- Critical injustice
In his recent work, Allan Hazlett argues that “critical injustice” is a type of epistemic injustice, defined by “an unfair deficit of criticism” (in progress). Critical injustice perpetrates ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ harms, including disrespecting or impugning the dialectical competence of the target, silencing the person’s criticism, and failing to create opportunities for the person to engage in criticism and develop their dialectical competence. Further, critical injustice targets people on the basis of their demographic attributes or social identity, consistent with Fricker’s (2007) definition of epistemic injustice as a type of ‘identity prejudice.’ Interestingly, both liberals and conservatives can commit critical injustice – liberals because they may go ‘too easy’ on visible minorities, failing to respect their dialectical competence, and conservatives because they may go ‘too hard’ on them, denying them the credibility they deserve. An epistemically virtuous critic gives the right amount of criticism, neither too much nor too little.
This position connects with my earlier posts on the value of criticism. Feminists have argued that the underrepresentation of women in the New York Times Book Reviews – which in 2016 published only 1/3 as many reviews of women’s literary fiction as men’s – signals a lack of respect for women’s work and undermines their standing in the profession. The gender gap in literary criticism can be seen as a kind of critical injustice.
Hazlett, however, is more concerned with critical injustice in educational settings, in which teachers must decide how to critically engage with students, some of whom are from underrepresented groups and are therefore susceptible to identity prejudice (including implicit bias, which is not directly introspectable). How should teachers engage with these students? The straightforward answer is that they should give them the right amount of criticism, taking into account the possible role of implicit bias in their unconscious cognitive architecture, and the possibility that students from underrepresented groups may have non-transparent epistemic privileges rooted in their lived experience. These epistemic complexities make critical justice harder than it may seem at first glance. Still, the goal is to express the right amount of criticism to each student.
I wouldn’t deny that quantity of criticism is a factor in critical justice, but I think that quality of criticism may be just as important. What Hazlett doesn’t explicitly address is, once you’ve epistemically evaluated a speech context and determined that criticism is warranted, how should you express that criticism? Most of the examples of epistemic injustice offered by Miranda Fricker (2007) involve someone expressing criticism in a demeaning way. For example, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, when Marge Sherley correctly discerns that Tom Ripley is the murderer, Herbert Greenleaf dismissively retorts, “Marge, there’s female intuition and then there are facts” (Fricker 2007: 9). The problem isn’t so much that Greenleaf criticizes Marge – if he had ignored her suspicion, this, too, would have been critically unjust. Both arrogant silence and dismissive sexism are instances of critical injustice, because both express contempt for the speaker’s epistemic standing as a woman. More specifically, both responses have the same “ethically noxious” content (Fricker 2007: 34) – implicit gender bias. This suggests that simply increasing the amount of criticism directed to minorities won’t necessarily reduce critical injustice – it might just open the floodgates to a deluge of epistemically corrupt criticism.
Similarly, if teachers take steps to fairly distribute the quantity of criticism in their classroom, this would be no guarantee that critical injustice would be reduced, because the content of the newly expressed criticism could be epistemically problematic. That is, the criticism expressed to minority students, albeit in the correct ratio, could contain epistemically corrupt content, such as condescending superiority, dismissive contempt, or hostility activated by implicit bias. Indeed, this is perhaps the predictable effect of increasing criticism to minority students (without taking any other measures), especially if the initial lack of critical engagement was caused by implicit bias. Simply increasing criticism toward minority students could allow the problematic content of the initial prejudicial disengagement to take a more overt form – namely, prejudicial criticism. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to distribute criticism fairly – it’s simply to say that, in doing so, we need to think about the motives that underlie both prejudicial critical disengagement, and prejudicial critical engagement. These are two sides of the same coin.
To bring this into relief, consider a comment on the philosophy blog Daily Nous, cited in a paper on the diversification of philosophy by Luvell Anderson and Verena Erlenbusch:
“I am very ignorant of non-Western philosophical traditions and perhaps this post will only expose my ignorance. Perhaps someone who knows non-Western traditions better will comment on my post. However, I am under the impression that the best arguments are generally to be found in Western philosophy. When I last read Confucius, just to take an example, I don’t recall finding any arguments at all. That doesn’t make Confucius unworthy of study, but it does make him a lot less philosophically (as opposed to anthropologically) interesting to me” (Weinberg 2016, cited in Anderson & Erlenbusch 2017).
This is an example of someone who criticizes non-Western philosophical traditions (and, indirectly, people who specialize in these sub-disciplines), but only to dismiss them as epistemically inferior. This illustrates the point that suspending criticism toward someone whose standpoint you don’t respect may be better than critically engaging with the person, given your motivational architecture. (If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!) The lesson for critical injustice is that robust critical justice probably requires remediation of implicit biases, not just a fairer distribution of criticism.
In sum, we should try to criticize others both in the right proportion, and in the right spirit.
2. Hermeneutical injustice: Background conditions for testimonial injustice
This task is easier said than done because, even if a teacher has the intention to criticize fairly, the context might not allow the person to do so. Indeed, many teachers don’t have the contextual epistemic resources (or ‘hermeneutical resources’) required to criticize epistemically marginalized students fairly, precisely because their epistemological community deprives them of those resources. In psychology, for example, most Western psychology research uses disproportionally WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) subjects (up to 80% of samples) although these subjects comprise only 20% of the global population (APA 2010). Until recently, findings based on WEIRD samples were generalized as universal psychological truths – a norm that marginalizes non-WEIRD frames of references. On the standard psychological model, traditional societies are seen as outliers with ‘abnormal’ psychological traits. This is a type of epistemic injustice insofar as non-western frames of reference are construed as less credible.
One of the worst offenders is arguably my discipline – philosophy – which is one of the whitest and malest of all Humanities disciplines, even though everyone apparently truly values diversity. Notwithstanding everyone’s good intentions, most academic philosophers are white, male, and middle-class (Cruz forthcoming). Registered members of the American Philosophical Association (APA) are 76.4% white and 74.6% male (Trott 2018). Of published authors in prominent journals, POC comprise only 0.5% (Cherry & Schwitzgebel 2013), and women comprise only 14-16% (Wilhelm et al. 2017). Historically, virtually all philosophers were white and male, and these philosophers are still overrepresented on college syllabi. Interestingly, representation varies by sub-discipline; 60% of women in philosophy have a research interest with a value theory keyword (which includes feminist philosophy), but only 40% have a research interest with a LEMMING keyword (Jennings, Hypatia Conference presentation: 2015); and women specialize in philosophy at seven times the rate of men according to placement data (ibid.). For Black philosophers, the top areas of specialization are Africana, race, social and political philosophy, ethics, and continental philosophy (Botts et al. 2014); yet ‘specialist’ journals (e.g., in feminist philosophy, Africana) are considered less reputable than ‘generalist’ journals, receive less attention as measured by citations, and are un-ranked on ranking websites like Scimago (2018). As Helen de Cruz points out, top-ranked philosophy “journals avow themselves generalist, but in practice they tend to publish a narrow range of specializations, with a heavy focus on analytic philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind, the so-called ‘Lemming’ subdisciplines. This leaves many areas of philosophy underrepresented in these journals” (forthcoming), including feminist and Africana theory, which are also underrepresented on college syllabi (Baron et al. 2015; Figdor & Drabek 2015; Shepherd 2014).
There are a multitude of explanations for the diversity problem in philosophy, including the course content hypothesis, the role model hypothesis, the aggressive argumentation hypothesis, the gender schema hypothesis, the field-specific ability belief hypothesis (viz., Baron et al. 2015), the perfect storm hypothesis (Antony 2012), and the prestige bias hypothesis (Cruz forthcoming). Regardless of the cause of the diversity problem, there’s a case to be made that the diversity problem constitutes a type epistemic injustice because it is a situation in which underrepresented groups are epistemically marginalized, not because they lack philosophical qualities, but because of epistemically corrupt features of the community. This is consistent with Louise Antony’s explanation, on which the underrepresentation of women is caused by a “perfect storm” of implicit bias, stereotype threat, disciplinary conventions, and schematic assumptions about women’s capacities (stereotypically irrationally) and philosophical values (rationality, critical thinking) (2012). These factors interact in such a way as to produce, reinforce, and intensify epistemic injustice against women (and, by parity of reasoning, racialized minorities) in the field.
This explanation is closely related to an empirically-supported hypothesis – the gender schema hypothesis. On this hypothesis, women are underrepresented because of internalized schemas (Valian 1998), “which directly code philosophy as a male discipline (Haslanger 2008; Calhoun 2009), or indirectly code it as male, e.g., through the combination of a ‘field-specific ability belief’ that philosophy requires natural brilliance and a societal stereotype of women as lacking this brilliance (Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, & Freeland 2015)” (Baron et al. 2015). Because philosophy is coded as male, women are less likely to choose philosophy as a major. Notably, Baron and colleagues find that pre-university effects explain women’s failure to continue in philosophy, as opposed to classroom effects, the reason being that men’s and women’s attitudes toward philosophy are not differentially affected by their classroom experience (in one semester). However, this doesn’t mean that gender schemas don’t exist in academic philosophy; gender bias might be operating in academic settings in such a way as to confirm students’ pre-existing gender schemas. Classroom experiences certainly don’t disconfirm these preconceived notions according to the evidence, which shows that gender differences in intention to major, perception of ability in philosophy, ability to imagine becoming a philosopher, and comfort in philosophy class are relatively stable across the semester, while interest in philosophy decreases in women but not men (Baron et al 2015). If philosophy disconfirmed pre-existing schemas, we would expect women’s attitudes to change. Perhaps gender schemas in philosophy are equivalent to extra-philosophical gender schemas (which are sexist!); perhaps in-classroom factors have small, cumulative effects over time, producing “micro-inequalities” that gradually discourage women from majoring in philosophy (Brennan 2013); perhaps gender schemas in philosophy are stronger or more salient than in other disciplines – it’s impossible to know for sure because the study was limited to 13 weeks and there was no control group. But what we do know is that gender schemas that exist outside of academic philosophy persist in undergraduate philosophy classes, as opposed to being extinguished by classroom experience.
Antony proposes the ‘prefect storm’ hypothesis as an alternative to the ‘different voice’ hypothesis (Code 1987, Scheman 1987, Moulton 1993), on which women are underrepresented in philosophy because their gender-specific standpoint is marginalized by the dominant male frame of reference. Antony is right to reject some different-voice theories – for example, the theory that women have gender-specific philosophical intuitions, a hypothesis that failed in replication (Sayedsayamdost 2014). However, I think that there is evidence for a certain type of different-voice theory, which goes like this. Seeing that women specialize and publish disproportionately in value theory (including feminist philosophy), and Black philosophers specialize disproportionately in Africana and race theory, there is a dominant sub-disciplinary focus specific to these demographic groups, and this sub-disciplinary focus is less publishable in top-tier generalist journals, less cited and discussed, and less visible on college syllabi – that is, less epistemically respected. Because women and Black philosophers disproportionately specialize in these sub-disciplines (for whatever reason – that cause is irrelevant), their speech in academia (comments, analyses, critical insights) is epistemically marginalized. And their speech is marginalized not because these sub-disciplines are inherently less credible, but, again, because of internalized gender schemas.
This situation can easily result in critical injustice. Let’s say you’re a woman presenting a paper on trans feminism at a generalist philosophy conference, and the participants reflect the APA registration demographics – they’re mostly men. These philosophers, suppose, have male-dominant specializations – LEMMING subjects. They earnestly want to give your talk the epistemic respect it deserves, so they listen attentively and in the spirit of epistemic humility. At the end of the talk, having absolutely no background in trans feminism, the audience members either don’t ask any questions, or they ask naive questions reflecting their total ignorance of your area of specialization. In this (not-too-hard-to-imagine) scenario, the philosophical audience wants to treat you with critical justice, but can’t. Meanwhile, you have the standard basic knowledge of LEMMING subjects conferred by most American departments, so you’re in a position to ask them interesting and engaging questions, but they can’t reciprocate your level of critical engagement – not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the epistemic means.
Now imagine that you’re a college professor at a top-tier department and you have a standard philosophical background, meaning that you know more about LEMMING subjects than non-standard sub-disciplines. A student asks you a question about consciousness and you describe higher-order, representationalist, narrative interpretive, and cognitive theories of consciousness, and then field questions from the class. Then another student asks you about Eastern heart-mind and things-event theories of consciousness, and you make a few naive comments before admitting that you’re not conversant in Eastern philosophy, sorry. Then you go back to Wester theories of consciousness. You want to fairly critically engage with your student… but how can you?
This is just to say that good intentions won’t fix critical injustice in philosophy, or any other discipline. The hermeneutical climate has to be one that supports critical justice. A corrupt hermeneutical climate virtually guarantees the commission of testimonial injustice, particularly by privileged individuals (like professors) against disadvantaged individuals (like minority students), regardless of the privileged person’s intentions and beliefs.
Miranda Fricker addresses specifically disciplinary types of epistemic injustice, which she describes as “a very weak sense of injustice” (2007: 22). She gives the example of a philosopher who doubts a colleagues’ authority on her project because she (falsely) assumes that the colleague doesn’t share her specialization – ethics. So maybe the disciplinary imbalances I’m describing are merely instances of these ‘weak’ epistemic injustices, not ‘strong’ epistemic injustice, which is based on identity prejudice per se. I would argue, on the contrary, that sub-disciplinary biases in philosophy are rooted in strong identity prejudice, for several reasons. First, there is good reason to think that feminist philosophy, Africana, and other non-standard sub-disciplines are less respected, cited, discussed, and taught (basically, marginalized) because they are favoured by minorities, and minorities are less respected in the profession. That is, our epistemic practices as a profession reflect our collective implicit gender biases and implicit racial biases (as per the ‘perfect storm’ theory). There’s no reason to assume that LEMMING subjects are inherently more epistemically respectable than other sub-disciplines – and, indeed, no diversity researcher ever says they are – but because men prefer them (and men historically respected them exclusively, seeing other frames of reference as inferior), they receive more uptake. A similar phenomenon affects the U.S. economy: predominantly-female jobs pay less on average than predominantly-male jobs (IWPR 2016), and Black and Hispanic Americans are overrepresented in low-paying service and sales jobs compared to white and Asian Americans (BLS 2015). When women migrate into male-dominant jobs, the average pay drops (Miller 2016). This suggests that male-dominant jobs pay more because men are more respected (and a similar logic probably explains low pay in racialized economic sectors). The same white-male bias may explain topic bias in philosophy: LEMMING subjects are more respected in philosophy because they’re male-dominant, and (correspondingly) associated with emblematic white masculinity. This isn’t to say that we explicitly value white-male preferences more than others, but the profession is structured around implicit biases that favour white-male preferences, and give these preferences (and associated norms, perspectives, and conceptual frameworks) pride of place in journals, discussions, and class materials. Because our preferences are constructed in a corrupt hermeneutical climate, our preferences are likely to reflect the tacit gender and racial schemas of the field, especially if we specialize in dominant sub-disciplines that reinforce these preconceived notions.
If the reason we epistemically marginalize female-dominant and Black-dominant sub-disciplines is implicit bias, then these marginalizations are arguably strong epistemic injustices, because they aren’t just biases against an individual’s subjective (a-contextual) disciplinary preferences – they’re biases against a person’s disciplinary preferences because those preferences are coded as ‘female,’ ‘Black,’ or ‘other,’ and thus as ‘inferior,’ according to our shared gender schemas. This results in critical injustice, insofar as our gendered and racialized topic biases prohibit us from fairly critically engaging with minorities in their dominant areas of specialization – and other sub-specializations, too. Minorities who specialize in dominant sub-disciplines are epistemically disadvantaged by the gender and racial coding of their sub-discipline. This points to an epistemic double-bind in which, as a minority in philosophy, you can either choose to be underrepresented in a sub-discipline that’s respected because it’s coded as white and male, or your can choose to be overrepresented in a sub-discipline that’s disvalued because it’s coded as ‘other.’ Either way, you’re facing structural epistemic disadvantages.
Philosophy’s hermeneutical background conditions, then, practically guarantee that critical injustice will take place, because philosophers are inculcated into a culture that values sub-dsciplines emblematic of white masculinity, and disproportionally preferred by white men, above other subjects. Institutional changes are needed to create hospitable ecological conditions for the virtuous deployment of criticism in the field.
3. Prestige bias
Another compelling explanation of the diversity problem in philosophy is the prestige bias hypothesis, recently advanced by Helen de Cruz, who holds that prestige bias ramifies institutional inequalities (forthcoming).* De Cruz argues that prestige bias is “an unchallenged phenomenon in philosophy,” as well as a neglected factor in diversity discussions (3). She shows that “there is a structural lack of upward social mobility in hiring practices: someone from a prestigious school may end up in a lower-ranked institution, but the reverse is unusual,” and “this advantage of prestigious institutions also appears in graduate school admissions, citations, and research assessments” (4). Although pedigree is often taken as a heuristic for competency, there is no substantive evidence for this association: teaching excellence and publication record play little role in hiring decisions; candidates selected for tenure-track positions have a median of two publications – less than the number of publications by job candidates from unranked departments. In fact, “the lower the rank of the PhD granting institution, the more papers in peer-reviewed journals a candidate was likely to have” (De Cruz: 11). Cruz links the pedigree heuristic to the field-specific ability belief (FSAB) on which philosophy is “a special aptitude that can’t be taught” (ibid.) – the same attitude that Baron and colleagues describe as a type of internalized gender schema (because it stereotypes men as innately talented). Cruz points out that this attitude is more salient in philosophy than any other discipline (Leslie et al. 2015). Philosophers also believe (correctly) that this attitude is prevalent in their discipline, but that doesn’t mitigate their predilection for FSAB. In fact, philosophers tend to openly admit that they hire on the basis of prestige bias (though they would call it a ‘reliable heuristic’ as opposed to a bias). As one hiring committee member said without reservation, “How did we prune our field from 637 to 27? An important selection criterion was holding a Ph.D. from a good university” (De Cruz: 14).
Prestige bias, says Cruz, leads to the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities and people of low socioeconomic status in philosophy, and to the testimonial “smothering and silencing of philosophical work outside of the dominant traditions” (21). Asians outperform all other ethnic groups on SATS and all other measures of academic excellence, yet their admission to prestigious U.S. universities is 30% lower than that of white students (Espenshade, Chung, & Walling 2004). African American students are also underrepresented at prestigious universities because of the racial wealth gap, educational inequality, and lack of cultural capital, which harm their admission chances. As a result of these inequalities, white people – who are overrepresented at prestigious universities – benefit from pedigree bias. Because racial injustice gives white people educational advantages in elementary school, high school, and college, they’re more likely to get tenure-track jobs, even if they’re not the best candidates by objective measures.
De Cruz says that the prestige of top-tier journals, which publish mainly on LEMMING sub-disciplines, results in a testimonial “smothering” and “silencing” of non-standard philosophical positions, because these positions appear less often in prestigious journals (‘silencing’), and because people who specialize in non-LEMMING subjects submit only half as often to top-5 journals (‘smothering’) (24). When philosophers don’t meet their publishing goals, they may “try to compensate for this by changing their topics of work to fit more prestigious fields” (22) (more ‘smothering’). Women in philosophy are also epistemically marginalized because they earn less than men, are underrepresented at prestigious universities, and, as a result, “may have less access to institutional funding” (26).
De Cruz doesn’t connect pedigree bias to the gender/racial schema hypothesis, but I’ve already indicated how they might be related. If pedigree bias is connected with field-specific ability belief about men’s philosophical talents, then implicit bias is a factor in pedigree bias. This is actually the dominant explanation of FSAB, viz., that FSAB interacts with gender bias to produce overt discrimination against women. As Myer, Cinpian, and Leslie explain the phenomenon, FSAB, “in combination with the stereotypes against women’s intellectual abilities… lead a variety of individuals (parents, teachers, peers, etc.) to see women as somewhat unsuited for ‘brilliance-required’ domains” (2015). If FSAB were gender-neutral, it wouldn’t motivate people to favour men. Cinpiani and Leslie say that “the same logic extends to race: our country has a long history of portraying African Americans as intellectually inferior, which is particularly likely to affect their participation in a field that focuses so single-mindedly on the quality of one’s intellect” (2017: 63). One can’t ignore that FSAB has gender and racial dimensions. Thus, it has what Fricker calls “ethically noxious” content – biased attitudes toward minorities. Pedigree bias is typically justified on the basis that the selected candidate is the better choice, regardless of any supporting evidence, and often in spite of evidence to the contrary – in other words, on the basis of a discipline-specific ability belief about the candidate. This is a species of FSAB, which is activated or partly constituted by implicit bias.
These considerations imply that hiring decisions in philosophy tend to be instances of testimonial injustice – interactions that epistemically marginalize women and racialized minorities. Implicit biases are so robust that even people who know they are pervasive in the field still hold them (albeit under a false representation of them as reliable heuristics). These biases have a number of downstream epistemic consequences, such as epistemically smothering and silencing minorities who work in philosophy, who must choose between specializing in a marginalized field, or being marginalized in a valued one.
De Cruz offers a number of solutions for minimizing pedigree bias, including citing more philosophers, especially philosophers from underrepresented fields; citing more publications from less prestigious journals; and ranking job candidates on the basis of non-pedigree-related criteria. These strategies could help to establish the hermeneutical background that I have described as essential to the reduction of critical injustice in philosophy. We need to take steps at all levels of the profession (and, ideally, outside of the profession as well) to limit the role of epistemic injustice in philosophy. More than individual tokens of good will, we need institutional change to promote critical justice in the field.
*All subsequent citations of De Cruz refer to this forthcoming paper.