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 But shortly after his apparently normal 18-month-old daughter received one of her vaccines, she became increasingly withdrawn and was soon diagnosed with autism.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.
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.
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.