Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Gender Disparity and Epistemic Self-trust

This post is by Boudewijn de Bruin (pictured above), Professor of Financial Ethics in the faculties of Economics and Business, and Philosophy, at the University of Groningen. In this post he writes about gender disparity and epistemic self-trust. 

Women pay about half a percentage point higher interest rates on comparable mortgages than men. Why is that? Is it discrimination? And are the countless similar disparities among many other different social groups discrimination?

Research is still going on, but the received opinion among economists writing on what they call gender disparity seems to be that, no, there is no discrimination. (And they are the ones informing policymakers.) Their argument is that the disparity can be attributed to differences in tastes or preferences among men and women have about ‘search behaviour’ rather than on the mortgage lender actively discriminating against women.

Men, according to this explanation, have a preference for searching the web for the best mortgage deal. Women, by contrast, approach their friends and acquaintances with a question of where to find the best deal. But what is a good deal for your friend is probably not a good deal for you (unless you have very similar households, wealth, income, etc. and want buy very similar houses).

Suppose that this claim about differences in search behaviour is true. (It might not be, but I think it is more interesting here to assume it is true and to show how philosophers can enter the debate on these premises.) Does it mean that the economists are right to say there is no discrimination?

When it comes to discriminatory behaviour, we have a good sense of what the appropriate normative theories are. But when it comes to epistemic discrimination, things are still very much in flux, witness, for instance, recent work on epistemic injustice, the concept pioneered by Miranda Fricker (2007). The suggestion I would like to develop here is that we need to add to this burgeoning literature the concept of epistemic recognition if we are to understand what happens in cases such as the one above.

Going back to Hegel, three forms of recognition can be set apart in which people are recognized as individuals with certain needs (recognition as love), as individuals with moral responsibility (respect), and as individuals making valuable contributions to social goods (esteem). What gives these types of recognition their relevance is the positive contributions they make to three important identity-building self-relations (self-trust, self-respect and self-esteem) that human beings need for a flourishing life (Honneth 1994).

What I would like to show now is that it makes sense to develop epistemic analogues of these self-relations, and that they help us understand the harm suffered by the victims of (gender, etc.) disparity (De Bruin 2014). Take epistemic self-trust. When you trust yourself (in the non-epistemic domain) to do something you trust yourself to be competent and motivated to do it. Likewise, epistemic self-trust concerns the trust you have in your competence and motivation to function as a knowing subject regarding a particular domain of inquiry. And similarly, epistemic self-esteem is the sense you have of the value you, as a knowing subject, contribute to the realization of particular social goods.

How can these concepts help us get to grips with gender disparity? (A disclaimer to begin with: what follows depends on certain empirical hypotheses that need to be tested. It is part of a project called Towards Professional Epistemic Injustice: Finance and Medicinefunded by the Dutch Research Council, with Miranda Fricker, to do exactly that.) Consider the assumed difference in search behaviour between men and women searching for mortgages. I think that the following argument has much to recommend itself: (i) women are consistently represented and treated, in countless everyday manifestations, as less knowledgeable about financial matters than men. (You can get a sense for the hypothesis by googling ‘financial advice and women’ and ‘financial advice and men’ in your native language and compare the different imagery that you retrieve). (ii) these representations and treatments diminish, through various psychological channels and mechanisms, the epistemic self-trust women have vis-à-vis finance.

Of course this goes very fast, and I would need to show, among many other things, that a society that allows epistemic self-trust to be so diminished allows unjust discrimination. But it is here that I expect new work on epistemic recognition to make progress.

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