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.)

Beyond Utopophobia

The newest issue of The Good Society has been released, with a symposium my friend Steven Maloney and I put together on epistemic proceduralism. It features contributions by James Bohman, Corey Brettschneider, Noëlle McAfee, and Robert Talisse and Michael Harbour.  The ‘utopophobia’ in the title comes from David Estlund’s book Democratic Authority, which invokes epistemic grounds in defense of democratic legitimacy: because democratic procedures get things right more often then competing regimes, the decisions they make are legitimate. This puts Estlund in the company of contemporary epistemic liberals like Cheryl Misak and Robert Talisse.  Contrary to Rawlsian liberalism’s distaste for substantive epistemic and normative questions, the epistemic liberals suggest that we ought not to fear public deliberation and contestation about first principles, end-states, and matters of fundamental concern.

Steve and I also contributed a paper, “Foresight, Epistemic Reliability, and the Systematic Underestimation of Risk,” in which we struggle with democracy’s capacity to foresee ‘regime-busting’ cataclysms like war, famine, natural disasters, or economic shocks and either prevent them or prepare for them adequately. As the title suggests, we believe that democratic polities systematically underestimate such risks, at their own peril.

Check it out!

Steven goes 99 Theses on your ass.

The simple truth is that such accumulation of earthly power is ruinous because it takes the eyes of good Christians “off the prize”. Perhaps you wonder what gives me the right to say what is good or bad for Christianity when so many religious leaders would disagree. Because Christianity is the religious faith of another guy named Stephen who told the same thing to religious leaders overly concerned with their earthly privileges: Because Christianity is the faith of Jesus, who cleared out the temple of money-changers. Because Christianity is the faith where a voice said to Peter, “Do not call unclean what I have made clean”. Because Christianity is the faith where one man hammered 99 complaints on a door when the power of the church had lead it astray.

That’s my friend Steven Maloney over at Cows and Graveyards.

Justice and Justifications: The Duty to Deliberate and the “Barrel of Reasons”

“I am not one of those who may be questioned about their Why. Do my experiences date from yesterday? It is a long time since I experienced the reasons for my opinions. Should I not have to be a barrel of memory, if I wanted to carry my reasons, too, about with me?” Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Lately it has come to my attention that some political theorists would rather not have to justify themselves all the time. Frankly, I’ve never met a philosopher who couldn’t give you ten arguments for his favorite breakfast cereal, let alone for important political decisions. Yet a certain stripe of liberal takes it to be a priori offensive that he might ever be coerced, even socially, to provide justifications for his political positions. A lot of this debate comes out of the deliberative politics discussion, especially the claims made by Gutmann and Thompson that while justifications are required of citizens in order to grease the wheels of institutional design and legitimate self-governance, only some reasons are acceptable.

The restriction on properly moral reasons, rather than on simply selfish preferences, is not obviously offensive. “Because I said so!” has long been taken as an unacceptable sort of reason, and even Catholics can agree that “Because the Pope said so!” isn’t the sort of reason likely to be persuasive to non-Catholics. Even the Pope provides reasons and justifications for his positions in his encyclicals, and it is the mark of a good, thoughtful Catholic to repeat these arguments rather than simply the conclusions. I take it to be the mark of any successful religion that you occasionally concern yourself with persuasion instead of simply inculcating your own youth with the faith through parental and pastoral domination.

So the real obstacle to deliberative duties, it seems, are the libertarians. If freedom is your main concern, then it makes sense that you would prefer not to instantiate a duty to deliberate even if this is in the service of your other liberties. Having to make arguments, as Nietzsche points out, may actually be something of a burden for your average assault-rifle toting survivalist nut-job. Or, I guess, for the exhumed remains of Robert Nozick’s dessicated corpse.

Now my response to this objection may well be a bit ‘prudential.’ (As my friend Steven Maloney argues.) I’m a prudent sort of fellow, though, so I’ve got little else to add. Real libertarian types tend to associate justice with freedom, and so they don’t take prudence as a sufficiently persuasive arguement: this is actually a good move on their part, since I’d say the same to them while supporting a distributive model of justice. But, as the saying goes, “Ought implies Can,” and if your model of the good/free society is plum impossible, you ought to shut up and write crappy science-fiction like your hero Robert Heinlein. And I think it is demonstrably the case that a society cannot survive without coercive measures, and that in fact the least coercive measures would be an enforceable duty to defend your positions. (It’s another thing to say that these defenses should be reasonable or should require reciprocity or mutual respect… but I’m getting there.

This argument is the same one I used to use on my Italian anarchist friends: when the government steps aside, organized criminals take up the slack. Whether it’s the Mafia or the Triads or Hamas, the mixture of corruption and humanitarianism is a lot closer than many think. The leap from mobster to politician is an easy one, and the coercive possibilities of the state must be limited in such a way to make the two identities radically incompossible. Berlusconi isn’t so bad so long as he doesn’t break people’s legs when they don’t pay their taxes.

So, if we’re stuck with the State, (and we are, damnit, because I said so if for no other reason!) then we should try to create a State whose coercions are the least offensive. History seems pretty clear on this: people who aren’t concerned with, say, consistency or rationality like to take power so they can enforce their particular brand of nonsense on the rest of us; whether it’s Papists or Levelers, Communists or Creationists, they’d all rather argue from a position of authority than from a position of reason. We can be most free if we apply the coercive powers of the State in order to assure that the only authority recognized by the majority of our citizens is that of reason. Once we’ve accomplished that, the only duty to justify oneself will be a duty derived from a shared understanding of the basic necessities of communication. At that point, people will laugh as hard when you cite the Bible as they do today when you cite medical research paid for by the tobacco companies.