Epistemic Injustice

Hello everyone.  I apologize for my week long lack of posts.  I’m sure you were all getting extremely anxious in my absence :).  I have just returned from Thompson River University’s Philosophy, History, and Politics undergraduate conference.  Its the first philosophy conference I’ve been too, and I enjoyed myself considerably.  I was impressed with many of the undergraduate presentations, but I’ll have to give my ‘most interesting presentation’ award to one of the professor keynote speakers.  Jenna Woodrow is an assistant professor at TRU.  Her presentation was about a notion that I have never encountered before, epistemic justice.

Epistemic justice is the idea that there are epistemic goods which can be justly and unjustly distributed between agents (roughly speaking).  The bulk of Woodrow’s presentation was on the ways that agents can be epistemically impoverished.  She sketches out two types.  I don’t remember the titles that she used, but the first type of injustice is that some groups are epistemically maligned (distrusted by the powerful members of society), and the second type of injustice is that underprivileged groups are deprived of epistemic capabilities such as reasoning and speaking skills.

The first type is more straightforward then the second, both in concept and in rectification.  Some groups are distrusted by society (Woodrow’s examples were women and African Americans.)  Basically these groups are attributed less trust/credibility then are warranted.  The path to correction is relatively easy because it requires simply that those in power be aware of their own bias.  To counteract these inclinations, those in power just need to gather more information (basically if there is a credibility issue, counteract with more information).

Side note: an interesting aspect of this distrust is the notion of ‘incredible claim’.  The old adage is that one must provide extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.  However, there is no formula for what makes a claim extraordinary except that it is outside of an agent’s usual experience.  Since marginalized groups often have very different life experiences then those in power, there are often discrepancies between what is considered an extraordinary claim by groups that are in and out of power.  An example is police brutality – those in power usually have no experience with police brutality, while marginalized groups are often quite familiar with police brutality.  Basically marginalized groups are more likely to be in a position where they must make claims that are considered extraordinary by those in power.

The second type is more challenging because those who are deprived of certain epistemic tools (such as reasoning capabilities, speaking skills, etc.) are actually less epistemically credible.  People who have been deprived of education and other valuable life experiences often lack essential tools that make their accounts/testimony reliable.  How should such epistemically deprived people be treated justly?

I thought that the talk was fascinating; let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

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