Imagine that someone says, “the US government is oppressive, and people need to be able to defend themselves from it. So, people have the right to carry guns.” Leaving aside whether this is a good argument, one thing many people will wonder about it is: who’s giving this argument?
The answer to that question affects how people receive the argument. If you’re progressive, and you know that the giver of the argument is a white male conservative living in Plano, Texas, you’ll probably dismiss it. By contrast, if you know the arguer is a black man living in Ferguson, Missouri, you’ll be much more open to it. The same goes for conservatives hearing arguments given by people they do or don’t trust.
I think this is true for just about all arguments for controversial conclusions. If someone you see as part of your ingroup argues for a conclusion you disagree with, you’ll be more open to it. But if someone you think of as part of your outgroup offers the very same argument, you’ll be less open to it. Is this rational?
You might think it’s not rational. After all, whether an argument is good or bad depends on the argument itself, not who’s giving it. To evaluate the argument by its giver is to engage in the ad hominem fallacy.
But most of the time, I think this is rational (largely because of considerations the philosopher Catarina Dutilh Novaes advances in her article, “The Role of Trust in Argumentation”). Here’s why: we all have limited time to figure out what to believe, and most of what we know, such as, for example, when Einstein was born, are things we know because people we trust say so. If we decided to investigate why we should believe everything we believe, we’d die before we got very far. So, because we all have limited time, we have to take almost everything we believe on trust. That’s why we want to know who’s giving an argument before we even investigate it. It’s another way of asking, “why should I waste any time on this?”
Obviously enough, this relates to writing under a pseudonym. If you don’t know who’s writing something, then it can make sense to dismiss it. After all, you have limited time, so why waste your time reading something that a stranger has written?
I have two answers to this. First, there are some arguments where you don’t actually have to know very much to assess them. Here’s one: “every action you do is either caused to happen or it isn’t. If it’s caused to happen, then it isn’t free. If it isn’t caused to happen, then it’s random, and if it’s random, then it isn’t free. So, no action is free.” Questions of “why should I believe you?” don’t really come up so much with this argument – the argument is straightforward. And the thing is, philosophical arguments are often like this–they are easy enough to comprehend, and they don’t involve reliance on controversial empirical facts or interpretations of them. So, philosophy is a field where who’s giving the argument is often less important than the argument itself.
Second, though it’s usually rational to consider or dismiss an argument based on who gives it, it isn’t always rational. Imagine, for example, that you’re in what’s nowadays called an “epistemic bubble“—you’re surrounded by people who agree with you about all the big issues. If you’re in an epistemic bubble, you run the risk of believing lots of things without good reason. After all, in an epistemic bubble, no one calls anyone else on their bullshit, and so people get out of the habit of finding good reasons for believing what they believe–they don’t need to! So, if you’re in an epistemic bubble, you have good reason to want to get out, at least if you want to have good reasons for your beliefs.
And there’s another problem with epistemic bubbles: the more you get used to people agreeing with you about everything, the more bracing disagreement starts to feel to you. (If you don’t believe me, and you’re a progressive, try reading National Review. If you’re a conservative, try reading Slate. In other words, the longer you’re in an epistemic bubble, the more reason you have to get out, but the longer you’re in such a bubble, the harder it is to get out.
One way out of this is to read people whose identity you don’t know. If you don’t know whether someone is conservative or progressive, or anywhere in-between or to the side, then you have no choice but to consider the argument itself. And that might just allow you to burst your bubble.