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.)

The Problem with Honor: Cold Wars and Hard Hearts

Dr. J responds to my criticism of her position on plagiarism detection. I am, she accuses, guilty of Cold War paranoia and preemptive warfare with my students:

That is to say, the classroom is a millieu in which everyone is suspicious and noone can be trusted, so every preemptive security mechanism one can employ should be employed. This is, in my opinion (and all due respect to AnPan), an awful way to conduct a classroom, especially a Philosophy classroom. That kind of CYA attitude is exactly what motivates students to cheat in the first place, convinced as they tend to be that grade-grubbing and ladder-climbing is more important than actually learning. I cannot stretch my imagination far enough to imagine a scenario in which condoning and confirming this world-view is beneficial to anyone. I am not my students’ antagonist. I’m not their enemy. We are not at war with one another.

“An awful way to conduct a classroom”? Ouch! But if Dr. J is right, I want to change my conduct. Is she? At this point, I feel like I’m no longer a good judge: some of the things she says in that post make me feel less receptive to her arguments, and indeed she suggests that my own use of the phrase “turning a blind eye” to describe her attitude towards cheating may have ratcheted up her own feelings of offense. In such a rhetorically hardened atmosphere, how can either of us expect to make accurate judgments? Phrases like “awful conduct” and “blind eye” are affronts to our honor: to accept that Dr. J is right would be to accept that I am an awful teacher, just as for her to accept that her policy towards plagiarism detection software is “turning a blind eye” would be an affront to her own participation in the Rhodes Honor Code, which requires signatories to report infractions. On this matter, we have hardened our hearts and our reputations are at stake: how can we have open minds?

“Honor Talk”

It’s a conundrum, certainly. I believe it is a conundrum generated by the question of honor itself, which is one of the reasons we ought to avoid “honor talk.” One objection to the language of honor and deference is that honor cannot operate without the structure of the affront to honor which demands satisfaction. Any insult, slight, or impugnment threatens an honorable person’s status, and thus it calls for a response: a demand for retraction or satisfaction… the duel. For me, the problem with honor is that it shuts down (reasonable, friendly, cooperative) conversation. It renders some things out of bounds of polite, honorable discussion. As a person grows in status, this penumbra of the unsayable becomes larger: just think of the things you’d discuss with your friends that you wouldn’t dare mention in front of the President. But this expanded aura of respectability is merely a customary privilege. It can’t be due to every person, and so it is at odds with equality. And so, honor produces error.

I think this is one part of my objection to an honor approach to plagiarism that Dr. J does not really pick up in her response. In my last post I wrote:

The commitment to merit seems especially to operate among elites, who will not bear any questioning of their integrity and use this language to justify their privileges. […] Though we may not like this power, we cannot ignore our role as gatekeepers, giving grades and writing recommendations that will serve, in future, as the justification for claims of merit and honor. If those grades and letters are based on false premises, the subsequent merit will be similarly false. But oh, how its bearers will pretend otherwise!

Dr. J doesn’t bring this concern up, and when she does mention the passage from which I’m quoting, she doesn’t perform her standard charitable reading of my position (I think because my position was not clearly stated) and so merely reiterates her own:

For my part, I think we’re morally obligated to respect persons, and morally prohibited from holding persons in contempt, qua “persons.” Things like Honor Codes, on my view, enforce these principles. Honor Codes operate on the presumption that it is not required in advance that one “prove” oneself “deserving” of respect, though the implicit caveat of those same codes is that if one does violate the presumptive trust, then one runs the risk of being expelled from the community that the Honor Code governs.

Let me try to clarify what I meant. “Respect” is one of the classic examples of Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance term,” insofar as it might mean many things in different contexts. When we speak of equality of respect, we generally mean something like the duty to treat each person as an autonomous end-in-themselves, both subject and legislator of the moral law. This kind of respect is intrinsic and indefeasible. It’s always a violation of a person’s equality to withdraw or refuse this sort of respect.  It’s precisely this kind of respect that rules contempt for persons out, on my view.

But “respect” can also be an evaluative term, used as an analogy for esteem: we hold some in more esteem than others, they are “highly respected.” To my mind, there is a tension between the evaluative and the egalitarian conceptions of respect. We cannot both hold each other simultaneously as equal ends-in-ourselves and as better and worse. Conceptually, of course, we can distinguish the equality of persons and the inequality of their actions or characters, but we have a strong tendency to let the one bleed into the other. In metaphysical terms, we mistake a person’s predicates for their substance.

Even if it weren’t at odd with equality, it would still be at odds with epistemic virtue. The fact that it is more difficult to admit that we are wrong and to change our position when our status is under threat seems like ample evidence of that!

Bayesian Reasoning in Light of New Facts

If we are now at odds over status, there might still be a way to return our attention to substantive question. Here’s one place to start: Dr. J did not always feel so confident of her views on cheating and plagiarism. Back in 2009, Dr. J wrote this about her attitude towards cheating:

I’m not absolutely committed to my position on this. I would say that I’m about 80% committed. I can be dissuaded, but it’s going to take some convincing. That’s what the comments section is for.

In the spirit of finding a common ground, let me reiterate two facts that seem material, in hopes that they will reach the principled disagreement between us.

1. I have not prosecuted any cases of plagiarism since I began using the detection services. Prior to that, I prosecuted one or two cases each semester.

2. Here’s why I no longer need to prosecute plagiarism: students submit their papers for grading electronically through SafeAssign, and they can revise those papers to provide proper citation for any material marked unoriginal. I only see the revised paper, not the original with potential plagiarism concerns.

Here’s how I see these facts reflecting a principle upon which Dr. J and I might agree: this swift, sure, and minor punishment (non-judgmental revision) seems preferable to delayed, uncertain, and severe punishment (catching an obvious plagiarist and failing him or her for the assignment or class.) The principle, for me, is that prevention is always better than punishment. Prevention does sometimes involve preemption and precaution, but so what? Not every precaution is reducible to post-9/11 paranoia.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Dr. J would put her commitment at only 80% today, in part because in our discussions of the matter we’ve both taken a harder line. But what’s really changed? Back then, she cited three reasons: (1) detection isn’t worth the costs of time or lost trust, (2) philosophy professors are not police, and (3) “constant and ubiquitous surveillance actually weakens students’ ethical sensibilities.” Though obviously electronic plagiarism detection partially eliminates (1), these are basically the same objections she has repeated in this exchange. (Plagiarism detection no longer takes up our time, but it may still lead to lost trust.)

Dr. J also suggests that one of her motivations to attend less rigorously to plagiarism concerns than her colleagues is that the harm accrues to the student, that the cheater “suffers a paucity of reflection, a diminishing of his or her deliberative capacity, an incomplete and crippled world-view.” I agree with this latter, of course, though I suspect that our true disagreement is what our obligations are vis-a-vis those with “impoverished reflection” and “crippled world-view.” What are the reasonable accommodations for such disabilities? What costs will those who are fully able and trustworthy bear in the name of those who are trust-challenged? I think plagiarism detection software is a reasonable accommodation, and Dr. J does not. In large part, this is an empirical question: how much does plagiarism detection actually reduce trust between professors and students? It certainly makes me feel more trusting. How much does it “weaken ethical sensibilities”? How would we measure that?

Policing the Classroom?

Thankfully, we can escape these empirical questions for a while, because for Dr. J, the primary question is the question of “policing”:

I’m surprised that AnPan didn’t state more explicitly his objection to my objection to (preemptive) “policing,” because it seems to me that it is on this point that our positions fundamentally diverge. I don’t see anything in AnPan’s articulation of his position that indicates he has any problem whatsoever with being a policeman.

Do I have any problem (“whatsoever”) with being a policeman? Well, I call myself a pacifist, but in a weak way: I would use force in self-defense myself, and I believe it is often necessary to protect the vulnerable. I just don’t like guns or violence, and I tend to believe that there are few (if any) just wars. But that’s not Dr. J’s issue, which is why it seems like hyperbole to call plagiarism detection “policing.” One thing that worries me about the metaphor of policing is that there’s a big difference between the kinds of problems that come with the state’s monopoly of “legitimate” force and the kinds of issues that we’re discussing here. Both Dr. J and I are reaching towards higher-order conceptions of justice and political community to discuss this classroom policy. But while this does seem to require some discussion of the role of honor and respect, it doesn’t necessarily require us to invoke the language of warfare or policing. One of the pernicious effects of Foucault’s discussion of disciplinary power is that it has become tempting to reduce every form of control to the coercive methods of the prison or panopticon. But I think this is hyperbolic. There’s no threat of force, no mixture of juridical power and some specialized knowledge.

The only thing that smacks of coercion is the evaluative function of university courses, the way they are graded and those grades help future employers sift applicants. But we’re all implicated, there, whether or not we use plagiarism detection software! So yes, insofar as we enforce rules, we professors take on something like a policeman’s law enforcing function. Here are some things that some professors “police” in their classrooms: the use of electronics and cell phones, interruptions, sexist and racist language. In my classroom, I only police the last of those, as I welcome interruptions and don’t care about electronics or cell phones. Plus, of course, we all use our unilateral authority to set the length, subject, due dates, and standards used to evaluate students’ performance. Even Dr. J does that.

Do these things constitute a failure to respect our students’ autonomy or honor? They might, but I don’t think they must. We can treat electronics scans for plagiarism as a matter of honor, or we can treat it as a kind of technical requirement, like a due date or page length requirement. If we don’t treat it as a matter of trust and honor, then perhaps it will not be experienced as a matter of trust and honor. In any case, I am not sure that we ought to view an offended students’ honor as truth-conducive, given that I’ve already suggested Dr. J and I should ignore slights to our esteem or dignity to ferret out the truth.

The Politics of Crazies

Dr. Trott has a nice post over at Mahogany Feed on Terry Jones’ threat to burn Korans over the weekend to commemorate the attacks of September 11th and to remind Muslims “not to push their agenda on us.” Dr. Trott suggests that this threat to burn the holy book of a cultural group, with an ultimatum tied to the Park51/Cordoba House project, is “cultural terrorism,” and that:

we need to do the work of analyzing his particular brand of crazy, a dangerous brand, in my view.  It’s dangerous because it’s tyrannical, and an attempt to make a slave out of those whom you want to do your bidding, which is what happens when force replaces discourse in public life, even if that force isn’t with guns or bombs but threats to burn your holy book.

Because I, like many people, am incensed by the rhetoric surrounding the latest 9/11 commemorations, and the problems caused for Muslims by the fact that it coincides with the end of Ramadan, I’m sympathetic to this view. But I think that analysis of Jones’ particular brand of crazy is misplaced.

The “tyrannical crazy” Dr. Trott describes seems completely ignorable, and needs no more analysis than any other debilitating schizophrenia. An act of “cultural terrorism” can’t be performed from within the context of madness or “crazy,” because the Islam being attacked is a fantasy with no relationship to its actuality. It’s akin to the more stereotypical forms of madness in which real people or groups play conspiratorial roles in a paranoid’s fantasies of persecution. The relevant comparison here is the hostage-taker James J. Lee, who attacked the Discovery Building because the network wasn’t doing enough to address overpopulation and global warming. This was a man completely unhinged from reality, and he does not “represent” environmentalists or anti-natalists. Similarly, Jones ought not to be allowed to represent Americans or Christians.

In both cases, the symbolic attack on the enemy within his delusion is not a psychic attack on the cultural group that shares the same name unless we allow it to be, unless we speak about the private act of a crazy person as if it somehow stands in for what we all mean or think. But of course, that’s exactly what we’ve done. Jones would not have the status he has today if our real representatives weren’t saying things like “Islam isn’t a religion” and burning down mosques (in Murfreesboro, TN) or trying to ban the building of mosques in the communities where Muslims reside. So in this sense, there’s a comparison to be made between white supremacists burning a cross on a black neighbor’s lawn and somebody burning a book in their own yard that they paid for themselves. Jones’ kind of crazy is empowered by racist and intolerant institutions, like the cross-burners were.

Yet there’s also a big difference:  without that political and legal support, his act would be meaningless, while theirs would still be trespass and arson. Also unlike the white supremacists, we can easily strip Jones’ act of its power to injure by removing our support for the figures and institutions that empower him. That means commenting, positively, on the wisdom of the Park51/Cordoba project Jones opposes (my biggest disappointment with the President so far), and treating as Jones’ co-crazies anyone who believes or acts otherwise. This kind of policing of the zones of madness and reason seems eminently practical and desirable in this situation, and makes me wonder if Foucault hasn’t had perhaps too much impact on our thinking about the politics of crazy and the crazy of politics.

Where the traditional Foucaultian analysis focuses on how often those dubbed mad or mentally ill do not violate the basic “Harm Principle” and thus do not warrant the kinds of medico-juridical coercive measures instantiated in the asylum, this cannot be said of racist and intolerant paranoias motivated by political attention-seeking, nor by cultural ultimatums that enforce and are enforced by legitimate political and legal institutions. So even as I applaud the spirit of the widespread opposition to Jones’ Koran-burnings, I think that the better solution would have been a two-fold agreement to ignore and marginalize him and those who agree with him, perhaps combined with Josh Marshall’s advice to act as chroniclers of the current madness:

And here we have it. We’re in a midst of a spasm of nativist panic and raw and raucous appeals to race and religious hatred. What effects this will have on the November election strikes me as not particularly relevant. What’s important is compiling some record of what’s afoot, some catalog for understanding in the future who was responsible and who was so willing to disgrace their country and their principles for cheap advantage.

So far, this group who would trade “principles for cheap advantage” includes many people who do not belong to my party. Neither Dr. Trott nor I can effectively call Terry Jones to account: he is lost to his own brand of crazy. Nor will Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin ever care much what we think of their actions. Yet this group now also includes a few figures that do belong to my party, including the President and Senator Harry Reid. We need Dr. Trott’s analysis to understand what would cause them to add their voices to the madness.

Do our students have reasons to be libertarians?

In a post on the fate of the university, Steve writes:

We appear to have a situation where the public will not invest in education because it is more concerned in distributing the state’s patronage to older citizens, which has created an education system which has had to cut spending on public service, and saddled students with costs, and is raising a generation of young people who have had less opportunity for public engagement […] and what experience they have had has been watching older generations use political institutions to shift costs unfairly onto their backs.

Insofar as the vast majority of so-called “welfare” spending in the US is directed towards senior citizens rather than the poor, I wonder if he might be right. Certainly, old age is not the same kind of disability as the disadvantages generated by class, race, or gender, but as a group, seniors are good candidates for the least-advantaged. They are very vulnerable to poverty and imminent mortality. However, this may be one reason to calculate privilege and disadvantage over a lifespan rather than over shorter life-cycle episodes like childhood, middle-age, and end-of-life: America’s current crop of senior citizens enjoyed the greatest lifetime wealth in history, and presided over the most transfer payments to themselves ever. As they stopped needing universities, they forced states to stop funding them. As their incomes increased, they lowered taxes. As they started needing cheap pharmaceuticals, they forced Medicare to pay for prescription drugs.

I think it makes some sense to see current conflicts over entitlements and the absence of satisfying non-military public service as generational. The real key here is that the Millenials are the new Baby Boomers: because they represent a demographic bulge, they will decide our country’s politics and economic priorities over the next fifty years in the same way that Boomers did over the last fifty.

The Baby Boomers organized for peace in Vietnam, civil rights, and women’s equality, which profoundly influenced their thinking about citizenship. What have the Millenials done? They’re a bit too young to fight for gay rights, and they appear to be ambivalent about the rights of undocumented workers. They turned out for Obama, but now they’re disappointed. So what will their cause be, in a world that they do not trust? How will they vent their ire that their parents outsourced all the good jobs and are generating record debt levels? Where, they may ask, is their New Deal, their Space Race, their War on Poverty, their great cause? What makes citizenship and public institutions worth investing in?

Peter Levine gets it right, as usual:

But it’s a mixed picture. Optimism about careers is one thing; confidence in other people is a different story. Perhaps protective Baby Boomers failed to raise kids who trusted the outside world, or perhaps it’s a simplification to say that today’s generation was raised by protective parents. The young man in today’s Times profile was raised by a married couple in exurban Grafton, MA, with a family income in the national top ten percent. But 258 students enrolled in the Chicago Public School system were shot last year–quite a different context in which to grow up. And most young Americans fall somewhere in between: neither coddled nor terrorized, but hardly secure.

The Millenial generation is so large that none of us can get hold of the whole thing. We’re only at the leading edge of this new Boom. Any defining moment or attitude that emerges will be a fiction projected onto a plurality, a doomed attempt to make the morass of experiences and opinions meaningful, a summative count that disguises those left unaccounted for.

Unofficial Gag Rules on Immigration Reform

In the wake of Arizona’s attempt to localize immigration enforcement, I think it’s time for Congress and the Obama administration to return to immigration reform.

If anything can justify American exceptionalism, it’s the waves of immigration that have repeatedly demonstrated that we can offer a better life to foreigners without losing our own identity. As we close and militarize the borders, we are at risk of losing the very thing that made it worth coming here. The US is by far the most cosmopolitan and pluralistic nation in the world, and we owe it to ourselves to preserve this communal identity in the face of those who would have us stand-pat on some 1950s-era self-conception. Moreover, more open borders would allow us to regain the levels of economic growth that characterized the American Dream.

Here’s what I’d like to see:

  • A path to citizenship: all current undocumented inhabitants of the US deserve a share of their adopted country’s governance and welfare-state. Many have been contributing to Social Security under a fake SSN# for years without any promise of remuneration. Let’s give them a realistic path to citizenship.
  • Decriminalization: shift enforcement to employers and treat undocumented workers as victims who can collect damages for substandard wages or violations of workplace safety regulations.
  • A major public relations push in favor of immigration: these are hardworking folks who will help us in our time of need, and we ought not demonize them for being willing to work.
  • End the administrative detention of undocumented workers which strips them of many due process rights.
  • Refocus border controls on products, not people. Catch cocaine, not construction workers.
  • Recognize that the US has a rich Latin@ history and culture. Recognize Spanish as an official language and make the next generation of Americans a bilingual one.

Now, I doubt we’ll see most of this, but I really don’t think there’s any publicly-justifiable reasons to reject these measures. Each and every one of these prescriptions seems rooted in the claims of justice, and the rejections seem to extend from xenophobia, racism, and a false sense of the moral entitlements due to Americans by an accident of birth.

So the question is: what’s keeping us from having this debate on the principles? Why do we only hear a few dog-whistle sound bites? It seems like immigration is precisely the kind of discussion that deliberation could help to solve, since it’s significantly less technical than health care reform and there are easily-recognized human rights being abused on a daily basis. So why the silence?