Sunday, July 17, 2011

Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker

Epistemology! Ethics! Social justice! Feminism!

Interested yet? Even if you’re not, you should still read this book.

I’d read the sample sections on Amazon several months ago, found it intriguing, and planned to come back to it, but recent events and debates led me to return to finish it now, and it’s every bit as relevant to these discussions as I’d suspected. Fricker’s book combines epistemology, ethics, and social justice in an original way that enriches our understanding of each.

Using examples from film, literature, and real life, the book explores epistemic practices related to the problem of epistemic injustice in two specific forms: testimonial injustice and hermeneutic injustice.
Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker's word; hermeneutical injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences. An example of the first might be that the police do not believe you because you are black; an example of the second might be that you suffer sexual harassment in a culture that still lacks that critical concept. (p. 1)
Fricker explores the dimensions of individual and social harm caused by testimonial injustice, “in which someone is wronged in their capacity as a giver of knowledge,” and hermeneutic injustice, “in which someone is wronged in their capacity as a subject of social understanding” (p. 7). The capacity of knowledge-giver is so fundamental to what makes us human that “the epistemic wrong bears a social meaning to the effect that the subject is less than fully human. When someone suffers a testimonial injustice, they are degraded qua knower, and they are symbolically degraded qua human” (p. 44).

She presents this as a form of epistemic objectification, which she compares, and relates, to sexual objectification. Suffering epistemic injustice, particularly over time, can lead to a loss of epistemic confidence, which can inhibit people’s intellectual and personal growth and interfere with the development of intellectual virtue. The community of knowers is also harmed, as this form of injustice corrupts the epistemic process and hinders the advance of knowledge.

The hermeneutic marginalization at the heart of hermeneutic injustice “renders the collective hermeneutical resource structurally prejudiced, for it will tend to issue interpretations of that group's social experiences that are biased because insufficiently influenced by the subject group, and therefore unduly influenced by more hermeneutically powerful groups” (pp. 154-155). At the individual level, the harms resemble those of testimonial injustice, with the added element that people lack the very concepts through which their experiences can be shared: “When you find yourself in a situation in which you seem to be the only one to feel the dissonance between received understanding and your own intimated sense of a given experience, it tends to knock your faith in your own ability to make sense of the world, or at least the relevant region of the world” (p. 163).

Fricker argues, therefore, that testimonial and hermeneutic justice are basic virtues, both epistemic and ethical, mirroring and complementing competence and sincerity among information-givers. She discusses means of cultivating yourself as a virtuous hearer, who “neutralizes the impact of prejudice in her credibility judgements” (p. 92). This can be difficult because, she says, credibility assessments take place not at the level of clear, conscious beliefs (and may even be contrary to them) but of less-conscious perceptions in the form of residual prejudice even among the more "enlightened" (Cordelia Fine also discusses this issue compellingly in Delusions of Gender).

Nonetheless, she believes that people, made aware of the problem, can work to train their testimonial sensibility, as they can train the moral sensibility more generally, through developing habits of active self-reflection, correction/compensation, and more tentative judgments. She thinks
a hearer's experiences as a speaker too will feed into this process. Perhaps she has experienced being on the receiving end of testimonial injustice in respect of one sort of prejudice, and consequently gains a better understanding of how other sorts of prejudice may surreptitiously have an influence in her own testimonial sensibility. (p. 9)
This is also true of cultivating an ethical hermeneutic sensibility, though hermeneutical injustice is a structural problem impossible to locate in any single agent, because “the moment of hermeneutical injustice comes only when the background condition is realized in a more or less doomed attempt on the part of the subject to render an experience intelligible, either to herself or to an interlocutor” (p. 159). Fricker advises similar methods of alertness to the problem, self-reflection (including appreciating the effect of one’s own social identity), compensation, and reserving judgment.

She points out that change will also necessarily involve larger institutional and social change. She contends, though, that ethically and epistemically virtuous behavior at the individual level of course is important in itself and can do much to minimize harm, and that “[s]ince the ethical features in question result from the operation of social power in epistemic interactions, to reveal them is also to expose a politics of epistemic practice,” forming the basis for broader change (pp. 1-2).

Among the most interesting parts of the book – as well as one pertinent to current discussions - is the section on “History, Blame, and Moral Disappointment,” which offers a reasoned discussion (and I say that not only because we’re in agreement) of the most ethical approach to judging cases of epistemic injustice across cultural and historical distance. Fricker distinguishes between “routine” and “exceptional” moral judgment: “Most of us most of the time make routine moves and exhibit routine moral thinking, and we are lucky if we live in a culture where this means that our ethical thinking is on the whole decent; but sometimes people can rise to a challenge and succeed in something more imaginative” (p. 104). She suggests that
we are entitled to appeal to thoughts which they could have had, given their full ethical resources, but failed to. And we may contrast their deliberative performance with that of their peers who succeeded in making the exceptionally imaginative moves [abetted at times by their social location and proximity to the problem] that gradually gained critical mass so as to propel the community towards a more liberal practice. (pp. 106-107)
She argues that the appropriate attitude toward those who follow their culture’s/era’s routine moral practices and have little or no exposure to alternatives – those with “epistemic and moral bad luck” (p. 101; it might help to discuss this in terms of privilege) – is not blame but the “resentment of disappointment.”

This nuanced approach, she holds, “allows us to avoid the hubris of deeming them blameworthy for actions not routinely regarded as wrong in their culture, while still holding them morally responsible to this or that extent, depending on how nearly available the exceptional moral move is judged to have been” (p. 105). Moreover,
To judge historical others in this way is not hubris, for we can acknowledge that `could do better' will be our own ethical epitaph too-it is a matter of luck how far living up to what is morally routine is an achievement that leaves one immune from the resentment of disappointment on the part of distant others. (p. 107)
I have a few minor criticisms. First, I would’ve preferred more examples from real life, not in lieu of the artistic ones but in addition to them. Those from film/TV and literature (which include The Talented Mr. Ripley, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Columbo) are familiar and fascinating, and certainly no one reasonable would argue that the phenomena they illustrate don’t exist, but the real-world examples used to illustrate the discussion of hermeneutic injustice have even more bite. Second, I found some of Fricker’s “counter”examples (e.g., “empirically reliable stereotype[s] of insincerity” that are supposed to differ from prejudicial ones) somewhat unexamined in terms of their own connection to stereotypes and the socialization of different groups; I don’t necessarily accept that these are as neutral as the text represents them. Finally, while she’s explicitly focused on the ethics of individual hearers, I think the book leaves out some interesting strategies through which the habits of testimonial and hermeneutic virtue can be instilled by putting in place institutional and technological mechanisms and practices. She doesn’t say anything about the anonymity of internet communication and the complexities that introduces. But these are quite minor, and I think it’s a valuable book.

Fricker says,
My discussion has been driven by the hope that we might become more socially articulate about this somewhat hidden dimension of discrimination, and thereby be in a better position to identify it, protest it when it happens to us and, at least sometimes, avoid doing it to others. (p. 145)
I think it can successfully move people in that direction, in part in fact by addressing this particular hermeneutic gap. The irony is that I expect some people reading this to note that it’s a book by a female feminist philosopher and discount it (if not this post, in which case they probably won't have gotten this far :)) out of hand. If so, they’re probably too “epistemically unlucky” or stupid to grasp it. If this is the case, they should read it anyway.

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