[lit-ideas] Morality, epistemology and trust

  • From: "Eric Dean" <ecdean99@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 17 Jun 2004 17:56:52 +0000

Robert Paul writes:

"Could we all be deceived--that is, could I be mistaken in thinking that my 
children love me, and they mistaken in thinking that I love them? Of course. 
This is the 'of course' of the epistemologist, or the logician (or the 
sceptic): it is _possible_ that we are each of us deceived about who loves 
whom, possible up to the point at which each of us has the relevant set of 
justified true beliefs that take us all the way to knowledge."

There is another 'of course', not just the 'of course' of the logician, but 
the 'of course' of someone who has seen enough of the endless and 
all-too-often appalling variety of things people are capable of.  And 
perhaps there is another 'of course', the 'of course' of someone who thinks 
it is impossible to have 'the relevant set of justified true beliefs' 
because the selves or souls or consciousnesses or whatever about whom we 
wonder when we wonder about love simply aren't the sorts of being about 
which there is a comprehensive truth to be known.

<snip> "I say 'in such a case.' What do I mean by this? I confess I'm not 
quite sure. The cases I have in mind are those in which human relations 
depend on such things as trust, loyalty, acceptance, and something for which 
I have no name, but which is captured by the notion that there are persons 
will stand by one, even in desperate circumstances, and whom one will stand 
by in return. This is a terribly thin account of what I'm concerned with, 
but in trying to spell it out more completely, I found that I was telling 
such a complicated story that there were nothing but details and no plot."

I think the cases Robert has in mind are exactly the ones at which the 
questions Walter Okshevsky asks come to a head:

"You're claiming that when it comes to our beliefs, we are BOTH morally and 
epistemically responsible for our believings. One would be "not merely right 
or wrong" epistemically, but ALSO morally culpable (untrustworthy). My 
question is about whether the different obligations ("oughts") involved in 
our ascriptions of moral and epistemic virtue and vice to persons (we'll 
keep dogs out of it for the time being) are based in something that these 
two have in common."

I think that what they have in common is the subject matter, human beings.  
I believe that we human beings are such that we cannot know the full truth, 
nor even a reasonably comprehensive version of the full truth, about 
ourselves.  We can only, in large measure, make it up as we go along.  That 
means that inevitably knowledge and acting are fused, if not confused, when 
the subject is ourselves.  We cannot simply observe ourselves, learn who we 
are, and then decide how to act.  We can only find out about ourselves as we 

The example Phil Enns raises, the question of whether the child-abusing 
parent can be said to love their children, is a very pointed one.  Child 
abusers often protest that in fact they do love their children.  And, 
notoriously, standards of what counts as child abuse vary across time and 
place.  If we humans can't allow ourselves to find out things we don't want 
to know about ourselves, we condemn ourselves to repeating whatever is 
abusive in what we do.  Those of us who don't beat our children may feel 
complacent in the face of such an example, but we shouldn't.  We're all 
vulnerable to learning things we don't want to know about ourselves, and 
even to learning things we *do* want to know but don't realize...

The result is that morality and epistemology are inextricably entwined when 
one is asking about oneself, i.e. when the knowledge relevant to the moral 
question is knowledge of oneself or correspondingly deep knowledge about the 
other.  I don't mean this to sound quite as absolute as I've made it.  It's 
not that we cannot know *anything* about ourselves, it's that we cannot know 
*everything* (i.e. that we need to maintain a healthy respect for the 
potential depth of our inevitable ignorance of ourselves).

<snip> "I'd like some way to support the intuition that in certain cases, 
such as the case of trust between parent and child, what I've called the 
epistemologist's obsession is not only misplaced, but is destructive of some 
other human virtue, and yet avoid the obvious reply that there is trust and 
_trust_ and that not to bother to inform oneself is as destructive as a 
desire to know completely, once-and-for-all. (To say that 'trust' just does 
rule out any further investigation will not solve my problem.) Perhaps there 
is a mean between gullibility and refuting the sceptic; but in any case, I 
think there's more to be said about where and when we ought to make use of 
our epistemic virtues, if we have them."

The notion of trust, of there being those who stand by us and by whom we 
stand, has to do, I think, not only with the uncertainty of the future 
evolution of circumstances but with our inevitable ignorance about 
ourselves.  Love is made over time, it's not just a state we're in now that 
determines the future for us.  To say today "I love you" is in part to make 
an assertion about the future, that I expect that as I find out more about 
you I will continue to feel about you something that in an important sense 
continues to be the same as I feel today.  I cannot *know* that I will 
continue to feel that way, both because I cannot know who you will become -- 
or turn out to have been, and note that the distinction is deeply uncertain 
--  and I cannot know who I will become.  But I can commit that I want today 
to learn who we both will become and that I believe and hope and promise to 
try to let who I become continue to be the sort of person who will love who 
you become.

It's that fact about the future and about our uncertainties about all of it, 
including who we each will become, that is why, I believe, trust is such a 
crucial element in love and in frankly just about any other substantive 
human relationship.  It's why knowledge is of such limited value in such 
matters, why Robert's question about where knowledge leaves off and trust 
begins is so pointed.  It's also why judgment, as Phil Enns points out, is 
so crucial.  Judgment, in this view, is about being able to make choices 
that stand the test of time, to love someone as we change and they change, 
to stay friends, even to stay in a business partnership.

One last note.  I don't think trust today rules out any further 
investigation.  For me to trust you is in part for me to believe that as I 
learn more I will find further reason to continue trusting you, and to trust 
that you are willing for me to learn more, even if it is uncomfortable for 
you to do so.  And I believe that for me to trust you I have to be 
trustworthy, that is it's important for you to be able to trust me on the 
same terms as I trust you, at least to a large extent.  If I cannot be 
trustworthy it can only be because in some sense I do not trust myself.  
Both of us, in other words, have to be commited to the on-going revelation 
of who we are becoming, and to the recognition that we can never have had 
enough information to have refuted the skeptic.  That last point is in part 
why trust can be self perpetuating.  We can each celebrate the fact that 
despite our ignorance of ourselves and each other, ignorance the skeptic can 
mock us for ignoring, we have in fact sustained our trust for however long 
we've been ableto do so.

OK, on that hopelessly new-age sounding note I'm going to stop...

Regards to one and all,

Eric Dean
Rockford, IL (formerly from Chicago...)

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