EJPC 1 (1) pp.

27–41 © Intellect Ltd 2009 27
Empedocles European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication
Volume 1 Number 1 © 2009 Intellect Ltd
Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/ejpc.1.1.27/1
Communication between friends
Dan O’Brien Oxford Brookes University
One kind of successful communication involves the transmission of knowledge
from speaker to hearer. Such testimonial knowledge transmission is usually
seen as conforming to three widely held epistemological approaches: reliabilism,
impartialism and evidentialism. First, a speaker must be a reliable testifier in
order that she transmits knowledge, and reliability is cashed out in terms of
her likelihood of speaking the truth. Second, if a certain speaker’s testimony
has sufficient epistemic weight to be believed by hearer
, then it should also
be believed by hearer
. Third, the normative constraint here is evidentially
grounded: whether or not a hearer should believe a speaker depends on the evi-
dence the hearer has that the speaker is telling the truth. I argue that there are
cases of testimonial knowledge transmission that are incompatible with these
three claims. This is when one accepts the testimony of an intimate friend.
1. Testimonial knowledge and reliability
It is generally assumed that a speaker (S) must be a reliable testifier in
order for a hearer (H) to acquire knowledge from her. More precisely, for
S to transmit her knowledge that p to H, S must be a reliable testifier with
respect to p, or to subject matter relevant to p. And reliability amounts to
some kind of modal connection between S saying that ‘p’ and p. This
connection is construed in various ways. It has been argued that S’s utter-
ances that ‘p’ must be safe, that is, they could not easily be wrong: in most
nearby possible worlds S only utters ‘p’ when p (Sosa 1999). Alternatively
they must track the truth: roughly, S should say that ‘p’ when p, and that
‘not-p’ when not-p (Nozick 1981). For the purposes of this article it does
not matter which type of account you favour. The basic idea is that it is
not lucky that H comes to believe that p from hearing S say that p, and
this is because S’s utterances are not true by accident. It would therefore
seem that reliability on the part of S is necessary in order for testimonial
knowledge transmission to take place, and this is because luck and the
acquisition of knowledge are incompatible.
Certain kinds of externalists argue that reliability is all that is
required for knowledge: to know that p is to arrive at a belief that p via
a reliable belief-forming mechanism, and for this it is necessary that S
is a reliable testifier.

Such reliability eliminates what Pritchard (2005)
calls ‘veritic luck’, where, that is, a thinker’s beliefs are true by acci-
dent. Internalists are also concerned with reliability. They aim to rule
out luck from their epistemologies by arguing that H must be aware of
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28 Dan O’Brien
reasons to think that S’s utterances are correct. They are concerned
with ‘reflective luck’, where it is lucky from H’s perspective that her
beliefs are true given what she is capable of reflecting upon. A particu-
larly satisfying strategy would therefore be to eliminate both kinds of
luck, and hybrid accounts have been suggested that do this. These are
epistemologies in which veritic luck is ruled out by reliabilist factors,
and reflective luck is ruled out by H’s awareness of reasons to think
that S’s beliefs are true. Jennifer Lackey is such a hybrid theorist. She
argues, first, that rationality requires that a thinker is aware of good
internalist reasons for her beliefs. This alone, though, is not sufficient
for knowledge: one’s beliefs also require a reliable source, the latter
being an external epistemic condition.
[I]t takes two to tango: the justificatory work of testimonial beliefs can
be shouldered neither exclusively by the hearer nor by the speaker.…
the speaker-condition ensures reliability while the hearer-condition
ensures rationality for testimonial justification.
(Lackey 2006: 16)
It is important to be clear that in this article I am only interested in the
external condition, and in whether S’s reliability is a necessary con-
straint on knowledge transmission. One should note, though, that
since knowledge transmission is being discussed, it is assumed that S
has knowledge to pass on; I shall not therefore be discussing whether
some kind of reliability is required for S to have this knowledge. I am
only concerned with whether or not S’s testimony has to be reliable.
I shall claim that it does not: sometimes you can have testimonial
knowledge transmission without S being a reliable testifier.
Before we begin, it is worth saying something about just how unre-
liable S needs to be for my argument to run. If you come to find my
claims implausible, it may be because you are conceiving of S as more
unreliable than she needs to be. If S’s testimony is almost always
wrong, then it may be hard to accept that she can transmit knowledge.
However, all I require is an S who is just unreliable enough to fall
under the threshold required by reliabilist accounts. Very crudely, if a
reliabilist requires S to have a 90 per cent probability of speaking the
truth, then all I need to claim is that S is 89 per cent reliable and yet
still she transmits knowledge. Or, if reliability is spelt out in terms of a
thinker having true beliefs in certain nearby worlds, then all I need to
claim is that a thinker’s beliefs would not be true in just one of the
worlds cited by this kind of reliabilist. Reliabilism is invariantist in
spirit and I shall argue here against invariantism, that is, against epis-
temologies that demand the same epistemic standards for all cases of
knowledge transmission.
In the next section I shall introduce the kind of examples that drive
my argument. Section 3 argues for a knowledge transmission account of
testimony rather than for one that involves just the transmission of belief;
this undercuts certain objections to my account. Section 4 discusses epis-
temic trust: this is what the hearer must contribute to the testimonial
exchange. I shall distinguish several kinds of trust, including ‘intimate
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29 Communication between friends
trust’, a form of trust that is crucial to my argument. Sections 5 and 6
describe how this kind of trust plays an epistemic role and how it is
involved in the transmission of knowledge even when S is unreliable.
I also highlight how my account is at odds with evidentialism and how
it is impartialist in approach. And lastly, section 7 replies to the objec-
tion that in my examples true beliefs are acquired by accident and thus
do not amount to knowledge; I argue that my examples involve a
benign form of epistemic luck.
2. Unreliable friends
In the following scenarios I would like to say, first, that testimonial
knowledge is acquired, and second, that a reliabilist reading cannot be
given of this knowledge. In order to make my examples more plausible
(and to avoid possible problems concerning self-deception), it shall
always be the case that H does not know of S’s unreliability: S might
be a new friend, or one who has not spoken about p to H before, or one
whose previous statements about p have not been verified by H.
Dylan, a friend of mine, is very unreliable when it comes to testi-
mony concerning what he has eaten, when and where he had his last
meal, and where his food comes from. Today, however, he claims not
to have stolen the missing sticky toffee pudding from the fridge –
although I know that someone has – and, as it happens, he did not take
it (p), he knows he did not (S knows that p), and he tells me that he did
not. Having no reason not to, I believe him (H believes that p). The
claim that I shall defend in this paper is that it is correct to say, not that
I have a lucky true belief that p, but that I have learnt that p from Dylan,
that I have acquired knowledge from him.
Here is another example. Paul, formerly a Seventh-Day Adventist,
is not a reliable testifier about his religious views (unbeknownst to his
close friend Elizabeth). Elizabeth is a devout Catholic and Paul tells
her that he has converted to Catholicism. And he has – and I would
like to claim that Elizabeth can now know this as well, even though
Paul is usually unreliable about such things.
These examples have certain key features. First, they concern topics
of conversation that are ‘constitutive of the friendship’ between S and
H. Part of being someone’s friend often involves believing well of that
person, believing, for example, that in certain circumstances they have
not performed actions that are morally suspect, such as stealing the
sticky toffee pudding. Such trust is not absolute, but friendship
involves at least some resistance to thinking badly of one’s friends. My
second example focuses on another aspect of a certain type of friend-
ship, that is, that one should be open and honest about one’s deeply
held views and respect those views in one’s friends; not, for example,
kidding about religion to one who is devoutly religious. My account
does not apply to casual friends, or to what might be called Facebook
friends (Facebook is an Internet social site where friends can be made
by clicking the ‘Add to Friends’ button); rather, my claims concern
what I shall call ‘intimate friends’, those friendships that would seem
to be threatened by lack of trust in testimony. You can doubt the written
testimony of a ‘friend’s’ Facebook profile, but you should not doubt
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30 Dan O’Brien
your closest friend’s religious confession. If you did have such doubts,
it would be pertinent to start wondering whether that person was
really your (intimate) friend. The existence of such friendship, or rather
the fact that a certain kind of friendship involves such intimate trust,
is, in the end, down to intuition, and my intuitions here are shared by
others; see, for example, Sarah Stroud:
Friendship positively demands epistemic bias, understood as an epis-
temically unjustified departure from epistemic objectivity. Doxastic
dispositions which violate the standards promulgated by mainstream,
epistemological theories are a constitutive feature of friendship.
(Stroud 2006: 518)
When we are not in our studies, most of us can be epistemically biased
towards certain people. We may convince ourselves that we weigh up
evidence impartially, but come on, we do not really, do we? If your
close friend, partner or child tells you certain things, you just believe
them, even if it is (objectively) unlikely that what they are saying is
true, and even if you would not believe these things if told to you by
a stranger.
First, then, my examples involve topics constitutive of friendship.
Their second feature is that S is unreliable when talking of these kinds
of things. This unreliability is not due to him telling lies, since that
may undermine the crucial friendship that exists between S and H.
Rather, S may be unreliable because he is a compulsive joker, he may
make regular slips of the tongue, some of his beliefs may be repressed,
or he could just have a certain type of poor memory (he knows that p
although he has temporarily forgotten).
3. Construction and conduit metaphors
It is traditionally claimed that belief is transmitted between S and H,
and this belief only constitutes knowledge for H if other epistemic con-
ditions are satisfied (if, for example, what S says is true and H has
good reason to trust S). H constructs knowledge out of the belief he
acquires from S and the justification that he himself possesses the truth
of S’s utterance. My claims, however, can seem untenable if one adopts
this construction metaphor. In the cases I describe, justification cannot
consist in the possession of internalist reasons since H is not aware of
any such reasons. An externalist account of justification also seems to
be ruled out since S is not reliable. The construction metaphor there-
fore needs to be dropped and in doing so my claims concerning relia-
bility will be easier to accept.
Knowledge transmission theorists argue that knowledge itself is
transmitted between the protagonists in a testimonial exchange. Reynolds
(2002) argues that the norm for assertion is knowledge; this is what
speakers aim to transmit: when S says that p she is claiming to know that
p. If it turns out that not-p, then S is (legitimately) criticized: she should
have said ‘I believe that p’ or something weaker than ‘p’. I may justifiably
believe (yet not know) that the video shop is open because it always has
been before at this time. If, however – after asserting that ‘it’s open’ – it
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31 Communication between friends
turns out that the opening times have changed, then I would be embar-
rassed (‘oops, I had not spotted the new times’). ‘Even if the testifier is
not to blame, testimony without knowledge is defective’ (Reynolds
2002: 141). Thus when successful, testimonial transmission involves the
exchange of knowledge between S and H. Welbourne (1994) also argues
that belief is not a fit object for communication. I can believe that you
believe that p without believing it myself. I cannot, however, believe
that you know that p and not think that I know it too. Again, then,
knowledge transmission is seen as the primary goal of testimony. On
such accounts it is easier to accommodate the intuition (or, for those
who do not find it intuitive, the claim) that I can acquire knowledge
from Dylan, and that Elizabeth can acquire knowledge from Paul. On a
knowledge transmission account, the relevant question is not whether
H has sufficient justification to promote the belief he acquires from S to
knowledge; instead, the question is whether the conditions are right for
the transfer of knowledge from S to H. Knowledge is not constructed
afresh by H through the affixing of justification to the building materials
he receives from S (those consisting of true belief); rather, S’s words act
as a conduit for knowledge itself. A conduit such as the Suez Canal
may allow the transfer of an oil tanker without the ports at either end
having the capacity to build a tanker from its component parts. We
therefore need to ask whether the conditions are right for the knowl-
edge conduit to function properly and not whether the requisite build-
ing materials are present for the reconstruction of knowledge.

I shall
argue that the conditions can be right even in the absence of S’s reliabil-
ity, and that when S is a friend of H the knowledge conduit can remain
open even when the unreliability of S would normally be seen as block-
ing knowledge transmission. The conditions are right when conversing
with Dylan because we should be receptive to what our friends tell us,
receptive to their beliefs and to whatever epistemic weight those beliefs
possess. (It must of course be remembered that these are only helpful
metaphors. Knowledge does not literally flow between S and H. All
I mean by this is that S has certain epistemic states, and then H does,
and words (or some such signs) have enabled this transfer to occur.)
4. Reliant trust, human trust and intimate trust
In order for H to acquire testimonial knowledge from S, H must trust
what S says. In this section I shall explore three notions of trust that
can be relevant to testimonial exchanges.
We trust instruments such as thermometers and electronic
calculators because they have been reliable in the past, and we often
trust people in this way too. I trust the announcements at New Street
Station because they are reliable indicators of when the train to
Aberystwyth has been cancelled. Such trust is based on reliability and
thus I shall call it ‘reliant trust’ or R-trust. However, such trust cannot
play a role in the Dylan scenario because he is not reliable. There are,
though, distinct forms of trust that are relevant to the kinds of cases in
which I am interested. These are ‘human trust’ where we trust our
fellows simply in virtue of being people, and ‘intimate trust’ where we
trust particular people in virtue of being our friends.
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32 Dan O’Brien
1. ‘Friends’ may
cover the intimate
relations one
perhaps has with
family members,
lovers, members of
the same church,
sports teams or
companies –
whether this is so
depends on whether
the mechanism
discussed in section
7 is applicable to
such cases.
Holton (1994) discusses an example that illustrates the distinction
between R-trust and human trust. When climbing a mountain I place
trust in both my climbing guide and the rope. If the rope breaks I am
annoyed, but I feel that I have just been unlucky since ropes made
by Mammut are generally reliable. If my guide abandons me, how-
ever, I have not just been unlucky; my human trust in this person
has been misplaced, and the guide has forsaken his moral responsi-
bilities. (There is also a reciprocal expectation here: the guide does
not expect to be seen as just reliable; he would perhaps be offended
if he were merely R-trusted.) This human aspect of trust is clear in
such high stakes situations, but it is present in even low stakes sce-
narios and, importantly, even in simple testimonial exchanges. One
does not trust someone’s testimony only because they have been
reliable in the past – one also trusts them because people should tell
the truth.
When an unreliable friend tells me that p, I may not have R-trust
in what she says, but I can have human trust. I have not yet claimed,
though, that I can acquire knowledge that p from such a person; only
that, in virtue of being a person, I have grounds to place human trust
in them. I shall go on to argue, however, that it is a form of human
trust that allows for knowledge transmission in cases where S is
Human trust may be what Strawson (1962) calls a reactive attitude,
that is, a property that is constitutive of being a person. Such trust
therefore comes easy; it is something we confer on all people (except
when we adopt what Strawson calls the objective attitude and treat
certain individuals, such as psychopaths, as if they were mere instru-
ments). An account that uses such trust to ground knowledge trans-
mission would therefore be too liberal, since the epistemic significance
of human trust can be defeated by lack of R-trust. Jeffery Archer, for
example, or your favourite dodgy politician, may be a person and thus
command human trust, but in a wide range of situations his unreliability
undermines any epistemic significance this human trust would usually
have. There is, though, a certain class of cases where this is not so, where,
that is, a kind of human trust can play an epistemic role in the face of
the unreliability of S. And for human trust to have this elevated epis-
temic status – this epistemic resistance to defeat by S’s unreliability – S
needs to be, for want of a better word, a friend.
If this is so, then even
if S is unreliable, H’s ‘intimate trust’ in him allows the epistemic con-
nection to be made between S’s knowledge and intention to assert that
p, and H’s knowledge that p. The Dylan and Paul scenarios are such
cases. Consider also a lover who has always strayed in the past, one
who again says: ‘I’ll be faithful this time; trust me, I mean it’. And
remember we are not concerned with cases in which S does not know
that p or have the intention to inform H that p. This is a lover who
knows she will stay, intends H to acquire this knowledge, and, I claim,
this is what H acquires. When she stays, H knew that she would.
There are other kinds of cases in which one may be tempted to offer
such an account of the epistemic role of trust, when, for example, the
stakes are very high. Perhaps in a time of war we would believe even
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33 Communication between friends
2. That is not to say
that it is always
morally right to trust
a friend. It may be
morally remiss of
you to trust that
a friend is in the
right when all the
evidence suggests
he is not. In Terence
Malick’s film,
Badlands, both Kit
and Holly are, to say
the least, morally
suspect, even though
Holly has almost
unlimited intimate
trust in Kit. There is,
then, a distinction
between the moral
perspective and the
intimate perspective
and in this paper my
focus is on the latter.
After all, my account
should apply to
unreliable evil
friends: they should
be able to acquire
nefarious knowledge
from each other
because of the inti-
macy they share,
and here there is no
temptation to claim
that the normative
constraints at work
are moral.
3. Friendship may of
course snap under
the strain of too
much unreliability
on the part of S, but
there is an important
level of slack where
H and S can remain
friends even given
a certain amount of
what Jeffrey Archer said, and we would be able to acquire knowledge
from him about national security. One reason for this could be that
Jeffrey is reliable with respect to situations of grave national danger, or
when he pleads for us to trust him. This may be so, but I would like to
claim that knowledge can be transmitted even in the absence of such
local reliability. I suggest, therefore, that there may be an alternative
account of the epistemology of such cases, and that is one that remains
grounded in friendship. In high stakes situations the politician does
not appeal to the people as someone who just knows the facts; he
appeals to his fellow countrymen as a friend, and it is this that allows
us to acquire knowledge from him. Practical consequences are not the
primary epistemic factor in such situations; they are merely instru-
mental in fostering a certain intimacy, an intimacy that allows for the
flow of knowledge between ‘friends’.
It is certainly the case that we are sometimes more open, more
receptive, to the thoughts of friends than to those of strangers. This
openness can be because we know more about our friends and we
know what they are likely to be knowledgeable about. Here, though, I
have been focusing on cases where this is not so; one is open towards
what friends say even when they are talking about parts of their life
that one knows little or nothing about. Such openness is an important
part of what being a friend consists in: ‘It is part of friendship and love
that one does not, most of the time anyway, take an objective view of
the person one cares for deeply’ (Baron 1991: 854). And I would like to
claim that this is not just something we do; such openness, rather,
reflects a normative constraint upon us: we should believe what our
friends say. To continue Baron’s quote above: ‘There is such a thing as
the proper bias of a close friend’.

It could be argued, though, that the normative claim here is a
broadly moral one, and that it is still epistemically inappropriate (or
even irrational) for one to be more receptive to a friend’s beliefs and

There are always various constraints on our thinking –
epistemic, moral, pragmatic, even aesthetic (it is just more pleasing
to think certain thoughts) – and these constraints have to be balanced
against each other. And in certain cases friendship may involve
pitching moral factors against epistemic ones and giving the former
more weight than the latter.
I shall argue, though, that such open-
ness is epistemically acceptable (or rational) as well as morally correct.
There is a kind of human trust – that between friends – which can,
although perhaps rarely, play an important epistemic role. It can
allow one to acquire knowledge that p from S, even when S is a gen-
erally unreliable testifier with respect to p. Such intimate trust is of
course fallible. Dylan can forget that he took the pudding, and the
inveterate philanderer can be unfaithful again, even though H has
intimate trust in both of them.
What are important for my argument,
though, are the ‘successful’ cases where S does know that p, and
where he asserts that p in order that H also comes to have this knowl-
edge. And in the next section we shall see just how there can be such
successful cases, those in which testimonial knowledge transmission
occurs even when S is unreliable.
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34 Dan O’Brien
5. The knowledge conduit and the epistemic role of
I have claimed that intimate trust can ‘keep the knowledge conduit
open’ even when the unreliability of S would seem to threaten to
close it off, and of intimate trust providing ‘epistemic resistance’ to
the potentially knowledge defeating unreliability of S. Keeping the
conduit open amounts to being more receptive to the mental states of
S. S believes that p and has justification for such a belief, and when S
is a friend H is more open to acquiring those epistemic states from S.
But why isn’t S simply gullible? There may be some kind of intimate
or moral constraint at work here – I should believe what my friend
says just because she is my friend – but it is not obvious that there are
any epistemic reasons to believe her (or rather, any conditions that
make it appropriate for me to be more receptive to her beliefs and
I shall first explore possible parallels between the debates concerning
moral and epistemic partiality; these, however, are inconclusive. Next,
though, I shall show why it is epistemically admissible to be open in
this way by describing the mechanism underlying how such openness
leads to knowledge despite S’s unreliability, and thus how this open-
ness is epistemically justified or epistemically acceptable.
In many situations we are not impartial when it comes to moral
decisions: we would save our family and friends first if the ship we
were on were sinking. And such partiality is at odds with the domi-
nant moral theories. Various philosophers, though, see this as a prob-
lem for moral theory and not for our practice: theories that demand
moral impartiality are too demanding (Cottingham 1986; Williams
1981). Morality, after all, concerns what humans should do, and a
plausible moral theory should therefore not restrict any such partiality
towards our friends; friendship is just too engrained in our form of life
for it to be morally criticized in this way. Perhaps, then, a parallel point
can be made with respect to epistemology: epistemological theories
may be too restrictive if they do not allow for epistemic partiality
towards friends. Our standards for accepting what our friends say
should be lower than those we use in assessing what strangers say. Or,
a weaker but more plausible claim, it is epistemically admissible to be
open towards the testimony of friends. Epistemology concerns human
routes to knowledge and epistemological theories should not, there-
fore, be constrained by what God, say, might be able to know, or what
those capable of telepathy could know. Epistemology should respect
the particular ways we have of acquiring truths about the world, and if
friendship and intimate trust are constitutive of being human, then
epistemology should respect the effect that friendship has on the acqui-
sition of belief (and, I claim, knowledge). There would be something
wrong – something inhuman – about a ‘person’ who was not epistemi-
cally partial towards some people in this way, or who was not at least
disposed to be partial in this way, allowing of course that someone may
simply, through misfortune, isolation, or choice, happen to have no
friends. Epistemology that only concerns itself with truth could be
called – not ‘ideal’, because that may imply we should strive to abide
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35 Communication between friends
by its norms – but, more neutrally, pure veritic epistemology. The sug-
gestion, then, is that this kind of epistemology is not relevant to certain
kinds of testimonial knowledge transmission.
Many, however, would resist this line and it is not clear whether
such epistemic openness towards friends is demanded of us, or whether
such receptivity is constitutive of personhood. A weaker claim, though,
is more persuasive – and I think correct. Epistemic openness may not
be demanded of us, but it is admissible. It has been argued that one
cannot adopt an impartial standpoint with respect to ethics and that a
moral theory that demands such is a ‘fantasy ethics’ (Mackie 1977:
129–134). This is not so with respect to epistemology; impartialist
epistemologies are not ‘fantasy epistemologies’. However open we
are to our friends’ beliefs, we sometimes find it necessary to step back
from our friendship and assess what our friends say impartially
(although this can be hard to do with a close friend or one’s child or
lover). We may do this if we discover that a friend is particularly
unreliable about a certain subject, even if that happens to be some-
thing that is constitutive of our friendship. We would just be gullible
if we believed everything our friends say. There is, then, an impartial
standpoint or perspective, but there is another perspective that is
sometimes adopted, and that is the impartial one. These two perspec-
tives constitute epistemic acceptance policies that one adopts from,
respectively, ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ of a particular friendship. We can
switch between these two perspectives and the ease with which we
do this, and the perspective where we are most at home, is a product
of our character.
There is a particular kind of friendship that necessarily involves inti-
mate trust, and if you do not have such an attitude towards what others
say – if you never adopt this ‘internal’ perspective – then you do not
have that kind of friend (although there may be other kinds of friend).
Further, I do not think that this kind of friend is particularly unusual; in
fact I think it comes close to what we generally mean by a ‘friend’ as
opposed to someone we just admire for some virtue or other, or some-
one we find it fun, rewarding, or stimulating to be with. Consider two
conversations: first, a stranger next to you on the train tells you how he
was accused of stealing and that he would never do such a thing given
his deeply held religious beliefs. Second, you have just bonded with a
new acquaintance at work and already you seem to have forged a
friendship. She tells you about a similar accusation and her similar rea-
son for why this is unwarranted. Do you (should you?) have the same
attitude to their testimonies? It seems not: it would be very easy to be
non-committal towards the stranger – one would perhaps want to hear
the other side – but it is sometimes not possible to be non-committal
towards a friend in this way, if, that is, they are indeed your friend. If
you thought that your grip on the inner life of an acquaintance could be
so wrong – that she could be a thief and lying about her religious con-
victions – then that person would not be your friend.
More, however, needs to be said about why such partiality is epis-
temically acceptable and not just morally or intimately acceptable. I
turn to this question in the next section where I describe the mechanism
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36 Dan O’Brien
that explains why openness towards the testimony of friends is epis-
temically significant.
6. The direct acquisition of testimonial belief and
I am more open to my friends’ beliefs – I take them more seriously –
because they have a direct effect on my inferential practices. Or, as
Millgram (1997: 141) puts it: ‘another person’s mental states can be,
literally, one’s own’. A friend’s desire can be my desire: I can want to
bring it about that Dylan has a peach because Dylan desires a peach.
This is not driven by having a higher order desire to bring it about that
my friend’s desires for X are satisfied; that would be ‘one thought too
many’; I just want X to be so because that is what my friend wants.

Similarly I share the joy of my friends’ successes, and their frustrations
and disappointments, and this ability to empathize with a friend’s
emotions is not mediated by higher order desires. I also take up certain
pursuits because that is what my friend does – I do not do this because,
given our similar tastes, I reason that I will probably like abseiling too,
or that abseiling will provide us with more time together – I do it
because his mental states, his desires and enthusiasms, have a direct
effect on my actions. It is untenable to claim that, in order to act on my
desires, I must have the desire that my own desires are satisfied; rather,
my actions can be explained simply in terms of my desires for p, q and
r; the second order desire (that the desires for p, q and r are satisfied) is
explanatorily empty and not warranted by behavioural or introspec-
tive evidence. And Millgram’s claim is why suppose that such second
order desires are required when acting on the desires of friends: there
too they are explanatorily empty and there is no evidence that they
always play such a role in practical action.
Such an account is also applicable to the acquisition of beliefs. I
am sometimes open to my friends’ beliefs because I have inductive
evidence that they are likely to be correct. In certain cases, though –
when perhaps such evidence is lacking – such openness is not medi-
ated in this way. I am not reassured that Dylan did not steal the
pudding by reasoning from the premise that a friend would not do
that kind of thing; rather, I have Dylan’s belief that he did not take it.
I acquire this directly, not via inference. The fact that I share (some
of) my friends’ beliefs is not mediated by beliefs, say, about their
likely reliability; rather, as friendships are forged my friends’ stock of
beliefs becomes available to me as well as my own. (Such an account
is suggested by Aristotle’s notion of a friend as a second self. See
Aristotle 1925: viii–ix.) Problems will of course arise if a friend
believes that p and you antecedently believe that not-p. But such
clashes of belief occur in one’s own case too, sometimes in cases of
self-deception, and when one becomes aware of such contradictions
they must be ironed out one way or another. The reciprocal ironing
out of contradictions between the beliefs of friends – between H’s
beliefs and those he inherits from S, and vice versa – results in S and
H sharing more and more of their beliefs, particularly those that are
constitutive of their friendship.
EJPC_1.1_art_O'Brien_027-042.indd 36 11/20/09 10:27:29 AM
37 Communication between friends
For my beliefs acquired in this way to constitute testimonial
knowledge, they must be justified, and I argue that this can be so. An
important feature of testimony is that the epistemic credentials of S’s
beliefs can be transmitted to H. For example, for H justifiably to believe
that p, he does not himself need to be aware of S’s reasons for believing
that p; in accepting what S says, he inherits the warrant S has for her
beliefs. ‘Someone can know “vicariously” – i.e., without possessing the
evidence for the truth of what he knows’ (Hardwig 1985: 348). I believe
that the universe is expanding because Professor Calculus told me so; I
cannot articulate any reasons for why this is so, but my belief is justi-
fied or warranted because Professor Calculus has strong grounds for
claiming this to be the case. His knowledge is transmitted to me, not
just his belief. Hardwig argues that such an account must be accepted,
otherwise we would be forced to make the revisionary and implausible
claim that a large proportion of our beliefs do not amount to knowl-
edge and that they are unjustified or irrational because we do not our-
selves possess reasons to think they are true. Knowledge is social: the
justification for a thinker’s beliefs does not have to be possessed by that
thinker herself. Such an account is suggested by both Goldberg (2007)
and Schmitt (2006); according to the former’s ‘Transmission of the
Epistemic Quality of the Testimony Thesis’ and the latter’s
‘Transindividual Reasons Thesis’, H’s beliefs can be justified, not only
by reasons of which she is aware (‘personal reasons’), but also by rea-
sons of which only S is aware (‘transindividual reasons’).
[I]n testimony a speaker transmits to her audience not only the content
attested, but also the reasons that the speaker has in support of that
content – or, if not the reasons themselves, then at least the support
provided by those reasons.
(Goldberg 2007: 17)
And, I claim, such an account can also apply to cases of friendship. My
openness towards what Dylan says allows me to acquire his belief and
it also allows me to share his justification. I do not inherit Dylan’s
actual reasons because, in this case, I do not have his memory of not
taking the pudding (that which provides justification for his testi-
mony); rather, I inherit the epistemic weight that his beliefs possess.
Dylan knows that p – he believes that p and has justification for such a
belief – and this belief, justification and therefore knowledge are also
directly available to me.
It is important that my cases involve the direct acquisition of knowl-
edge. The justification possessed by my beliefs is often inferential. My
belief that the train is due is justified by my ability to perform the fol-
lowing inference: the guy on the platform, Frank, tells me that it is due;
people waiting on platforms tend to be right about the train timetable,
and Frank is a typical passenger; thus I believe him. The justification
that my belief possesses is therefore constructed from the testimonial
belief I acquire and the inference I am capable of performing. However,
if Frank is unreliable, then his unreliability will defeat the justification
I take his testimony to supply. This is so because, in such a case, my
EJPC_1.1_art_O'Brien_027-042.indd 37 11/20/09 10:27:29 AM
38 Dan O’Brien
reasoning is based on a false belief (that Frank is a typical passenger;
that he knows the timetable) and it is lucky if reasoning takes one from
false premises to a true conclusion (that the train is due). It is therefore
crucial that such inference is not involved in my cases. When inference
is not involved in the justification of testimonial beliefs – as is some-
times the case with friends – then the unreliability of S cannot play
such a defeating role.
A parallel with memory is illuminating. Elaine at t
) has
lots of knowledge (k
, k
, k
). She is, though, forgetful and by t
) has forgotten a lot of what she used to know; she still, how-
ever, remembers k
. Elaine’s memorial transmission mechanisms are
not reliable, yet we are not tempted to say that this compromises her
ability to know k
. Testimonial transmission involving friends could
therefore be seen as closely akin to memorial transmission – the rela-
tion one has to one’s earlier self akin to the relation one has to a friend.
’s knowledge therefore corresponds with S’s knowledge, and
’s knowledge corresponds with H’s knowledge. Both Elaine

and S have lots of knowledge (k
, k
, k
), but most of it gets lost in
transmission; only k
gets through. In the memory case we still think
of this as knowledge,
and we also should in the testimonial case. The
unreliability of Elaine
, manifest by the loss of k
, does not under-
mine k
, and so S’s similar unreliability should not undermine H’s k

Furthermore, there are lots of things Elaine
can now be said to know
for which she cannot remember the justification. There is justification,
though, which was possessed by her earlier self (Elaine
), and it is this
justification that she inherits. Similarly, then, H can inherit justification
for k
from S. In the memory case we have transtemporal reasons, and
in the case of testimony, transindividual ones.
The position argued for in this paper is opposed to evidentialism.
According to evidentialists one should only believe what one has good
empirical reason to believe: ‘it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for
anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’ (Clifford 2003:
518). This has been denied by pragmatists of various stripes. For them,
what one should believe is also determined by the utility of such beliefs
to one’s life. I am also opposed to evidentialism in certain cases,
although for intimate reasons and not for pragmatic ones.
Impartiality is an aspect of evidentialism. Epistemic impartiality
does not entail that everyone’s testimony is of equal merit since experts
should be believed over novices on almost any topic. It is claimed,
though, that if S’s testimony has the epistemic credentials to be believed
by H
, then it should also be believed by H
. This, however, is some-
thing I deny. If S is a friend, then there are times when she should be
believed even though she should not were she a stranger, or it is per-
missible for the strength of one’s beliefs in what a friend says to be
stronger than those concerning a stranger’s testimony.
7. Epistemic luck
To conclude let us return to the relation between luck and knowledge,
which we touched upon in section 1. In this paper I have discussed
whether there is a reliabilist constraint on testimonial knowledge
4. This claim is
supported by exam
marking practice. If
Elaine gets four out
of ten answers right
on a certain topic
then she is given
four marks because
she is thought to
know four things
(she is given the
benefit of the doubt
that her answers are
not just guesses).
She does not get
zero, which would
seem to be called
for if one adopted
some kind of
reliabilist account
of memorial
knowledge (and
one takes exams
to be testing for
knowledge rather
than mere true
EJPC_1.1_art_O'Brien_027-042.indd 38 11/20/09 10:27:29 AM
39 Communication between friends
5. It has been
suggested (not
altogether seriously)
that my account
may have radical
consequences for
the legal profession.
Much prosecution
time is spent
digging for possible
connections between
witnesses, jury and
defendants: friends
cannot be asked to
sit on the jury since
they are likely to be
biased. According to
my account, though,
if the defendant is an
unreliable testifier,
then his friends are
the only people who
can come to know,
on the basis of his
testimony alone,
that he is innocent.
Thus if a court seeks
knowledge, the jury
should be stacked
with close friends of
the defendant! As
said, though,
intimate trust is
fallible – such juries
would acquire
knowledge in cases
where juries of
strangers would not,
but they would also
lead to many false
transmission, and so I am interested in veritic epistemic luck. Veritic
luck applies to thinkers who have true beliefs by accident, when, that
is, p and a thinker’s belief that p align by chance. This kind of luck is
incompatible with knowledge; my true belief concerning Dylan, how-
ever, is not lucky in this sense, as I shall go on to explain.
First, it should be noted that there are various ways that luck can be
involved in the acquisition of knowledge. It may, for example, be lucky
that you happened to be in the right place at the right time to see (and
thus have perceptual knowledge of) that shooting star. In most nearby
worlds you would have been asleep or indoors when it occurred, but
here it so happened that you were woken by your cat just as the ‘star’
passed the gap in your curtains. I claim, then, that the luck involved in
my cases is more like this kind of luck and not veritic luck.
Lying in bed staring at the gap in the curtains is not a reliable
method of acquiring true beliefs about shooting stars, and neither is
listening to Dylan’s testimony; nevertheless, when I happen to be in
the right place at the right time I can acquire knowledge in these ways.
And this, in the cases I have been discussing, is when a friend S is
speaking the truth with the intention of passing on his knowledge.
Recall the analogy with memory. There may be a sense in which
both Elaine
and H are lucky to have certain true beliefs – they are
lucky given their transmission mechanisms are so unreliable – but my
claim is that this kind of luck does not undermine testimonial knowl-
edge. And one reason for saying this is grounded in the intuition that
this kind of luck does not undermine memorial knowledge. Elaine
know k
even though she is lucky that this gets transmitted from her
earlier self (given the loss of k
It may also be instructive to consider again the source of S’s unreli-
ability in the relevant scenarios. It was noted that these are not cases
where S is lying; we are talking of cases where S’s unreliability is due to
him repressing certain beliefs about himself, having certain inhibitions
(he may be shy about his deeply held beliefs), or being a compulsive
joker. In the successful cases, then, S manages to overcome these barri-
ers to transmission. This is a positive achievement on S’s part. S’s achieve-
ments may be rare – and he may, therefore, be unreliable, and ‘lucky’ in
one sense – but when he manages to overcome these barriers he does so
with his own cognitive resources. His true belief is not merely coinci-
dental. And my claim is that H can benefit from S’s achievement and
acquire knowledge too, the knowledge that S possesses.
I have argued that even when S is an unreliable testifier, the condi-
tions can, on occasion, be suitable for the transmission of knowledge
from S to H. This is so if S intends H to come to know that p, and if H
recognizes this intention and intimately trusts S – with trust, therefore,
not just amounting to the assessment of S’s reliability.
then, even if you were at first ill-disposed to my claims, your intuitions
might now have changed; or, if not, you may nevertheless be willing
to ignore the counter-intuitiveness of my claims concerning knowl-
edge attribution in light of the arguments I have presented. Let’s see:
Your best friend Bernice is rather scatty; a lot of what she says is
not true, even concerning her own desires and intentions. Your
EJPC_1.1_art_O'Brien_027-042.indd 39 11/20/09 10:27:29 AM
40 Dan O’Brien
6. Thanks to Joss
Walker and Garry
Hagberg for helpful
friendship has been forged over an interest in fashion and you spend
all your time talking about hairstyles and clothes – these are the most
important things to you both. On a particularly scatty day, Bernice truly
claims that she is going to bob her hair. You believe her and later in the
day you bump into Scott, a fellow fashionista, who, seemingly in shock,
says ‘well, I suppose you know that Bernice intends to bob her hair?’
Well, do you?
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Baron, M. (1991), ‘Impartiality and Friendship’, Ethics, 101, pp. 836–857.
Clifford, W. (2003), ‘The Ethics of Belief’, in L. Pojman (ed.), The Theory of
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Goldberg, S. (2007), ‘Testimony As Evidence’, forthcoming in Philosophica, 75.
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Nozick, R. (1981), Philosophical Explanations, Cambridge: The Belknap Press.
Pritchard, D. (2005), Epistemic Luck, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Studies, 110, pp. 139–161.
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Sosa, E. (1999), ‘How to Defeat Opposition to Moore’, Philosophical Perspectives,
13, pp. 141–54.
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Society, 47, pp. 187–211.
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Welbourne, M. (1994), ‘Testimony, Knowledge and Belief’ in B. Matilal and A.
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EJPC_1.1_art_O'Brien_027-042.indd 40 11/20/09 10:27:29 AM
41 Communication between friends
Suggested citation
O’Brien, D. (2009), ‘Communication between friends’, Empedocles European
Journal for the Philosophy of Communication 1: 1, pp. 27–41, doi: 10.1386/
Contributor details
Dan is a Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes University, an Honorary Research
Fellow at Birmingham University and an Associate Lecturer with the Open
University. He has published widely on epistemology and the philosophy of
mind. Recent books include An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Polity,
2006) and Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: Reader’s Guide
(Continuum, 2006; with A. Bailey). His current research interests include the
epistemology of testimony, and David Hume’s philosophy of religion.
E-mail: dobrien@brookes.ac.uk
EJPC_1.1_art_O'Brien_027-042.indd 41 11/20/09 10:27:29 AM
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