Section 4 The Vulnerabilities of Trust

Exploitative Epistemic Trust

Katherine Dormandy


Relationships of trust incur vulnerability, and vulnerability can be exploited. Epistemic trust is no exception. This chapter maps out four forms of exploitation in epistemic-trust relationships involving testimony. Several theses of relevance to social epistemology emerge.

One important form of trust in testimony consists in a hearer trusting a speaker for knowledge: he believes what she says on the basis of the fact that she says it, making himself vulnerable to insincerity or error on her part. Less discussed but equally important is that speakers standardly trust hearers too: testifying makes a speaker vulnerable in various ways, for example to not being taken seriously (Hinchman 2005; Dotson 2011; M. Fricker 2007; Frost-Arnold 2016; Medina 2013), so a speaker standardly trusts her hearer for epistemic recognition. Because both hearers and speakers are vulnerable in their capacity as trusters, each can have their trust exploited by the other.

But it is not just a trustee who can exploit a truster—a truster can also exploit someone whom he trusts. After all, accepting trust is burdensome: it incurs an obligation and so makes a trustee vulnerable to difficulties that may arise in discharging it. This holds for both parties to a testimonial relationship: a hearer, in his capacity as a truster, can exploit a speaker by imposing his trust for knowledge on her, and a speaker, in her capacity as a truster, can exploit a hearer by imposing on him her trust for epistemic recognition. Because both speakers and hearers are vulnerable in their capacity as trustees, each can be exploited in their acceptance of the other’s trust.

Four possibilities for epistemic exploitation in relationships of testimony have emerged: (a) a speaker can exploit a hearer by accepting his trust for knowledge or (b) by imposing on him her trust for epistemic recognition, and (c) a hearer can exploit a speaker by accepting her trust for recognition or (d) by imposing his trust for knowledge on her.

One might think that exploiting a truster—forms (a) and (c)—involves betraying him (or at least letting him down). One might also think that exploiting a trustee—forms (b) and (d)—involves imposing your trust under false pretenses (for example, pretending to trust when you are really out to manipulate). These two suggestions are right insofar as betrayal and deceit are much-loved tools of exploitation. But as we will see, they are not necessary: a trustee can exploit a truster by fulfilling his trust, and a truster can exploit a trustee by trusting her in good faith.

This chapter forges links between discussions about trust in general (Baier 1986, 1991; Jones 2004; Hinchman 2017; Hawley 2014), about testimony (E. Fricker 2006; M. Fricker 2007; Goldberg, unpublished manuscript; Hinchman 2005), and about the epistemic effects of power dynamics in social contexts (M. Fricker 2007; Mills 2007; Spelman 2007; Dotson 2011, 2012, 2014; Medina 2013; Berenstain 2016; Frost-Arnold 2014). Section 2 discusses trust and exploitation in nonepistemic settings. Section 3 introduces exploitative trust in testimony. Section 4 discusses how a speaker can epistemically exploit a hearer, and Section 5 how a hearer can return the favor. Section 6 concludes.

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