ArgLab • Colloquium

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

The role of trust in argumentation

According to a widespread view of argumentation, “the exchange of arguments improves communication by allowing messages to be transmitted even in the absence of sufficient trust.” (Mercier, 2016) This seems prima facie plausible: what distinguishes argumentation from pure testimony is the fact that, with testimony, the content of the message is received without reservation because the receiver trusts the sender’s epistemic authority on the matter; no further reasons to believe the content transmitted are required. By contrast, in the absence of sufficient trust, the receiver will allegedly engage directly with the content of the message being sent. However, in order to enter an argumentative situation in the spirit of honest epistemic exchange, in particular with those one disagrees with, an arguer must have the conviction that the reasons offered by the other parties are minimally reliable. If I suspect that someone presenting arguments is in fact deliberately trying to mislead me, I will assume that the reasons being offered are not reliable, and thus will not engage with them in good faith at all. This suggests that, in the face of dissent, rather than engaging with the content of the opposing arguments from the start, an agent first estimates the trustworthiness of the source; it is only when the source is deemed to be minimally reliable that there is further engagement with the content of the argument. This suggests the pessimistic conclusion that argumentation is ineffective precisely where it is most needed (situations of diminished trust), but it also indicates ways in which argumentative situations may become more fruitful in situations of polarization: there must be a modicum of trust between the arguing parties.


Catarina Dutilh Novaes, VU University Amsterdam (Netherlands)