Reply to John Christman’s comments, Elizabeth Anderson

Author Information: Elizabeth Anderson, University of Michigan,

Anderson, Elizabeth. 2012.Reply to John Christman’s comments. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (7): 15-16

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I would like to build on two points raised by Prof. Christman. First, he argues that the effectiveness and legitimacy of structural remedies to structural epistemic injustices may depend on the congruence of these remedies with the values and virtues of the people participating in those structures. Second, he argues that the practicing the virtue of hermeneutical justice may require already recognizing that hermeneutical injustice has been done. I think these two points are deeply linked.

In my original paper, I argued that group segregation along lines of identity is an important cause of structural epistemic injustice, and that integration is a remedy for this injustice. In many institutional settings, affirmative action — that is, active, group-conscious measures to include disadvantaged groups — is needed to produce integration. Prof. Christman worries that integration will be neither legitimate or effective in correcting structural epistemic injustice unless people accept affirmative action as an appropriate means for achieving justice.

At this point it is necessary to consider effectiveness and legitimacy separately. I argue in my book (Anderson 2010, ch. 7) that the means by which integration works to promote justice operate largely behind people’s backs. For example, integration — that is, institutionally supported cooperation on terms of equality — often reduces identity prejudice not by direct persuasion but by promoting familiarity and friendliness across group lines, and by motivating people to individuate the targets of prejudice. On my account, integration reduces epistemic prejudice in particular by triggering the ethnocentric and shared reality biases in favor of disadvantaged groups. These mechanisms work independently of people’s awareness and may even operate against their values. So I take exception to the argument that integration will not work if people think it is brought about illegitimately. Integration can and does work despite people’s (initial) resentment of it.

Of course, given that integration entails not mere intergroup contact but cooperation on terms of equality, one may question how that can be achieved without willing participation. If people don’t already accept the legitimacy of integration, wouldn’t they resist? We can get a clue by focusing on the case of racial integration, and considering the sorts of cases where it has been found to be most effective: in the military, sports teams, and employment contexts. These settings feature hierarchical enforcement of intergroup cooperation by officers, coaches, and bosses (Estlund 2005, 126-34). To a substantial degree, deference to authority can substitute for direct endorsement of integration. As far as effectiveness goes, authority can get the mechanisms that promote epistemic justice rolling before people come around to endorsing its methods.

It is still desirable that people do come around. My point is that the legitimacy of active measures to promote integration may be achieved ex post — after these measures are implemented. One of the most consistent findings of research on integration is that people who have experienced integration in a significant domain of life (particularly if they were younger) tend to lead more integrated lives thereafter (Anderson 2010, ch. 6). The experience of integration is the major source of evidence in favor of the practice of integration. People come to appreciate its value from the inside, even if they initially resisted it. This is a kind of moral discovery, an instance of epistemic growth that underwrites moral legitimacy. Upon reflection, people can come to understand their prior resistance as a kind of stubborn parochialism, grounded in ignorance of the perspectives of the disadvantaged.

To put the point another way, we need not read Prof. Christman’s second point as a counsel of despair at the virtual impossibility of bootstrapping our way into epistemic justice. We can take it rather in a pragmatist spirit: we learn about the value of social institutions by living in accordance with them and seeing whether we appreciate the results. We don’t already have to know that the experiment will work to have reason to try it out.


Anderson, Elizabeth. 2010. The imperative of integration. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Estlund, Cynthia. 2005. Working together: How workplace bonds strengthen a diverse democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.

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  1. John Christman. Comments on Elizabeth Anderson, “Epistemic Justice as a Virtue of Social Institutions” « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

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