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Is Reserving Judgement Virtue Enough?

December 21, 2010

Is Reserving Judgement Virtue Enough?

In her work, Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker outlines several interesting concepts and questions relating to both epistemology and ethics. The two most important concepts Fricker introduces are the ideas of testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice. These concepts attempt to address the way our social structures influence a person’s testimony and hermeneutical resources. One such case Fricker discusses is taken from the movie, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which Herbert Greenleaf, a social elite, dismisses the claims of his son’s fiancée, Marge, calling them just ’feminine intuition.’ Towards the end of her work, Fricker mentions that had Mr. Greenleaf “might have sensed the alienness of to him as a man of her intuitive style as a woman and reserved his judgement. This might have been virtue enough.”[1] I believe that had he reserved judgement, he would not have acted in a virtuous manner for reasons which will be outlined later.

Fricker uses two different concepts to show the kind of injustices in which Marge experiences at the hands of Mr. Greenleaf. These injustices are testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice. Testimonial injustice occurs when “someone is wronged specifically in her capacity as a knower.”[2] Fricker says that these kinds of injustices come from a credibility gap which separates someone’s actual ability from what society sees them as capable of doing. These gaps can work both ways, with someone gaining more credibility then they deserve, for example because of their accent, or maybe because of their position in society. The example Fricker uses to illustrate testimonial injustice in action is an example taking from How to Kill a Mocking Bird,  in which a jury composed of white people from the southern United States do not believe the testimony of Tom Robinson. Even with the facts laid out in front of them “leads at once to a gross epistemic failure and an appalling ethical failure of grave practical consequences.”[3]

Fricker goes on to identify the primary and secondary harms of testimonial injustice, just as she will do for hermeneutical injustice later. The primary harm of testimonial injustice is that “to be wronged in one’s capacity as a knower is to be wronged in a capacity essential to human value. When one is undermined or otherwise wronged in a capacity essential to human value, one suffers an intrinsic injustice.”[4] The secondary harm is a range of things that follow from the primary harm. Fricker gives the example of someone found guilty being given a fine. Another example is a minority being denied a job because of their race, then being accused of being a welfare leech.

Hermeneutical injustice, which is arguably worse then testimonial injustice, is defined in two ways by Fricker.  The first definition, for structural hermeneutical injustice, is “the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owning to a structural identity prejudice in the collective hermeneutic resource.”[5] Fricker defines a structural identity prejudice to be any prejudice against someone in virtue of their being in a socially powerless group. This is the kind of hermeneutical injustice that Fricker is most concerned with. She addresses incidental or generic hermeneutical, which she defines as “the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owing to hermeneutical marginalization.”[6] Hermeneutical injustice also has greater harms then the ones associated with testimonial injustice due to the way in which hermeneutical injustice so often has a structural form which makes it very difficult to escape.

The primary harm of structural hermeneutical injustice is the way in which it “concerns exclusion from the pooling of knowledge owing to structural identity prejudice in the collective hermeneutical resource.”[7] This greatly inhibits the ability of the subject to articulate in an intelligible way her experiences. Fricker also mentions the secondary harm of hermeneutical injustice which is “those harms which render the collective hermeneutical impoverishment asymmetrically disadvantageous to the wronged party.”[8] These two harms, primary and secondary, come together to seriously damage the way one constructs their own identity and how they view their ‘self’. Take Edmund White’s example from A Boys Own Story. White, who was homosexual while growing up in the 1950s, experienced a stereotype of what a homosexual was, which was not how White viewed himself. His attempts at articulating her experience to others is dismissed, and not given the adequate evaluation it is due. The other thing which often plays a feature in hermeneutical injustice is the fact that it is based upon systematic discrimination means that hermeneutical injustice is often accompanied by testimonial injustice. The two combined together definitely to be wronged in their capacity to be considered fully human.

In order to help solve the problem of hermeneutical and testimonial injustice, Fricker introduces a virtue theory of morality, centering around what she calls the virtue of epistemic justice. In her book, Fricker describes the virtue of epistemic justice as

“alertness or sensitivity to the possibility that the difficulty one’s interlocutor is having as she tries to render something communicatively intelligible is due not to its being a nonsense or her being a fool but rather to some sort of  gap in the collective hermeneutical resources.”[9]

The virtue of epistemic justice is something which must for the most part be consciously applied in our actions until it becomes a natural reflex. Writing in response to other philosophers views on he book, Fricker clarifies what exactly  her virtue would entail. Fricker says that “(a) notice that we are in a situation in which the credibility we spontaneously give the speaker is likely to be deflated by prejudice.” [10] and “(b) correct for any such deflation, either pre-emptively or after the fact of initial judgement, or, indeed, by suspending judgement in some measure.”[11] These two actions together are meant to identify when testimonial and hermeneutical injustice takes place and then to act or correct for the initial credibility deficit which led to the injustice in the first place. Without being able to identify testimonial or hermeneutical injustice, one would not be able to correct for the actions which lead to the primary and secondary harms mentioned previously.

Before turning to a closer look at the Marge and Mr. Greenleaf, it would be worthwhile to look at some of the criticisms and comments Fricker received from Linda Alcoff and Christopher Hookway. Alcoff is particular brings up a very important question which is central to the last chapter of Fricker’s book, as well as getting to the heart of the virtue of epistemic justice. Alcoff asks about the way identity works in conjunction with testimonial injustice. Alcoff says that the drive of Fricker’s notion of justice is the aim of neutrality or “the aim of becoming inured to either unearned privilege or undeserved demerit, where one might learn to correctly and fairly assess when identity is truly relevant … and to ignore it in all other cases.”[12] This is one half of the virtue of epistemic justice, but what concerns Alcoff is questions around the idea of ones social standpoint. She says “But what if identity is not merely the source of unearned merit or undeserved demerit, but a general epistemic resource…but because one is structurally positioned in society to tend to see what I cannot?”[13] Alcoff is alluding to the idea of standpoint theory like the like advocated by feminist philosophers or others like Charles Mill. Standpoint theory says that different parts of society have a different understanding than those at the top for example. Attached to this question is the idea if our actions in regards to trying to stop epistemic injustice is even something that is actually possible to achieve.

Miranda Fricker takes time to address Alcoff’s criticism, beginning by addressing her main concern, if critical reflection can accomplish the job of detecting prejudice. Fricker starts by saying that although not an easy task, eliminating prejudice is “an easily achievable ideal, my emphasis on critical self-reflection as an effective means of self-regulation for prejudice finds significant support in the empirical literature.”[14] Fricker  cites social psychology papers which show that critical reflection can help us to identify prejudice. Fricker uses the idea of certain cues one can use to be able to detect prejudice when critical reflection is used. Fricker says “For a conscientious person, it may be a matter of catching herself engaged in a stereotyped perception of a speaker, and the cognitive dissonance is between her perception and her own doxastically held standards for good epistemic conduct.”[15] Fricker makes it clear that the first step towards the elimination or neutralization of prejudice must be found in critical reflection.

Christopher Hookway takes a different approach in writing about Fricker’s ideas then Linda Alcoff. Hookway in his paper introduces a wider range of epistemic injustices outside of testimonial and hermeneutical injustices. Hookway begins the descriptions of his wider from of epistemic injustice by saying “My concern is that the resources we make use of in exercising our epistemic agency are richer and more varied than is often supposed.”[16] Hookway is interested in injustices which can be called intrinsically epistemic, yet do not have a testimonial factor associated with them. Hookway offers an initial case of ‘epistemic’ injustice, where a research scientist is unable to finish their research because of a shortage of child care. Hookway says that  this merely because of the way the scientists goals are epistemic in nature. The kind of case that Hookway is getting at is “a poor teacher whose behaviour in dealing with a student can be seen to manifest a kind of epistemic injustice, shaped by a prejudicial use of a stereotype of a student.”[17] In this case, the teacher provides information when the student asks, and when the student says they do not understand something, they are believed. When the student asks a question that is not a question for information, but an attempt to further the debate, then the teacher “makes a presumption of irrelevance and ignores the question or takes things over and construes the question as a request for information that is loosely related to the question asked.”[18] Hookway says this is an epistemic injustice because the student is not treated as a full participant in the dialogue. This allows Hookway to identify a new way to label epistemic injustices. These new labels are participatory, like the teacher example, and the second which is an informational perspective.

In her response, Fricker by affirming her support for what Hookway is doing and says that she had intended for epistemic injustice to be an umbrella category. She does however defend her idea that “testimonial and hermeneutical injustice are basic kinds of epistemic injustice, from which most others (perhaps all others of the discriminatory sort) can been seen to stem; and with testimonial injustice being…the most basic of all.”[19] Fricker says that without drawing the specific contours and colourations of epistemic injustice, that cases which are normally more hidden would be taken just as social injustices as opposed to epistemic injustices. Fricker agrees with Hookway in his description of the teacher and student, agreeing that it is a case of epistemic injustice. Fricker says “I would maintain the value of bringing such cases under the general head of testimonial injustice, on the ground that the basic form of all these variations of the injustice remains prejudicial credibility deficit.”[20] Fricker admits this is stretching the meaning of testimony, but I agree with her characterization. I feel that the division that Hookway uses is not as valuable as Fricker’s, I think it would be worth keeping, just to help best classify different kinds of epistemic injustice.

Now is the time to take a closer look at the case of Marge and Mr. Greenleaf from The Talented Mr Ripley, and to try and answer the question of whether reserving judgement in cases like this is virtue enough. In the movie, Mr Greenleaf plays a wealthy elite with a son in Italy he wants returned. Mr Greenleaf pays Mr Ripley to bring Dickey back from Italy. While in Italy, Ripley befriends Dickey, and eventually murders him and ends up stealing some of his possessions and his identity. Marge, Dickey’s fiancée, feels that the story of Dickey committing suicide has to be false and ends up finding one of Dickey’s rings, which Marge gave him as a gift, in Tom Ripley’s room. When Marge outlines her concerns and what she learned to Mr. Greenleaf he dismisses what she says as being mere female intuition. Marge suffers from testimonial injustice due to the credibility deficit Mr. Greenleaf views her as having.

This case is interesting because it shows how testimonial injustice works, as well as the secondary harms, which see Marge beginning to act ‘hysterical’, which perversely justifies Mr Greenleaf’s initial judgement of Marge having a credibility deficit. One of the things Fricker says towards the end of her book, which is quoted on the first page of this essay, the idea that had Mr. Greenleaf simply reserved judgement instead of dismissing her claims, then what Mr Greenleaf had done may have been virtue enough. Fricker, following her remark on Mr Greenleaf says that “interestingly, we can see from the profile we have drawn of the virtue that there are limits to the extent to which it can be possessed fully.”[21] That is to say, if it requires critical reflection, it is hard for it to be taken instantly.

As for the question of whether reserving judgement would be virtue enough, I would have to say that Mr Greenleaf would not be virtuous just from reserving judgement. There are two main arguments for this stance. The first has to do with the way social power, and power disparities lead to and cause the structural setting which enables testimonial or hermeneutical injustice. Those with the most power have the greatest ability to change the system, and it is currently set up mostly for their benefit. Different groups and classes have power over others, for example rich having power over poor, or as in the case of Marge, men having power over women. Fricker says that Mr Greenleaf “silences her suspicions of  the murderous Ripley by exercising identity power, the identity power he inevitably has as a man over her as a woman.”[22]

The second argument for why reserving judgement would not be virtue enough has to do with the idea that those with the more power then others have to be more responsible for their use of power. A king must be more concerned with how justly he acts in regards to others as opposed to a serf.  Those in a position of privilege, as a result from their social power have a responsibility to act virtuously because they are the ones who set examples and help shape what behaviour is acceptable. What the rich do, often filters down to the middle class, and finally to the lowest classes. Herbert Greenleaf is clearly shown to be  extremely wealthy, his son is living in Italy off of his allowance, and he can pay for someone to bring him his son, and later a private investigator to go to another continent. This amount of wealth  and power comes with the responsibility to act in a virtuous manner.

When Mr. Greenleaf dismisses Marge’s claims in regards to Mr. Ripley, he is acting in an ‘acceptable’ manner in his time, but he does not listen to what Marge has to say with any sort of critical reflexivity, which means he is missing out on the truth. He misses out on the truth because instead of critical reflection, Mr Greenleaf simply asserts his traditional power as a man over her as a women. I would consider the unreflexive use of power to not be virtuous, and that unvirtuous means cannot have virtuous ends. Doing anything but listening to what Marge has to say and taking it into account is falling short of doing one’s duty to critically examine all information we hear. Simply reserving judgement means not doing the right thing. Take Singer’s example of a drowning child, if you reserve judgement instead of saving the child, is that not just as bad as walking away?  Reserving judgement is not virtue enough, but it is a step in the right direction of what is the right thing to do.

Miranda Fricker introduces the concepts of testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice in her work Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing, as well as introducing the concept of a virtue of epistemic justice. Linda Alcoff and Christopher Hookway ask interesting questions of Fricker, particularly Alcoff, which Fricker is able to answer in a satisfactory answer. As for the question of whether reserving judgement can be considered virtuous enough, the arguments offered suggest that simply reserving judgement is not virtuous enough, but it is a step in the right direction. At the end of her reply to Alcoff and Hookway, Fricker mentions how her work will turn to a more political aspect of epistemic injustice. I think that this new work will offer even more information, as well as more perspective to add to this question of whether reserving judgment is virtue enough.


[1] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.  172

[2] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. 20

[3] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. 26

[4] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. 44

[5] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. 155

[6] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. 158

[7] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. 162

[8] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. 162

[9] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. 169

[10] Fricker, Miranda. “Replies to Alcoff, Goldberg, and Hookway On Epistemic Injustice.” Episteme 7, no. 2 (2010): 164-165

[11] Fricker, Miranda. “Replies to Alcoff, Goldberg, and Hookway On Epistemic Injustice.” 165

[12] Alcoff, Linda Martin. “Epistemic Identities.” Episteme 7, no. 2 (2010): 134

[13] Alcoff, Linda Martin. “Epistemic Identities.” Episteme 7, no. 2 (2010): 135

[14] Fricker, Miranda. “Replies to Alcoff, Goldberg, and Hookway On Epistemic Injustice.” 165

[15] Fricker, Miranda. “Replies to Alcoff, Goldberg, and Hookway On Epistemic Injustice.” 165

[16] Hookway, Christopher. “Some Varieties of Epistemic Injustice: Reflections on Fricker.” Episteme 7, no. 2 (2010): 153

[17] Hookway, Christopher. “Some Varieties of Epistemic Injustice: Reflections on Fricker.” 155

[18] Hookway, Christopher. “Some Varieties of Epistemic Injustice: Reflections on Fricker.” 155

[19] Fricker, Miranda. “Replies to Alcoff, Goldberg, and Hookway On Epistemic Injustice.” 174

[20] Fricker, Miranda. “Replies to Alcoff, Goldberg, and Hookway On Epistemic Injustice.” 175

[21] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. 172

[22] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing. 14

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