he is a rapist and a racist murderer. He confesses everything publicly but, to his disappointment, prosecutors and other official bodies do not believe him. They have clear evidence that suggests the person is lying and that the assertion is an ordinary fake confession. However, one person believes him. She remains in her friend’s corner when others will not believe him and takes his word that he is a rapist and a murderer. She quietly thinks, “this sadist must have done it if he says so.” Although she has evidence that this is not so, she treats loyalty as a ground for choosing to take her friend at his word. Her loyalty overrides the importance of evidence.
In this case, should we say that the person’s decision to trust is both ethical and rational? Intuitions may differ, but many of us would say, at least, that the person is not as good as Baker’s protagonist. The person who believes (against the evidence) that her friend is a murderer is not a moral hero. But the problem is not lack of loyalty. She trusts her friend, come what may. The problem is that she thinks bad things about her friend. She should not think so, especially if the evidence points in a different direction. She should not believe her friend; she should seek to help him.
The second point is more important. It is not clear that Baker’s case is an example of a situation in which word-taking is not underwritten by evidence concerning a person’s trustworthiness (i.e., that she is honest and judicious). By hypothesis, the decision to trust is made on ethical grounds. But it seems that we read the example by assuming that the decision-maker relies on evidential backing when she makes her moral decision. Her trust appears to be at least partly vindicated by evidence. To see this, consider the following case: Someone says in the newspaper that she is wrongly accused of telling secrets to a foreign government and that she is innocent. Almost nobody believes her, as there is considerable evidence that indicates that she is guilty. People are well aware of the incriminating facts, and she has no alternative explanation of them. However, one person believes her.
This person feels loyalty and identifies with her, as she notices (from the newspaper article) that the accused has the same relatively rare profession as she and that they share religious convictions, although the religion in question is not very commonplace. They are also the same age. Because of these commonalities, she feels loyalty exactly as strongly as Baker’s main character. Thus, she decides to set aside doubt in the name of loyalty. She believes that the person is innocent; after all, the accused person says so. The fact that she knows hardly anything about the person she trusts does not bother her, as her justification for trust is purely ethical. She is willing to trust the accused person “out of a sense of loyalty” (Dannenberg 2020, 128).
Should we now think that the person’s decision to trust is rational and teach others to form beliefs in that way, if they want to be rational? Again, people may disagree, but many of us would probably say that the decision is not rational. Her feeling of loyalty (or commitment to be loyal) need not be problematic; there are many acceptable grounds to feel so (or to be committed to loyalty). The problem is that the word-taker does not know relevant facts that could help her judge whether the word-giver is trustworthy. As opposed to Baker’s protagonist, who trusts her friend and (thinks that she) knows that she is trustworthy, the word-taker in the present case believes almost blindly. As far as we are ready to say that the word-taker in Baker’s example is rational, she is rational because she does not believe blindly but uses her knowledge about her friend’s trustworthiness in belief formation—even if the decision to trust is ethically motivated and seems rational in that respect too.
Baker’s example does not show that it can be rational to take another person’s word and believe the person even in cases where one does not vindicate one’s view about the speaker’s trustworthiness by evidence. The ordinary picture of telling and word-taking—the picture that assumes that at least some sort of estimation of a person’s trustworthiness is required when a person’s word is rationally taken—need not be rejected because of Baker’s example and Dannenberg’s argument. Perhaps it can be rational to take another person’s word and believe the person even in cases where one does not have or rely on any empirically supported view about the speaker’s trustworthiness. However, the objection considered above does not show this.
In some places, Dannenberg (2020, 121, 128) formulates his view by saying that, in cases like Baker’s example, the choice to trust involves ethical considerations and that loyalty is among the grounds that vindicates word-taking. If the point is merely that ethical reasons can also be included when a person takes another person’s word rationally, then the point is consistent with the ordinary picture of telling. According to it, evidential backing about a speaker’s trustworthiness is needed; the ordinary picture does not deny the use of other grounds as well. Indeed, other grounds are almost always involved, as not-believing what friends, colleagues, or others tell, without a special reason, would be considered a morally suspicious insult. If someone invites you to trust her, by telling you something, it is usually polite to accept the invitation.
Now, the aim of Dannenberg’s (2020, 122) discussion is to illuminate the fact that we lack a good understanding of how ethical (or practical) concerns and epistemic (or theoretical) concerns can interact when a person decides whether to take another person’s word. In Baker’s example, a person trusts a friend who is accused of wrongdoing, with an impressive amount of evidence brought against her. Although she is aware of the indiscriminating facts, she believes that the accused is innocent because the accused says so. She knows what her friend is like and when and how much she can rely on her (Baker 1987, 4). Yet, the decision to trust is primarily ethical. She sets aside doubt in the name of loyalty (Dannenberg 2020, 128).
Suppose, however, against the original description of the example, that the word-taker uses the evidence about her friend’s trustworthiness in her decision to trust, although the decision is indeed ethically motivated. This should not be problematic, as the evidential considerations and her ethical standards point in the same direction. But the situation is fuzzy. If a person takes another’s word and believes that the total evidence supports the decision to trust, we might be tempted to think that she is taking the word merely because of evidential considerations although she describes the decision as ethical. In this light, it seems correct to say that, indeed, we lack a good understanding of how ethical and theoretical concerns interact.
I have argued that two recent objections against the ordinary picture of telling do not show that the picture is mistaken. The first objection does not show that in daily conversations people cannot estimate a speaker’s trustworthiness simply by evaluating evidence. The second objection does not show 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 evaluating evidence. I have not argued that people can always estimate the trustworthiness of others, in all meanings of the term ‘trustworthy,’ by assessing evidence. Nor have I argued 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. This can perhaps be rational (although this is unlikely). The relationship between epistemic considerations and ethical considerations in belief acquisition is complicated, and we do not understand everything that it might involve.
The ordinary picture of telling and word-taking assumes that a rational person does not believe what she is told if she has no idea about the trustworthiness of the speaker. However, almost always, we do have some idea, either because we do not have overall evidence suggesting that the speaker is untrustworthy or because we have a reason to think that she is trustworthy. For instance, we know that, usually, strangers who give directions do not lie. In some cases, we can try to estimate a speaker’s trustworthiness by considering, say, her tone, identity, or environment.
When a person decides to trust a speaker and takes her word, she may also estimate the speaker from a moral point of view. If she notices that the speaker is a good and benevolent person, she may find her potentially trustworthy. Perhaps she thinks that such persons do not want to lie and try to be careful about what they say. In any case, these value-laden considerations are used as a part of the evidence in the estimation of a speaker’s trustworthiness. In this sense, “moral reasons” can clearly be involved in a decision to trust. It is unclear whether a person can decide to take another person’s word merely out of a sense of loyalty or friendship. But surely, a person can trust someone partly because she considers the other person loyal and friendly, that is, worthy of trust.
❧ Please refer to Part I of “On the Rationality of Word-Taking.”
I would like to thank Barbora Badurova, Mireille Isaro, Susanne Uusitalo, and Jukka Varelius for helpful comments.
Juha Räikkä, firstname.lastname@example.org, Professor of Philosophy, University of Turku, Finland. Professor Räikkä has contributed to issues such as social justice, privacy, self-deception, concept of feasibility, conspiracy theory, and forgiveness. His articles have been published in journals such as The Journal of Political Philosophy, Synthese, Metaphilosophy, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, The Monist, The Journal of Value Inquiry, Journal of Social Philosophy, and Ratio.
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 Baker (1987, 3) writes that “what others regard as evidence against her isn’t considered by me as evidence at all.”
 Baker’s argument is difficult to interpret. She says that she defends “the idea of radical form of evidence-independence” (Baker 1987, 3) but, on the other hand, she writes that “beliefs regarding a friend are not independent of observations and experience” (Baker 1987, 4).
 According to Baker (1987, 5) confidence in a friend “may well grow as a result of experience, with the growth of the friendship itself. But at each stage of a friendship the confidence one has in one’s friend leaps ahead of what we can think of as the evidence supporting it.”
 Others who are moved by the example, according to Dannenberg, are Richard Holton and Pamela Hieronymi (2008).
 One may try to vindicate the choice to trust on practical grounds and refer to ethical standards. According to Dannenberg (2020, 127), this leads to the problem of reflective instability. A belief that is justified merely on practical grounds does not tolerate critical reflection.
 Of course, false beliefs can have desirable impacts, including morally desirable impacts. As Robert Merrihew Adams (1984, 3) writes, “there are many cases in which it is rightness rather than rationality that ought to be praised in beliefs.”
 If a person believes that the friend is innocent, because believing so is a respectful way to see another person, then she uses practical reason in belief acquisition.
 If one does not tell anyone what one believes, the belief does not help or comfort others.
 Of course, the protagonist may know something about the accused person if they share a profession etc. In any case, the newspaper example suggests that evidence plays a role in Baker’s original example and helps us conclude that trust may be appropriate.
 For a discussion, see e.g. Simpson (2017).
 Moran (2006, 301); Dannenberg (2020, 129). Anscombe (1979, 9) writes that is “is an insult and it may be an injury not to be believed.”
 Dannenberg (2020, 128) says that a person mischaracterizes her reasons if she says that she acts out of a sense of loyalty but justifies her decision to trust with the evidence concerning a word-giver’s trustworthiness.
 An option here is to adopt a version of epistemic permissivism. According to that doctrine, different doxastic attitudes (such as believing and doubting) toward a given proposition may be licensed by the same body of evidence (Rosa 2018). Permissivists reject the uniqueness thesis, which says that any set of evidence can justify at most one kind of doxastic attitude toward the view that is licensed by the evidence in question. Permissivism gets support from the observation that rational subjects can disagree with each other although they have access to the same evidence and understand its meaning (Ballantyne 2018). By relying on permissivism, we can try to understand the idea that, in Baker’s example, the person who trusts her friend vindicates her final choice by ethical considerations, although she uses evidence. Suppose that the overall evidence the person has supports both the belief that the friend is innocent and a doubt about the friend’s innocence, and that both conclusions can be licensed with the same evidence. Suppose also that, in this situation, the person decides to trust, as she feels that this is how friends should behave. If this is what happens, then the person’s decision to take her friend at her word is clearly ethical, although it is indeed warranted by evidential considerations. Moral considerations can tip the scales in favor of one of two beliefs equally permitted by the evidence (see also Kelly 2013).