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.

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