Gaslighting & its effects on the moral community


This post is about gaslighting as a distinctively morally ‘dark’ type of epistemic injustice, which impairs our moral relationships. In section 1, I describe gaslighting as a type of epistemic injusticewith distinct moral features that render it particularly morally pernicious, following Kate Abramson’s illuminating discussion (2014). In section 2, I argue that, because there are two types of epistemic injustice – testimonial and hermeneutical – there should also be two corresponding types of gaslighting. I say that, while paradigmatic cases of gaslighting are instances of testimonial injustice, some cases of gaslighting are examples of what Alyssa Cirne calls “willful hermeneutical marginalization” (2012: 46), a type of epistemic injustice involving the manipulation of hermeneutical resources to harm a vulnerable person or group. In section 3, I argue that the suppression of pertinent knowledge, as described by Charles Mills (2007), is an undertheorized type of “hermeneutical gaslighting,” though this type of gaslighting is increasingly visible in public discourse. In section 4, I give a prominent example of hermeneutical gaslighting – namely, Sam Harris’ interview with Charles Murray (“Forbidden Knowledge”)on the putative connections between IQ, “race,” and genes, and I explain why this interview is a case of hermeneutical gaslighting. In section 5, I argue that cases of hermeneutical gaslighting via the suppression of knowledge tend to involve or invoke just world bias, and I give some examples from professional philosophy. Finally, in section 6, I argue that gaslighting perpetrates distinct moral and epistemic harms; specifically, it undermines the epistemic and moral standing of its victims and creates epistemic and moral inequality.

  1. Gaslighting as a distinct moral violation

Gaslighting is commonly understood as the act of psychologically manipulating someone into questioning her own sanity. Kate Abramson gives this definition more substance by characterizing it as “a form of emotional manipulation in which the gaslighter tries (consciously or not) to induce in someone the sense that her reactions, perceptions, memories, and/or beliefs are not just mistaken, but utterly without grounds – paradigmatically, so unfounded as to quality as crazy” (2014: 2). Gaslighting, then, has a pathologizing effect. The gaslighter can have any number of subjective motives; not all gaslighters have the same motivational profile, or even substantively overlapping motivational profiles, except that they all wish, on some level, to have their worldview validated and “placed beyond dispute” (Abramson 2014: 10). The act of gaslighting nonetheless has certain paradigmatic features, including that (1) it undermines the victim’s standing to make moral claims, and thereby excludes the victim from the moral community (viz., Darwall 2002, Strawson 1963); (2) it undermines the victim’s self-conception as a person, i.e., someone capable of making intelligible moral and epistemic claims; and (3) it involves manipulation. Gaslighting, seen in this light, is a type of epistemic injustice, or an act of epistemic marginalization rooted in identity prejudice (Fricker 2007). But gaslighting is not just an ordinary type of epistemic injustice; it is especially morally heinous, or ‘dark,’ because it involves a number of overlapping violations, including: (i) it is manipulative, (ii) it involves a lack of recognition respect, (iii) it silences and pathologizes the victim, and (iv) it is a type or torture.

Gaslighting is particularly heinous because it doesn’t just involve a depreciatedcredibility rating of the victim’s speech; it involves a credibility rating of zero. The victim is depicted as “crazy,” “irrational,” and incapable of understanding the world and her place in it. Galighting is also a type of torturebecause it deceives the victim into thinking that there is something she could do to gain credibility in the eyes of the gaslighter, which is a false hope; and it destroys the victim’s sense of self – it persuades her that she is not even a minimally rational agent. False hope and loss of agency are characteristic features of classic torture, and also of gaslighting. Gaslighting involves a lack of recognition respectbecause it depicts the victim as an outsider to the moral community, a ‘moral refugee,’ as it were. From this epistemic position, the agent cannot make intelligible claims to be treated with respect, and she cannot negotiate effectively with members of the community. Because gaslighting has all of these features, it is a “horrifying puzzle” of injustice, a distinctively ‘dark’ moral violation (Abramson 2014: 18). Interestingly, gaslighting cannot simply be seen as a straightforward violation of the categorical imperative, because it’s worse than ordinary cases of objectification, too; it doesn’t justundermine a person’s agency; it usesthe person’s agency to undermine her own sense of self, and this is an especially egregious form of abuse (Abramson 2014). The agent herself is co-opted into doubting her own epistemic authority as well as contributing to the maintenance of the gaslighter’s narcissistic worldview.

Abramson adds that gaslighting has a distinctively genderedcharacter, given that paradigmatic cases of gaslighting involve a man-identified perpetrator and a woman-identified victim. Thus, gaslighting typically serves to entrench misogynistic cultural norms, on top of silencing individual women. This was the relational dynamic depicted in the original play by Patrick Hamilton(1938), in which the protagonist Paula was relentlessly gaslighted by her husband Gregory. This abusive relationship provides the frame through which we tend to interpret gaslighting. However, Abramson notes that gaslighting is not always so explicit, and can encompass a variety of motives and relational dynamics. Nonetheless, Abramson focuses on dyadicrelationships involving a gaslighter and a victim. To illustrate the paradigm case, she cites familiar examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment and racial discrimination, and includes Beauvoir’s (in)famous relationship with Sartre, in which Sartre manipulated her over many years into believing that her “opinions were based only on prejudice, bad faith, or thoughtlessness,” leaving her wondering whether she was capable of “think[ing] at all” (Beauvoir 2007, cited in Abramson 2014: 4). Beauvoir was essentially gaslighted into doubting her epistemic agency.

While gaslighting is stereotypically gendered, it is a type of epistemic injustice that can target members of anyepistemically marginalized group (or the group as a whole, I shall argue). Thus, gaslighting can be used against not only women, but People of Color, members of the LGBTQIA community, and virtually any other marginalized social group. As epistemic injustice, it relies on identity prejudice to gain purchase. Gaslighting exploits cultural stereotypes to silence members of marginalized groups, to withhold knowledge from members of marginalized groups, and to suppress pertinent knowledge about the lived experiences of marginalized groups – or so I shall argue.

  1. Gaslighting as epistemic injustice

Abramson focuses on dyadic, intimate cases of gaslighting, and these are indeed the paradigms supported by Hamilton’s play and popular culture. Construed as types of epistemic injustice, these are tokens of what Miranda Fricker calls “testimonial injustice,” in which a hearer gives a speaker a “deflated level of credibility” due to identity prejudice, i.e., bias triggered by the perception of a person’s demographic attributes (Fricker 2007: 1). While these cases of testimonial injustice are especially morally pernicious because of the distinctive features of gaslighting (e.g., pathologizing effects, torture), they are still essentially instances of epistemic injustice. Abramson mentions that testimonial injustice can contribute to a second type of epistemic injustice: “hermeneutical injustice,” which Miranda Fricker describes as a “gap in collective interpretive resources that puts someone at un unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experience” (2007: 1); but, beyond this, Abramson doesn’t elaborate on the relationship between the two types of injustice. Fricker herself says that hermeneutical injustice occurs at a “prior stage” to testimonial injustice (ibid.), meaning that it creates fertile ground for testimonial injustice, normalizing and naturalizing prejudiced credibility assessments. In fact, it might be more accurate to see the two types of injustice as mutually implicated in a positive feedback loop, wherein testimonial injustice produces deficits in hermeneutical resources and hermeneutical deficits cause testimonial injustice, which again produces deficits in hermeneutical injustice, and so on. This process can be seen in Sartre’s treatment of Beauvoir: he exploited gaps in the hermeneutical resources pertaining to women’s credibility to perpetrate testimonial injustice on Beauvoir, which in turn reinforced the very hermeneutical gaps he was using against her – cultural ignorance about women’s epistemic authority. As a result, Beauvoir quit philosophy and we lost invaluable epistemic resources within the field and popular culture (Fricker 2007). Hermeneutical deficits are not free-standing cultural facts; rather, they are instantiated in people’s cognitive architecture, in the form of implicit biases, heuristics, and other psychological states (Scorberg 2007). The mental states that give rise to a backdrop of hermeneutical injustice also cause distinct acts of testimonial injustice perpetrated by individual agents.

That said, the distinction between the two types of epistemic injustice is not insignificant. One of the key asymmetries between the two, according to Fricker, is that people perpetratetestimonial injustice whereas “no agent perpetrates hermeneutical injustice – it is a purely structural notion” (2007: 159). “Moments of heremeneutical injustice,” she says, are caused by the epistemic conditions of the time (ibid.). Therefore, perpetuators and victims of testimonial injustice are both victimsof the same climate of hermeneutical injustice that they mutually inhabit; people who epistemically marginalize members of oppressed groups are also often victims of “epistemic bad luck” (2007: 151). Alyssa Cirne argues that this picture is flawed because it omits an important type of hermeneutical injustice, “willful hermeneutical marginalization,” in which an agent “obstructs or withholds hermeneutical tools from those agents who need those tools the most,” for purposes of self-aggrandizement and self-conceit (2012: 45). This subspecies of hermeneutical injustice allows us to realize the “agency and culpability” in such scenarios, and to identifyperpetratorsof hermeneutical injustice (ibid.). Hermeneutical injustice, then, is not simply a set of background conditions, but the cumulative effect of people’s willful choices.

Notably, although Cirne describes acts of hermeneutical injustice as “willful,” this doesn’t entail that they are intentional harms. Social epistemologists generally accept that epistemically marignalization can be unintentional, as they can operate through implicit states such as implicit biases and heuristics, as noted above (see also Peels & Blaauw 2016). Acts of epistemic marginalization are nonetheless ‘willful’ in that they are motivated by a vested interest in unfair asymmetries of power, and, as such, they express the agent’s ‘will’ or value system or deep self. ‘White ignorance,’ for instance, is not caused by intentional racism – if it were, it would not be a case ofignorance; but white ignorance is always motivated by a personal stake in relations of power that favour white people (Mills 2015). White ignorance reflects the ignorant person’s deep self.

While Cirne focuses on the willful withholdingof valuable epistemic resources from a victim of epistemic injustice, I think that willful epistemic marginalization could extend further, to the willful suppressionof epistemic resources, which doesn’t necessarily involve the epistemic marginalization of any individual directly, but rather involves the marginalization of an entire social group. Mills provides a good example; he observes that white ignorance is sometimes manifested in the pervasive cultural myth that, “after the abolition of slavery in the United States, blacks generally had opportunities equal to whites,” and he attributes this myth to the “suppression of pertinent knowledge.” (2007: 21). Following Cirne’s analysis, the “suppression of pertinent knowledge,” like the withholding of epistemic resources, can’t be seen as an inert historical fact, but must be recognized as a result of human agency– something perpetrated by people. This suggests that speech acts that suppress pertinent knowledge could potentially count as instances of willful epistemic marginalization, even if the speaker doesn’t withholdknowledge from anyparticular victim. Instead, they suppress cultural knowledge about a social group’s shared experiences, thereby rupturing, or “poking holes” in, the heremeneutical resources of the community, making it difficult for the target group to accurately frame and express their shared experience of oppression. Speech acts that suppress knowledge in this way may be instances of willful hermeneutical marginalization, acts that epistemically marginalize an entire social group.

Testimonial injustice and willful hermeneutical marginalization tend to go together, but they are nonetheless conceptually distinct. Someone who denies the harmful effects of slavery on the life prospects of African Americans is likely toalsodiscredit the speech of African Americans to their faces (because this person harbors racial bias), but the person commits twodistinct actsof epistemic injustice, one hermeneutical and one testimonial. These types can be differentiated in practice.

  1. Testimonial and hermeneutical gaslighting

Now, if gaslighting is a type of (especially pernicious) epistemic injustice, and there are two types of epistemic injustice, then there should be two corresponding types of gaslighting. Gregory’s dismissal of Paula’s speech as “crazy” is an example of the first type, “testimonial gaslighting”; he gives her speech zero credit. But Gregory also commits willful hermeneutical marginalization by barring Paula’s family from visiting, knowing that her family could debunk her false beliefs about her nil epistemic standing. Thus, Gregory also commits “hermeneutical gaslighting,” the willful withholding of hermeneutical resources to manipulate Paula into subordination and false consciousness about her situation. Gregory thus commits two epistemically distinct types of gaslighting. Both instances of epistemic injustice are also examples of gaslightingbecause they involve manipulation, undermine the victim’s moral standing, assault the victim’s self-conception, and they pathologize, disrespect, and torture the victim.

Is the willful suppression of knowledgealso a type of gaslighting? Paradigm cases of gaslighting involve an intimate relationship between a gaslighter and a gaslighting victim, as opposed to a statement of false belief about a social group (with which the gaslighter may have no contact at all, particularly in a segregated society). Abramsom says that in paradigm cases of gaslighting, the gaslighter uses the promise of love and intimacy to manipulate the victim; he appeals to the victim’s empathy; and he threatens the victim with reprisals for non-compliance (2014: 20). When someone suppresses pertinent knowledge, that person doesn’t necessary rely on intimacy, affection, empathy, or reprisals to manipulate the target group, but the person’s act of epistemic marginalization still has central characteristics of gaslighting, i.e., manipulation, moral disrespect, pathologizing, torture (albeit of a group). The ‘manipulation’ in question here is not the physical manipulation of an individual, but rather, the manipulation of epistemic resourcesso as to render the shared experiences of a marginalized group unintelligible and ostensibly “pathological.”

Another salient difference between the two cases of gaslighting is that testimonial gasighting targets a specific victim, whereas knowledge-suppression targets an entire social group, without directly harming any individual. Hermeneutical gaslighting, in effect, creates fertile epistemic groundfor tokens of testimonial injustice, by infusing the social imaginary with pernicious stereotypes – stereotypes that ‘testimonial gaslighters’ can exploit to effectively discredit and pathologize members of the target group. People who commit willful knowledge-suppression give others ammunitionfor committing testimonial injustice behind a cloak of plausible deniability.

One way of framing this difference is to think of testimonial injustice as akin to quid pro quo sexual harassment, which affects an individual victim, whereas hermeneutical injustice is akin to hostile workplace sexual harassment, which creates a hostile environment for all members of a protected group. If an employer posts sexualized pictures of women in his office, this is an example of hostile workplace sexual harassment because it affects all of the women who enter the office. Similarly, hermeneutical scapegoating creates an epistemically hostile environmentfor a marginalized group. Even if only one person complains, everymember of the group is affected.

This type of scapegoating may not fit the classic paradigm, but it fits with an emerging popular conception of gaslighting, which we see in, for example, claims that Donald Trump is “gaslighting” the American public by lying, distorting the facts, and disparaging the press (Leve 2017).

We also see this type of gaslighting in Angelique M. Davis and Rose Ernst’s theory of “racial gaslighting,” defined as “the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist” (2017: 1). This type of gaslighting is not part of an intimate relationship, but is instead part of a complex network of discursive relationships and power structures. Racial gaslighting relies on “racial spectacles,” or “narratives that obfuscate the existence of a white supremacist state power structure” (ibid.), so as to normalize and perpetuate racism. Racial spectacles, in effect, suppress knowledgeabout the shared experiences of racialized minorities. While Davis and Ernst describe racial gaslighting as a sociopolitical process, and while they focus on the historical and sociological foundations of racial gaslighting (similar to Fricker’s analysis of hermeneutical injustice), they nonetheless affirm that people (and groups of people) commit gaslighting – for example, “The U.S. government usedracial spectacles at the macro level to publicly justify its use of concrete state action against those of Japanese ancestry during World War II” (2017: 6). Thus, they do not deny the agency implicated in racial gaslighting; they admit that it can be perpetrated.

We can see Mills’ example of a white person (or people) denying the reality of racial inequality in America as a type of “racial spectacle,” a performance of white ignorance. And I think that we can apply my analysis of that case to racial gaslighting in general. That is, I think it could be useful to frame racial gaslighting as an especially morally pernicious type of willful hermeneutical injustice, i.e., hermeneutical gaslighting. These spectacles gaslight Black people by suppressing knowledge about their lived reality. While these spectacles do not, as Davis and Ernst note, effectively deceiveall, or even most, People of Color, they create an epistemic climatethat pathologizes, stigmatizes, and epistemically marginalizes them, placing them at an epistemic and moral disadvantage. These acts of injustice have the characteristic features of gaslighting: moral disregard, assault to the self, and torture. Racial gaslighting undermines the standing of racialized minorities to make intelligible moral and epistemic claims; forces them to choose between dominant cultural narratives and their authentic experiences; and represents them as fundamentally irrational, “mad,” and unworthy of having their knowledge inscribed in public discourse.

  1. Suppression of knowledge as gaslighting: Example and analysis

There are many, many topical examples of hermeneutical gaslighting via the suppression of knowledge. One that got a lot of publicity recently was Sam Harris’ interview with Charles Murray on his book on race and IQ, “The Bell Curve” (1994). In short, Murray holds that there are genetic differences between “races” that explain average differences in IQ. The critical flaw in this theory, as noted by Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige, Richard E. Nisbett (2017), David Reich (2018), Ezra Klein (2018), and many other people from many disciplines (including genetics), is that Murray’s view falsely explains average differences in IQ by reference to genes shared by racial groups. As Klein says, “There is currently no reason at all to think that any significant portion of the IQ differences among socially defined racial groups is genetic in origin” (2018).

To make matter worse, Murray neverdiscusses environmental causes of IQ in his conversation with Harris, even though this relationship is extensively researched and well documented, as Harris and Murray are well aware. To give a few examples: we know that the black-white IQ gap is closing; there has been an 18-point gain in average IQ in the U.S. from 1948 to 2002 – more than twice the current racial IQ gap, which is only 10 points (misquoted as 15 points by Murray, whose data set is outdated); adoption from a poor family to a wealthy family is the strongest predictor of IQ gains, and so on. Harris and Murray never mention these clear relationships between environment and IQ. Their critical error, then, is not only to explain average IQ differences by reference to racial genetics, but also to willfully suppressknowledge about environmental causes of IQ differences.

But this is just the most basic error – there are many other errors that follow from this flawed axiom. One is that Murray commitspreciselywhat Mills identifies as a paradigmatic act of white ignorance – he says that Black people and white people have approximately equal social opportunities, which means that average IQ differences must be genetic. (In fact, Harris says this, and Murray confirms it: they both make the same mistake). Here is that part of the interview:


HARRIS: I have here a quote from Flynn — I don’t know when he wrote this or said this — but he says, “An environmental explanation of the racial IQ gap need only posit this: that the average environment for blacks in 1995 matches the quality of the average environment for whites in 1945.I do not find that implausible.” So what you just said seems to close the door to that [environmental] interpretation of the black-white gap.

MURRAY: Yes, it does, and this is a case where I am citing someone who has done analyses that are at a level of complexity that I am not independently competent to pronounce.


Second, Murray says that because IQ differences are genetically-based as opposed to cultural, social policies that address putative social inequalities between white populations and Black populations (which Murray doesn’t believe in) are misguided and should be eliminated:


HARRIS: I guess one thing that must be occurring to listeners now — and this is my misgiving about having this conversation and going into this area at all — the question is why talk about any of this? Why seek data on racial difference at all? What is the purpose of doing this?

MURRAY: Because we now have social policy embedded in employment policy, in academic policy, which is based on the premise that everybody’s equal above the neck, all groups are equal above the neck, whether it’s men and women or whether it’s ethnicities. And when you have that embedded into law [i.e., in the form of employment equity policies], you have a variety of bad things happen.


Third, Murray and Harris both believe that Murray is the victim of left-wing fascists and other ‘enemies of science.’ In their view, racialized minorities are decidedly not victims of Murray’s “junk science,” as described by his peers(2017); Murray is in fact the victim. This is an example of what I described in an earlier post as politically motivated scapegoating: denying responsibility by shifting blame onto a socially marginalized group, which is already stigmatized by pervasive cultural stereotypes, making them an easy target. Harris is clearly in on the scapegoating and epistemic marginalizing. He calls his talk with Murray “Forbidden Knowledge,” depicting it as the dissemination of repressed truths, instead of what it really is: yet another iteration of familiar racial stereotypes. The idea that Black people are unintelligent due to shared genetic deficits isn’t a radical new perspective, it’s an old racist myth! Indeed, it’s part of the very fabric of American society, which was founded on a principle of equality for white men, slavery for Black people, and domestic servitude for women. The original American social contract was, as others have pointed out, a racial (Mills 1997) and a sexual (Pateman 1988) contract, which legally codified white male supremacy as the de facto natural order. The legacy of this inegalitarian contract can still be seen in every major social institution. Every American with an elementary school education surely knows about America’s colonialist roots and racist cultural narratives; therefore, literally no one was enlightened by Harris’ interview with Murray. But many probably enjoyed it because it justified their privileges to them, mitigating any white guilt they may otherwise have felt.

What Harris and Murray did was, on my description, hermeneutical gaslighting. They didn’t discredit any individual person, which is the paradigmatic case of testimonial injustice. They also didn’t exploit an intimate relationship or emotional interdependence, which are characteristic features of classic gaslighting. But they did discredit Black people by saying that Black people as a group are genetically unintelligent. They didn’t exactly withholdhermeneutical tools from the target group; members of this group still have access to the same hermeneutical resources as before, though the Internet, libraries, and so on. But Harris and Murray suppressed knowledgeabout the shared cultural experiences of Black people by disseminating junk science about dubious connections between “race” and IQ, and willfully omitting pertinent information about historical and contemporary racial inequality. Their talk made salienta false narrative of racial inferiority, which serves to overshadowand obfuscate objective knowledge about racial injustice.

To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that Harris and Murray are trying to gaslight their audience; I’m saying that they are gaslighting their audience. Their intentions are irrelevant to the question of whether their speech counts as a case of joint gaslighting, since gaslighitng is often unintentional.

How can we identify their speech acts as instances of hermeneutical gaslighting per se? Because these acts serve to: (1) undermine the standing of the target group, (2) undermine the self-conception of the target group (i.e., their self-conception as full persons), (3) involve manipulation. The manipulation, again, isn’t the manipulation of another person’s actions and choices, as represented in the movie “Gaslight,” but rather, the manipulation of epistemic resourcesrelevant to the target group’s standing. Harris and Murray are distorting the facts in a way that undermines the moral and epistemic standing of Black people – specifically, their standing to make intelligible claims to be seen as members of the community and to be respected as credible witnesses to their own lives. These violations are especially morally ‘dark’ because they discredit, silence, and pathologize their target; they misrepresent Murray’s opponents as left-wing fascists and enemies of science; they attempt to convince Black people that they don’t deserve better, and if they were to succeed in this aim, their target audience would be divorced from their authentic selves as people worthy of respect, and forced to “introject” white ignorance.

I doubt most people would be taken in by Murray’s flawed scientific perspective, but his speech still counts as a case of functionalgaslighting, as it has all the core features of hermeneutical gaslighting. If it succeeds in suppressing knowledge, then it is both functional and effective gaslighting.

  1. Just world bias as a paradigmatic type of gaslighting

Let’s revisit Charles Mills’ example of white ignorance, which I have classified as a typical example of hermeneutical gaslighting. In that example, the gaslighting consists in the speaker’s claim that abolition led to racial equality, i.e., that society is now fair. We see this myth echoed in Murray’s claim that racial equality emerged in the mid-20th Century. By denying the reality of racial injustice, the speaker functionally gaslightsvictims of social injustice. This typical example of hermeneutical gaslighting is also an example of “just world bias,” the tendency to see the world as if it were just (Hazlitt 2017; Burkeman 2015). Privileged people are susceptible to just world bias because they have a vested interest in denying the reality of their privileged status, as admitting to that unearned status would induce guilt and other negative emotions, and perhaps create a moral incentive to act differently (See my post on white guilt as a fitting moral emotion. To avoid feeling bad, privileged people invoke a false image of a fair world. Many cases of hermeneutical gaslighting, it seems, are caused or constituted by just world bias.

It’s best that we recognize the pervasiveness of this bias to avoid perpetuating it in our own expressive practices. As a rule, don’t say that any social space is equal. Just world bias isn’t necessarily about the state of the world; indeed, it’s usually expressed in a domain-specific way, regarding a specific social space, which is framed as being better than the ‘tawdry mainstream.’

Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that someone were to proclaim that philosophy is ‘flat,’ meaning an even playing field for all. Although the world is unfairly hierarchical, philosophy is immune from the injustices of mainstream culture. This is an example of domain-specific just world bias, and therefore a paradigmatic case of hermeneutical gaslighting on my view.

The claim is patently false for too many reasons to list, but if we just focus on gender inequalityin the profession, we can see many counterexamples to the just-world hypothesis. As my colleague Jill Delston observed in a recent St. Louis ‘Faculty Forward’ talk (2018), men make up the majority of high-ranking and full-time faculty in philosophy in the U.S., whereas women are overrepresented in contingent faculty positions; women’s work is less likely to be accepted for publication, less likely to be read, and is less cited than men’s; co-authored papers help men’s careers but hurt women’s; having children helps men but hurts women in academic philosophy, etc. These are just a few quantifiable examples of gender bias in the field, and they don’t speak to the qualitative experiences of women who face these injustices in their daily work lives.

Denying the reality of women’s experiences as philosophers is hermeneutical gaslighting. The claim of disciplinary gender equality rests on a false, cisgender, white, male perspective. It implicitly denies women’s claim to be treated fairly and with epistemic respect, since the demand for equality, within a field construed as already-equal, can only possibly be irrational, selfish, and “crazy.” If women accept this false narrative, they’re deceived into thinking that they don’t deserve more credit and respect from their colleagues. The just-world claim also implies that women can succeedif they just try as hard as men, which is false, since women already try harder than men (on average) and get less recognition (on average) due to gender bias and systemic inequality. The deceptive framing of philosophy as equitable is, in fact, torturous, in the sense that it tells women that they are capable of achieving equality with men if they just try harder, which is false; and if we were to accept this myth, we would be alienated from our authentic experience of oppression in the field. We would also be forced to accept or “introject” the male gaze, which isthe typical phenomenological effect of being gaslighted by a man(Abramson 2015).

I bring this up because this is a philosophy journal, and I believe that gaslighting happens in philosophy, perhaps quite a lot. One way to avoid gaslighting your colleagues is to reject just world theory. Don’t pretend that philosophy is fair. But by the same token, don’t pretend that the demographic composition of the profession is fine as it is. Don’t say, for instance, that demographic diversity has no significant pedagogical value(Leiter 2018) when it patently does (Harding 2015; Ciurria 2016; Pammarota 2011; McLaren 2018). In sum, don’t pretend that the profession is or was or soon will be an even playing field, but don’t pretend that it’s no big deal that full professors are overwhelmingly white and male, either (Cherry & Schwitzgebel 2016).

To be fair, I’m not saying that everyone who gaslights is some kind of monster. In conditions of epistemic injustice, it’s hard to know when you’re committing epistemic injustice, including gaslighting and scapegoating, and these transgressions come in degrees. I’ve probably committed acts of “micro-gaslighting” – the gaslighting equivalent of a “microagressions” – given that I have epistemic blindspots rooted in my white privilege. Admitting that you’re susceptible to implicit gaslighting is part of the solution.

  1. The epistemic and moral harms of gaslighting 

The harms of testimonial and hermeneutical gaslighting are both epistemic and moral. Miranda Fricker describes the “primary harms” of epistemic injustice as the silencing and epistemic marginalizing of the victim, and the resultant loss of valuable epistemic resources to the community (2007). These epistemic harms are both individual and collective – they harm the victim’s epistemic standing and the community’s shared knowledge. They are ‘primary’ in the sense that they are epistemic in nature. The “secondary” harms of epistemic injustice are political, socioeconomic, and moral. Epistemic injustice inflicts socioeconomic and political hardships on victims of identity prejudice, who are seen as less eligible for jobs, housing, political representation, education, and other social goods. But victims of epistemic injustice also suffer distinct moral harms– harms that Fricker does not discuss in any detail. (Fricker says little about the ‘secondary harms’ of epistemic injustice in general, leaving it to others to examine them). Abramson points out that the moral harms of gaslighting, a type of epistemic injustice, include injuries to the victim’s (i) moral standing, (ii) moral self-conception (as a moral agent worthy of basic moral regard), and (iii) moral autonomy (specifically, freedom to live according to her un-coerced moral values, or to be herself). This account suggests that the moral harmsof epistemic injustice mirror the epistemic harmsof this type of act: just as epistemic injustice harms the victim’s epistemic standing (or ability to make intelligible claims about what is true), epistemic injustice harms the victim’s moral standing (or ability to make intelligible claims about what is just, fair, or morally permissible); just as epistemic injustice harms the victim’s self-conception as a knower, someone with functional truth-tracking capacities, epistemic injustice harms the victim’s self-conception as a moral agent, someone with functional moral-reasons-tracking capacities; just as epistemic injustice harms the agent’s epistemic autonomy by manipulating her perception of what is true or credible, epistemic injustice harms the agent’s moral autonomy by manipulating her perception of what is just or fair. Furthermore, although Abramson never says this, the moral harms of epistemic injustice are not only individual, but also collective; epistemic injustice derives the communityof valuable moral resources –namely, knowledge about what is right, fair, decent, and morally upstanding. Thus, just as epistemic injustice harms the community’s epistemic resources, it harms the community’s moral resources, too.

Notably, Fricker nowhere says that the ‘primary’ harms of epistemic injustice are worse than the ‘secondary’ harms of epistemic injustice. Epistemic harms are ‘primary’ only because they belong to the same category as the ‘primary’ offense (epistemic injustice) – though it should be noted that epistemic injustice as also a moral transgressioninsofar as it involves morally problematic content, i.e., “ethically noxious motiv[es]” (Fricker 2012; 34), and it produces morally problematic effects, e.g., the loss of moral autonomy. But there is a case to be made that the loss of moral standing is more injurious, or ‘darker,’than the loss of epistemic standing, because our personhood just isour moral agency, and that the loss of moral knowledge is worse than the loss of factual knowledge, because moral wrongs are worse than factual errors.

On the first point, influential theorists like Strawson (1963) and Frankfurt (1971) have argued that personhood just is moral agency, seeing that moral agency is the critical factor that distinguishes persons from both moral incompetents and simple organisms. This view of personhood has recently been corroborated by research showing that people tend to rate their loved one as “the same person” if they lose their memories, distinctiveness, emotional qualities, and global mental function, but not if they lose their moral capacities (Strohminger & Nichols 2015).When subjects are asked to judge the persistence of moral personality in Alzheimer’s patients, “the extent to which [the] patient seems different is predicted almost entirely by the extent to which their moral traits changed and not at all by their memory loss” (Chituc 2015), contraJohn Locke, but consistent with Strawson and Frankfurt. On the second point (on collective harms), the loss of moral knowledge is arguably more harmful to the community than the loss of factual knowledge because we need moral knowledge more than factual knowledge to live well. The application of factual knowledge to evil purposes gives rise to dystopian scenarios like the Holocaust; a society without cell phones is less horrifying than a society riven by genocide. There is reason to believe, then, that the secondary harms of epistemic injustice might be moral injurious on balance than the primary harms, both individually and collectively. In any case, the primary and secondary harms of epistemic injustice are commensurate, in that they involve a simultaneous loss of epistemic, moral, and siociopolitical standing, respect, and autonomy in victims, and a loss of valuable factual, moral, and sociopolitical resources in the community.

It is worthwhile for moral theorists to note the severe moral harms perpetrated by epistemic injustice. In fact, in neglecting the role of epistemic injustice in the moral community, we fail to adequately frame this system of interpersonal relationships. Strawson (1963) made this mistake when he described ‘the moral community’ as a collective of moral agents who deploy ‘the reactive attitudes’ (e.g., blame, praise) so as to consolidate the community around shared moral values, while deploying ‘the objective attitude’ to exclude moral incompetents. Of course, this is not how society works. Instead, we systematically deploy the objective attitude toward socially marginalized groups on the basis of systemic identity prejudice, in such a way as to ‘other’ and exclude those groups. This increases the perceived moral standing of privileged in-group members, making it easier for them to gaslight, scapegoat, and discredit disadvantaged groups who threaten their position of control. Whereas Strawson cited children and morally deranged people as targets of the objective attitude, in conditions of epistemic injustice this attitude is (illicitly) extended to women, People of Color, and other classic gaslighting victims, who are framed as infantile, incompetent, ‘crazy,’ and corrupt. Strawson’s theoretical resources are useful for understanding idealdeployments of blame and praise, but he does not delve into the distorting role of identity prejudice in our moral economy. This is the new horizon for responsibility scholars.

This topic is explored, amongst other places, in the new edited volume,“Social Dimensions of Moral Responsibilty.”











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