Thursday, December 6, 2007

Epistemological Privilege

In his chapter 2, Boss begins by explaining various elements that make up moral reasoning. These elements, or “levels of thinking,” include experience, interpretation and analysis, all of which join together to establish one’s own weltanschauung. He makes a point to mention, however, that all humans, including well-trained philosophers, cannot exist outside of culture and a particular cultural view. Further, he shares the liberation ethicists’ claim that certain groups of traditionally disempowered people, for example those living in poverty, have “epistemological privilege” because they are more capable of seeing and understanding what the rich and economically and culturally privileged cannot. That is, their point of view is not distorted by power and wealth. We see this exemplified in numerous instances throughout the Shipler text in which individuals who are struggling, at times quite severely, are said to be focusing at the task at hand, trying to get by through whatever means is tangible to them in a fair manner. They are often shown to blame themselves. Shipler makes a point to repetitively point out the thoughts that are not going through the individuals’ minds such as “big thoughts about corporate profits or dark judgments about society’s unfairness.” He made a point to show that, unlike those of power and privilege, the majority of the impoverished individuals are not looking to trick the system so that it works in their benefit or to keep them at any place, but that they are simply “[trying] for basic…security.”

The existence of epistemological privilege is important to society because it forces certain social constructs and interpretations that are assumed to be realities to be questioned when the structures and systems that are put in place by a privileged class in power keep masses of disempowered peoples at a stagnant and struggling position. Also, the epistemologically privileged poor, in having the viewpoint that they do because of their victim-like role in the nation’s structure, provide a certain cultural force that moves the nation forward in certain ways. For example, the poor, although victim to constant suffering and brokenness as well as anxiety and despair, are still in possession of an intense sense of hope. It is this hopefulness, which allows them, despite their struggles, to almost conceive another reality. They are able to envision a different scheme of hope and provide enthusiasm that can drive society towards a new way of organizing human life that focuses on the needs and justice for all parties concerned.

If society made a move to accept this claim with respect to the poor and the epistemological privilege that they as a disempowered group have, then the entire social structure would be affected. By focusing on those issues that poverty stricken individuals and families face and by implementing policy based on what would tackle the problems of injustices that are interwoven in the system through the viewpoint of the poor, there would most definitely be a smaller gap between the classes. There would probably be a much larger middle class and a greater cultural force that would support social responsibility to one’s neighbor and fellow members of society. If members of society were to take the idea of the poor and the oppressed as being in a state of epistemological privilege seriously, then they will also have to respond to the concept of global justice as existential truth, and in doing so, utilize this understanding when going about making changes structurally and culturally in order to progress as a people. It would be a change that moves beyond mere political participation in the ceremonial sense that we have now. Many of the examples that Shipler used in his book to highlight the lives of individuals who have gone “missing in America” care very little for politics because they see it as existing in a separate sphere, such as is seen in Tom King and Caroline Payne’s attitude towards the whole system of voting and political goings on. It is important to mention however, that simply acknowledging and accepting this claim does nothing for the benefit of the whole but progress does emerge through acting and seeking change from the vantage point of subjection.

There would be (and perhaps already is) much resistance to this claim by members of other socio-economic classes. The answer is to be expected. Power would be taken out of the hands of those individuals whose policy choices are self-serving and the justifications for oppressive policy and claims to struggle and suffering for most and wealth and power for an elite few as “natural” and as reality would be broken down and challenged. If we were to re-examine the systems currently in place from the standpoint of those in poverty, there would be no more justification for the suffering of the masses due to what the upper-class and people of power like to call “natural” forces that allow the “weak ones” to fall behind. Individuals who are in a privileged state do not wish to think of their own privilege as a force which conversely forces other non-privileged individuals into struggle. They instead rely on their own self-serving defenses of the interpretations which keep them in power whilst oppressing others. They wish to avoid any paradigm shifts so as to avoid shift in power. It raises the question as to when the problems plaguing the system and the many individuals who are victim to it will get to the point of crisis where paradigm shift is more likely to occur. Will it take crisis to bring about acknowledgement and action?

A moral argument on behalf of this claim could perhaps read like this:


1. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and what it means to know something versus to merely have an opinion.

2. The system and policy structures in our society are created by members of a privileged class, in both financial and power-related terms.

3. The system and policy structures in our society do not work for the disempowered class, mainly the poor.

4. The poor class gain no benefit from the system as is, rather they continue to struggle living despite it.

5. The privileged class is privileged mainly because of the structures in place.

6. When individuals have an interest in a system, they are inclined to defend it so as to defend their interest in it, often ignoring or justifying its dysfunctional or immoral elements, turning opinion into fact or reality.


Therefore, the poor have epistemological privilege because they have knowledge of the system and structures in place that is untainted by concern for upholding a status quo.

[spring 2007]

1 comment:

Barbara said...

I'm not familiar with the authors you're citing, but thank you for the thorough analysis of the epistemological privilege of the oppressed.
And to answer your question about when the system would be challenged, I think the Occupy protests worldwide are now doing just that.