Nonviolence, Ideal Theory, and Epistemic Injustice

Jacob Levy has a great post up at Bleeding Heart Libertarians – Folk ideal theory in action (with thanks to Daily Nous for bringing it to my attention) – which made me want to say something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Earlier, we posted Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on nonviolence as compliance; as human beings, and many of us, American citizens, the issues Coates raises are of general interest, but there are important philosophical questions, I think, we should be asking ourselves now too. I know some philosophers bristle at the thought that our academic work should be constrained by such things as goals of social justice —  but set that aside. Shouldn’t the modes of thinking we encourage at least not make things worse?

It seems to me, following Charles Mills, that ideal-theory approaches entrench substantial epistemic hindrances for theorizing justice. While we can attempt to engage in thought experiment, e.g., regarding what we might agree to behind a veil of ignorance if we knew nothing about our own social identity, we cannot engage in that thought experiment without thereby deploying a conceptual framework which is, itself, deeply shaped by our existing, non-ideal, social circumstances.  Taking Rawls’ for example, by choosing to set the non-ideal to the side until an account of the ideal can be developed, Rawls cut himself off from the means by which we might check the profound impact of inequality and injustice on our very form of thought. An ideal-theory approach to justice is not problematic merely because it is structured in such a way as to fail to offer sufficient guidance in a non-ideal world, but also because it obscures, and consequently risks transmitting the consequences of, that some of our very concepts have been shaped in ways that implicate matters of justice in the first place. There is a distinctive form of conceptual epistemic injustice which ideal theory is disposed to inherit, and engagement with the non-ideal is requisite for correction.

When I say that there is a distinctive form of conceptual epistemic injustice, I do not mean just hermeneutical injustice, as Miranda Fricker discusses (though, that’s relevant too), where we may lack some concept because the social group which could develop it lacks the social power or organization to do so. I mean instead that we have concepts which we take to have normative force – like nonviolence as an ideal (or ‘genius‘, or ‘atonement‘) – and these concepts may be perfectly worthy in some sense (that is, the sense in which mean for that concept to aim at), but in actuality they can be perverse, both ethically and epistemically. Note: It is not that I think nonviolence is in anyway perverse itself, and I do not mean that I advocate in any way for violence. What I do mean, though, is that our concept of nonviolence is confused. When embedded in our broader social-conceptual framework, nonviolence becomes something that is expected of those who are subjected to oppression, and violence against them as enacted by certain dominant social groups, or certain forms of the state, fails to be recognized as violence at all. It’s that moment when someone tells you in the span of just a few breaths that yet another death of a black man at the hands of police is an unfortunate event, but that they are saddened, or even heartbroken, by the destructive protests which followed. Violence against persons of color is conceptualized as unfortunate, whereas the destruction of property is conceptualized as violent. The concept of nonviolence is socially limited so as to be unequal in its application.

As Angela Davis said once in an interview:

If you’re a Black person and you live in the Black community, all your life, you walk out on the street every day, seeing white policeman surrounding you. When I was living in Los Angeles, for instance…I was constantly stopped. The police didn’t know who I was, but I was a Black woman, and I had a natural, and I suppose they thought that I might be a “militant”…

You live under that situation constantly, and then you ask me whether I approve of violence. I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense at all.

Whether I approve of guns? I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs–bombs that were planted by racists…From the time I was very, very small, I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street, our house shaking. I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times because of the fact that at any moment, we might expect to be attacked . . .

In fact, when [one] bombing occurred, one of the mothers of one of the young girls called my mother and said, “Can you take me down to the church? I have to pick up Carole, we heard about the bombing, and I don’t have my car.”

And they went down there, and what did they find? They found limbs and heads strewn all over the place. And then after that, in my neighborhood, all of the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and control our community every night because they did not want that to happen again.

I mean, that’s why when someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what Black people have gone through–what Black people have experienced in this country since the time the first Black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.

9 thoughts on “Nonviolence, Ideal Theory, and Epistemic Injustice

  1. A great post.

    One thing I find confounding though, about Coates’ piece and to a lesser extent yours, is the treatment of non-violence as some universal principle guiding action. Surely, those public figures, in government or elsewhere, aren’t endorsing non-violence full stop. And not non-violence in the face of oppression. They were concerned primarily with the kind of violence going on in Baltimore – which wasn’t directed at oppressors or the system, but was pretty random in its target. And this threatened innocent people (and their stuff).

    Rejecting that kind of violent response isn’t rejecting the idea that violence done by the state deserves a violent response.

  2. Regarding: “Rawls cut himself off from the means by which we might check the profound impact of inequality and injustice on our very form of thought. … There is a distinctive form of conceptual epistemic injustice which ideal theory is disposed to inherit, and engagement with the non-ideal is requisite for correction.”

    But doesn’t the method of reflective equilibrium require extensive “engagement with the non-ideal”? That is, Rawls never thought that simply identifying a conception of justice via the original position was all there was to our critical reflection on justice. Rather, we have to ‘test’ that conception via reflective equilibrium. And if we discover that the way in which we have formulated the original position is flawed, or even perpetuates (some forms of) injustice, then we should go back to the drawing board and revise the original position, or perhaps adopt some other philosophical device for thinking about justice.

  3. I’m trying to figure out if your critique of ideal theory is the same as Jacob Levy’s or not. It seemed to me that the target of his attack wasn’t ideal theory as such, but non-ideal theory that makes too much use of ideal theory, i.e. by assuming that the real world is closer to the idea than it actually is. I didn’t take that to be an objection to ideal theory as such, more of a condemnation of bad non-ideal theory.

    In the second paragraph of your post, however, it seemed to me that you were saying something different, mounting a skeptical argument about the possibility of ideal theory itself. I took “An ideal-theory approach to justice … obscures … that some of our very concepts have been shaped in ways that implicate matters of justice in the first place” to mean something like, we should perhaps not engage in ideal theory at all because the concepts that we would use to think about it are shaped in non-ideal conditions, and this will cause our attempts at ideal theorizing to fall short. I think Lisa Schwartzman makes something like this critique in Challenging Liberalism. But then at the end of the post it sounds to me like the objection to the use of the language of non-violence is based on something more like Levy’s point, and the Davis quote seems to me to be in the same vein. Both critiques seem probably valid to me, but I think they’re independent,

  4. Blain, this is point that others have criticized Rawls on, and, I think, have attempted to expand on his work–when Rawls wrote that reflective equilibrium works through the original position, some have taken that to mean (and I think, justifiedly) that his method of reflective equilibrium is too weak to do the necessary work.

  5. Paul — I didn’t take myself to be saying the same thing as Levy, I just think the two critiques may be related in certain ways, and one particular way is the relationship between ideals and our epistemic practice, though this relationship can manifest in either ideal or non-ideal theory (as Mills has pointed out, non-ideal theory still employs ideals).

  6. ajkreider, right, I know that many politicians are not advocating (directly) nonviolence full-stop, and they are responding to a particular instance of political unrest, but I take it that when and where calls to nonviolence are employed are not still says something about the way we (really, I mean many of us, not all of us) conceptualize nonviolence. Why is it that protests like those in Baltimore and instances of state violence consistently receive such disparate responses?

  7. Philodaria, I think that Rawls is clear that the original position is a construction/device that we can use for thinking about justice that is itself justified via reflective equilibrium (i.e., it is reflective equilibrium that is the ultimate justificatory framework). As for the method of “reflective equilibrium” being “too weak to do the necessary work,” what alternative form of justification would be up to the job?

    More generally, I am unimpressed with Mills’ criticism of ideal theory (which seems to rest on a caricature of it). I find Tommie Shelby’s reply to Mills decisive (T. Shelby (2013) “Racial Realities and Corrective Justice: A Reply to Charles Mills,” Critical Philosophy of Race (1), pp. 146-162).

  8. Super quickly because I have to run to a seminar and only have about a minute–yes, I’d read Shelby’s paper; I think it’s great, I’m just not convinced by it. I really don’t think Mills’ is offering a caricature of ideal theory, but more on that later. I think one way of thinking about the difference is order of operations, and I think order of operations here matters. It’s not that any non-ideal theorist (that I know of) is arguing we can do without ideals, or without considering abstractions, but that starting from the ideal is problematic. One thing I’m trying to say here is that starting with the ideal will leave us, like Neurath said, “. . . like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom,” and in the process we may be disposed to mistake the ways in which our concepts (and broader epistemic framework) have been corrupted by our non-ideal social circumstances for their appropriate boundaries, and that by bringing particular cases of injustice to the fore, we will be better positioned to theorize about justice itself.

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