–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Social Justice Discourse and “Standpoint Epistemology”

by | Apr 26, 2023

My interest here is in the way that Standpoint Epistemology (SE hereafter) is deployed in contemporary moral and political discourse. I am not interested in hypothetical, abstract, idealized treatments of the subject. The effort to develop an idealized form of SE strikes me as a largely harmless activity, but SE as it is deployed in contemporary discourse has contributed to making the public conversation on matters of social welfare and justice polarized and hostile, at a time when we are already polarized and hostile enough.

In order to discuss SE, we require a working account of it, and I think the following from Rebecca Kukla, is both widely accepted among theorists and accurate with respect to how SE is commonly used in public social justice discourse.  

Most standpoint theorists have insisted upon two … claims: (1) that some contingent features of knowers can give them not only different but better, more objective knowledge than others have, and (2) that social positions of marginalization and structural disadvantage, such as those inhabited by women, African-Americans, or the working class, yield epistemological advantages, giving those who occupy them the potential to see truths that are inaccessible from the point of view of the dominant center.

Much of the academic standpoint literature has been concerned with philosophical questions surrounding “subjectivity” and “objectivity” and how we should understand SE with regard to them. This is not my concern. Rather, my interest is in whether the various, commonly identified “standpoints” epistemically advantage members of the relevant “marginalized” groups over those who belong to the relevant “dominant” groups, such that the former should be privileged over the latter in social justice conversations.

As the quote from Kukla indicates, SE alleges that “social positions of marginalization and structural disadvantage … yield epistemological advantages,” and this is used as a basis to privilege members of these groups and discredit members of the “dominant” groups in conversations about social justice; the idea being that the oppressed are in a better position to understand their oppression and its implications than are those belonging to the relevant dominant group.  

Notice that this is not an empirical question that could be settled by sufficiently rigorous social scientific investigations, as matters of justice – whether a practice or a state of affairs is right or wrong, fair or unfair, etc. – are not empirical matters. And from an intuitive or logical standpoint, the claim is dubious and the corresponding discursive promotions and demotions unwarranted. After all, why should we think a member of an oppressed group is more qualified to speak on relevant questions of justice than a member of the corresponding non-oppressed, dominant group? The idea is supposed to be that the fact that the latter benefits from the situation compromises or otherwise distorts his or her perception of what is just and unjust with regard to it, but it strikes me as equally credible that the fact that the former suffers from it comparably compromises/distorts his or her perceptions. After all, there is no reason to think that resentment is less distorting than appreciation, and I could easily imagine an argument to the effect that it is more so.

So, imagine some question of social justice and imagine that there is a clearly identifiable group on the “oppressed side of it” and a clearly identifiable group on the “privileged” side of it. Would it not be reasonable to suggest that the person with the clearest view of it will be someone who belongs to neither group? If we are concerned with the distorting impact affected by resenting or appreciating things, then won’t the most accurate judge be the person who does neither? 

On another, though related front, I see no reason to think that whatever expertise is supposed to accrue from one’s “standpoint” would ever override or even measure up to that which is acquired in the more ordinary manner. That is, I see no reason to think that a Jewish person, by virtue of his standpoint, needs to have any better – or even equivalent – understanding of anti-Semitism than a credentialed sociologist or anthropologist, whose education and research is on anti-Semitism, regardless of the latter’s religious or ethnic identity. And I would maintain that the same point applies to two equally credentialed sociologists or anthropologists, one of whom is Jewish and the other who is not.

I also am inclined to think that standpoints, as conceived by SE, have no determinate valence. The relevant groups are too large and too heterogeneous when it comes to the attitudes and values of their members for it to be credible that mere membership will ensure or even suggest common judgments on matters of social justice.  

As a matter of fact, those who employ SE for the purpose of gaming disputes over questions of social justice are not inclined to grant epistemic and discursive privilege to people simply by virtue of their occupying a certain standpoint. When an SE enthusiast says that “black people’s voices should be centered in discussions of racism” he doesn’t mean the voices of Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, Shelby Steele, Clarence Thomas, and other black, conservatives, but rather  the voices of Ibram Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones and the like. So, it’s not occupying a certain standpoint that SE enthusiasts believe should determine whose voices should be centered and whose should be subordinated, but rather, whether the voices in question concur with what the SE enthusiast already thinks regarding the question at hand. SE, as commonly practiced, is little more than a thinly veiled exercise in partisanship.

Epistemology – the study of knowledge and in particular, warrant – is an important subject, regardless of the times, as the question of what are good and bad reasons for believing (and doing) things has significance for virtually everything we do. But it is especially important in today’s environment, which is characterized by: polarization; loss of faith in institutions and particularly, those that confer or otherwise involve expertise and/or authority; widespread, social-media driven retreat into informational and editorial echo chambers; and a constant drumbeat encouraging us to seek solidarity within our own racial, ethnic, religious, and other such groups, while viewing those outside of them with suspicion and even outright hostility. And one finds a version of this within every political orientation.  

If ever there was a time, then, when the ideas common to every rudimentary critical thinking course was needed, it is today. If you want to find the good reasons for believing and acting in a certain way and avoid the bad reasons, beware the distorting influence of your own perspective, whatever “social position” it involves. Eschew motivated reasoning. When engaged in inquiry, to the extent that you can, effect an appropriate degree of disinterest. Seek out contrary views, especially when the question at hand is one in which you have a significant investment. Steelman, rather than strawman your opponents. Follow the arguments and the evidence wherever they may lead. 

The last thing we need is to be told that our viewpoint is privileged or beyond criticism or that we enjoy special insight or that our opponents suffer some sort of endemic ignorance and that it is all in virtue of whatever so-called “standpoints” we and they allegedly occupy.