A picture of a woman's face with tape one her lips and a hand signaling, "Shh" ion front of her face. From Nick Byrd's "Sexual Harassment Accusations & The Acceptance Principle"

Sexual Harassment Accusations & The Acceptance Principle

A public figure is accused of a sexual misdeed. You know nothing about the accused besides their name and their alleged crime. And you know nothing about the accuser except their name and their accusation. Can you believe the accuser? We often learn about such sexual harassment accusations. So it behooves us to find a principled response. The Acceptance Principle suggests that we can accept this kind of accusation. Why? I’ll explain in this post.

1. The Acceptance Principle

Just like our information about many sexual harassment accusations, “Most of the information that we have …depend[s] on [testimony]”, says philosopher Tyler Burge (Burge 1993, 466). So can we accept testimony? Burge discusses a principle that can answer that question — at least sometimes. It is called the Acceptance Principle:

A person is entitled to accept as true something that is presented as true and that is intelligible to him, unless there are stronger reasons not to do so. (p. 467).

The Acceptance Principle suggests that we can trust some testimony. But the Acceptance Principle is not as strong as the idea that we can accept all testimony no matter what. Instead, we accept testimony that is

  1. presented as true.
  2. intelligible.
  3. prima facie justified — or in normal language, not in conflict with better evidence.

2.  Sexual Harassment Accusations

The three conditions of the Acceptance Principle are straightforward. But it might not be obvious how to apply these conditions. So let’s consider three common cases.

A.  Testimony Involving Biased Motivation(s)

People often try to dismiss testimony by citing the biased motivations of the testifier.

So what does the Acceptance Principle say we can think about sexual harassment accusations from testifiers that could have biased motivations?

  1. Biased motivation is not necessarily a problem for the first condition: presenting as true. One can be biased and still present statements as true.
  2. Biased motivation is not necessarily a problem for the second condition: intelligibility. One can be biased and yet speak intelligibly.
  3. Biased motivation is not necessarily a problem for the third condition: prima facie justification. Contrary to The Bias Fallacy, being biased does not entail being wrong or likely wrong. So being biased is not necessarily an issue for justification.

So the Acceptance Principle allows us to accept testimony that is motivated by bias. But let’s be careful here: we might find that some biased testimony can be discounted for reasons other than bias (e.g., contradiction within the testimony, contradiction with the facts, etc.). And the Acceptance Principle’s conditions explain why. The point is just that the Acceptance Principle does not entitle us to dismiss testimony based on bias alone.

B.  Testimony vs. Better Evidence

Some evidence is so strong that testimony against the evidence cannot debunk it.

So when sexual harassment accusations conflict with our best evidence, what can we do? Well, let’s apply the Acceptance Principle to find out:

  1. Testifying against the best evidence is not necessarily a problem for the first condition: presenting as true. One can testify against the evidence and still present statements as true. E.g., “The earth is the center of the solar system” can be stated as truth.
  2. Testifying against the best evidence is not necessarily a problem for the second condition: intelligibility. One can testify against the evidence and yet speak intelligibly. E.g., “The earth is flat” is perfectly intelligible.
  3. But testifying against the best evidence can be a problem for the third condition: prima facie justification. If the best evidence contradicts someone’s testimony, then the testimony is, by definition, not “prima facie justified”. Why? Because the best evidence is “a stronger reason” than all its alternatives  — that’s just what ‘best’ means.

So the Acceptance Principle suggests that we are not entitled to accept testimony that conflicts with better evidence.

C.  Conflicting Testimonies

Sometimes two people give the exact opposite testimony.

For example, someone might testify that So-and-so sexually harassed them. And then So-and-so might testify that they didn’t sexually harass this accuser. It would seem that we cannot accept both testimonies without accepting a contradiction. So which testimony can we accept (if we accept either testimony), according to the Acceptance Principle?

  1. Our conflicting testimonies are not necessarily a problem for the first condition: presenting as true. Both of our testimonies can be presented as true.
  2. Our conflicting testimonies are not necessarily a problem for the second condition: intelligibility. Both of our testimonies can be intelligible.
  3. And our conflicting testimonies are not necessarily a problem for the third condition: prima facie justification. It is possible that both of our testimonies are prima facie true (e.g., if no better evidence breaks the stalemate between our testimony).

So the Acceptance Principle does not necessarily give us a verdict on conflicting testimony. At most, the principle counsels us to consider whether one of the stalemated testimonies can be dismissed based on new information pertaining to its three conditions. For example, perhaps we find that one testimony (i) is not presented as truly as the other, (ii) is less intelligible than the other, or (iii) conflicts with better evidence. These findings could break otherwise stalemated testimonies. Prior to such findings, the Acceptance Principle entitles us to embrace the contradiction (if that doesn’t violate intelligibility) or else remain agnostic.

3.  Conclusion

The Acceptance Principle offers three conditions under which we can accept testimony: we can accept testimony that is presented as true, intelligible, and not in conflict with better evidence. Apparently this means that we can accept testimony even when it is motivated by bias. But we might not be able to accept two testimonies that perfectly contradict each other — unless, of course, the testimonies differ in terms of their presentation as truth, intelligibility, and their consistency with better evidence.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

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