Section 3 Trust and Epistemic Responsibility

Reconciling Epistemic Trust and Responsibility

Heidi Grasswick

Few would question the position that human beings form a large portion of their beliefs through trusting others. The human condition is one of deep epistemic dependence. Increasingly, numerous epistemologists interested in testimony have framed their discussions explicitly in terms of the role of trust (Faulkner 2011; Jones 2002; McMyler 2011). To acquire either well-grounded belief or knowledge on the basis of someone’s testimony is to trust another in the formation of one’s beliefs in the matter at hand. At first glance, an acknowledgement of the important role for trust in our epistemic lives might appear to create tensions with understandings of what it means to be an epistemically responsible inquirer. Trusting others is not always a good epistemic strategy; it makes us vulnerable in ways that have the potential to harm us epistemically, especially if one’s social environment is hostile to one’s well-being, such as can be experienced by those who are marginalized in society. Furthermore, in some interpretations, epistemically trusting another may appear to abdicate our epistemic responsibilities by turning them over to others.

In this chapter I examine the relationship between forms of epistemic trust and a broad construction of epistemic responsibility that refers to how we conduct ourselves as inquirers who seek to satisfy our epistemic goals in a thoroughly social world. I first offer a general account of epistemic trust as a normative and affective trust and consider two forms of it—trust in testimony and trust in inquiry—noting that they are conceptually independent though also deeply intertwined with each other in our trust relationships. I then set out two interpretations of epistemic responsibility: a narrow interpretation that focuses on one’s accountability to the available evidence at the moment of belief formation and a more common, broader interpretation that refers to one’s epistemic conduct over time and includes considerations of how our activities of inquiry help position us to access those epistemic goods that are significant for us from a practical point of view. I explain various ways in which our epistemic responsibility can be exercised, first in the formation of, but more importantly from within, ongoing relationships of epistemic trust. Finally, I discuss three layers of epistemic responsibility that pertain to our relations of epistemic trust within a social world of knowing.

Although much of what I argue supports the need for an analysis of communal epistemic responsibility, for the purposes of this chapter, I focus on the implications of the important role of epistemic trust in our practices of inquiry for understanding what it is to be an epistemically responsible (individual) inquirer within a social world of knowing.


Epistemic Trust: General Accounts of Trust

In developing their understanding of the role of trust in the case of testimony, epistemologists have drawn from analyses of the general concept of trust (many having originated in ethics and social political philosophy), attempting to clarify trust’s particular meaning and function with respect to testimony specifically, and our epistemic lives more generally. These general analyses of trust tend to recognize that although the term “trust” is sometimes used as a synonym for simple reliance on another, in what could be considered a “predictive” sense of trust (Faulkner 2011), there is a richer concept of trust that involves more than mere reliance. This richer concept is said to be normative, in that it involves placing normative expectations on the trustee (Faulkner 2011). One of the key features of trust in this richer, normative sense is the possibility of betrayal that accompanies trust (Baier 1986;Jones 1996). For example, if I simply rely on someone or something, I can be disappointed but not betrayed. If I rely on my car’s gas tank gauge to indicate the amount of gas I have, I may be disappointed and frustrated with my situation when the gauge fails to operate properly, causing me to run out of gas unexpectedly. But I do not experience such reactive attitudes as resentment and a sense of betrayal such as I might if, after finding myself stranded without gas, I text my friend who responds that she will come right away to rescue me but then never shows up. My friend has let me down, and in the absence of her providing some convincing explanation for why she could not follow through, I would rightfully feel resentment towards her and a sense of betrayal.

In an attempt to explain the difference between mere reliance and this richer sense of trust, many have argued that trust itself involves a particular affective attitude (Jones 1996; Faulkner 2011). Karen Jones characterizes this attitude as having two components. First, one has an attitude of optimism in the goodwill and competence of the trusted (Jones 1996).1 But additionally, in trusting another, one expects that the trusted one “will be directly and favorably moved by the thought that we are counting on her” (Jones 1996, 4). It is this richer sense of trust as involving an affective attitude through which we place certain expectations on each other that I investigate with respect to our epistemic pursuits and our epistemic responsibilities. Though frequently we trust only in the thin

Reconciling Trust and Responsibility 163 predictive sense of relying on another for epistemic goods, normative and affective trust has an important role to play in maintaining longstanding trust relations within epistemic practices. Epistemic relationships and systems involving affective and normative expectations of each other are part of what keeps our epistemic practices “on the rails” over time, functioning productively for us and supporting our epistemic goals of knowing well in the world through each other’s efforts. Because of this important role of epistemic trust relationships, we need to assess how they can be reconciled with the demands that come with being epistemi-cally responsible as in individual agent.

Trust theorists recognize that drilling down to a core conception of trust is difficult, given the wide variety of types of things that we entrust to others and the vastly different contexts within which we trust. We trust teachers, sitters, relatives, and neighbors with the care and safety of our children; we trust bank tellers with our money; we trust strangers to respect our personal space as we walk down the street; we trust our friends to treat us well and not undermine our pursuits by backstabbing us in the company of others; and we trust many different kinds of people, positioned in many different kinds of relationships with us, for their testimony of many different types of claims. To simply say that I trust someone does not yet specify the scope of that trust or what kinds of things I’m entrusting them with. Trust theorists have typically articulated the relationship of trust in terms of a three-place structure: A trusts B for C, where C is some good that A cares about (Baier 1986).2 Correspondingly, trust can take different forms, depending in part on the nature of the good entrusted. And though I do not discuss the point in detail, a crucial feature of trust that underlies my analysis is that trust is rarely absolute, but rather comes in degrees, being easier or harder to break depending on the context and nature of our interactions and our epistemic needs.

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