Thursday, 12 July 2018

Political Epistemology

On 10th and 11th May in Senate House London Michael Hannon and Robin McKenna hosted a two-day conference on Political Epistemology, supported by the Mind Association, the Institute of Philosophy, and the Aristotelian Society. In this report I focus on two talks that addressed themes relevant to project PERFECT.

Robert Talisse

On day 1, Robert Talisse explained what is troubling with polarisation. In the past Talisse developed an account of the epistemic value of democracy in terms of epistemic aspirations (rather than democratic outcomes). In a slogan, "the ethics of belief lends support to the ethos of democracy". We can see this when we think about polarisation.

There are two senses of polarisation: (1) political polarisation and (2) belief (or group) polarisation. Political polarisation is the dropping out of the middle ground between opposed ideological stances. That means that opposed stances have fewer opportunities to engage in productive conversations. Belief polarisation instead is something that happens in like-minded political groups and concerns the doxastic content of people's beliefs. People tend to adopt a more extreme version of the belief they originally have when they discuss the content with like-minded people.

The problem is that the radicalisation of one's views does not depend on acquiring more or better reasons for one's original views, but on the social dynamics that is relevant to group discussion. Should people then discuss their views only with their opponents? Not really, as empirical evidence suggests that heterogeneous deliberation inhibits political participation.

What is wrong about belief polarisation and how can we address the problem? Belief polarisation impacts not only the content of the belief or the confidence about the belief, but one's estimation of the people who have opposed beliefs. So the belief-polarised person becomes increasingly unable to see nuances in the opposing view. Moreover, more and more of the behaviours of the opponents are seen in the light of their political views, and the opponents are seen as diseased or corrupted.

Finally, once the belief-polarised person knows that an expert has a different political view, then the opinion of the expert is rejected, even if the expert advice does not concern their political stance. Almost as if a sense of ideological purity compromises people's capacity to trust experts with different political views.

How can we overcome such challenges? Preventing belief polarisation is different from depolarising beliefs. More democracy may be good for prevention of belief polarisation. But once people are belief-polarised then more democracy does not seem to help. Maybe we sometimes need less democracy! Exposure to the other side entrenches polarisation.

A range of non-political behaviours and social spaces (consumer behaviours, community centres, workplaces, religious affiliations) become expressions of ideological stances which means that people are less and less likely to mix with people who have opposed political views. Humanising interactions across political divides are increasingly less likely to happen. This is due to the political saturation of social space.

So one possible solution is to carve out social spaces that are not already politically saturated. There must be activities where political affiliations do not matter.

On day 2, Boudewijn de Bruin discussed epistemic injustice. He started with the notion of testimonial injustice, the phenomenon by which we lower the credibility of a person's testimony based on that person's belonging to a certain social group. Prejudiced beliefs about credibility need to be false, systematic, and directed against a whole group not against an individual.

Boudewijn de Bruin

What is wrong about testimonial injustice is that it wrongs the speaker in her capacity as a knower. And the prejudice can be self-fulfilling, so that the person whose credibility is doubted may come to provide a testimony with low credibility. So it is important to address the phenomenon and think about ways in which it can be avoided or mitigated.

De Bruin described several cases where people in cases of identity threats in a certain domain perform worse than they would otherwise. For instance, after a job interview with a 'macho' interviewer women score less on maths tests but not on English tests (Logel et al. 2009). Identity threats elicit negative beliefs in someone about her capacities in a domain where those beliefs bypass the person's autonomous control. As a result the person responds to those beliefs in ways that weaken their capacities.

This form of testimonial injustice is harmful even if your credibility is low and so my dismissal of your testimony is rational. To make this point, de Bruin introduced the notion of epistemic recognition. When you suffer from self-fulfilling epistemic injustice, you come to lack: (1) self-trust; (2) self-respect; (3) self-esteem.

Trust is a positive appraisal of competence and motivation. Self-trust means that you trust yourself to be competent and motivated. In identity threats situations, your self-trust is decreased and this affects your practice. If you believe you are bad at maths, you won't spend time acquiring mathematical knowledge.

Respect is to recognise that a person can set her own goals and make her own decisions. Self-respect means that you are able to make doxastic decisions based on reasons. In identity threats situations, your self-respect is undermined when you realise that you adopted beliefs that bypassed your autonomous control.

Esteem is a positive appraisal of the social value of a person's contribution. Self-esteem means that you will see your contribution as less valuable. In identity threats situations, your self-esteem is always reduced, even when self-trust is not.

In some contexts (a teacher dealing with students from different backgrounds and with different skills and knowledge) it is better to assume that everybody should be attributed the same level of credibility (even if the assumption does not reflect the reality of the classroom) because it will lead to better outcomes.

De Bruin concluded by suggesting that we should avoid the word 'epistemic injustice' here (as nobody commits an injustice in giving low credibility to someone whose testimony has low credibility), and rather use the phrase 'social pathology' to describe the situation and point to its undesirability.

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