The Function of Assertion and Social Norms

In Sanford Goldberg (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Assertion. New York, USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 727-748 (2020)
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Abstract

A proper function of an entity is a beneficial effect that helps explain the persistence of the entity. Proper functions thereby arise through feedback mechanisms with beneficial effects as inputs and persistence as outputs. We continue to make assertions because they benefit speakers by benefiting speakers. Hearers benefit from true information. Speakers benefit by influencing hearer belief. If hearers do not benefit, they will not form beliefs in response to assertions. Speakers can then only maintain influence by providing true information, often enough. The function of assertion is then inducing true hearer belief. When interests conflict, however, some mechanism must ensure that speakers provide true information often enough, instead of deceiving, or providing information regardless of quality. In humans, a core mechanism stabilizing true assertion involves social norms for truth telling. We tell the truth partly because we prescribe and enforce telling the truth.

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Peter Graham
University of California, Riverside

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