Against Deference: Epistemic Privilege Considered

Following up on my claim in the last post that “honor produces error,” in my view, the problem is epistemic privilege, i.e. deference.

By deference, I mean the epistemic privileges that some people receive or earn through demonstrating their erudition or looking like they know what they’re talking about. When you think of deference, you should think of the feminist critique of uptake conventions among men and women. Consider: as a male I often notice that whether or not I know what I’m talking about, people tend to pay attention when I speak. With some of my equally smart (or smarter) colleagues, I see this reversed: they get talked over, get fewer turns to speak, and their expertise is challenged more often. Usually, the factors that go into these differences in uptake aren’t epistemically salient: things like gender, bearing, dress, physical fitness, or facial symmetry aren’t particularly accurate signals of knowledge. It’s not just unfair to my colleagues, but a bad way to get the right answer!

Epistemic Injustice

Miranda Fricker has argued in her work on epistemic injustice that it is possible to wrong another in their capacity as a knower. I agree! But Fricker goes on to argue that inappropriate lack of deference entails appropriate deference: if deference can be withheld unfairly, then that implies that there will be times when justice obligates us to defer to others. Yet here, I believe Fricker conflates testimonial deference (“You were there, I wasn’t, what did you see?”) with deference to expertise. (“You have studied this matter, and I haven’t, what do you know?”)

If deference can be appropriate, then epistemic privileges can be justified. This means that some forms of uptake and inattention are moral: sometimes, for Fricker, the right thing to do is to ignore one person and pay attention to another. Every act of deference requires an act of dismissal. When we deal with experts, this can even mean dismissing ourselves! The moment we grant epistemic privileges, we risk suspending our own critical faculties and ignoring other potential knowers in favor of the expert knower. When we grant doctors, lawyers, and academics deference in their respective fields, we do so without making independent inquiry into the matter. At best, we only hold ourselves responsible for evaluating the prestige or reputation of a particular putative expert. Whether in the case of disease, a lawsuit, or the interpretation of experimental data, when we bow to the professionals’ authority, we do so at the expense of epistemic equality. Is this justified?

Those who champion epistemic dependence generally do so in the name of epistemic interdependence. No one, we are told, can be a jack-of-all-trades and still function well within a complex society like our own. Breadth comes at the expense of depth. This produces a vision of egalitarian deference: so long as we defer to each other equally, as each of use takes up her areas of expertise in turn, our mutual deference need never produce a larger domination or inferiority.

The Promise (and Perils) of Expertise

Unfortunately, like capital or charisma, knowledge and expertise tend to pool and accumulate. Just as the accumulation of capital produces societal inequalities, so the accumulation of expertise and the attendant deference is also likely to produce error. Remember that testimony is often less accurate than we have a tendency to believe. In much the same way, expert opinions are granted more accuracy than they deserve. In fact, experts are prone to a kind of motivated skepticism that can render them less likely to make correct predictions in their areas of expertise than a simple coin flip. This is despite the fact that experts will have large amounts of correct information (and that they tend to underestimate their abilities while amateurs overestimate): when it comes to making predictions under conditions of uncertainty, experts can’t tell which of their views are correct and which biased.

To make sense of this, we must distinguish between a single expert and the consensus of experts in a field. As a group, experts are trustworthy. Alone, they are no better than a coin flip. The point here is that individual experts don’t deserve the epistemic privileges we grant them, even though expertise itself is useful and does deserve our attention. Deference is only due to a community of inquirers, not to persons: as an attitude towards individual persons, deference is both immoral (for producing epistemic injustice) and likely to lead to error. Even those who grant epistemic authority in principle will act on this suspicion of experts in practice. Instead of trusting a harried doctor to interpret our symptoms and the medical literature, we’ll frequently seek a second opinion or research her diagnosis online. When they feel unjustly convicted by the supposedly-arcane court system, some inmates spend their incarceration researching the legal precedents in an effort to file their own appeals, and in so doing, learn a good deal of law. When our lives or freedom are on the line, we’re able to see the problem with this epistemic dependence.

Using Authority to Deflate Privilege

Because our interactions are shot through with status games and signalling, perhaps epistemic and moral authority are inevitable. We might think that in the best we can hope for is to channel these forms of authority in egalitarian ways. For instance, a version of the deference dynamic sometimes also plays out in my classroom: although I try to set and maintain conventions of mutual respect, I must sometimes enforce them authoritatively. In doing so, I believe I put my epistemic privilege to an anti-privilege use, but thereby I also preserve it: the students respect each other because I remind them to do it, and they respect my reminders because they respect me. This is probably the way sentiments of mutual respect are generated, but I’m not sure it’s particularly moral.

Nor is my goal in demanding mutual respect in the classroom that each student’s opinion be treated as equally correct. Just the opposite: the hope is that after all opinions are weighed and most found wanting, some opinions will be preferred. That is to say, the goal of mutual respect in the classroom is that we will all defer to the best arguments rather than the loudest voices or most confident speakers. This is true even when the loud voice is my own. If the students simply took what I said as gospel, that would be as stultifying as if they believed their most charismatic comrades. So the norm of equality and non-deference is designed to produce a community of mutual inquiry, where the best argument wins.

Here, it’s the argument that gains authority, not the person. A teacher or leader with some kind special insight into the best arguments ought to lose her authority simply by failing to act or speak consistently with the principles and arguments she espouses. Yet we cannot revoke our deference unless we count ourselves as equal in the evaluation of the argument and the teacher’s mastery of it. Isn’t this the core of Enlightenment in which we “emerge from our self-imposed tutelage“?  The only legitimate epistemic authority is the world’s own authority to report its facts.

(Steven Maloney and I made some related arguments in our paper “Foresight, Epistemic Reliability, and the Systematic Underestimation of Risk.” There, we evaluated the problem of expertise under conditions of potential existential threats to the regime, and thus ducked the question of the *morality* of epistemic privileges.)

9 thoughts on “Against Deference: Epistemic Privilege Considered”

  1. I can definitely see where you were going in our earlier exchange better with this post. However, it still seems that you're conflating "honor" and "deference" in a way that isn't entirely justified. I don't think many people would disagree with your warning that we should take more care in the ways that (and to whom) we accord deference. And I suppose if I were going to connect the dots with our earlier conversation, I also can infer you to be saying that Honor Systems effectively encourage/obligate us to "defer" to people who haven't earned it and/or who don't deserve it. But, of course, the greatest benefit of an Honor Code is not that it "guarantees" a perfect moral or epistemic communincty, but rather that it "encourages" one… that is, it aims to create the optimal conditions for (moral, social, intellectual) virtues to be cultivated instead of coerced..

    Now, as I read it, your complaint is that offering up willy-nilly the kind of privilege that an Honor System accords to everyone puts us at risk of getting things wrong, trusting and believing the wrong people about the wrong things, putting ourselves in a position to be bamboozled or defrauded. I think you can be a bit hyperbolic about what it takes to properly "earn" deference. (For example, your claim that an individual expert is no more trustworthy than a "coin flip"!) But I see that your real problem is with epistemic "privilege," which I take you to understand as, by definition, always unearned. The kind of privilege that you enjoy simply because you're a man, or because you have a PhD, or because you dress nicely or have a well-proportioned face, or because you speak without an accent is, I agree, something that we should try to discredit. One way to do that is your way, which I take to be the "Trust None, Defer to None, Verify All" way. But there is, of course, another way…

    We could trust everyone.

    It seems to me that this second option is what Honor Codes try to institute as a default civic or communal posture. It's a more risky way to conduct business, to be sure, but some people (myself included) think that the risks are worth the rewards. I suppose what I would be inclined to say is that the problem with a system that accords you undue deference or privilege is not primarily that you haven't earned it, but that others who also haven't earned it don't get it. So, my first corrective measure would be to encourage folks to hand out their trust (and honor) in a more egalitarian way, NOT to withdraw it in a more egalitarian way.

  2. The claim about experts and coin flips isn't something I made up: it's from research done by Philip Tetlock in his book _Expert Political Judgment._

    So my claim is that you can't earn deference, either, and the only respect you owe is that which is due to equally to each of us. (There's a little more in my most recent post on group intelligence.)

  3. Thinking about your last point….

    When it comes to testimonial trust, I tend to agree. But I'm not sure that you can trust everyone by deferring to them all equally. When you treat everyone as a layman, you adjudicate disagreement by looking to the fact of the matter, but if you treat everyone as an expert, how do you adjudicate disagreements?

    But I think perhaps you have the moral trust in mind. So we're talking about a kind of moral or interpersonal trust, a trust that someone is not deceiving you.

    Your discussions of the Honor Code suggests that you trust your students more because they have signed it, but that would also suggest that my students deserve less trust having not signed it. That troubles me, as it privileges your students for reasons that don't seem to be tied to merit: they didn't attend a school with an Honor Code primarily because it wasn't available.

    Enter your suggestion of the possibility of trusting my students *as if* they had signed an Honor Code. (Akin to Kant's "hypothetical contract," I guess.) Is that what you mean?

    I have some thoughts on this. I think it's the right direction to take the plagiarism detection discussion, but I'm not sure if the non-deference arguments I'm making here commit us one way or another on the trust all equally/suspect all equally distinction. So you can be a trusting non-deferrer, and I can be a suspicious non-deferrer. In a sense, it's a separate question from deference. Does that seem right to you?

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