Ethics of Inquiry

Trusting Strangers

“Stranger Danger” by Cornish Cactus is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.


  1. Hypatia

    Let’s assume you’re right that it’s often okay to believe X because “people we trust” said it. It seems that if this is true, it only applies to a very narrow set of claims. You say “…most of what we know, such as, for example, when Einstein was born, are things we know because people we trust say so.” But trusting that my mom is likely right when she tells me when Einstein was born seems very different from trusting that she is likely right on, say, the ethics of gun control. I would go further here and claim that it not only seems ill-advised to trust my mom on a moral matter of this nature, but it would also be ill-advised to trust even a moral philosopher on the question, assuming they don’t work on the ethics of gun control but on some other area of moral philosophy. Finally, trusting those who agree with us seems dangerous not only because of epistemic bubbles as you point out, but also because of echo chambers – which make people into worse thinkers and more extreme believers by encouraging them to ‘trust’ those they already agree with.

    • Comment by post author

      Jack Tearguts

      First, I don’t think that trusting people about things like Einstein’s birth constitutes a very narrow set of claims. All the empirical information we have about the world, save for the information we learn directly from our senses, comes from other people, whether it’s on the news, in textbooks, from our parents, etc.

      Second, re: moral claims, I think trust factors in even here, too. Chances are, your friends and family are going to have similar moral intuitions to you. Consequently, if they tell you that some person is to be trusted (or to be distrusted), that’s pretty good evidence that he or she should or shouldn’t be trusted.

      Similarly, when it comes to things like gun control, I think you can DEFEASIBLY trust your in-group’s judgments about what is valuable. What is much harder to trust is (a) your in-group’s judgments about the likely causal effects of a particular political policy. Unless they’re experts, they’ll have no idea, and even if they’re experts, they’ll probably have … no idea. The second thing that’s harder to trust is (b) your in-group’s judgments about the out-group. I think they’ll be somewhat reliable with regard to how threatening the out-group is to them, but I think they’ll be way off with regard to how the out-group thinks of itself, as well as what its actual motivations are.

      • Hypatia

        If the phenomenon of group polarization has taught us anything, it’s that in-group judgments about out-groups are very often mistaken and hence highly unreliable. This is maybe especially true when it comes to how threatening the out-group is, on which you suggest an in-group will be “somewhat reliable”. It also teaches us that talking almost exclusively to people who agree with us makes us worse knowers. So I would argue that we should actually resist the tendency to think one’s in-group is correct on some issue just because they are one’s in-group. Also, when it comes to ‘judgments about what is valuable,’ I wonder how much people across the political spectrum are truly divided. Do they disagree about what is fundamentally valuable, or are they rather divided on how best to achieve what’s widely regarded as valuable (e.g. freedom from harm, equal rights, etc)?

  2. I didn’t know that.