Twenty Centuries of Stony Sleep

Infuriated by decades of foreign policy incompetence, the United States electorate is poised to inflict severe economic sanctions on its own government this November. Some examples of these onerous restrictions are as follows: Continue reading “Twenty Centuries of Stony Sleep”

A modest moral objectivism

Featured image is an iconic photo of the Nazi parade through Brandenburg Gate.

Usually the passion with which I hold a position is directly proportional to how concrete the stakes are. Defending moral realism/objectivism is an exception to this. It’s incredibly abstract, but nothing spurs me to the barricades like someone saying morality is subjective. To further incriminate myself, I’ll admit at the outset that I’m not terribly well versed in the topic. So with this post I want to lay out some ideas about moral objectivism because I keep thinking about them. In part this will be a reference for myself to come back to as I learn more, but I also want to submit these ideas to criticism. I’ll start with a naïve kernel morality that takes objective moral truth for granted based on intuition. I’ll then tack on various serious qualifications to the naïve kernel that, I believe, preserve objectivism. I use the term objectivism instead of realism because I think some people understand realism to imply some kind of spooky objects in some Platonic realm that I’ll have no part of.

Skepticism and the burden of proof

I don’t think there’s a formal burden of proof in this debate. That is, there’s no strictly logical reason to start as a(n) (non)-objectivist and then resist persuasion by the other camp until your defenses are overrun. But in my case, I  begin as an objectivist based on some powerful intuitions. Intuition demands we be able to condemn certain beliefs and actions as evil. To name a few obvious ones: slavery, genocide, torture, and oppression as exemplified by the American Confederacy, Hitler’s Nazis, and various 20th century communist regimes. On a smaller scale, murder, rape, theft, and abuse without overriding justification are widely condemned as immoral actions. These provisional commitments are nearly universal across human societies, and I take this as a good reason to begin with the belief that these evaluations are true with a confidence similar to my confidence in the truth of complex scientific theories like quantum mechanics or biological evolution. Continue reading “A modest moral objectivism”

The Intersection at the End of the World

“The most quintessentially American band to have ever existed, Sam,” Dave began as something of a preamble, “and mind you I’ve no love for the word ‘quintessential’ thanks to an alarming overuse of it, was Creedence.”

“As in Clearwater Revival? Willy and the poor boys? The dudes with an alarming aversion to commonplace meteorological phenomena? Four white dudes from California are the most quintessential American band to have existed?” We were on foot at this point, having abandoned the pickup after bouncing the drive shaft clean out of it while merrily attempting to jump a fallen log, in the style of the Duke Boys. “I can’t wait to hear you justify this one.” Continue reading “The Intersection at the End of the World”

Social justice, mercy, and healing

Featured image is The Angel of Mercy, by Joseph Highmore, c. 1746.

A deeply political knowledge of the world does not lead to a creation of an enemy. Indeed, to create monsters unexplained by circumstance is to forget the political vision which above all explains behavior as emanating from circumstance, a vision which believes in a capacity born to all human beings for creation, joys, and kindness, in a human nature which, under the right circumstances, can bloom.

Susan Griffin, The Way of All Ideology

The solution, in tangible terms, is community care and a great deal of awareness of how most of us did not get our needs met at key developmental stages, which means we did not move out of those stages and must do so now. Collective healing is possible. We can heal when we can finally be our whole, unguarded selves, in human community, without shields or guards, and be liked, accepted, seen, held. This is systemic change, spiritual change, at the core levels of our culture, lived each day.

Nora Somaran, The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture

Justice, equity, and mercy

In her essay, Equity and Mercy, Martha Nussbaum contrasts three concepts of moral and legal adjudication: strict justice, equity, and mercy. Strict justice observes that a crime has happened, and demands it be balanced with some proportional retribution. Details of personal history, environment, even ignorance of relevant knowledge have no bearing on strict justice. Continue reading “Social justice, mercy, and healing”

Mother of Exiles

Cryptoconservative moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has delivered another important essay in light of the ascension of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for POTUS. The piece follows his usual pattern of rebuking liberals and progressives for failing to appreciate the rich, technicolor palette of conservative—in this case literally authoritarian—morality. Liberals see racism and conclude their analysis there. But Haidt argues persuasively that this is just the beginning of understanding the conservative moral mind.

[Authoritarianism is] a psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat. It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group. At those times they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force. At other times, when they perceive no such threat, they are not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.

Authoritarian conservatives are different from Burkean conservatives, who merely wish to uphold the dominant traditions and norms of the status quo.

But status quo conservatives can be drawn into alliance with authoritarians when they perceive that progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political actions (such as Brexit, or banning Muslim immigration to the United States) are seen as the only remaining way of yelling “Stop!”

Continue reading “Mother of Exiles”

The Politics of Doubt

Two Concepts of Belief

Over time, I’ve come to see thinking about morality and politics as divided into two streams. Let’s call the first, “belief as an attitude”. The second, “belief as a philosophy”. In the former, politics is conceived as a situation under which our projects are seen as built within a pluralistic framework, such that multiple valid goals and intuitions compete for our attention. The only choice we have therefore, is to see our ideas within a framework of epistemic and moral ambiguity. This promotes a skepticism about our priorities having a particular end-goal, and instead contributes to building a family of perspectives within an overall world view. Rather than solely operating through reason, we cultivate impressions that help to guide us. In the latter, a series of interlinked steps lead toward conclusions, which, if not inexorable, are thought to be highly probable or vital. We may begin with a foundational precept which, via a merry chain of logic, gets us to home base, wherever that might be. We might alternatively work on building theories that appeal to specific intuitions, leading towards viewing agents and institutions as having a clearly defined status.*

Belief as Philosophy

One example of this in the political realm might be found in Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority. Huemer argues that our common intuitions about the state are fundamentally inconsistent, attributing as they do moral authority and the right to violent coercion and social control for agents that may not justly claim such authority. He furthermore shows that standard issue popular and academic defenses of state legitimacy fail for various reasons, including especially the various iterations of social contract theory. He ultimately argues for the adoption of market anarchism, or anarcho-capitalism. These contributions notwithstanding, I came away from the book feeling not entirely satisfied.

One problem is that Huemer’s discussion is too narrow, by constraining the available set of considerations. An important part of the justificatory framework and implicit reason for the mass adoption of belief in social institutions, the state included, isn’t simply (though probably to a significant degree) due to perpetual myths of authority, but also on the messy inherent normativity that actually existing institutions have within them. Will Wilkinson argues,

“Philosophers generally draw a sharp line between de facto and legitimate authority, but it can be a confusing distinction because it’s not really a distinction between the descriptive and prescriptive or positive and normative. De facto authority is already normative. Normativity is built in at the ground floor. Authority supplies binding reasons for action. THAT’S HOW IT WORKS. That’s how it coordinates. So when we’re asking about the legitimacy of authority, we can’t be asking about what gives authority its normative force. If it’s de facto authority, it already has it. So we must be asking for some sort of higher-order moral validation of authority’s reason-giving power. De facto authority does produce obligations, but do we really have reason to really do what authority supplies us with reasons to do.”

The issue isn’t just a rationalist-pluralist divide over whether we can redesign systems from the top, or what we ought to do about competing forms of social groups and collectivities. It’s a broader dispute about the role that existing beliefs play in the legitimation of a perspective or an institution. These existing beliefs both contribute to, and emerge from, the normative properties an institution might hold, including its claims to be just. When we ask people to abandon a political perspective, or follow a set of radical conclusions, we need to take into account the perception they have of those institutions as normatively justified, by looking at the presence of those systems as the background to their lives. That presence performs a kind of reason-giving function for taking state institutions as legitimate. Since the role that the state plays enables a de facto authority, our respect for the moral considerations of others should ask us to take it seriously within the exchange of reasons.

We can illustrate this by thinking about social norms. Norms, as a species of institution, contain elements of both “is” and “ought”. That is, the functioning of a norm is built both on the empirics of the way things operate in practice, and the relative state of affairs between people, but also on perceptions of the way we are morally obligated to behave. The power of statements like “Please” and “Thank You”, lie not only in the utility of such statements to promote peaceful relationships by signalling good terms, but also as moral presumptions about how people should to be treated. Thus, avoiding polite language is not just inefficient, but understood as a breakdown in our duties to one another, to social morality and “the way things should to be”. The reasons we give therefore, are idealized and universal, stretching far beyond the particular. However contextual norms might be, relying on the implicit understandings and guarantees within an environment in an endless game of cooperation against defection, their presence makes us see them as being more than simply a matter of context.

A worldview that builds itself on the deducing out from single line of intuitions, is more likely to see “belief as philosophy”, and devote itself to deriving conclusions with particular results. This is built on an external set of reasons that see themselves as easily transcending the matrix of experiences, norms, and moral perceptions within which they are embedded.

Furthermore, an even more central problem is the question of where we choose to place our moral focus. Perhaps the main issue with making determined paths about where institutions ought to go, is that the moral concepts embedded within them are “essentially contested”. This makes it difficult to figure out how and where we should move. Furthermore, as Wilkinson notes elsewhere, few if any moral notions can claim to be exempt from such a status. Wilkinson follows (as do I) David Schmidtz’s wise insight that justice (and morality more broadly) most closely resembles a map, crossed by many paths. This means that our road always intersects with others that hold pieces of truth within them. The problem of disagreement is about the splits between people who conscientiously reason within the territory, yet arrive at different ends of the region.

Huemer argues that we have particular intuitions about the place of coercion, which are then violated by the structure and functions of the modern state. This should lead us to be critical of the state as a legitimate institution, and thus call for its abolition. The difficulty here is that although Huemer’s line of reasoning might not be internally wrong given his presumptions, it makes the moral problem too small. By formalizing the question of legitimacy into avoiding particularly defined coercive acts, it potentially closes of other lines of moral reasoning by building legitimacy as most closely resembling a specific set of requirements, rather than as a set of complex and tacit moral values that are in dialogue with one another. If I think that consent is the most important overriding consideration, then I might see the seemingly indefensibleness of the social contract as a kind of slam dunk for the critics of political authority.

However, this seems to abandon the other kinds of values we see our institutions as embodying, such as equality or desert. This isn’t to claim that state action is somehow “content independent”, but simply that we might view institutions as defined through certain functions, centering around a pluralistic variety of justice considerations. The moral and structural function that the state provides through ensuring equality, liberty, or some other set of concerns, is what makes that institutional set what it is. From this angle, there is no overstepping of bounds- these things are just what the system is there to do. If Huemer wants to fully reach skeptics of anarchy, he needs to provide a more robust and detailed understanding of what both personhood and justice actually involve, within the broad sense that people have of their world.

Thus, this existential/epistemic divide is distinct from merely being pragmatic. It’s not only about “direction versus destination”, but about what the idea of “direction” itself involves. When we say that we want a certain thing, we are still eternally divided by the problems of differing individual reasons, both because of the divergence from the status quo, but also because any moral calculus inevitably leaves a lot out. We may think we’ve worked through the question, but once a conclusion is reached, we narrow the field of possibility, and risk ignoring the vital fact of disagreement as a basic component of existing in a world of many voices.

Belief as Attitude

Indeed, as Gerald Gaus points out, this problem is a perennial feature of political life, and can lead to dangerous results.

“…how do we “fight” for what we think is right under modern conditions, where the free use of reason leads to opposed convictions about the place of humans in the universe, the nature of a just society and the good life? The first step is to realize that we contest and fight in many ways. I can contest ideals and convince others that I really do have the sound basis for my claims about what is best. I also might contest and learn from others in ways that improve my understanding about what is the best. We all might contest and learn from each other, and come to better conclusions about what is best from all our perspectives. All these forms of “fighting” are the engines of a dynamic diverse society..[…]… We will then be faced with the sort of fights inherent in healthy democratic politics, voting to resolve our differences about which of a number of reasonable policies we all can live with, we shall adopt. But there is another sort of democratic fight — what might be called a political war — a fight over whose ideals are to shape the life of all. This is a struggle for the power to impose one’s ideals on others. Whoever wins that fight, many will be forced to live under laws and policies that they view as deeply wrong and, perhaps, in violation of their most fundamental commitments.”

I’ve argued previously that good moral thinking involves recognizing tradeoffs between and among different values, ranking the ones that matter, and seeing our political and ethical divergences from within competing equilibria of prioritization. Staying away from all-encompassing “big stories”, political tribalism, binary constructions, and exclusive discourses is just as equally important, since the former can’t be accomplished without jettisoning the latter. Here, I want to emphasize that it also involves embracing a lack of surety, what I like to call “the politics of doubt”. It’s about cultivating reason, not only through the classical mode of deduction, but from adopting conflicting stances of belief and experience, and especially by incorporating agnosticism about what to do by recognizing the both competing and tradeable nature of ethical considerations. Thus, I may embrace a number of steps in an argument, yet still be unsure about where to move next.

Those who endorse “belief as philosophy” might retort. ‘You are just advocating taking no position. A theory of justice without a clear cut conception of what to do simply abnegates responsibility, not to mention a practicable notion of external, clearly understood, consistent morality.’ **

In The Order of Public Reason, Gaus defends the role of “fox” oriented theorizing, as borrowed from Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between foxes and hedgehogs.

“A fox approach to moral, social, and political philosophy might appear necessarily antitheoretical. Bernard Williams was a foxy philosopher (well, in our sense, at least), and he was also generally against theorizing about morality. But to appreciate the diversity of a phenomenon, and the ways that different schools and methods have contributed to our understanding of it, is not to abandon the idea that we may develop a unified and coherent account of it. A foxy theory will be complex, and it will draw on a variety of approaches. It will be sensitive to the relevance of new data, and so it must allow that its conclusions are revisable (at the same time it will resist turning the study of empirical phenomena into the new hedgehog truth of philosophy). A foxy theory need not take everything on board, singing the bland refrain that “everything is wonderful in its own way.” But it will be sensitive to the fact that the complexity of the moral and social world cannot be captured by one value, one method, or one school. Its theory will not be a deduction from one core truth or insight, but a piecing together of many truths that leads to a bigger and, one hopes, true picture. It may even have a central concern or worry. A fox is not one who cannot be moved to answer a single question; it is one who sees the complexity of the answer.”

In a different but connected vein, Charles Taylor, one of my all-time favourite thinkers, discusses the role of the modern self. In the world in which we live, when what he sees as the traditional 3 moral axes- respect and obligations toward others, the notion of the “good life”, and the idea of dignity- have been rendered difficult to hold onto (though not unrecoverable), we are left with the recognition of frameworks. To confront this problem, Taylor discusses the necessity of the existential quest, and the recognition that we play as separate individual persons, unbound from the great chain of being.

“…a framework is that in virtue of which we make sense of our lives spiritually. Not to have a framework is to fall into a life which is spiritually senseless. The quest is thus always a quest for sense. But the invocation of meaning also comes from our awareness of how much the search involves articulation. We find the sense of life through articulating it. And moderns have become acutely aware of how much sense being there for us depends on our own powers of expression. Discovering here depends on, is interwoven with, inventing. Finding a sense to life depends on framing meaningful expressions which are adequate. There is thus something particularly appropriate to our condition in the polysemy of the word ‘meaning’: lives can have or lack it when they have or lack a point; while it also applies to language and other forms of expression. More and more, we moderns attain meaning in the first sense, when we do, through creating it in the second sense. The problem of the meaning of life is therefore on our agenda, however much we may jibe at this phrase, either in the form of a threatened loss of meaning or because making sense of our life is the object of a quest.”

Thus, in the recognition of our horizons, or in taking the approach of a fox, we might say that although we have a certain arena of understanding, much remains unclear. The reasons for this aren’t just because we might not know what the facts are, or because social science is difficult, but because morality itself is a messy business, emergent as it is from the process of our individual encounters with life itself. Part of what makes moral questions difficult, isn’t just that lots of considerations present themselves, but that knowing whether those considerations matter is always built within contexts, which themselves are bound, yet expansive by the necessity of needing to apply judgement. Context applies in many ways. It’s about cultural beliefs, current norms, and institutional components all at once, interacting with our intuitions and faculties of reason. The lives that we live are also not irrelevant to the understanding that we have of how we should view things morally, any more than are our capacities to think far beyond our experience.

This isn’t to say that I’m sure that belief as attitude is always useful. Getting somewhere matters. The problem is that “getting there” might be harder than we think.

*Thanks to Cooper Williams for helping inspire this discussion, and for serving as a cheerfully sharp sounding board for ideas in-utero.
**Notably, as Alexander Schaefer has remarked to me, political theorists frequently hold additional scholarly focuses on determining meta-ethics, in addition to pairing questions of justice with a defense of a broader normative view.















Gilbert Keith Goes Blind

Remnants of low-slung morning clouds uttered their dying gasps under the gaze of the triumphant sun. A miraculously well-preserved pressing of an antique Garbage album allowed Shirley Manson the luxury of hauling our weary minds across the decrepit-dead years to the summers of strong bones, before the great attrition had vexed our spirit and sapped the very breath in our lungs. A great expanse presented itself starboard. The wide Strait of San Juan de Fuca exposed the lurid vulgarity of the mother ocean. A wave of nausea curdled my gut.

“You’re looking a little green there, Sam.”

“I’ll be fine, Dave. We’re almost there. Besides, the channel is visible. Wind usually picks up around here after the clouds burn off.”

“That it does. Seems you’ve sailed these waters more than I’d have reckoned.”

“You know I used to be stationed near here, right?”

“I seem to recall you mentioned it, yes. Bremerton, right?”

I peered belowdecks to see if our precious cargo caught the same wave of sickness that had assailed me. My eyes refused to adjust to the darkness quickly enough. “Bangor, actually. The submarine base is on the Hood Canal.”

“Those are the nuclear submarines, right?”

“All the submarines in the US fleets were nuclear.” The two exceptions didn’t seem noteworthy enough to mention.

“All of them? I thought some of them just had torpedoes.” He pushed his wraparound sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t think torpedoes could have nuclear warheads.”

“Huh? No, the term applies to the propulsion system. The power plant is nuclear. The alternative is diesel-electric. But in this case, I was on one of the ones with the nuclear missiles.”

Without letting his smile slip for an instant, he remarked, “so you think your submarine did this?” He swept his arm in a great arc, subsuming as much horizon as he could fit in a single gesture.

“No, they retrofitted it to take the missiles off and replaced it with special ops gear a few years after I got out.” My vision took on a muted mulberry tone. “It could have launched a SEAL team, but not an ICBM.”

“You ever feel guilty?”

“Come again?”

“You ever feel guilty about having been a part of all that? Nuclear Armageddon kind of sucks.”

I have had ample opportunity to paw through my culpability in the intervening years. I signed on in a time before anyone had given much thought to catastrophic failures of powerful institutions, powerful behavioral norms. I joined in a time when the world seemed stable, predictable. I agreed to strategic deterrence under false pretenses, though in my paltry defense, I had no good way of knowing so at the time. “You might not realize it, but you’re asking more than one question.” I soaked a bandanna and pressed it to my brow. “After my second or third patrol, I got a special battlestations assignment. I took over the Contact Evaluation Plot in the control room. For conventional combat exercises, against surface ships or other submarines, it was a busy job. I had to keep track of everything that went on in the control room, as well as track the bearing of all sonar and visual contacts. It was actually kind of a pain in the ass. But that was for battlestations torpedo. Ballistic missile submarines aren’t intended to get into close range combat. Their mission is to run and hide from hostile contacts. If hostile contacts are detected, the appropriate response is to turn tail and flee. Therefore, if everything goes as intended, the only genuine battlestations the ship should have to call in wartime is battlestations missile. That’s when you spin up the gyroscopes in the missile battery and get ready to erase civilization.” I could feel my heart racing. “During battlestations missile, there are no sonar contacts. Or at least there shouldn’t be. There isn’t much for my plot to do other than note down the ship’s orders like when we turn on the hovering system.”

“The what? It turns into a hovercraft? What about the eels?”

I snickered as best as I was able. “The hovering system is what allows the boat to maintain a tight depth tolerance while stationary.” I didn’t want to bother explaining fluid flow mechanics and how the fairwater planes acted like the aquatic version of airplane wings to maintain depth while the vessel was moving. Neither did I want to explain why the ship had to be stationary and at a very precise depth in order to launch the missiles. All of this was perfectly self-explanatory, and had little to do with the moral questions at hand. “From my battlestations plot, the little console the skipper would insert his key into to end the world was roughly a roundhouse kick away. I probably could not have exactly stopped a launch, but I could have delayed one as long as it took to find a pair of pliers.” I smiled weakly. “I fancied that such a tiny rebellion should the worst come to pass might be my lone act of redemption. Multiply the tens of millions of lives by two minutes or so to figure out how many centuries of human life I could preserve with one sweep of the leg.”

“Wouldn’t they execute you for that? It sounds like treason.”

“Totally worth it.” I have to admit that I never did try to figure out what the criminal charges might be for something like that. “But at the time, I think I was a bit unreflective about the whole thing.”

“How so?”

“I was twenty years old when I got my first at-sea assignment. To me, the sweep of history, the role of the men and women who had shaped it, and the institutions that governed it were a collection of alien artifacts. I took it all for granted.”

“That makes sense. The world is as it is. Aren’t you obliged to grant that the world exists as-is?”

My legs had gone weak. I gripped the closest rail as tightly as I could. “It’s worse than that. I enlisted at seventeen. At that age, I still bought the Truman propaganda.”


“After the Enola Gay run, that smarmy goiter had the nerve to parrot a wholly fabricated estimate of Allied casualties for a beach assault. James Byrnes pulled that 500,000 number out of his butt. He was the one who bullied 20th century America’s second most callow president into incinerating all those civilians.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It wasn’t usually taught in schools.” I winced as another wave of dizziness overtook me. “My point is, I thought that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was pretty good, conditional heavily upon the existence of nuclear weapons and the demonstrated willingness of at least one national sovereign to deploy them in wartime.”

“So as long as they exist, make sure no one wants to use them?”

“I was eight years old when War Games hit the theaters. It was formative.” I paused a moment. “Dr. Strangelove, too.”

“So something changed?”

“Yeah. Something changed. I remember learning about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 incident at Serpukhov-15. But I never realized just how close those calls were.”

“I know about the Cuban Missile Crisis. What’s the other one?”

“A Soviet monitoring station gave a false positive. It said the US launched 5 nukes out of Montana. The station commander figured it was a problem with the equipment, and reported it as an error. He was right, and we all got to live another quarter century in relative peace.”

“That was lucky.”

“Cuba was too. Kennedy was a drug-addled megalomaniac. He was supremely unfit to be commander-in-chief. But hey, in America, any asshole can be elected to the highest office in the land. The parties helped filter out the worst of the rubbish, but you know the problem with filters, don’t you Dave?”

“They clog, Sam.”

“They clog. They clogged with that Massachusetts goon, they got bypassed with that Ford bumpkin, and they just sort of gave up a bit there towards the end. Unserious people with no real appreciation for the horror of war got too close to the sun. And we ended up paying for it.”

“Yeah, but we chose them. So isn’t it our fault?”

“We merely chose the form of our demise. We chose the color of its neckerchief. The button wanted to be pushed from the moment it was created. The button doesn’t care what finger does the pushing. It’s our own vanity, our own urge to pretend we’re in charge of ourselves that insists it matters who does the pushing.”

“That’s awfully fatalistic for someone who walked from Florida to Alaska to find his old lady.”

I again peeked belowdecks. I again heard nothing, saw only darkness. “The fate of men is not the fate of nations. Surely you agree.”

“I do, Sam. And Sam?”

“Yes, Dave?”

“Don’t call me Shirley.”

Epistemic injustice and rape culture

In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker describes two kinds of epistemic injustice, testimonial and hermeneutical. They are “epistemic” in that they impact the individual specifically in their capacity as a knower. Fricker argues that since reason is often what is seen to make humans distinct from other species and individuals capable of morality, epistemic injustice harms an individual in a core aspect of their being in addition to various deleterious secondary effects. In this post I want to describe the concepts involved before applying them to the controversial topic du jour, rape culture.

Testimonial injustice

Testimonial injustice is in its simplest formation the injustice a Hearer does to a Teller when, without good reason, Hearer disbelieves the testimony of Teller. This can be incidental or one-off. Suppose in a sportsball match you don’t believe a referee’s call because it results in a penalty for your preferred team. Even though (suppose) the referee was in a better position to judge and you were peering into your beer at the time of the play, you disbelieve the referee. This is merely an incidental testimonial injustice as it is low-stakes for the Teller and localized in its effects.

The more interesting and nefarious case is when testimonial injustice is systemic: individuals belonging to certain identity groups experience a credibility deficit that tracks broader prejudices against that group. Fricker gives the example of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Robinson is accused of raping a white girl and faces an all-white jury in the deep south in the middle of the 20th century. Atticus Finch has provided the jury with overwhelming proof that Robinson is innocent, but stuck between the words of a white girl and a black man, the men of the jury are simply incapable of believing the latter.

Testimonial injustice can be stealthy, as when it takes a preemptive form: members of certain groups may simply not be asked their opinions on certain matters. Or the credibility deficit of certain groups may come from “residual” bias, where we still act according to patterns unconsciously established long ago despite our conscious and earnest belief in the nonsexist, nonracist ideal.

Imagine, for example, a woman who has freed herself of sexist beliefs–a card-carrying feminist, as they say–and yet her psychology remains such that in many contexts she is influenced by a stereotype of women as lacking the requisite authority for political office, so that she tends not to take the word of female political candidates as seriously as that of their male counterparts. Such a conflicted figure exemplifies the phenomenon of (what we might call) residual internalization, whereby a member of a subordinated group continues as host to a sort of half-life for the oppressive ideology, even when her beliefs have genuinely moved on. Sometimes this might simply be a matter of the person’s affective states lagging behind their beliefs (a lapsed Catholic’s guilty conscience, a gay rights activist’s feelings of shame). But other times it can be that cognitive commitments held in our imaginations retain their impact on how we perceive the social world even after any correlative beliefs have faded away. These commitments can linger in our psychology in residual form, lagging behind the progress of belief, so that they retain an influence upon our social perception.

Continue reading “Epistemic injustice and rape culture”