When ought we trust others instead of ourselves?



When ought we trust others instead of ourselves?

Since, I've noticed that it's particularly commonplace to cite authors, even if they weren't scientists. E.g. in political contexts. "Marx said ...", "... but according to Adam Smith". It's commonplace even among people with "scientific" training, e.g. popular economists.

Now if the theses of these cited people are unscientific, then how are they supposed to be interpreted? How broadly do they apply? Are they really more than personal opinions?

The power that e.g. popular political writers hold is so great that I believe people ought to be vary of their theses. If there's just belief, then almost anything can be justified. And in political contexts the theses can have tremendous consequences.


Posted 2017-07-05T14:01:19.613

Reputation: 2 666

1This is certainly a philosophical question. – mavavilj – 2017-07-05T14:05:20.450

2There's the argument of familiarity / authority - because they have spent so long looking at some subject, they are likely to understand the topic at a deeper level and hence be better able to speak authoritatively on that topic than those who haven't. But before we get much further on this, can you please explain: what you do mean by "ought"? – Lawrence – 2017-07-05T14:05:23.293

@Lawrence "Should" – mavavilj – 2017-07-05T14:36:37.437

Sorry, that doesn't help. In what sense is there a moral or other imperative ('ought' / 'should') to ever trust anyone else? I'm not saying there isn't any - I'm asking how you're framing your question. The later paragraphs in your question ask about accepting 'unscientific' theses, but there is no obligation ('ought' / 'should') to accept them. So I ask again - what do you mean by 'ought'? I think the answer to that question has some bearing on the answer to your question. – Lawrence – 2017-07-05T15:18:31.503

I m not sure that citing like-minded authors amounts to "trusting" them exactly. For every "Marx said" one can produce "Ayn Rand said" or "Burke said" supporting the opposite conclusions. Such appeals add rhetorical credibility to the claim, but the choice of the cited author is presumably motivated by the citer's own sympathies. The internet added a twist to this by providing a wide platform for finding authors that reinforce one's own views. But that does not mean that said authors have "power".

– Conifold – 2017-07-05T18:20:28.653

Related: is there a reason to believe one ought to use a single interpretation in such circumstances? It strikes me as many of these quoted authors receive respect because they are successfully interpreted many different ways, and all of them have a curious tendency to come out "good." – Cort Ammon – 2017-07-05T18:22:20.723

1In short: when we presuppose that they know more than us on a given topic - authority must be acknowledged in this case. – a_z_s – 2017-07-06T09:26:26.350

@a_z_s : Presupposing that anyone knows more than you is dangerous. And even if they do, they still might have an agenda that makes them want to spread lies! History is literally full of intelligent people who lied to less intelligent people in order to exploit them one way or another. – John Slegers – 2017-08-06T14:22:53.407

@JohnSlegers Good comment John, because this is basically what I'm trying to bring forward here. I've see too much e.g. "Marx said", but I've not understood, what makes Marx (or some other person) a good authority. Especially when/if they deal with "philosophical" things with no right answers. I find it's more reasonable to treat them as people just like others, but not as some kind of figure that has more validity than a common man. – mavavilj – 2017-08-06T14:26:21.687

@mavavilj : That's why I've come to trust nothing or no one besides the scientific method. As soon as you allow yourself to trust any particular source without question, you allow your brain to be poisoned. If we care about truth, we must always both keep an open mind and remain skeptical at the same time! – John Slegers – 2017-08-06T14:30:14.383

It's a mixture of science-trained bullshit-detection and gut feelings. And much like a medical test in that you can make certain types of errors. But I don't know how to transform this into an advice. – jjack – 2017-12-09T13:44:07.147



  1. There are no authorities in philosophy, so appeal should not be made to them. No matter how clever, even brilliant, and widely admired, a philosopher is, he or she is only as good as the arguments that can be used to support his or her position. To attempt to push anything through on the grounds that 'Marx said that' or 'Russell said this' is the wrong way - or one of the many wrong ways - to do philosophy.

  2. Usually when this kind of appeal to authority is made, one is in no position to check the claim that Marx did say this or Russell that. Either the reference is vague or, if precise, one cannot halt the argument to verify the claim. (Part of the pragmatics of argument.) It might matter to check the claim now, before a chain of bad argument has unfurled further.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2017-07-05T14:01:19.613

Reputation: 34 276

1@mavavilj. You have a new answer to your question. – Geoffrey Thomas – 2018-02-02T19:55:05.993


I'm not sure that the distinction you make between scientists and other authors is as binomial as you suggest. In each case we are referring to actual people who have biases and intentions with which they will imbue their work. You have no more reason to trust a scientist simply because they say they have discovered X than you have to trust Marx.

What you trust (or don't) is rather the accumulated mass of people who also trust. We trust that scientists have indeed discovered something because so many of them agree, and so many non-scientists also trust them.

History is littered with the case of the single scientist having apparently discovered something new (using perfectly scientific methods), but whom the world only reluctantly believes until a critical mass of followers is gained. It is no different with Marx, or Smith. Had you never heard of them, but simply picked up one of their pamphlets on the street you would be no more compelled to take their arguments seriously than you would anyone else's. It is the critical mass of people who support them that give them whatever "power" they have.

Since, as was pointed out in comments, their arguments act, not so much as persuasive tools, but as justifications for already held beliefs, they act more as cameras, taking snapshots of society's beliefs at the time. Sartre didn't create the cafe culture. He was born from it. Neither did Marx create the working class struggle, nor Smith the Scottish enlightenment.

By and large the "tremendous consequences" you are concerned about have already happened, or at least been set in motion, by the time these authors wrote their pieces. Had they not captured the Zeitgeist, someone else would have.


Posted 2017-07-05T14:01:19.613

Reputation: 1 848

What I mean with scientists is that scientists usually have methodology that's more than just philosophy. – mavavilj – 2017-07-07T10:48:28.250

No, you trust that scientists have a methodology that is more than just philosophy, they may well use a methodology that is even worse than philosophy, they may completely doctor their results, misinterpret them wilfully or unintentionally, they may try to follow a better methodology, but fail to do so. It is simply on trust that you presume (on the whole) these things do not happen. You personally don't have the data required to make that judgement, you trust others who have, just as those who follow Marx trust all the others who do so too. – Isaacson – 2017-07-08T06:41:19.187

@mavavilj : The scientific method is a pretty good foundation to rely on. I totally agree with you on that. However, that doesn't mean that scientists or scientific journals can be trusted. One reason my girlfriend is no longer working as a research scientist, is because of the degree political, economical & other agendas had polluted her field. And we're not even talking about "fluffy" sciences like psychology, here, but about the fairly "hard" field of bioscience engineering. I'd already learnt to distrust the "soft sciences", but I learned from her to distrust even the "harder" sciences! – John Slegers – 2017-08-06T14:37:48.053


Never should you trust anyone else more than you trust yourself!

Listen to your gut. And when your experience tells you you can't trust your gut, you might want to educate yourself. Do your own research and go for the raw data whenever possible! There's never a good excuse for trusting someone blindly!

To quote Terence McKenna :

We all must try to understand what is happening. We need to try to understand what is happening, and in my humble opinion ideology is only going to get in your way.

Nobody understands what is happening. Not Buddhists, not Christians, not government scientists. No one understands what is happening.

So, forget ideology. They betray. They limit. They lead astray. Just deal with the raw data and trust yourself. Nobody is smarter than you are.

And what if they are? What good is their understanding doing you? People walk around saying, "I don't understand Quantum Physics, but somewhere somebody understands it." That's not a very helpful attitude towards preserving the insights of Quantum Physics.

Inform yourself. What does inform yourself mean? It means transcend and mistrust ideology. Go for direct experience.

What do YOU think when YOU face the waterfall? What do YOU think when YOU have sex? What do YOU think when YOU take psilocybin?

Everything else is unconfirmable rumor, useless, probably lies. So, liberate yourself from the illusion of culture. Take responsibility for what you think and what you do.

John Slegers

Posted 2017-07-05T14:01:19.613

Reputation: 944

1But "Never should you trust anyone else more than you trust yourself!" is impossible. No single person can know everything, so one must rely on others to some extent. What I would look for is that there are things where trusting others is "more reasonable" and when it's "less reasonable". Using traditional terms one could use the concepts objectivity and subjectivity here. – mavavilj – 2017-08-06T14:22:37.990

1@mavavilj : An educated man neither makes assumptions nor trust others when he's lacking the necessary data to make up his mind. An educated man will consider multiple options and not make up his mind until he finds sufficient evidence. To quote Aristotle : "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." – John Slegers – 2017-08-06T14:26:29.663