On Epistemic Humility and Privilege

“All I know that I know nothing” – Socrates

We don’t know what we don’t know.

Our world, as small as it seems somedays, is still full of unknown gaps. I’ve written before about our duties to acquire knowledge, and why those duties are are something that we must take seriously, but in the face of not having knowledge, or not having knowledge when we need it, what must we do in the interim? This problem, that shows us the benefit of epistemic humility is what I’m tackling today on Moral Guillotines.

First of all, what is epistemic humility?

Epistemic Humility

Epistemic Humility is often couched in Socratic terms, as the idea that true wisdom is only possible when we reckon with the gaps and limitations of our own knowledge. After all, we are often worse off if we think we have the answer to something when we don’t and act on that incorrect assumption, than if we simply don’t act in the first place. When we act without recognizing the limitations of our knowledge, we may end up with unintended consequences further down the road. Historically, this has often been the case when non-indigenous species are introduced as pest control and then become problematic in their own right. Examples of this include cane toads in Australia, or the small asian mongoose in Hawaii (the latter is particularly ironic and troubling since the mongoose has never even done the pest control it was introduced for.)

Of course, these issues caused by a lack of epistemic humility are systematic and brought on by governments, not necessarily individuals. There can also be consequences when individuals lack epistemic humility though, in particular when their lack of epistemic humility causes them to doubt the epistemic privilege of marginalized groups.

Epistemic Privilege

Epistemic Privilege, in contrast to epistemic humility, is the kind of knowledge that we all have by virtue of being ourselves, and by having access to our internal thoughts and historicity of our lives. Epistemic privilege is the idea that we each have knowledge that no one else can have.

Epistemic privilege is an essential thing to understand because without it, and without respecting it, we risk overwriting persons lived experiences and needs.  Epistemic privilege is especially important to respect when it comes to marginalized groups. The fact of the matter is, while we are often very attuned to the perspectives and feelings of dominant groups (white, male, straight) due to the privileging of their voices, their diverse stories in media, and their experiences for centuries, marginalized groups and their experiences are not so mainstream.

If we don’t respect the epistemic privilege of marginalized groups, we risk making assumptions about their lives and what they need that may be totally inaccurate and even harmful. A common example of this is the belief that all disabled people wish to be “cured” of their disabilities, when many often find value in the experience of being disabled and in disabled communities.

The Problem of Acting

Of course, both of these considerations become problematic when we might feel we need to act with urgency. Sometimes, there just isn’t the time available to think through all possible outcomes of our actions, to do the research, to ask people what would be best for them. Sometimes, inaction can be action, and the risk of not acting can result in real and large amounts of suffering, such as in the case of genetically modifying mosquitoes to prevent malaria.

In these cases, or in cases where we are unsure about our time constraints and ability to obtain the information we need, all we can do is our best. As inadequate as a strategy and an answer it is, morality can demand nothing more of us.

We can delineate the gaps in our knowledge, we can couch our recommendations in the language of epistemic humility, and we can constantly and consistently work after the fact to mitigate unintended consequence and continue to know more and do better.

We will never be perfect knowers, we cannot be. But we can continually strive to be better knowers, and to acknowledge our limitations, and therefore, mitigate the detrimental impacts that our ignorance and hubris can have on the world around us.


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