Friday, December 18, 2009

Universalism and Disagreement

I've been reading Foley's _Intellectual Trust_ and his defense of universalism, the view that tells us that when we discover 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. I've been wondering what Foley would say about cases of peer disagreement. At first, I thought he'd favor the conciliatory approach that encourages us to modify our attitudes we discover that someone we take to be a peer disagrees. But, this passage muddies the waters significantly:
[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 unless you have special reason for deferring. 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.

He could say that there's no tension here because the discovery of disagreement undermines the justification for thinking that we're all in the same boat, epistemically. But, I don't think it's quite that simple. Here's one of the passages where Foley defends universalism:
[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).

If that's the rationale for treating your opinions like its one of my own, is there really some proposition in the rationale for universalism that gets called into question _simply_ because I've encountered an apparent peer who disagrees with me? Sure, if you believe in Zeus, I'll think we've had very different upbringing but we're talking about cases where we respond in different ways to the same sort of evidence and have seemed up until this point to be very similar in terms of epistemic ability, intelligence, intellectual virtue, etc...

At any rate, Christensen takes Foley to be defending a view that is at odds with the conciliatory view of disagreement and I can see that. But, I can also see (or I think I can) why a universalist would be attracted to the conciliatory view. So, I'm having a hard time connecting the arguments and positions defended in the book to the literature on disagreement. I'm tired, though, so maybe I'll sort it out later.

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