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Author Information: Kamili Posey, Kingsborough College, Kamili.Posey@kbcc.cuny.edu.

Posey, Kamili. “Scientism in the Philosophy of Implicit Bias Research.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 1-15.

Kamili Posey’s article was posted over two instalments. You can read the first here, but the pdf of the article includes the entire piece, and gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41k

Image by Rigoberto Garcia via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In the previous piece, I outlined some concerns with philosophers, and particularly philosophers of social science, assuming the success of implicit interventions into implicit bias. Motivated by a pointed note by Jennifer Saul (2017), I aimed to briefly go through some of the models lauded as offering successful interventions and, in essence, “get out of the armchair.”

(IAT) Models and Egalitarian Goal Models

In this final piece, I go through the last two models, Glaser and Knowles’ (2007) and Blair et al.’s (2001) (IAT) models and Moskowitz and Li’s (2011) egalitarian goal model. I reiterate that this is not an exhaustive analysis of such models nor is it intended as a criticism of experiments pertaining to implicit bias. Mostly, I am concerned that the science is interesting but that the scientism – the application of tentative results to philosophical projects – is less so. It is from this point that I proceed.

Like Mendoza et al.’s (2010) implementation intentions, Glaser and Knowles’ (2007) (IMCP) aims to capture implicit motivations that are capable of inhibiting automatic stereotype activation. Glaser and Knowles measure (IMCP) in terms of an implicit negative attitude toward prejudice, or (NAP), and an implicit belief that oneself is prejudiced, or (BOP). This is done by retooling the (IAT) to fit both (NAP) and (BOP): “To measure NAP we constructed an IAT that pairs the categories ‘prejudice’ and ‘tolerance’ with the categories ‘bad’ and ‘good.’ BOP was assessed with an IAT pairing ‘prejudiced’ and ‘tolerant’ with ‘me’ and ‘not me.’”[1]

Study participants were then administered the Shooter Task, the (IMCP) measures, and the Race Prejudice (IAT) and Race-Weapons Stereotype (RWS) tests in a fixed order. They predicted that (IMCP) as an implicit goal for those high in (IMCP) “should be able to short-circuit the effect of implicit anti-Black stereotypes on automatic anti-Black behavior.”[2] The results seemed to suggest that this was the case. Glaser and Knowles found that study participants who viewed prejudice as particularly bad “[showed] no relationship between implicit stereotypes and spontaneous behavior.”[3]

There are a few considerations missing from the evaluation of the study results. First, with regard to the Shooter Task, Glaser and Knowles (2007) found that “the interaction of target race by object type, reflecting the Shooter Bias, was not statistically significant.”[4] That is, the strength of the relationship that Correll et al. (2002) found between study participants and the (high) likelihood that they would “shoot” at black targets was not found in the present study. Additionally, they note that they “eliminated time pressure” from the task itself. Although it was not suggested that this impacted the usefulness of the measure of Shooter Bias, it is difficult to imagine that it did not do so. To this, they footnote the following caveat:

Variance in the degree and direction of the stereotype endorsement points to one reason for our failure to replicate Correll et. al’s (2002) typically robust Shooter Bias effect. That is, our sample appears to have held stereotypes linking Blacks and weapons/aggression/danger to a lesser extent than did Correll and colleagues’ participants. In Correll et al. (2002, 2003), participants one SD below the mean on the stereotype measure reported an anti-Black stereotype, whereas similarly low scorers on our RWS IAT evidenced a stronger association between Whites and weapons. Further, the adaptation of the Shooter Task reported here may have been less sensitive than the procedure developed by Correll and colleagues. In the service of shortening and simplifying the task, we used fewer trials, eliminated time pressure and rewards for speed and accuracy, and presented only one background per trial.[5]

Glaser and Knowles claimed that the interaction of the (RWS) with the Shooter Task results proved “significant,” however, if the Shooter Bias failed to materialize (in the standard Correll et al. way) with study participants, it is difficult to see how the (RWS) was measuring anything except itself, generally speaking. This is further complicated by the fact that the interaction between the Shooter Bias and the (RWS) revealed “a mild reverse stereotype associating Whites with weapons (d = -0.15) and a strong stereotype associating Blacks with weapons (d = 0.83), respectively.”[6]

Recall that Glaser and Knowles (2007) aimed to show that participants high in (IMCP) would be able to inhibit implicit anti-black stereotypes and thus inhibit automatic anti-black behaviors. Using (NAP) and (BOP) as proxies for implicit control, participants high in (NAP) and moderate in (BOP) – as those with moderate (BOP) will be motivated to avoid bias – should show the weakest association between (RWS) and Shooter Bias. Instead, the lowest levels of Shooter Bias were seen in “low NAP, high BOP, and low RWS” study participants, or those who do not disapprove of prejudice, would describe themselves as prejudiced, and also showed lowest levels of (RWS).[7]

They noted that neither “NAP nor BOP alone was significantly related to the Shooter Bias,” but “the influence of RWS on Shooter Bias remained significant.”[8] In fact, greater bias was actually found with higher (NAP) and (BOP) levels.[9] This bias seemed to map on to the initial results of the Shooter Task results. It is most likely that (RWS) was the most important measure in this study for assessing implicit bias, not, as the study claimed, for assessing implicit motivation to control prejudice.

What Kind of Bias?

It is also not clear that the (RWS) was not capturing explicit bias instead of implicit bias in this study. At the point at which study participants were tasked with the (RWS), automatic stereotype activation may have been inhibited just in virtue of study participants involvement in the Shooter Task and (IAT) assessments regarding race-related prejudice. That is, race-sensitivity was brought to consciousness in the sequencing of the test process.

Although we cannot get into the heads of the study participants, this counter explanation seems a compelling possibility. That is, that the sequential tasks involved in the study captured study participants’ ability to increase focus and increase conscious attention to the race-related (IAT) test. Additionally, it is possible that some study participants could both cue and follow their own conscious internal commands, “If I see a black face, I won’t judge!” Consider that this is exactly how implementation intentions work.

Consider that this is also how Armageddon chess and other speed strategy games work. In Park et al.’s (2008) follow-up study on (IMCP) and cognitive depletion, they retreat somewhat from their initial claims about the implicit nature of (IMCP):

We cannot state for certain that our measure of IMCP reflects a purely nonconscious construct, nor that differential speed to “shoot” Black armed men vs. White armed men in a computer simulation reflects purely automatic processes. Most likely, the underlying stereotypes, goals, and behavioral responses represent a blend of conscious and nonconscious influences…Based on the results of the present study and those of Glaser and Knowles (2008), it would be premature to conclude that IMCP is a purely and wholly automatic construct, meeting the “four horsemen” criteria (Bargh, 1990). Specifically, it is not yet clear whether high IMCP participants initiate control of prejudice without intention; whether implicit control of prejudice can itself be inhibited, if for some reason someone wanted to; nor whether IMCP-instigated control of spontaneous bias occurs without awareness.[10]

If the (IMCP) potentially measures low-level conscious attention, this makes the question of what implicit measurements actually measure in the context of sequential tasks all the more important. In the two final examples, Blair et al.’s (2001) study on the use of counterstereotype imagery and Moskowitz and Li’s (2011) study on the use of counterstereotype egalitarian goals, we are again confronted with the issue of sequencing. In the study by Moskowitz and Li, study participants were asked to write down an example of a time when “they failed to live up to the ideal specified by an egalitarian goal, and to do so by relaying an event relating to African American men.”[11]

They were then given a series of computerized LDTs (lexicon decision tasks) and primes involving photographs of black and white faces and stereotypical and non-stereotypical attributes of black people (crime, lazy, stupid, nervous, indifferent, nosy). Over a series of four experiments, Moskowitz and Li found that when egalitarian goals were “accessible,” study participants were able to successfully generate stereotype inhibition. Blair et al. asked study participants to use counterstereotypical (CS) gender imagery over a series of five experiments, e.g., “Think of a strong, capable woman,” and then administered a series of implicit measures, including the (IAT).

Similar to Moskowitz and Li (2011), Blair et al. (2001) found that (CS) gender imagery was successful in reducing implicit gender stereotypes leaving “little doubt that the CS mental imagery per se was responsible for diminishing implicit stereotypes.”[12] In both cases, the study participants were explicitly called upon to focus their attention on experiences and imagery pertaining to negative stereotypes before the implicit measures, i.e., tasks, were administered. Again it is not clear that the implicit measures measured the supposed target.

In the case of Moskowitz and Li’s (2011) experiment, the study participants began by relating moments in their lives where they failed to live up to their goals. However, those goals can only be understood within a particular social and political framework where holding negatively prejudicial beliefs about African-American men is often explicitly judged harshly, even if not implicitly so. Given this, we might assume that the study participants were compelled into a negative affective state. But does this matter? As suggested by the study by Monteith (1993), and later study by Amodio et. al (2007), guilt can be a powerful tool.[13]

Questions of Guilt

If guilt was produced during the early stages of the experiment, it may have also participated in the inhibition of stereotype activation. Moskowitz and Li (2011) noted that “during targeted questioning in the debriefing, no participants expressed any conscious intent to inhibit stereotypes on the task, nor saw any of the tasks performed during the computerized portion of the experiment as related to the egalitarian goals they had undermined earlier in the session.”[14]

But guilt does not have to be conscious for it to produce effects. The guilt produced by recalling a moment of negative bias could be part and parcel of a larger feeling of moral failure. Moskowitz and Li needed to adequately disambiguate competing implicit motivations for stereotype inhibition before arriving at a definitive conclusion. This, I think, is a limitation of the study.

However, the same case could be made for (CS) imagery. Blair et al. (2001) noted that it is, in fact, possible that they too have missed competing motivations and competing explanations for stereotype inhibition. Particularly, they suggested that by emphasizing counterstereotyping the researchers “may have communicated the importance of avoiding stereotypes and increased their motivation to do so.”[15] Still, the researchers dismissed that this would lead to better (faster, more accurate) performance of the (IAT), but that is merely asserting that the (IAT) must measure exactly what the (IAT) claims that it does. Fast, accurate, and conscious measures are excluded from that claim. Complicated internal motivations are excluded from that claim.

But on what grounds? Consider Fielder et al.’s (2006) argument that the (IAT) is susceptible to faking and strategic processing, or Brendl et al.’s (2001) argument that it is not possible to infer a single cause from (IAT) results, or Fazio and Olson’s (2003) claim “the IAT has little to do with what is automatically activated in response to a given stimulus.”[16]

These studies call into question the claim that implicit measures like the (IAT) can measure implicit bias in the clear, problem-free manner that is often suggested in the literature. Implicit interventions into implicit bias that utilize the (IAT) are difficult to support for this reason. Implicit interventions that utilize sequential (IAT) tasks are also difficult to support for this reason. Of course, this is also live debate and the problems I have discussed here are far from the only ones that plague this type of research.[17]

That said, when it comes to this research we are too often left wondering if the measure itself is measuring the right thing. Are we capturing implicit bias or some other socially generated phenomenon? Are the measured changes we see in study results reflecting the validity of the instrument or the cognitive maneuverings of study participants? These are all critical questions that need sussing out. The temporary result is that the target conclusion that implicit interventions will lead to reductions in real-world discrimination will move further away.[18] We find evidence of this conclusion in Forscher et al.’s (2018) meta-analysis of 492 implicit interventions:

We found little evidence that changes in implicit measures translated into changes in explicit measures and behavior, and we observed limitations in the evidence base for implicit malleability and change. These results produce a challenge for practitioners who seek to address problems that are presumed to be caused by automatically retrieved associations, as there was little evidence showing that change in implicit measures will result in changes for explicit measures or behavior…Our results suggest that current interventions that attempt to change implicit measures will not consistently change behavior in these domains. These results also produce a challenge for researchers who seek to understand the nature of human cognition because they raise new questions about the causal role of automatically retrieved associations…To better understand what the results mean, future research should innovate with more reliable and valid implicit, explicit, and behavioral tasks, intensive manipulations, longitudinal measurement of outcomes, heterogeneous samples, and diverse topics of study.[19]

Finally, what I take to be behind Alcoff’s (2010) critical question at the beginning of this piece is a kind of skepticism about how individuals can successfully tackle implicit bias through either explicit or implicit practices without the support of the social spaces, communities, and institutions that give shape to our social lives. Implicit bias is related to the culture one is in and the stereotypes it produces. So instead of insisting on changing people to reduce stereotyping, what if we insisted on changing the culture?

As Alcoff notes: “We must be willing to explore more mechanisms for redress, such as extensive educational reform, more serious projects of affirmative action, and curricular mandates that would help to correct the identity prejudices built up out of faulty narratives of history.”[20] This is an important point. It is a point that philosophers who work on implicit bias would do well to take seriously.

Science may not give us the way out of racism, sexism, and gender discrimination. At the moment, it may only give us tools for seeing ourselves a bit more clearly. Further claims about implicit interventions appear as willful scientism. They reinforce the belief that science can cure all of our social and political ills. But this is magical thinking.

Contact details: Kamili.Posey@kbcc.cuny.edu

References

Alcoff, Linda. (2010). “Epistemic Identities,” in Episteme 7 (2), p. 132.

Amodio, David M., Devine, Patricia G., and Harmon-Jones, Eddie. (2007). “A Dynamic Model of Guilt: Implications for Motivation and Self-Regulation in the Context of Prejudice,” in Psychological Science 18(6), pp. 524-30.

Blair, I. V., Ma, J. E., & Lenton, A. P. (2001). “Imagining Stereotypes Away: The Moderation of Implicit Stereotypes Through Mental Imagery,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81:5, p. 837.

Correll, Joshua, Bernadette Park, Bernd Wittenbrink, and Charles M. Judd. (2002). “The Police Officer’s Dilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 83, No. 6, 1314–1329.

Devine, P. G., & Monteith, M. J. (1993). “The Role of Discrepancy-Associated Affect in Prejudice Reduction,” in Affect, Cognition and Stereotyping: Interactive Processes in Group Perception, eds., D. M. Mackie & D. L. Hamilton. San Diego: Academic Press, pp. 317–344.

Forscher, Patrick S., Lai, Calvin K., Axt, Jordan R., Ebersole, Charles R., Herman, Michelle, Devine, Patricia G., and Nosek, Brian A. (August 13, 2018). “A Meta-Analysis of Procedures to Change Implicit Measures.” [Preprint]. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/dv8tu.

Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007). “Implicit Motivation to Control Prejudice,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44, p. 165.

Kawakami, K., Dovidio, J. F., Moll, J., Hermsen, S., & Russin, A. (2000). “Just Say No (To Stereotyping): Effects Of Training in Negation of Stereotypic Associations on Stereotype Activation,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 871–888.

Kawakami, K., Dovidio, J. F., and van Kamp, S. (2005). “Kicking the Habit: Effects of Nonstereotypic Association Training and Correction Processes on Hiring Decisions,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 41:1, pp. 68-69.

Greenwald, Anthony G., Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Nosek, Brian A. (2015). “Statistically Small Effects of the Implicit Association Test Can Have Societally Large Effects,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 553-561.

Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David. (2010). “Reducing the Expression of Implicit Stereotypes: Reflexive Control through Implementation Intentions,” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36:4, p. 513-514.

Monteith, Margo. (1993). “Self-Regulation of Prejudiced Responses: Implications for Progress in Prejudice-Reduction Efforts,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65:3, p. 472.

Moskowitz, Gordon and Li, Peizhong. (2011). “Egalitarian Goals Trigger Stereotype Inhibition,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47, p. 106.

Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2013). “Predicting Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: A Meta-Analysis of IAT Criterion Studies,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, pp. 171-192

Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2015). “Using the IAT to Predict Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: Small Effect Sizes of Unknown Societal Significance,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 562-571.

Saul, Jennifer. (2017). “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Epistemic Injustice,” in The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, eds. Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. [Google Books Edition] New York: Routledge.

Webb, Thomas L., Sheeran, Paschal, and Pepper, John. (2012). “Gaining Control Over Responses to Implicit Attitude Tests: Implementation Intentions Engender Fast Responses on Attitude-Incongruent Trials,” in British Journal of Social Psychology 51, pp. 13-32.

[1] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007). “Implicit Motivation to Control Prejudice,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44, p. 165.

[2] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 167.

[3] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 170.

[4] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 168.

[5] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 168.

[6] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 169.

[7] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 169. Of this “rogue” group, Glaser and Knowles note: “This group had, on average, a negative RWS (i.e., rather than just a low bias toward Blacks, they tended to associate Whites more than Blacks with weapons; see footnote 4). If these reversed stereotypes are also uninhibited, they should yield reversed Shooter Bias, as observed here” (169).

[8] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 169.

[9] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 169.

[10] Sang Hee Park, Jack Glaser, and Eric D. Knowles. (2008). “Implicit Motivation to Control Prejudice Moderates the Effect of Cognitive Depletion on Unintended Discrimination,” in Social Cognition, Vol. 26, No. 4, p. 416.

[11] Moskowitz, Gordon and Li, Peizhong. (2011). “Egalitarian Goals Trigger Stereotype Inhibition,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47, p. 106.

[12] Blair, I. V., Ma, J. E., & Lenton, A. P. (2001). “Imagining Stereotypes Away: The Moderation of Implicit Stereotypes Through Mental Imagery,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81:5, p. 837.

[13] Amodio, David M., Devine, Patricia G., and Harmon-Jones, Eddie. (2007). “A Dynamic Model of Guilt: Implications for Motivation and Self-Regulation in the Context of Prejudice,” in Psychological Science 18(6), pp. 524-30

[14] Moskowitz, Gordon and Li, Peizhong (2011), p. 108.

[15] Blair, I. V., Ma, J. E., & Lenton, A. P. (2001), p. 838.

[16] Fielder, Klaus, Messner, Claude, Bluemke, Matthias. (2006). “Unresolved problems with the ‘I’, the ‘A’, and the ‘T’: A logical and Psychometric Critique of the Implicit Association Test (IAT),” in European Review of Social Psychology, 12, pp. 74-147. Brendl, C. M., Markman, A. B., & Messner, C. (2001). “How Do Indirect Measures of Evaluation Work? Evaluating the Inference of Prejudice in the Implicit Association Test,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(5), pp. 760-773. Fazio, R. H., and Olson, M. A. (2003). “Implicit Measures in Social Cognition Research: Their Meaning and Uses,” in Annual Review of Psychology 54, pp. 297-327.

[17] There is significant debate over the issue of whether the implicit bias that (IAT) tests measure translate into real-world discriminatory behavior. This is a complex and compelling issue. It is also an issue that could render moot the (IAT) as an implicit measure of anything full stop. Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin R. Banaji, and Brian A. Nosek (2015) write: “IAT measures have two properties that render them problematic to use to classify persons as likely to engage in discrimination. Those two properties are modest test–retest reliability (for the IAT, typically between r = .5 and r = .6; cf., Nosek et al., 2007) and small to moderate predictive validity effect sizes. Therefore, attempts to diagnostically use such measures for individuals risk undesirably high rates of erroneous classifications. These problems of limited test-retest reliability and small effect sizes are maximal when the sample consists of a single person (i.e., for individual diagnostic use), but they diminish substantially as sample size increases. Therefore, limited reliability and small to moderate effect sizes are not problematic in diagnosing system-level discrimination, for which analyses often involve large samples” (557). However, Oswald et al. (2013) argue that “IAT scores correlated strongly with measures of brain activity but relatively weakly with all other criterion measures in the race domain and weakly with all criterion measures in the ethnicity domain. IATs, whether they were designed to tap into implicit prejudice or implicit stereotypes, were typically poor predictors of the types of behavior, judgments, or decisions that have been studied as instances of discrimination, regardless of how subtle, spontaneous, controlled, or deliberate they were. Explicit measures of bias were also, on average, weak predictors of criteria in the studies covered by this meta-analysis, but explicit measures performed no worse than, and sometimes better than, the IATs for predictions of policy preferences, interpersonal behavior, person perceptions, reaction times, and microbehavior. Only for brain activity were correlations higher for IATs than for explicit measures…but few studies examined prediction of brain activity using explicit measures. Any distinction between the IATs and explicit measures is a distinction that makes little difference, because both of these means of measuring attitudes resulted in poor prediction of racial and ethnic discrimination” (182-183). For further details about this debate, see: Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2013). “Predicting Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: A Meta-Analysis of IAT Criterion Studies,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, pp. 171-192 and Greenwald, Anthony G., Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Nosek, Brian A. (2015). “Statistically Small Effects of the Implicit Association Test Can Have Societally Large Effects,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 553-561.

[18] See: Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2015). “Using the IAT to Predict Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: Small Effect Sizes of Unknown Societal Significance,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 562-571.

[19] Forscher, Patrick S., Lai, Calvin K., Axt, Jordan R., Ebersole, Charles R., Herman, Michelle, Devine, Patricia G., and Nosek, Brian A. (August 13, 2018). “A Meta-Analysis of Procedures to Change Implicit Measures.” [Preprint]. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/dv8tu.

[20] Alcoff, Linda. (2010). “Epistemic Identities,” in Episteme 7 (2), p. 132.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Imagining a Different Political Economy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 7-11.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40v

Image by Rachel Adams via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

One cannot ask for a kinder or more complimentary reviewer than Adam Riggio.[1] His main complaint about my book, The Quest for Prosperity, is that “Stylistically, the book suffers from a common issue for many new research books in the humanities and social sciences. Its argument loses some momentum as it approaches the conclusion, and ends up in a more modest, self-restrained place than its opening chapters promised.”

My opening examination of what I see as the misconceptions of some presuppositions used in political economy is a first, necessary step towards an examination of recent capitalist variants (that are heralded as the best prospects for future organization of market exchanges) and for a different approach tor political economy offered by the end of the book. Admittedly, my vision of a radically reframed political economy that exposes some taken for granted concepts, such as scarcity, human nature, competition, and growth is an ambitious task, and perhaps, as Riggio suggests, I should attempt a more detailed articulation of the economy in a sequel.

However, this book does examine alternative frameworks, discusses in some detail what I consider misguided attempts to skirt the moral concerns I emphasize so as to retain the basic capitalist framework, and suggests principles that ought to guide a reframed political economy, one more attentive to the moral principles of solidarity and cooperation, empathy towards fellow members of a community, and an mindful avoidance of grave inequalities that are not limited to financial measures. In this respect, the book delivers more than is suggested by Riggio.

On Questions of Character

Riggio also argues that my

templates for communitarian alternatives to the increasingly brutal culture of contemporary capitalism share an important common feature that is very dangerous for [my] project. They are each rooted in civic institutions, material social structures for education, and socialization. Contrary to how [I] spea[k] of these four inspirations, civil rights and civic institutions alone are not enough to build and sustain a community each member of whom holds a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in her heart.

This, too, is true to some extent. Just because I may successfully convince you that you are working with misconceptions about human nature, scarcity, and growth, for example, you may still not modify your behavior. Likewise, just because I may offer brilliant exemplars for how “civil rights and civic institutions” should be organized and legally enshrined does not mean that every member of the community will abide by them and behave appropriately.

Mean-spirited or angry individuals might spoil life for the more friendly and self-controlled ones, and Riggio is correct to point out that “a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in [one’s] heart” are insufficient for overcoming the brutality of capitalist greed. But focusing on this set of concerns (rather than offering a more efficient or digitally sophisticated platform for exchanges), Riggio would agree, could be good starting points, and might therefore encourage more detailed analyses of policies and regulation of unfettered capitalist practices.

I could shirk my responsibility here and plead for cover under the label of a philosopher who lacks the expertise of a good old-fashioned social scientist or policy wonk who can advise how best to implement my proposals. But I set myself up to engage political economy in all its manifold facets, and Riggio is correct when he points out that my “analysis of existing institutions and societies that foster communitarian moralities and ethics is detailed enough to show promise, but unfortunately so brief as to leave us without guidance or strategy to fulfill that promise.”

But, when critically engaging not only the latest gimmicks being proposed under the capitalist umbrella (e.g., the gig economy or shared economies) but also their claims about freedom and equal opportunity, I was concerned to debunk pretenses so as to be able to place my own ideas within an existing array of possibilities. In that sense, The Quest for Prosperity is, indeed, more critique than manual, an immanent critique that accounts for what is already being practiced so as to point out inevitable weaknesses. My proposal was offered in broad outlines in the hope of enlisting the likes of Riggio to contribute more details that, over time, would fulfill such promises in a process that can only be, in its enormity, collaborative.

The Strength of Values

Riggio closes his review by saying that I

offered communitarian approaches to morality and ethics as solutions to those challenges of injustice. I think his direction is very promising. But The Quest for Prosperity offers only a sign. If his next book is to fulfill the promise of this one, he must explore the possibilities opened up by the following questions. Can communitarian values overcome the allure of greed? What kind of social, political, and economic structures would we need to achieve that utopian goal?

To be clear, my approach is as much Communitarian as it is Institutionalist, Marxist and heterodox, Popperian and postmodern; I prefer the more traditional terms socialism and communism as alternatives to capitalism in general and to my previous, more sanguine appeal to the notion of “postcapitalism.”

Still, Riggio hones in on an important point: since I insist on theorizing in moral and social (rather than monetary) terms, and since my concern is with views of human nature and the conditions under which we can foster a community of people who exchange goods and services, it stands to reason that the book be assessed in an ethical framework as well, concerned to some degree with how best to foster personal integrity, mutual empathy, and care. The book is as much concerned with debunking the moral pretenses of capitalism (from individual freedom and equal opportunity to happiness and prosperity, understood here in its moral and not financial sense) as with the moral underpinnings (and the educational and social institutions that foster them) of political economy.

In this sense, my book strives to be in line with Adam Smith’s (or even Marx’s) moral philosophy as much as with his political economy. The ongoing slippage from the moral to the political and economic is unavoidable: in such a register the very heart of my argument contends that financial strategies have to consider human costs and that economic policies affect humans as moral agents. But, to remedy social injustice we must deal with political economy, and therefore my book moves from the moral to the economic, from the social to the political.

Questions of Desire

I will respond to Riggio’s two concluding questions directly. The first deals with overcoming the allure of greed: in my view, this allure, as real and pressing as it is, remains socially conditioned, though perhaps linked to unconscious desires in the Freudian sense. Within the capitalist context, there is something more psychologically and morally complex at work that should be exposed (Smith and Marx, in their different analyses, appreciate this dimension of market exchanges and the framing of human needs and wants; later critics, as diverse as Herbert Marcuse and Karl Polanyi, continue along this path).

Wanting more of something—Father’s approval? Mother’s nourishment?—is different from wanting more material possessions or money (even though, in good a capitalist modality, the one seeps into the other or the one is offered as a substitute for the other). I would venture to say that a child’s desire for candy, for example, (candy being an object of desire that is dispensed or withheld by parents) can be quickly satiated when enough is available—hence my long discussion in the book about (the fictions of) scarcity and (the realities of) abundance; the candy can stand for love in general or for food that satisfies hunger, although it is, in fact, neither; and of course the candy can be substituted by other objects of desire that can or cannot be satisfied. (Candy, of course, doesn’t have the socially symbolic value that luxury items, such as iPhone, do for those already socialized.)

Only within a capitalist framework might one accumulate candy not merely to satisfy a sweet tooth or wish for a treat but also as a means to leverage later exchanges with others. This, I suggest, is learned behavior, not “natural” in the classical capitalist sense of the term. The reason for this lengthy explanation is that Riggio is spot on to ask about the allure of greed (given his mention of demand-side markets), because for many defenders of the faith, capitalism is nothing but a large-scale apparatus that satisfies natural human appetites (even though some of them are manufactured).

My arguments in the book are meant not only to undermine such claims but to differentiate between human activities, such as exchange and division of labor (historically found in families and tribes), and competition, greed, accumulation, and concentration of wealth that are specific to capitalism (and the social contract within which it finds psychological and legal protection). One can see, then, why I believe the allure of greed can be overcome through social conditioning and the reframing of human exchanges that satisfy needs and question wants.

Riggio’s concern over abuse of power, regardless of all the corrective structures proposed in the book, deserves one more response. Indeed, laws without enforcement are toothless. But, as I argue throughout the book, policies that attempt to deal with important social issues must deal with the economic features of any structure. What makes the Institutionalist approach to political economy informative is not only the recognition that economic ideals take on different hues when implemented in different institutional contexts, but that economic activity and behavior are culturally conditioned.

Instead of worrying here about a sequel, I’d like to suggest that there is already excellent work being done in the areas of human and civil rights (e.g., Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (2016) chronicle the problems of capitalism in different sectors of the economy) so that my own effort is an attempt to establish a set of (moral) values against which existing proposals can be assessed and upon which (economic) policy reform should be built. Highlighting the moral foundation of any economic system isn’t a substitute for paying close attention to the economic system that surrounds and perhaps undermines it; rather, economic realities test the limits of the applicability of and commitment to such foundation.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

References

Riggio, Adam. “The True Shape of a Society of Friends.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 40-45.

Sassower, Raphael. The Quest for Prosperity. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

[1] Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis for her critical suggestions.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsasswe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Post-Truths and Inconvenient Facts.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 47-60.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40g

Can one truly refuse to believe facts?
Image by Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If nothing else, Steve Fuller has his ear to the pulse of popular culture and the academics who engage in its twists and turns. Starting with Brexit and continuing into the Trump-era abyss, “post-truth” was dubbed by the OED as its word of the year in 2016. Fuller has mustered his collected publications to recast the debate over post-truth and frame it within STS in general and his own contributions to social epistemology in particular.

This could have been a public mea culpa of sorts: we, the community of sociologists (and some straggling philosophers and anthropologists and perhaps some poststructuralists) may seem to someone who isn’t reading our critiques carefully to be partially responsible for legitimating the dismissal of empirical data, evidence-based statements, and the means by which scientific claims can be deemed not only credible but true. Instead, we are dazzled by a range of topics (historically anchored) that explain how we got to Brexit and Trump—yet Fuller’s analyses of them don’t ring alarm bells. There is almost a hidden glee that indeed the privileged scientific establishment, insular scientific discourse, and some of its experts who pontificate authoritative consensus claims are all bound to be undone by the rebellion of mavericks and iconoclasts that include intelligent design promoters and neoliberal freedom fighters.

In what follows, I do not intend to summarize the book, as it is short and entertaining enough for anyone to read on their own. Instead, I wish to outline three interrelated points that one might argue need not be argued but, apparently, do: 1) certain critiques of science have contributed to the Trumpist mindset; 2) the politics of Trumpism is too dangerous to be sanguine about; 3) the post-truth condition is troublesome and insidious. Though Fuller deals with some of these issues, I hope to add some constructive clarification to them.

Part One: Critiques of Science

As Theodor Adorno reminds us, critique is essential not only for philosophy, but also for democracy. He is aware that the “critic becomes a divisive influence, with a totalitarian phrase, a subversive” (1998/1963, 283) insofar as the status quo is being challenged and sacred political institutions might have to change. The price of critique, then, can be high, and therefore critique should be managed carefully and only cautiously deployed. Should we refrain from critique, then? Not at all, continues Adorno.

But if you think that a broad, useful distinction can be offered among different critiques, think again: “[In] the division between responsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who bear public responsibility, and irresponsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who cannot be held accountable for the consequences, critique is already neutralized.” (Ibid. 285) Adorno’s worry is not only that one forgets that “the truth content of critique alone should be that authority [that decides if it’s responsible],” but that when such a criterion is “unilaterally invoked,” critique itself can lose its power and be at the service “of those who oppose the critical spirit of a democratic society.” (Ibid)

In a political setting, the charge of irresponsible critique shuts the conversation down and ensures political hegemony without disruptions. Modifying Adorno’s distinction between (politically) responsible and irresponsible critiques, responsible scientific critiques are constructive insofar as they attempt to improve methods of inquiry, data collection and analysis, and contribute to the accumulated knowledge of a community; irresponsible scientific critiques are those whose goal is to undermine the very quest for objective knowledge and the means by which such knowledge can be ascertained. Questions about the legitimacy of scientific authority are related to but not of exclusive importance for these critiques.

Have those of us committed to the critique of science missed the mark of the distinction between responsible and irresponsible critiques? Have we become so subversive and perhaps self-righteous that science itself has been threatened? Though Fuller is primarily concerned with the hegemony of the sociology of science studies and the movement he has championed under the banner of “social epistemology” since the 1980s, he does acknowledge the Popperians and their critique of scientific progress and even admires the Popperian contribution to the scientific enterprise.

But he is reluctant to recognize the contributions of Marxists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists who have been critically engaging the power of science since the 19th century. Among them, we find Jean-François Lyotard who, in The Postmodern Condition (1984/1979), follows Marxists and neo-Marxists who have regularly lumped science and scientific discourse with capitalism and power. This critical trajectory has been well rehearsed, so suffice it here to say, SSK, SE, and the Edinburgh “Strong Programme” are part of a long and rich critical tradition (whose origins are Marxist). Adorno’s Frankfurt School is part of this tradition, and as we think about science, which had come to dominate Western culture by the 20th century (in the place of religion, whose power had by then waned as the arbiter of truth), it was its privileged power and interlocking financial benefits that drew the ire of critics.

Were these critics “responsible” in Adorno’s political sense? Can they be held accountable for offering (scientific and not political) critiques that improve the scientific process of adjudication between criteria of empirical validity and logical consistency? Not always. Did they realize that their success could throw the baby out with the bathwater? Not always. While Fuller grants Karl Popper the upper hand (as compared to Thomas Kuhn) when indirectly addressing such questions, we must keep an eye on Fuller’s “baby.” It’s easy to overlook the slippage from the political to the scientific and vice versa: Popper’s claim that we never know the Truth doesn’t mean that his (and our) quest for discovering the Truth as such is given up, it’s only made more difficult as whatever is scientifically apprehended as truth remains putative.

Limits to Skepticism

What is precious about the baby—science in general, and scientific discourse and its community in more particular ways—is that it offered safeguards against frivolous skepticism. Robert Merton (1973/1942) famously outlined the four features of the scientific ethos, principles that characterized the ideal workings of the scientific community: universalism, communism (communalism, as per the Cold War terror), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. It is the last principle that is relevant here, since it unequivocally demands an institutionalized mindset of putative acceptance of any hypothesis or theory that is articulated by any community member.

One detects the slippery slope that would move one from being on guard when engaged with any proposal to being so skeptical as to never accept any proposal no matter how well documented or empirically supported. Al Gore, in his An Inconvenient Truth (2006), sounded the alarm about climate change. A dozen years later we are still plagued by climate-change deniers who refuse to look at the evidence, suggesting instead that the standards of science themselves—from the collection of data in the North Pole to computer simulations—have not been sufficiently fulfilled (“questions remain”) to accept human responsibility for the increase of the earth’s temperature. Incidentally, here is Fuller’s explanation of his own apparent doubt about climate change:

Consider someone like myself who was born in the midst of the Cold War. In my lifetime, scientific predictions surrounding global climate change has [sic.] veered from a deep frozen to an overheated version of the apocalypse, based on a combination of improved data, models and, not least, a geopolitical paradigm shift that has come to downplay the likelihood of a total nuclear war. Why, then, should I not expect a significant, if not comparable, alteration of collective scientific judgement in the rest of my lifetime? (86)

Expecting changes in the model does not entail a) that no improved model can be offered; b) that methodological changes in themselves are a bad thing (they might be, rather, improvements); or c) that one should not take action at all based on the current model because in the future the model might change.

The Royal Society of London (1660) set the benchmark of scientific credibility low when it accepted as scientific evidence any report by two independent witnesses. As the years went by, testability (“confirmation,” for the Vienna Circle, “falsification,” for Popper) and repeatability were added as requirements for a report to be considered scientific, and by now, various other conditions have been proposed. Skepticism, organized or personal, remains at the very heart of the scientific march towards certainty (or at least high probability), but when used perniciously, it has derailed reasonable attempts to use science as a means by which to protect, for example, public health.

Both Michael Bowker (2003) and Robert Proctor (1995) chronicle cases where asbestos and cigarette lobbyists and lawyers alike were able to sow enough doubt in the name of attenuated scientific data collection to ward off regulators, legislators, and the courts for decades. Instead of finding sufficient empirical evidence to attribute asbestos and nicotine to the failing health condition (and death) of workers and consumers, “organized skepticism” was weaponized to fight the sick and protect the interests of large corporations and their insurers.

Instead of buttressing scientific claims (that have passed the tests—in refereed professional conferences and publications, for example—of most institutional scientific skeptics), organized skepticism has been manipulated to ensure that no claim is ever scientific enough or has the legitimacy of the scientific community. In other words, what should have remained the reasonable cautionary tale of a disinterested and communal activity (that could then be deemed universally credible) has turned into a circus of fire-blowing clowns ready to burn down the tent. The public remains confused, not realizing that just because the stakes have risen over the decades does not mean there are no standards that ever can be met. Despite lobbyists’ and lawyers’ best efforts of derailment, courts have eventually found cigarette companies and asbestos manufacturers guilty of exposing workers and consumers to deathly hazards.

Limits to Belief

If we add to this logic of doubt, which has been responsible for discrediting science and the conditions for proposing credible claims, a bit of U.S. cultural history, we may enjoy a more comprehensive picture of the unintended consequences of certain critiques of science. Citing Kurt Andersen (2017), Robert Darnton suggests that the Enlightenment’s “rational individualism interacted with the older Puritan faith in the individual’s inner knowledge of the ways of Providence, and the result was a peculiarly American conviction about everyone’s unmediated access to reality, whether in the natural world or the spiritual world. If we believe it, it must be true.” (2018, 68)

This way of thinking—unmediated experiences and beliefs, unconfirmed observations, and disregard of others’ experiences and beliefs—continues what Richard Hofstadter (1962) dubbed “anti-intellectualism.” For Americans, this predates the republic and is characterized by a hostility towards the life of the mind (admittedly, at the time, religious texts), critical thinking (self-reflection and the rules of logic), and even literacy. The heart (our emotions) can more honestly lead us to the Promised Land, whether it is heaven on earth in the Americas or the Christian afterlife; any textual interference or reflective pondering is necessarily an impediment, one to be suspicious of and avoided.

This lethal combination of the life of the heart and righteous individualism brings about general ignorance and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” (the view that we endorse what we already believe to be true regardless of countervailing evidence). The critique of science, along this trajectory, can be but one of many so-called critiques of anything said or proven by anyone whose ideology we do not endorse. But is this even critique?

Adorno would find this a charade, a pretense that poses as a critique but in reality is a simple dismissal without intellectual engagement, a dogmatic refusal to listen and observe. He definitely would be horrified by Stephen Colbert’s oft-quoted quip on “truthiness” as “the conviction that what you feel to be true must be true.” Even those who resurrect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts,” quietly admit that his admonishment is ignored by media more popular than informed.

On Responsible Critique

But surely there is merit to responsible critiques of science. Weren’t many of these critiques meant to dethrone the unparalleled authority claimed in the name of science, as Fuller admits all along? Wasn’t Lyotard (and Marx before him), for example, correct in pointing out the conflation of power and money in the scientific vortex that could legitimate whatever profit-maximizers desire? In other words, should scientific discourse be put on par with other discourses?  Whose credibility ought to be challenged, and whose truth claims deserve scrutiny? Can we privilege or distinguish science if it is true, as Monya Baker has reported, that “[m]ore than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments” (2016, 1)?

Fuller remains silent about these important and responsible questions about the problematics (methodologically and financially) of reproducing scientific experiments. Baker’s report cites Nature‘s survey of 1,576 researchers and reveals “sometimes-contradictory attitudes towards reproducibility. Although 52% of those surveyed agree that there is a significant ‘crisis’ of reproducibility, less than 31% think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, and most say that they still trust the published literature.” (Ibid.) So, if science relies on reproducibility as a cornerstone of its legitimacy (and superiority over other discourses), and if the results are so dismal, should it not be discredited?

One answer, given by Hans E. Plesser, suggests that there is a confusion between the notions of repeatability (“same team, same experimental setup”), replicability (“different team, same experimental setup”), and reproducibility (“different team, different experimental setup”). If understood in these terms, it stands to reason that one may not get the same results all the time and that this fact alone does not discredit the scientific enterprise as a whole. Nuanced distinctions take us down a scientific rabbit-hole most post-truth advocates refuse to follow. These nuances are lost on a public that demands to know the “bottom line” in brief sound bites: Is science scientific enough, or is it bunk? When can we trust it?

Trump excels at this kind of rhetorical device: repeat a falsehood often enough and people will believe it; and because individual critical faculties are not a prerequisite for citizenship, post-truth means no truth, or whatever the president says is true. Adorno’s distinction of the responsible from the irresponsible political critics comes into play here; but he innocently failed to anticipate the Trumpian move to conflate the political and scientific and pretend as if there is no distinction—methodologically and institutionally—between political and scientific discourses.

With this cultural backdrop, many critiques of science have undermined its authority and thereby lent credence to any dismissal of science (legitimately by insiders and perhaps illegitimately at times by outsiders). Sociologists and postmodernists alike forgot to put warning signs on their academic and intellectual texts: Beware of hasty generalizations! Watch out for wolves in sheep clothes! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

One would think such advisories unnecessary. Yet without such safeguards, internal disputes and critical investigations appear to have unintentionally discredited the entire scientific enterprise in the eyes of post-truth promoters, the Trumpists whose neoliberal spectacles filter in dollar signs and filter out pollution on the horizon. The discrediting of science has become a welcome distraction that opens the way to radical free-market mentality, spanning from the exploitation of free speech to resource extraction to the debasement of political institutions, from courts of law to unfettered globalization. In this sense, internal (responsible) critiques of the scientific community and its internal politics, for example, unfortunately license external (irresponsible) critiques of science, the kind that obscure the original intent of responsible critiques. Post-truth claims at the behest of corporate interests sanction a free for all where the concentrated power of the few silences the concerns of the many.

Indigenous-allied protestors block the entrance to an oil facility related to the Kinder-Morgan oil pipeline in Alberta.
Image by Peg Hunter via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Two: The Politics of Post-Truth

Fuller begins his book about the post-truth condition that permeates the British and American landscapes with a look at our ancient Greek predecessors. According to him, “Philosophers claim to be seekers of the truth but the matter is not quite so straightforward. Another way to see philosophers is as the ultimate experts in a post-truth world” (19). This means that those historically entrusted to be the guardians of truth in fact “see ‘truth’ for what it is: the name of a brand ever in need of a product which everyone is compelled to buy. This helps to explain why philosophers are most confident appealing to ‘The Truth’ when they are trying to persuade non-philosophers, be they in courtrooms or classrooms.” (Ibid.)

Instead of being the seekers of the truth, thinkers who care not about what but how we think, philosophers are ridiculed by Fuller (himself a philosopher turned sociologist turned popularizer and public relations expert) as marketing hacks in a public relations company that promotes brands. Their serious dedication to finding the criteria by which truth is ascertained is used against them: “[I]t is not simply that philosophers disagree on which propositions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’.” (Ibid.)

Some would argue that the criteria by which propositions are judged to be true or false are worthy of debate, rather than the cavalier dismissal of Trumpists. With criteria in place (even if only by convention), at least we know what we are arguing about, as these criteria (even if contested) offer a starting point for critical scrutiny. And this, I maintain, is a task worth performing, especially in the age of pluralism when multiple perspectives constitute our public stage.

In addition to debasing philosophers, it seems that Fuller reserves a special place in purgatory for Socrates (and Plato) for labeling the rhetorical expertise of the sophists—“the local post-truth merchants in fourth century BC Athens”—negatively. (21) It becomes obvious that Fuller is “on their side” and that the presumed debate over truth and its practices is in fact nothing but “whether its access should be free or restricted.” (Ibid.) In this neoliberal reading, it is all about money: are sophists evil because they charge for their expertise? Is Socrates a martyr and saint because he refused payment for his teaching?

Fuller admits, “Indeed, I would have us see both Plato and the Sophists as post-truth merchants, concerned more with the mix of chance and skill in the construction of truth than with the truth as such.” (Ibid.) One wonders not only if Plato receives fair treatment (reminiscent of Popper’s denigration of Plato as supporting totalitarian regimes, while sparing Socrates as a promoter of democracy), but whether calling all parties to a dispute “post-truth merchants” obliterates relevant differences. In other words, have we indeed lost the desire to find the truth, even if it can never be the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Political Indifference to Truth

One wonders how far this goes: political discourse without any claim to truth conditions would become nothing but a marketing campaign where money and power dictate the acceptance of the message. Perhaps the intended message here is that contemporary cynicism towards political discourse has its roots in ancient Greece. Regardless, one should worry that such cynicism indirectly sanctions fascism.

Can the poor and marginalized in our society afford this kind of cynicism? For them, unlike their privileged counterparts in the political arena, claims about discrimination and exploitation, about unfair treatment and barriers to voting are true and evidence based; they are not rhetorical flourishes by clever interlocutors.

Yet Fuller would have none of this. For him, political disputes are games:

[B]oth the Sophists and Plato saw politics as a game, which is to say, a field of play involving some measure of both chance and skill. However, the Sophists saw politics primarily as a game of chance whereas Plato saw it as a game of skill. Thus, the sophistically trained client deploys skill in [the] aid of maximizing chance occurrences, which may then be converted into opportunities, while the philosopher-king uses much the same skills to minimize or counteract the workings of chance. (23)

Fuller could be channeling here twentieth-century game theory and its application in the political arena, or the notion offered by Lyotard when describing the minimal contribution we can make to scientific knowledge (where we cannot change the rules of the game but perhaps find a novel “move” to make). Indeed, if politics is deemed a game of chance, then anything goes, and it really should not matter if an incompetent candidate like Trump ends up winning the American presidency.

But is it really a question of skill and chance? Or, as some political philosophers would argue, is it not a question of the best means by which to bring to fruition the best results for the general wellbeing of a community? The point of suggesting the figure of a philosopher-king, to be sure, was not his rhetorical skills in this conjunction, but instead the deep commitment to rule justly, to think critically about policies, and to treat constituents with respect and fairness. Plato’s Republic, however criticized, was supposed to be about justice, not about expediency; it is an exploration of the rule of law and wisdom, not a manual about manipulation. If the recent presidential election in the US taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of political gamesmanship and focus on experience and knowledge, vision and wisdom.

Out-Gaming Expertise Itself

Fuller would have none of this, either. It seems that there is virtue in being a “post-truther,” someone who can easily switch between knowledge games, unlike the “truther” whose aim is to “strengthen the distinction by making it harder to switch between knowledge games.” (34) In the post-truth realm, then, knowledge claims are lumped into games that can be played at will, that can be substituted when convenient, without a hint of the danger such capricious game-switching might engender.

It’s one thing to challenge a scientific hypothesis about astronomy because the evidence is still unclear (as Stephen Hawking has done in regard to Black Holes) and quite another to compare it to astrology (and give equal hearings to horoscope and Tarot card readers as to physicists). Though we are far from the Demarcation Problem (between science and pseudo-science) of the last century, this does not mean that there is no difference at all between different discourses and their empirical bases (or that the problem itself isn’t worthy of reconsideration in the age of Fuller and Trump).

On the contrary, it’s because we assume difference between discourses (gray as they may be) that we can move on to figure out on what basis our claims can and should rest. The danger, as we see in the political logic of the Trump administration, is that friends become foes (European Union) and foes are admired (North Korea and Russia). Game-switching in this context can lead to a nuclear war.

In Fuller’s hands, though, something else is at work. Speaking of contemporary political circumstances in the UK and the US, he says: “After all, the people who tend to be demonized as ‘post-truth’ – from Brexiteers to Trumpists – have largely managed to outflank the experts at their own game, even if they have yet to succeed in dominating the entire field of play.” (39) Fuller’s celebratory tone here may either bring a slight warning in the use of “yet” before the success “in dominating the entire field of play” or a prediction that indeed this is what is about to happen soon enough.

The neoliberal bottom-line surfaces in this assessment: he who wins must be right, the rich must be smart, and more perniciously, the appeal to truth is beside the point. More specifically, Fuller continues:

My own way of dividing the ‘truthers’ and the ‘post-truthers’ is in terms of whether one plays by the rules of the current knowledge game or one tries to change the rules of the game to one’s advantage. Unlike the truthers, who play by the current rules, the post-truthers want to change the rules. They believe that what passes for truth is relative to the knowledge game one is playing, which means that depending on the game being played, certain parties are advantaged over others. Post-truth in this sense is a recognisably social constructivist position, and many of the arguments deployed to advance ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative science’ nowadays betray those origins. They are talking about worlds that could have been and still could be—the stuff of modal power. (Ibid.)

By now one should be terrified. This is a strong endorsement of lying as a matter of course, as a way to distract from the details (and empirical bases) of one “knowledge game”—because it may not be to one’s ideological liking–in favor of another that might be deemed more suitable (for financial or other purposes).

The political stakes here are too high to ignore, especially because there are good reasons why “certain parties are advantaged over others” (say, climate scientists “relative to” climate deniers who have no scientific background or expertise). One wonders what it means to talk about “alternative facts” and “alternative science” in this context: is it a means of obfuscation? Is it yet another license granted by the “social constructivist position” not to acknowledge the legal liability of cigarette companies for the addictive power of nicotine? Or the pollution of water sources in Flint, Michigan?

What Is the Mark of an Open Society?

If we corral the broader political logic at hand to the governance of the scientific community, as Fuller wishes us to do, then we hear the following:

In the past, under the inspiration of Karl Popper, I have argued that fundamental to the governance of science as an ‘open society’ is the right to be wrong (Fuller 2000a: chap. 1). This is an extension of the classical republican ideal that one is truly free to speak their mind only if they can speak with impunity. In the Athenian and the Roman republics, this was made possible by the speakers–that is, the citizens–possessing independent means which allowed them to continue with their private lives even if they are voted down in a public meeting. The underlying intuition of this social arrangement, which is the epistemological basis of Mill’s On Liberty, is that people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively. The entangled histories of politics, economics and knowledge reveal the difficulties in trying to implement this ideal. Nevertheless, in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified. (109)

To be clear, Fuller not only asks for the “right to be wrong,” but also for the legitimacy of the claim that “people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively.” The first plea is reasonable enough, as humans are fallible (yes, Popper here), and the history of ideas has proven that killing heretics is counterproductive (and immoral). If the Brexit/Trump post-truth age would only usher a greater encouragement for speculation or conjectures (Popper again), then Fuller’s book would be well-placed in the pantheon of intellectual pluralism; but if this endorsement obliterates the silly from the informed conjecture, then we are in trouble and the ensuing cacophony will turn us all deaf.

The second claim is at best supported by the likes of James Surowiecki (2004) who has argued that no matter how uninformed a crowd of people is, collectively it can guess the correct weight of a cow on stage (his TED talk). As folk wisdom, this is charming; as public policy, this is dangerous. Would you like a random group of people deciding how to store nuclear waste, and where? Would you subject yourself to the judgment of just any collection of people to decide on taking out your appendix or performing triple-bypass surgery?

When we turn to Trump, his supporters certainly like that he speaks his mind, just as Fuller says individuals should be granted the right to speak their minds (even if in error). But speaking one’s mind can also be a proxy for saying whatever, without filters, without critical thinking, or without thinking at all (let alone consulting experts whose very existence seems to upset Fuller). Since when did “speaking your mind” turn into scientific discourse? It’s one thing to encourage dissent and offer reasoned doubt and explore second opinions (as health care professionals and insurers expect), but it’s quite another to share your feelings and demand that they count as scientific authority.

Finally, even if we endorse the view that we “collectively” reach the truth, should we not ask: by what criteria? according to what procedure? under what guidelines? Herd mentality, as Nietzsche already warned us, is problematic at best and immoral at worst. Trump rallies harken back to the fascist ones we recall from Europe prior to and during WWII. Few today would entrust the collective judgment of those enthusiasts of the Thirties to carry the day.

Unlike Fuller’s sanguine posture, I shudder at the possibility that “in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified.” This is neither because I worship experts and scorn folk knowledge nor because I have low regard for individuals and their (potentially informative) opinions. Just as we warn our students that simply having an opinion is not enough, that they need to substantiate it, offer data or logical evidence for it, and even know its origins and who promoted it before they made it their own, so I worry about uninformed (even if well-meaning) individuals (and presidents) whose gut will dictate public policy.

This way of unreasonably empowering individuals is dangerous for their own well-being (no paternalism here, just common sense) as well as for the community at large (too many untrained cooks will definitely spoil the broth). For those who doubt my concern, Trump offers ample evidence: trade wars with allies and foes that cost domestic jobs (when promising to bring jobs home), nuclear-war threats that resemble a game of chicken (as if no president before him ever faced such an option), and completely putting into disarray public policy procedures from immigration regulations to the relaxation of emission controls (that ignores the history of these policies and their failures).

Drought and suffering in Arbajahan, Kenya in 2006.
Photo by Brendan Cox and Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Three: Post-Truth Revisited

There is something appealing, even seductive, in the provocation to doubt the truth as rendered by the (scientific) establishment, even as we worry about sowing the seeds of falsehood in the political domain. The history of science is the story of authoritative theories debunked, cherished ideas proven wrong, and claims of certainty falsified. Why not, then, jump on the “post-truth” wagon? Would we not unleash the collective imagination to improve our knowledge and the future of humanity?

One of the lessons of postmodernism (at least as told by Lyotard) is that “post-“ does not mean “after,” but rather, “concurrently,” as another way of thinking all along: just because something is labeled “post-“, as in the case of postsecularism, it doesn’t mean that one way of thinking or practicing has replaced another; it has only displaced it, and both alternatives are still there in broad daylight. Under the rubric of postsecularism, for example, we find religious practices thriving (80% of Americans believe in God, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey), while the number of unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics is on the rise. Religionists and secularists live side by side, as they always have, more or less agonistically.

In the case of “post-truth,” it seems that one must choose between one orientation or another, or at least for Fuller, who claims to prefer the “post-truth world” to the allegedly hierarchical and submissive world of “truth,” where the dominant establishment shoves its truths down the throats of ignorant and repressed individuals. If post-truth meant, like postsecularism, the realization that truth and provisional or putative truth coexist and are continuously being re-examined, then no conflict would be at play. If Trump’s claims were juxtaposed to those of experts in their respective domains, we would have a lively, and hopefully intelligent, debate. False claims would be debunked, reasonable doubts could be raised, and legitimate concerns might be addressed. But Trump doesn’t consult anyone except his (post-truth) gut, and that is troublesome.

A Problematic Science and Technology Studies

Fuller admits that “STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public–if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes”:

  1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
  2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.
  3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.
  4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties. (43)

In that sense, then, Fuller agrees that the positive lessons STS wished for the practice of the scientific community may have inadvertently found their way into a post-truth world that may abuse or exploit them in unintended ways. That is, something like “consensus” is challenged by STS because of how the scientific community pretends to get there knowing as it does that no such thing can ever be reached and when reached it may have been reached for the wrong reasons (leadership pressure, pharmaceutical funding of conferences and journals). But this can also go too far.

Just because consensus is difficult to reach (it doesn’t mean unanimity) and is susceptible to corruption or bias doesn’t mean that anything goes. Some experimental results are more acceptable than others and some data are more informative than others, and the struggle for agreement may take its political toll on the scientific community, but this need not result in silly ideas about cigarettes being good for our health or that obesity should be encouraged from early childhood.

It seems important to focus on Fuller’s conclusion because it encapsulates my concern with his version of post-truth, a condition he endorses not only in the epistemological plight of humanity but as an elixir with which to cure humanity’s ills:

While some have decried recent post-truth campaigns that resulted in victory for Brexit and Trump as ‘anti-intellectual’ populism, they are better seen as the growth pains of a maturing democratic intelligence, to which the experts will need to adjust over time. Emphasis in this book has been given to the prospect that the lines of intellectual descent that have characterised disciplinary knowledge formation in the academy might come to be seen as the last stand of a political economy based on rent-seeking. (130)

Here, we are not only afforded a moralizing sermon about (and it must be said, from) the academic privileged position, from whose heights all other positions are dismissed as anti-intellectual populism, but we are also entreated to consider the rantings of the know-nothings of the post-truth world as the “growing pains of a maturing democratic intelligence.” Only an apologist would characterize the Trump administration as mature, democratic, or intelligent. Where’s the evidence? What would possibly warrant such generosity?

It’s one thing to challenge “disciplinary knowledge formation” within the academy, and there are no doubt cases deserving reconsideration as to the conditions under which experts should be paid and by whom (“rent-seeking”); but how can these questions about higher education and the troubled relations between the university system and the state (and with the military-industrial complex) give cover to the Trump administration? Here is Fuller’s justification:

One need not pronounce on the specific fates of, say, Brexit or Trump to see that the post-truth condition is here to stay. The post-truth disrespect for established authority is ultimately offset by its conceptual openness to previously ignored people and their ideas. They are encouraged to come to the fore and prove themselves on this expanded field of play. (Ibid)

This, too, is a logical stretch: is disrespect for the authority of the establishment the same as, or does it logically lead to, the “conceptual” openness to previously “ignored people and their ideas”? This is not a claim on behalf of the disenfranchised. Perhaps their ideas were simply bad or outright racist or misogynist (as we see with Trump). Perhaps they were ignored because there was hope that they would change for the better, become more enlightened, not act on their white supremacist prejudices. Should we have “encouraged” explicit anti-Semitism while we were at it?

Limits to Tolerance

We tolerate ignorance because we believe in education and hope to overcome some of it; we tolerate falsehood in the name of eventual correction. But we should never tolerate offensive ideas and beliefs that are harmful to others. Once again, it is one thing to argue about black holes, and quite another to argue about whether black lives matter. It seems reasonable, as Fuller concludes, to say that “In a post-truth utopia, both truth and error are democratised.” It is also reasonable to say that “You will neither be allowed to rest on your laurels nor rest in peace. You will always be forced to have another chance.”

But the conclusion that “Perhaps this is why some people still prefer to play the game of truth, no matter who sets the rules” (130) does not follow. Those who “play the game of truth” are always vigilant about falsehoods and post-truth claims, and to say that they are simply dupes of those in power is both incorrect and dismissive. On the contrary: Socrates was searching for the truth and fought with the sophists, as Popper fought with the logical positivists and the Kuhnians, and as scientists today are searching for the truth and continue to fight superstitions and debunked pseudoscience about vaccination causing autism in young kids.

If post-truth is like postsecularism, scientific and political discourses can inform each other. When power-plays by ignoramus leaders like Trump are obvious, they could shed light on less obvious cases of big pharma leaders or those in charge of the EPA today. In these contexts, inconvenient facts and truths should prevail and the gamesmanship of post-truthers should be exposed for what motivates it.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

* Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis of Brown University, whose contribution to my critical thinking about this topic has been profound.

References

Theodor W. Adorno (1998/1963), Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press

Kurt Andersen (2017), Fantasyland: How America Went Hotwire: A 500-Year History. New York: Random House

Monya Baker, “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility,” Nature Vol. 533, Issue 7604, 5/26/16 (corrected 7/28/16)

Michael Bowker (2003), Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York: Rodale.

Robert Darnton, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” New York Review of Books Vo. LXV, No. 11 6/28/18, pp. 68-72.

Al Gore (2006), An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Rodale.

Richard Hofstadter (1962), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Jean- François Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robert K. Merton (1973/1942), “The Normative Structure of Science,” The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 267-278.

Hans E. Plesser, “Reproducibility vs. Replicability: A Brief History of Confused Terminology,” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 2017; 11: 76; online: 1/18/18.

Robert N. Proctor (1995), Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books.

James Surowiecki (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, Social Epistemology Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “The True Shape of a Society of Friends.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 40-45.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Zv

From the March for Justice for Police Violence in December 2014.
Sassower’s book does not directly touch on themes of institutional corruption, like the racialization of police forces as they act with undue violence and exploitation toward minority populations. But the communitarian moralities he thinks can overcome capitalism also has the potential to build progress here. More material for that sequel.
Image by All-Nite Images via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

As a work of philosophy, of political economy, of institutional analysis, Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity has only one shortcoming. It makes for a tantalizing setup for his next work, and gives a reader the distinct impression that we are in store for a stunning sequel. Its title would be something like The Nature of Prosperity, or Remaking Prosperity. To the detriment of the actually existing book, reading The Quest for Prosperity makes you want desperately to read Remaking Prosperity, which unfortunately does not exist.

The Quest for Prosperity itself is a brilliant book, synthesizing many different concepts and images from several disciplines and traditions in the history of Western thought. It is a thoroughly researched and beautifully composed groundwork for a groundbreaking new philosophical approach to political economy.

The book drags a little in part three, which catalogues several hilariously inadequate new visions of prosperity that are unfortunately popular today. It would be news to someone who has only heard the hype of Silicon Valley and other ideologies similarly twisted to make working people desire their own slavery. But the average Washington Post, Manchester Guardian, or even Bloomberg News reader or fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley should already understand the toxic lifestyle PR of these moneyed industries.

As for that groundwork for the groundbreaking, the final two chapters offer a tantalizing glimpse of a work that explores the existence and revolutionary potential of the communitarian values underlying several disparate existing institutions. Unfortunately, it remains only a glimpse.

Economies of Scale

Sassower’s book revolves around an important ethical critique of contemporary capitalism and the culture of business and entrepreneurship that has grown so popular this century. In uncritically capitalist ways of thinking, there is only one set of terms in which people, social networks, technology, building and city architecture, institutions, organizations, ecologies, territories, and ideas are valued: their monetary potential. Such a morality of valuation reduces all that exists, including human identity itself, to a single dimension of ethical worth, and a petty-minded one at that.

The typical narratives to validate and venerate the contemporary economic order often appeal to images and concepts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith is a touchstone for Sassower as well, but he is wise not to linger on the image of the “invisible hand” that haunts the populist imagery of harmony through competition. Sassower instead focusses on how Smith describes the molecular connections of market exchanges – vendors and tradespeople buying and selling from each other in a town marketplace.

In the marketplaces where capitalist exchange begins, the individuals making money from each other are not themselves competitors. Their relationships are collegial friendships among professionals, and Smith describes their interaction as “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” So when a community’s prosperity flows from its markets and commercial exchanges, that prosperity is not a product of competition, but of friendliness. (Sassower 60-61)

In such a social atmosphere, a community of people constitutes itself easily from the everyday interactions of the marketplace, where people develop feelings of love at a low intensity for the neighbours who sustain their lives. Relationships of everyday economic exchange occur at such a personal level that the mutual benefit of such exchange is a straightforward fact, discovered through quotidian observation. They are, as Sassower describes them, “sympathetic neighbours.” (Sassower 90-91)

The rapaciousness and greed typical of contemporary business cultures could not arise from such relationship networks of friendly truck and barter. The network’s members connect by dynamics of mutual sympathy. Such a network would not be able to sustain business practices characterized by the greed and hostility into which many young professionals are socialized in the 21st century’s most intense economic hubs. Greed and cheating would result in your immediate expulsion from the marketplace, having betrayed the friendships of the others in the network.

Such sympathetic neighbourliness could most easily be overcome with an outside disturbance. For our case, that disturbance was the flow of massive economic income to those small marketplaces. This was the income of industrialization and colonialism. Speaking more descriptively, it was the income of exponential energy growth in domestic manufacturing, and a huge influx of many kinds of wealth from distant continents (raw materials, currency metals like gold and silver, agricultural goods, slaves).

These enormous flows of capital are too large for truck and barter, too massive to engage instinctual human sympathy. As the stakes of economic activity grow hugely higher, this depersonalization of economic activity leaves a person adrift in commercial exchange. Unable to form the same intimate connections as in the far less intense marketplace exchange, the alienated, angry approach to business as a zero-sum game. No longer sympathy and friendliness, but fear and aggression characterize the psychology of someone engaging with this sort of economic system in daily life. (Sassower 105)

Art by Shepard Fairey. Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr / Creative Commons

What Would a Virtuous Oligarch Be?

In an economic system where capital flows massively overpower the capacity for everyday personal relationship networks to manage them, business life tends to condition people psychologically and morally into sociopaths. This problem of the depersonalized economy remains a wall in The Quest for Prosperity that, on its own terms, is insoluble. On its own terms, it likely is impossible to restore the virtue of sympathy to the psychological tendencies of people growing up in a high-intensity industrial capitalist economy. Sassower therefore forges an alternative image of the economic leader.

If capitalism can only express justice when the mega-rich are generally benevolent, community-minded people who care about their neighbours regardless of wealth, breeding, or class, then Sassower can at least describe how an oligarch could become kind. He identifies one economic principle, the recognition of which begins to transform an oligarch from a greedy sociopath to a personal ethic of rationally-justified sympathy. That principle is demand-centric economics.

This is a simple economic principle, fairly well-known in popular culture. If too many people in a society are in poverty, then the economy will stagnate from cratering demand; too few people will have enough money to spend, even for basic necessities. When a very wealthy person accepts this principle, he consents to submit a healthy portion of his income to taxation so that government services can close these poverty gaps. A business owner who accepts the principle of demand-centric economics will pay the workers in his business more, so that their spending can continue to drive economic development (Sassower 123-124).

Demand-centric thinking in economics has not been a major principle in how government policy on incomes and wealth inequality has developed over the last 40 years. The Reagan-Thatcher era of Western governance took the opposite principle, supply-side or trickle-down economics, as gospel. This is the notion that as the wealthy’s tax burden becomes lower and lower, they will spend more of that money in capital investment, backing new business ventures, and expanding private-sector employment.

Although the policy was widely mocked in popular culture from its first emergence, it has become the foundation of tax policy for all the largest political parties in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and among almost all conservative or centrist parties in Europe. Despite its success as legislature, the material consequences have been disastrous, as supply-side tax policies have decimated social democratic institutions throughout the West, intensifying economic precarity for millions across Europe and the Americas.

Why supply-side economics succeeded in becoming, until recently, uncontested common sense in popular culture and state-level politics is its intuitiveness in particular contexts. If an ordinary person’s annual income rises from $40,000 to $50,000, she will spend more money. The supply-side propagandist then derives a universal principle: If you have more money, you will spend more money. With that generality in hand, a principle that applies at middle-class incomes will be taken to hold at oligarchical incomes.

This is, of course, false, for three reasons that Sassower describes. One, personal consumption cannot proceed at an intensity of millions or billions of dollars each year. Two, most of that massive personal income never returns to their domestic economies anyway, and is instead burrowed in tax havens. Three, the capital investment industry no longer focusses on supplying startup funding for businesses. (Sassower 116)

Instead, global finance investment concentrates on the day-to-day trading of stocks in already existing companies, securities bundles, and speculation on the future value of stocks, securities, and currencies. High-frequency trading is a blatant sign that these investments are not for reinvestment into the productive economy. In this practice, a firm’s single algorithm will make millions of trades each day, based on its analyses of minute-to-minute market fluctuations. (Sassower 117)

Turning these massive fortunes away from the communities of non-rich people in their surroundings and around the world is a subtle but harrowing moral failure, considering the many hundreds of billions of dollars are wrapped entirely in these trading concerns.

A Fantastic Book That Falls Short of Its Potential

An economy of oligarchial inequality produces an elite for whom the purpose of living is cartoonishly grotesque personal self-enrichment. Such an economy as the one we live in today on Earth also deranges those who have virtually no wealth at all compared to these titans of mass ownership and securities gambling.

Anxiety over a precarious life of low pay and debt maintenance consumes all personal energy to help others. That anxiety encourages hatred of others as desperation and stress pervert any reflective capacity for long-term judgment into a paranoid social reflexivity. Reduced to egotistic, short-term thinking and habituated into distrust and hostility toward others, the poor become easy prey for financial fraud. The payday loan industry is built on this principle. Poverty does not breed virtue, but fear and rage.

This ties to what I think is the only notable flaw in The Quest for Prosperity. Stylistically, the book suffers from a common issue for many new research books in the humanities and social sciences. Its argument loses some momentum as it approaches the conclusion, and ends up in a more modest, self-restrained place than its opening chapters promised. How he does so reveals the far more profound shortcoming of Sassower’s book.

Sassower is admirable and innovative in his call to regenerate communitarian philosophy as a politically engaged popular intervention. His method is a philosophical examination of how four quite disparate civic institutions express effective communitarian ethics in their habitual structure and behavioural norms. The Catholic and some other Christian Churches socialize its dedicated members as “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), whose primary economic concern is safeguarding people from the indignity of poverty. (Sassower 242-247)

The Israeli kibbutz movement governs distribution of goods and the financial results of their community’s work literally according to Marx’s principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Countercultural communes in North America operated according to similar rules of management as kibbutzim, but with quite different moral orientation. Kibbutz political philosophy is a secularized agrarian marxism organized around a utopian purpose of building a communal Zion where all oppressed people of the world can live in a Jewish homeland.

American counterculture communes sought to create a living alternative to the immanent political problem of rapacious capitalism’s continuation of genocidal imperialism. Sassower also offers a phenomenological exploration of how military training builds strong interpersonal bonds of solidarity, a communitarianism among soldiers.

All these templates for communitarian alternatives to the increasingly brutal culture of contemporary capitalism share an important common feature that is very dangerous for Sassower’s project. They are each rooted in civic institutions, material social structures for education and socialization. Contrary to how Sassower speaks of these four inspirations, civil rights and civic institutions alone are not enough to build and sustain a community each member of whom holds a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in her heart.

The Impotence of Civil Rights

You may consider it a bit excessive that a book review would include a brief argument that civic institutions are not on their own adequate to ensure and maintain the freedom and dignity of the people who live in their domain. Nonetheless, Sassower wrote The Quest for Prosperity with an ambition of a similar scope, critiquing fundamental concepts of contemporary ideology and economic morality as part of an argument for communitarian alternatives. So I will maintain my own intensity of ambition with his.

There are two reasons why civic institutions alone, while needed, are not sufficient to overcome with communitarian values the ambitions of people to become oligarchs. Each of the two reasons is a different philosophical approach to the same empirical fact about human social capacities and institutions.

I first want to mention a logical reason. This is the simple fact that, conceptually speaking, law is not itself a material power. There is nothing about the law, as law, that compels your conformity to itself. There may be a moral motive to obey the law, whether that moral reason is a universal imperative or the injunction of social pressure. There may be a coercive motive to obey the law, as when you are under threat of police violence such as arrest, imprisonment, torture, or summary execution. Most often, people obey the law for practical reasons, as when a government’s legislation and regulations structure institutions we need to manage our techno-industrial society. But law alone is not justice, and so compels no obedience.

Law having no power to compel obedience, the existence of laws prohibiting violence against human rights does nothing to prevent such violence. If recognition of the law were all that was needed for obedience, then laws would never be violated. Only some material power, existing in addition to those laws, can ensure their application in managing the actions of a population.

The ultimate material power in the application of the law are state institutions, and any related institutions they support. Raising money through taxation, investment in industrial developments, and central bank mechanisms, states fund law enforcement institutions like courts, rehabilitation centres, prosecutors, and police. But even in institutions whose laws promise equal and fair treatment, individuals operating within those institutions can still use material power to give themselves unfair advantage over the less powerful.

Consider a civil suit whose defendant must make do with the cheapest legal representation in Albuquerque, but whose plaintiff walks into court with Alan Dershowitz at his side. Consider also the many instances where the power of institutions and institutionally-reinforced morality of solidarity encourages police abuse of citizens.

An individual officer may coerce sex from women under threat of arrest, or shoot a civilian with little or no cause; fellow officers or police unions will cover for him. An entire police department will prey on citizens as a matter of policy, as in many cities in the United States whose municipal police departments require a minimum (and growing) number of misdemeanor and bylaw violation fines for budgetary purposes. One of those such cities, incidentally, is Ferguson, Missouri.

The Impossibility of Prosperity?

I give these illustrations to emphasize the ethical importance of the fundamental purpose driving The Quest for Prosperity. Most of the book is taken up by Sassower’s clear and insightful argument for why contemporary capitalism is a moral and ethical disaster. The Quest for Prosperity is a stellar addition to this tradition of critical thought that has accompanied industrial development since its beginning.

Sassower takes a more noble stand than a critique, however, in proposing an alternative to capitalist practice for the domain most essential to resisting and overcoming industrial and economic injustice: public morality and personal ethics. His analysis of existing institutions and societies that foster communitarian moralities and ethics is detailed enough to show promise, but unfortunately so brief as to leave us without guidance or strategy to fulfill that promise.

My illustrations – deep pockets undermining a court’s fairness, police predation and corruption – describe real injustices rooted in the greed and hatred facilitated through capitalism and the racism that turns the exploited against each other. They are here to remind thinkers who are likewise against such injustice of the urgency of our challenges.

Sassower has offered communitarian approaches to morality and ethics as solutions to those challenges of injustice. I think his direction is very promising. But The Quest for Prosperity offers only a sign. If his next book is to fulfill the promise of this one, he must explore the possibilities opened up by the following questions.

Can communitarian values overcome the allure of greed? What kind of social, political, and economic structures would we need to achieve that utopian goal?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Sassower, Raphael. The Quest for Prosperity. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Author Information: Stephen John, Cambridge University, sdj22@cam.ac.uk

John, Stephen. “Transparency, Well-Ordered Science, and Paternalism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 30-33.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Zf

See also:

Image by Sergio Santos and http://nursingschoolsnearme.com, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Should a physician tell you that you have cancer, even if she thinks this would cause you needless distress? Of course she should! How, though, should she convey that news? Imagine three, stylised options. Dr Knowsbest is certain you should have your cancer operated on, so tells you the news in a way which vividly highlights the horrors of cancer, but downplays the risk of an operation.

Dr Neutral, by contrast, simply lists all of the facts about your cancer, your prognosis, your possible treatment options, their likely benefits and risks and so on. Finally, Dr Sensitive reports only those aspects of your condition and those risks of surgery which she judges that you, given your values and interests, would want to know about.

Many Methods to Reveal

We can, I hope, all agree that Dr Knowsbest’s communicative strategies and choices are ethically problematic, because she acts in a paternalistic manner. By contrast, Dr Neutral does not act paternalistically. In this regard, at least, Dr Neutral’s strategies are ethically preferable to Dr Knowsbest’s strategies. What about the choice between Knowsbest and Sensititve? In one sense, Dr Sensitive acts paternalistically, because she controls and structures the flow of information with the aim of improving your well-being.

However, there is an important difference between Dr Sensitive and Dr Knowsbest; the former aims solely to improve your epistemic well-being, such that you can better make a choice which aligns with your own values, whereas the latter aims to influence or override your judgment. Knowsbest’s “moral paternalism” is wrong for reasons which are absent in the case of Sensitive’s “epistemic paternalism” (Ahlstrom-Vij, 2013).

Therefore, plausibly, both the Neutral and Sensitive strategies are ethically preferable to Knowsbest; What, though, of the choice between these two communicative strategies? First, I am not certain that it is even possible to report all the facts in a neutral way (for more, see below.) Second, even if it is possible, Dr Sensitive’s strategy seems preferable; her strategy, if successful, positively promotes – as opposed to merely failing to interfere with – your ability to make autonomous choices.

At least at an abstract, ideal level, then, we have good reason to want informants who do more than merely list facts, but who are sensitive to their audiences’ epistemic situation and abilities and their evaluative commitments; we want experts who “well-lead” us. In my recent paper in Social Epistemology, I argued that that certain widely-endorsed norms for science communication are, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, dangerous (John 2018). We should be against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.

It’s a Bit Provocative

One way of understanding that paper is as following from the abstract ideal of sensitive communication, combined with various broadly sociological facts (for example, about how audiences identify experts). I understand why my article put Moore in mind of a paradigm case of paternalism. However, reflection on the hypothetical example suggests we should also be against “anti-paternalism” as a norm for science communication; not because Knowsbest’s strategy is fine, but, rather, because the term “paternalism” tends to bundle together a wide range of practices, not all of which are ethically problematic, and some of which promote – rather than hinder – audiences’ autonomy.

Beyond the accusation of paternalism, Moore’s rich and provocative response focuses on my scepticism about transparency. While I argued that a “folk philosophy of science” can lead audiences to distrust experts who are, in fact, trustworthy, he uses the example of HIV-AIDS activism to point to the epistemic benefits of holding scientists to account, suggesting that “it is at least possible that the process of engaging with and responding to criticism can lead to learning on both sides and the production, ultimately, of better science”. I agree entirely that such a dynamic is possible; indeed, his example shows it does happen!

However, conceding this possibility does not show that we must endorse a norm of transparency, because, ultimately, the costs may still be greater than the benefits. Much here depends on the mechanisms by which transparency and engagement are enacted. Moore suggests one model for such engagement, via the work of “trust proxies”, such as ACT-UP. As he acknowledges, however, although proxies may be better-placed than lay-people to identify when science is flawed, we now create a new problem for the non-expert: to adapt a distinction from Goldman’s work, we must decide which “putative proxies” are “true proxies” (Goldman, 2001).

Plausibly, this problem is even harder than Goldman’s problem of distinguishing the “true experts” among the “putative experts”; because in the latter case, we have some sense of the credentials and so on which signal experthood. Again, I am tempted to say, then, that it is unclear that transparency, openness or engagement will necessarily lead to better, rather than worse, socio-epistemic outcomes.

Knowledge From Observation and Practice

Does that mean my arguments against transparency are in the clear? No. First, many of the issues here turn on the empirical details; maybe careful institutional design can allow us to identify trustworthy trust-proxies, whose work promotes good science. Second, and more importantly, the abstract model of sensitive communication is an ideal. In practice, it is easy to fail to meet this ideal, in ways which undermine, rather than respect or promote, hearers’ autonomy.

For example, rather than tailor her communication to what her audiences do care about, Dr Sensitive might tailor what she says to what she thinks they ought to care about; as a result, she might leave out information which is relevant to their choices given their values, while including information which is irrelevant. An influential strain in recent philosophy of science suggests that non-epistemic value judgments do and must run deep in practices of justification; as such, even a bald report of what a study showed may, implicitly, encode or endorse value judgments which are not shared by the audience (Douglas, 2000).

Reporting claims when, and only when, they meet a certain confidence level may, for example, implicitly rely on assumptions about the relative disvalue of false positives and false negatives; in turn, it may be difficult to justify such assumptions without appeal to non-epistemic values (John, 2015). As such, even Dr Neutral may be unable to avoid communicating in ways which are truly sensitive to her audience’s values. In short, it may be hard to handover our epistemic autonomy to experts without also handing over our moral autonomy.

This problem means that, for research to be trustworthy, requires more than that the researchers’ claims are true, but that they are claims which are, at least, neutral and, at best, aligned with, audiences’ values. Plausibly, regardless greater engagement and transparency may help ensure such value alignment. One might understand the example of ACT-UP along these lines: activist engagement ensured that scientists did “good science” not only in a narrow, epistemic sense of “good” – more or more accurate data and hypotheses were generated – but in a broader sense of being “well-ordered”, producing knowledge that better reflected the concerns and interests of the broader community (Kitcher, 2003).

Whether engagement improves epistemic outcomes narrowly construed is a contingent matter, heavily dependent on the details of the case. By contrast, engagement may be necessary for science to be “well-ordered”. In turn, transparency may be necessary for such engagement. At least, that is the possibility I would push were I to criticise my own conclusions in line with Moore’s concerns.

A Final Sting

Unfortunately, there is a sting in the tail. Developing effective frameworks for engagement and contestation may require us to accept that scientific research is not, and cannot be, fully “value free”. To the extent that such an assumption is a commitment of our “folk philosophy of science”, then developing the kind of rigorous engagement which Moore wants may do as much to undermine, as promote, our trust in true experts. Moore is surely right that the dynamics of trust and distrust are even more complex than my paper suggested; unfortunately, they might be even more complex again than he suggests.

Contact details: sdj22@cam.ac.uk

References

Ahlstrom-Vij, K. (2013). Epistemic paternalism: a defence. Springer

Douglas, H. (2000). Inductive risk and values in science. Philosophy of science, 67(4), 559-579.

Goldman, A (2001) “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63(1), 85–110.

John, S. (2015). Inductive risk and the contexts of communication. Synthese, 192(1), 79-96.

John, S. (2018). Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty. Social Epistemology, 32(2), 75-87.

Kitcher, P. (2003). Science, truth, and democracy. Oxford University Press.

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech, damienw7@vt.edu

Williams, Damien. “Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 64-69.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3US

Image by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.[1]

Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.

Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.

Vallor breaks the work into three parts, and takes as her subject what she considers to be the four major world-changing technologies of the 21st century.  The book’s three parts are, “Foundations for a Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” “Cultivating the Self: Classical Virtue Traditions as Contemporary Guide,” and “Meeting the Future with Technomoral Wisdom, OR How To Live Well with Emerging Technologies.” The four world changing technologies, considered at length in Part III, are Social Media, Surveillance, Robotics/Artificial Intelligence, and Biomedical enhancement technologies.[2]

As Vallor moves through each of the three sections and four topics, she maintains a constant habit of returning to the questions of exactly how each one will either help us cultivate a new technomoral virtue ethic, or how said ethic would need to be cultivated, in order to address it. As both a stylistic and pedagogical choice, this works well, providing touchstones of reinforcement that mirror the process of intentional cultivation she discusses throughout the book.

Flourishing and Technology

In Part I, “Foundations,” Vallor covers both the definitions of her terms and the argument for her project. Chapter 1, “Virtue Ethics, Technology, and Human Flourishing,” begins with the notion of virtue as a continuum that gets cultivated, rather than a fixed end point of achievement. She notes that while there are many virtue traditions with their own ideas about what it means to flourish, there is a difference between recognizing multiple definitions of flourishing and a purely relativist claim that all definitions of flourishing are equal.[3] Vallor engages these different understandings of flourishing, throughout the text, but she also looks at other ethical traditions, to explore how they would handle the problem of technosocial opacity.

Without resorting to strawmen, Vallor examines The Kantian Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism, in turn. She demonstrates that Kant’s ethics would result in us trying to create codes of behavior that are either always right, or always wrong (“Never Murder;” “Always Tell the Truth”), and Utilitarian consequentialism would allow us to make excuses for horrible choices in the name of “the Greater Good.” Which is to say nothing of how nebulous, variable, and incommensurate all of our understandings of “utility” and “good” will be with each other. Vallor says that rigid rules-based nature of each of these systems simply can’t account for the variety of experiences and challenges humans are likely to face in life.

Not only that, but deontological and consequentialist ethics have always been this inflexible, and this inflexibility will only be more of a problem in the face of the challenges posed by the speed and potency of the four abovementioned technologies.[4] Vallor states that the technologies of today are more likely to facilitate a “technological convergence,” in which they “merge synergistically” and become more powerful and impactful than the sum of their parts. She says that these complex, synergistic systems of technology cannot be responded to and grappled with via rigid rules.[5]

Vallor then folds in discussion of several of her predecessors in the philosophy of technology—thinkers like Hans Jonas and Albert Borgmann—giving a history of the conceptual frameworks by which philosophers have tried to deal with technological drift and lurch. From here, she decides that each of these theorists has helped to get us part of the way, but their theories all need some alterations in order to fully succeed.[6]

In Chapter 2, “The Case for a Global Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” Vallor explores the basic tenets of Aristotelian, Confucian, and Buddhist ethics, laying the groundwork for the new system she hopes to build. She explores each of their different perspectives on what constitutes The Good Life in moderate detail, clearly noting that there are some aspects of these systems that are incommensurate with “virtue” and “good” as we understand them, today.[7] Aristotle, for instance, believed that some people were naturally suited to be slaves, and that women were morally and intellectually inferior to men, and the Buddha taught that women would always have a harder time attaining the enlightenment of Nirvana.

Rather than simply attempting to repackage old ones for today’s challenges, these ancient virtue traditions can teach us something about the shared commitments of virtue ethics, more generally. Vallor says that what we learn from them will fuel the project of building a wholly new virtue tradition. To discuss their shared underpinnings, she talks about “thick” and “thin” moral concepts.[8] A thin moral concept is defined here as only the “skeleton of an idea” of morality, while a thick concept provides the rich details that make each tradition unique. If we look at the thin concepts, Vallor says, we can see the bone structure of these traditions is made of 4 shared commitments:

  • To the Highest Human Good (whatever that may be);
  • That moral virtues understood to be cultivated states of character;
  • To a practical path of moral self-cultivation; and
  • That we can have a conception of what humans are generally like.[9]

Vallor uses these commitments to build a plausible definition of “flourishing,” looking at things like intentional practice within a global community toward moral goods internal to that practice, a set of criteria from Alasdair MacIntyre which she adopts and expands on, [10] These goals are never fully realized, but always worked toward, and always with a community. All of this is meant to be supported by and to help foster goods like global community, intercultural understanding, and collective human wisdom.

We need a global technomoral virtue ethics because while the challenges we face require ancient virtues such as courage and charity and community, they’re now required to handle ethical deliberations at a scope the world has never seen.

But Vallor says that a virtue tradition, new or old, need not be universal in order to do real, lasting work; it only needs to be engaged in by enough people to move the global needle. And while there may be differences in rendering these ideas from one person or culture to the next, if we do the work of intentional cultivation of a pluralist ethics, then we can work from diverse standpoints, toward one goal.[11]

To do this, we will need to intentionally craft both ourselves and our communities and societies. This is because not everyone considers the same goods as good, and even our agreed-upon values play out in vastly different ways when they’re sought by billions of different people in complex, fluid situations.[12] Only with intention can we exclude systems which group things like intentional harm and acceleration of global conflict under the umbrella of “technomoral virtues.”

Cultivating Techno-Ethics

Part II does the work of laying out the process of technomoral cultivation. Vallor’s goal is to examine what we can learn by focusing on the similarities and crucial differences of other virtue traditions. Starting in chapter 3, Vallor once again places Aristotle, Kongzi (Confucius), and the Buddha in conceptual conversation, asking what we can come to understand from each. From there, she moves on to detailing the actual process of cultivating the technomoral self, listing seven key intentional practices that will aid in this:

  • Moral Habituation
  • Relational Understanding
  • Reflective Self-Examination
  • Intentional Self-Direction of Moral Development
  • Perceptual Attention to Moral Salience
  • Prudential Judgment
  • Appropriate Extension of Moral Concern[13]

Vallor moves through each of these in turn, taking the time to show how each step resonates with the historical virtue traditions she’s used as orientation markers, thus far, while also highlighting key areas of their divergence from those past theories.

Vallor says that the most important thing to remember is that each step is a part of a continual process of training and becoming; none of them is some sort of final achievement by which we will “become moral,” and some are that less than others. Moral Habituation is the first step on this list, because it is the quality at the foundation of all of the others: constant cultivation of the kind of person you want to be. And, we have to remember that while all seven steps must be undertaken continually, they also have to be undertaken communally. Only by working with others can we build systems and societies necessary to sustain these values in the world.

In Chapter 6, “Technomoral Wisdom for an Uncertain Future,” Vallor provides “a taxonomy of technomoral virtues.”[14] The twelve concepts she lists—honesty, self-control, humility, justice, courage, empathy, care, civility, flexibility, perspective, magnanimity, and technomoral wisdom—are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible technomoral virtues.

Rather, these twelve things together form system by which to understand the most crucial qualities for dealing with our 21st century lives. They’re all listed with “associated virtues,” which help provide a boarder and deeper sense of the kinds of conceptual connections we can achieve via relational engagement with all virtues.[15] Each member of the list should support and be supported by not only the other members, but also any as-yet-unknown or -undiscovered virtues.

Here, Vallor continues a pattern she’s established throughout the text of grounding potentially unfamiliar concepts in a frame of real-life technological predicaments from the 20th or 21st century. Scandals such as Facebook privacy controversies, the flash crash of 2010, or even the moral stances (or lack thereof) of CEO’s and engineers are discussed with a mind toward highlighting the final virtue: Technomoral Wisdom.[16] Technomoral Wisdom is a means of being able to unify the other virtues, and to understand the ways in which our challenges interweave with and reflect each other. In this way we can both cultivate virtuous responses within ourselves and our existing communities, and also begin to more intentionally create new individual, cultural, and global systems.

Applications and Transformations

In Part III, Vallor puts to the test everything that we’ve discussed so far, placing all of the principles, practices, and virtues in direct, extensive conversation with the four major technologies that frame the book. Exploring how new social media, surveillance cultures, robots and AI, and biomedical enhancement technologies are set to shape our world in radically new ways, and how we can develop new habits of engagement with them. Each technology is explored in its own chapter so as to better explore which virtues best suit which topic, which good might be expressed by or in spite of each field, and which cultivation practices will be required within each. In this way, Vallor highlights the real dangers of failing to skillfully adapt to the requirements of each of these unprecedented challenges.

While Vallor considers most every aspect of this project in great detail, there are points throughout the text where she seems to fall prey to some of the same technological pessimism, utopianism, or determinism for which she rightly calls out other thinkers, in earlier chapters. There is still a sense that these technologies are, of their nature, terrifying, and that all we can do is rein them in.

Additionally, her crucial point seems to be that through intentional cultivation of the self and our society, or that through our personally grappling with these tasks, we can move the world, a stance which leaves out, for instance, notions of potential socioeconomic or political resistance to these moves. There are those with a vested interest in not having a more mindful and intentional technomoral ethos, because that would undercut how they make their money. However, it may be that this is Vallor’s intent.

The audience and goal for this book seems to be ethicists who will be persuaded to become philosophers of technology, who will then take up this book’s understandings and go speak to policy makers and entrepreneurs, who will then make changes in how they deal with the public. If this is the case, then there will already be a shared conceptual background between Vallor and many of the other scholars whom she intends to make help her to do the hard work of changing how people think about their values. But those philosophers will need a great deal more power, oversight authority, and influence to effectively advocate for and implement what Vallor suggests, here, and we’ll need sociopolitical mechanisms for making those valuative changes, as well.

While the implications of climate catastrophes, dystopian police states, just-dumb-enough AI, and rampant gene hacking seem real, obvious, and avoidable to many of us, many others take them as merely naysaying distractions from the good of technosocial progress and the ever-innovating free market.[17] With that in mind, we need tools with which to begin the process of helping people understand why they ought to care about technomoral virtue, even when they have such large, driving incentives not to.

Without that, we are simply presenting people who would sell everything about us for another dollar with the tools by which to make a more cultivated, compassionate, and interrelational world, and hoping that enough of them understand the virtue of those tools, before it is too late. Technology and the Virtues is a fantastic schematic for a set of these tools.

Contact details: damienw7@vt.edu

References

Vallor, Shannon. Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[1] Shannon Vallor, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) ,6.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 19—21.

[4] Ibid., 22—26.

[5] Ibid. 28.

[6] Ibid., 28—32.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 45—47.

[11] Ibid., 54—55.

[12] Ibid., 51.

[13] Ibid., 64.

[14] Ibid., 119.

[15] Ibid., 120.

[16] Ibid., 122—154.

[17] Ibid., 249—254.

Author Information: Ayesha Hardison, University of Kansas, hardison@ku.edu

Hardison, Ayesha. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 56-63.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3UA

Please refer to:

Image by Trojan_Llama via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

To acknowledge Jane Crow, the term Pauli Murray contrived to unmask black women’s intersecting race and gender oppression, is not the same as understanding how black women’s subjection works—or why it persists. In “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” Kristie Dotson defines Jane Crow as a system of practices subjugating black women materially and epistemologically. That is, Jane Crow restricts black women’s inalienable rights to citizenship and limits their equitable access to resources.

Moreover, Jane Crow forecloses comprehension of the disenfranchisement it engenders. Dotson explains, “The complex bind of Jane Crow subordination is constituted by occupying simultaneous hyper-visibility, i.e. membership in social categories policed and suppressed for the maintenance of some form of supremacy, and invisibility, i.e. the limited nature of using those social categories to understand the specific nature of the subordination in question.”[1] Jane Crow, Dotson argues, singles out black women and girls for repression and control and summarily casts them as ciphers, nonentities “hidden in plain sight” despite statistics documenting their plight.[2] As a result of their concurrent hypervisibility and invisibility, black women are perceived as “unknowable” to the social, political, and cultural brokers upholding white supremacy and patriarchy. They are systematically targeted, branded as pathological, pared down to stereotype, regarded as disreputable, and ultimately deemed untenable.

I agree with Dotson: Jane Crow is a material and epistemological problematic manifest in black women’s longstanding repudiation in US hegemonic culture, a phenomenon theorized in black feminist thought since its beginnings. Black women have been relegated historically to the margins of black freedom struggles and women’s movements, and they continue to struggle for legibility in our post-civil rights moment particularly, as Dotson highlights, in the context of familiar narratives about the “endangered black male.”[3]

Yet, constitutive to black women’s epistemological quandary under Jane Crow, i.e. the way racism and sexism impacts their ability to produce knowledge, is the conceit that black women’s narratives about their multivalent oppression register similarly in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces. For example, a 2017 New York Times article uses the term Jane Crow to describe the practices of Children’s Services to punish poverty-stricken black and Hispanic women’s parenting by removing their children from their homes. The piece quotes a lawyer at length to indict the epistemic nature of the system’s biases:

There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’—a story to tell later. … In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.[4]

The state’s criminalizing narrative, based on discriminatory racial, gender, and economic geographies, exemplifies the distorted perspectives on black women’s structural disadvantages. Black women continue to be “unknowable” in dominant culture due to its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy. However, black women are not unknowable to themselves, especially if we consider their writing as epistemological endeavors instructive for their readers as well as their conceptualization of self.

An analysis of African American women writers’ engagement with Jane Crow is outside the scope of Dotson’s epistemological story in “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” but their texts illuminate the philosophical conundrum she identifies. From its conception, the African American women’s literary tradition has explored the realities of black women’s social condition under Jane Crow as well as considered, in its various fiction and nonfiction forms, the ways Jane Crow has shaped black women’s production of knowledge.

Pauli Murray’s own memoir Song in a Weary Throat (1987), which narrates the legal scholar’s civil rights activism throughout the twentieth century, makes concrete the material and epistemological injustices black women endure. Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining the social factors facilitating black women’s “unknowability,” in literary studies, we might say black women’s “unknowability” is actually a matter of audience and, more importantly, a problem of reception. Structural realities (and inequities) demand black women’s invisibility, but black women’s philosophical and literary efforts make them visible—first and foremost—to themselves and each other.

“Theorizing Unknowability”

Dotson describes the conditions fostering black women’s invisibility as “a trifold structure of disappearing” that relies on “disregard, disbelief, and disavowal.”[5] First, black women occupy negative socio-epistemic space in hegemonic culture, which fixes them as unknowable. Public opinion largely classifies black women as irrelevant, and their social vulnerability permits rigid stereotypes that further their invisibility rather than inspire challenges to it. Dotson explains, “a catalyst for invisibility can be seen as, in part, epistemic failings with respect to what we use to make sense of our worlds that serves to obscure certain populations.”[6]

Second, black women experience reduced epistemic confidence, which means they are not afforded plausibility, seen as credible, or viewed as worthy subjects to be “believed in.”[7] In conjunction with the epistemic failings that encourage a disregard of black women, a common-held disbelief in black women delimits their capacity to contribute to the social production of knowledge.

Finally, black women are susceptible to heightened epistemic backgrounding, by which they are demoted to bit players in their own stories or employed as material for juxtaposition instead of subjects of inquiry. Such disavowal, Dotson expounds, displaces black women “as the backdrop of some other subject(s) of contemplation.”[8] Together these three negating environs underwrite black women’s invisibility, which effectively mystifies their Jane Crow oppression by the state and delegitimizes their discernment of their social status.

Dotson’s methodology invites a literary approach to her philosophical interrogation of Jane Crow’s epistemological assault. For example, she cites Toni Blackman’s poetry to exemplify black women’s negotiation of their presence so often mistaken for absence. However, when engaging Pauli Murray’s conceptualization of Jane Crow, Dotson focuses on Murray’s academic and public scholarship. She is careful to note that her work is not an intellectual history of Murray but a “theoretical archeology” of Jane Crow. “It is a story sketched between conceptual fragments in Black women’s social theory,” she writes.[9]

To compose an epistemological story, Dotson stitches together theoretical fragments from Murray’s 1947 article “Why Negro Girls Stay Single” and 1965 essay “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII.” She also mines a quote from Murray’s 1970 essay “The Liberation of Black Women,” in which Murray clarifies, “Jane Crow refers to the entire range of assumptions, attitudes, stereotypes, customs, and arrangements that have robbed women of a positive self-concept and prevented them from participating fully in society as equals with men.”[10]

Dotson highlights this fragment’s epistemological relevance by concentrating on the causes of Jane Crow oppression. She contends black women’s “unfavorable placement with respect to prevailing” assumptions, stereotypes, and customs sanctions the material effects and epistemic circumscriptions of Jane Crow.[11] In effect, her grappling with and suture of Murray’s philosophical fragments challenges the hierarchal epistemologies that have characterized black women as unknowable and unknowing.

I appreciate Dotson’s attentive epistemological reading, and I am struck also by the fragment’s reference to Jane Crow’s influence on black women’s “positive self-concept.” This, too, is epistemologically relevant, and I would go further to suggest that it is within fragments of Murray’s creative and nonfiction writing that an inchoate discourse about black women’s positive self-concept, which is often overlooked and undervalued, emerges.

Image by AntonSLarsson via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

“Creatively Theorizing The Black Female Autobiographical Self”

Murray was an accomplished writer as well as a distinguished legal scholar. In addition to academic articles and law compendiums, she produced a collection of poetry, a biography of her grandparents, and her posthumously-published memoir Song in a Weary Throat. The latter takes its title from Murray’s published poem “Dark Testament” (1943), which sketches African American history from African society, captivity, and slavery to impending freedom over the poem’s twelve sections. Its speaker relays, “Hope is a song in a weary throat.”[12] Noticeably, “hope” is not included in the title of Murray’s autobiography, but its affect resonates in her extraordinary life story as a black activist, feminist, lawyer, priest, and poet.[13]

The speaker of “Dark Testament” goes on to entreat, “Give me a song of hope and love/And a brown girl’s heart to hear it” (italics original). This fragment, just a few lines later, suggests that a song of hope does not achieve its full transformative power without a brown girl’s heart and ear—or to put it another way, without an empathetic black female audience. In the introduction to Murray’s poetry collection, Morris Milgram reveals the activist/poet thought of “Dark Testament,” a prodigious narrative, as “only a fragment and forerunner of the epic of black America yet to be written.”[14]

Nonetheless, the fragment frames Murray’s memoir as a song of hope. It also signals the importance of a black female reader to whom and for whom her production of knowledge would be regarded, believed, and avowed despite the presumptions of “unknowability” black women’s Jane Crow oppression provokes.[15]

In her essay “Being the Subject and the Object,” Barbara Christian recalls her experience reading African American women’s fiction, namely Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), for the first time. She writes that the “woman-voice” of the black female protagonist’s mother “constantly interrupted my mind-voice. Her anguish-rage warned me of trials I might have to face.”[16] Marshall’s coming of age tale resonated with Christian, as the latter internalized the lessons she gleaned from the protagonist’s racial and gender struggles.

The novel allowed Christian to confront the epistemic offense intrinsic to black women’s Jane Crow subjection. “In it,” she writes, “I as subject encountered myself as object.”[17] By reading black women’s writing, Christian distinguishes herself as a reader, a subject, from that which is read, an object. Her confrontation with herself as an object codified her abiding invisibility in American literature and culture even as it marked her obvious presence. Christian surmises Brown Girl, Brownstones “was crucial to a deeper understanding of my own life,” and she later learns from a conversation with Marshall that it was written “to unravel [the black female writer’s] own knots.” Central to the acts of reading and writing, then, is black women’s knowing.[18]

Christian’s reflection minds African American women’s fiction, but its premise is helpful for thinking about black women’s epistemic endeavors in nonfiction.[19] A cursory review of black women’s literary criticism in autobiographical studies reveals fragments theorizing their unknowability as well as their efforts to counteract it. In Black Women Writing Autobiography, Joanne Braxton expresses, “We have been knowers, but we have not been known.”[20] She elucidates that autobiography is a way for African American women to “meet,” or know, their mothers “on the conscious plane,” as exemplified by her study of the works of Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou among others. “Defying every attempt to enslave or diminish them or their self-expression in any way,” Braxton writes, “black women autobiographers liberate themselves from stereotyped views of black womanhood, and define their own experiences.”[21]

Similarly, Margo Perkins contends that the autobiographies of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown construct “an alternative history that challenges hegemonic ways of knowing.”[22] Finally in Words of Witness, Angela Ards asserts that personal narrative and political discourse intersect within an autobiography to create a “deliberative space where readers” can “imagine the new vocabularies and strategies that the moment demands.”[23] These fragments of knowing identify black women’s autobiography as a vehicle for positive self-concept and social epistemology.

In Song in a Weary Throat, Murray relays the moment she decided to write her memoir late in the narrative. While contemplating a faculty appointment at Brandeis in 1968, she explains, “Suddenly I realized that what I really wanted to do was to write an autobiographical book on Jim Crow and Jane Crow—racism and sexism as they had impinged upon my life.”[24] Murray elected to do both, to teach and write during the summer. Her purpose for penning the book, to write about sexism during the height of twentieth-century black freedom struggles, echoes her resolve to confront systemic oppression depicted throughout her memoir.

Earlier in the text Murray discloses her decision to attend Howard Law School “with the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow.”[25] However, it is during her time there that she began to theorize Jane Crow, “the twin evil of discriminatory sex bias,” as she was the only female student in her class at the all-black institution which had no women faculty and only one female staff member.[26] “[T]he racial factor was removed in the intimate environment of a Negro law school dominated by men,” she writes, “and the factor of gender was fully exposed.”

Murray describes experiencing the material affects of Jane Crow as well as its epistemological repercussions in this period of her life. She is excluded from the legal fraternity and its extended networks due to her gender. Although she characterizes her male classmates as “friendly,” she qualifies that they “seemed to take it for granted that I had nothing to contribute. For much of that first year I was condemned to silence unless the male students exhausted their arguments or were completely stumped by a professor’s question.”[27] Murray is barred customarily from adding to the class’s production of knowledge. Consequently, she writes that her realization “women were often the objects of ridicule disguised as a joke” by her classmates and professors “aroused an incipient feminism in me long before I knew the meaning of the term ‘feminism.’”[28]

Song in a Weary Throat details Murray’s experiences with racial and gender subordination, but it also outlines the processes of knowledge production that motivated her to identify and signify her Jane Crow oppression.[29] She theorizes the practice in law school, and she applies the term in her 1947 essay “Why Negro Girls Stay Single.” Yet, it is in the fragments of her autobiography that Murray demythologizes black female epistemologies. Song in a Weary Throat is an enlightening testament to black women’s production of knowledge.

Coda

In the conclusion of her essay, Dotson asks, “How does one disrupt epistemic resources that hide their inadequacy behind the shape of its own sense making features? … Would one aim an intervention at the nature of imagination as a means of disrupting knowledge economies?”[30] In response to these questions, she states many black feminists, such as Pauli Murray and Kimberlé Crenshaw, and many black women writers, such as June Jordan, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde, “have tried.”  Yet such a feat could only be accomplished with the demise of Jane Crow—a complete end to its material and epistemological abuses.

Although I engage Pauli Murray as a writer here to offer a complementary approach to Dotson’s theorizing of Jane Crow, I do not claim that black women’s writing irons out Jane Crow’s material paradoxes. I do want to suggest black women’s self-articulation provides them a way to mitigate the intellectual confines of Jane Crow. Black women writers do not “resolve our dilemmas,” to return to Christian’s insights about the literary tradition, but they do “name them.”[31]  In a destructive culture of invisibility, for black women to call out Jane Crow and counter with their self-representation has substantive weight.

Contact details: hardison@ku.edu

References

Ards, Angela A. Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Bobo, Jacqueline.  Black Women as Cultural Readers. New York: Columbia, 1995.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

___. “Autobiography and African American Women’s Literature.” African American Women’s Literature. Eds. Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 128-147.

Christian, Barbara. “Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Women’s Novels.” New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000. Eds. Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 120-126.

Clifford, Stephanie and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’” New York Times July 21, 2017. Accessed January 31, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/nyregion/foster-care-nyc-jane-crow.html

Cooper, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Dotson, Kristie. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 31:5 (2017) 417-430.

Graham, Maryemma. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1-16

Hardison, Ayesha K. Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.

Perkins, Margo V. Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Petry, Ann. The Street. 1946. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Milgram, Morris. “Introduction.” Dark Testament and Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970.

Murray, Pauli. “Dark Testament.” 1943. Dark Testament and Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970. 12-27.

___. Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987.

___. “The Liberation of Black Women.” 1970. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. Ed. Beverly Guy Sheftall. New York: The New Press, 1995. 186-197.

[1] Kristie Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 31:5 (2017): 417.

[2] Ibid., 420, 425.

[3] Ibid. The degree of black women’s visibility in the current #metoo campaign is also debatable, given the limited discussion of their experiences in Hollywood despite the hashtag’s origin in black female activist Tarana Burke’s grassroots organizing around sexual abuse.

[4] Maisha Joefield, the mother penalized under these circumstances, shares in the article that the temporary removal of her child still makes her nervous: “You’re afraid to parent the way you would normally parent.” The ritualized castigation of poor black mothers with scarce options for childcare speak to the circuitous material and epistemological aspects of their Jane Crow oppression. Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow,’” New York Times July 21, 2017, Accessed January 31, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/nyregion/foster-care-nyc-jane-crow.html.

[5] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 426.

[6] Ibid., 423.

[7] Ibid., 424.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 418.

[10] Pauli Murray, “The Liberation of Black Women,” 1970, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: The New Press, 1995), 186.

[11] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 421.

[12] Pauli Murray, “Dark Testament,” Dark Testament and Other Poems (Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970), 22.

[13] Murray’s public identities are the subtitle to the eponymously titled 1989 edition of her autobiography.

[14] Morris Milgram, “Introduction,” Dark Testament and Other Poems (Norwalk, CT: Silvermine, 1970), n pag.

[15] Jacqueline Bobo differentiates the interpretive community black women create from audiences that passively consume representations perpetuating black women’s ideological domination. Within an interpretive community, “women utilize representations of black women that they deem valuable, in productive and politically useful ways” to challenge their cultural subordination. Jacqueline Bobo, Black Women as Cultural Readers (New York: Columbia, 1995), 22.

[16] Barbara Christian, “Being the Subject and the Object: Reading African-American Women’s Novels,” New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000, edited by Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 121.

[17] Ibid., 122.

[18] African American women’s fiction also theorizes black women’s Jane Crow oppression. For example, Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946 one year before Murray’s essay “Why Negro Girls Stay Single,” examines Lutie Johnson’s interlocking racial, gender, class, and sexual oppressions as a single mother and domestic worker in Harlem during WWII. Lutie is aware of her invisibility among her white employers, who assume she is promiscuous, and she questions the purpose of being taught how to write, as her voice is undermined throughout the novel. Of course, the existence of Petry’s novel attests to the importance of black women writing and sharing their stories.

[19] The social aims of black women’s fiction and life writing are not mutually exclusive. Maryemma Graham points out “the autobiographical impulse in the African American novel. The continuous need to explain and ‘inscribe the self’ in a world which has historically denied the existence of that self gives both focus and intensity to the act of writing a story about black life.” Maryemma Graham, “Introduction,” The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 5.

[20] Joanne M. Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 1.

[21] Joanne M. Braxton, “Autobiography and African American Women’s Literature,” African American Women’s Literature, edited by Angelyn Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 128.

[22] Margo V. Perkins, Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), xii.

[23] Angela A. Ards, Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), 16.

[24] Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987), 388.

[25] Ibid., 182.

[26] Ibid., 183.

[27] Ibid., 183-184.

[28] Ibid., 183, 184.

[29] Murray’s autobiography foregrounds her battles with racism and sexism in her public life to the exclusion of her efforts to understand her queer and nonnormative sexual and gender identities in her private life. Brittney Cooper’s intellectual history of Murray highlights the ways Jane Crow and the politics of respectability inform black women’s praxis as “knowledge producers” (102). She reveals, “at exactly the same moment that [Murray] named Jane Crow as a form of sexist discrimination that she experienced as a woman, she was frequently being hospitalized for depression related to her struggle with her gender identity” (100). In my own work on Murray, I argue Song in a Weary Throat “resounds with silence” about her struggle with her gender identity due to Jane Crow’s “literary inscriptions” for black women’s self-representation (17, 15). Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017); Ayesha K. Hardison, Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).

[30] Dotson, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” 426.

[31] Christian, “Being the Subject and the Object,” 122.

Author Information: Derek Anderson, Boston University, derek.e.anderson@gmail.com

Anderson, Derek. “Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 26-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3SL

Please refer to:

Image from D. W. E. Carlier via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Conceptual competence injustice (Anderson 2017) is a form of epistemic injustice that occurs when a dominant agent or structure impugns (implicitly or explicitly) a marginalized epistemic agent’s ability to use a concept. The most explicit occurrences involve testimony that asserts or implies what is traditionally regarded as a linguistic or conceptual truth. Dominant agents regard a marginalized agent’s testimony as revealing or implying a deficiency in conceptual competence, where this attribution of deficiency is unwarranted and contributes to a pattern of epistemic oppression.

This essay emphasizes two aspects of conceptual competence injustice: (1) the sense in which it is a structural injustice, and (2) the sense in which it is centrally a form of competence injustice (as opposed to testimonial injustice).

Podosky & Tuckwell (2017) argue that every instance of conceptual competence injustice (hereafter: CC injustice) is an instance of testimonial injustice (Fricker 2007), and that therefore CC injustice is not a substantive or helpful concept in its own right. Further, they present arguments that CC injustice has not been adequately distinguished from either hermeneutical injustice or contributory injustice. My focus here will be on the main arguments that CC injustice is a kind of testimonial injustice and has no independent theoretical value. These arguments provide an excellent springboard for an elaboration of aspects (1) and (2) mentioned above.

Podosky & Tuckwell’s main argument proceeds in two stages. First, they argue that causal etiology is a necessary condition on CC injustice, so it cannot be distinguished from testimonial injustice on these grounds. Then they argue that every instance of CC injustice is identical to some instance of testimonial injustice. Section 2 argues that causal etiology is not a necessary condition on CC injustice. Section 3 highlights the ways in which CC injustice, as a form of competence (simpliciter) injustice, is distinct from various kinds of testimonial injustice. In section 4, I grant for the sake of argument that all CC injustice is testimonial injustice and argue that, even if that were true, there would still be such a thing as CC injustice and recognizing its existence would still be theoretically important.

Causal Etiology and Structural Oppression

It is not necessary that CC injustice be caused by any particular type of psychological state (Anderson 2017). This is because CC injustice exists as an aspect of structural epistemic oppression. Episodes are to be identified by the role they play in a broad pattern of epistemic marginalization and domination, not by the immediate psychological forces that produce them.

This contrasts sharply with Fricker’s account of testimonial injustice, episodes of which are necessarily caused by ‘negative identity prejudice,’ a psychological disposition to regard and/or treat members of some marginalized group in negative ways across a wide spectrum of social circumstances. Because CC injustice and testimonial injustice differ in this way with respect to causal etiology, it is easy to demonstrate they are distinct phenomena.

Against this, Podosky & Tuckwell argue that CC injustice intuitively requires the same causal etiology that Fricker attaches to testimonial injustice, so the two forms of injustice can’t be distinguished along these lines. Their argument involves an intuition pump intended to show that CC injustice cannot occur as the result of merely bad epistemic practices in the absence of prejudice.

Their intuition pump introduces a character: Taylor the coin-flipper. Taylor has no negative identity prejudices, but she has a bad epistemic practice. She regularly flips a coin to decide what to believe. Taylor meets Linda, a Black woman, who competently defends Meinongianism about non-existent objects. Taylor flips her coin and decides on that basis to regard Linda as incompetent with the concept of existence. Podosky & Tuckwell maintain that, intuitively, Taylor has not perpetrated CC injustice.

The defense of this claim is a pure intellectual seeming or intuition shared by the authors. They write, “Taylor does not seem to be committing anything other than shoddy epistemic behaviour; there doesn’t appear to be anything unjust about what she’s doing.”

They argue from this intuition that instances of CC injustice cannot arise from (merely) bad epistemic practices. They maintain that, for example, a white male graduate student who routinely dismisses the conceptual competence of women in his cohort, but who also dismisses everyone else for the same reason: because he has inaccurately high intellectual self-trust, so perpetrates no epistemic injustice against these women.[1]

He is guilty of bad epistemic practices because he gives himself unduly high credibility, but he is not guilty of any kind of epistemic injustice. The thought is (I suppose): this guy doesn’t discriminate against women; he treats men and women the same way; so he cannot be treating only these women unjustly as the account of CC injustice in Anderson (2017) entails.

Both the methodology and the conclusion of this argument are flawed. First, an appeal to brute intuition about whether Taylor has done something unjust is contentious in an unhelpful way. Those who agree that CC injustice can be perpetrated without identity prejudice will not have the same intuition as Podosky & Tuckwell. Let me start by making explicit the rationale behind this intuition.

Taylor’s choice to use the coin-flip, while epistemically blameworthy in general, intuitively acquires a special blameworthiness when she chooses to employ it in circumstances that could perpetuate the epistemic marginalization of women of color. Taylor is not exculpated by the possibility that she fails to recognize how coin flipping in her encounter with Linda might contribute to a pattern of epistemic oppression. A common feature of structural oppression is that those who participate in it do not typically know they are participating in it.

Further, the fact that Taylor behaves uniformly with marginalized and dominant agents does not mean her behavior toward marginalized groups is exculpated. Imagine a person who uses racial slurs in referring to white people and people of color uniformly; the uniformity of treatment does nothing to mitigate the wrongness of using racial slurs against people of color. Epistemic irresponsibility harms members of epistemically marginalized groups in different and more egregious ways than it harms members of epistemically dominant groups. Seen in this light, it is intuitively compelling that Taylor is doing something epistemically unjust in her treatment of Linda.

In addition to being unhelpfully contentious, we have good reason to think intuitions in this domain are ideologically loaded. Critical race theorists and Black feminists have taught us that individualistic intuitions about wrongness and blameworthiness in the context of structural oppression are not to be trusted because they are predictably and demonstrably conditioned by dominant power structures. Thus, Collins (2002) writes, “To maintain their power, dominant groups create and maintain a popular system of ‘commonsense’ ideas that support their right to rule.”[2]

Hence, members of dominant groups who benefit from structural oppression tend to see innocent individual motives as exculpatory, while members of subordinated groups tend to see participations in structural oppression as prime examples of injustice even when motives are innocent. For example, Matsuda (1987) argues that intuitions about individual blameworthiness with regard to reparations debts differ between groups that benefit from past oppressions and groups that still suffer from them.

Intuitions about what is necessary for blameworthiness are socially situated and tend to reflect group interests. Given the likelihood that dominant ideology influences intuitions about whether good-willed participation in structural oppression counts as injustice or not, a flat-footed appeal to intuition does little to rule out the possibility that CC injustice can occur without negative identity prejudice.

Finally, Podosky & Tuckwell’s conclusion, viz. that white male graduate students with merely over-inflated intellectual self-trust do not produce epistemic injustices, is false. In fact, this is a reductio of the position that bad epistemic practices by themselves are never sufficient to produce epistemic injustice. The prevalence of over-confident, socially dominant epistemic agents within philosophy is a cornerstone of epistemic marginalization of women of color and other marginalized identities. Demonstrating this requires only reflecting on ways that excessively self-confidence among dominant agents contributes to a general pattern of epistemic oppression within academic philosophy.[3]

Image from Paull Antero via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Let us assume for the sake of argument that some over-inflated dominant agents really harbor no negative identity prejudices. Still, many dominant philosophers do harbor negative identity prejudices, which is a cornerstone of systemic epistemic marginalization. These negative identity prejudices produce testimonial injustices and CC injustices, as well as other aspects of epistemic oppression. Another cornerstone of epistemic oppression is the prevalence of situated ignorance (Dotson 2011) about marginalized lives that marginalized agents must face within the overwhelmingly white and male population of academic philosophers.

A third cornerstone is the force of willful hermeneutical injustice (Pohlhaus 2012) among dominant philosophers. Philosophers are trained to argue against opposing worldviews; thus, dominant philosophers are adroit at willfully resisting uptake of marginalized epistemic resources and thus adroit at preserving situated ignorance. A fourth cornerstone is the prevalence of epistemic exploitation (Berenstain 2016): marginalized agents are constantly called on to explain and defend the existence of their oppression by dominant agents, especially within a tradition that promotes a skeptical, questioning attitude toward everything. Epistemic exploitation erodes intellectual self-trust, elicits what Dotson (2011) calls unsafe testimony, and forces marginalized agents to engage in unwanted cognitive and emotional labor.

Now, in the midst of this climate, consider the role that over-confident but prejudice-free socially dominant epistemic agents play. While these agents tend to make life more difficult for everyone, their existence is much more potent and harmful for marginalized epistemic agents. The woman of color who is trying to make it in philosophy must deal with wave after wave of over-confidant white men who are judging that she does not adequately grasp the concepts she is working on. It doesn’t really matter if some of these men truly have no negative identity prejudices. Moreover, these dominant agents enjoy a relative advantage in conceptual competence credibility over marginalized agents.

As Medina (2012) observes, credibility is relative. Over-inflated intellectual self-trust in the context of academic philosophy often functions to unjustly increase dominant agents’ credibility. This constitutes a relative decrease in the credibility of marginalized agents who face myriad pressures to undermine their confidence. Being regarded as relatively less credible than over-inflated dominant agents contributes to the significant and unjust disadvantages faced by marginalized agents, compounding other issues, and does so regardless of whether these dominant agents harbor negative identity prejudices. Further, the over-inflated dominant agents then go about further diminishing the credibility of marginalized agents by disparaging their conceptual competence, using their over-inflated self-confidence to lend more credibility to their disparagements.

Conceptual competence injustice is an injustice because it is part of pernicious patterns of epistemic marginalization. The considerations raised here show that CC injustice is not necessarily caused by any particular psychological state. As such, we can sharply distinguish CC injustice from testimonial injustice as Fricker conceives it.

However, analogous arguments plausibly show that testimonial injustice itself should be reconceived as an aspect of structural oppression. Indeed, I think a better account of testimonial injustice would jettison Fricker’s causal etiology criterion. In that case, more work must be done to individuate the concept of CC injustice from the concept of testimonial injustice. The considerations in the next section aim to satisfy that further desiderata.

Competence Injustice, Not Testimonial Injustice

Podosky & Tuckwell argue that every instance of CC injustice is an instance of testimonial injustice. Let us assume that causal etiology is not necessary for either testimonial injustice or CC injustice. Then their arguments may still be workable. Here I reply that, even setting causal etiology aside, CC injustices are not always identical with instances of testimonial injustice.

My argument is straightforward. A judgment that constitutes CC injustice need not be connected with testimony in any central way. It is not necessary that a person’s testimony be disbelieved, ignored, or pre-empted in an episode of CC injustice. CC injustice involves only an unjust judgment about a person’s ability to think well using certain concepts. It is most convenient to characterize CC injustice by reference to testimony (as in Anderson 2017) because conceptual content is most directly characterized by reference to linguistic expressions, but CC injustice is not essentially concerned with what people say or might say.

CC injustice is primarily a form of competence injustice, a broader notion that encompasses all unjust judgments of ability. The abilities that are unjustly impugned in episodes of competence injustice might be cognitive or they might not be. Competence injustices are abundant; they include, for example, the sexist attitudes that a woman cannot be a soldier, a mechanic, or a computer programmer.

Whether an instance of competence injustice counts as a form of epistemic injustice depends on the connection between knowledge and the ability in question. A woman could be the victim of competence injustice regarding her ability to be a soldier purely on the basis of sexist views about physical strength and endurance. Her ability to be a mechanic might be unjustly doubted on the basis of sexist views about her ability to perform mechanical tasks, but it might also be a matter of conceptual competence injustice: consider the sexist attitude that a woman wouldn’t know the difference between a carburetor and a fuel pump. A woman might be passed over for a job as a mechanic as a result of such conceptual competence injustice. This example of CC injustice has nothing essential to do with testimony.

Podosky & Tuckwell recognize that sometimes CC injustice occurs in the absence of testimony. Nevertheless, they argue that such cases are best characterized as special kinds of testimonial injustice: either pre-emptive testimonial injustice or reflexive testimonial injustice.

According to Fricker, pre-emptive testimonial injustice occurs when a potential hearer’s prejudice operates in advance, before a speaker has a chance to speak, such that the victim’s testimony is never solicited. But clearly the example of the aspiring mechanic is not centrally about having one’s testimony pre-emptively dismissed. It’s not that the other mechanics don’t ask for her opinion or don’t believe her when she speaks. They don’t give her a job. They might have only seen her resume, seen that she was a woman, and passed her over due to conceptual competence injustice.

This is not an example of pre-emptive testimonial injustice.[4] Relatedly, conceptual competence injustice can operate in structural ways that don’t turn on pre-emptive testimonial injustice. There are many historical examples of people being excluded from professions on the grounds that members of their social group lack the requisite conceptual abilities, including law, medicine, politics, education, and business. These exclusions involve epistemic injustice that is not testimonial injustice.

Podosky & Tuckwell introduce the idea of reflexive testimonial injustice to address cases in which CC injustice happens in a private way. In the relevant cases the victim privately doubts her own conceptual competence, maybe loses it altogether if her doubt is extreme, but her testimony is never discredited because she refrains from speaking. The authors maintain that such episodes are best understood as a form of testimonial injustice.

Their first argument is that testimonial injustice can “manifest itself in this way . . . Fricker points out that the experience of persistent testimonial injustice may lead one to lose confidence in one’s beliefs and general intellectual capacities.” I agree that testimonial injustice can cause private CC injustice, but it does not follow that such instances of CC injustice are testimonial injustices.

That argument would have the form A causes B, therefore B is an instance of A, which is obviously invalid. Fricker does not explicitly theorize that testimonial injustice causes CC injustice, although this is a natural connection to make. But this causal connection does not entail that private CC injustices occurring as a result of testimonial injustices are themselves testimonial injustices.

The authors then argue that private CC injustice can be accurately characterized as reflexively perpetrated testimonial injustice, the phenomenon in which a marginalized person internalizes a negative identity prejudice against their own social identity and on this ground discredits their own testimony. However, there are clearly two different phenomena here. One is the person’s damaged confidence in her conceptual competence; the other is the fact that they ascribe their own testimony unduly low credibility. These are not obviously identical and Podowsky & Tuckwell give no reason why we should believe they are the same thing.

We can say more. The victim’s doubts about her credibility are often caused by damaged confidence in her conceptual abilities resulting from CC injustice inflicted by others. This causal story conflicts with the account Podowsky & Tuckwell offer, given their insistence on Fricker’s causal etiology for testimonial injustice. They maintain that reflexive testimonial injustice is necessarily caused by negative identity prejudice. So according to their reduction, the victim of private CC injustice always doubts their own conceptual competence because they have a negative identity prejudice against people like themselves which causes them to discredit such people’s testimony, including their own testimony when expressing the concepts in question.

This is byzantine and unconvincing. Moreover, this account would only cover cases in which a person’s damaged confidence in her conceptual abilities is the result of an internalized negative identity prejudice against her own social group. Hence, the reduction fails to account for cases in which a marginalized agent who harbors no negative identity prejudice is afflicted by private CC injustice.

The attempt to reduce all private CC injustice to reflexive testimonial injustice is unsuccessful. The distinction can be clarified further if we think about other effects that don’t concern testimony. A person suffering from private CC injustice might choose not to attend certain classes, read certain books, develop certain talents, or apply for certain jobs. These cases are not explained by the victim’s doubts about the credibility of her own testimony. They are explained by the fact that her confidence in her ability to think clearly using certain concepts has been damaged.

Existence and Explanatory Value

Even if it were proved that the class of conceptual competence injustices is necessarily a subset of testimonial injustices, this would not show that there is no such thing as CC injustice, nor would it show that CC injustice is not interesting or useful.

First, an argument from equivalence to non-existence is clearly invalid. One cannot argue that triangles do not exist by showing that the concept of a triangle is necessarily co-extensive with the concept of a polygon with three edges and three vertices. Even if Podosky & Tuckwell showed that the concept of CC injustice is necessarily co-extensive with the concept of testimonial injustice, this would not show that there is no such thing as CC injustice.

At most it would show that every instance of CC injustice is necessarily an instance of testimonial injustice and vice versa. But in fact the authors argue from a weaker starting point than intensional equivalence. They argue that CC injustices are a subset of testimonial injustices; therefore there is no such thing as CC injustice. This has the same form as the following argument. All cats are mammals; therefore there is no such thing as a cat. Clearly neither of these arguments is valid.

To show that there is no such thing as conceptual competence injustice, one would have to show that nothing is a conceptual competence injustice, which has not even been attempted. So the title of their paper, “There’s no such thing as conceptual competence injustice,” is strikingly inapt. A more apt title, perhaps, would have been: “Conceptual competence injustice has no explanatory value.” It seems this is the only thesis the authors might reasonably be pursuing. Indeed, perhaps the authors present this as their main thesis when they write, “we suggest that there isn’t anything more to be learned by thinking about conceptual competence injustice that isn’t captured by testimonial injustice.”

In that case their argument must have the form: A is a subset of B, therefore the concept of A has no explanatory value. But again this argument is obviously invalid. Electrons are a subset of fermions, but the concept of electron has explanatory value. Even if every instance of CC injustice were shown to be an instance of testimonial injustice, that would not suffice to undercut the explanatory value of the concept of CC injustice.

Even if CC injustice is a subset of testimonial injustice (which I’ve argued it’s not), it has important explanatory roles that aren’t addressed by a general account of testimonial injustice that does not theorize about CC injustice. One of these explanatory projects is presented in Anderson (2017) section 4, where I argue that conceptual competence injustice plays a distinctive role in shaping the adverse climate of academic philosophy for marginalized groups. Even if every instance of CC injustice were an instance of testimonial injustice, it would still be important to think about how this distinctive form of testimonial injustice operates within academic philosophy.

Another explanatory project—in fact, the one I was working on when I found a need to develop an account of conceptual competence injustice—involves the way in which unjustly low ascriptions of conceptual competence can shape the evolution of linguistic meaning within a dynamic metasemantic model. The idea, following Burge (1979, 1986), is that the semantic properties of expressions as used by a community are determined in part by patterns of deference. These patterns of deference are in turn shaped by distributed judgments of conceptual competence.

In the model I develop,[5] a preponderance of conceptual competence injustice within a system leads naturally to enfranchised semantic drift: over time, linguistic expressions in a community come to mean what dominant epistemic agents use them to mean because marginalized agents are perceived as conceptually incompetent. Even if every instance of CC injustice is an instance of testimonial injustice, the concept of CC injustice and not the concept of testimonial injustice is most explanatorily relevant when explaining enfranchised semantic drift.

In general, it is exceedingly difficult to prove a priori that a concept has no theoretical importance. No argument approaching such a proof has been offered against the theoretical significance of conceptual competence injustice.

Contact details: derek.e.anderson@gmail.com

References

Anderson, D. E. (2017). Conceptual competence injustice. Social Epistemology31(2), 210-223.

Berenstain, N. (2016). Epistemic exploitation. Ergo, an Open Access Journal of Philosophy3.

Burge, Tyler (1979). Individualism and the mental. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4 (1):73-122.

Burge, Tyler (1986). Individualism and psychology. Philosophical Review 95 (January):3-45.

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Dotson, K. (2011). Tracking epistemic violence, tracking practices of silencing. Hypatia26(2), 236-257

Jones, K. (2012). The politics of intellectual self-trust. Social Epistemology26(2), 237-251.

Matsuda, M. J. (1987). Looking to the bottom: Critical legal studies and reparations. Harv. Cr-cll rev.22, 323.

Medina, J. 2012. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and the Social Imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Podosky, Paul-Mikhail Catapang and William Tuckwell.[1] “There’s No Such Thing as Conceptual Competence Injustice: A Response to Anderson and Cruz.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 23-32.

Pohlhaus, G. (2012). Relational knowing and epistemic injustice: Toward a theory of willful hermeneutical ignorance. Hypatia27(4), 715-735.

[1] For an extensive discussion of how to understand intellectual self-trust, see Jones (2012). Relevantly, Jones argues that excessive self-trust among dominant agents is itself a proper cause of epistemic injustice.

[2] Black Feminist Thought, pp. 284.

[3] Podosky & Tuckwell say they find it unclear what a “general pattern of epistemic bias against women of color” could refer to. The following is partly intended to address that lack of clarity.

[4] CC injustice in this case also produces an indefinite number of pre-emptive testimonial injustices, since there are many things the woman could have told the other mechanics had she worked there. By not giving her a job, they pre-empt all of her testimony. But the injustice in this case can’t be reduced to this collection of pre-emptive testimonial injustices.

[5] See Anderson (ms.) “Linguistic Hijacking.”