Response to David Coady, Wayne Riggs

Author Information: Wayne Riggs, University of Oklahoma,

Riggs, Wayne. 2012. Response to David Coady. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (7): 17-20.

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First, let me thank Professor Coady for his insightful comments on my article. They highlight several points that are well worth going over in more detail. Indeed, my thinking on these issues has deepened as a consequence of reading his responses, and for that I am doubly grateful.

Coady’s comments focus on my characterization of (Fricker’s account of) epistemic injustice as a kind of epistemic and/or moral negligence. (My goals in the paper were primarily exegetical, so I did not mean to commit myself to this account of epistemic injustice. But since I also did not disavow it, it is quite reasonable for Coady to have taken my silence to indicate assent.) Coady takes issue first with my proposed conditions on negligence in general, and then with the idea that the full range of epistemic injustices can be accounted for as forms of negligence. I will respond to these criticisms in turn.

In my paper, I claim that one is negligent only if one meets certain epistemic conditions, which I elaborate thusly:

First, it must be the case that it is reasonable to expect the negligent party to know that she was morally required to do the action that she failed to do. Second, for the negligent party to be culpable for any specific harm that results, those harms must be reasonably foreseeable—that is, it is reasonable to expect that someone in the relevant circumstances should recognize that such harms could result from her inaction. (156)

Coady argues that neither of these conditions is, in fact, necessary. His argument turns on a particular understanding of the, admittedly, ambiguous phrasing of the conditions. He says:

A person can be negligent without it being reasonable to expect him or her to know any better or to recognize the harms that would result from his or her negligence. It’s true that the legal, as opposed to the moral, concept of negligence is typically spelt out in terms of the concept of a reasonable person, but even in the legal context, it is not what a reasonable person would expect of the accused that is relevant, but what a reasonable person would do in the circumstances of the accused. The accused cannot escape blame by arguing that he is an unreasonable person, and hence that nothing better could reasonably be expected of him (original emphasis, 3-4).

This is, of course, entirely correct. When I claimed that a necessary condition on negligence was that it was “reasonable to expect” someone to be aware of both her obligation and of the harms that might result from her delinquency, I was not using the word “expect” in a merely predictive sense. Rather, I was using it in a somewhat normative sense. The condition is meant to express the idea that a negligent person should have been aware of the relevant facts whether or not she was, and whether or not it was predictable in advance that she would not be In this sense, for example, it is reasonable to expect my teenage daughter to get herself out of bed for school each day, even if I am woefully aware that this is very unlikely to happen. What I can “expect” is thus keyed to what a person with my daughter’s capacities is able to do, within reason.

Which leads me to say a little more about what it is reasonable to expect. Let us turn to the specific example from Fricker’s paper that Coady uses to make his case against my conditions on negligence. Herbert Greenleaf is negligent only if it is reasonable to expect him to know better than to act the way he does, and to be aware of the potential harmful consequences. While, as Coady points out, it is hardly impossible for Greenleaf to come to know these things, it would require Coady to have either critical skills and social and cultural insight that were very rare in his day, or else some other kind of access to the awareness that what more or less everyone took for granted as perfectly reasonable, even obligatory, behavior, was actually immoral. Again, it is true that this was not impossible, and we may even grant that some of Greenleaf’s contemporaries had such access. But it doesn’t follow that it is reasonable to expect everyone to be able to do what a very few can do. Much hangs on just how difficult it would have been for Greenleaf to accomplish this—not so much in terms of the effort involved, but in terms of the fundamental epistemic, emotional, empathetic, and imaginative skills that would be required.

As Coady indicated in a footnote, none of this will ultimately be convincing if one rejects the “ought implies can” principle altogether. I agree that the plausibility of this account of negligence rests squarely on that principle, and would require an altogether different sort of defense if “ought implies can” is abandoned. But that is far too weighty a topic for me to address in these simple comments.

Coady’s second objection is that characterizing epistemic injustice as a form of negligence fails to appreciate the fact that such injustice is often more active and intentional than the term “negligence” would account for. He says:

People are sometimes culpable, not merely for failing to act to compensate for (or eliminate) their objectionable prejudices, but also for actively and intentionally seeking evidence to confirm them, as well as actively and intentionally interpreting evidence in ways that seem to confirm them. I say that when they do either of these things, they are not merely being negligent, they are engaged in intentional wrongdoing, and I see no reason to restrict the expression “testimonial injustice” in such a way that it excludes this kind of wrongdoing (5).

As he anticipates, my initial response is to say that such activity is not, strictly speaking, possible on the part of psychologically normal agents. Belief is peculiar in that to hold a belief is to take it to be true. Hence, we generally cannot come to hold genuine beliefs on the basis of what present themselves to us as merely practical, rather than evidential, reasons. Hence, we cannot “actively and intentionally” interpret evidence in ways that suit our prejudices.

But why should this restriction matter? That is, why is it important whether epistemic injustices are always a matter of negligence rather than of acts of malicious intent? I suppose that one reason might be that we take such vicious acts to be more wrongful than mere negligence. I’m not sure that’s entirely warranted as a general claim, but let’s suppose it is. That would mean that acts of epistemic injustice would generally fail to be less morally transgressive than, say, acts of overt malice. That strikes me as likely to be correct.

But this seems not to get to the heart of Coady’s point, which is that characterizing epistemic injustice as negligence “fail[s] to do justice to the extent to which our beliefs are under our control and the extent to which we may be properly blamed or praised for them” (5). This is a hard charge to assess from a short set of comments, so I’m not entirely sure what to say in response. I (and I assume Fricker as well) think that we have a fair bit of control over our beliefs, and that we are often properly blamed or praised for them. But this control does not primarily come in the moment of belief, at which point we are more or less at the mercy of how things seem to us, together with our epistemic temperaments and habits. But all three of these contributors to what we believe in a given moment — the way things seem to us, our epistemic temperament, and our epistemic habits — are subject to training and development (as well as degeneration and neglect). Hence, we have a fair bit of “indirect control” over our beliefs, and the degree of responsibility that goes along with such control.

I don’t want to minimize either the harm caused by epistemic injustice or the responsibility borne by those who perpetrate it. Clearly, the outcomes resulting from negligence can be as harmful as the results of any overt action. Hence, the difference in the degree of moral transgression must be due to the indirect connection between intention and consequence in the case of negligence. In cases of negligence, there need be no intention to harm, though there might well be a failure of one’s intention to prevent harm from prompting the appropriate preventative actions.

So perhaps this difference between Coady and myself (and perhaps Fricker) comes down to a matter of degree. I think that an analysis in terms of negligence gives us what we want in an account of epistemic injustice: we are responsible for perpetrating it and for the consequent harms, and hence are blameworthy when guilty. We are also sufficiently in control over the internal mechanisms of such injustice that we can, over time, become more epistemically just.

So, I don’t think that considerations of blameworthiness or control over belief require us to abandon the negligence model of epistemic injustice. However, being pushed to think harder about this by Coady’s comments, it occurs to me that there might well be other reasons to do so. The reason negligence is an appropriate way to account for the kinds of instances of epistemic injustice considered by Fricker in her book is that belief is peculiar. We cannot simply choose to believe something in the moment. But epistemic injustice would seem to be caused by actions as well as beliefs. For instance, consider the courtroom scene from To Kill a Mockingbird wherein the prosecutor mocks Tom Robinson, the black defendant, for his testimony on the stand. This is straightforwardly a case of epistemic injustice, if we take it at face value that the prosecutor does not believe Tom’s testimony because he fails to judge him credible (on account of his racist stereotypes).

Yet there is much more to the injustice perpetrated on Tom Robinson in this scene than simply one man’s failure to attribute an appropriate amount of credibility to Tom Robinson’s testimony. This scene is painful to read and horrific to imagine. Tom Robinson is being publicly humiliated, taunted, and called a liar before his entire community, all of which is unjust. Moreover, among the many consequences of these actions on the part of the prosecutor, Tom’s reputation as a truth-teller and, hence, a purveyor of knowledge is being severely damaged. Tom may well internalize some of these insults in such a way to prompt inappropriate self-doubt and further harm him as a knower. Thus, it seems that these actions on the part of the prosecutor constitute an epistemic injustice to Tom Robinson.

If so, then Coady’s argument that negligence is insufficient to account for all cases of epistemic injustice looms more starkly. Actions of the sort just described are paradigmatic of the kinds of things that people do intentionally and, sometimes, maliciously. Whereas one cannot choose to believe whether or not someone is credible, one certainly can choose to publicly humiliate that person. I suspect that this will lead to a need to more carefully circumscribe what makes epistemic injustice epistemic. Perhaps there is a way to do so that results in the actions just described as constituting injustice of a non-epistemic kind. Precisely how these things are carved up is not altogether clear in Fricker’s book, and would be well worth exploring in their own right.


Coady, David. 2012. Critical reply to “Culpability for Epistemic Injustice: Deontic or Aretetic?” by Wayne Riggs. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (5): 3-6.

Riggs, Wayne. 2012. Culpability for epistemic injustice: Deontic or aretetic? Social Epistemology 26 (2): 149-162.

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  1. David Coady. Decision-Making and Credibility « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  2. David Coady. Critical Reply to “Culpability for Epistemic Injustice: Deontic or Aretetic?” by Wayne Riggs « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

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