In recent years, the concept of Epistemic Responsibility has arisen within ethical inquiry. This approach can be summed up by the following two questions: to what degree is a freely acting agent to be held morally responsible for the outcome of their choices? What is the criteria or standards for justification of holding a moral belief? Much inquiry has gone into the concept of humans as morally responsible agents, intent on charting the boundaries of praise-and-blameworthiness. While these are worthy endeavors, it appears to me that the larger context of Epistemic Responsibility can use some further exploration.
Epistemic Responsibility has been defined as, "usually related to the capacity to engage in adequate policies in the search of truth, the ability to give reasons, or the readiness to revise one's beliefs in the light of new evidence. These ideas are in line with the complaint that a crude externalism about knowledge cannot be right."
Epistemic Responsibility is by nature idealistic, in holding that sensation, the empirical foundation of reality, is actually secondary to the existence of perception (and therefore assumes a pre-condition of a conscious perceiver-self). In other words, there must be pre-existing concepts and someone who is able to process and understand those concepts in order for knowledge to exist.
This is an ontological claim about the nature of knowledge. Knowledge cannot exist without subjects who are the holders and choosers of knowledge, but these subjects are not "blank slates" who are written upon and programmed solely through external training and conditioning. Without humans to be the carriers of knowledge, no knowledge is possible. As both the bearers and medium of knowledge transmissions, humans also have the capacity to evaluate incoming information and to determine whether or not the criteria of knowledge has been met or not. Along with this capacity to evaluate comes the responsibility for the choice. It is here that ethicists have toiled, seeking the means to determine the grounds for justification, praise and blame.
The concept of Epistemic Responsibility has broader implications than are generally acknowledged. There are wide ranging implications for everything from spirituality to political theory and social justice, to religion, education, and the role of media in our culture, to name just a few. As Canadian Feminist philosopher Lorraine Code so cogently points out, the epistemic status of any ethical, social or even epistemic claim can only be as reliable as both the culture and social norms being employed and the individual rational agents employing them - which places a great deal of what we "normally" consider to be known to actually be resting on a deceptively firm foundation, epistemically.
To truly assign responsibility for the consequences of a freely choosing agent's beliefs, worldviews and choices is therefore not only precarious, but also extremely complex and not the straightforward enterprise so often assumed by most epistimologists (as well as those who adhere to the teachings of the Law of Attraction).
The clean delineations made in many approaches to ethics fail us when we delve deeply into the implications of Epistemic Responsibility. Alister MacIntyre examines this gap between the assumed universality of ethical principles applied in questions of justice and rationality commonly found in both philosophical and socio-political arenas. Both Code and MacIntyre remark upon the tendency of each individual philosophical commentator or expositor to assume their own standards of "truth-fixing" are sufficient. The both also note the need for recognizing the limitations on our conceptions of truth, as well as the need for accepting responsibility for one's own subjectivity in relation to both our Truths and our means of assessing and, if necessary, changing our beliefs and worldviews to achieve a more beneficial and sustainable state of being.
Much worthy work has been done in recognizing the here-to-fore unseen bias and ethnocentricities rife within all of the humanities, but there is still a vital issue I have not seen fully explicated as yet. For me, the 7,000 pound elephant in the room is the question of subjectivity.
Recent Social Cognitive Psychology research has revealed much about how an individual's belief about themselves and the world completely conditions the experience of that individual. The epistemological difficulty implied with this research is that other research in this same branch of psychology has shown some 95 - 98% of our choices are made unconsciously. If this research is a true reflection of how little conscious control we actually exercise over ourselves, a great deal is thrown into question.
Not only are issues of the trust and authority of ethical principles raised if the majority of our decisions are based on unconscious criteria, but the questions about the extent of responsibility for the outcomes of these unconscious choices are also raised. If we are to take Epistemic Responsibility seriously, then we have committed ourselves to making our own unconscious material that drives our deepest motivations and desires increasingly conscious.
This is very difficult, individualistic and messy work. This is why these types of questions are often left unasked by most ethicists and epistemologists - it is too complex, ephemeral and unique to be dissected, catalogued and mass marketed, the onus on the individual too great and burdensome to have wide appeal.
If we are to take Epistemic Responsibility seriously, we cannot place artificial limitations and bracket the application of this insight into isolated fields of enquiry. It seems to me that we must broaden our vision to include all fields of human endeavor, because where are subjective and unconscious choices not to be found? The ubiquity of human subjectivity is acknowledged in the old phrase, "to err is human..."
We see the world not as it is, but rather, we see the world as we are.
If we accept this claim made by current research in psychology, then it becomes incumbent upon us to also accept the responsibility to assess and re-evaluate our values, methods and beliefs when our outcomes do not meet our desired expectations.
Epistemic Responsibility means acknowledging direct control and accountability for the quality of your personal, subjective experience of reality, as well as the impact your beliefs, desires and actions have upon others in ever increasing circles. This responsibility must be honored even when you do not wish to see it. This view implies that we each potentially have the capacity for total control over our subjective experience, if we would but learn how to successfully shift and manage our beliefs towards more beneficial beliefs.
To embody full Epistemic Responsibility for ourselves, we have to be willing to work to improve our internal conditions in order to improve external conditions that affect others. This is the same thing that mystics, prophets, Gnostics and shamans have been admonishing humanity for eons.
This recognition of lack of conscious control should alarm both rationalists and empiricists alike, as both modes of knowing are potentially undermined by established conceptual ruts in our cultures, tribal, familial and personal histories. On the philosophical level, this brings into question all methods of justification, and therefore, all ethical and epistemological standards are likewise compromised. There is no Archimedes' Lever from which to gain an objective vantage point.
On the individual level, this recognition of lack of control can be devastating, as self-sabotage and self-imposed limitations are first seen and then acknowledged. This kind of inner work can be very unsettling, as our culture does not encourage nor equip us for facile introspection. Epistemic Responsibility (as well as the Law of Attraction) implies that we have much more power and control to shape our own experiences than we are comfortable with owning.
We are taught that we can be victims of others and circumstances, but this deeper view implies that we are only truly victims when we refuse to take responsibility for the quality of our own reality projections. Existentialism has intuited this implication in its acknowledgement that we only become victims when we abdicate our power to choose inner orientations and external actions to others.
Unfortunately, this abdication of our power and capacity to choose is far too commonly the case. We are not taught as children that our interpretation of an event can fix the path of our lives. We are not taught any form of epistemic hygiene, which would give us the tools to irradicate beliefs and interpretations that hinder us, and to reinforce beliefs and interpretations that are beneficial to ourselves and others in a mutually sustainable way. We generally do not take the time to re-valuate our values, unless driven to by some life crisis. It is too hard and painful work to be undertaken lightly, so many people, if the concept does manage to reach them, do not desire inquiry into the innermost recesses of their own being.
Yet, to ignore this issue is not to avoid being impacted by it. In fact, the more that this implication of Epistemic Responsibility is ignored, the more profoundly the impact of unconscious choices is felt, even if it is not recognized as such. To refuse to acknowledge your power and response-ability to deal with situations in your life is the experiential equivalent of enslavement, as you will always be at the effect of others and circumstances and never at cause in your own life.
We occupy a shared semantic reality, which we are constantly interpreting through our own lens of reality. And so is everyone else. Everyone is swimming in this vast unconscious ocean, in which we are all impacted by the thoughts/beliefs/actions of everyone else. When we accept total Epistemic Responsibility for the quality of our own lives and experiences, everything in life becomes an opportunity to bring in more consciousness, so that unconscious choices are reduced.
In this light, the highest calling we can answer to is to embrace the work implied in Epistemic Responsibility as a means of personal, social and global sustainability and semantic hygiene. By learning about and healing ourselves, we can learn about and heal the world. A lack of recognition and support for this kind of enquiry is common in the West.
In Eastern cultures, there is greater understanding of the semantic nature of our world and the subjective nature of experienced reality, and therefore, a much greater degree of social support for those willing to undergo the rigors of such an inner epistemological journey.
In Western cultures, the path to Epistemic Responsibility is more complex and less well delineated. For the most part, individuals who do undertake the arduous effort to become in greater conscious control of their beliefs and the consequences of their beliefs are left to shift for themselves. The services of health care professionals are sometimes sought in pursuit of some relief from the existential investigation often precipitated by a recognition to some degree of Epistemic Responsibility, but these are often ineffectual, as the nature of the dilemma is conceptual, and disciplines which focus on the healing of physical and emotional dimensions do not ameliorate epistemological and ethical growing pains.
Religious and esoteric teachings as well as some mystic teachings are available which do provide guidance and training for those seeking greater awareness, but these approaches are slow and difficult. Most are out of the mainstream and unknown to many people who might benefit from them. Many of these traditions require the acceptance of a new belief system, in favor of the individual's own supposedly dysfunctional belief system. For many people, the adoption of an alien belief system is too much to ask, even if the contents of one's own belief system are unknown and unrecognized.
An additional challenge includes the fear of lapsing into solipsism, in which one's own self is considered the source and sum of all reality. Solipsism cannot be entirely ruled out, due to the subjective nature of perceived reality. It may well be that we are completely responsible for the created of all of our personal experience, and all appearances of collectivity are merely projections of our own unconscious material. The lack of an objective vantage point means that we can never know for sure if there truly exists a reality independent of our own conscious experience of it. The thought that we may be entirely responsible for everything in the world is too much for some people to contemplate, much less bear.
The subjective and inward nature of this work guarantees that it will never be mass marketed, and the accustomed distaste for cognitive and ethical dissonance will likely discourage all but the most committed individuals from pursuing a path of true Epistemic Responsibility.
Yet, it seems to me that this kind of work is vital if we are, as a species, to overcome the challenges that face us on every front - political, ecological, economical and personal. If over 95% of all choices are colored by unconscious biases and motivations, gaining greater awareness and self-knowledge is the only way to be sure that efforts made to improve conditions for the self and others are truly effective, or are merely unconscious projections of our own fears, expectations, prejudices and desires.
If there is no such thing as true objectivity of any demonstrable variety, then we have no alternative but subjectivity. While we cannot always be sure of our deepest motives and biases when making choices, we can choose to make an effort to be as aware as possible in our choice-making. Even if we fail miserably to live up to our own ethical and epistemological expectations, the alternative to making the effort is too horrible to seriously contemplate.
1 Echeverri, Santiago. "Epistemic Responsibility and Perceptual Experience." To appear in Experience et reflexivite`: perspectives au-dela de l'empirisme et de l'idealisme. Ouverture Philosophique, Paris 2010
2 "Yet neither the assumed distinctness of moral and epistemic concerns, nor the congruence of moral knowledge across the diversity of moral situations and agents can persist uninterrogated, once the social-historical-cultural contingency-hence the artifactuality and contestability-of presumptions of human sameness is acknowledged." Code, 'Narratives of Responsibility and Agency: Reading Margaret Walker's Moral Understanding.' Hypatia No. 17 Vol.1 pgs. 156 - 173 2002
3 MacIntyre, Alasdair, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana 1988
4 These questions are explored more fully by Mark Lyons, Steve Hetherington and Gloria Origgi.
Taking Charge of Your Beliefs
Epistemology and Skepticism
What We Can and Cannot Know about Absolute Reality
Law of Attraction
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Taking Charge of Your Beliefs
Epistemology and Skepticism
What We Can and Cannot Know about Absolute Reality
Law of Attraction