Have you ever tried to merge onto the 405 Freeway, in Los Angeles, during rush hour traffic?
If you have, you probably learned a valuable lesson that continues to influence you to this day. That not everybody can be trusted to do the right thing.
Many of the problems we face today amount to a crisis of trust. Who we trust and what we trust is becoming smaller every day. People, leaders, institutions are all facing a crisis of trust.
So, what is the solution? I think it starts with an understanding of how trust works. This is where knowledge of epistemic trust is important. Nancy Daukas Associate Professor of Philosophy at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC writes that epistemic trust refers to the willingness to accept information or knowledge from others without subjecting it to excessive scrutiny or doubt. In other words, it is the trust that we place in other people’s testimony, expertise, or authority in a particular domain of knowledge (politics, business, etc.). This trust is essential for the functioning of any information-driven society, as it allows individuals to learn and benefit from the expertise of others, without having to personally verify every piece of information they encounter.
However, epistemic trust can be undermined by a deficiency in epistemic character, which refers to the virtues and dispositions that enable individuals to produce and transmit reliable knowledge. These virtues include honesty, intellectual humility, open-mindedness, and a commitment to the pursuit of truth. When individuals appear to lack these virtues, they may be less trustworthy, which can undermine the trust that others place in them. Much of the discourse on social media and in politics these days are what can amount to the undermining of individuals, causes, or groups, epistemic character.
Another factor we see playing out in contemporary culture is an unjust epistemic exclusion based on group membership. Much of the polarization happening today is a result of this epistemic exclusion which has sides excluding individuals and not taking them seriously because of their race, gender, sexuality, religion, or other social identity. For example, women and people of color have historically been excluded from the scientific community, and their contributions have been undervalued or ignored, despite their expertise and knowledge. Or look at the current proliferation of anti-transgender and LGBTQ policies in many states. All of these are an example of epistemic exclusion.
So, what’s the solution? Daukas writes that overcoming epistemic exclusion requires developing a self-critical perspective on our incomplete socially-located understanding, and appreciating and working for an epistemic value of inclusiveness. In other words, if anything is going to change it’s imperative to take in new ideas and perspectives. This means acknowledging that our experience is always situated within particular social and historical contexts, and that our perspectives are inevitably shaped by our social identities (our families and groups we identify with) and experiences. By recognizing the limitations of our own perspectives, we can become more open to the perspectives of others and more willing to engage in collaborative creation of new information and relationships.
Inclusiveness also requires cultivating epistemic virtues such as intellectual humility, open-mindedness, and a commitment to the pursuit of truth. These virtues can help us to overcome our own biases and limitations, and to recognize the value of diverse perspectives and knowledge. By working together to produce new understandings, we can create a more robust and reliable knowledge that reflects a wider range of perspectives and experiences.
The 405 freeway in southern California has also taught me another lesson. That people also do the noble thing. The let you merge. Epistemic trust and epistemic character are essential if we are to create new possibilities. By recognizing and valuing diverse perspectives and knowledge, we can create a more inclusive and diverse knowledge-based society that benefits all.
So do the right thing. Let that stranger merge.
Photo by Markus Spiske