The contemporary world is replete with great moral problems. This is compounded by the fact that several of these problems are ideologically hidden from public understanding. And this is no accident. The world is geared in such a way that we often fail to either see that such problems exist, or else their significance falls short of our total comprehension. Animal suffering, particularly in agricultural contexts, is one relevant domain in which this fact of non-knowing is most obvious. Concerted effort is directed at concealing the activities that lie behind the walls of factory farms and our minds are shaped in response to the sense-making norms of our cultural milieu that prevent us from appreciating exactly what it is we are consuming. … [please read below the rest of the article].
Podosky, Paul-Mikhail Catapang. 2023. “On the Non-Knowing of Animal Suffering: Against Gatekeeping Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (10): 19–27. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-893.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
❧ Dieterle, J.M. 2023. “Other-Oriented Hermeneutical Injustice, Affected Ignorance, or Human Ignorance?” Social Epistemology 1–12. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2023.2248044.
While there are material aspects of the social world responsible for our ignorance of animal suffering, such as the general operational opacity of factory farms, a great deal of unawareness has its roots in the available conceptual resources for interpreting animal lives. That is, we do not know, or we do not fully know, the suffering of animals owing in large part to the fact that the concepts to which we have access obscure our understanding of what’s truly going on: pigs are imprisoned in suffocating cages with little room to move, chickens have their beaks seared off to prevent pecking one another, mother cows are separated from their children which are then killed and served as veal. And this happens at a truly astronomical scale. In the US alone, 10 billion animals are slaughtered in factory farms each year, with a further 45 billion aquatic animals killed. An estimated 92 billion animals suffer this fate annually across the globe—to put this in perspective, in the history of the entire world only 117 billion humans have ever existed.
How best should we understand this regrettable fact of non-knowing?
Some time ago, I wrote a piece that tried to explain what was responsible for the non-knowing of animal suffering (Podosky 2018). This was posed in the framework of epistemic injustice articulated by Miranda Fricker (2007), particularly hermeneutical injustice. This idea is perhaps so baked into modern philosophical thought that it is almost not worth repeating, nevertheless, hermeneutical injustice occurs when a form of marginalisation is at play to the extent that certain people, or groups of people, are unable to contribute equally to the publicly shared set of interpretive resources—such as popular concepts and social meanings. Typically, this injustice is characterised as one that prevents an epistemic agent from being able to render intelligible their own experience, or else, are unable to transmit their self-intelligible experience across social space. Clearly, this matters. Especially when we attend carefully to oppression. If one either cannot make sense of their experience of oppression, or they cannot convey this experience to others, then such oppression is going to be largely hidden from collective understanding. This is a problem in its own right, hence constituting a distinctive injustice. However, in the absence collective understanding, there is also an obvious sense in which we are unable to do anything about it. Oppression will continue since it falls below our recognition.
Fricker’s interest seems to be squarely focused on one’s own experience. That is, it is self-oriented. It takes the subject of experience as the focal point of understanding hermeneutical injustice insofar as it is about whether one can make proper sense of some aspect of their lives, and whether one can convey this to others. I attempted to expand this idea of hermeneutical injustice by taking advantage of a particular formulation that Fricker offers:
[Hermeneutical injustice is] the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owing to structural identity prejudice in the collective hermeneutical resource (2007, 59).
When we look closely at this articulation, it isn’t immediately clear that the self-oriented reading is necessary. Rather, it reads in a way that makes itself available for different perspectives. It is simply about one’s experience being obscured from collective understanding. What I suggested in my paper is that such experiences can be obscured in this way not simply because one cannot render intelligible their own experience, nor make their experience communicatively possible under a shared concept, but rather that epistemic agents cannot make sense of the experiences of others. Again, this becomes particularly problematic when it comes to oppression:
When the concepts available in the [collective] hermeneutical resource do not represent the oppression of members of certain groups to the extent that others cannot acquire basic understanding of such oppression, then this marks a kind of hermeneutical injustice that is other-oriented. It is other-oriented insofar as it concerns an agent’s inability to understand, to some basic extent, the oppression of members of disadvantaged groups (owing to structural identity prejudice)” (Podosky 2018, 219).
It’s not hard to think of cases where this seems both reasonably obvious and pernicious. Men can fail to recognise the oppressive forces of patriarchy that afflict women’s lives given certain available concepts, such as women being natural caretakers or sexual objects. The relevant question here is whether non-human animals can suffer from other-oriented hermeneutical injustice.
Other-Oriented Hermeneutical Injustice and Non-Human Animals
There’s a lot of technical machinery in my original paper that needn’t be rehashed here. One theorist who is worth discussing, and who I take to lay the best groundwork for the idea of other-oriented hermeneutical injustice, is Carol Adams (1990). In her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, Adams introduces the idea of the ‘absent referent’. For Adams, a primary focal point of injustice towards non-human animals is that they are made absent ‘in reality, in our language, and in our metaphors’ (Podosky 2018, 223), each of which is related:
Animals in name and body are made absent as animals for meat to exist. Animals’ lives precede and enable the existence of meat…Without animals there would be no meat eating, yet they are absent from the act of eating meat because they have been transformed into food” (Adams 1990, 21).
What exactly is involved in this ‘transformation’? It isn’t just that non-human animals are literally slaughtered, cooked, and served on dinner plates. Rather, it is that language is used to shroud with mystery the tortuous acts and murders we bear on meaningful lives. “When an animal is called a ‘meat-bearing animal’ we effect a misnomer, as though the meat is not the animal herself, as though the meat can be separated from the animal and the animal would remain” (1990, 52). This includes calling pigs ‘pork’, cows ‘beef’, chickens ‘poultry’, and fish ‘seafood’.
This constitutes other-oriented hermeneutical injustice insofar as the lives and experiences of non-human animals in agricultural contexts are obscured from collective understanding. We fail to truly recognise their abhorrent treatment and unjust deaths in large part because our language is designed to hide these facts from us.
In a recent and wonderfully insightful article published in Social Epistemology, J.M. Dieterle (2023) argues that while non-human animals do indeed suffer as a result of a kind of non-knowing, owing in large part to dominant language, the best means of characterising this is not hermeneutical injustice.
Dieterle provides an extremely useful set of criteria for determining whether something counts as other-oriented hermeneutical injustice—far beyond what I articulated in my original paper (which I am tremendously thankful for). They write:
(a) the hermeneutical resource does not include the conceptual apparatus to articulate or interpret the experiences of a particular group (a necessary condition for hermeneutical injustice);
(b) those outside the group cannot understand the oppression of members of the group (Podosky’s condition);
(c) members of the group do not or cannot attempt to explain or understand their social experiences/oppression (because if they did attempt to explain or understand their social experiences/oppression, then the hermeneutical injustice would be self-oriented);
(d) at least one member of the group is harmed in their capacity as a knower (a necessary condition for the injustice to be epistemic) (2023, 4).
Where one problem lies, for Dieterle, is that if (b)—Podosky’s condition—is a requirement for other-oriented hermeneutical injustice, then it appears that not all hermeneutical injustices are epistemic injustices. Why? Because non-human animals cannot be undermined in their capacity as knowers. That is, the epistemic failure of dominantly situated epistemic agents, humans, doesn’t entail harm to non-human animals as epistemic subjects. If not all hermeneutical injustices are epistemic injustices, then the literature that uniformly treats the former as a subset of the latter has been operating under a grave mistake—and surely this isn’t right. I will return to this soon. First I’ll take time to explain Dieterle’s preferred way of understanding the kind of harm that is involved in our non-knowing of animal suffering.
Epistemologies of Ignorance and Animal Suffering
We can be ignorant in different ways. One means is an accidental or negligent gap in one’s knowledge. For the most part, this is rather innocuous and somewhat easily corrected with more information and diligence. But “[s]ometimes what we do not know is not a mere gap in knowledge…” but rather it is “a lack of knowledge or an unlearning of something previously known [that is] actively produced for purposes of domination and exploitation” (Sullivan and Tuana 2007, 1). This kind of ignorance, active ignorance as Marylin Frye calls it (1983), is the framework within which Dieterle examines the epistemic harm done to non-human animals. In particular, they discuss two kinds.
One kind is affected ignorance. This occurs at an individual level whereby an agent fails to live up to certain epistemic virtues (i.e., Medina 2013). Taking lesson from Nancy Williams (2008), Dieterle argues that we, humans, are often ignorant in the following ways: “we don’t make the connection between our eating practices and animal suffering; (2) we often ask not to be informed about what is involved in raising animals for food—we don’t want to know; (3) we don’t ask questions about practices in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs); (4) commercial animal agriculture is a cultural practice that is uncritically accepted” (2023, 5). To be virtuous, we should not fall short of such knowledge. Our meat-eating practices should not be hidden from our understanding.
Another kind is human ignorance. Unlike the latter, this kind takes its inspiration from Charles Mills’ notion of white ignorance, which is structural rather than agential. In a nutshell, ‘domination influences knowing practices’ (2023, 5). It is a pattern of non-knowing produced systematically insofar as one does not suffer from a kind of mere cognitive error but rather because we are situated in a cultural milieu with certain interpretive resources that are maintained by social structures. Such resources are “oriented toward a certain understanding, embedded in subtheories and larger theories about how things work” (Mills 2007, 24). This is reminiscent of hermeneutical injustice: the social processes involved in determining to which concepts and social meanings we have access that have been ideologically infected by dominant points of view—those that create and maintain a prevailing social order. And this order is rather clear. Humans are on top, non-human animals are on the lower rungs. It’s not hard to find narratives that demonstrate this point.
As Dieterle suggests, ‘common knowledge’ includes claims that eating meat is ‘natural’…; that meat is good for you…; that milk (or other forms of dairy) is necessary to build strong bones…” (2023, 8). What is important to note, which is perhaps not emphasised enough in Dieterle’s piece, is how much of material reality plays a role in stabilising this ‘common knowledge’. This is in the form of advertisements that display happy, free-roaming cows, pigs, and chickens; the dark walls that visually obscure the practices of factory farming operations; the governmental support and subsidies for animal farmers; the legislation against the use of terms such as ‘milk’, ‘cheese’, ‘meat’, etc. for plant-based products, and so on.
What exactly is the harm in these kinds of ignorance? Dieterle says that it’s not epistemic since non-human animals are not knowers in the relevant sense. Rather, they are harmed materially, physically, and psychologically, and this is brought about due to human epistemic failures—agential and structural.
The Epistemic Status of Non-Human Animals
Dieterle’s paper raises a curious point: what is the relevant kind of knowledge needed for one to suffer from epistemic injustice? Fricker appears to have a very human-centred perspective on this question. To suffer from epistemic injustice is to be undermined in one’s capacity as a knower; and this is wrong insofar as being a knower, and being seen as a knower, is something distinctively human. Thus, epistemic injustice is an injustice to the extent that it degrades one’s status as human—and this is typically characterised as a form of objectification.
But why think that epistemic injustice is necessarily linked to this rather narrow species constraint? For Dieterle, following Lopez (forthcoming), the cognitive capacities one needs to be a knower are stringent: one must be “aware of themselves as knowers and be invested in being recognised as knowers” (2023, 3). Now, Dieterle does accept that some non-human animals might possess such ‘advanced’ cognitive capacities. However, they claim that an “account of the epistemic failures involved in harm to non-human animals should [not] rest on the assumption that they do possess them”, since, for Dieterle, there are better ways of explaining the relationship between epistemic failures and non-human animal harm.
There isn’t much discussion in Dieterle’s argument to suggest that such ‘advanced’ cognitive capacities are necessary for epistemic injustice. Rather, it is merely stated with reference to some existing literature. I think this gives one insight into what might be happening. The relevant knowledge standard for epistemic injustice as currently assumed in the literature is a methodological artefact of its original articulation in Fricker. That is, Fricker takes as her paradigm cases distinctively human experiences from which she infers a particular theory of epistemic injustice. Such cases involve testimonies of sexual harassment or the historical inability to even make sense of one’s experience as sexual harassment. Linguistic testimony is clearly a human activity, as well as rendering intelligible one’s experience under a concept. But this is the kind of thing we would expect to derive when the primary cases of epistemic injustice involve humans. However, another way of putting things is this: Fricker’s formulation of epistemic injustice might simply be human epistemic injustice—or even less, cognitively typical human epistemic injustice (I’ll get to this point soon).
We must ask: is right to say that epistemic injustice must only involve those situations in which ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities are present? One reason to suggest this is that this is what knowledge production and knowledge transmission requires. After all, how can knowledge be produced and transmitted without testimony and in the absence of conceptual understanding?
I think there are cases where knowledge production and transmission occur but fall short of the kinds of ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities that Dieterle (and others) defend. When a young baby is hungry, they might cry out for their parent or guardian to feed them—the same is true for beloved companion animals. This doesn’t seem to involve testimony in the richer sense, and it’s quite obvious that the baby fails to understand their situation under the concept hungry. But it strikes me as odd to say that the baby cannot produce and transmit knowledge. There is some fundamental sense in which they ‘know’ that they are hungry, and they are transmitting it to their parent or guardian. I think it is reasonably straightforward that it is not propositional knowledge, but it’s not clear why propositional knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is relevant for production and transmission.
It’s now reasonably clear to see where I am taking this point. If we accept that knowledge transmission and production do not require that one have ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities, then it’s not obvious why such abilities are the relevant benchmark for one to be the kind of thing that could suffer from epistemic injustice. The fact that non-human animals know, in a minimal sense, about their pain, suffering, and torment, and attempt to express this to humans in agricultural contexts, then it appears that they could very well be candidates for epistemic injustice—since their pain, suffering, and torment is obscured from collective understanding.
Now, this is not to say that ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities aren’t the relevant benchmark. Rather, it is to say that we need more justification to set the bar this high. As said, I think this is just an artefact of methodology, but this artefact might be infected by anthropocentric ideology. If we put humans first in our characterisation of epistemic harms, then it will be no wonder why humans look like the only kinds of things that could suffer from such harm. To make this point stronger, it is not simply anthropocentrism at play since there are kinds of humans that fall short of ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities, such as those with severe cognitive disabilities and young children. If ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities are the relevant benchmark, then it will not just be non-humans that sit outside the proper bounds of being candidates for epistemic injustice, but also certain kinds of people too. It strikes me that this pill is too hard to swallow. Failing to respect the kinds of knowledge that fall short of ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities might entail this: the epistemic injustice literature is committing epistemic injustice itself.
The Politics of Methodology
One response could be this: that’s not what Fricker said! After all, epistemic injustice is just whatever the person who created the concept says it is. And if Fricker says that epistemic injustice is about losing one’s status as human, then it’s not much of criticism to say that it is anthropocentric—it was meant to describe the epistemic lives of humans.
I think we can go one of three ways.
The first is to accept the charge. If epistemic injustice is human-centred, or more narrowly, humans with ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities, then perhaps what is needed is a new term or concept. It is not ‘epistemic’ injustice but rather something we might call ‘non-cognitive’ injustice or ‘psychological’ injustice. This could capture the relevant kinds of non-knowing-related injustices that non-human animals face, as well as those with severe cognitive disabilities and young children, but does not fall under the banner of epistemic injustice.
The second is to say that what Fricker has identified is just one general kind of epistemic injustice where the bar is set rather high. It occurs when a person with ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities is not treated as having such abilities. So, we might want to give it a new name: ‘advanced cognitive injustice.’ This will include testimonial and hermeneutical injustice, and it leaves open the possibility of other kinds of injustices that are involved in someone not being treated as having ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities when they in fact do. Another kind of epistemic injustice could be ‘minimal cognitive injustice’—where cognitive just means something like ‘intellectual activity’. This occurs in cases where the relevant benchmark for knowing is lowered, such as not recognising the suffering of non-human animals where such suffering counts as a kind of knowing. Here we can see that the general kinds of epistemic injustice are distinguished based on the relevant standards for knowledge one is interested in.
The third is to say that there is only one kind of epistemic injustice, and it does not discriminate between degrees or kinds of cognitive ability. Humans of all types and non-human animals are candidates for epistemic injustice in this sense. We might still want to distinguish between how certain types of humans suffer from epistemic injustice, such as differentiating between one’s testimony being disregarded versus one’s suffering being unknown, but all count as epistemic injustice without categorial distinction.
I want to resist option one for two different reasons.
The first is practical. The phrase ‘epistemic injustice’ has such significant psychological associations (i.e., lexical effects) in the philosophical literature, and even beyond, that there is a clear sense in which the harm to animals due to practices of non-knowing can derive the legitimacy and attention it deserves by being attached to an area of enquiry that is so revered.
Second, when a concept like epistemic injustice enters into broader philosophical discourse, it becomes available for negotiation. That is, while it is true that Fricker introduced the concept, it is up for grabs whether she indeed gave the best articulation of it given our general aims of enquiry in the relevant domain. And this is how the discourse has unfolded. Fricker’s original articulation has been subject to scrutiny and defences for many years now, with theorists adding new types of epistemic injustice into the fold as well as challenging how to best understand its dimensions (e.g., whether objectification is the best way to characterise its harm). I take it that if there are good reasons to think that the general aims of having a concept like epistemic injustice fit with our concerns about the non-knowing of animal suffering, then it ought to be included within the concept.
What about options two and three? To be honest, I’m not sure which is the best route. Though, I have reservations about option two. Making a distinction between ‘advanced’ and ‘minimal’ makes discussion about epistemic injustice available for ideological ranking. That is, we might be inclined to infer that ‘advanced cognitive injustice’ is more morally, socially, or politically serious, and thus reserve our attention for this kind over ‘minimal cognitive injustice’. After all, ideology is sneaky and can make its way into theory even when we are on guard. Protecting ourselves from this ideological ranking, where certain knowledges are taken more seriously, might mean that we have to try our very best to resist distinctions unless it is unavoidable or there are serious reasons to draw them.
One upshot of accepting option two or three is that we will need to rethink the harm of epistemic injustice—which I cannot, and will not, do here. This is because our current articulation of the harm is anthropocentric. It is about one’s status as a human with regard to being undermined as a knower. If we want to include non-human animals as candidates for epistemic injustice, as well as those with severe cognitive abilities and young children, we will need to work out exactly how it is they are harmed as knowers without appealing to overly inflated idea of humanity. I think this is a fruitful and important area of research.
What about Dieterle?
Despite my arguments against Dieterle, I think they are right to expand our understanding of the relationship between epistemic failures and animal suffering. Affected and human ignorance are both extremely valuable frameworks to achieve this. On the question of whether ignorance is a better framework, I believe more must be said. With this in mind, I believe that Dieterle has three options:
(1) Dieterle could stick to their guns and say that the epistemic-injustice-relevant knowledge one needs must be grounded in certain ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities such as being able to transmit testimony and render intelligible experience under a concept. However, it seems that more must be said to justify why these abilities are indeed the relevant knowledge-standard that makes one a potential candidate for epistemic injustice.
(2) Dieterle could argue that we should relax the knowledge-standard requirement so that we can properly see the understanding that non-human animals have of their suffering and pain. Going in this direction doesn’t contradict the other-oriented hermeneutical injustice view, but rather extends it, or instead, brings a new perspective to the subject matter—along with hermeneutical injustice, the continued mistreatment of non-human animals is also a function of affected and human ignorance.
(3) Dieterle could leave the problem of hermeneutical injustice and non-human animal suffering open, and say that there are some reasons to think that non-human animals can suffer from hermeneutical injustice (i.e., relax the knowledge-requirement) and there are some reasons to think that non-human animals cannot suffer from hermeneutical injustice (i.e., don’t have capacities to transit testimony or render intelligible experience under a concept). From here, it could be said, “Whatever the relationship between hermeneutical injustice and non-human animals, there is another framework we can use to understand how we fail to see the suffering, pain, and mistreatment of non-human animals”.
I understand that Dieterle opts for (1), but this leaves them open to the charge of gatekeeping epistemic injustice against non-human animals. And this itself, I believe, is something that we must resist to promote justice.
Adams, Carol. 1990. The Sexual Politics of Meat. New York: Continuum Press
Dieterle, J.M. 2023. “Other-Oriented Hermeneutical Injustice, Affected Ignorance, or Human Ignorance?” Social Epistemology 1–12. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2023.2248044.
Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Frye, Marilyn. 1983. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press.
Maitra, Ishani. 2017. “Speech and Silencing.” In The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, edited by Ann Garry, Serene J. Khader, and Alison Stone, 279–291. Abingdon: Routledge.
Medina, Jose. 2013. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mills, Charles. 2007. “White Ignorance.” In Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, 11–38. Albany, NY: State University of New York.
Podosky, Paul-Mikhail Catapang. 2022. ‘Agency, Power, and Ethics in Metalinguistic Disagreement’ Philosophical Quarterly 72 (2): 1–24.
Podosky, Paul-Mikhail. C. 2018. “Hermeneutical Injustice and Animal Ethics: Can Non-Human Animals Suffer from Hermeneutical Injustice?” Journal of Animal Ethics 8 (2): 216–228.
Sullivan, Shannon and Nancy Tuana. 2007. “Introduction.” In Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, 1–10. Albany, NY: State University of New York.
 Though, some have offered reasons to think that hermeneutical injustice is actually a linguistic injustice. See Maitra (2017) and Podosky (2022).