EPISTEMIC INJUSTICE: WHOSE JOB IS IT TO END IT?6 May 2019
Epistemic injustice refers to a category of harms that affect people specifically in their capacity as knowers, inquirers or communicators as opposed to fellow citizens, members of the moral community or rational agents more broadly. Examples include but are not limited to unwarranted distrust and denial of intelligibility with respect to experiences voiced by underprivileged others. As Paul Bloomfield points out in this Blog, injustice often works through the exercise of personal vices, in particular arrogance and servility. Yet, it is also important to acknowledge that epistemic injustice is supported by entrenched structures, institutional practices and widely shared patterns of reasoning that might be hard to spot, resist and challenge. Recent work on the impact of implicit bias and stereotyping in shaping, often surreptitiously, public as well as individual attitudes, with which the posts by Jules Holroyd and Kathy Puddifoot critically engage, demonstrates the complexity of the issues involved.
In light of these contributions, the questions arises of whether and how epistemic injustice affects the conditions of responsible agency. In particular, there seems to be an intractable puzzle that epistemic injustice generates with respect to the knowledge condition on responsibility. Standardly understood, this condition takes the following general form: If you don’t know why you’re doing something, what you’re doing isn’t really an action of yours and so it is inappropriate to hold you (directly) responsible for it (Robichaud and Wieland 2017). So the puzzle under consideration comes from two intuitively appealing lines of thought about responsibility under epistemic injustice. According to the first line of thought, epistemic injustice undermines responsible agency overall as it impedes everyone’s knowledge and understanding of own situation, relations to others and corresponding obligations. The resulting ignorance is nevertheless unequally distributed across groups and individuals. Those in the receipt of unjust epistemic privileges are also saddled with a deep-seated, multi-layered kind of ignorance whose distinctive feature is to resist detection and correction. By contrast, the epistemically underprivileged are better equipped to see through the underlying distortions because of the clash between their first-hand social experiences and the epistemic resources on hand. According to the second line of thought, the deep-seated, multi-layered kind of ignorance that derives from unfair epistemic advantage is not just pernicious lack of knowledge or understanding. It betrays instead an active epistemic engagement whose function is to preserve the status quo, to one’s own underserved benefit.
Arguably, these two lines of thought bifurcate toward conflicting conclusions. Following the first, it seems inescapable to conclude that no one in particular is responsible for a state of epistemic injustice; in addition, the responsibility to end such a state lies primarily with those on the receiving end. This, admittedly perverse, conclusion flows directly from applying the knowledge condition on responsibility, as is standardly understood, to instances of epistemic injustice: as outlined earlier, responsible agency is fundamentally undermined for those in the receipt of unjust epistemic privileges. They not only lack insight that anything is wrong with the status quo. Moreover, they can hardly learn from the better positioned, underprivileged knowers, whom they routinely misunderstand, disbelieve and distrust as a result of the bad hermeneutical and testimonial habits of thought insidiously inculcated in them. Since the responsible agency of unjustly underprivileged knowers is less fundamentally impaired, they are the ones to take the lead in achieving a just epistemic state. Following the second line of thought, we seem to reach a more appealing conclusion: those who reap the benefits of epistemic injustice are the main responsible party for the status quo; they are also the ones who ought to take action in order to end it. Yet, once fleshed out with respect to the knowledge condition on responsibility, this conclusion appears to be as unsatisfactory as the initial alternative. There are two possible versions. On the first, the beneficiaries of unfair epistemic advantages are responsible in the way just outlined because their ignorance is wilful: even if they are not prepared to admit it, they know all too well what they are doing when they refuse to pay heed to marginalised knowers or when they fail to understand or believe their accounts. This version is in tune with the knowledge condition on responsibility as is standardly understood. Yet, it fails to preserve the unique nature of epistemic justice as a phenomenon that affects directly the capacity of all knowers involved. For, on this version, epistemic injustice becomes indistinguishable from less perplexing phenomena, such as pretending to not understand, malicious credibility attacks or gaslighting where some are undermined in their capacity of knowers as a result of the deliberate exercise of this capacity by others. On the second version, the beneficiaries of unfair epistemic advantages are responsible in the way just outlined whether or not they know what they are doing. The fact that they keep perpetrating epistemic injustice at the expense of others suffices to inculpate them and to make them liable for ending this harmful status quo. This version protects the distinctive character of epistemic injustice as a phenomenon whose main drive is not clear-eyed application of well-understood epistemic resources. Yet, in so doing, it rejects altogether the knowledge condition on responsibility. The upshot is problematic: those in the receipt of unjust epistemic privileges are rightly singled out as blameworthy; nevertheless, this kind of blameworthiness does not allow for them to be fully held to account. For it precludes further reciprocal engagement with the parties thus blamed.
The project on Epistemic Injustice, Reasons and Agency Veli Mitova and I lead aims to sketch a more promising solution of the puzzle, beyond the three existing options. To do so, I consider individual responsibility for systemic corruption as a possible analogy. Drawing on recent work highlighting the significance of ready-made rationalisations for sharing, sustaining and coordinating ignorance in action (Ceva and Radoilska 2018), the ambition is to show two things. First, the knowledge condition on responsibility is best understood in terms of reason-giving as opposed to responsiveness to reasons. This approach embeds a more capacious understanding of reasoning where identifying and dealing with dissonance between different categories of reasons is of the essence. Second, epistemic agency is closely aligned with practical as opposed to distinctly moral agency. This approach allows us to appreciate that some intellectual virtues are two-way powers like practical skills rather than one-way only like ethical virtues. Together, these two things are expected to shed new light on responsibility under epistemic injustice and help recalibrate the two lines of thought that generated the puzzle.
Ceva, E. and L. Radoilska (2018). Responsibility for Reason-Giving: The Case of Individual Tainted Reasoning in Systemic Corruption. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 21(4): 789–810.
Robichaud, P. and J.W. Wieland (eds.) (2017). Responsibility: The Epistemic Condition. OUP.