Some thoughts on epistemic responsibility

[Trigger warning for discussion of assault]

Throughout my time as a philosopher, I’ve heard quite a bit of talk regarding ‘epistemic responsibility’ when it comes to discrimination, harassment, and assault. I’ve heard it much more frequently over the last few weeks, and so I feel compelled to say a few words about it. As it happens, I think I have a very different view of the nature of epistemic justification and the conditions under which agents can be said to have it than those who bring up epistemic responsibility in these sorts of conversations, but I want to address a slightly different question: What does moral responsibility require of us when allegations of discrimination, harassment, or assault are made? To be clear, what follows is not an endorsement of a presumption of guilt—rather, it’s an endorsement of action, sympathy, and compassion in the absence of certainty. It seems to me that too often appeals to ‘epistemic responsibility’ justify inaction, undermine progress, and enable serious wrongs.

When discrimination, inequity, and violence are carried out by intentional agents and effectively enabled by the communities in which they occur, withholding all judgment for the sake of epistemic responsibility and withholding all action on account of epistemic reasons will very often quite rightly lead to feelings of further alienation in the victim. If, for example, upon becoming familiar with a report of sexual assault, racial discrimination, or a violent hate-crime, you are not passionately moved, that unaffected reaction cannot help but communicate that there is real sense in which you either do not understand the plight before you, or you do not care. In some circumstances (note: I do mean some), this can be more harmful to a victim than the original offense. A certain amount of stupidity and evil in the world are to be expected. What is generally not expected is for good people to stand witness to severe injury and fail to be demonstrably aggrieved by it (note, here, the aptness of ‘injury’ need not entail that the content of any particular allegation is certainly true, or even true). The unexpected nature of this response often makes the hurt which follows more difficult to deal with. It can communicate indifference, it can normalize suffering, and it can steal away hope.

I do not deny that epistemic responsibility is a great good; but when our epistemic practices prevent us from responding to injury altogether, we are in the neighborhood of vice rather than virtue.

I have experienced attempted rape. Surely I would feel differently had my attacker been successful, but for me, what was most traumatizing was not the assault but rather what happened next. It was in a public park. I was able to get away. I ran to a man reading on a bench and told him what happened. He saw I was being followed. He offered to sit with me until it looked like it would be safe to walk home. But that was all he did (and I do mean that was all: he did not offer to take me to the police, to call any one, etc., and it didn’t occur to me to ask for those things). I sat with him for two hours on that bench in silence. In retrospect, I’m sure he just didn’t know what to do and didn’t know what to say—but in those two hours, and in some months that followed, I felt like what happened must not really matter because it didn’t seem to matter much to him. I thought that I was being silly for feeling angry, violated, and scared. In those later moments where I didn’t doubt myself, I doubted the world at large—the capacity of my fellow humans to do right, to be even minimally decent.

I don’t ever want to be the man on that bench to someone else, whether I think I know what happened or not.

SWIP.NL symposium

SWIP.NLThe Dutch branch of the Society for Women in Philosophy, SWIP.NL, is organising their first symposium on April 11, 2014.

The theme of the event is “Does philosophy have a future and if so, what is the role of women in it?“.  That is definitely something I want to know!

The event is hosted at the Free University in Amsterdam, and the language is Dutch. You can find more information here (in Dutch).


UPDATE: A commenter has pointed out that the extracts I posted are misleading. This is not yet law, and may not become law.


The law empowers any individual or business to refuse to interact with, do business with, or in any way come into contact with anyone who may have some connection to a gay civil union, or civil marriage or … well any “similar arrangement” (room-mates?). It gives the full backing of the law to any restaurant or bar-owner who puts up a sign that says “No Gays Served”. It empowers employees of the state government to refuse to interact with gay citizens as a group. Its scope is vast: it allows anyone to refuse to provide “services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits” to anyone suspected of being complicit in celebrating or enabling the commitment of any kind of a gay couple.

But as Sullivan suggests it’s likely to backfire:

It’s a misstep because it so clearly casts the anti-gay movement as the heirs to Jim Crow. If you want to taint the Republican right as nasty bigots who would do to gays today what Southerners did to segregated African-Americans in the past, you’ve now got a text-book case. The incidents of discrimination will surely follow, and, under the law, be seen to have impunity. Someone will be denied a seat at a lunch counter. The next day, dozens of customers will replace him. The state will have to enforce the owner’s right to refuse service. You can imagine the scenes. Or someone will be fired for marrying the person they love. The next day, his neighbors and friends will rally around.

Reader query: success rates for women and minorities

I’ve had the following query from a reader.

This is just a request for some information (if you happen to have it, or know someone who might) regarding whether it’s in fact easier for women and minorities to get jobs in philosophy in the current climate.

There is a lot of negative energy in philosophy at the moment (as you know), and one thing that occurs quite frequently is what I call the taking away of credit from women and minorities for their successes on the job market. It takes the form of faculty members and graduate students saying “So-and-so only got that job because she’s a woman/minority”. Because this kind of attitude is so pervasive and so harmful (because it devalues women/minorities), one perhaps easy thing to do to combat it would be to make some stats available to the relevant people/departments. I’ve been trying to collect the relevant information, but it’s a slow and tedious process. I was thus wondering whether you might have some of this information already.

Please do respond if you’ve got the stats! But I’d say also respond if you have thoughts about other ways of dealing with such claims. I have suggested citing implicit bias as good evidence that things won’t be easier for women and minorities.

NW Case Raises Title IX Issues

The discussion here suggests that there are particular issues raised by the fact that the behaviour cited took place
off-campus. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go into much detail about the issues raised, or how the university could make a finding of such misconduct despite the behaviour being “outside its jurisdiction”. So I find the reporting on the legal issues very confusing.

The lawsuit says NU’s sexual harassment and prevention director emailed the university’s findings to the plaintiff on or about April 11, 2012: “In particular, Ms. Slavin found that Ludlow initiated kissing, French kissing, rubbing Plaintiff’s back, and sleeping with his arms on and around Plaintiff on the night of February 10-11, 2012.”

In the lawsuit, the plaintiff seeks compensatory damages, plus interest, attorney fees, punitive damages, costs associated with litigation, and any other relief the court deems appropriate.

The 2012 alleged incident occurred at a series of bars, art exhibitions and Ludlow’s apartment, according to the lawsuit, where the student, then under-aged, says she was forced to drink alcohol. She also says Ludlow acted inappropriately.

All the locations were off-campus and outside university jurisdiction, however.

Raphael said this case represents a national issue.

“This is a problem in many schools and universities in the country; this not just Northwestern,” Raphael said. Title IX “is trying to train schools to follow the complaints, but they move slowly … It’s a cultural issue; you see it in the Catholic Church, see it as closing of the doors, protecting itself, dragging its feet in terms of dealing with sexual assaulters.”

(Many thanks to Jackie Taylor both for supplying the link, and for noticing that I forgot to include it.)

Reader query: Reviewing all male book

A (male, tenured) reader writes:

I have to review a book that came out in 2013. It contains 14 essays, with 15 authors (as one is co-authored). I agreed to do it without considering the makeup of the authors. Now I see that all the authors are men.

I’m looking for some advice on how to mention the gender makeup of the volume. My gut instinct to say something snarky. But snark can be a mistake.

I’m tenured and willing to take hostile responses from just about anyone. So I don’t have to worry about how it will effect me.

Thanks for any advice you can supply!