Selfless assertion and communal assertion

Ralph and Keith are tough acts to follow, but here goes …

In her paper “Norms of Assertion” (Nous 41:4, 2007), Jennifer Lackey argues against the knowledge account of assertion (KA). She says that some “selfless assertions” are counterexamples to KA.

This post presents an interpretation of Lackey’s argument and offers a couple responses.

First, let’s state KA:

    You may: assert that Q only if you know that Q.

Now consider a paradigm case of selfless assertion:

    (DISTRAUGHT DOCTOR) Sebastian is an extremely well-respected pediatrician and researcher who has done extensive work studying childhood vaccines. He recognizes and appreciates that all of the scientific evidence shows that there is absolutely no connection between vaccines and autism. But shortly after his apparently normal 18-month-old daughter received one of her vaccines, she became increasingly withdrawn and was soon diagnosed with autism. Sebastian is aware that signs of autism typically emerge around this age, regardless of whether a child received any vaccines. But the grief and exhaustion brought on by his daughter’s recent diagnosis cause him to abandon his previously deeply-held beliefs regarding vaccines. Today, while performing a well-baby checkup on one of his patients, the child’s parents ask him about the rumors surrounding vaccines and autism. Recognizing both that the current doubt he has towards vaccines was probably brought about through the emotional trauma of dealing with his daughter’s condition and that he has an obligation to his patients to present what is most likely to be true, Sebastian replies, “There is no connection between vaccines and autism.” In spite of this, at the time of this assertion, it would not be correct to say that Sebastian himself believes or knows this proposition. (adapted from pp. 598 – 9)

Here’s my interpretation of Lackey’s argument:

    1. Knowing Q requires believing Q. (Premise; but see n. 18, p. 622)
    2. If Sebastian does not believe Q, then Sebastian does not know Q. (From 1)
    3. Sebastian does not believe Q. (Premise)
    4. Therefore, Sebastian does not know Q. (From 2, 3)
    5. Therefore, if KA is true, then Sebastian may not assert Q. (From 4 and the statement of KA)
    6. Sebastian may assert Q. (Premise)
    7. Therefore, KA is not true. (From 5, 6)

Now for my two responses. The first is not so surprising. The second probably will seem surprising at first.

First response

Either premise 3 or premise 1 is false.

As Lackey describes the case, in responding to his patients, Sebastian aims “to present what is most likely to be true” (Lackey’s exact words). Of the two options, Q and ~Q, if Sebastian thinks Q is most likely to be true, then he at least partially believes Q. Partial believers count as believers.

You might object that partial belief is not enough for belief. Maybe. But proponents of KA could plausibly insist that partial belief is still enough for knowledge. In other words, reject premise 1. It doesn’t seem too costly a move.

Says Lackey (n. 18, p. 622), “if belief is not a necessary condition for knowledge, then something belief-like surely is.” Partial belief is as belief-like as it gets.

Second response

Premise 5 is false.

When Sebastian says, “There is no connection between vaccines and autism,” we think this constitutes an appropriate assertion. But whose assertion?

Sometimes people speak on behalf of a community. Here it seems plausible that Sebastian speaks on the medical community’s behalf. By voicing those words, Sebastian asserts Q on the medical community’s behalf. It is in effect the medical community’s assertion. And the medical community does indeed know that there is no connection. (They probably don’t really know that there is ‘no’ connection, but let’s assume it’s close enough and set that aside.)

So the knowledge account is safe from this example and Lackey’s argument. Sebastian may assert Q, even if he doesn’t know Q, so long as he asserts it on behalf of someone or some group that does know Q.

Lackey gives other examples of selfless assertion. It is telling that they can be handled the exact same way.

One example (CREATIONIST TEACHER) features Stella, a committed creationist and 4th-grade teacher who rejects evolutionary theory, but says to her students, “modern humans evolved from more primitive hominids.” She says this because, in Lackey’s words, “she regards her duty as a teacher to include presenting material that is best supported by the available evidence.” Another example (RACIST JUROR) features Martin, a committed racist who served on a jury that acquitted a minority defendant on an assault charge. Out on the street one day, Martin bumps into an old friend who asks him about the trial. Martin says, “The guy didn’t do it,” even though he still feels (and felt all along) that the defendant was guilty.

Stella is also plausibly speaking on behalf of a community, namely, the community of science educators. And they know that modern humans evolved from more primitive hominids. Likewise Martin speaks on behalf of the jury, which does know that the defendant is not guilty.

As partial confirmation of these diagnoses, I ask you to consider how we’d feel about the protagonist’s assertion in our three cases if she (or he) had prefaced her (or his) remarks with, “Well, speaking just for myself here …”. That qualifier prevents the protagonist from speaking for the group. Suppose Stella for instance had said, “Well, speaking just for myself here: modern humans evolved from more primitive hominids,” or that Martin had said, “Speaking just for myself: the guy didn’t do it.” With this addition, it becomes much harder to maintain, as KA’s opponents might like to, that the assertion is entirely appropriate. It strikes me clearly as inappropriate.

So, in summary, if we take at face value the commonsense ideas that communities can know and assert things, and that group-members can speak on behalf of groups, KA’s proponents have a principled way of interpreting these cases without compromising KA.

I wonder if there are cases of selfless assertion that can’t be handled this way. Such a case would have to involve a protagonist who does not belong to any salient community that plausibly does know the claim in question.


Selfless assertion and communal assertion — 25 Comments

  1. The second suggestion looks too powerful. As Lackey sets up her cases, the asserters have evidence that suffices for it to be reasonable for them to believe that which they assert. Change that, and consider instead irresponsible versions of the teacher, juror and doctor. None of these guys have good evidence grounding their assertions. Do we really want to say that they made warranted assertions (in the sense that they satisfied the evidential norm on assertion)?

    As always there are complications. One might argue that in these altered cases, one’s assertion is improper not because one violated KA, but rather the second maxim of Quality. That said, there’s still something quite odd about a defender of KA suggesting that this norm is met in an example in which someone asserts without remotely adequate evidence.

    By the way, as I remember Racist Juror, the example involves a juror who is privately discussing the case with a childhood friend. It’s a real stretch to suggest he’s really asserting on the behalf of the jury, given the example so described.

  2. I was going to make the point Aidan does about Racist Juror. So now I’ll just second that point.

    In these cases (I’m thinking specifically about the 3 cases of “selfless assertion” on pp. 598-9 of Lackey’s paper: Creationist teacher is the third one), I, for one, find the questions of whether the subjects believe or know (though my thinking usually centers on questions of belief here) the propositions in question quite vexed. As we’re considering them as part of a case against KAA, I have a personal stake in the outcome, as an advocate of KAA. But I’ve often considered very similar cases just in the service of interesting questions about whether the subjects in them believe things. And in that setting, I’ve always taken the fact that they will assert the things in question in serious settings in which one of their main goals is to assert the truth to be a fairly strong consideration in favor of a positive answer (yes, they believe [help them their unbelief!]).

    Well, this isn’t completely clear to me, but I *think* that, as Jennifer presents her cases, that the subjects in question don’t believe or know the relevant propositions isn’t presented as her judgments about the cases, but as part of what she stipulates about the cases. It’s when similar cases don’t include such stipulations that I find the questions about belief and knowledge to be very vexed. When lack of belief and/or knowledge *are* stipulated, it makes me wonder how those stipulations can be best squared with the rest of what’s stipulated in the cases, and whether I’m understanding the cases correctly.

  3. Aidan,

    Two things in response.

    Why couldn’t a community representative permissibly speak on behalf of a community despite not having much of the relevant evidence himself? A lawyer may assert Q on his client’s behalf despite having evidence insufficient to warrant asserting Q on his own behalf.

    I’ve always found RACIST JUROR (and CREATIONIST TEACHER) to be less compelling than DISTRAUGHT DOCTOR. But still, I don’t think it’s implausible that Martin speaks on the jury’s behalf. Nevertheless, I’m open to the suggestion that something about the context’s intimacy might have the same effect as prefacing his remarks with ‘Speaking just for myself here’.

    P.S. I don’t claim that the “norm is met in an example in which someone asserts without remotely adequate evidence.” The “someone,” I say, is the community, which does know.

  4. John,

    I think the second response is pretty much correct. When I read her paper, it struck me as odd that the recipe for examples required putting people into special roles (e.g., professions with professional responsibilities, jurors, etc…). It seems that in these contexts, we can think of these people as answerable to norms that govern the speech of professionals, jurors, etc… that could forbid them from “speaking their minds”. We could say that their speech acts aren’t assertions (they don’t seem to have the sincerity conditions that ordinary assertions do) or that the content of those assertions isn’t transparent (the assertions are really about what someone in such and such a role should say) or that the speaker is speaking on behalf of some other entity. (This last thing might explain why there isn’t a sincerity condition–the speaker is a messenger. You don’t shoot messengers and you don’t evaluate _their_ assertions in the same way you evaluate the speaker whose message it is.)

    As a larger point, I don’t really see what the hubbub is. I tend to think that there is a belief requirement on _assertion_, but I’m happy to bracket this and ask whether there is a belief requirement on the _permission_ to assert. Suppose we say that the permission to assert does not depend on belief and thus does not depend on knowledge. We can still ask this related question: must this proposition be something that someone in the speaker’s epistemic position be in a position to know? If the answer is ‘Yes’, that’s still really surprising. It means that it’s not enough for the speaker to have good evidence or the capacity to respond to that evidence well. If the answer is ‘No’, then _that’s_ the bad news for the K account. IMO.

  5. John,

    “I don’t claim that the “norm is met in an example in which someone asserts without remotely adequate evidence.” The “someone,” I say, is the community, which does know.”

    Well, it wasn’t entirely clear from the post that this was your proposal. You talk about a subject asserting on the behalf of a community, as when you write: ‘ By voicing those words, Sebastian asserts Q on the medical community’s behalf’. It looks like the someone doing the actual assertion here is Sebastian, and in my variant he’s not justified. So I think what I said above was fair enough, given what you’d said in the post. If the view is actually that Sebastian and co. don’t really assert at all, that it’s the community that asserts, then you’re right that my point doesn’t stand, at least in the form I gave it above.

    Let me try to bring out my main point another way. One of the main arguments, possibly the strongest argument, in favor of KA comes from consideration of assertions of lottery propositions. Suppose that the draw has been made, but the organizers (let’s call them Camelot, for old times sake) haven’t been able to broadcast the results. I get impatient and call Camelot, list my numbers, and ask if I won. The spokesperson says ‘You didn’t win’. He’s right, but he isn’t going on the readily available inside information on the outcome of the draw, he’s just basing his assertion on the low probability that all of my numbers were drawn. However, since he’s speaking on behalf of Camelot (after all, that’s his job!), and since the outcome of the draw is known to Camelot, he did just fine according to your revised knowledge account. The upshot is that KA no longer seems to explain why the spokesperson made a conversational foul.

    My diagnosis is again that the proposal so far doesn’t ensure that the speaker’s own grounds are up to scratch, passing the epistemic buck entirely to the relevant group. So long as the speaker says something on the behalf of a group that that group knows, they’ve met the norm. But there does seem to be some kind of epistemic failing on the part of the speaker in the kind of cases I’ve been describing. I’m suggesting there does at least seem to be some discomfort in recognizing this kind of epistemic failing while suggesting that the knowledge norm of assertion, properly conceived, has been satisfied. This discomfort is made more acute when we note that KA no longer explains what the Camelot spokesperson has done wrong.

  6. Thanks for your further remarks, Aidan. You’re right, I should choose my words more carefully to better distinguish asserting (for oneself) and asserting on behalf of. Asserting on behalf of does not entail asserting for oneself.

    As for your further case, it’s clever. But I think you can and often do know you’ll lose based on the odds, and that there’s really no problem asserting as much, again based on the odds. So I actually don’t think there’s much in lottery cases for KA-ers to exploit.

    I’m sure you could construct a similar case without invoking lotteries, and that would then need to be dealt with differently. (A similar case has suggested to me that KA itself is not strong enough to deal with all the relevant phenomena, but that’s a different story.)

  7. Yes, those things are stipulated at what appears to be the very end of each case’s description.

    That would seem to affect how the argument should be outlined. If no-knowledge is simply stipulated, why construe it as being inferred? The argument would seem to be only this:

    4. Sebastian does not know Q. (by stipulation)
    5′. If KA is true, then if Sebastian does not know that Q, Sebastian may not assert Q. (from the statement of KA)
    6. Sebastian may assert Q. (Premise)
    7. Therefore, KA is not true. (from 4-6)

  8. Keith, that’s definitely one way to go. But she says things elsewhere in the article that suggest more structure, and so suggest my initial way of putting things. For instance:

    There are three central components to this phenomenon [of selfless assertion]: first, a subject, for purely non-epistemic reasons, does not believe (and hence does not know) that p; second, despite this lack of belief, the subject is aware that p is very well supported by all of the available evidence; and, third, because of this, the subject asserts that p without believing and, hence, without knowing that p. (p. 599)

    And later:

    [m]y thesis here can simply be read in the following conditional form: if belief
    is a necessary condition for knowledge, then [KA] is false. (n.18 on p. 622)

    So she does seem to indicate that the “no knowledge” claim is inferred from the “no belief” claim — or at least she would advert to it if challenged.

    I’m not sure which reconstruction is ultimately more charitable. If we go your truncated way, then we worry whether the case is coherent (you might have hinted at this earlier (in #2) when you wondered how the stipulation could be “squared with the rest of what’s stipulated in the cases”). If we stretch it out to include 1 – 3, it exposes an extra weakness in the attack (i.e. the one expressed in my first response).

    Am I overlooking something?

  9. Jennifer I’m sure has something to say about this, but I noticed in the above that nobody is questioning the notion of “may not” in the argument. Presumably, the cases are supposed to be understood so that, all-things-considered, the assertion is OK. But no one should take the knowledge account to be an indefeasible requirement on assertion. And if it is defeasible, it can be defeated by additional information. One way to pursue John’s line is not to deny that assertions are being made, but that his idea of speaking on behalf of a community is itself relevant defeating information.

    Viewed in this way, it is possible to see the acceptability of the assertions in question as compatible with KA.

  10. Tim and I had a substantial email exchange about this issue in the late 90’s, and by the time of KAIL, he wasn’t claiming indefeasibility. I think that’s the right way to go here. Constitutive rules are not distinguished in terms of defeasibility, and since most any informative rule is defeasible, whether regarding practical reason or theoretical reason, one would need a special reason to require indefeasibility. And here it is so obvious that any epistemic rule governing assertion will be defeasible (whether the knowledge norm, the truth norm, the belief norm, or my own favored justification norm). I’m uncertain exactly what the constitutive rule claim involves, but nothing Tim says about it implies indefeasibility or anything in the neighborhood, as far as I can tell.

  11. I too have trouble seeing how to reconcile defeasibility with the claim that the rule is constitutive. But let me see if I can get it.

    Tim says that any version of the C-rule ‘unconditionally forbids this combination: one asserts p when p lacks C’ (241). And ‘a rule will count as constitutive of an act only if it is essential to that act: necessarily, the rule governs every instance of the act’ (239).

    In ‘Assertion, Knowledge and Lotteries’ the indefeasibility of the K-rule is put as follows: ‘one always does something wrong when one asserts something one does not know’. Now, on the face of it, the locutions above do commit Tim to this. If one asserts without knowledge, one has done something that the rule unconditionally forbids. And if one asserts without knowledge, one’s assertion is improper in the following sense; one has violated the constitutive rule of assertion, and this is a rule that governs *every* instance of an assertion. Elsewhere Tim suggests that asserting without knowledge is always to have overstepped one’s evidential authority to assert.

    Now, perhaps we shouldn’t be reading indefeasibility like this. We might take it to be the claim that whenever one asserts without knowledge, one has done something wrong in something like the following sense: one has done something which one all things considered ought not to have done. This certainly isn’t a commitment of the claim that the K rule is constitutive, and Tim explicitly denies it: he acknowledges that sometimes violating the rule might be the moral or prudential thing to do.

    Is this the kind of reading of indefeasibility we should have in mind? (It’s this reading that is suggested by the observation that we can grant Jennifer that her selfless assertions are all-things-considered fine without drawing her anti-K-rule conclusion). If so, it seems that defeasibility needs to be spelt out rather carefully – the formulation in terms of always doing something wrong is perhaps a little too unspecific.

  12. Aidan, to say that someone has always done something wrong isn’t a good account of indefeasibility, since one has always done something (prima facie) wrong when one violates any norm. I still don’t know what a constitutive rule is, but it is clear that Tim doesn’t claim that one always does something (ultima facie) wrong when one speaks without knowledge. And to say that one has always done something (prima facie) wrong when one violates the knowledge norm doesn’t distinguish constitutive from other norms. There are still some of the other things, like the essentiality of the rule to the act–but I don’t see how any rule will fail that test either. So, I’m confused by what a constitutive rule is supposed to be, but nothing Tim says looks like it gives material to argue that it implies indefeasibility.

  13. Jon and the rest of you,

    I thought that the defeasibility question came to something like this:
    If assertion is governed by the knowledge norm, there is a reason, R1, such that R1 is a reason to refrain from asserting what you don’t know. Could there be a reason, R2, such that R2 gave the speaker a reason to assert that matched R1 in strength, overrode R1, or canceled R1? If ‘Yes’, the rule is defeasible. If ‘No’, the rule is indefeasible.

    We might all say ‘Yeah, obviously’. Suppose asserting falsely that the queen is the fairest of them all will save Snow White’s life. Say that! But, then we sort of acknowledge that that’s easy so we ask whether R2 could be a distinctively _epistemic_ reason and things get a bit trickier.

    So far as I can tell, saying that the knowledge rule governs every instance of the act does not settle the defeasibility question. If the rule specifies a pro tanto reason, it could apply to every act and yet the reason to conform to that rule could be a defeasible one. It is harder to know what to make of the passage on pp. 241. Maybe a natural reading of “unconditionally forbids” asserting p when p isn’t known is one on which there is a reason to refrain from asserting that cannot be defeated, but this is tricky. I don’t have the ‘ear’ to determine whether principles of prima facie duty forbid things (is forbidding verdictive?), but if that isn’t an abuse of the language, then the indefeasibility bit would have to fall out of the “unconditional” bit. I have to say that it seems to make sense to say that some rules that unconditionally speak against something give us merely defeasible reasons not to do the thing. Again, going back to Ross, it seems that the prima facie duty of non-maleficence forbids harming others and the reason to conform to the principle that states this duty is not conditional on something else (e.g., that harm showing a failure to respect autonomy, breaching a promise, etc…). It is not like the reason to give someone a ride because that would be the only way to keep the promise made earlier. (It also seems to be a _categorical_ reason insofar as the reason’s status as a reason is not conditional on the ends, desires, or wants of the speaker and I think that categorical reasons can be defeasible.) So, maybe there’s a way to make Williamson’s account compatible with the idea that the reason to refrain from asserting what you don’t know can be defeated.

    Here’s a question, then. Suppose that we can consistently say everything Williamson says about knowledge and assertion in KAIL and say that the reason to conform to the K rule is a defeasible one. What would it take to show that knowledge is not a norm of assertion? I think that if you say that it is permissible rather than excusable to assert p when p isn’t known for Gettierish reasons or isn’t known because in spite of the good evidence for believing p it is nevertheless not the case that p you have just rejected the knowledge account. Is that fair to say? I have a hard time seeing how there could be distinctively epistemic reasons that enjoin you to assert something that you don’t know to be the case. Refraining from speaking seems always to be epistemically permissible. So if it is permissible to assert that there’s a barn over yonder in fake barn country pointing at either a real barn or a fake, we would have shown that there was not so much as a defeasible reason to conform to the knowledge account. No?

  14. Clayton, nice comments, and very useful. As to the last paragraph, I think things are just more complicated here than those who want cases/intuitions to settle the matter want. The issues require comparing theoretical frameworks and that’s more complicated than just reading off a result from what we claim can/should be said about a given case. But that’s the story of my paper in the Williamson volume, so I won’t repeat it here, since it’s available on my website.

  15. I’m sorry I’m only now jumping into the discussion, but it has been an unusually busy couple of days. Let me briefly add a couple of comments to the discussion. First, even if I grant the claim that communities know and assert things (which doesn’t strike me as at all obvious), certainly this is also compatible with particular individuals knowing and asserting things. So, for example, even if the scientific community somehow knows and asserts that Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus, this does not prevent individual agents from also knowing and asserting this proposition. Now, I argue that there are cases of selfless assertion where a speaker properly asserts that p without knowing that p. Why think that in such cases the individual speaker is asserting rather than merely the community? To my mind, this is strikingly obvious in the case of the the juror (as Aidan and Keith note). For recall that the juror is asserting to his friend that the defendant is innocent. Even if in the courtroom it makes sense to say that the assertions of individual jurors are somehow communal, there is no reason to suppose that this is the case outside of the courtroom, especially when one is talking to one’s friends. Indeed, notice that individual jurors can certainly disagree about what the evidence supports, and so claims about innocence or guilt, even in the courtroom, need not be understood as communal (unless, of course, we are talking about the actual handing down of a verdict, which is an entirely different matter). Moreover, while I think that this point is particularly obvious in the case of the juror, it strikes me as no less plausible in the cases of the teacher and the doctor. To see this, suppose that both agents have twins in nearby communities who have the same exact evidence for the propositions in question except that these twins possess the relevant beliefs. So, for instance, Twin Stella is also a teacher who does the same extensive research on evolutionary theory and constructs evidentially identical lecture notes as Stella. She asserts to her student on this basis that Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus. Who is the asserter in such a case, Twin Stella or the scientific community? If it is Twin Stella in this case, but Stella in the original one, then in order to avoid simply begging the question against me, an argument needs to be given as to why belief has this effect (given that this is the only difference between the two speakers and, also, that belief is not at all obviously a necessary condition for assertion). If it is the scientific community in both cases, then there are far fewer individual asserters than we thought, and so we may need to altogether rethink norms of assertion. The same considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, to the case of the doctor.

    Second, the way I was understanding the cases is that the absence of belief is stipulated. However, I also present a fair bit of data to render this stipulation plausible. Keith is then right to say that a person’s assertion that p is good prima facie evidence that she believes that p. But that prima facie evidence can certainly be outweighed. So, I could plausibly stipulate that, although Martin the racist juror says that the defendant is innocent when talking to this particular friend, he also says that the defendant is guilty when he is with his racist friends. Because almost all of his friends are racist, he ends up asserting in accordance with his belief rather than in accordance with what his evidence indicates. One way to think of this is to regard his non-racist friend as a relatively unique spur to doing the right thing from the epistemic point of view. Without that spur, Martin tends to do what comes most easily to him–i.e., assert in accordance with his racial prejudices.

    There are other ways in which belief can clearly come apart from what one recognizes is indicated by one’s evidence. For example, there was an article in the New York Times last year about a paleontologist who is also a fundamentalist Christian. When asked how he could reconcile these two perspectives, which seem to require very importantly different beliefs, he said that he simply regarded them as “different frameworks.” I take it that his beliefs were in line with fundamentalism. But this did not prevent him from being able to successfully conduct scientific research. Perhaps it was something like a game for him: if the fossil record is like X, then assert that y.

    Third, with respect to the defeasibility issue, I think Aidan is right to focus on the passages from Williamson quoted in his comment #15. There can be other rational considerations–e.g., moral or prudential–that outweigh the wrongness of making an improper assertion. But, from the strictly epistemic point of view, the KNA account holds that one may assert only what one knows. That is to say, when we set to the side all considerations other than the strictly epistemic, the KNA says that any assertion of what one does not know is improper. My cases of selfless assertion, then, count as counterexamples to this view: they are cases in which someone makes an assertion that is proper despite not knowing the proposition in question. Moreover, to be perfectly clear, the assertions are proper from the strictly epistemic point of view; they are not made rational by moral or prudential considerations.

    I suppose Williamson (or some other defender of the KNA) could have held that the knowledge norm includes a ceteris paribus clause. If my cases of selfless assertion are covered by such a clause, then they would no longer be straightforward counterexamples to this weakened version of the KNA. Nevertheless, the cases would still bear against a weakened KNA in the following way. Part of what I do in my “Norms of Assertion” paper is to sketch out an alternative norm of assertion (the reasonable to believe norm). If my alternative norm can account, not only for the paradigmatic assertions offered in support of the KNA, but also for the cases of selfless assertion (without doing so in virtue of a ceteris paribus clause), then that account would clearly be preferable to the KNA. Unsurprisingly, I think this is in fact the case.

  16. Jennifer,

    I had a question about that racist juror. Are we to assume that the racist juror knows (or has knowledge level evidence) that someone in his epistemic situation could assert knowingly that the guy is innocent? (By epistemic situation, I mean someone given just the guy’s evidence and the facts at hand.) To the extent that that’s something I assume, I’m sort of inclined to say that there’s nothing wrong with the guy who asserts this. I take it that this is perfectly in line with the intuitions that you hope to elicit. I should note that I share this intuition, in part, because he’s in a position to know that his assertion would conform to the knowledge norm if only he could get his mind right. My intuitions about racist juror would be different if the guy was in fact guilty. Then I don’t think he’s warranted in what he says. (Yes, this goes against the intuitions of many, but shouldn’t we be wiring our undergrads up to expensive machines and ask them about their intuitions at some point? I’ve found that the undergrads I’ve polled in my contemporary moral problems courses are far more externalist than many epistemologists might expect them to be.)

    It seems that there should be room in the discussion for those who hold a version of the knowledge account that has to ‘dig in’ and say that cases of selfless assertion are potential counterexamples and a version that doesn’t have to say this but say that the right to assert depends on whether the speaker has sufficient evidence to know that someone’s assertion that p would satisfy the demands of the knowledge norm. The racist juror case would leave a suitably formulated account untouched. They might be susceptible to the teacher/doctor examples, but I think Turri’s response might work for those.

    For what it’s worth, I think you are right that Gettier cases cause trouble for the K account. But I don’t think it’s right to drop the truth requirement on warranted assertion. A few modifications to Weiner’s account, and I think that pretty much gets things right. That, I suppose, is for another time.

  17. Thanks, Jennifer, for those instructive remarks.

    I now think that both the individual and the community are asserting in the most challenging examples of selfless assertion. Sebastian asserts on behalf of the community by asserting for himself. Call it a “double-assertion.” I’d say Stella and Twin Stella both double-assert too.

    So I’m still thinking that KNA-ers (KAA-ers, KA-ers, etc!) could accept that a speaker might properly assert Q without knowing Q — it’s just that she may not assert Q only for herself without knowing.*

    I certainly don’t think Sebastian’s and Stella’s assertions are beyond criticism, even from a strictly epistemic point of view. But others react differently — Jennifer actually intuits that the assertions are praiseworthy (¿and in no way criticizable?), if I remember her article correctly.

    The hypothesis of double-assertion helps explain this divergence of intuitions. We can direct any praise to the communal assertion, and the criticism to the individual assertion.


    * Alternatively, we could just build a proviso into the knowledge account for cases like this, indicating that you may assert for yourself in order to assert on behalf of a knowledgeable other, even if you yourself don’t know.

  18. Clayton,

    Thanks for the questions. Let me offer a few brief remarks by way of response. You ask, “Are we to assume that the racist juror knows (or has knowledge level evidence) that someone in his epistemic situation could assert knowingly that the guy is innocent?” I’m not sure this is the case, for part of the racist juror’s evidence is the defeater (psychological or normative, depending on how the case is described) provided by his racism. Given this, it is not clear that the racist juror is in a “position to know” in the relevant sense.

    You then propose “that the right to assert depends on whether the speaker has sufficient evidence to know that someone’s assertion that p would satisfy the demands of the knowledge norm.” This makes it sound as though having the right to assert requires having the concept of the norm of assertion and knowing what this norm requires. Since I think that, for instance, young children can obviously make proper assertions, this proposed norm sounds far too strong.

    In general, I would reject the “position to know” strategy for reasons that I develop in my “Norms of Assertion” paper; for instance, as you note, I think that assertions in Gettier cases can be proper, despite the fact that the asserter is not in a position to know.


    Thanks, once again, for the questions as well. First, there are a host of questions that I think need to be answered about what communal assertion even is before I could determine whether this strategy could possibly provide an adequate response. For instance, assertion typically requires at least some sort of intentional activity, and yet it is not clear that communities have the relevant intentions. Second, even if double assertion is granted in the cases of the doctor and the teacher, the way that the racist juror is described, where the juror is offering an assertion to his friend, cannot plausibly be understood as involving a communal assertion in any plausible sense. Third, the cases of the doctor and the teacher could be similarly modified so that they are offering assertions to friends. In such cases, it once again wouldn’t be plausible to describe their assertions as communal, and thus this strategy would not defend the KNA from the counterexamples in question. So, even if the notion of communal assertion were sufficiently clarified and defended, it wouldn’t obviously help with the cases in question.

  19. Jennifer, you’re right to press for more clarification about communal assertion.

    I wish I had answers. But for the moment I must simply rely on the general plausibility of there being such a thing to motivate my suggestion. We do after all acknowledge that individuals “speak on behalf” of groups all the time. We also regularly acknowledge that groups say, know, intend, threaten, etc., things. (Here’s just one article with lots of examples.) How it all works would be very interesting to uncover.

    P.S. I don’t think assertion typically requires much by way of intention. But even if it does, we seem to acknowledge that groups do have intentions too. For example. Or Google “US Intentions” or “Israel’s intentions.”

  20. Thanks, John. But my point about communal assertion was simply to register my skepticism about there being a satisfactory account that can do the work that is needed. My main response to your post was to argue that *communal assertion is not only not plausibly found in the case of the racist juror, but also that simple modifications to my other two cases would render the response of communal assertion implausible here as well.* Thus, my central response is to argue that communal assertion, *even if a satisfactory account of it could be produced,* simply misses the point.

  21. Jennifer, yes, I gathered as much.

    I just think your assessment of RACIST JUROR and the modified versions of the other two cases (i.e. that the subjects merit no criticism on epistemic grounds) is clearly wrong. But an intuition-stalemate isn’t all that interesting. I’d like a view that helps explain what’s generating the conflict.

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