Social Justice Discourse and the Question of “Standpoints”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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My remarks here are anticipatory of a more thorough treatment of the question of Standpoint Epistemology – or “Theory” – in conversation with Crispin Sartwell, who finds the notion amenable. I do not, and a brief back-and-forth on the topic on Twitter convinced me that our differences were worth exploring in a more serious way.  Consider what follows, then, as a preview of the sorts of points I am going to raise with Crispin, when we talk.

Let me make a few things clear before I start.

First, my interest is in the way that Standpoint Theory (ST hereafter) is actually deployed in contemporary public discourse, not in some hypothetical, abstract, idealized version of the concept. The effort to develop an idealized form of ST strikes me as a largely harmless activity, but ST 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.

Second, we require a working account of ST, and I think the following from Rebecca Kukla is both widely accepted among theorists and accurate with respect to how ST 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. [1]

Third, much of the academic standpoint literature has been concerned with philosophical questions surrounding subjectivity and objectivity and how we should understand ST with regard to them. This is not my concern here or in my forthcoming discussion with Crispin. Rather, my interest is in whether the various “Standpoints” typically identified grant epistemic advantage to 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. The question of how precisely this epistemic advantage should be characterized, philosophically speaking, is not something I am interested in.

So, on to the points I am going to raise with Crispin in our upcoming discussion. I expect to elaborate on them points over the course of our exchange.

(A) As the quote from Kukla indicates, ST alleges that “social positions of marginalization and structural disadvantage … yield epistemological advantages,” which are then used as grounds for privileging members of these groups and discrediting members of the dominant groups in social justice discourse; 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 social scientific investigation, 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 and corresponding discursive promotions/demotions are dubious at best.  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? That the latter benefits from the situation is alleged to compromise or otherwise distort his perception of it, but it strikes me as equally plausible to suggest that the fact that the former suffers from it compromises/distorts his perception to the same extent. I see no reason to think resentment less compromising than appreciation, and I could easily imagine an argument to the effect that it is more so. In the end, it is going to come down to individual cases.

(B) 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. In light of (A), 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 certain states of affairs, then won’t the most accurate judge be the person who does neither?

(C) With respect to questions of fact as opposed to value, I see no reason to think that whatever expertise is supposed to accrue from one’s Standpoint would ever trump or even measure up to that which is acquired in the more ordinary manner of education and scholarship. That is, I see no reason to think that a Jewish person, by virtue of his Standpoint, need have any better – or even equally good — 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.

(D) I am inclined to think that Standpoints, as conceived by ST, have no determinate valence. The relevant groups are too large and too heterogeneous, when it comes to the experiences, attitudes, and values of their members for it to be credible that membership alone will insure or even suggest common judgments on matters of social justice, factual or axiological.  Some may want to suggest going with the averages, but the question then arises as to why, with regard to matters of fact or value, having a majority on one’s side should confer epistemic advantage.

(E) I don’t think that those who employ ST for the purpose of gaming disputes over questions of social justice are actually inclined to grant epistemic and discursive privilege to people merely by virtue of their occupying a certain Standpoint. What are the chances, for example, that an ST enthusiast, upon saying “black people’s voices should be centered in discussions of racism,” is going to center the voices of Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, and other black, conservative race-skeptics, rather than the politically progressive voices of Ibrahim Kendi, Ta Nehisi Coates, or Nikole Hannah-Jones? It’s not occupying a certain Standpoint that ST enthusiasts really believe should determine whose voices are centered and whose are subordinated but rather, whether the voices in question concur with what the ST enthusiast already thinks regarding the social justice question at hand.

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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 think and do. But it is especially important in today’s environment, which is characterized by: (i) polarization; (ii) loss of faith in institutions and particularly, those that confer or otherwise involve expertise and/or authority; (iii) a widespread, social-media driven retreat into informational and editorial echo chambers; and (iv) 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 antagonism. (I would add that one finds a version of this within virtually 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 “Standpoints” we and they allegedly occupy.

Notes

[1] Rebecca Kukla, “Objectivity and Perspective in Empirical Knowledge,” Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, Volume 3, Issue 1-2, 2006, pp. 80-95.

40 comments

  1. I agree. Standpoint Theory seems to me to be an illegitimate move to hold the trump card in debates. I’m all for respecting and listening to people who have valuable particular perspectives, those with specialized or specific experiences that we rarely get to see or hear, but they don’t deserve authoritative status simply out of membership in a group. More all-around respect is always helpful and so too is good and empathetic listening skills. If that was all this was about it would be fine, but it really appears to be a move to prematurely cut off debate and stack the deck in favour of the currently most favoured oppressed group. And this ends badly because it can be turned around and used to favour any group that feels hard done by, such as, for instance evangelical Christians. I would not at all be surprised if it already has been turned around this way. Just as conservatives and evangelicals have embraced some of the main tenets of post-modernism, (but that’s another story.)

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  2. Dan, I sympathize with what you are saying but suspect that the effort is futile. Those who exploit their academic positions and status for political purposes are activists and propagandists first and foremost and should be treated as such. For them — and, by the way, I am *not* of course talking about Crispin Sartwell here — the cause (whatever it is) always takes priority, and rational argument is a secondary consideration.

    You appear to want to engage with these people. That is fine. I just think it is futile. They are primarily interested in furthering their respective causes.

    With regard to the substance of what you are saying here, I think it is basically sound. There is an element of truth in the view that those in a privileged position are often motivated to defend the status quo and often unconsciously deceive themselves and make distorted judgments. But, as you say, similar principles apply to those who lack power and are being exploited.

    I haven’t followed your Twitter debate with Crispin Sartwell but, from what l know of him, he is not primarily an activist and (like you) he takes his professional responsibilities very seriously. I look forward to hearing what he has to say on this issue.

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  3. The idea is that the marginalised in society have a better grasp of their oppression than the dominant group/s is in tension with another recently burgeoning branch in philosophy: conceptual engineering. The conceptual engineer claims that the oppressed don’t have the conceptual tools to name their oppression.

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  4. Standpoint epistemology is circular.

    The info sought from a standpoint is the info that is needed to find it. There is no other informational structure. Look at examples where it is discussed, they are not about neutral positions assessed on a level field, they are about the oppressed/marginalised confirming their own oppression.

    SE is not about uniformly distinguishing various parts of a scene. SE is about selecting one of them as having priority, and it is about granting priority to information on the basis of that selection. And that creates a circularity. It requires an inequality of standing to determine whom to select, but the info sought from that standpoint is about that very same inequality of standing. In one direction: whatever information those people have, its interpretation has already been circumscribed by the reasons they in particular were chosen. And in the other direction: the info sought from the standpoint is the info that was needed to find it.

    Read the rest here: https://www.hxa.name/articles/content/Standpoint-epistemology-is-circular_hxa7241_2020.html

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  5. While I agree with the spirit of this post, I think the key moment is here:

    “With respect to questions of fact as opposed to value, I see no reason to think that whatever expertise is supposed to accrue from one’s Standpoint would ever trump or even measure up to that which is acquired in the more ordinary manner of education and scholarship. ”

    I think an underlying point is that you’re asking for an *explanation* for what is often taken to simply be obvious: that some group has an epistemic advantage. And you’re right that the benefit-explanation is a poor one, for exactly the reasons you describe (ressentiment is a hell of a thing).

    So I think this is right: SE can’t just be the automatic assumption that some oppressed group has an advantage. But sometimes much better explanations are in the offing, even in the public sphere: (1) pregnancy is an extraordinary and singular experience, to know *what it is like* is to know something deeply salient to moral questions of abortion, for example. (2) at the group level, to live in poorer areas of the US is to know what it is like to be embedded in spiraling cycles of poverty and despair, whereas to live in the ‘burbs is to lack this experience. Unlike (1), this epistemic deficit is perhaps more easily overcome, but if a collection of voices from the inner city say “we have serious problems here” and the voices from the ‘burbs say “nah, you’re doing fine”, there does seem to be something to the thought that the first claim has more warrant than the second. Thoughts?

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    1. Yes, I, for example, know my particular condition better than anyone else. But there is more being done by SE: 1, I am claiming that I am worse off; 2, and that that is grounds for some moral claim on others.

      But how do I know that other people are not worse off than me? After all, each person knows best their own state. I have to *already* have this global knowledge of my relative position of oppressedness, in order to claim that I am the most oppressed and highest priority. But that relative position is really what the argument should be determining. SE begs the moral questions it pretends to prove.

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      1. “But how do I know that other people are not worse off than me? After all, each person knows best their own state. I have to *already* have this global knowledge of my relative position of oppressedness, in order to claim that I am the most oppressed and highest priority. But that relative position is really what the argument should be determining. SE begs the moral questions it pretends to prove.”

        Yes, that’s the problem. merely as epistemology it is circular; while embedding it with implicit, even explicit, morality strips it of its authenticity as an epistemology. (There is no such thing as a ‘moral’ epistemology.)

        That;s why I don’t get too involved in discussions like this; there are already philosophies (especially phenomenology) set up to deal with such issues without lapsing into moral judgment, and there are already moral and political philosophies (eg., as remarked in other comments, Marxism) that deal with the problems of perspective without all-out epistemological assault.

        So many ‘scholars,’ so many fads…. Have to publish something on something or other, after all..

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  6. If the oppressed have a clearer grasp of their oppression than the dominant group, then that would negate Marx, wouldn’t it? Marx was not a worker, but came from a fairly affluent family and although suffered poverty at times, was supported by Engels, whose family owned factories.

    Yet almost all those who argue in favor of standpoint theory, have a fondness for Marx. And for Foucault, who also came from an affluent family. I also like Marx and Foucault, but I’m not a fan of standpoint theory.

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      1. Freud wouldn’t be a fan of ST either and in fact, most schools of psychotherapy, whether psychoanalytic or not, seem to be based on the premise that there is someone who has more insight into one’s reality than one does.

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          1. There so many cases where we tend to not believe that people are good judges of their own reality. Most of us tend to trust a good biography rather than the autobiography of the person involved. The whole legal system is based on the idea that when people testify about themselves, they tend to distort the facts, at times willfully and often unconsciously.

            Bertrand Russell (who was solidly on the democratic left) warns of us of the “fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed” and I think it’s wise to assume that the oppressed are no more truthful about their own condition than the oppressors are. Which in no way is a justification of oppression.

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          2. Google tells me that it’s the title of an essay from his book, Unpopular Essays. I’ve never read the essay, but I’ve seen the phrase quoted elsewhere. All his essays are worth reading. I’m currently reading his book, Power, which is very insightful and very very witty.

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    1. “Yet almost all those who argue in favor of standpoint theory, have a fondness for Marx”

      Do they though? Given the recent cancellation of Adolph Reed by the wokebros of the DSA, I’m not so sure. You will find an awful lot of anger being directed at woke progressivism from Marxist circles.

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      1. For sure. They’ll probably cancel good old Karl and I’m sure they’ll cancel Bertrand Russell for being a misogynist sexist on account of his very active sex life, even though he was an activist campaigner for female suffrage.

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  7. I am very much out of my depth here, but I get the feeling that one issue might be the idea of a “more objective knowledge”. I think this is an issue pluralism tries to address, at least in the sense that ‘objective’ isn’t simply something independent of some human frame of reference or interest. Putman takes Bernard Williams to task on the idea of a scientific convergence, or ‘absoluteness’, but may have misread his intentions somewhat. Still, it seems correct when he says “There is no more evidence that science converges on one final world-view than there is that literature or morality converge to one final world-view.” He concludes the chapter (The craving for objectivity) with “The contemporary tendency to regard interpretation as something second class reflects, I think, not a craving for objectivity but a craving for absolutes–a craving for absolutes and a tendency which is inseparable from that craving, the tendency to think that if the absolute is unobtainable, then “anything goes.” But “enough is enough, enough isn’t everything.” Craving absoluteness leads to monism, and monism is a bad outlook in every area of human life.”

    I guess what I’m questioning is whether we profit from posing the issues of social justice and welfare as if they were amenable to some ‘absolute’ conception or whether this gets us off on the wrong foot. As Putnam is at pains to argue, rejecting monism does not necessarily leave us with anything goes relativism. The threat of ending up in relativism is overstated. We are not averting the catastrophe of relativism in a gymnastic high wire act of assuming greater objectivity.

    Question: In the Myth of Procrustes, who has greater objectivity, Procrustes or his guests? His guests think that people measure the fit of beds, and Procrustes measures people by the size of his bed. Between the two frames of reference the idea of some greater objectivity is meaningless. For me, this is why pluralism needs to be taken seriously.

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  8. Led me to reread Sonia Zawitkowski’s thoughtful contribution from last year, and the high quality comments.

    I suppose the crux is whether there is something in ST over and above the commonsense ideas about knowledge gained by “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”. Hume and Smith saw “the ground of the moral experience [as] sympathy, or the communication of feelings and sentiments from man to man”. Does ST as currently practiced, according to Dan, entail that sympathy is not possible?

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      1. Hi Dan. It is probably more of a rhetorical question. You’ve quoted Kukla as saying there are “truths that are inaccessible from the point of view of the dominant center”. One everyday way of thinking about these matters is that we can take up the point of view of other people via sympathy and imagination – why there are such things as sensitivity training and improving art. It seems to me a metaphysical claim that it is impossible to imagine the aspects of the experience of others that are relevant to injustice viz alterity.

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        1. David, I wonder if you are conflating sympathy and empathy a little. It doesn’t seem to me that one needs to be able to identify with another to care about their suffering. Of course, it may also be the case that one only becomes capable of sympathy, after one has developed one’s empathy. Almost like the expanding circle of concern that one finds in various ethical systems.

          Hume, of course, thought that sympathy is essentially empathy + the imagination, a view that I also think has merit.

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          1. The sympathy of Hume or Smith would subsume the modern sense of the empathy concept, as I think you imply in the last sentence. Google led me to a interesting paper by Morrow (1923)
            https://www.jstor.org/stable/2179032

            But how is it possible…to explain the universality and the obligation of the moral law? Feeling is individual, and how can it give rise to objectivity? Hume…clearly recognized the necessity of finding an objective basis for the moral judgment, and sought for it in some thing which is common to all individuals, in a “universal principle of the human frame” … something more than an assertion of an essential similarity of all human beings…communication of sentiments [makes] possible the objectivity of the moral judgment and furnished the logical solution of the problem of the moral sense school. For, interpreted in terms of this interplay of sentiments, the moral judgment preserves its basis in the feelings and thus remains in immediate and continual contact with all the variety of individual moral experience. At the same time it is able to transcend subjectivity because it is not based merely upon the isolated feelings of a particular individual…[but] formed by the contribution of all individuals…[I]n the field of moral philosophy [Hume’s] conclusions were far from sceptical…

            As you’d know, Smith thinks of objective moral judgment as possible by the sympathetic bystander or impartial spectator. The older virtues of a judge are sympathy, fairness, knowledge, conservativeness, and are those of the person outside the dispute but inside the society. Coming back to standpoint epistemology, the ideal judge has to partake of the relevant standpoints within a successfully pluralistic society. An ideal judge may not exist, but we do have some concept, as per the stuff in ethics where people talk about the decisions one would make if one was one’s ideal self.

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  9. The notion that a person’s experience of a thing gives them some superior kind of knowledge of the thing in question seems to me commonsensical and intuitive. Now I don’t know what happens if you make that fact do more that that which addresses the fact. I suspect something could go wrong, but what is going wrong is not that the assertion I made at the outset is wrong; that still seems to me right. If I go to see a movie or watch it at home I will always know more about that movie than anybody who has read a description of it or imagined it. i think it probably double so for things that are real and felt.
    The problem is that there is a lot more at work, Or. rather, how much work do you want this privilege to do? When I was an activist working in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition he said at the time “you get your stars from your scars.” I am not sure that being scarred makes you necessarily virtuous; it could make you mean, to still yet many there things. Indeed, it might give you a skewed view of reality, if only because everybody is not always scarred to the same degree. You know being scarred, but that is not all of life.

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    1. I appreciate your intuition, but I do address it directly in the essay. Both with regard to matters of value and matters of fact. So, I’d need to hear some sort of counter-argument in order to be persuaded.

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  10. What is the “epistemological advantage” of an individual member of a marginalized group? It may be partly in the form of objective information. But, isn’t it understood to be largely a matter of subjective interpretation of personal experiences common to group members? If so, what makes one’s understanding of one’s individual experience so reliable as to recommend it as a basis for belief or action by others, much less primacy over others? Such “knowledge” is highly subjective, far from uniform within each group, and subject to distortion for a number of reasons. At some point, it will be assessed by others according to their knowledge and experience, and, often, according to its conformity with demonstrable facts. Any “advantage” is imaginary and granted without a rational basis.

    The views of members of marginalized groups have value for adding to the consideration of an issue, but not without due regard for known facts and the usual cognitive biases. As the essay notes, the twin dangers of self-interest and resentment can distort perception and understanding. Power corrupts, but so may weakness—the lack of power. The weak are in a position to act badly on the justification that, as the victims of the powerful, they cannot be blameworthy. Indeed, bad actions by the powerful against the weak virtually authorize the weak, in their own perceptions, to discard all limits in whatever forms of retribution they adopt. Isn’t deploying ST to game disputes over questions of social justice a clear example of that?

    Looking forward to the conversation with Mr. Sartwell.

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  11. I think many of your criticisms land, but perhaps there are some merits to ST you are overlooking. For example, situations in which a woman is told workplace harassment isn’t really all that bad – the teller plausibly lacks epistemic access to the badness of the harassment.

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    1. What if the person who says that is themselves a woman? What then? What if she was once harassed herself but still doesn’t consider it that bad, especially compared to many other things?

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      1. Perhaps a better question: why are you assuming that ST (a theory about access to evidence) entails that everyone will evaluate that evidence similarly?

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        1. Isn’t that whole point of ST? If different members of group X disagree because they evaluate their experiences differently then what exactly is the point of ST? It’s becomes nothing more than the observation that you can ask people for their individual feelings. Hardly a profound point.

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          1. As I noted, it is a theory about access to evidence, not a theory of group-think. The point is that social location provides access to (or denies access to) evidence (e.g., about the badness of some practice). Individuals with such access are in a better position to reason about that evidence than those without it. This does not mean they will all reach the same conclusions.

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          2. Josh: I think you’ve defined ST out of existence. Isn’t the whole point of ST some sort of special knowledge based on experience particular to a marginalized group? If those with the particular experience don’t agree on what it amounts to, one is left with no “standpoint” to consider.

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          3. You don’t know what it is like to live on Mars. A martian does. A martian thus has better access to evidence about what it is like to live on Mars than you do. It would be inappropriate for you to override a martians testimony about what it is like to live on mars with your speculations about what it is like to live on Mars. This does not mean that every martian will evaluate their experiences identically.

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          4. Bad analogy. If the Martians offered a broad range of different expressions of their experiences on Mars, Earthlings would have no means of determining which views to credit. The Martian “standpoint” fails to materialize.
            Conversely, the experiences of members of the majority and that of minority groups are not entirely separate, distinct, and unknown one to the other, such as I assume you are positing would be the case for inhabitants of Earth and Mars. On the contrary, they are mostly the same, except for areas in which minority status would tend to create differences. As objective facts can be determined generally, those differences would be matters of subjective experience and judgments based on minority status.
            If a substantial majority of the members of minority groups are not in basic agreement regarding their subjective experiences and judgments in those areas, there would not appear to be a minority “standpoint” worth considering. For one thing, a range of minority opinions, particularly one that significantly overlapped with majority views, would mean that, as with the Martians, there is no way to determine whose viewpoint among the minorities is to be credited. The more obscure those experiences are to members of the majority, the less able the majority is to know which to credit. Giving deference to a view- point requires that an identifiable viewpoint exists.

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          5. ” If the Martians offered a broad range of different expressions of their experiences on Mars, Earthlings would have no means of determining which views to credit. ”
            -indeed. They might have to let the martians sort it out.

            ” the experiences of members of the majority and that of minority groups are not entirely separate, distinct, and unknown one to the other, such as I assume you are positing would be the case for inhabitants of Earth and Mars. On the contrary, they are mostly the same, except for areas in which minority status would tend to create differences. ”

            -the analogy is stark for instructional purposes.

            “As objective facts can be determined generally, those differences would be matters of subjective experience and judgments based on minority status.”

            – the point is that certain subjective experiences are in a better position to ascertain certain objective facts.

            “If a substantial majority of the members of minority groups are not in basic agreement regarding their subjective experiences and judgments in those areas, there would not appear to be a minority “standpoint” worth considering. For one thing, a range of minority opinions, particularly one that significantly overlapped with majority views, would mean that, as with the Martians, there is no way to determine whose viewpoint among the minorities is to be credited”

            -untrue. You seem to be confusing ‘standpoint’ with ‘beliefs.’ I’ll repeat: evidence =/= conclusion. Reasonable individuals might not disagree on what the evidence is, and yet still disagree. Not all disagreement is due to standpoint.

            “there is no way to determine whose viewpoint among the minorities is to be credited. The more obscure those experiences are to members of the majority, the less able the majority is to know which to credit.”

            -perhaps, perhaps not. As you say, human standpoints are not altogether so far off. But the world does not owe it to us to be transparent. Which quantum physicist ought the majority credit?

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  12. Well, I’m a dummy. I wasn’t at all clear about your essay on my first pass and my comment was way off target. The second and third readings went much better, and I have to say that I agree with just about everything you say. Points A, C, D, and E are all spot on, and B is at least mostly so. The minor alteration I would suggest is that while it is true that feelings of resentment and appreciation can be equally distorting, this takes both merely as the cause of distortion. It seems possible that at least sometimes we can see clearly and the resentment or appreciation are rather side effects of seeing clearly. Resentment and appreciation can both be the cause of distortion and the result of seeing clearly, it seems. So I’m not sure feelings either way are grounds that automatically discredit or invalidate the standpoint. Your earlier suggestion that its going to come down to individual cases seems the right way to look at it. And your prescriptions in conclusion all seem entirely worthwhile. If and when there are distortions in our perspective it makes sense not to overreach our authority and instead look outside ourselves for among whom else and where else these issues make contact.

    This may or may not further the discussion, but Bernard Williams in the 5th chapter of Moral Luck adds another layer to the difference between personal standpoints. There is also a social, or shared experience that needs to be accounted for. I wonder if opening that door exposes something lacking in ST, merely complicates it, or puts a nail in its coffin. Williams says,

    “If conflict among our values is not necessarily pathological, and if even where the situation is at fault, as with some conflicts of obligation, conflict is not a logical affliction of our thought, it must be a mistake to regard a need to eliminate conflict as a purely rational demand, of the kind that applies to a theoretical system. Rather we should see such needs as there are to reduce conflict and to rationalise our moral thought as having a more social and personal basis.

    In particular, in a modern complex society functions which are ethically significant are performed by public agencies and, if the society is relatively open, this requires that they be governed by an explicable order which allows those agencies to be answerable. In a public, large and impersonal forum ‘intuition’ will not serve, though it will serve (and nothing else could serve) in personal life and in a more closely shared existence. This is well illustrated in connection with ‘imperfect rationalisation’, the situation in which some distinction, not further reasoned, can ground agreement in private and less impersonal connections, but may not serve, or may not continue to serve, where a public order demands a public answer. To take an example which has been recently discussed, a distinction between abortion, which is permitted, and infanticide, which is not, is one which can probably be naturally sustained in a certain context of shared moral sentiment without further reason being needed. The fact that further reason is not needed does not mean that that distinction is irrational. It means only that the basic distinction is more directly convincing than any reason that might be advanced for it: another way of putting it is that ‘You can’t kill that, it’s a child’ is more convincing as a reason than any reason which might be advanced for its being a reason.”

    Looking forward to your talk with Crispin!

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    1. Hey Dan, I started to feel a bit uncomfortable using the phrase “seeing clearly” above, but in the context of ‘distortion’ that seemed like the appropriate alternative. As if phrasing something as potentially ‘delusional’ itself required a veridical in terms of which it became meaningful as a contrast. However, the more I am thinking about it the more uncomfortable I get. It starts to remind me of Austin’s discussion of ‘delusive’ and ‘veridical’ perceptions, especially in chapter 5 of Sense and Sensibilia. He concludes that chapter suggesting that a type of philosophical argument “involves (though not in every case equally essentially) (a) acceptance of a quite bogus dichotomy of all ‘perceptions’ into two groups, the ‘delusive’ and the ‘veridical’–to say nothing of the unexplained introduction of ‘perceptions’ themselves; (b) an implicit but grotesque exaggeration of the *frequency* of the ‘delusive perceptions’; (c) a further grotesque exaggeration of the *similarity* between ‘delusive’ perceptions and ‘veridical’ ones; (d) the erroneous suggestion that there *must* be such similarity, or even qualitative *identity*; (e) the acceptance of the pretty gratuitous idea that things ‘generically different’ could not be qualitatively alike; (f)–which is really a corollary of (c) and (a)–the gratuitous neglect of those more or less subsidiary features which often make possible the discrimination of situations which, in other *broad* respects, may be roughly alike. These seem to be rather serious deficiencies.”

      So I guess I am asking if you can clarify the respect in which ST deems one or other points of view as either sufficiently veridical or delusive that they can be taken and then compared as such. Isn’t this whole project a bit bogus, especially looked at from anything like a pluralistic framework? You are much further down that road than I am, so I could be off the mark (as I so often am), but I am hoping you can help put me back on course. Thanks in advance!

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