Wednesday 24 January 2024

Distributive Epistemic Injustice

Imagine on the first day of class your professor announced that only the shortest 50% of students may attend class. The tallest 50% would be barred from class, but would still be responsible for the same material. You would likely be outraged by this policy—regardless of whether you are tall or short. That outrage would be justified. Your professor would be discriminating against some members of the class for entirely arbitrary reasons. 

Obviously, the example is silly—few professors would try such a stunt. But history has many more serious examples. University co-education in the USA started in 1837, but Ivy League schools continued to exclude women into the late 1900s. Many primary and secondary schools in the USA used to be legally segregated by race, and even now many remain de facto segregated.

Cases like these illustrate “distributive epistemic injustice.” Distributive injustice involves the unfair, undeserving, or otherwise unjust distribution of “epistemic goods.” Epistemic goods are good things that are involved with our ability to know as individuals and communities. Epistemic goods are things like true belief, knowledge, understanding, access to information, standing to speak, freedom from censorship, and other things as well.

Epistemic goods are clearly of great practical importance—knowledge is power, as they say. But epistemic goods can also give meaning and significance to our lives. If you’ve ever given in to your curiosity and discovered something really interesting or if you’ve ever had a sudden insight into an experience of yours, then you’re familiar with the significance of epistemic goods. That’s why distributive epistemic injustice is such a big deal—it distributes these important things in problematic ways. 

Some cases of distributive epistemic injustice are easy to spot, like segregating students on the basis of gender or race (or height!). But others are more subtle. In our paper, we argue that language use within a community can cause distributive epistemic injustice. 

Sometimes members of a community come from different parts of the world but use a common language—say, English—to communicate with one another. Using a common language facilitates communication and, in that way, is good. But the use of a common language may lead to injustice. For instance, if some members of the community are native speakers of that language and others aren’t, then only some members face the difficulty of learning the language and using it in an environment they may be less comfortable in. If some members are taken less seriously because they speak the common language with “an accent”, then they are discriminated against for an arbitrary reason. And if only a subset of the community is able to set the norms for “proper” use of the common language, then other members of the community are being denied equal access to the epistemic goods inherit to that process. 

As with all forms of injustice, there’s no “one-size-fits-all" response to distributive epistemic injustice. But we think naming the phenomenon is a first step towards repairing it. 

Peter Finocchiaro and Timothy Perrine wrote this post. They are also the authors of the paper, "Linguistic justice in academic philosophy", for which they were awarded the Lex Academic® Essay Prize for Understanding Linguistic Discrimination. The paper is now out in Philosophical Psychology.

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