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The Trouble with Being Sincere

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 41, Number 2, June 2011
pp. 215-234 | 10.1353/cjp.2011.0013

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Questions about sincerity play a central role in our lives. But what makes an assertion insincere? In this paper we argue that the answer to this question is not as straightforward as it has sometimes been taken to be. Until recently the dominant answer has been that a speaker makes an insincere assertion if and only if he does not believe the proposition asserted. There are, however, persuasive counterexamples to this simple account. It has been proposed instead that an insincere assertion that p is one made by a speaker who (a) does not express his belief that p; or (b) does not believe that he believes that p; (c) does not assent to p; or (d) does not express any of these cognitive states. We show that these alternative accounts also face counterexamples. We argue that, because of the disunity and opacity of the self, it is a mistake to identify insincerity with any privileged type of cognitive attitude towards p. We sketch a different account according to which the operative state of mind is the audience-directed motivation of the speaker’s behind the assertion. This motivation may, but need not, be expressed in the speaker’s intention; and sincerity may, but need not, require that one says what one mentally assents to. Thus defining sincerity in theory, as well as complying with the norm of sincerity in practice, both involve more trouble than might have been expected.

I The Basic Idea of Insincere Assertion

Philosophers have been interested in sincerity of assertions for at least three reasons. Philosophers of language are interested in the state of mind that makes an assertion sincere, in order to delimit assertion as a type of speech act. Thus, for example, in Austin’s (1975, 15) account of speech acts, insincerity is an infelicity that occurs when a linguistic convention designed for use by persons having certain thoughts or feelings is used when these thoughts or feelings are absent. Second, epistemologists of testimony are interested in sincerity because it seems to be a necessary condition for the transmission of knowledge from speaker to hearer (Moran 2005, Owens 2006). Someone who asserts ‘p’ presents the asserted proposition that p as true. If the speaker did not even appear to accept its truth, the hearer would not normally take the assertion to be an epistemic reason in favour of p being true. And if the speaker merely appeared to take p as true, by making an insincere assertion, the assertion would normally not be a good reason for the hearer to accept its truth. Third, insincerity interests moral philosophers because in everyday life, as Ridge writes, ‘sincerity is important to us... because of the role it plays in our moral evaluations. “Be sincere” is an important default moral norm.’ Making an insincere assertion is at least pro tanto morally blameworthy because it ‘betrays a willingness to engage in deception’ on the part of the asserter (Ridge 2006, 492).2

These considerations suggest the following schema:

Basic Idea of Insincere Assertion. An assertion is insincere iff the speaker’s aim in making the assertion is to present to the hearer as true what he does not take to be true.

The first element, the speaker’s motivation, encapsulates what is pro tanto morally objectionable about making an insincere assertion. An insincere assertion need not aim to make the hearer believe falsely — it might just aim to please or flatter the hearer.3 The second element, regarding the speaker’s cognitive attitude, registers the fact that he presents the asserted content as true despite his not taking it to be true himself. Notice that an insincere asserter’s not taking the assertion to be true need not mean that he takes it to be false — he might be agnostic, or even merely suspect it to be true.

In what follows we shall consider different ways of spelling out this basic schema. Past discussions have generally taken sincerity to be the primary notion, and are driven largely by linguistic and epistemological concerns. However, in what follows we shall focus on insincerity, which we understand, in line with everyday practice, to be primarily a moral notion, with...

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