Saturday, December 26, 2009

Disagreement and universalism

I've been reading Foley's Intellectual Trust book and while it's filled with interesting stuff, I'm having a hard time figuring out what Foley's views are concerning disagreement (or maybe what they ought to be given what's he said). Foley defends universalism, and the universalist believes:

(U) If you discover that another person believes p, this provides you with a prima facie reason to believe p even if you happen to know nothing about the reliability of this other person.

Foley accepts universalism because he believes:
(i) that we should place trust in ourselves;
(ii) that there is rational pressure to place the same trust in others that we place in ourselves.

His argument for (i) is rather straightforward—self-trust is an essential part of any non-skeptical outlook. His arguments for (ii) are contained in these passages. First:
Our belief systems are saturated with the opinions of others. In our childhoods, we acquire beliefs from parents, siblings, and teachers without much thought. These constitute the backdrop against which we form yet other beliefs, and, often enough, these latter beliefs are also the products of other people’s beliefs. We hear testimony from those we meet, read books and articles, listen to television and radio reports, and then form opinions on the basis of these sources of information. Moreover, our most fundamental concepts and assumptions, the material out of which our opinions are built, are not self-generated but rather are passed down to us from previous generations as part of our intellectual inheritance. We are not intellectual atoms, unaffected by one another. Our views are continuously and thoroughly shaped by others. But then, if we have intellectual trust in ourselves, we are pressured also to have prima facie intellectual trust in others. For, insofar as the opinions of others have shaped our opinions, we would not be reliable unless they were (Foley 2004: 102).

[U]nless one of us has had an extraordinary upbringing, your opinions have been shaped by an intellectual and physical environment that is broadly similar to the one that has shaped my opinions. Moreover, your cognitive equipment is broadly similar to mine. So, once again, if I trust myself, I am pressured on the threat of inconsistency also to trust you (Foley 2004: 102).

At first, I thought that the universalist would be sympathetic to the conciliatory view. The universalist view is motivated by the thought that epistemic egoism and egotism are incoherent. (Basically, those who adopt these views don't take the fact that others believe p to be a prima facie reason to believe likewise.) But, it isn't clear that this is the view that Foley likes. He writes:
[T]here is an important and common way in which the prima facie credibility of someone else’s opinion can be defeated even when I have no specific knowledge of the individual’s track record, capacities, training, evidence, or background. It is defeated when our opinions conflict, because, by my lights, the person has been unreliable. Whatever credibility would have attached to the person’s opinion as a result of my general attitude of trust toward the opinions of others is defeated by the trust I have in myself. It is trust in myself that creates for me a presumption in favor of other people’s opinions, even if I know little about them. Insofar as I trust myself and insofar as this trust is reasonable, I risk inconsistency if I do not trust others, given that their faculties and environment are broadly similar to mine. But by the same token, when my opinions conflict with a person about whom I know little, the pressure to trust that person is dissipated and, as a result, the presumption of trust is defeated. It is defeated because, with respect to the issue in question, the conflict itself constitutes a relevant dissimilarity between us, thereby undermining the consistency argument that generates the presumption of trust in favor of the person’s opinions about the issue. To be sure, if I have other information indicating that the person is a reliable evaluator of the issue, it might still be rational for me to defer, but in cases of conflict I need special reasons to do so (Foley 2004: 109).

The problem is that last line. Those who defend the conciliatory view aren't committed to any particular view about the proper reaction to the discovery that some schmohawk happens to believe p. Those who defend the view are interested in cases of peer disagreement. Maybe Foley thinks that the default attitude to take in light of the "self-trust radiates outward" arguments is that we treat all we come across as if they are peers but they lose that status when they disagree with us unless we have special reasons for deferring, reasons that we needn't have when we meet someone we take to be a peer up to the moment of discovering that the person we've met disagrees with us.

At any rate, the last line seems out of line with the spirit of the conciliatory view.
On its face, two claims seem in tension. If you have no attitude concerning p and you discover someone believes p, you have a prima facie reason to believe p. If you have an attitude concerning p and you discover someone believes ~p, their belief gives you only a defeated reason to believe p whereas the reason provided by your belief remains undefeated. The first claim is motivated by the thought that we're all in roughly the same boat and so there's no rational justification for trusting yourself and not others. That seems to suggest that a kind of deference in the face of disagreement doesn't require a special reason to justify it.

Part of what bugs me about these passages is that when you discover the disagreement you discover that someone disagrees with you that you antecedently took to be no less likely to be wrong seems like an odd defeater for their attitude. I can see defending this line with an argument about, say, the problems of the equal weight view or some defense of the right reasons approach, but that's not what we have here. It is as if the argument against the conciliatory view is just an intuition about defeat and disagreement between what you initially took to be a peer.

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