Responsibility and epistemic confidence

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Today I’m going to argue that responsibility can be undermined by lack of epistemic confidence.

Many responsibility theorists are interested in specifying the capacities implicated in responsible agency, and there are many fairly coarse-grained proposals, such as reasons-responsiveness (Fischer 2006, 2012), sanity (Wolf 1986), and consciousness (Levy 2014). These theorists also write about deficits that may (or may not) impair responsibility, such as addictions, compulsions, and psychological disorders. There’s no consensus on whether any of these deficits suffices to impair responsibility full stop, thereby underwriting an ‘excuse’ for misconduct. But those who discount these deficits often assume a zero-sum notion of responsibility.

I like to think of responsibility as a spectrum concept rather than a threshold condition. If responsibility lies on a spectrum, deficits like addictions and psychological disorders may impair responsibility to one degree or another, depending on the particularities of the case. This seems to me to be a useful and illuminating way of thinking about responsibility. I’m also open to thinking that these ‘deficits’ can enhance responsible agency in certain cases, following Nietzche’s adage of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes your stronger’; but I think that in many cases these conditions are responsibility-undermining, if for no other reason that that they can make it difficult to navigate a society that doesn’t provide adequate accommodations.

In any case, today I’m going to write about a pretty fine-grained capacity that I think is required for the highest degree of responsibility, and the absence of which impairs responsibility to some extent—perhaps a very great extent, depending on the case. This capacity is epistemic confidence. I’m not going to select a specific notion of responsibility; instead I’ll simply follow Frankfurt (1987) and Strawson (1963) in supposing that responsibility is closely tied to personhood concepts (particularly reasoning competency and dignity), and with this in mind, I’ll discuss how severe deficits of epistemic confidence can impair our capacity to be persons in the fullest sense.

What is epistemic confidence? Miranda Fricker (2007) describes it as the capacity to be a knower: someone who has knowledge. When we know something (psychologically speaking), we not only have a belief, but also confidence in that belief. Descartes famously described knowing as conditional upon absolute certainty or indubitability: confidence is the psychological maker of genuine knowledge, the metacognitive state that distinguishes knowledge from mere belief. While indubitability might seem like an exorbitant standard, it’s reasonable to think that some sense of certainty or resolution is definitive of the experience of knowing. Bernard Williams (also speaking psychologically) describes the process whereby beliefs become knowledge as a “steadying [of] the mind,” in which we solidify our beliefs, not only by reflecting on and endorsing them (as Descartes thought), but by conferring with other people and receiving corroboration or validation (2002: 192, cited in Fricker 2007: 52).

The acquisition of knowledge is thus an interpersonal process. When others validate our beliefs, it helps raise them to the status of knowledge, and when they dismiss our beliefs (and this dismissal resonates with us), it undermines our confidence in them. If people dismiss too many of our beliefs, this can give rise to a global confidence deficit, undercutting our ability to make resolutions and construct an identity for ourselves, in Frankfurt’s sense of ‘identity.’ Frankfurt saw personal identity as the set of a person’s decisive endorsements—the mental state that we identify with and can stand behind.

So lack of epistemic confidence threatens not only the strength of our convictions, but the strength of our self. It makes us susceptible to fickleness and indecision and cognitive dissonance—unpleasant and also disorienting states. It might also lead to what Michael Stocker calls ‘moral schizophrenia’ (1976)—alienation from our moral beliefs—since, if we don’t have convictions, we’re easily swayed from our moral beliefs and attitudes. While there’s something to be said for ‘unprincipled virtues’ (Arpaly 2002), if these virtue lack robustness, they’re too flimsy to support a moral identity. So robustness of sentiments is needed as well.

This shows how lack of epistemic confidence—‘epistemic insecurity,’ let’s call it—can undermine personhood. Fricker identifies two harms of ‘epistemic injustice’ (i.e., the unfair discrediting of a speaker’s testimony). The first is practical: the target can lose her social standing or civil rights or job. The second is epistemic: the person can lose knowledge and epistemic confidence.

The practical harm is largely a matter of public perception: epistemically insecure people are seen as incompetent and insincere, and so they are not treated with the dignity and respect accorded to others (Fricker 2015: 45). The second harm is intrinsic and existential: the agent loses knowledge, lapsing back into mere belief and opinion, in the reverse of the ‘steadying of the mind’ that follows from external validation. The agent’s mind becomes increasingly unstable as she loses epistemic confidence in the face of people’s demeaning treatment. She can lose her very ability to reason—to make a decision on the basis of relevant considerations—inasmuch as it’s difficult to weigh competing considerations when no particular consideration has any special resonance or ‘rational authority’ by the agent’s own lights. Any ‘decision’ arrived at will be a tentative selection, as opposed to a well-reasoned choice. The agent can never achieve a reflective equilibrium in her reasoning.

The connection between reasoning competency and personhood has deep roots in analytic philosophy: Kant tied personhood to rationality, Aristotle tied it to practical wisdom; and Rawls rooted it in the ability to make rational decisions about social justice. People who lack epistemic confidence, and thus reasoning ability, don’t live up to these popular standards of personhood, or related notions of basic human dignity.

This isn’t to say that people lacking in epistemic confidence aren’t dignified—every human being has a basic, inviolable moral dignity, to be sure. Fricker’s point is that when we impugn people’s credibility without warrant (subjecting them to ‘epistemic injustice’), we harm them in a particularly egregious and unforgivable way: we deny them the ability to live up to their potential as persons—rational agents, competent decision-makers, free and equal citizens. This is the central harm of epistemic injustice.

Fricker is particularly concerned with epistemic injustice as a result of identity prejudice, such as gender, racial, and class bias; but epistemic injustice can also target a person’s more peripheral commitments—academic commitments, for example. When we dismiss someone’s area of specialization, for example, this can undermine the person’s epistemic confidence and capacity to be a knower relative to that body of knowledge. Inasmuch as people identify with their epistemic labour and their epistemological community (other researchers in the field), being dismissed on the basis of one’s disciplinary commitments can undermine one’s knowledge in that field and the validation one derive from belonging to a particular research community. This isn’t as damaging as paradigmatic cases of identity prejudice, but it can still be very injurious, especially if the person has invested deeply in her research.

Epistemic injustice can decrease a person’s knowledge, but it can also prevent someone from gaining knowledge in the first place. Fricker cites a famous study in which researchers randomly selected 20% of a group of elementary school students to be described to their teacher as ‘academically gifted’; at the end of the year, the ‘gifted’ children had made significantly greater gains in IQ than their peers (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1996, cited in Fricker 2007: 56). The reason, on Fricker’s hypothesis, is that the randomly selected children were seen as more competent by their teachers, and thus received more nurturance and support. This made their success a self-fulfilling prophecy. The other students, meanwhile, suffered from a relative lack of concerted cultivation, and thus failed to live up to their epistemic potential. These students may also have suffered from a kind of stereotype threat, the tendency to conform to stereotypes or low expectations. In this way, epistemic injustice can prevent people from gaining knowledge that they otherwise could have had.

I hope that this explains the relationship between epistemic confidence and responsibility in a way that people can understand. I think this is a relationship that philosophers can appreciate more deeply than most people, inasmuch as we’re both more committed to our role as epistemic agents (i.e., we deeply and explicitly value knowledge), and we’re also privy to an inordinate amount of criticism, in the form of constant referee reports, performance evaluations, and casual judgments, not all of which are confidence-boosting. As some people have publicly attested, not every referee is suitably charitable; some are downright disparaging and hurtful, and this can be a blow to one’s epistemic confidence relative to one’s specialization. This kind of domain-specific confidence deficit can easily ‘creep’ into other domains, generating a broader loss of confidence. That is, if someone lacks confidence in one area central to her identity, she can more easily be persuaded that she’s incompetent in other areas. This is simply because insecurity is susceptible to ‘epistemic creep’: if you think you’re terrible at your job, you’re more easily convinced that you’re worthless in your personal life, your hobbies, and finally, as a person.

I suspect that early career researchers are more vulnerable to epistemic insecurity than more established researchers, but it’s notably that even the most distinguished philosophers are not immune. Fricker relates a (somewhat heartbreaking) memoir by Beauvoir about how her relationship with Sartre so damaged her confidence in her philosophical ability that she decided to retire from the profession. As Beauvoir writes,

“Day after day, and all day long I measured myself against Sartre, and in our discussions I was simply not in his class. One morning in the Luxembourg Gardens, near the Medici fountain, I outlined for him the pluralist morality which I had fashioned to justify the people I liked but did not wish to resemble: he ripped it to shreds. I was attached to it, because it allowed me to take my heart as the arbiter of good and evil; I struggled with him for three hours. In the end I had to admit I was beaten; besides, I had realized, in the course of our discussion, that many of my opinions were based only on prejudice, bad faith or thoughtlessness, that my reasoning was shaky and my ideas confused. ‘I’m no longer sure what I think, or even if I think at all,’ I noted, completely thrown” (Beauvoir 1959: 344, cited in Fricker 2007: 51).

This self-deprecating comment, according to Fricker, marked “the turning point in ‘Beauvoir’s] intellectual development at which she decides that philosophy is not really for her, and that she is destined instead for the life of a writer” (2007: 51). This decision was a tragedy for philosophy, since Beauvoir was one of the field’s most important contributors to existential thought and phenomenology, in no small part because she had privileged insight (by virtue of her gender) into how a person’s socioeconomic position—in particular, her gender identity—can affect her existential possibilities. This insight prompted Beauvoir (as I recall) to depart from Sartre in drawing a distinction between ‘ontological freedom,’ which is utterly unconstrained, and ‘ethical freedom,’ which is conditioned by social vectors. This is, I think, a much more nuanced account of freedom than Sartre came up with, not to mention more politically potent. So it’s a tragedy (if Fricker is right) that Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre so crippled her epistemic confidence (partly due to stereotype threat, no doubt, but also due to a lack of adequate support) that she was compelled to quit the profession and denigrate the value of her own work.

Interestingly, Fricker observes that Beauvoir “is rendered unsure whether she thinks at all” (2007: 51). I think that this is an important and overlooked aspect of epistemic insecurity: it doesn’t just undermine your performance, leaving your competency intact (which is what happens when stereotype threat is activated); it undermines your capacity to know certain things, and in extreme cases, to know anything at all. It’s a bit like gaslighting in this regard: it makes you question your grasp of reality. Not knowing anything—not having confidence in your basic beliefs—makes you feel insane, to put it bluntly.

I’ve experienced very grave epistemic insecurity myself, which made me not only incapable of defending my convictions, but (at the time) of having any convictions at all. Like Beauvoir, I didn’t know what I thought. This is a very disorienting and spiritually damaging experience. It’s an experience that resembles insanity in the following sense: though it might not cause insanity in legal terms, i.e., decisional incapacity, it can cause a milder type of decision-making deficit: decisional incompetence, or the inability to come to a decision on the basis of reasons and believe in it, much less defend it. Epistemic insecurity can prevent you from favouring any reasons at all. And this undercuts your potential to be a full-fledged person—someone capable of decision-making.

It’s interesting that one of the more popular writing guidebooks, ‘Writing your Journal Article in 12 Weeks’ by Wendy Laura Belcher (2009), is more psychological aid than writing guide. The Introduction immediately states that the main goal of the workbook is to “help you develop the habits of productivity that lead to confidence, the kind of confidence that it takes to send out into the world a journal article that you have written” (2009: xi, emphasis mine). Belcher recognizes that one of the main obstacles—perhaps the main obstacle—to academic success is not incompetency per se, but lack of epistemic confidence (There’s probably a negative feedback loop between the two, but epistemic insecurity is a crucial factor, as the hat experiment showed).

I can’t count the number of terminal PhD students I’ve met who haven’t submitted a single article to a journal. This is potentially career undermining if you’re not from a top-tier department. Belcher’s book is designed for exactly for this type of person. Her first chapter is “Understanding feelings about writing,” which provides strategies for managing your feelings of epistemic inadequacy—feelings that can lead to crippling writer’s block. Belcher says to write for 15 minutes per day no matter what—a difficult feat for someone with epistemic insecurity; and she addresses common self-defeating thoughts, such as, “I can’t write because my idea sucks” (33), which she defuses by saying that everyone has something worthy to say, and if you write you’ll get better at saying it. The idea that everyone has valuable ideas isn’t just an optimistic platitude; it’s supported by feminist standpoint epistemology, the view that knowledge is situated, and so we can (in principle) learn from each other’s embodied experiences. Denying someone the confidence to articulate her experiences accomplishes nothing, and wastes a potential source of shared cultural knowledge.

On a related note, I recently read an interesting novel on a PhD student struggling in her academic career due to epistemic insecurity, written by a local (Sydney) author named Mia Farlane (2009). (It was somewhat oddly called ‘Footnotes to Sex’). The synopsis on the back cover reads, “My name is May Woodlea and I am writing hoping to begin writing my PhD the proposal for my PhD. Very soon. Soon… My name is May Woodlea and I have failed to achieve anything of significance with my life.” I’m sure a lot of PhD students can relate to this sentiment.

This synopsis—which captures the spirit of the book very pithily—interests me for two reasons. First, it illustrates how epistemic insecurity can undermine one’s ability to form a single coherent thought—how it can undermine not only the overt presentation of a thought, but the ability to even think a coherent thought—to engage in philosophical reflection on the most basic level. Epistemic insecurity can, in other words, gum up the reasoning system’s mechanics, resulting in incoherent, or at least very tenuous, outputs.

Throughout the book, the protagonist (May) diligently reads reams of literature on her dissertation topic, and yet never manages to synthesize this information into a single original thought—an idea representative of her self. And the reason is that she doesn’t have a self: she’s a cluster of incomplete thoughts, inklings, and speculations, but nothing that could be called a conviction, much less a thesis. Ironically, the more she mires herself in research, the less capable she is of producing an original thought, because she becomes less and less confident in her ability, and more and more dependent upon her source material. She’s not lazy or uninformed, she just doesn’t believe in herself. She’s the perfect reader for Belcher’s book.

The other interesting thing about the book’s synopsis is that it illustrates how a relatively narrow epistemic insecurity (about part of one’s identity) can cascade into a global lack of confidence: May quickly moves from doubting her ability to complete her PhD on time—a fairly common worry—to doubting her ability to ‘achieve anything of significance with [her] life.’ This resembles Beauvoir’s doubts about her ability to ‘think at all.’ May becomes dysfunctional in her academic role, and increasingly dysfunctional in her personal life: her lack of confidence pervades her non-academic activities. This is the ‘epistemic creep’ that I was talking about—the slide from domain-specific insecurity to global self-doubt and (potentially) inertia. It’s not hard to see how extreme self-doubt can lead to depression.

It’s a reasonable conjecture that people who get tenure in this job market have a good deal of epistemic confidence, which helped them to persevere in the face of the ordinary deluge of criticism and performance evaluations in academia. Many probably also have a related, superlative virtue: “epistemic courage, the virtue of not backing down in one’s convictions too quickly in response to challenge” (Fricker 2007: 49). This is a virtue because it’s basically epistemic confidence plus the courage to resist pressure. Epistemic courage helps us defend correct but unpopular positions.

Epistemic confidence and courage, as interpersonal competencies, are fostered by supportive people—they don’t come from nowhere. Unfortunately, too much support—fanaticism and sycophantism, in particular—can give rise to too much epistemic confidence—that is, epistemic arrogance. Fricker doesn’t discuss epistemic arrogance, but it can be seen as, in a sense, the opposite of testimonial injustice (i.e., the tendency to underrate a speaker’s testimony): it’s the tendency to overrate one’s own epistemic competency.

Like the epistemically insecure person, the epistemically arrogant person can also lose knowledge, but for very different reasons, viz., because she doesn’t entertain appropriate criticisms, which undermines the evidential warrant of her beliefs. Whereas epistemic insecurity is, in ordinary cases, an epistemic deficit pre-empted by environmental conditions, particularly other people’s demeaning judgments, epistemic arrogance is best construed as an epistemic vice, since it’s the predictable result of related character defects, such as neglect, lack of vigilance, egoism, and narcissism.

Perhaps certain types of epistemic arrogance can be excused—specifically, pathological cases, in which the agent played no role or very little role. But it’s reasonable to construe typical cases as blameworthy. Epistemic insecurity, by contrast, undermines the agent’s responsibility, compelling us to suspend or modify our normal reactive attitudes. If anything, the epistemically insecure person deserves sympathy and epistemic nurturance, as a means of remedying the problem. (This is, in effect, what Belcher’s book aims to do, though in an indirect way).

In sum: severe deficits in epistemic confidence can undermine responsibility as a feature of personhood—roughly, the capacity to engage in higher-order reasoning and form convictions through this process. People who lack epistemic confidence are deficient in these critical capacities. Epistemic insecurity in one domain can easily ‘creep’ into other domains, undermining general confidence, and in the worse cases, leading to depression. Affected people have responsibility deficits. Epistemic arrogance is a different epistemic flaw—an epistemic vice that reflects poorly on the agent’s character, unless it’s (somehow) the result of a pathological condition.

*****

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