Epistemic injustice is a specific form of injustice ‘done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower’ (Fricker, 2007, p. 1). In other words, it is an injustice that harms people’s ability to know things and be seen by others to know things. Epistemic injustice is, at base, an issue of social power. Epistemic injustice is thus both an ethical (i.e. relating to right and wrong) and an epistemic (i.e. relating to knowledge) issue.
A Case of Epistemic Injustice: Gaslight
The 1944 film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten, tells the story of a man (Gregory Anton) who slowly convinces his wife (Paula Alquist) that she is going insane in the hopes of having her institutionalized. The reason he does this is to cover up the fact that Gregory is, in reality, Sergis Bauer, Paula’s aunt’s murderer.
Gregory convinces Paula to move with him to Paula’s deceased aunt’s house so that he can steal the valuable jewels that motivated him to kill Paula’s aunt. In order to cover up his search for the jewels, he sets about convincing Paula she is insane. When Paula notices the gaslight’s flickering, Gregory tells her he can’t see it, and that she must be imagining it. When Paula hears Gregory sneaking around in the attic, he also claims she must be imagining it. Over time Gregory escalates his campaign, isolating Paula from her friends, accusing her of forgetting things, and of being a kleptomaniac.
Gregory almost succeeds in convincing Paula that she is insane and incapable of understanding reality, completely eroding her ability to think clearly. Like in all good movies, however, the baddie fails. Our heroine Paula is saved from Gregory’s plan by a chance encounter with a police officer she knew from childhood, who helps her uncover Gregory’s ruse and arrest him.
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Although the term hadn’t yet been coined at the time, Gaslight tells a tale of epistemic injustice. Gregory’s actions aim to destroy Paula’s confidence in what she sees, what she infers, and what she remembers. Had Gregory succeeded in gaslighting Paula, he would have managed to destroy Paula’s confidence in her own abilities. Had he succeeded in institutionalizing Paula, he would have also managed to erode other people’s confidence in her abilities too.
What Is Epistemic Injustice?
The term epistemic injustice was coined by Miranda Fricker’s 2007 book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, although, as the plot of Gaslight shows, the concept of epistemic injustice has been around for longer.
In her 2007 book, Miranda Fricker describes two types of epistemic injustice: Testimonial injustice, and Hermeneutic Injustice.
Testimonial injustice occurs when the hearer’s prejudices about a person’s identity (e.g. homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism…) lead them to treat what that person says more skeptically than they would otherwise. For example, someone who is racist might not truly believe a person of color’s description of the prevalence of casual racism and the effects it has for them.
Hermeneutic injustice is more subtle. It occurs when there is a gap in our shared cultural resources (e.g. art, writing, journalism, TV) which puts some people at a disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their lives. To illustrate: if there are no (or few) books about what it is like to be LGBTQ+, or if these books are extremely difficult to access, it will be harder for people who are LGBTQ to make sense of and interpret their experiences. Whereas other people (say heterosexual white males) have easy access to cultural resources that can help them negotiate life, LGBTQ people might have to ‘go at it alone’ so to speak.
Since Fricker’s 2007 book naming the phenomenon, philosophical interest in the phenomenon of epistemic justice has exploded. This has led to an expanding of the taxonomy of epistemic injustice Fricker provides. Alongside the two types of epistemic injustice Fricker identifies, we now have the categories of epistemic exploitation, testimonial betrayal, and epistemic micro-aggressions.
Epistemic exploitation occurs when ‘epistemic labor is coercively extracted from epistemic agents in the service of others’ (Pohlhaus, 2017, p. 22). For example, when those who are already disadvantaged are continually called upon to educate those who are exploiting them about the harms they are inflicting, we have a case of epistemic exploitation.
Testimonial betrayal is a specific type of testimonial injustice which occurs within intimate relationships (Wanderer, 2017, p. 35). The plot of Gaslight is a good example of this. Not only does Gregory unjustly disbelieve Paula, he also betrays the sort of basic trust which ought to exist between partners.
Epistemic microaggressions are brief and commonplace verbal and behavioral indignities, rooted in prejudice, through which one signals someone else’s epistemic inferiority. This might occur, for example, by rolling one’s eyes after someone states something, subtly ridiculing someone’s statements, tutting, or the use of a disbelieving tone.
Why Is Epistemic Injustice Bad?
Now that we have an understanding of what epistemic injustice is, we are in a position to think about why it is wrong. At base, epistemic injustice is wrong because it causes a number of harms to people who suffer it.
First, if someone’s testimony is not believed, there is harm caused to the speaker because they are unable to transfer knowledge. Being seen as a credible source of information is vitally important to our lives. Virtually everything we do as humans involves us relying on each other’s word. If someone is excluded from this social practice, it will be harder for them to achieve any goals which require being believed by others.
Miranda Fricker gives the following example: if women are routinely subject to testimonial injustice in the workplace, they might find it harder to get management positions which require one to be seen as a source of authority and sure judgment (Fricker, 2007, p. 46).
The second harm of epistemic injustice is that people may lose confidence in their own ability to know things. This, in turn, is likely to hinder their ability to achieve their other goals, as most human projects require knowing things and having confidence in one’s abilities (Fricker, 2007, p. 58). Unless one believes in one’s mental faculties, for instance, it will be difficult to know what to think about options that are presented to us, making it harder to choose rationally.
Finally, epistemic injustice can also have political consequences. According to deliberative democrats, political decisions should be the outcome of fair and reasonable discussions amongst citizens. In other words, good democracies don’t only provide opportunities for people to vote; prior to that they also provide ample opportunities and accessible spaces for citizens to engage each other in conversations about what it is best to do. If people’s testimony is not believed, their insights into how we ought to organize society will be overlooked and not included in the wider deliberations, which could potentially lead to worse democratic outcomes.
Finally, there are also a host of practical consequences arising from testimonial injustices. For instance, if a speaker is not believed in a court hearing, they might unjustly lose one’s liberty. Those who aren’t believed, however, aren’t the only victims of injustice. Hearers who don’t believe a speaker’s testimony can be harmed by their failure to believe. This might be the case, for example, if the speaker has important information that might benefit the hearer if acted upon (e.g. an accurate prediction about stock prices or which horse will win the horse race).
Can Epistemic Injustice be Avoided?
Given how severe the harms caused by epistemic injustice, we have good moral reasons to avoid causing it. The question is, how can we avoid epistemic injustice in our dealings with others? The solution to epistemic injustice, Fricker argues, is to cultivate habits of virtuous listening.
Compensating for testimonial injustice will require being sensitive to the unjust prejudices which cause it and seeking to actively correct their influence (Fricker, 2007, p. 6). If, for example, one becomes aware that one might have an unconscious bias towards people of different races, one would aim to be more charitable than they otherwise would be to try and mitigate the impact of the bias.
To correct for hermeneutic injustice, one would need to do something similar. To be hermeneutically virtuous, one needs to cultivate a habit of ‘reflexive critical sensitivity to any reduced intelligibility incurred by the speaker owing to a gap in collective hermeneutic resources.’ (p. 7) In other words, the virtuous hearer will ‘be reflexively aware of how the relation between his social identity and that of the speaker is impacting on the intelligibility to him of what she is saying’ (Fricker, 2007, p. 169).
These individual actions, however, will only go so far. Completely eradicating epistemic injustice will likely require doing away with unjust prejudices about groups of people completely. So long as prejudices circulate freely, people will acquire conscious and unconscious biases during their upbringing which they will then need to spend time and effort actively compensating for in later life. Epistemic virtues, therefore, only serve to correct for and mitigate injustices that are already occurring.
Although minimizing injustice is a worthwhile goal, this is only because it gets us closer to the real goal of eradicating the prejudices which underlie testimonial injustice entirely. Precisely how to do that, however, is not at all clear. It would likely require significant social change, including intervention in the education system, as well as the promotion of a wider variety of cultural resources which portray people of all walks of life in non-prejudiced or biased ways.
Fricker, Miranda. (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power & The Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Polhaus, Gaile (2017) ‘Varieties of Epistemic Injustice’ in Kidd, Ian James et al (Ed) The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice. Routledge, London.
Wanderer, Jeremy (2017) ‘Varieties of Testimonial Injustice’ in Kidd, Ian James et al (Ed) The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice. Routledge, London.