Archives For Morality

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: 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): 1-16.

Kamili Posey’s article will be posted over two instalments. The pdf of the article gives specific page references, and includes the entire essay. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41m

Image by Walt Stoneburner via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If you consider the recent philosophical literature on implicit bias research, then you would be forgiven for thinking that the problem of successful interventions into implicit bias fall into the category of things that are resolved. If you consider the recent social psychological literature on interventions into implicit bias, then you would come away with a similar impression. The claim is that implicit bias is epistemically harmful because we profess to believing one thing while our implicit attitudes tell a different story.

Strategy Models and Discrepancy Models

Implicit bias is socially harmful because it maps onto our real-world discriminatory practices, e.g., workplace discrimination, health disparities, racist police shootings, and identity-prejudicial public policies. Consider the results of Greenwald et al.’s (1998) Implicit Association Test. Consider also the results of Correll et. al’s (2002) “Shooter Bias.” If cognitive interventions are possible, and specifically implicit cognitive interventions, then they can help knowers implicitly manage automatic stereotype activation. Do these interventions lead to real-world reductions of bias?

Linda Alcoff (2010) notes that it is difficult to see how implicit, nonvolitional biases (e.g., those at the root of social and epistemic ills like race-based police shootings) can be remedied by explicit epistemic practices.[1] I would follow this by noting that it is equally difficult to see how nonvolitional biases can be remedied by implicit epistemic practices as well.

Jennifer Saul (2017) responds to Alcoff’s (2010) query by pointing to social psychological experiments conducted by Margo Monteith (1993), Jack Glaser and Eric D. Knowles (2007), Gordon B. Moskowitz and Peizhong Li (2011), Saaid A. Mendoza et al. (2010), Irene V. Blair et al. (2001), and Kerry Kawakami et al. (2005).[2] These studies suggest that implicit self-regulation of implicit bias is possible. Saul notes that philosophers with objections like Alcoff’s, and presumably like mine, should “not just to reflect upon the problem from the armchair – at the very least, one should use one’s laptop to explore the internet for effective interventions.”[3]

But I think this recrimination rings rather hollow. How entitled are we to extrapolate from social psychological studies in the manner that Saul advocates? How entitled are we to assumes the epistemic superiority of scientific research on racism, sexism, etc. over the phenomenological reporting of marginalized knowers? Lastly, how entitled are we to claims about the real-world applicability of these study results?[4] My guess is that the devil is in the details. My guess is also that social psychologists have not found the silver bullet for remedying implicit bias. But let’s follow Saul’s suggestion and not just reflect from the armchair.

A caveat: the following analysis is not intended to be an exhaustive or thorough refutation of what is ultimately a large body social psychological literature. Instead, it is intended to cast a bit of doubt on how these models are used by philosophers as successful remedies for implicit bias. It is intended to cast doubt a bit of doubt on the idea that remedies for racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic discrimination are merely a training session or reflective exercise away.

This type of thinking devalues the very real experiences of those who live through racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. It devalues how pervasive these experiences are in American society and the myriad ways in which the effects of discrimination seep into marrow of marginalized bodies and marginalized communities. Worse still, it implies that marginalized knowers who claim, “You don’t understand my experiences!” are compelled to contend with the hegemonic role of “Science” that continues to speak over their own voices and about their own lives.[5] But again, back to the studies.

Four Methods of Remedy

I break up the above studies into four intuitive model types: (1) strategy models, (2) discrepancy models, (3) (IAT) models, and (4) egalitarian goal models. (I am not a social scientist, so the operative word here is “intuitive.”) Let’s first consider Kawakami et al. (2005) and Mendoza et al. (2010) as examples of strategy models. Kawakami et al. used Devine and Monteith’s (1993) notion of a negative stereotype as a “bad habit” that a knower needs to “kick” to model strategies that aid in the inhibition of automatic stereotype activation, or the inhibition of “increased cognitive accessibility of characteristics associated with a particular group.”[6]

In a previous study, Kawakami et al. (2000) asked research participants presented with photographs of black individuals and white individuals with stereotypical traits and non-stereotypical traits listed under each photograph to respond “No” to stereotypical traits and “Yes” to non-stereotypical traits.[7] The study found that “participants who were extensively trained to negate racial stereotypes initially also demonstrated stereotype activation, this effect was eliminated by the extensive training.

Furthermore, Kawakami et al. found that practice effects of this type lasted up to 24 h following the training.”[8] Kawakami et al. (2005) used this training model to ground an experiment aimed at strategies for reducing stereotype activation in the preference of men over women for leadership roles in managerial positions. Despite the training, they found that there was “no difference between Nonstereotypic Association Training and No Training conditions…participants were indeed attempting to choose the best candidate overall, in these conditions there was an overall pattern of discrimination against women relative to men in recommended hiring for a managerial position (Glick, 1991; Rudman & Glick, 1999)” [emphasis mine].[9]

Substantive conclusions are difficult to make by a single study but one critical point is how learning occurred in the training but improved stereotype inhibition did not occur. What, exactly, are we to make of this result? Kawakami et al. (2005) claimed that “similar levels of bias in both the Training and No Training conditions implicates the influence of correction processes that limit the effectiveness of training.”[10] That is, they attributed the lack of influence of corrective processes on a variety of contributing factors that limited the effectiveness of the strategy itself.

Notice, however, that this does not implicate the strategy as a failed one. Most notably Kawakami et al. found that “when people have the time and opportunity to control their responses [they] may be strongly shaped by personal values and temporary motivations, strategies aimed at changing the automatic activation of stereotypes will not [necessarily] result in reduced discrimination.”[11]

This suggests that although the strategies failed to reduce stereotype activation they may still be helpful in limited circumstances “when impressions are more deliberative.”[12] One wonders under what conditions such impressions can be more deliberative? More than that, how useful are such limited-condition strategies for dealing with everyday life and every day automatic stereotype activation?

Mendoza et al. (2010) tested the effectiveness of “implementation intentions” as a strategy to reduce the activation or expression of implicit stereotypes using the Shooter Task.[13] They tested both “distraction-inhibiting” implementation intentions and “response-facilitating” implementation intentions. Distraction-inhibiting intentions are strategies “designed to engage inhibitory control,” such as inhibiting the perception of distracting or biasing information, while “response-facilitating” intentions are strategies designed to enhance goal attainment by focusing on specific goal-directed actions.[14]

In the first study, Mendoza et al. asked participants to repeat the on-screen phrase, “If I see a person, then I will ignore his race!” in their heads and then type the phrase into the computer. This resulted in study participants having a reduced number of errors in the Shooter Task. But let’s come back to if and how we might be able to extrapolate from these results. The second study compared a simple-goal strategy with an implementation intention strategy.

Study participants in the simple-goal strategy group were asked to follow the strategy, “I will always shoot a person I see with a gun!” and “I will never shoot a person I see with an object!” Study participants in the implementation intention strategy group were asked to use a conditional, if-then, strategy instead: “If I see a person with an object, then I will not shoot!” Mendoza et al. found that a response-facilitating implementation intention “enhanced controlled processing but did not affect automatic stereotyping processing,” while a distraction-inhibiting implementation intention “was associated with an increase in controlled processing and a decrease in automatic stereotyping processes.”[15]

How to Change Both Action and Thought

Notice that if the goal is to reduce automatic stereotype activation through reflexive control that only a distraction-inhibiting strategy achieved the desired effect. Notice also how the successful use of a distraction-inhibiting strategy may require a type of “non-messy” social environment unachievable outside of a laboratory experiment.[16] Or, as Mendoza et al. (2010) rightly note: “The current findings suggest that the quick interventions typically used in psychological experiments may be more effective in modulating behavioral responses or the temporary accessibility of stereotypes than in undoing highly edified knowledge structures.”[17]

The hope, of course, is that distraction-inhibiting strategies can help dominant knowers reduce automatic stereotype activation and response-facilitated strategies can help dominant knowers internalize controlled processing such that negative bias and stereotyping can be (one day) reflexively controlled as well. But these are only hopes. The only thing that we can rightly conclude from these results is that if we ask a dominant knower to focus on an internal command, they will do so. The result is that the activation of negative bias fails to occur.

This does not mean that the knower has reduced their internalized negative biases and prejudices or that they can continue to act on the internal commands in the future (in fact, subsequent studies reveal the effects are short-lived[18]). As Mendoza et al. also note: “In psychometric terms, these strategies are designed to enhance accuracy without necessarily affecting bias. That is, a person may still have a tendency to associate Black people with violence and thus be more likely to shoot unarmed Blacks than to shoot unarmed Whites.”[19] Despite hope for these strategies, there is very little to support their real-world applicability.

Hunting for Intuitive Hypocrisies

I would extend a similar critique to Margot Monteith’s (1993) discrepancy model. Monteith’s (1993) often cited study uses two experiments to investigate prejudice related discrepancies in the behaviors of low-prejudice (LP) and high-prejudice (HP) individuals and the ability to engage in self-regulated prejudice reduction. In the first experiment, (LP) and (HP) heterosexual study participants were asked to evaluate two law school applications, one for an implied gay applicant and one for an implied heterosexual applicant. Study participants “were led to believe that they had evaluated a gay law school applicant negatively because of his sexual orientation;” they were tricked into a “discrepancy-activated condition” or a condition that was at odds with their believed prejudicial state.[20]

All of the study participants were then told that the applications were identical and that those who had rejected the gay applicant had done so because of the applicant’s sexual orientation. It is important to note that the applicants qualifications were not, in fact, identical. The gay applicant’s application materials were made to look worse than the heterosexual applicant’s materials. This was done to compel the rejection of the applicant.

Study participants were then provided a follow-up questionnaire and essay allegedly written by a professor who wanted to know (a) “why people often have difficulty avoiding negative responses toward gay men,” and (b) “how people can eliminate their negative responses toward gay men.”[21] Researchers asked study participants to record their reactions to the faculty essay and write down as much they could remember about what they read. They were then told about the deception in the experiment and told why such deception was incorporated into the study.

Monteith (1993) found that “low and high prejudiced subjects alike experienced discomfort after violating their personal standards for responding to a gay man, but only low prejudiced subjects experienced negative self-directed affect.”[22] Low prejudiced, (LP), “discrepancy-activated subjects,” also spent more time reading the faculty essay and “showed superior recall for the portion of the essay concerning why prejudice-related discrepancies arise.”[23]

The “discrepancy experience” generated negative self-directed affect, or guilt, for (LP) study participants with the hope that the guilt would (a) “motivate discrepancy reduction (e.g., Rokeach, 1973)” and (b) “serve to establish strong cues for punishment (cf. Gray, 1982).”[24] The idea here is that the experiment results point to the existence of a self-regulatory mechanism that can replace automatic stereotype activation with “belief-based responses;” however, “it is important to note that the initiation of self-regulatory mechanisms is dependent on recognizing and interpreting one’s responses as discrepant from one’s personal beliefs.”[25]

The discrepancy between what one is shown to believe and what one professes to believe (whether real or manufactured, as in the experiment) is aimed at getting knowers to engage in heightened self-focus due to negative self-directed affect. The goal of Monteith’s (1993) study is that self-directed affect would lead to a kind of corrective belief-making process that is both less prejudicial and future-directed.

But if it’s guilt that’s doing the psychological work in these cases, then it’s not clear that knowers wouldn’t find other means of assuaging such feelings. Why wouldn’t it be the case that generating negative self-directed affect would point a knower toward anything they deem necessary to restore a more positive sense of self? To this, Monteith made the following concession:

Steele (1988; Steele & Liu, 1983) contended that restoration of one’s self-image after a discrepancy experience may not entail discrepancy reduction if other opportunities for self-affirmation are available. For example, Steele (1988) suggested that a smoker who wants to quit might spend more time with his or her children to resolve the threat to the self-concept engendered by the psychological inconsistency created by smoking. Similarly, Tesser and Cornell (1991) found that different behaviors appeared to feed into a general “self-evaluation reservoir.” It follows that prejudice-related discrepancy experiences may not facilitate the self-regulation of prejudiced responses if other means to restoring one’s self-regard are available [emphasis mine].[26]

Additionally, she noted that even if individuals are committed to the reducing or “unlearning” automatic stereotyping, they “may become frustrated and disengage from the self-regulatory cycle, abandoning their goal to eliminate prejudice-like responses.”[27] Cognitive exhaustion, or cognitive depletion, can occur after intergroup exchanges as well. This may make it even less likely that a knower will continue to feel guilty, and to use that guilt to inhibit the activation of negative stereotypes when they find themselves struggling cognitively. Conversely, there is also the issue of a kind of lab-based, or experiment-based, cognitive priming. I pick up with this idea along with the final two models of implicit interventions in the next part.

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

[2] 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.

[3] Saul, Jennifer (2017), p. 466.

[4] 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.

[5] I owe this critical point in its entirety to the work of Lacey Davidson and her presentation, “When Testimony Isn’t Enough: Implicit Bias Research as Epistemic Injustice” at the Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies (FEMMSS) conference in Corvallis, Oregon in 2018. Davidson notes that the work of philosophers of race and critical race theorists often takes a backseat to the projects of philosophers of social science who engage with the science of racialized attitudes as opposed to the narratives and/or testimonies of those with lived experiences of racism. Davidson describes this as a type of epistemic injustice against philosophers of race and critical race theorists. She also notes that philosophers of race and critical race theorists are often people of color while the philosophers of social science are often white. This dimension of analysis is important but unexplored. Davidson’s work highlights how epistemic injustice operates within the academy to perpetuate systems of racism and oppression under the guise of “good science.” Her arguments was inspired by the work of Jeanine Weekes Schroer on the problematic nature of current research on stereotype threat and implicit bias in “Giving Them Something They Can Feel: On the Strategy of Scientizing the Phenomenology of Race and Racism,” Knowledge Cultures 3(1), 2015.

[6] 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. See also: 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.

[7] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 69. See also: 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.

[8] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 69.

[9] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 73.

[10] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 73.

[11] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 74.

[12] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 74.

[13] The Shooter Task refers to a computer simulation experiment where images of black and white males appear on a screen holding a gun or a non-gun object. Study participants are given a short response time and tasked with pressing a button, or “shooting” armed images versus unarmed images. Psychological studies have revealed a “shooter bias” in the tendency to shoot black, unarmed males more often than unarmed white males. See: 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.

[14] 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..

[15] Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David (2010), p. 520.

[16] A “messy environment” presents additional challenges to studies like the one discussed here. As Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg (2008) claim in “The Spreading of Disorder,” people are more likely to violate social rules when they see that others are violating the rules as well. I can only imagine that this is applicable to epistemic rules as well. I mention this here to suggest that the “cleanliness” of the social environment of social psychological studies such as the one by Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David (2010) presents an additional obstacle in extrapolating the resulting behaviors of research participants to the public-at-large. Short of mass hypnosis, how could the strategies used in these experiments, strategies that are predicated on the noninterference of other destabilizing factors, be meaningfully applied to everyday life? There is a tendency in the philosophical literature on implicit bias and stereotype threat to outright ignore the limited applicability of much of this research in order to make critical claims about interventions into racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic behaviors. Philosophers would do well to recognize the complexity of these issues and to be more cautious about the enthusiastic endorsement of experimental results.

[17] Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David (2010), p. 520.

[18] 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.

[19] Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David (2010), p. 520.

[20] 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.

[21] Monteith (1993), p. 474.

[22] Monteith (1993), p. 475.

[23] Monteith (1993), p. 477.

[24] Monteith (1993), p. 477.

[25] Monteith (1993), p. 477.

[26] Monteith (1993), p. 482.

[27] Monteith (1993), p. 483.

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: 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: 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: Jensen Alex, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida, jonathan.matheson@gmail.com

Alex, Jensen, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson. “Conscientiousness and Other Problems: A Reply to Zagzabski.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 10-13.

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

Please refer to:

We’d first like to thank Dr. Zagzebski for engaging with our review of Epistemic Authority. We want to extend the dialogue by offering brief comments on several issues that she raised.

Conscientiousness

In our review we brought up the case of a grieving father who simply could not believe that his son had died despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. This case struck us as a problem case for Zagzebki’s account of rationality. For Zagzebski, rationality is a matter of conscientiousness, and conscientiousness is a matter of using your faculties as best you can to get to truth, where the best guide for a belief’s truth is its surviving conscientious reflection. The problem raised by the grieving father is that his belief that his son is still alive will continuously survive his conscientious reflection (since he is psychologically incapable of believing otherwise) yet it is clearly an irrational belief. In her response, Zagzebski makes the following claims,

(A) “To say he has reasons to believe his son is dead is just to say that a conscientiously self-reflective person would treat what he hears, reads, sees as indicators of the truth of his son’s death. So I say that a reason just is what a conscientiously self-reflective person sees as indicating the truth of some belief.” (57)

and,

(B) “a conscientious judgment can never go against the balance of one’s reasons since one’s reasons for p just are what one conscientiously judges indicate the truth of p.” (57)

These claims about the case lead to a dilemma. Either conscientiousness is to be understood subjectively or objectively, and either way we see some issues. First, if we understand conscientiousness subjectively, then the father seems to pass the test. We can suppose that he is doing the best he can to believe truths, but the psychological stability of this one belief causes the dissonance to be resolved in atypical ways. So, on a subjective construal of conscientiousness, he is conscientious and his belief about his son has survived conscientious reflection.

We can stipulate that the father is doing the best he can with what he has, yet his belief is irrational. Zagzebski’s (B) above seems to fit a subjective understanding of conscientiousness and leads to such a verdict. This is also how we read her in Epistemic Authority more generally. Second, if we understand conscientiousness objectively, then it follows that the father is not being conscientious. There are objectively better ways to resolve his psychic dissonance even if they are not psychologically open to him.

So, the objective understanding of conscientiousness does not give the verdict that the grieving father is rational. Zagzebski’s (A) above fits with an objective understanding of conscientiousness. The problem with the objective understanding of conscientiousness is that it is much harder to get a grasp on what it is. Doing the best you can with what you have, has a clear meaning on the subjective level and gives a nice responsibilist account of conscientiousness. However, when we abstract away from the subject’s best efforts and the subject’s faculties, how should we understand conscientiousness? Is it to believe in accordance with what an ideal epistemic agent would conscientiously believe?

To us, while the objective understanding of conscientiousness avoids the problem, it comes with new problems, chief among which is a fleshed out concept of conscientiousness, so understood. In addition, the objective construal of conscientiousness also does not appear to be suited for how Zagzebski deploys the concept in other areas of the book. For instance, regarding her treatment of peer disagreement, Zagzebski claims that each party should resolve the dissonance in a way that favors what they trust most when thinking conscientiously about the matter. The conscientiousness in play here sounds quite subjective, since rational resolution is simply a matter of sticking with what one trusts the most (even if an ideal rational agent wouldn’t be placing their trust in the same states and even when presented evidence to the contrary).

Reasons

Zagzebski distinguishes between 1st and 3rd person reasons, in part, to include things like emotions as reasons. For Zagzebski,

“1st person or deliberative reasons are states of mind that indicate to me that some belief is true. 3rd person, or theoretical reasons, are not states of mind, but are propositions that are logically or probabilistically connected to the truth of some proposition. (What we call evidence is typically in this category)” (57)

We are troubled by the way that Zagzebski employs this distinction. First, it is not clear how these two kinds of reasons are related. Does a subject have a 1st person reason for every 3rd person reason? After all, not every proposition that is logically or probabilistically connected to the truth of a proposition is part of an individuals evidence or is one of their reasons. So, are the 3rd person reasons that one possesses reasons that one has access to by way of a first-person reason? How could a 3rd person reason be a reason that I have if not by way of some subjective connection?

The relation between these two kinds of reasons deserves further development since Zagzebski puts this distinction to a great deal of work in the book. The second issue results from Zagzebski’s claim that, “1st person and 3rd person reasons do not aggregate.” (57)  If 1st and 3rd person reasons do not aggregate, then they do not combine to give a verdict as to what one has all-things-considered reason to believe. This poses a significant problem in cases where one’s 1st and 3rd person reasons point in different directions.

Zagzebski’s focus is on one’s 1st person reasons, but what then of one’s 3rd person reasons? 3rd person reasons are still reasons, yet if they do not aggregate with 1st person reasons, and 1st person reasons are determining what one should believe, it’s hard to see what work is left for 3rd person reasons. This is quite striking since these are the very reasons epistemologists have focused on for centuries.

Zagzebski’s embrace of 1st person reasons is ostensibly a movement to integrate the concepts of rationality and truth with resolutely human faculties (e.g. emotion, belief, and sense-perception) that have largely been ignored by the Western philosophical canon. Her critical attitude toward Western hyper-intellectualism and the rationalist worldview is understandable and, in certain ways, admirable. Perhaps the movement to engage emotion, belief, and sense-perception as epistemic features can be preserved, but only in the broader context of an evidence-centered epistemology. Further research should channel this movement toward an examination of how non-traditional epistemic faculties as 1st person reasons may be mapped to 3rd person reasons in a way is cognizant of self-trust in personal experience —that is, an account of aggregation that is grounded fundamentally in evidence.

Biases

In the final part of her response, Zagzebski claims that the insight regarding prejudice within communities can bolster several of her points. She refers specifically to her argument that epistemic self-trust commits us to epistemic trust in others (and its expansion to communities), as well as her argument about communal epistemic egoism and the Rational Recognition Principle. She emphasizes the importance of communities to regard others as trustworthy and rational, which would lead to the recognition of biases within them—something that would not happen if communities relied on epistemic egoism.

However, biases have staying power beyond egoism. Even those who are interested in widening and deepening their perspective though engaging with others can nevertheless have deep biases that affect how they integrate this information. Although Zagzebski may be right in emphasizing the importance of communities to act in this way, it seems too idealistic to imply that such honest engagement would result in the recognition and correction of biases. While such engagement might highlight important disagreements, Zagzebski’s analysis of disagreement, where it is rational to stick with what you trust most, will far too often be an open invitation to maintain (if not reinforce) one’s own biases and prejudice.

It is also important to note that the worry concerning biases and prejudice cannot be resolved by emphasizing a move to communities given that communities are subject to the same biases and prejudices as individuals that compose them. Individuals, in trusting their own communities, will only reinforce the biases and prejudice of its members. So, this move can make things worse, even if sometimes it can make things better. Zagzebski’s expansion of self-trust to communities and her Rational Recognition Principle commits communities only to recognize others as (prima facie) trustworthy and rational by means of recognizing their own epistemic faculties in those others.

However, doing this does not do much in terms of the disclosure of biases given that communities are not committed to trust the beliefs of those they recognize as rational and trustworthy. Under Zagzebski’s view, it is possible for a community to recognize another as rational and trustworthy, without necessarily trusting their beliefs—all without the need to succumb to communal epistemic egoism. Communities are, then, able to treat disagreement in a way that resolves dissonance for them.

That is, by trusting their beliefs more than those of the other communities. This is so even when recognizing them as rational and trustworthy as themselves because, under Zagzebski’s view communities are justified in maintaining their beliefs over those of others not because of egoistic reasons but because by withstanding conscientious self-reflection, they trust their beliefs more than those of others. Resolving dissonance from disagreement in this way is clearly more detrimental than it is beneficial, especially in the cases of biased individuals and communities, for which this would lead them to keep their biases.

Although, as Zagzebski claims, attention to cases of prejudice within communities may help give more importance to her argument about the extension of self-trust to the communal level, it does not do much in terms of disclosing biases inasmuch as dissonance from disagreement is resolved in the way she proposes. Her proposal leads not to the disclosure of biases as she implies, but to their reinforcement given that biases—although plausibly unaware—is what communities and individuals would trust more in these cases.

Contact details: jonathan.matheson@gmail.com

References

Alex, Jensen, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson. “A Review of Linda Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 29-34.

Zagzebski, Linda T. Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Zagzebski, Linda T. “Trust in Others and Self-Trust: Regarding Epistemic Authority.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 56-59.

Author information: Kjartan Koch Mikalsen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, kjartan.mikalsen@ntnu.no.

Mikalsen, Kjartan Koch. “An Ideal Case for Accountability Mechanisms, the Unity of Epistemic and Democratic Concerns, and Skepticism About Moral Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 1-5.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3S2

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How do we square democracy with pervasive dependency on experts and expert arrangements? This is the basic question of Cathrine Holst and Anders Molander’s article “Public deliberation and the fact of expertise: making experts accountable.” Holst and Molander approach the question as a challenge internal to a democratic political order. Their concern is not whether expert rule might be an alternative to democratic government.

Rather than ask if the existence of expertise raises an “epistocratic challenge” to democracy, they “ask how science could be integrated into politics in a way that is consistent with democratic requirements as well as epistemic standards” (236).[1] Given commitment to a normative conception of deliberative democracy, what qualifies as a legitimate expert arrangement?

Against the backdrop of epistemic asymmetry between experts and laypersons, Holst and Molander present this question as a problem of accountability. When experts play a political role, we need to ensure that they really are experts and that they practice their expert role properly. I believe this is a compelling challenge, not least in view of expert disagreement and contestation. In a context where we lack sufficient knowledge and training to assess directly the reasoning behind contested advice, we face a non-trivial problem of deciding which expert to trust. I also agree that the problem calls for institutional measures.

However, I do not think such measures simply answer to a non-ideal problem related to untrustworthy experts. The need for institutionalized accountability mechanisms runs deeper. Nor am I convinced by the idea that introducing such measures involves balancing “the potential rewards from expertise against potential deliberative costs” (236). Finally, I find it problematic to place moral expertise side-by-side with scientific expertise in the way Holst and Molander do.

Accountability Mechanisms: More than Non-ideal Remedies

To meet the challenge of epistemic asymmetry combined with expert disagreement, Holst and Molander propose three sets of institutional mechanisms for scrutinizing the work of expert bodies (242-43). First, in order to secure compliance with basic epistemic norms, they propose laws and guidelines that specify investigation procedures in some detail, procedures for reviewing expert performance and for excluding experts with a bad record of accomplishment, as well as sanctions against sloppy work.

Second, in order to review expert judgements, they propose checks in the form of fora comprising peers, experts in other fields, bureaucrats and stakeholders, legislators, or the public sphere. Third, in order to assure that expert groups work under good conditions for inquiry and judgment, they propose organizing the work of such groups in a way that fosters cognitive diversity.

According to Holst and Molander, these measures have a remedial function. Their purpose is to counter the misbehavior of non-ideal experts, that is, experts whose behavior and judgements are biased or influenced by private interests. The measures concern unreasonable disagreement rooted in experts’ over-confidence or partiality, as opposed to reasonable disagreement rooted in “burdens of judgement” (Rawls 1993, 54). By targeting objectionable conduct and reasoning, they reduce the risk of fallacies and the “intrusion of non-epistemic interests and preferences” (242). In this way, they increase the trustworthiness of experts.

As I see it, this is to attribute a too limited role to the proposed accountability mechanisms. While they might certainly work in the way Holst and Molander suggest, it is doubtful whether they would be superfluous if all experts were ideal experts without biases or conflicting interests.

Even ideal experts are fallible and have partial perspectives on reality. The ideal expert is not omniscient, but a finite being who perceives the world from a certain perspective, depending on a range of contingent factors, such as training in a particular scientific field, basic theoretical assumptions, methodological ideals, subjective expectations, and so on. The ideal expert is aware that she is fallible and that her own point of view is just one among many others. We might therefore expect that she does not easily become a victim of overconfidence or confirmation bias. Yet, given the unavoidable limits of an individual’s knowledge and intellectual capacity, no expert can know what the world looks like from all other perspectives and no expert can be safe from misjudgments.

Accordingly, subjecting expert judgements to review and organizing diverse expert groups is important no matter how ideal the expert. There seems to be no other way to test the soundness of expert opinions than to check them against the judgements of other experts, other forms of expertise, or the public at large. Similarly, organizing diverse expert groups seems like a sensible way of bringing out all relevant facts about an issue even in the case of ideal experts. We do not have to suspect anyone of bias or pursuance of self-serving interests in order to justify these kinds of institutional measures.

Image by Birdman Photos via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

No Trade-off Between Democratic and Epistemic Concerns

An important aspect of Holst and Molander’s discussion of how to make experts accountable is the idea that we need to balance the epistemic value of expert arrangements against democratic concerns about inclusive deliberation. While they point out that the mechanisms for holding experts to account can democratize expertise in ways that leads to epistemic enrichment, they also warn that inclusion of lay testimony or knowledge “can result in undue and disproportional consideration of arguments that are irrelevant, obviously invalid or fleshed out more precisely in expert contributions” (244).

There is of course always the danger that things go wrong, and that the wrong voices win through. Yet, the question is whether this risk forces us to make trade-offs between epistemic soundness and democratic participation. Holst and Molander quote Stephen Turner (2003, 5) on the supposed dilemma that “something has to give: either the idea of government by generally intelligible discussion, or the idea that there is genuine knowledge that is known to few, but not generally intelligible” (236). To my mind, this formulation rests on an ideal picture of public deliberation that is not only excessively demanding, but also normatively problematic.

It is a mistake to assume that political deliberation cannot include “esoteric” expert knowledge if it is to be inclusive and open to everyone. If democracy is rule by public discussion, then every citizen should have an equal chance to contribute to political deliberation and will-formation, but this is not to say that all aspects of every contribution should be comprehensible to everyone. Integration of expert opinions based on knowledge fully accessible only to a few does not clash with democratic ideals of equal respect and inclusion of all voices.

Because of specialization and differentiation, all experts are laypersons with respect to many areas where others are experts. Disregarding individual variation of minor importance, we are all equals in ignorance, lacking sufficient knowledge and training to assess the relevant evidence in most fields.[2] Besides, and more fundamentally, deferring to expert advice in a political context does not imply some form of political status hierarchy between persons.

To acknowledge expert judgments as authoritative in an epistemic sense is simply to acknowledge that there is evidence supporting certain views, and that this evidence is accessible to everyone who has time and skill to investigate the matter. For this reason, it is unclear how the observation that political expert arrangements do not always harmonize with democratic ideals warrants talk of a need for trade-offs or a balancing of diverging concerns. In principle, there seems to be no reason why there has to be divergence between epistemic and democratic concerns.

To put the point even sharper, I would like to suggest that allowing alleged democratic concerns to trump sound expert advice is democratic in name only. With Jacob Weinrib (2016, 57-65), I consider democratic law making as essential to a just legal system because all non-democratic forms of legislation are defective arrangements that arbitrarily exclude someone from contributing to the enactment of the laws that regulate their interaction with others. Yet, an inclusive legislative procedure that disregards the best available reasons is hardly a case of democratic self-legislation.

It is more like raving blind drunk. Legislators that ignore state-of-the-art knowledge are not only deeply irrational, but also disrespectful of those bound by the laws that they enact. Need I mention the climate crisis? Understanding democracy as a process of discursive rationalization (Habermas 1996), the question is not what trade-offs we have to make, but how inclusive legislative procedures can be made sufficiently truth sensitive (Christiano 2012). We can only approximate a defensible democratic order by making democratic and epistemic concerns pull in the same direction.

Moral vs Scientific and Technical Expertise

Before introducing the accountability problem, Holst and Molander consider two ideal objections against giving experts an important political role: ‘(1) that one cannot know decisively who the knowers or experts are’ and ‘(2) that all political decisions have moral dimensions and that there is no moral expertise’ (237). They reject both objections. With respect to (1), they convincingly argue that there are indirect ways of identifying experts without oneself being an expert. With respect to (2), they pursue two strategies.

First, they argue that even if facts and values are intertwined in policy-making, descriptive and normative aspects of an issue are still distinguishable. Second, they argue that unless strong moral non-cognitivism is correct, it is possible to speak of moral expertise in the form of ‘competence to state and clarify moral questions and to provide justified answers’ (241). To my mind, the first of these two strategies is promising, whereas the second seems to play down important differences between distinct forms of expertise.

There are of course various types of democratic expert arrangements. Sometimes experts are embedded in public bodies making collectively binding decisions. At other occasions, experts serve an advisory function. Holst and Molander tend to use “expertise” and “expert” as unspecified, generic terms, and they refer to both categories side-by-side (235, 237). However, by framing their argument as an argument concerning epistemic asymmetry and the novice/expert-problem, they indicate that they have in mind moral experts in advisory capacities and as someone in possession of insights known to a few, yet of importance for political decision-making.

I agree that some people are better informed about moral theory and more skilled in moral argumentation than others are, but such expertise still seems different in kind from technical expertise or expertise within empirical sciences. Although moral experts, like other experts, provide action-guiding advice, their public role is not analogous to the public role of technical or scientific experts.

For the public, the value of scientific and technical expertise lies in information about empirical restraints and the (lack of) effectiveness of alternative solutions to problems. If someone is an expert in good standing within a certain field, then it is reasonable to regard her claims related to this field as authoritative, and to consider them when making political decisions. As argued in the previous section, it would be disrespectful and contrary to basic democratic norms to ignore or bracket such claims, even if one does not fully grasp the evidence and reasoning supporting them.

Things look quite different when it comes to moral expertise. While there can be good reasons for paying attention to what specialists in moral theory and practical reasoning have to say, we rarely, if ever, accept their claims about justified norms, values and ends as authoritative or valid without considering the reasoning supporting the claims, and rightly so. Unlike Holst and Molander, I do not think we should accept the arguments of moral experts as defined here simply based on indirect evidence that they are trustworthy (cf. 241).

For one thing, the value of moral expertise seems to lie in the practical reasoning itself just as much as in the moral ideals underpinned by reasons. An important part of what the moral expert has to offer is thoroughly worked out arguments worth considering before making a decision on an issue. However, an argument is not something we can take at face value, because an argument is of value to us only insofar as we think it through ourselves. Moreover, the appeal to moral cognitivism is of limited value for elevating someone to the status of moral expert. Even if we might reach agreement on basic principles to govern society, there will still be reasonable disagreement as to how we should translate the principles into general rules and how we should apply the rules to particular cases.

Accordingly, we should not expect acceptance of the conclusions of moral experts in the same way we should expect acceptance of the conclusions of scientific and technical expertise. To the contrary, we should scrutinize such conclusions critically and try to make up our own mind. This is, after all, more in line with the enlightenment motto at the core of modern democracy, understood as government by discussion: “Have courage to make use of your own understanding!” (Kant 1996 [1784], 17).

Contact details: kjartan.mikalsen@ntnu.no

References

Christiano, Thomas. “Rational Deliberation among Experts and Citizens.” In Deliberative Systems: Deliberative Democracy at the Large Scale, ed. John Parkinson and Jane Mansbridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Facts and Norms.

Holst, Cathrine, and Anders Molander. “Public deliberation and the fact of expertise: making experts accountable.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 3 (2017): 235-250.

Kant, Immanuel. Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology, History, and Edcucation, ed. Günther Zöller and Robert B. Louden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Turner, Stephen. Liberal Democracy 3.0: Civil Society in an Age of Experts. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2003.

Weinrib, Jacob. Dimensions of Dignity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[1] All bracketed numbers without reference to author in the main text refer to Holst and Molander (2017).

[2] This also seems to be Kant’s point when he writes that human predispositions for the use of reason “develop completely only in the species, but not in the individual” (2007 [1784], 109).

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, University of Seville, mpadillacruz@us.es

Cruz, Manuel Padilla. “Conceptual Competence Injustice and Relevance Theory, A Reply to Derek Anderson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 39-50.

Please refer to:

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

Contestants from the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Image from Scripps National Spelling Bee, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Derek Anderson (2017a) has recently differentiated conceptual competence injustice and characterised it as the wrong done when, on the grounds of the vocabulary used in interaction, a person is believed not to have a sophisticated or rich conceptual repertoire. His most interesting, insightful and illuminating work induced me to propose incorporating this notion to the field of linguistic pragmatics as a way of conceptualising an undesired and unexpected perlocutionary effect: attribution of lower level of communicative or linguistic competence. These may be drawn from a perception of seemingly poor performance stemming from lack of the words necessary to refer to specific elements of reality or misuse of the adequate ones (Padilla Cruz 2017a).

Relying on the cognitive pragmatic framework of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004), I also argued that such perlocutionary effect would be an unfortunate by-product of the constant tendency to search for the optimal relevance of intentional stimuli like single utterances or longer stretches of discourse. More specifically, while aiming for maximum cognitive gain in exchange for a reasonable amount of cognitive effort, the human mind may activate or access assumptions about a language user’s linguistic or communicative performance, and feed them as implicated premises into inferential computations.

Although those assumptions might not really have been intended by the language user, they are made manifest by her[1] behaviour and may be exploited in inference, even if at the hearer’s sole responsibility and risk. Those assumptions are weak implicated premises and their interaction with other mentally stored information yields weakly implicated conclusions (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). Since their content pertains to the speaker’s behaviour, they are behavioural implicatures (Jary 2013); since they negatively impact on an individual’s reputation as a language user, they turn out to be detrimental implicatures (Jary 1998).

My proposal about the benefits of the notion of conceptual competence injustice to linguistic pragmatics was immediately replied by Anderson (2017b). He considers that the intention underlying my comment on his work was “[…] to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory” and points out that my proposal “[…] must be tempered with the proper understanding of that phenomenon as a structural injustice” (Anderson 2017b: 36; emphasis in the original). Furthermore, he also claims that relevance theory “[…] does not intrinsically have the resources to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice” (Anderson 2017b: 36).

In what follows, I purport to clarify two issues. Firstly, my suggestion to incorporate conceptual competence injustice into linguistic pragmatics necessarily relies on a much broader, more general and loosened understanding of this notion. Even if such an understanding deprives it of some of its essential, defining conditions –namely, existence of different social identities and of matrices of domination– it may somehow capture the ontology of the unexpected effects that communicative performance may result in: an unfair appraisal of capacities.

Secondly, my intention when commenting on Anderson’s (2017a) work was not actually to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory, but to show that this pragmatic framework is well equipped and most appropriate in order to account for the cognitive processes and the reasons underlying the unfortunate negative effects that may be alluded to with the notion I am advocating for. Therefore, I will argue that relevance theory does in fact have the resources to explain why some injustices stemming from communicative performance may originate. To conclude, I will elaborate on the factors why wrong ascriptions of conceptual and lexical competence may be made.

What Is Conceptual Competence Injustice

As a sub-type of epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007), conceptual competence injustice arises in scenarios where there are privileged epistemic agents who (i) are prejudiced against members of specific social groups, identities or minorities, and (ii) exert power as a way of oppression. Such agents make “[…] false judgments of incompetence [which] function as part of a broader, reliable pattern of marginalization that systematically undermines the epistemic agency of members of an oppressed social identity” (Anderson 2017b: 36). Therefore, conceptual competence injustice is a way of denigrating individuals as knowers of specific domains of reality and ultimately disempowering, discriminating and excluding them, so it “[…] is a form of epistemic oppression […]” (Anderson 2017b: 36).

Lack or misuse of vocabulary may result in wronging if hearers conclude that certain concepts denoting specific elements of reality –objects, animals, actions, events, etc.– are not available to particular speakers or that they have erroneously mapped those concepts onto lexical items. When this happens, speakers’ conceptualising and lexical capacities could be deemed to be below alleged or actual standards. Since lexical competence is one of the pillars of communicative competence (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1991; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995), that judgement could contribute to downgrading speakers in an alleged scale of communicative competence and, consequently, to regarding them as partially or fully incompetent.

According to Medina (2011), competence is a comparative and contrastive property. On the one hand, skilfulness in some domain may be compared to that in (an)other domain(s), so a person may be very skilled in areas like languages, drawing, football, etc., but not in others like mathematics, oil painting, basketball, etc. On the other hand, knowledge of and abilities in some matters may be greater or lesser than those of other individuals. Competence, moreover, may be characterised as gradual and context-dependent. Degree of competence –i.e. its depth and width, so to say– normally increases because of age, maturity, personal circumstances and experience, or factors such as instruction and subsequent learning, needs, interests, motivation, etc. In turn, the way in which competence surfaces may be affected by a variety of intertwined factors, which include (Mustajoki 2012; Padilla Cruz 2017b).

Factors Affecting Competence in Communication

Internal factors –i.e. person-related– among which feature:

Relatively stable factors, such as (i) other knowledge and abilities, regardless of their actual relatedness to a particular competence, and (ii) cognitive styles –i.e. patterns of accessing and using knowledge items, among which are concepts and words used to name them.

Relatively unstable factors, such as (i) psychological states like nervousness, concentration, absent-mindedness, emotional override, or simply experiencing feelings like happiness, sadness, depression, etc.; (ii) physiological conditions like tiredness, drowsiness, drunkenness, etc., or (iii) performance of actions necessary for physiological functions like swallowing, sipping, sneezing, etc. These may facilitate or hinder access to and usage of knowledge items including concepts and words.

External –i.e. situation-related– factors, which encompass (i) the spatio-temporal circumstances where encounters take place, and (ii) the social relations with other participants in an encounter. For instance, haste, urgency or (un)familiarity with a setting may ease or impede access to and usage of knowledge items, as may experiencing social distance and/or more or less power with respect to another individual (Brown and Levinson 1987).

While ‘social distance’ refers to (un)acquaintance with other people and (dis)similarity with them as a result of perceptions of membership to a social group, ‘power’ does not simply allude to the possibility of imposing upon others and conditioning their behaviour as a consequence of differing positions in a particular hierarchy within a specific social institution. ‘Power’ also refers to the likelihood to impose upon other people owing to perceived or supposed expertise in a field –i.e. expert power, like that exerted by, for instance, a professor over students– or to admiration of diverse personal attributes –i.e. referent power, like that exerted by, for example, a pop idol over fans (Spencer-Oatey 1996).

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

Conceptualising capacities, conceptual inventories and lexical competence also partake of the four features listed above: gradualness, comparativeness, contrastiveness and context-dependence. Needless to say, all three of them obviously increase as a consequence of growth and exposure to or participation in a plethora of situations and events, among which education or training are fundamental. Conceptualising capacities and lexical competence may be more or less developed or accurate than other abilities, among which are the other sub-competences upon which communicative competence depends –i.e. phonetics, morphology, syntax and pragmatics (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1991; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995).

Additionally, conceptual inventories enabling lexical performance may be rather complex in some domains but not in others –e.g. a person may store many concepts and possess a rich vocabulary pertaining to, for instance, linguistics, but lack or have rudimentary ones about sports. Finally, lexical competence may appear to be higher or lower than that of other individuals under specific spatio-temporal and social circumstances, or because of the influence of the aforesaid psychological and physiological factors, or actions performed while speaking.

Apparent knowledge and usage of general or domain-specific vocabulary may be assessed and compared to those of other people, but performance may be hindered or fail to meet expectations because of the aforementioned factors. If it was considered deficient, inferior or lower than that of other individuals, such consideration should only concern knowledge and usage of vocabulary concerning a specific domain, and be only relative to a particular moment, maybe under specific circumstances.

Unfortunately, people often extrapolate and (over)generalise, so they may take (seeming) lexical gaps at a particular time in a speaker’s life or one-off, occasional or momentary lexical infelicities to suggest or unveil more global and overarching conceptualising handicaps or lexical deficits. This does not only lead people to doubt the richness and broadness of that speaker’s conceptual inventory and lexical repertoire, but also to question her conceptualising abilities and what may be labelled her conceptual accuracy –i.e. the capacity to create concepts that adequately capture nuances in elements of reality and facilitate correct reference to those elements– as well as her lexical efficiency or lexical reliability –i.e. the ability to use vocabulary appropriately.

As long as doubts are cast about the amount and accuracy of the concepts available to a speaker and her ability to verbalise them, there arises an unwarranted and unfair wronging which would count as an injustice about that speaker’s conceptualising skills, amount of concepts and expressive abilities. The loosened notion of conceptual competence injustice whose incorporation into the field of linguistic pragmatics I advocated does not necessarily presuppose a previous discrimination or prejudice negatively biasing hegemonic, privileged or empowered individuals against minorities or identities.

Wrong is done, and an epistemic injustice is therefore inflicted, because another person’s conceptual inventory, lexical repertoire and expressive skills are underestimated or negatively evaluated because of (i) perception of a communicative behaviour that is felt not to meet expectations or to be below alleged standards, (ii) tenacious adherence to those expectations or standards, and (iii) unawareness of the likely influence of various factors on performance. This wronging may nonetheless lead to subsequently downgrading that person as regards her communicative competence, discrediting her conceptual accuracy and lexical efficiency/reliability, and denigrating her as a speaker of a language, and, therefore, as an epistemic agent. Relying on all this, further discrimination on other grounds may ensue or an already existing one may be strengthened and perpetuated.

Relevance Theory and Conceptual Competence Injustice

Initially put forth in 1986, and slightly refined almost ten years later, relevance theory is a pragmatic framework that aims to explain (i) why hearers select particular interpretations out of the various possible ones that utterances may have –all of which are compatible with the linguistically encoded and communicated information– (ii) how hearers process utterances, and (iii) how and why utterances and discourse give rise to a plethora of effects (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). Accordingly, it concentrates on the cognitive side of communication: comprehension and the mental processes intervening in it.

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) reacted against the so-called code model of communication, which was deeply entrenched in western linguistics. According to this model, communication merely consists of encoding thoughts or messages into utterances, and decoding these in order to arrive at speaker meaning. Since speakers cannot encode everything they intend to communicate and absolute explicitness is practically unattainable, relevance theory portrays communication as an ostensive-inferential process where speakers draw the audience’s attention by means of intentional stimuli. On some occasions these amount to direct evidence –i.e. showing– of what speakers mean, so their processing requires inference; on other occasions, intentional stimuli amount to indirect –i.e. encoded– evidence of speaker meaning, so their processing relies on decoding.

However, in most cases the stimuli produced in communication combine direct with indirect evidence, so their processing depends on both inference and decoding (Sperber and Wilson 2015). Intentional stimuli make manifest speakers’ informative intention –i.e. the intention that the audience create a mental representation of the intended message, or, in other words, a plausible interpretative hypothesis– and their communicative intention –i.e. the intention that the audience recognise that speakers do have a particular informative intention. The role of hearers, then, is to arrive at speaker meaning by means of both decoding and inference (but see below).

Relevance theory also reacted against philosopher Herbert P. Grice’s (1975) view of communication as a joint endeavour where interlocutors identify a common purpose and may abide by, disobey or flout a series of maxims pertaining to communicative behaviour –those of quantity, quality, relation and manner– which articulate the so-called cooperative principle. Although Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995) seriously question the existence of such principle, they nevertheless rest squarely on a notion already present in Grice’s work, but which he unfortunately left undefined: relevance. This becomes the corner stone in their framework. Relevance is claimed to be a property of intentional stimuli and characterised on the basis of two factors:

Cognitive effects, or the gains resulting from the processing of utterances: (i) strengthening of old information, (ii) contradiction and rejection of old information, and (iii) derivation of new information.

Cognitive or processing effort, which is the effort of memory to select or construct a suitable mental context for processing utterances and to carry out a series of simultaneous tasks that involve the operation of a number of mental mechanisms or modules: (i) the language module, which decodes and parses utterances; (ii) the inferential module, which relates information encoded and made manifest by utterances to already stored information; (iii) the emotion-reading module, which identifies emotional states; (iv) the mindreading module, which attributes mental states, and (v) vigilance mechanisms, which assess the reliability of informers and the believability of information (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004; Sperber et al. 2010).

Relevance is a scalar property that is directly proportionate to the amount of cognitive effects that an interpretation gives rise to, but inversely proportionate to the expenditure of cognitive effort required. Interpretations are relevant if they yield cognitive effects in return for the cognitive effort invested. Optimal relevance emerges when the effect-effort balance is satisfactory. If an interpretation is found to be optimally relevant, it is chosen by the hearer and thought to be the intended interpretation. Hence, optimal relevance is the property determining the selection of interpretations.

The Power of Relevance Theory

Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) ideas and claims originated a whole branch in cognitive pragmatics that is now known as relevance-theoretic pragmatics. After years of intense, illuminating and fruitful work, relevance theorists have offered a plausible model for comprehension. In it, interpretative hypotheses –i.e. likely interpretations– are said to be formulated during a process of mutual parallel adjustment of the explicit and implicit content of utterances, where the said modules and mechanisms perform a series of simultaneous, incredibly fast tasks at a subconscious level (Carston 2002; Wilson and Sperber 2004).

Decoding only yields a minimally parsed chunk of concepts that is not yet fully propositional, so it cannot be truth-evaluable: the logical form. This form needs pragmatic or contextual enrichment by means of additional tasks wherein the inferential module relies on contextual information and is sometimes constrained by the procedural meaning –i.e. processing instructions– encoded by some linguistic elements.

Those tasks include (i) disambiguation of syntactic constituents; (ii) assignment of reference to words like personal pronouns, proper names, deictics, etc.; (iii) adjustment of the conceptual content encoded by words like nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and (iv) recovery of unarticulated constituents. Completion of these tasks results in the lower-level explicature of an utterance, which is a truth-evaluable propositional form amounting to the explicit content of an utterance. Construction of lower-level explicatures depends on decoding and inference, so that the more decoding involved, the more explicit or strong these explicatures are and, conversely, the more inference needed, the less explicit and weaker these explicatures are (Wilson and Sperber 2004).

A lower-level explicature may further be embedded into a conceptual schema that captures the speaker’s attitude(s) towards the proposition expressed, her emotion(s) or feeling(s) when saying what she says, or the action that she intends or expects the hearer to perform by saying what she says. This schema is the higher-level explicature and is also part of the explicit content of an utterance.

It is sometimes built through decoding some of the elements in an utterance –e.g. attitudinal adverbs like ‘happily’ or ‘unfortunately’ (Ifantidou 1992) or performative verbs like ‘order’, ‘apologise’ or ‘thank’ (Austin 1962)– and other times through inference, emotion-reading and mindreading –as in the case of, for instance, interjections, intonation or paralanguage (Wilson and Wharton 2006; Wharton 2009, 2016) or indirect speech acts (Searle 1969; Grice 1975). As in the case of lower-level explicatures, higher-level ones may also be strong or weak depending on the amount of decoding, emotion-reading and mindreading involved in their construction.

The explicit content of utterances may additionally be related to information stored in the mind or perceptible from the environment. Those information items act as implicated premises in inferential processes. If the hearer has enough evidence that the speaker intended or expected him to resort to and use those premises in inference, they are strong, but, if he does so at his own risk and responsibility, they are weak. Interaction of the explicit content with implicated premises yields implicated conclusions. Altogether, implicated premises and implicated conclusions make up the implicit content of an utterance. Arriving at the implicit content completes mutual parallel adjustment, which is a process constantly driven by expectations of relevance, in which the more plausible, less effort-demanding and more effect-yielding possibilities are normally chosen.

The Limits of Relevance Theory

As a model centred on comprehension and interpretation of ostensive stimuli, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) does not need to be able to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice, as Anderson (2017b) remarks, nor even instances of the negative consequences of communicative behaviour that may be alluded to by means of the broader, loosened notion of conceptual competence injustice I argued for. Rather, as a cognitive framework, its role is to explain why and how these originate. And, certainly, its notional apparatus and the cognitive machinery intervening in comprehension which it describes can satisfactorily account for (i) the ontology of unwarranted judgements of lexical and conceptual (in)competence, (ii) their origin and (iii) some of the reasons why they are made.

Accordingly, those judgements (i) are implicated conclusions which (ii) are derived during mutual parallel adjustment as a result of (iii) accessing some manifest assumptions and using these as implicated premises in inference. Obviously, the implicated premises that yield the negative conclusions about (in)competence might not have been intended by the speaker, who would not be interested in the hearer accessing and using them. However, her communicative performance makes manifest assumptions alluding to her lexical lacunae and mistakes and these lead the hearer to draw undesired conclusions.

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) is powerful enough to offer a cognitive explanation of the said three issues. And this alone was what I aimed to show in my comment to Anderson’s (2017a) work. Two different issues, nevertheless, are (i) the reasons why certain prejudicial assumptions become manifest to an audience and (ii) why those assumptions end up being distributed across the members of certain wide social groups.

As Anderson (2017b) underlines, conceptual competence injustices must necessarily be contextualised in situations where privileged and empowered social groups are negatively-biased or prejudiced against other identities and create patterns of marginalisation. Prejudice may be argued to bring to the fore a variety of negative assumptions about the members of the identities against whom it is held. Using Giora’s (1997) terminology, prejudice makes certain detrimental assumptions very salient or increases the saliency of those assumptions.

Consequently, they are amenable to being promptly accessed and effortlessly used as implicated premises in deductions, from which negative conclusions are straightforwardly and effortlessly derived. Those premises and conclusions spread throughout the members of the prejudiced and hegemonic group because, according to Sperber’s (1996) epidemiological model of culture, they are repeatedly transmitted or made public. This is possible thanks to two types of factors (Sperber 1996: 84):

Psychological factors, such as their relative easiness of storage, the existence of other knowledge with which they can interact in order to generate cognitive effects –e.g. additional negative conclusions pertaining to the members of the marginalised identity– or existence of compelling reasons to make the individuals in the group willing to transmit them –e.g. desire to disempower and/or marginalise the members of an unprivileged group, to exclude them from certain domains of human activity, to secure a privileged position, etc.

Ecological factors, such as the repetition of the circumstances under which those premises and conclusions result in certain actions –e.g. denigration, disempowerment, maginalisation, exclusion, etc.– availability of storage mechanisms other than the mind –e.g. written documents– or the existence of institutions that transmit and perpetuate those premises and conclusions, thus ensuring their continuity and availability.

Since the members of the dominating biased group find those premises and conclusions useful to their purposes and interests, they constantly reproduce them and, so to say, pass them on to the other members of the group or even on to individuals who do not belong to it. Using Sperber’s (1996) metaphor, repeated production and internalisation of those representations resembles the contagion of illnesses. As a result, those representations end up being part of the pool of cultural representations shared by the members of the group in question or other individuals.

The Imperative to Get Competence Correct

In social groups with an interest in denigrating and marginalising an identity, certain assumptions regarding the lexical inventories and conceptualising abilities of the epistemic agents with that identity may be very salient, or purposefully made very salient, with a view to ensuring that they are inferentially exploited as implicated premises that easily yield negative conclusions. In the case of average speakers’ lexical gaps and mistakes, assumptions concerning their performance and infelicities may also become very salient, be fed into inferential processes and result in prejudicial conclusions about their lexical and conceptual (in)competence.

Although utterance comprehension and information processing end upon completion of mutual parallel adjustment, for the informational load of utterances and the conclusions derivable from them to be added to an individual’s universe of beliefs, information must pass the filters of a series of mental mechanisms that target both informers and information itself, and check their believability and reliability. These mechanisms scrutinise various sources determining trust allocation, such as signs indicating certainty and trustworthiness –e.g. gestures, hesitation, nervousness, rephrasing, stuttering, eye contact, gaze direction, etc.– the appropriateness, coherence and relevance of the dispensed information; (previous) assumptions about speakers’ expertise or authoritativeness in some domain; the socially distributed reputation of informers, and emotions, prejudices and biases (Origgi 2013: 227-233).

As a result, these mechanisms trigger a cautious and sceptic attitude known as epistemic vigilance, which in some cases enables individuals to avoid blind gullibility and deception (Sperber et al. 2010). In addition, these mechanisms monitor the correctness and adequateness of the interpretative steps taken and the inferential routes followed while processing utterances and information, and check for possible flaws at any of the tasks in mutual parallel adjustment –e.g. wrong assignment of reference, supply of erroneous implicated premises, etc.– which would prevent individuals from arriving at actually intended interpretations. Consequently, another cautious and sceptical attitude is triggered towards interpretations, which may be labelled hermeneutical vigilance (Padilla Cruz 2016).

If individuals do not perceive risks of malevolence or deception, or do not sense that they might have made interpretative mistakes, vigilance mechanisms are weakly or moderately activated (Michaelian 2013: 46; Sperber 2013: 64). However, their level of activation may be raised so that individuals exercise external and/or internal vigilance. While the former facilitates higher awareness of external factors determining trust allocation –e.g. cultural norms, contextual information, biases, prejudices, etc.– the latter facilitates distancing from conclusions drawn at a particular moment, backtracking with a view to tracing their origin –i.e. the interpretative steps taken, the assumptions fed into inference and assessment of their potential consequences (Origgi 2013: 224-227).

Exercising weak or moderate vigilance of the conclusions drawn upon perception of lexical lacunae or mistakes may account for their unfairness and the subsequent wronging of individuals as regards their actual conceptual and lexical competence. Unawareness of the internal and external factors that may momentarily have hindered competence and ensuing performance, may cause perceivers of lexical gaps and errors to unquestioningly trust assumptions that their interlocutors’ allegedly poor performance makes manifest, rely on them, supply them as implicated premises, derive conclusions that do not do any justice to their actual level of conceptual and lexical competence, and eventually trust their appropriateness, adequacy or accuracy.

A higher alertness to the potential influence of those factors on performance would block access to the detrimental assumptions made manifest by their interlocutors’ performance or make perceivers of lexical infelicities reconsider the convenience of using those assumptions in deductions. If this was actually the case, perceivers would be deploying the processing strategy labelled cautious optimism, which enables them to question the suitability of certain deductions and to make alternative ones (Sperber 1994).

Conclusion

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004) does not need to be able to identify cases of conceptual competence injustice, but its notional apparatus and the machinery that it describes can satisfactorily account for the cognitive processes whereby conceptual competence injustices originate. In essence, prejudice and interests in denigrating members of specific identities or minorities favour the saliency of certain assumptions about their incompetence, which, for a variety of psychological and ecological reasons, may already be part of the cultural knowledge of the members of prejudiced empowered groups. Those assumptions are subsequently supplied as implicated premises to deductions, which yield conclusions that undermine the reputation of the members of the identities or minorities in question. Ultimately, such conclusions may in turn be added to the cultural knowledge of the members of the biased hegemonic group.

The same process would apply to those cases wherein hearers unfairly wrong their interlocutors on the grounds of performance below alleged or expected standards, and are not vigilant enough of the factors that could have impeded it. That wronging may be alluded to by means of a somewhat loosened, broadened notion of ‘conceptual competence injustice’ which deprives it of one of its quintessential conditions: the existence of prejudice and interests in marginalising other individuals. Inasmuch as apparently poor performance may give rise to unfortunate unfair judgements of speakers’ overall level of competence, those judgements could count as injustices. In a nutshell, this was the reason why I advocated for the incorporation of a ‘decaffeinated’ version of Anderson’s (2017a) notion into the field of linguistic pragmatics.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

References

Anderson, Derek. “Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology. A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 37, no. 2 (2017a): 210-223.

Anderson, Derek. “Relevance Theory and Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017b): 34-39.

Austin, John L. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Bachman, Lyle F. Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Brown, Penelope, and Stephen C. Levinson. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Canale, Michael. “From Communicative Competence to Communicative Language Pedagogy.” In Language and Communication, edited by Jack C. Richards and Richard W. Schmidt, 2-28. London: Longman, 1983.

Carston, Robyn. Thoughts and Utterances. The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Celce-Murcia, Marianne, Zoltán Dörnyei, and Sarah Thurrell. “Communicative Competence: A Pedagogically Motivated Model with Content Modifications.” Issues in Applied Linguistics 5 (1995): 5-35.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice. Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Giora, Rachel. “Understanding Figurative and Literal Language: The Graded Salience Hypothesis.” Cognitive Linguistics 8 (1997): 183-206.

Grice, Herbert P., 1975. “Logic and Conversation.” In Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 3: Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan, 41-58. New York: Academic Press, 1975.

Hymes, Dell H. “On Communicative Competence.” In Sociolinguistics. Selected Readings, edited by John B. Pride and Janet Holmes, 269-293. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972.

Ifantidou, Elly. “Sentential Adverbs and Relevance.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 4 (1992): 193-214.

Jary, Mark. “Relevance Theory and the Communication of Politeness.” Journal of Pragmatics 30 (1998): 1-19.

Jary, Mark. “Two Types of Implicature: Material and Behavioural.” Mind & Language 28, no. 5 (2013): 638-660.

Medina, José. “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Imaginary.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 25, no. 1 (2011): 15-35.

Michaelian, Kourken. “The Evolution of Testimony: Receiver Vigilance, Speaker Honesty and the Reliability of Communication.” Episteme 10, no. 1 (2013): 37-59.

Mustajoki, Arto. “A Speaker-oriented Multidimensional Approach to Risks and Causes of Miscommunication.” Language and Dialogue 2, no. 2 (2012): 216-243.

Origgi, Gloria. “Epistemic Injustice and Epistemic Trust.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 26, no. 2 (2013): 221-235.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Vigilance Mechanisms in Interpretation: Hermeneutical Vigilance.” Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis 133, no. 1 (2016): 21-29.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Usefulness of the Notion of ‘Conceptual Competence Injustice’ to Linguistic Pragmatics.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017a): 12-19.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Interlocutors-related and Hearer-specific Causes of Misunderstanding: Processing Strategy, Confirmation Bias and Weak Vigilance.” Research in Language 15, no. 1 (2017b): 11-36.

Searle, John. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Spencer-Oatey, Hellen D. “Reconsidering Power and Distance.” Journal of Pragmatics 26 (1996): 1-24.

Sperber, Dan. “Understanding Verbal Understanding.” In What Is Intelligence? edited by Jean Khalfa, 179-198. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Sperber, Dan. Explaining Culture. A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Sperber, Dan. “Speakers Are Honest because Hearers Are Vigilant. Reply to Kourken Michaelian.” Episteme 10, no. 1 (2013): 61-71.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. “Beyond Speaker’s Meaning.” Croatian Journal of Philosophy 15, no. 44 (2015): 117-149.

Sperber, Dan, Fabrice Clément, Christophe Heintz, Olivier Mascaro, Hugo Mercier, Gloria Origgi, and Deirdre Wilson. “Epistemic Vigilance.” Mind & Language 25, no. 4 (2010): 359-393.

Wharton, Tim. Pragmatics and Non-verbal Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Wharton, Tim. “That Bloody so-and-so Has Retired: Expressives Revisited.” Lingua 175-176 (2016): 20-35.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Relevance Theory”. In The Handbook of Pragmatics, edited by Larry Horn, and Gregory Ward, 607-632. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Wilson, Deirdre and Tim Wharton. “Relevance and Prosody.” Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006): 1559-1579.

[1] Following a relevance-theoretic convention, reference to the speaker will be made through the feminine third person singular personal pronoun, while reference to the hearer will be made through its masculine counterpart.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Conservatism: The End of An Idea.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 7-16.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3R9

Image from Carnaval.com Studios via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I recently noticed that conservatism as a political stance is definitively dead. Truth is it has been on life support for decades. This has not stopped all sorts of people from using the term both positively and negatively. All sorts of people proudly proclaim themselves to be conservatives while others angrily denounce people as conservatives. The death of conservatism means, for starters, that neither group fully grasps of the term they are using. The word has become utterly detached from the thing. Another thing it means is that an individual may have conservative opinions but only in the sense that an individual may worship the goddess Artemis in her back yard or live like a 17th Century Puritan. It is a private eccentricity with no public institutional reality. The death of conservatism is then something like the death of God.

A New Classification of Politics: Three Ideologies

There is no significance to taking any public stand as a conservative. This is for one basic reason. This reason is that the victory of ideology in contemporary politics is now total and that conservatism is not an ideology.[1] Our political discourse is now divided between three ideological stances: the progressive, the neo-liberal and ethno-nationalist stances. So called social conservatives used to exist but they have utterly disappeared into the third stance as is plain with the rise of Trump in the United States and the rise of similar populists elsewhere.[2] There are now no social conservatives of any note who are not also ethno-nationalists and indeed primarily ethno-nationalists.

This is absolutely evident from their obsession with a purported clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. By and large Muslims share the values of social conservatives when it comes to things like family, modesty, the centrality of religion and so on. Yet social conservatives despise and fear Muslims all the same making it plain that by family values they mean white Anglo-Saxon family values and by piety they mean white Anglo-Saxon piety. That is the core of the ethno-nationalist position: that western Christian values are cherished not for their supposed universality but as the foundation of a tribal identity. From time to time the neo-Liberal stance is classified as ‘conservative’ though for no reason I can fathom: as Marx pointed out predatory capitalism rips the veil form all traditional pieties by reducing everything to a cash value. The proposition that limitless accumulation is the aim of life and indeed the primary duty of a citizen is consistent with no ancient wisdom I know of religious or otherwise.

Conservatism then is no more. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is hardly my place to say: conservatism itself advises us that like all human constructions it is finite and imperfect. However, at this point the reader may well be waiting, impatiently, for a definition of conservatism. What is it that I say has died?

I will proceed to offer if not a definition then an account of what conservatism is in the root sense of the word: an attitude to the world which seeks to conserve or protect those principles, values or institutions on which genuine human flourishing has always and will always rest. It will then be evident that people who use the term most loudly haven’t the faintest interest in conservatism or conservative values and perhaps never have. Of course, I run the risk of baffling people (both boosters and knockers) who will not recognize their version of conservatism in anything I say. I ask such people to be patient until I finish my exposition.

How Were We Able to Drink Up the Sea?

I said above that conservatism is not an ideology: from writers labelled ‘conservative’ it would be difficult to cull a doctrinal statement. This means that it has no definition in the sense of a core statement of doctrine or set of prescriptive demands: it is, if like, the position which is not a position but rather an attitude and a practice. However, I can give you a living example of it from a much despised source.

I find an excellent description of conservatism as a life stance expressed in the five pillars of the Islamic faith.[3] Soi-disant ‘conservatives’ who are shocked and angered by this should ask themselves why as these values seem to me core to any conservative stance towards the world. The first of these pillars is the shahada or profession of faith: There is no god but god and Mohammed is his prophet. Now conservatism does not inherently care about the latter part of this assertion: it is happy to recognize a multitude of other prophets who have taught in other parts of the world such as Siddartha, Jesus, or Confucius.

The first however is essential: conservatism is theocratic in orientation. Humans are first and foremost unconditionally responsible to a divine order: to the standards which are ultimate because they are founded in the unchanging nature of God. No human being is to place any finite value, such as family, clan, party in the place of God. The regard the finite as infinite in value and as an absolute end is to commit the arch-error of shirk. On this basis conservatism attaches only a qualified value to the goods of this world: it does not absolutize the relative. No movement, no passion, no interest which is merely human or temporary can trump our duty to god and his sovereign will. Order is prior absolutely to freedom and in fact it is true freedom to recognize this.

Of course this whole position is pointless if we do not know God’s will. Fortunately, it is of the nature of god to reveal himself in scriptures, historical events, the exemplary deeds of prophets and saints and so on. God is present and active in the world. His will is manifest in the sacred teachings and philosophies (the philosophia perennialis) of the world as in the depths of our own conscience.[4] Indeed, his will is present even in those conscious non-believers who nonetheless enshrine the eternal verities (the good, the beautiful and the true) within their hearts.

For this reason, the second pillar enjoins us to prayer. Humans must remember and acknowledge both internally and externally the absoluteness of God. This is important because it cuts against the grain. Our tendency is to lose focus in the midst of the world’s distractions. We wander away from our final end and our ultimate good. We put wealth, or lust, or power or anger at the center of our lives instead of the union with god we all intrinsically long for. We miss our happiness by seeking it in things that cannot, of their very metaphysical nature, supply it.

This is why prayer, both personal and liturgical is central to a well lived life for in prayer we re-collect our ultimate aim, the peace that comes of divine union. This peace is the aim of all prayer even when expressed in its lowest manifestation which is petitionary prayer. Conservatism calls us to recollect those spiritual values that make for true fulfillment against everything faddish and temporary. It calls to put the eternal always before the merely modish and to this extent prayer is one of its liveliest manifestations as it a call to remember god in the midst of this world.

A Union of Materialism and Faith

Yet our lives are in this world too. Conservatism rejects the pessimism of the millenarian and gnostic. It does not long for an immanent millennium to destroy the present world order but waits patiently for the fulfillment of things in the fullness of time. Thus, when faced with the worldly Gnosticism of the secular revolutionary or the religious despair of those who simply wish to be raptured into eternity as the world burns it counsels skepticism. Thus, as our status in the next world is determined by how we live in this one our duty to god is also our duty to community. Almsgiving is then a conservative value. Wealth exists to be shared. It is not an idol and not an end. It is a means to community and those who are blessed with it in turn bless others. Wealth selfishly hoarded is not wealth at all and thus zakat is enjoined on all believers.

This is especially important as we tend to the selfish and misguided view that our wealth is the deserved result of our special virtue whereas in truth all good things come from god and god alone. As it comes from god it is given back to god as god is present in the neediness of our neighbors and the needs of our community. How vulgar then is the so called ‘prosperity gospel’ preached by certain Christians who claim to have Jesus in their hearts when they do not even have Mohammed! There are many displays of vulgar wealth in the Islamic world as in ours. People in the East and the West need constant reminding that the needs of the community outweigh the wants of the individual.

This is part of our human fallibility, our tendency to forget our ultimate end for merely proximate ones. The principle of almsgiving is, however, particularly salutary for those of us living in the Christian west as our societies have made the endless accumulation of personal wealth their over-riding principle even at the expense of the very soil we live on and the air we breathe. I should note though entirely in line with conservatism zakat assumes that differences between people entail differences in wealth and that this will not be abolished but equalized through giving.

The fourth pillar counsels fasting on the sound conservative principle that we do not live for the gratification of the senses but for the fulfillment of the spirit. Fasting reminds us that the primary struggle in life is with ourselves and that the demands of the moral and communal life are at odds (often) with the gratification of the senses. Indeed, there is no substitute for the feeling of hunger as those who never feel it have no conception of the suffering of those who do. This is why great wealth so often goes with poverty of the spirit and why it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Yet fasting is only one letter away from feasting. As there is a time to curb the senses there is a time to release them particularly in the context of communal celebration. As Aristotle said long ago, proper self-control involves not just self-denial, knowing when to say no to our desires, but also knowing when to indulge them: one does not gorge at a funeral or fast at a wedding. Still, as giving free rein to our desires must be choice and not compulsion our moral training will tend to focus on self-denial so that our indulgence may be unconstrained by evil habit.

Finally, the fifth pillar enjoins on us pilgrimage to Mecca and why not as life itself is a pilgrimage? T. S. Eliot prays: “help us to care and not to care” and this is the core of the notion that we are pilgrims in this world. The world of time and space we inhabit is both affirmed and transcended. We give ourselves over to finite ends yet leave the fruit of our action in the hands of providence. The finite passes over to the infinite as we give over our worldly projects and passions, releasing them into the eternal will of God.

On practical level this is a powerful inoculation against despair as the world does not bear all the weight of our expectations (which of its creaturely nature it can never bear). Consider as an example the old expression “better dead than red”. Those who uttered this expression meant that the Western Bourgeois form of freedom was freedom absolute and that its potential loss justified the nuclear annihilation of the planet. Of course, Western Bourgeois freedom (though admirable in many ways) is a provincial form of freedom. It does not exhaust every possibility of human good. Only a whig-history-on-steroids view of western institutions as the inevitable and only culmination of human history could justify such nihilism.

Conservatism will have no truck with this sentiment. History is an arena of struggle subject to advances and retreats. Yet possibilities for good remain in the darkest of times and the insanity of history can never destroy or even affect in the slightest the eternal essence of God source and ground of all good. In a godless universe, where this world is the only locus of good, history becomes a battleground in which the stakes are absolute and compromise unthinkable: hence the vicious ideological battles of those who think they have solved the riddle of history and claim to be bringing about the final human good.

When Opposition to the Radical Falls Away

Of course it can be objected that conservatism as I have described it here has no more been tried than Christianity or communism. Conservativism, one might say, has never really existed outside the elegant, wistful prose of conservatives. There is much truth to this charge yet it is, of course, true of all moral stances that their instantiations are very far indeed from their archetypal forms. Hence we get the characteristic vice of the conservative: the tendency to forget fundamental values for external privileges and the inability to identify what it is that ought, in fact, to be conserved.

Still, on the plus side of the ledger, the conservative might well ask whether his or her own view is comprehensive of all its rivals. Conservatives share with progressives a concern for justice and equity especially for the poor and marginalized. Conservatives share with ethno-nationalism a concern for the particularities of language and culture over against the homogenizing tendencies of globalism and technocracy. Conservatives even share with neo-liberals a suspicion of totalitarian power, planning and control.

However, conservatism, in the west at least, may well be dead for a more fundamental reason. This is because there is a powerful alternative to the conservative tradition and that is the radical tradition. All three of our contemporary ideologies have their roots in radicalism and are closer to each other than they can readily imagine given their current conflict. For the radical tradition the constraints imposed by tradition are in almost all cases artificial. What the conservative tradition would constrain the radical tradition would release. Radicalism envisages a flowering of human diversity, a host of new avenues in which self-hood can be explored beyond the stale platitudes of convention. This radical principle has routed conservatism (much of which expressed itself as cheap nostalgia anyway) and is the default position of all North Americans.[5]

This spirit can express itself as radical egalitarianism or its opposite. For instance, among ethno-nationalists it is assumed that the will of the demos embodies the wisdom and good sense of the people. This wisdom would readily express itself were it not for the constraints imposed by various ‘elites’ whose abstract intellectualism has lost touch with the community and indeed with reality. These elites constantly invoke the authority of science, or education or expertise or data against what ‘simple folk’ can see with their own eyes. When the demos seeks to express its will this is declared ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘against the rule of law’ by lawyers or advocacy groups or other ‘elite’ institutions.

The demos however, holds all such institutions in contempt and seeks to impose its will through a ‘great leader’ who is willing to flout them and indeed is willing to flout moral convention altogether (even moral conventions like marital fidelity to which the demos remain sentimentally attached). Thus, we have a kind of direct democracy outside of constitutional and legal constraints such as conservatism has forever warned against. That these radicals sometimes espouse ‘conservative’ seeming policies or points of view is irrelevant as they espouse them lawlessly and in a manner contemptuous of the very traditions they claim to value.

Why, for instance, is it conservative to despise the opinions of the educated and even pour contempt on the intellect itself? Such things are an expression of a rebellious and anti-authoritarian spirit. The demos trusts only in its collective judgment and not only rejects but actively despises any other principle. That this attitude is over-determined by socio-economic factors is plain but that does not make it any easier to deal with on a day to day basis especially as the scapegoating of immigrants, prisoners and others is high on the populist wish-list and the populace resents institutional constraints on its will to revenge especially.[6]

There is of course the other side of this coin and that is the populism of progressive movements such as the occupy movement, black-bloc radicals and so on.[7] These movements, it must be said, have aims that seem overall nobler and better than the beefs and resentments of populists. However, this is a weakness as much as a strength: as I said above every stance struggles with its shadow. Noble ideals are a proven danger when not accompanied by political and moral pragmatism and relentless self-examination. Moral crusaders have a distressing tendency to fumble badly when actually called upon to run things: this is because sweeping moral denunciations are a form of cheap grace while actual governance (self-governance included) is slow, patient work.

Return to Innocence Lost (or Imagined)

There is also a false innocence that can maintained simply by never facing the temptations of power. William Blake (a far deeper radical) was a persistent critic of any form of abstract moralism. For him no political or theological order could be the basis of freedom that did not overcome the problem of self-righteousness: our tendency to identify ourselves with an abstract principle of goodness and others (inevitably) with an abstract principle of evil. In a powerful image he tells us that blood sacrifice and war are the culmination of the moral law, the categories of good and evil unrelieved by charity, solidarity, or forgiveness.[8]

Moralism is for Blake a form of violence. (see for instance plates 47-51 of Jerusalem) Our care must embrace the ‘minute particulars’ of humanity: no ‘humanism’ can be liberating that puts an abstraction like ‘Humanity’ before flesh and blood human beings. We all have encountered people who virtue signal on every conceivable ‘issue’ but have little but venom in their hearts: one danger of the progressive stance lies, then, in the monsters of self-righteous zeal that it breeds.

At any rate, such people envisage (after some difficult to specify revolutionary event) a world in which a host of sexualities, ethnicities, personalities and identities flourish without constraint and (though this is surely impossible) without mutual contradiction.[9] As the economic discipline of Capitalism lies behind all other forms of oppression the current economic order must be overthrown. The suggested alternative is often some form of anarchism.

Like the populists, anarchists distrust and despise constitutionalism which after all only serves to protect the oppressors. Indeed, the anarchists despise traditional civil liberties as a form of constraint and mock those who espouse them as ‘liberals’. In particular, they resent the fact that such liberties prevent them from waging all-out war against their eternal adversary the populists. The populists heartily agree. Both sides fantasize about epic street confrontations or cyber battles that will issue in a final rout of the forces of evil. In other words, they are secular (and indeed religious) millenarians.

Each believes in a great battle, an apocalyptic convulsion that will only happen if liberals and other idiots get out of the way. A significant minority of each group considers this not just as a ‘culture war’ but as a ‘war’ war with brickbats, fires and vandalism of property. At any rate both agree on the Manichean position: the world and everything in it is hopelessly vitiated and corrupt and must be purged by fire whether this be the literal fire of Armageddon or the flames of secular revolution.

Finally, we have the technological dreamers. They do not dream of an unconstrained populist will or an unconstrained flowering of genders and sexualities but of the unconstrained power of technical and economic innovation. The enemy is, again the state and its institutions. Regulation of industry and common sense controls over heedless technological advancement are as bizarre and repellent to them as constraints on abortion or sexuality are to progressives. They, after all, represent the creative energy behind all forms of human advancement, all growth and prosperity. Technological or business imperatives cannot be questioned without questioning prosperity and progress themselves: the two things which for this ideology are non-negotiable. Such people see nothing ironic or odd in the fact the demands of progress and the spread of prosperity never conflict with their own self-interest.

The self- interest of the entrepreneur or innovator is the interest of the community. In a seeming parody of the Marxist utopia where the freedom of each is the freedom of all the neo-liberals and libertarians do not see the economic freedom of the individual as ever conflicting with the good of the community. This is, of course, the dream of anarchists as well: that individual wills can exist in immediate and natural harmony once the power of the state is gone. The technophiles go even further however: for them this harmony can be achieved and maintained in the midst of unrestrained competition.

The magic of the market will smooth out all inequities and bring prosperity and balance to all (or, if the libertarian leans also to vengeful populism, to the deserving). At any rate the neo-liberals have one ace in the hole that it is difficult to imagine anyone overcoming: this is the fact that almost all acts of rebellion can be appropriated and monetized. This is particularly true of physical vandalism. Capitalism does not fetishize physical property the way some anarchists think it does: burn a bank to the ground and you will find only that stock in private security companies has gone up.

Liberation as Consuming Fire

For all three groups the enemy is clear as is the goal: the repressed must be liberated. The demos must be free to enact its vengeful fantasies on immigrants, prisoners or gays. The libertarian must be free to innovate and make more money than anyone can find a use for. Sexual and ethnic minorities must be free to express their forms of life to whatever limit logic implies. All must be free and all must be free especially of the enemy of freedom, the state and its laws and institutions.[10] This is the core of each position quite apart from the fact that within each there may be many demands reasonable in themselves.

This indicates that the radical stance is the stance where our politics is concerned. Everything must be liberated though conservatives may warn again and again that liberation may mean the freedom of everything awful as easily as the freedom of everything good. Lamentation however is pointless (with apologies to Canada’s lamenter-in-chief George Parkin Grant!). This is because the radical principle is our principle and is, indeed, along with conservatism, a fundamental human option. Moreover, it has great achievements to its credit even as conservatism has many disgraces.

At the same time radicalism imposes its own constraints: most of us would rejoice if anti-vaxxers stopped being such fools yet they are acting on an impeccable radical principle, that of personal autonomy, as well as a suspicion of institutionalized medicine that many of us share. In fact, this example raises a vexing problem: vaccination can only be carried out on a population, all must buy into it for it to work. How would an anarchist society founded on a principle of radical freedom (whether anarcho-communist or right wing patriot) handle a question of this sort? Will radical stances license such appalling disorder that conservatism will become a living option? Are Clinton and Trudeau after all the best we can hope for?

Blake certainly painted a dark vision of the hellish cycle of rebellion and reaction: the perpetual alteration between sanguinary radicalism and stultifying conservatism. Is this our future? Philosophy, alas, does not deal with the future. It counsels only that we temper hope as well as fear and judge all things sub-specie-aeternitatis. It is with this stoic sentiment, as boring as it is true, that I will conclude. We seem at an impasse though the author would certainly be happy to learn from others that he is unduly pessimistic about the world.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Aristophanes. The Clouds trans. C.D.C. Reeve, from The Trials of Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002)

Blake, William. Complete Poems ed. Alicia Ostriker. London: Penguin Classics, 1978.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning trans. J.G. Williams. (Ottawa: Novalis, 2001)

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind. trans. J.B. Baillie. (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1967.

Reno, Robert “Why I Am anti-anti-TrumpFirst Things. Retrieved from https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/05/why-im-anti-anti-trump.

Smith, John Huston. The World’s Religions New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

[1] A fundamental problem with conservatism is that as soon as it defines itself vis a vis its ideological rivals it itself becomes an ideological construct rather than an assumed form of life. At that point conservatism turns into reaction. This problem was noted as long ago as Aristophanes the Clouds. One ace in the hole of the radical tradition is that as soon as traditional norms are questioned and have to be self-consciously defended the conservative standpoint is lost. At that point conservatism becomes a position duking it out with the other positions scoring the odd victory here and suffering the odd reverse there.

[2] The fatal weakness of social conservatism as a political movement was that it never articulated a positive vision of society leaving this work first to neo-liberals and now to ethno-nationalists. Its politics was simply oppositional: devoted to blocking actions against abortion or homosexuality or other things deemed decadent, conflicts that were and are unwinnable. On this basis it forged its foolish alliance first with corporate kleptocracy and then with strident populism culminating in ludicrous defenses of Trumpism from previously reputable conservative publications like First Things. (e.g Robert Reno https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/05/why-im-anti-anti-trump  

[3] For a rich introduction to Islam and indeed to other major faiths see The World’s Religions by John Huston Smith.

[4] This notion of a ‘perennial philosophy’ is central to writers we might place on the conservative spectrum from traditionalist writers like Rene Guenon to more eclectic figures like Aldous Huxley or Simone Weil who, while influential in some conservative circles, defy easy categorization. These metaphysically inclined thinkers contrast with the more pragmatic strain of conservatism stemming from the tradition of Burke and Swift. The American Russel Kirk may be taken as one of the last influential exponents of this view. One can add to this list the disciples of Leo Strauss (a far deeper thinker than Kirk), Canadians like George Grant as well as pure reactionaries in the tradition of Joseph de Maistre. What any of these figures would have thought of Donald J. Trump, a wealthy vulgarian straight from the pages of the Satyricon, one can only guess. Ironies abound here however: Guenon, a western convert to Islam, seems to have influenced the volcanic anti-Islamic rage of Steve Bannon. The paleo-conservatism of the genteel Russel Kirk also spawned the nativism of Pat Buchanan. Every stance has its shadow, the embodiment of its darker tendencies and ethno-nationalism seems to stand in this relation to conservatism.

[5] Any defense of a conservative principle in politics and society in the west can only be a highly qualified one for the reason that there are (in my view at least) a plurality of moral languages with claims on our attention and one of these is indeed that of the radical tradition. For Westerners this problem is acute for, as far as I able to determine, the roots of radicalism are in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul. These are not Conservative documents in my reading of them precisely for their doctrine of radical solidarity with the poor which undermines the binaries on which traditional human societies are built (and sometimes subverts those texts themselves). It was not for nothing that the Emperors of Rome thought Christianity a fundamental threat to civilized standards. In the West, then, the radical principle is already present in its primary theological constitution (however much it tries to ignore or forget that fact).

[6] Indeed, conservative Christianity is, with some honorable exceptions, becoming a pharisaical revenge cult. Behind all the rhetoric around ‘security’ (Canada remains one of the securest societies on planet Earth where terrorism is concerned) and the ‘Muslim threat’ one will find the simple will to retaliate in kind against anyone who represents the hated ‘other’ no matter how guilty or how innocent.

[7] I have before me the online Anarchist Library compiled by the Green Mountain Collective. (https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/anti-racist-action-the-green-mountain-anarchist-collective-black-bloc-tactics-communique). These sources give the inescapable impression of an abstract ideological rage consuming itself in an intellectual and historical vacuum: pretty much as Hegel saw the French revolutionaries. (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604) Talking to proponents of these views online (if talking is quite the word for it) only deepens this impression. Perhaps I am being harsh however: if the reader is curious, she may peruse Hegel’s chapter ‘Absolute Freedom and Terror’ and judge for herself if the comparison is apt. Those curious as to why the revolution always eats itself and why revolutionaries must at last turn on themselves may find Hegel’s analysis helpful.

[8] That ‘progressives’ will verbally disembowel each other over ideological differences barely discernible to outsiders shows that they are far from immune to the mimetic violence described by René Girard (2001; 24-31) Just as Blake said, moral abstraction enacts ritual violence. Progressivism is far from alone in this of course and indeed the ethno-nationalist stance is even more Manichean and violent. Still, the fact that it is over all the most humane of the current stances only makes the trap deeper: without what theologians once called a sense of sin it is difficult to imagine any politics escaping the scapegoating impulse and the self-righteous violence it manifests. Considering the ridicule and anger one provokes from many progressives by defending a stance of non-violence things do not seem hopeful.

[9] This is a deeper problem than many realize. The total liberation of one standpoint is the suppression of another: unconditional solidarity with ALL standpoints at once seems a chimerical notion. This is why in practice progressives (for instance) must always favor some oppressed people over others: aboriginal people in Guatemala, say, over outlandish folk like the Copts in Egypt. This why the radical stance may, for all protestations to the contrary, be implicitly totalitarian. Consider the following problem: A adopts the deep narrative about himself that he is the one true prophet of God. A desires not only the liberty to adopt this self-description but demands the universal recognition of this deep description by others. It is, to him, a fundamental denial of his personhood should anyone question his foundational narrative as, in his mind, he IS this narrative. However, trouble arises if B also adopts the deep story that SHE is the one true prophet of God as others cannot offer unconditional affirmation of both narratives. Here is where the currently much maligned standpoint of liberalism steps in. The liberal defers the eschaton by imposing articles of peace on A and B while each prosecutes their claim to be the one true prophet. With this peace imposed A and B come to the realization that, whatever differences divide them, they share a common nature as rational agents. They can now differ on each other’s deep story, neither one need be forced to accept the other because neither party is reducible to their narrative. With that they can go about their affairs. The alternative is playing the zero sum game of establishing my narrative as the dominant one through the suppression of the other contrary narrative. A simply destroys B. This is the totalitarian stance. Its dangers are evident yet the liberal stance costs as well. By entering that stance, we forgo universal recognition for the sake of peace and subordinate our deep story to the common good, at which point we cease to be simply our story, we assume a common public narrative as our own somewhat as we give up our private religious perceptions to join a church. I tend to think that is a cost worth paying though others may differ.

[10] This is why the most embattled principle of all is the centrism espoused by the Democratic party in the U.S. and the Liberal Party in Canada. As in the thirties it seems “the center cannot hold” (to quote W.B. Yeats). The basic problem seems to me that no centrist government can impose discipline on the fossil fuel-industry. Nor can it impose any discipline on the speculators and financiers who hoard badly needed funds offshore: a miserly activity contrary to the very nature of the capitalism they are said to espouse. That said, if there is anything which can be said to be ‘conservative’ in the current context it is belief in a social democratic state with traditional civil liberties protected by a strong constitutional framework. This, if I would hazard a guess, would be the best polity currently on offer. I have given short shrift to the phenomenon of political centrism in this piece, a deficiency I hope to make up in a subsequent essay.