by Michael Klenk
News of a whistleblower’s report recently ushered in the latest scandal surrounding Donald Trump’s US presidency. According to the whistleblower, Trump urged the Ukrainian president to investigate one of Trump’s personal political rivals, Joe Biden, after emphasising that, in the past, “the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.” Efforts by the Democrats to impeach Trump are since underway (more here).
One of Trump’s reactions to the whistleblower’s report stood out to me because it can be used to illustrate a puzzle about rational belief formation, as I will explain after briefly introducing the case.
Trump retweeted someone’s snippet of a Fox News item, which said that the whistleblower had “political bias” against Trump. Moreover, the original tweeter emphasised that the whistleblower allegedly “supports one of [Trump’s] opponents in the 2020 race.” Trump’s retweet signals endorsement of these claims. In his tweet, Trump did not challenge the whistleblower’s claims directly. He did not, for example, provide proof that what was really said in the phone call differs from the whistleblower’s report (because it wasn’t, as a memo released by the White House later confirmed). Instead, Trump challenged the whistleblower’s claims indirectly. In what is by now a recognisable Trump tactic, he sought to win a debate by incriminating his opponents, sowing doubt about their motives and their credibility.
What should we make of such indirect attacks? Of course, we could ask whether the whistleblower, in fact, has a political bias against Trump and whether the whistleblower, in fact, supports one of Trump’s opponents. But there is a deeper worry. Why would indirect allegations about the whistleblower’s background rather than direct refutations of the whistleblower’s report matter anyhow?
Making indirect claims about the origins of a claim puts Trump (as much as anyone) at risk of committing a genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is a fallacy because some fact, typically about the origin or history of a person or claim, is illegitimately taken to be of relevance for the person’s or claim’s current status. Trump insinuates in his tweet that the whistleblower made his report because of his alleged anti-Trump leanings. But there is no relevant connection between someone’s political background and the truth of her statements. The whistleblower could be anywhere on the political spectrum, and that would not determine the truth of her report. So, even if Trump’s claims about the whistleblower’s political background were valid, Trump’s tactics are based on a clear genetic fallacy.
However, though such tactics are nefarious, they are not as wholly irrational as they might first seem. Claims about the whistleblower’s background may not settle whether the whistleblower’s report is accurate, but they might be relevant for what you ought to believe about the affair nonetheless.
For example, if you hold a belief solely based on a liar’s testimony, that seems relevant for whether or not your belief is true. And that, in turn, should matter for whether or not you maintain your belief.
So, it seems that claims about the origins of a claim can be evidence; both about our beliefs and about the facts (generally speaking, any factor that makes it more probable that a particular state of affairs obtains (or do not obtain) is evidence for that state of affairs).
Let’s apply this to Trump’s tactics in the Ukraine-affair. The whistleblower’s report is evidence that Trump illegitimately used the power of his office for personal gain (so, you are rationally required to believe that Trump used the power of his office illegitimately).
But Trump’s claim about the whistleblower’s political background could also be evidence: it could be evidence about our evidence. Our view on Trump’s conduct in the Ukraine-affair is partly based on the whistleblower’s report. If the whistleblower is partisan (and I emphasise the if!), then that does make it more probable that the whistleblower fabricated the report. That would be evidence that we partly base our views about the Ukraine-affair on lousy evidence. Since we are rationally required to believe what our evidence supports, we should somehow incorporate the new evidence about our evidence in our views.
So, Trump’s claim about the whistleblower’s political leanings might ultimately matter for what we ought to believe about the Ukraine-affair, irrespective of whether he commits a genetic fallacy in making that claim.
Interestingly, accepting that there can be evidence about our evidence raises a puzzle about what we are rationally required to believe. If we have first-order evidence (the whistleblower’s report) and evidence about our evidence (Trump’s claim about the whistleblower’s political leanings), then what view does our combined, total evidence support? What are we rationally required to believe about Trump’s conduct in the Ukraine affair, based on the whistleblower’s report and Trump’s claim about the whistleblower’s political background? None of the possible options is wholly satisfactory.
One option is to ignore the evidence about your evidence. You could maintain that Trump was fraudulent and continue to believe that your view is based on sound evidence. But then you would not only ignore a part of your evidence, but this stance would also seem uncomfortably dogmatic because you would not be open to change your views.
Alternatively, you could listen to your evidence about your evidence. In that case, you would be much less confident that Trump behaved fraudulently and much less sure that you have good evidence for the view that Trump acted fraudulently. But that is not a good option either. You would have ignored part of your evidence (the whistleblower’s report), and if Trump’s claim is misleading (as it well might be), you would stop believing a truth.
Finally, you could somehow try to weigh up your evidence and your evidence about your evidence. If you do that, however, it would seem that you failed to fully “respect” both types of evidence – you would not believe what your first-order evidence supports (i.e. that Trump behaved fraudulently) nor what your evidence about your evidence supports (i.e. that you don’t have good evidence that Trump behaved fraudulently).
So, it seems as if there is no entirely satisfactory way to form a belief based on evidence about your evidence rationally. Though it clearly appears that there is some reasonable connection between information about your beliefs and the ratioinality of holding those beliefs, explaining how the connecting looks like is a matter of ongoing controversy in philosophy.
Of course, this does not mean that there’s no rational belief about Trump’s Ukraine-affair. There are more sources on which to base our beliefs about Trump’s conduct than the whistleblower’s report. The White House memo corroborated the whistleblower’s report, a second whistleblower has come forward, and it is far from clear that Trump is a credible source of testimony (about his political opponents, in particular). So, there isn’t a puzzle about what to believe about the Ukraine-affair.
But there is a puzzle about how to form rational beliefs in response to evidence about our evidence nonetheless, which Trump’s case nicely illustrates.