Testimony, Complacency, and the Ethics of Belief

In our last few classes, I noticed that topics in social epistemology—one of my pet interests—have been permeating our discussions about the Housing Crisis and The Big Short. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge and broadly concerns questions related to belief, justification, and knowledge. Social epistemology is concerned with the ways in which various social forces and systems affect knowledge, justification, and belief. Whether I trust what you say might depend on how I view you or how important it is that I have entirely accurate information, how teachers interact with you might depend on your gender (and race, and class), how doctors evaluate your pain might depend on your race (or gender), and whether I follow your orders might depend on whether you can give me something I need (e.g., a job). I have some ideas about the convergence of social epistemology and the issues we’ve been discussing, but I hoped to introduce the concepts and issues associated with testimony and the ethics of belief as we continue through the course.

While reading The Big Short, I started thinking about the role of testimony in disseminating, circulating, or stagnating knowledge. Much of what we know, we know because of testimony. How, for example, do we know that there used to be nine planets and that there are now eight planets, and perhaps some other habitable planets? How do we know that water is H2O and not some other chemical compound? We know not because we’ve gone to space, seen the pictures, or looked through a telescope, but because we trust in expertise. Some people might disagree with me (e.g., Noam Chomsky), but Hilary Putnam’s Twin Earth Thought Experiment elegantly makes the case that terms deriving their meaning from the nature of the thing rather than what we think or believe about the thing. Although this position is called semantic externalism (meaning is derived from outside of ourselves and our minds), Putnam’s iteration still relies upon heavily upon a “community of experts” discovering and explicating the nature of the thing.

For a large majority of people, the issue of whether to trust expert testimony isn’t an issue in our day-to-day lives. When it is, it is often politically laden, and subprime mortgages certainly fall under this category. Contrary to the issue of climate change, this particular issue shows us that we can rely on experts—as we do most of the time—and still be terribly wrong. It seems that just about everyone was following the assembly-line string of orders from one superior down to the next. Reliance on expertise seemed to fail us, or to be totally inaccessible upon attempted retrieval:

The arbiter of the value of the bonds lacked access to relevant information about the bonds. “When we asked her why,” said Vinny, “she said, ‘The issuers won’t give it to us.’ That’s when I lost it. ‘You need to demand to get it!’ She looked at us like, We can’t do that. We were like, ‘Who is in charge here? You’re the grown-up. You’re the cop! Tell them to fucking give it to you!!!'” Eisman concluded that “S&P was worried that if they demanded the data from Wall Street, Wall Street would just go to Moody’s for their ratings.” (170-1)

In these cases when we’ve been relying upon expert testimony—or orders—and the expert justification is absent or inaccessible, what are we to do? Perhaps testimony is particularly vulnerable to being exploited when there is the possibly of capital gain. Some philosophers like Jason Stanley who work on practical interests argue that we ought to adjust our standards for “knowledge” and “justification” depending on the particular situation: what we need in the practical sense rather than seeking the highest form of truth in every situation. Perhaps propositions surrounding topics that are ripe for corruption, then, should have a higher threshold of knowledge, but in a globally capitalist society, what isn’t politically laden? Moreover, how much of a burden can we put on bankers and workers to fully investigate the claims and justification behind every order they are given, to say nothing of the risk of being fired for “insubordination” and losing one’s own home?

Philosophy is hard, ethics is hard, and questioning the orders you’re receiving at the risk of unemployment is even harder. When I was 16, I worked in retail and my boss required that we convince customers to sign up for a certain number of credit cards every month. I wasn’t very good at doing this and I was told to be more “bubbly.” After several write-ups, she encouraged me to really push people who were especially young or immigrants who were still learning English. Thinking about the various racist practices of this particular boss makes my stomach churn now. I am deeply uncomfortable in my past complicity in unethical practices (I didn’t know how to resist at the time, but I wish I did). I am also uncomfortable with the epistemic injustice that occurs in numerous workplaces; one person’s order or statement can hold more weight or power because of what the other party lack, or what the other part needs. I relied upon my boss for a job and for pay. My boss—herself a first-generation Jamaican immigrant who doesn’t speak English well—relies upon her employees’ complicity in unethical practices and our very ability to be complicit in order to keep her job and feed her daughter.

Do these power imbalances qualify as a practical reason to adjust our threshold for knowledge, justification, and ethics? Does considering the issues associated with epistemic testimony and epistemic injustice guide us in morally appraising the bankers we’ve been reading about? Is complacency something to be humanized, condemned, revised, or accepted as an inevitable part of the human condition given our limited epistemic standpoints? And where does moral responsibility fit in here?

Like I said, philosophy is hard.

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