The epistemology of testimony has received some attention lately, though not by that name. The epistemology of testimony is the part of philosophy in which we study when you should believe what people say (and why). Recent high-profile reports of sexual harassment and assault have resulted in a lot of discussion about whether and when we should believe these reports, which is really just a case of applied epistemology. So, if anyone ever tells you that philosophy doesn’t matter, here’s a good example of when it does.
I’m an evidentialist, which means that I think that what you should believe is determined entirely by your evidence. ‘Evidence’ is a tricky word, but as I use it, it refers to a specific kind of reason for believing something. We can have all kinds of reasons for believing things: I can believe that unicorns exist because it’s fun, believe what Maria says because she’s my friend, or believe that a job interview will go well because that will make me more confident. None of those reasons are evidence for those beliefs, though. Evidence consists of reasons that indicate the truth of something. Seeing a bunch of unicorns would give me evidence that unicorns exist, for example, because that experience would indicate that unicorns really do exist. Having experience with Maria being very reliable would give me evidence that what she says is true, but just the fact that she is my friend would not. And, sadly, if my last dozen job interviews have gone poorly, that gives me evidence that this next one will also go poorly. According to Evidentialism, you should believe something just in case you have these kinds of truth-indicating reasons for doing so.
There’s an argument for initially believing reports of sexual harassment and assault, though, that relies on a different kind of reason. It goes like this:
When we first hear a report of sexual harassment or assault, we must either believe it or disbelieve it. Disbelieving these reports has very bad consequences. Among other things, it sends the message that these reports are not taken seriously or treated as credible, which makes future victims less likely to report assault or harassment. So, we should initially believe reports of sexual harassment or assault.
The conclusion here does not require that we always believe reports of sexual assault or harassment, regardless of any other information we might discover. That would be unreasonable, as, on investigation, some (low) percentage of reports will turn out to be false. The conclusion is only that, when we first hear a report, prior to any further investigation, we should believe it.
If Evidentialism is true, though, this is a bad argument. The fact that believing or disbelieving something has very bad consequences is not evidence for or against that thing. The consequences of a belief do not indicate whether it is true. So, the premises here do not support the conclusion.
And even if Evidentialism is false, this is still a bad argument, because the first premise is false. On hearing a report, we aren’t forced to choose between believing it and disbelieving it. We also have the option of suspending judgment, of forming no belief either way, which does not obviously have the same bad consequences as disbelief. Disbelieving a report requires believing that the reporter is either lying or mistaken about their own experience, but suspending judgment does not. And suspending judgment while looking for further evidence seems to, at least in some important respects, take the report seriously.
As is often the case, though, this is a bad argument for a true conclusion. We should initially believe reports of sexual assault or harassment, but not because failing to do so would have bad consequences. We should believe them because a report of harassment or assault is evidence—it is a truth-indicating reason to believe that the harassment or assault occurred. It takes no special insight to know this, just the familiar principle that when someone says that something happened, that is evidence that it happened. We appeal to this principle all the time. It’s how I have evidence that Abraham Lincoln was shot, that Taylor Swift has received ten Grammys, and that my grandfather went to the gym last week. It’s also very often how we have our first evidence that any kind of crime has occurred.
Of course, this evidence can be defeated by further evidence. We might uncover a reason to doubt a particular reporter’s reliability or sincerity, or we might have a general reason to doubt the credibility of a certain kind of report. Absent this evidence, though, failing to initially believe reports of harassment or assault is failing to believe what is supported by our evidence. It is, also, believing that a report is not credible without any evidence for that belief—a further violation of Evidentialism and an (epistemic) injustice to the reporter. So, according to Evidentialism, we should believe reports of sexual harassment or assault, unless we have some other evidence to doubt them.
We might worry, though, that believing reports of sexual assault or harassment by default would also have bad consequences, raising another kind of challenge to Evidentialism. Those believed to have committed sexual assault or harassment face a range of possible consequences, including loss of employment and prison time, and when the reports are false, these consequences will be unjust. Shouldn’t we at most suspend judgment until a thorough investigation is completed, so as to avoid these unjust consequences?
But this worry confuses the evidence required for belief with the evidence required for action. It’s true that we shouldn’t terminate or imprison people without first conducting a thorough investigation, but it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t believe the reports that lead to those investigations. If Evidentialism is true, then if you have a good evidence to believe something, you should. This is consistent with saying that you should seek more evidence before taking action.
Department of Philosophy