Monday, January 15, 2007

Standpoint epistemology and dinner conversation

Last month I aired my frustration about a situation in which a logic professor dismissed any and all testimonial evidence on the basis of a (misapplied) informal fallacy.

In blog comments, Khadimir said he would have tried to figure out what "in the person's constitution" led her to reject the legitimacy of public assistance programs. These sorts of dinner-table political arguments do usually call for an exchange of political beliefs about the proper role of government, the trade-offs between positive and negative liberty, whether someone's station in life is a mark of their character, and whether suffering builds a sense of personal responsibility. And, in reality, the conversation did take these directions.

But I'm interested in the practical epistemology of the social situation, and also in Khadimir's comment. I'm tempted to diagnose this libertarian position as being the result of privilege. But psychologizing is too easy. And too easy to refute. Privilege doesn't cause someone to dismiss the needs of the poor and disabled in any straightforward sense of 'cause'. A more subtle analysis of the knowledge claims and social conditions is needed.

How can some people claim to know that they are harmed by welfare programs when others claim to know that they are not harmed, even though they are not receiving payments themselves? I assume that none of us at the dinner table that night had received social security payments, or disability benefits, or WIC or food stamps or Medicaid or Pell grants. Where does our knowledge of public assistance programs come from? Why do some of us know that they make our civil society run better and more fairly? Why are some of us glad that these programs exist, just in case, even though we think we can count on our educations, our training, our job experience, and our families to get us out of the kinds of financial binds we are most likely to face?

I think we can look to social epistemology to explain the differences in what people know about social fairness and about social luck. Social epistemology also has something to say about why some of us do actually know something about public assistance. We know it in a very real, very detailed way because we know people who have depended on public assistance and who have tangled with its bureaucracies. This is knowledge that comes from personal experience, and there is no "mere" about this kind of anecdotal evidence.

Miranda Fricker has a term for the systematic misrecognition that allows someone of privilege to believe that what she "knows" about public assistance (or any kind of oppression) is on a par with what someone who is oppressed (or identifies with the oppressed) knows about being dependent on aid. She calls it "credibility overspill."

Norms of credibility track power. At the dinner table, our conversation about politics was also guided by subtle (and not-so-subtle) power relations. Gender, professional status, argumentation skill, comfort with adversarial methods.

In addition, the libertarian was able to deny the credibility of any source of justification that she encountered. Why? Because any knowledge--first- or second-hand--of what it was like to need public assistance would have been clouded by being a recipient of financial aid. And those recipients could be dismissed in two ways. First, they just have a greedy interest in receiving money they do not "earn." And second, their station--as poor, as needy--lowers their epistemic status. Their testimony is not as trustworthy as a college professor's testimony about how the political landscape looks from her perspective.

Is "credibility overspill" also a barrier to learning new things? If you're in a position of privilege, you can afford to not notice certain things about what everyday life is like for the less privileged.

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