Book Discussion: Lackey on Epistemology of Groups, Part II

We are excited to host Part II of the discussion of Jennifer Lackey’s 2020 book The Epistemology of Groups (Oxford).

The discussion is in two parts: Part I, posted here, addresses group attitudes, while Part II, posted below, deals with group speech.

This discussion is the work of Brian Ball, Head of Faculty in Philosophy at New College of the Humanities at Northeastern University in London, with MA students Louise Bickerstaff and Henry Wang (Part I: Group Attitudes), and Will Francis and Florita Gudeikaite (Part II: Group Speech).

Part II: Group Speech

By Brian Ball, Will Francis, and Florita Gudeikaite

Introduction

In part 1 of this two-part blog post, Lackey’s discussion of (involuntary) group attitudes was
explored. Here, in part 2, we turn to (voluntary) group action of a particular kind, namely,
group speech, and especially group assertions (Ch.4) and lies (Ch.5). In our view, Lackey
has done a great service in drawing attention to the (practical as well as theoretical) need to
understand such phenomena; we need to be able to hold groups and their members to
account when they lie on matters of importance. And yet we have some comments on points
of detail.

Inflationism and Spokespersons

According to Lackey, ‘a deflationary view of group assertion holds that a group asserts a
proposition just in case some of the members of the group assert the proposition’ (p.138).
She argues that such an account is not able to explain situations where the group apparently
makes an assertion independently of any of its members doing so (p.139); she therefore
favours an inflationary account instead.

Lackey devotes most of her discussion to what she calls ‘authority-based group assertion’
(p.139). This is where a spokesperson asserts that p on behalf of a group when they
‘reasonably intend to convey the information that p,’ ‘have the authority [to do so],’ and ‘act in
this way in virtue of their authority as a representative of the group’ (p.149). Her ‘pluralist
view’ allows ‘many mechanisms for securing the relevant kind of authority’ (p.145).

Crucially, for Lackey, the spokesperson does not need to be a member of the group. A
lawyer hired to speak on behalf of a company, for example, would be a non-member
spokesperson, and Lackey takes examples such as this to be evidence that a group can
(and does) assert without any of its members doing so – in other words, in favour of her
inflationism. It could perhaps be argued that the lawyer in this example becomes a
functional, albeit temporary, group member in virtue of being hired to represent the group.
But the lawyer is pretty clearly not a member in the legal/institutional sense that Lackey is
interested in. We accordingly find her example compelling.

Once we recognize the possibilities afforded by Lackey’s inflationary account of group
assertion, it seems that examples abound. Imagine, for instance, a bot coded to post
automatic stock price updates on a company’s website. The information shared would
qualify as an assertion because the company intends to convey to its investors the
proposition that it’s price is as given by the bot. Moreover, the bot doesn’t have any of the
features that would qualify it as a member of the group (for instance, it has no volition, and is
not choosing whether to make assertions): yet it performs the task with a degree of
autonomy from any group member; and so it seems that it must be the group itself that is
performing the assertion, though no member does – a result that is fully in line with Lackey’s
inflationism.

Lackey on Lies

In the final chapter of her book, Lackey discusses group lies, offering the following theory: ‘A
group, G, lies to B, if and only if (1) G states that p to B, (2) G believes that p is false, and (3)
G intends to be deceptive to B with respect to whether p in stating that p’ (p.186), where one is deceptive with respect to whether p if one (does not merely withhold but actively) conceals
information regarding whether p.

One potential problem with this view  is, in our view, merely apparent. It is most readily
discussed in relation to the exactly parallel account given of individual lying (p.167). Take the
case of the ‘bald-faced’ liar discussed by Lackey: a student whom the Dean knows to have
cheated on the exam, and who is aware of this fact, claims that he has not cheated, since he
is also aware that the Dean only punishes those who admit to cheating. Clearly, the student
has lied; yet he does not intend to induce in the Dean the belief that he has not cheated.

This raises a problem for many traditional accounts of lying, since they impose the
requirement that liars have intentions to induce false beliefs. Lackey aims to overcome that
difficulty through her subtly different requirement in clause 3: she says the student intends to
be deceptive (in her technical sense) to the Dean, even if he does not intend to induce a
false belief regarding whether he has cheated (because he knows he’ll fail); the reason,
according to Lackey, is that the student ‘does intend to conceal crucial evidence’  (p.172)
relevant to whether he has cheated, ‘namely, an admission of wrongdoing’ (p.172).

In the case under consideration, however, there is no admission of wrongdoing for the
student to conceal! Admittedly, had the student confessed, there would have been some
information relevant to whether he cheated – namely, that he confessed to cheating; but
given that he didn’t, this information is not (actually) available to be concealed. And this
might be thought to suggest that clause 3 of Lackey’s account is inadequate to the task of
capturing all cases of lying.

But Lackey can, we believe, say that the (actual) information which is being concealed is
simply that the student cheated. (When asked, the student hasn’t just withheld this
information; he has taken active steps to produce misleading evidence in this regard – i.e. to
conceal this truth.) This response might lead to the worry that there are plenty of ways of
concealing this very information that don’t involve lying – that if concealing the information
that p is a way of being deceptive with respect to whether p, Lackey has not captured only
cases of lying with her definition. However, clause 3 is quite careful in this respect: it requires
that the deception whether p comes in the form of a statement that p! This appears to us to
rule out other ways of concealing information that are not instances of lying. Thus, the
problem in Lackey’s discussion of the case appears to lie in the application of her theory,
rather than within the theory itself.

Selfless Assertion Revisited

In her discussion of deception and lying, Lackey briefly touches on cases of what she has
called ‘selfless assertion’ (e.g. in her 2007 paper, ‘Norms of Assertion’). Let’s take a closer
look at her influential example of the creationist teacher.

Stella is a devoted Christian who teaches fourth-grade students. Her Christian beliefs are
very deeply rooted – she was raised as a Christian from a very young age. Her denomination
requires her to believe in creationism, and to reject the theory of evolution. As a Christian,
she would like to tell her students that the theory of evolution is false, but as a teacher she is
confronted with a lot of scientific evidence in favour of the theory. As a result, she is willing to
accept that her belief in creationism is based on her own personal faith and not on scientific
evidence, so she does teach her students about evolution. Lackey (2007) says: ‘Stella
asserts to her students, “Modern day Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus,” though
she herself neither believes nor knows this proposition’ (p.599). She (Lackey) takes this to
pose a problem for the view (of e.g. Williamson, 2000) that knowledge is the norm of
assertion, i.e. that one must assert that p only if one knows that p; for in the case at hand,
Lackey holds that Stella makes a permissible assertion, though one that is not grounded in
knowledge.

We were disappointed not to see this argument discussed further in the new context of the
(2020) book’s focus on group assertion, and especially spokespersons. In particular, on
Lackey’s view, group assertion is not reducible to individual assertion. In cases such as that
involving the lawyer above, Lackey’s view is that ‘no individual’ (p.138) asserts the
proposition at issue (not even the spokesperson): rather, it is the group that does so; thus, it
is the group, rather than e.g. the spokesperson, that is governed by any norms of assertion
there might be (p.159). But given this fact, a thought naturally arises: perhaps Stella is acting
as a spokesperson for some group (e.g. the school, or the department of education) when
she makes her ‘selfless assertion’ in support of the theory of evolution; if so, then her lack of
knowledge, combined with the permissibility of the assertion does nothing to impugn the
knowledge norm, provided the group making the assertion knows that the theory is true –
which, presumably, it does. We would be curious to know what Lackey would make of this
response to her (2007) argument, based on tools developed in her (2020) book.