Philosophy Tag

In our last round of Philosophy Tag,  Eric Beerbohm (Harvard) tagged Miranda Fricker (Sheffield) for her essay “Silence and Institutional Prejudice.” Professor Fricker (who has been busy elsewhere in the philosoblogosphere this week) has now broken her silence on who she has tagged. Let’s see who it is.

I was recently working on issues of our epistemic responsibility for prejudiced thinking, and this gave me occasion to read a fabulous recent paper by Sarah-Jane Leslie–‘The Original Sin of Cognition: Fear, Prejudice and Generalization‘ (forthcoming in Journal of Philosophy). In it she offers a rich discussion of a particular kind of negative stereotyping, namely the kind that involves generalising morally horrifying behaviour (such as terrorist violence) from a small number of individuals to a whole group. The key idea I found so helpful is the idea that this is an epistemically and metaphysically bad version of a style of respectable generalisation which she calls ‘striking property’ generalisation, where ‘striking’ indicates danger or risk of harm. (One of her examples is ‘Mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus’ where in fact less than 1% of them do.) Such generalisations are normally read as true; whereas a statistically similar generalisation of the first kind, such as ‘Muslims are terrorists’ is manifestly not true. How is the first true and the second false? Because the first is implicitly dependent on an epistemically and metaphysically respectable presumption of a shared essence among mosquitoes (their capacity to carry disease given half a chance) while there is clearly no such shared essence among Muslims or any social group. Great diagnosis. Thanks for a terrific paper Sarah-Jane Leslie!–and now you’re it!
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Buck Field
9 years ago

I would assert the “truth” of an everyday language statement depends on how closely our interpretation matches reality, enables predictions, or [insert your favorite ‘good science’ criteria here].

“American Samoans are obese” is true in the sense that they have the highest rate of clinical obesity AND when it is interpreted it to mean something relatively close to that.

The contrary view that “respectability” of a claim matters seems misguided. Adding an assertion of mysterious “presumption of essence” for which there is no evidence strikes this reader as highly biased, and ad hoc “creative” writing.

Why would “shared essence” criteria apply to statements about people and/or beliefs, but not insects?

Bharath Vallabha
9 years ago

Leslie’s essay is interesting. Though it seems to me an example of taking some common sense ideas and restating them in cognitive psychology terms and thereby giving the impression of getting to a deeper level of explanation of folk psychological behavior. By “common sense” I don’t mean obvious or uninteresting. I mean that these ideas are available to us, through social justice projects more directly, without the apparatus of discovering something about our cognitive architecture.

The kind of point I am raising is familiar from debates between Wittgensteinians and non-Wittgensteinians, say between Hacker and Fodor. But this issue becomes more practical when, as in Leslie’s essay, the purported explanation in terms of cognitive psychology is meant to be in the service of social justice, as if the scientific standing of cognitive science is being put to the use of social justice. However, all the cognitive science vaneer can actually be a hinderance to social progress. Because the cognitive science talk is an easy, and misleading, way to adopt a stance of objectivity and neutrality. But if the structures of academia, and by extension those of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, are themselves problematic, then assuming a stance of a view from nowhere only helps to cover over the problematic structures.

What Leslie says in the essay is important, and I think, right. But I am not sure it requires all the cognitive psychology framework within which the points are made. In fact, to make that framework essential for the points being made disempowers the everyday people fighting for justice, since the points are packaged in a lingo which most people cannot understand or evaluate.

Bharath Vallabha
9 years ago

An addition to my comment above. My family is Hindu, and I have heard some family members says things like, “Muslims are murderers.” Sometimes it is a knee-jerk thoughtless comment, at other times it is based on personal pain (as when some members of a distant extended family were killed in riots). Obviously that doesn’t excuse the comment, or make it true. Like a good cosmopolitan, I have had plenty of conversations saying things like, “But that is not true of all Muslims…” Call these “ordinary conversations”.

What I find misleading about Leslie’s essay is that it is written as if it is meant to somehow help in ordinary conversations. But I have no idea how to use, or refer to, Leslie’s essay in the midst of an ordinary conversation. If a family member says “Muslims are murderers”, should I say: “Well, actually, the latest research shows what you are saying is a kind of attribution error?” That is not a helpful move in the conversation; it basically ends it, with the family member looking at me like I am a snob. And I feel like a snob, because I have used my grasp of cognitive psychology as a trump card in a morally loaded, and emotionally charged, conversation. But if Leslie’s essay isn’t meant to help with ordinary conversations, how is it helping practically? Perhaps it doesn’t have to help practically; that is a whole other debate. But the essay reads as if it is filled with imminent practical potential.

There are two ways to think of what Leslie is doing in the essay. One is that she is using her expertise as a cognitive scientist to make the kind of claims ordinary people can’t. The other is that she is making just the kind of claims ordinary people can, but she is doing it with the apparatus of a journal article, and using that to get the point heard from the pulpit of academia. I think what is happening is the second. It is well-intentioned, but deeply counter-productive: as if a point that any one of the public can make has a special authority when a philosopher of mind makes it. For the sake of the philosopher of mind feeling better about herself and feeling that they are contributing to social isssues, the realm of ordinary public discourse is getting emaciated. I don’t mean to be focus on Leslie. It strikes me as a pervasive problem in how philosophy, in the name of being more empirical minded, is actually hindering its primary locus of activity: the ordinary conversation.

Buck Field
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
9 years ago

Excellent post – Thanks!