In this post,I attempt to argue that Linda Zagzebski’s analysis of
‘epistemic egoism’ (Zagzebski, Linda. 2007), can be helpful to resolve challenges raised by reductionism concerning testimony. However the challenge raised by what might be called reductionism concerning the source of knowledge does not seem to benefit from Zagzebski’s account.
Testimony is an important issue within social epistemology. An exemplary case of knowledge acquisition in a social context is coming to believe something on the basis of someone else’ words (testimony). The question is, can one have knowledge from what someone else is saying?
Testimony and the threat of reductionism
Some might hold that since testimony is reducible to perception, memory and inductive inference, it does not have an independent status as a source of knowledge. They might hold that the threat of reduction is at play at two levels: source and justification. They might argue, unlike in the case of perception and inference, there is no instance where ‘testimony’ is the only/Unique source of knowledge. They might argue, this lack of uniqueness suggests that testimony is not an independent source of knowledge; it is reducible to other sources of knowledge. I call this view as reductionism concerning the source of knowledge. What I call reductionism concerning justification is as follows. Testimony is justified on the basis of some other source of knowledge such as perception or inference. This suggests that testimony does not have an independent status as a source of knowledge. Some might hold that testimony can merely act as a ‘resource for reason’. Testimony gives information which we should rationally consider and arrive at conclusions by using independent means.
If I have understood it correctly, Linda Zagzebski’s arguments can be considered as arguing in support of testimony. She argues that we trust our selves when we are conscientious. She points out that it is a trust thatwe have in our selves and it is not based on any evidence. Let us examine Zagzebski’s arguments. Different types of ‘epistemic egoism’ which Zagzebski discusses are the following.
a. Extreme epistemic egoism: What Zagzebski calls extreme epistemic egoism holds that the fact that someone else has a belief is never a reason for her to believe it, not even when conjoined with evidence that the other person is reliable.
b. Strong epistemic egoism: it holds that one has no obligation to count what another person believes as relevant to her own beliefs, but she may do so if she sees that given what she believes about them, they are likely to serve her desire for the truth.
c. Weak epistemic egoism: It holds that when one has evidence that someone else’s belief reliably serves one’s desire for the truth in some domain, one is not only rationally permitted, one is rationally require d to take their beliefs into account for forming one’s own belief.
According to Zagzebski, strong or weak epistemic egoism appeals to those who uphold the ideal of epistemic autonomy. According to Zagzebski, it is hard to see that why would autonomy be accepted as an ideal . Epistemic egoism cannot be defended on the ground that I am more trustworthy than others because one has no reason to believe it. It is true that reliance upon my own faculties and previous beliefs is inescapable, whereas reliance upon others can be escaped if one is willing to give up many beliefs. But, according to Zagzebski, that does not support the position that it is better for me to rely upon my own powers above those of others. Zagzebski argues, therefore all forms of epistemic egoism are puzzling. Zagzebski thinks that all three forms of egoism propose an ideal of epistemic autonomy that needs defense.
Zagzebski argues that the demands of consistency push the epistemic egoist into weaker and weaker forms of egoism forcing her eventually to reject egoism. The extreme epistemic egoist trust only her own powers and previous beliefs as a means to getting further true beliefs and knowledge. By using her own powers (perception, inference etc.) she can find out that other people are reliable source of knowledge. So, by using her own powers she sees that she is permitted to trust the powers and beliefs of many people and she begins to accept some beliefs on testimony. Trust in her own powers requires her to weaken her extreme egoism and to become a strong epistemic egoist. By using her own powers and by relying on her own previous beliefs, she will see that certain other people are trustworthy sources of truth in some occasion and there is no reason for not to trust them. Zagzebski argues, the use of her own faculties lead her to see that trusting others is mandatory and not optional. She is then required by a consistent trust in her own faculties to become a weak epistemic egoist.
Zagzebski argues that epistemic egoism is inconsistent with the egoist’s own standards. Epistemic egoist is concerned with truth. Since she cares about truth, she commits herself to being a conscientious believer, one whose epistemic behaviour is governed by a caring for truth. It is rational for herself to trust her when she is conscientious. She also has evidence that she gets the truth when she is conscientious, but likely everybody else, she must trust herself in advance of the evidence.It is required because she must trust herself in order to collect and evaluate the evidence. So the rational epistemic egoist trust herself when she conscientious in attempting to get truth, and this trust is not based on evidence of her trustworthiness.
Zagzebski argues that, if the epistemic egoist is rational she is committed to trusting others when they are conscientious, when they have the qualities she trust in herself. Trusting herself commits her to trusting others when they are in the same position she is in. That is, when they are in similar circumstances,have apparently similar powers and abilities, and acts conscientiously as she acts when she trust herself. If she is consistent, she must trust them as much as herself, other things being equal. She has no reason to trust herself more than those whom she perceives to be epistemically equally well-placed. Zagzebski holds that she is not committed to trusting others because she has evidence that they are trustworthy; she is committed to trusting them because there is no relevance difference her grounds for trusting herself and others. Assuming it is reasonable to trust herself, it is reasonable to trust others.
There is the possibility that she trusts herself and distrust others without any reason other than the fact that her own powers and beliefs are her’s and the power and beliefs of others are not her’s. But if that is the position, she is valuing her own powers more than truth.
If I have correctly understood Zagzebski’s position, it can be described in relation with testimony as follows. She holds that when we are conscientious we trust ourselves as having knowledge. She points out that it is not on the basis of evidence but is on the basis of trust. She comments that even for an analysis of the evidence (for the trustworthiness of ourselves) to carry out, we should trust ourselves at the first place. Thus, Zagzebski presents ‘trust’ as a necessary prerequisite for knowledge. She points out that if we trust our selves when we are conscientious, we should trust others as well when they are conscientious, so that we can avoid inconsistency. In that sense, trusting others is mandatory if they are conscientious to avoid inconsistency. Therefore, accepting the testimony of someone who is conscientious as knowledge is mandatory.
If we are conscientious and still we seems to be not having knowledge, we will start doubting ourselves. For example we are not able to interact with the world on the basis of the information that we thought as knowledge. Then we can doubt our own trustworthiness. The same is the case with other people who is conscientious too. Trust is necessary to begin to gather knowledge. We cannot begin to gather knowledge by doubting our cognitive powers when we are conscientious; and because of the same reason, to avoid inconsistency, we should trust others when they are conscientious as well. This analysis can be used in order to save testimony from the threat of reductionism and can claim to have an independent status as a source of knowledge. Here testimony is not justified on the basis of some other source of knowledge. Testimony seems to get justified on the basis of some virtues such as ‘being conscientious’ which the testifier possess. And is therefore free from the threat of reductionism concerning justification. However, it seems, the threat of ‘reductionism concerning the source’ remains.
1. Zagzebski, Linda. “ethical and epistemic egoism and the ideal of autonomy”. Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, Volume 4, Issue 3, 2007, pp. 252-263.
2. Lackey, Jennifer. Learning from words: testimony as a source of knowledge. Oxford University press, 2008.