Are You Gullible?

A short story of what happened at the 6th edition of the Film & Philosophy series.

It was a relatively hot Tuesday night, July 23, when a semi-tanned group of people gathered at De Kaaij, in our lovely Nijmegen. For this occasion, Opoe Sientje set up a cozy open air cinema, where the sixth edition of the Film&Philosophy series, partially organized by Splijtstof, took place. The program of the night was, first, a talk about the philosophy of trust and testimony given by me, myself and I. Then a short introduction to the movie Gaslight (1944), in which we can admire Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyera in all their acting splendeur. Finally, the stunning black and white movie itself would be displayed. If you missed the event, and are deeply sorry about this (as you should be), here you can find a summary of the talk, for which I took inspiration from my bachelor thesis.

The fil rouge of my talk was my ten year-old brother, Paolo, who back then was on holiday in Italy and had no clue I was using him as a philosophical example, maybe already hinting at how much we can (not) trust anyone, not even our siblings. I was lucky enough to be fourteen years old when Paolo was born, so I remember the different stages of his development quite well. As soon as he was born, we started calling him “Paolo” and while growing up he learned that that was his name. He learned my name and the ones of the other members of my family in the same way. He learned his and the other names through what is called “testimony”. He was not able to read his birth certificate and even if he had been able to read it, he would still have relied on testimony, although in a written form. He had to believe that someone told the person at the municipality that his name was Paolo and have confidence in the fact that this person wrote his name correctly. In a sense, he trusted us when we called each other with this or that name. And as far as I know, he never thought we were all liars and that his name was actually Rupert.

Growing up he had to protect himself from my oldest brother. Paolo loved “ovetto Kinder”, the famous Italian chocolate egg with a surprise inside. Unfortunately for Paolo, my oldest brother loves ovetto kinder as well, and it happened many times that while Paolo was eating his ovetto, my brother went to him and asked, quite insistently, to have a piece. Tired of having to share his ovetto, Paolo started hiding them and eating them in secret. His favorite hiding place was the toilet, until one day we caught him going to the toilet with a small egg under his t-shirt. Although his behavior was quite understandable, my mum told him that it was right to share his belongings with other people and wrong to be too selfish.

Although I love talking about these kinds of anecdotes and I would keep on going for a lifetime, the adventures of my brother Paolo were not the topic of my talk at De Kaaij. However, what the examples I gave had in common is that in all of them Paolo learned something through testimony and through the people he trusted. He learned general knowledge, like his name, but also moral knowledge, what is right and what is wrong. Testimony is an essential part of our lives and of our societies. Without testimony, we wouldn’t even know our name and our cognitive lives would be highly impoverished. Thanks to testimony, we acquire knowledge about the world around us, about historical, scientific, anthropological and many more other facts. We live in a world governed by a division of labor: we are not and cannot be well-versed in everything. Therefore, we rely on several experts like doctors, teachers, journalists, scientists, etc. Testimony involves trust and authority. Experts are generally considered authorities in their domains and for this reason, we trust them. However, testimony is a sort of second-hand knowledge and therefore its status is problematic. In the talk, I addressed three questions in particular. First, are we actually gullible or are we justified in accepting the testimony of other people? Do we trust people by default or do we need proof in order to trust them? Second, can we use the same standards for general testimony (such as our name, the weather forecast) and moral testimony (such as what is right and wrong)? And finally, is there a difference between a testimony and a piece of advice?

“Are we actually gullible or are we justified in accepting the testimony of other people?”

To answer the first question I needed the help of two Scottish philosophers: David Hume and Thomas Reid, who both lived in the 18th century.

Hume and Reid agreed on the fact that we cannot get rid of testimony. However, they had different views on the reasons why we are justified to trust other people. Hume thought that the main way in which we should acquire new knowledge is through perception, first-hand experience and through our own senses, although they can let us down and we could be mistaken. This doesn’t mean that he thought that testimony was not important or necessary in our lives, but in his opinion, it is less important than first-hand experience and perception. This because in order to accept the testimony of other people we need some kind of principle that says that people usually speak the truth and that they speak only when well informed about something. This principle comes from experience, we talked to many people, we have seen that generally they tell the truth and that they generally talk when they are sure about what they are saying. Therefore, we formed a sort of rule of thumb that says that generally speaking we can trust other people. This explains why Hume states that testimony is an inferior form of knowledge compared to perception: in order to be able to rely on testimony we need a principle that comes from perception.

However, since Hume was famous for being quite skeptical, he invited his readers to be wary and cautious and gave us a sort of to-do list of things to check before trusting others. First, we have to check that the witnesses all have the same story and don’t contradict each other. Second, we have to listen to more witnesses and be sure about their reputation. Third, we have to check that the witnesses do not have any personal interest and do not gain anything from what they say. Finally, we have to pay attention to the way in which they tell us their testimony, and check if they are too hesitant or too confident about what they say. If they pass this test, then we can trust them. Therefore, in Hume’s opinion, we do not trust by default but we need proof in order to trust other people. This means that Paolo, before trusting me or my mum when saying that his name was Paolo, had to check if we were saying the same name. He had to ask my dad, brother, uncle, grandpa as well; he had to be sure we were reliable people; he had to be sure I was not getting any ovetto kinder as a reward for having said that his name was Paolo. Eventually, he had to check if we were stammering or babbling while pronouncing his name or if we were too sure about it. A bit too much for a baby, isn’t it?

Thomas Reid would say that this is definitely too much, in fact, he would say that we do not need proof in order to believe other people, we trust people by default and this because God, who wanted people to live together, made them reliable, trustworthy and generally inclined to speak the truth. He agrees with Hume about the things we have to check when someone tells us something, but in his opinion, these are not things we have to check in order to trust someone. On the contrary, we tend to trust other people and only if we see that they tell different stories or that they take too much time before answering or if we know they are liars, then we stop trusting them. So we do not need proof to believe others, it is enough not to have reasons not to trust them. This means that Paolo was somehow justified in believing me when I said that his name was Paolo, but if my dad had told him that his name was Rupert, then he would have been right in thinking that one of us was a liar.

Leaving aside the religious origin of Reid’s principle, his position seems closer to what we tend to do in our everyday life. We do not check all these things all the time before trusting someone. Rather, we tend to trust other people but we are also ready to step back if we see any sign of untrustworthiness.

Going to the second question, can we treat general testimony, e.g. the weather forecast or the time the conductor tells us our train will leave, and moral knowledge, e.g. what is right and wrong or the values we should follow in our lives, in the same way?

Generally speaking, those who answer yes to this question think that there is no difference between moral and non-moral testimony and that there are moral experts who we should trust on these important questions. Many philosophers think that moral questions are usually quite difficult and that we are only humans with limited cognitive resources. We often are in a state of moral uncertainty, in which we might do the wrong thing. In these cases, to accept the testimony of someone else, i.e. a moral expert, might be the only morally right thing to do. It does not really matter how the other person came to the solution of the moral problem. It does not matter if the person I am relying on follows the same moral solution herself. The only thing that matters is that in this state of moral uncertainty the other person is more likely to be right than I am, and therefore I should trust her and accept her testimony. This means that it does not really matter if I hide my ovetto kinder and I do not share anything with other people. As long as I am more likely to be right on the moral question of sharing than Paolo is, the only morally acceptable thing to do for him is to accept my testimony and believe that it is right to share and wrong to be selfish. The idea of these philosophers is that we have to minimize the risk of error, both in the moral and non-moral realm, and if the only way to do this is by relying on testimony, then we should do it.

However, I think that intuitively we would say that there is something special about morality that sets it apart from other kinds of second-hand knowledge. When it comes to morality, I think we have a sort of gut feeling that tells us that it is important that we solve the moral uncertainty by ourselves or that we ourselves decide which are the moral principles we want to ground our life on. I think we all would agree that there is something wrong with being sexist or racist only because a moral authority told us that this is the right way to treat women or people of color. 

Those who are against the idea that moral and non-moral knowledge are the same thing, generally say that when it comes to moral principles, we are required to formulate them autonomously. This doesn’t of course mean that testimony does not have any role. It is totally understandable and acceptable that a baby learns some moral rules from his or hers parents; it is also normal for grown-ups to ask for advice from their friends, and to talk about moral questions with other people before forming their own opinion. However, eventually, we should come to the final decision by ourselves. According to the supporters of this position, there is an asymmetry: while there is no problem in accepting testimony on many topics, and while there is no problem in saying that someone is an expert in some non-normative domain, when it comes to morality we should be able to settle the things by ourselves. There are no moral authorities, we all have varying degrees of moral knowledge and we should use it to answer our moral dilemmas. 

I am personally more inclined to agree with those who say that autonomy is more important than obedience when it comes to morality. However, if we reflect upon our everyday life experiences, we will see that most of the times we are not autonomous. We constantly rely on other people about moral issues, we ask for advice, we listen to our friends and loved ones before taking a decision. Here the third questions kicks in: is there a difference between moral advice and moral testimony?

In my opinion, yes there is. When Paolo accepted our mum’s testimony in saying that it is wrong not to share his ovetto kinder, he just accepted what I said, he did not try to understand why it was wrong, and he did not think about the reasons that made sharing morally important. He just trusted and believed me. While this may be fine for a child, the more we grow up, the more our autonomy in these matters gains importance. The situation becomes different, however, when we ask for a piece of advice on a moral question. If, for example, I ask my friends if it is right to talk about my ten year-old brother without telling him, I am asking for their opinion. I am ready to listen to them, but I use their advice as a sort of starting point for my own reflection. In my judgement I will take into account what they said, but I also decide whether I want to base my actions on their advice or not, or which parts of their advice I find right and which ones are rubbish. Eventually the final decision is mine.

Of course, there is still much to be said. We all live in societies that have different values and norms, we are bombarded with messages about what is right and wrong by television and social media since a very young age. So one could rightly wonder whether what we think are our own decision are actually our own or whether they are ultimately shaped by society. However, this was a bit too much for me to digest, both in my bachelor thesis and in my talk. Therefore, this puzzle is still for someone else to solve. 

In conclusion, while there is something wrong, at least in my opinion, in considering moral and non-moral testimony equal and in accepting moral testimony in the same way we accept what a doctor says when we go to an appointment, there is absolutely nothing wrong in asking for moral advice. On the contrary, it is extremely valuable. We are indeed social animals, we live with other people that shares our values, moreover moral questions are usually very difficult, not only because they tend to be inherently difficult but also because we usually are emotionally involved and we are afraid of hurting someone. In these cases, to ask someone for a piece of advice is extremely important. Other people might pay attention to things we have never paid attention to, they can have an interesting different opinion that we find valuable, they can help us in putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but eventually the final decision should be ours. To respect the fact that other people have the right to make their own moral judgments is part of what it means, in my opinion, to respect other persons as persons.

“To respect the fact that other people have the right to make their own moral judgments is part of what it means to respect other persons as persons.”

Finally, why did I pick Gaslight? Beside from being an awesome black and white movie, the movie gave the name to a particular form of psychological manipulation which is called gaslighting. If I want to gaslight you, what I will do is to sow seeds of doubt in you, my targeted individual, and make you question your own memory, perception, and sanity. In Gaslight, the female protagonist, Paula, believes everything her husband, Gregory Anton, tells her to the point that she stops trusting herself, her memories, and even her perception. The movie therefore takes the risk of testimony and of trusting other people to extremes. It is like the worst case scenario of what can happen when we are too gullible, when we accept the testimony of other people unthinkingly, without questioning the status of the person who gives the testimony, maybe because we trust this person too much.

The summery and cozy atmosphere of De Kaaij was perfect for an old-but-gold black and white movie and I was quite happy to see that, despite my talk on testimony and trust, everyone was still trusting each other when offering a cold refreshing beverage.