The Inequities of Knowledge in Liberal Democracy

By Brooke Jordan

The modern liberal democracy has failed democracy itself. This failure is not the result of misuse or problems within the system—it is an inherent mechanism of the system itself. Thus, liberal democracy has failed on account of its foundations. Within these foundations, epistemic injustice is encouraged to flourish. In this essay, I will demonstrate how theories of epistemic injustice provide critical insight into the foundations of modern liberal democracy, in particular how the democratic process of correctiveness is disallowed. This foundational inability of liberal democracy to conduce correctiveness exemplifies epistemic injustice, necessitating an alternate system of democracy. Consequently, I will conclude that a Peircean deliberative democracy offers an ideal system for minimising epistemic injustice through increasing democratic correctiveness. I will begin by arguing that epistemic injustice is emboldened by a lack of correctiveness in liberal democracy, the foundations of which hinders such a process. A Peircean analysis of epistemic injustice and correctiveness further demonstrates the strengths of a Peircean deliberative democracy as a viable alternative system.

Firstly, I will analyse how epistemic injustice is exemplified by a lack of correctiveness in modern liberal democracy. Epistemic injustice, in testimonial use, is the unintentional or intentional refusal of an audience to engage in a reciprocatively communicative exchange due to pernicious ignorance.[1] Pernicious ignorance is “consistent” ignorance that results from “a predictable gap in cognitive resources.” [2] An example of this is an Australian toddler being ignorant to the health and food safety laws of Belgium. While Miranda Fricker gave the theory of epistemic injustice its terminology, she fails to acknowledge the black women and theorists of colour whom had written about similar notions prior.[3] Fricker considers two types of power. Firstly, agential power; that is, the power of social agents. Secondly, she considers the type of power that operates purely structurally, in which no agent exercises their particular power.[4] Both the latter and former provide social power in the capacity to influence the social world. This power can be active or passive; however, it exists regardless of being realised through action.[5] These forms of power can be better understood through an example—such as a man being listened to at the expense of a woman being silenced, which  is the result of him being male and demonstrates agential power. Purely structural power, to use Fricker’s example, can be seen in certain disenfranchised groups being statistically unlikely to vote.[6]

Moreover, Fricker characterises ‘identity power’ as the kind of social power that requires an imaginative social coordination. That is, shared conceptions of social identity that govern stereotypes and gender roles. For example, the culturally-shared notion that expects women to be child-bearers and mothers. Identity power is at work when power is dependent upon some instance of these shared imaginative conceptions of social identity.[7] This power may be agential or structural, and it may work to be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Fricker argues that identity power can control our actions even in spite of our beliefs—one may not believe a certain stereotype formulated by and within the shared imaginative conception of social identity as truth, but may act accordingly nonetheless.[8] Furthermore, Fricker argues that identity power is an integral part of testimonial exchange. Testimonial exchange is the discursive engagement and transactions of knowledge between interlocutors.[9] Here, epistemic dysfunction may result from the audience’s conditioned need to assess a speaker using stereotypes formed in the social imagination. In the case of credibility excess, the audience inflates the speaker’s credibility. For example, valuing the opinion of a white person more highly on account of their race. Comparatively, a credibility deficit occurs when a speaker’s credibility is undermined.[10] For example, a woman being taken less seriously due to her gender. In the last instance, a speaker is specifically wronged as a knower—their knowledge is insulted and undermined. This results in a testimonial injustice and, therefore, epistemic injustice.  A speaker cannot experience such an injustice in a case of credibility excess; thus, the primary characterisation of testimonial injustice is the occurrence of a credibility deficit.[11] In refining this characterisation of testimonial injustice, Fricker proposes the systematic case. In such a case, testimonial injustice occurs if the speaker receives a credibility deficit due to identity prejudice occurring in the hearer—hence, the central case of testimonial injustice is the ‘identity prejudicial credibility deficit’.[12] These testimonial injustices are connected through a common prejudice with other variations of injustices as they follow the subjects through different dimensions of social activity—economic, educational, professional, sexual, legal, political, religious, and so on.[13] For example, prejudices concerning black people that result in testimonial injustice using agential power (receiving a credibility deficit in academic circles) and systemic power (statistically receiving harsher penalties and longer jail time). Such harms caused are both epistemic and practical. In a practical sense, harm resulting from testimonial injustice may result in a victim being found guilty when they are actually innocent or losing a job position due to a misperceived weakness.[14] Epistemically, one may be harmed by losing confidence in their belief or their intellectual abilities entirely.[15] These are instances of epistemic injustice, which are exemplified through a lack of correctiveness in liberal democracy.

Correctiveness is a system’s ability to correct itself—to right its wrongs and sustain, if not improve, the functions of the system. Plumwood argues that the superiority of democracy to other systems is its ability to adapt and correct.[16] Thus, in order to understand why democracy is failing one must first understand what is hindering the corrective capacity of the system. Plumwood concludes that the radical inequality evident in modern liberal democracy is an indication of the capacity of privileged groups to control the distribution of social goods that hinders “the corrective, democratic reshaping of social institutions”.[17] In disallowing correctiveness, social power is given to the few and privileged in liberal democracies. Hence, the conception of social identity in the collective social imagination is heavily constructed to enable and uphold the agendas of those in power, who  hinder correctiveness. Thus, the problem of credibility excesses and deficits continues without correction, as those hindering the process can practically and epistemically profit from disallowing correctiveness.[18] To return to a previous example, black individuals receiving a longer sentence and/or harsher criminal penalty than their white counterparts are victim to a systematic, prejudicial testimonial injustice occurring due to a credibility deficit. Whereas a white individual who may commit the same crime and receive a far more lenient sentencing is profiting from a credibility excess. Here, one may critique Fricker for neglecting the correlation between credibility excesses and deficits. In this regard, I agree with Rachel McKinnon’s line of reasoning, wherein credibility is not accidentally given and taken away, but rather is socially and temporally extended. Hence, it must be understood as such. For McKinnon, epistemic injustice functions as interrelated, with epistemic privilege (credibility excesses) exacerbating or resulting in epistemic injustices.[19] Lack of correctiveness plays an important role in epistemic injustice and can be further understood through the theory of credibility economy. In this sense, credibility, knowledge, and concept—hermeneutical resources—are distributed unevenly. Thus, disadvantaged groups are blocked from communicating and accessing knowledge.[20] Fricker calls this hermeneutical marginalisation. A democratic system ought to  aim to correct this epistemic injustice, create an equal distribution of credibility, and diminish the prevalence of epistemic injustice. However, the inability—or, perhaps, refusal—of modern liberal democracy to allow such a process demonstrates a foundational failure.

To continue, the lack of correctiveness and exemplification of epistemic injustice within liberal democracy is not the result of mere systemic failure, but rather demonstrates a failure rooted in its very foundations. Foundationalism is the notion that a particular practice must appeal to something that exists independently to the practice itself. These practices are pre-political values and principles of which foundations rest upon.[21] These foundations can also be understood as epistemological frameworks that structure our social understandings.[22] Liberal foundations create dominant epistemic frameworks, formulating the credibility economy wherein hermeneutical and epistemic injustices occur. Thus, the foundations of liberal democracy reject correctiveness in that its dominant epistemic frameworks block those outside of the hermeneutical framework from exercising social power. Furthermore, the dominant problem with modern liberal democracy is its foundational lack of justification for democracy. The pre-political values of equality, freedom, human rights, etc., formulate the dominant frameworks. In presupposing various ideals, the ability for democracy to correct itself is hindered, as the framework must remain confined within the paradigms of the foundation’s values. Hence the result of epistemic injustice.

Furthermore, one may argue that democracy does not need foundations, but justifications. This argument is not foundationalist nor anti-foundationalist, as both presuppose unnecessary metaphysical truths without warrant.[23] The justifications for democracy do not need to be foundationalist or otherwise, as long as democracy can be justified. This succeeds in justifying democracy without appealing to principles that foundationally invoke an epistemic hindrance of correctiveness and embolden epistemic injustice. These justifications cannot rely on the pre-political virtues or prior notions of right or wrong. Justification is an ongoing process—one, I argue, which is most viably achieved through a Peircean deliberative democracy.

Having demonstrated the foundational inability of modern liberal democracy to conduce correctiveness and its predilection toward epistemic injustice, one must finally look for viable alternatives to this system. A Peircean deliberative democracy offers a solution to the problems created within modern liberal democracy and provides a justification for democracy that avoids the problems of foundationalism. A Peircean deliberative democracy rests upon notions of Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of pragmatism. The viability of Peircean deliberative democracy fundamentally rests upon a philosophical argument—arguing for a political system that provides the best epistemic view.[24] This argument is heavily expounded by Misak, who proposes a deliberative democracy void of moral arguments—of any ‘pre-political’ moral values.[25] To begin, a Peircean democracy presupposes the notion that to be human is to be a social, reasoning creature. It entails the inevitable engagement of deliberating, deducing, and hypothesising. As Misak notes on Peirce, our beliefs are active. That is to say, beliefs do not come about on their own. Rather, they stem from an active experience of doubt. This experience of doubt is an active experience—a feeling of genuine irritation. It is only through experience of doubt that one can attain ‘true’ (genuine) belief.[26] Peirce contrasts this genuine belief with paper doubt, as exemplified by Descartes’ abstract, unmotivated mediations. As Peirce argues, it is only through genuine doubt that one can ‘fix’ beliefs.[27]Furthermore, Misak argues that these epistemic norms of fixing beliefs follow from our very beings. Misak argues for the scientific method of fixing belief because it entails an epistemic agency involving a readiness to engage in discourse, argument, and reason-exchanging.[28] Essentially, to be a believer is to be a truth-seeker.[29] To be such is to be an inquirer (or reason-giver), and to be an inquirer is to be a reason-exchanger. Hence, a person is constituted as a participant within a community of inquirers.[30] A community of inquirers, Peirce argues, is necessary in order to truly fix belief. To this end, Peirce proposes the method of science. This correspondence theory of truth maintains the necessity for a group of vastly different inquirers to work discursively in dialogue and ultimately reach the same conclusion; thus, attaining a genuine belief about truth.[31] It is important to note that the belief attained is not true in itself—here, Peirce maintains a fallibilistic approach. To continue, deliberative democracy provides justification for democracy as its commitment to inquiry, debate, and discourse is a commitment to democracy itself.[32] Hence, Peircean deliberative democracy fundamentally justifies, and is justified by, its commitment to democratic practices. To continue, its commitment to inquiry succeeds where democracy fails—a conduciveness to correctiveness that diminishes and hinders epistemic injustice. Peircean deliberative democracy achieves this, as it not only encourages but requires all voices to be heard in the scientific method of fixing truth. Consequently, all epistemic frameworks and knowers are equally valid and taken into account when fixing belief and, thus, in deciding the dominant epistemic framework of knowledge. Therefore, Peircean deliberative democracy does not dispense with the credibility economy, but rather helps equalise it. Nonetheless, one may criticise this system for failing to entirely eradicate hermeneutical injustice. As Pateman suggests, it is possible that even in non-liberal frameworks, those who most need to engage in democracy are considered the least likely to do so—thereby essentially reproducing ‘miniature liberalism’.[33] This is a valid criticism, however, I argue that Peircean deliberative democracy is conducive to correctiveness and provides a viable structure for correcting hermeneutical injustice. Whilst the possibility of epistemic injustice remains, the capacity for correctiveness greatly helps to diminish its perversity. Thus, Peircean deliberative democracy provides a viable alternative that avoids the ills of foundational justification.

In conclusion, theories of epistemic injustice provide critical insight into the foundations of modern liberal democracy; in particular, how the democratic process of correctiveness is hindered. Epistemic injustice is rampant in modern liberal democracy, relentlessly perpetuating testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. The foundational inability of liberal democracy to be conducive to correctiveness exacerbates this epistemic injustice, necessitating an alternative system of democracy. Thus, the very foundations of modern liberal democracies inherently and problematically invoke epistemic injustice. Therefore, it is necessary to provide a justification for democracy that in turn justifies a democratic system that encourages correctiveness. I have argued a Peircean deliberative democracy offers an ideal system for minimising epistemic injustice through correctiveness and, as such, offers the best alternative to modern liberal democracy. Whilst this alternative cannot right all of the many wrongs apparent in society, it can offer a stronger, viable way of attempting to find solutions.

Brooke is in her final year of the Bachelor of Arts at the University of Queensland. She hopes to continue her studies of philosophy in an honours program; then, God willing, a doctorate. She enjoys French social and phenomenological philosophy and aspires to own as many turtlenecks as Foucault.


[1] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing,  (London: Oxford Scholarship, 2007): 33.

[2] Ibid., 33-34.

[3] Jose Medina, “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Imaginary,” Social Epistemology 25, no. 1 (2011): 6.

[4] Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 28-29.

[5] Ibid., 35.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 35-36.

[9] Ibid., 43.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 55-56.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 61.

[15] Ibid., 59.

[16] Val Plumwood, “Has Democracy failed ecology? An Ecofeminist Perspective,” Environmental Politics, 4, no. 4 (1995): 136-7.

[17] Ibid., 138.

[18] Shoshana Pollack, “An Imprisoning Gaze: Practices of gendered, racialized and epistemic violence,” International Review of Victimology 19, no. 1 (2012): 104-5.

[19] Medina, “The Relevance of Credibility Excess,” 13.

[20] Fricker, “Epistemic Injustice,” 33.

[21] Amy Gutmamn, “Foundationalism and Democracy,” in Democracy and Difference: Contextualising the Boundaries of the Political, ed. Seyla Benhabib (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996): 336-39.

[22] Richard Roty, “Idealizations, Foundations, and Social Practices,” in Democracy and Difference: Contextualising the Boundaries of the Political, ed. Seyla Benhabib (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996): 456-58. 

[23] Ibid., 459.

[24] Robert B. Talisee, “From Pragmatism to Perfectionism: ‘Cheryl’s Misak’s Epistemic Deliberative of Inquiry,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 33, no. 3 (2017): 389-40.

[25] Ibid., 41.

[26] David L Hildebrand, “Genuine Doubt and the Community in Peirce’s Theory of Inquiry,” Southwest Philosophy Review 12, no. 1 (1996): 35.

[27] Ibid., 33.

[28] Talisee, “From pragmatism to perfectionism,” 403.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Gutmamn, “Foundationalism and Democracy,” 344.

[32] Ibid., 28-29.

[33] Talisee, “From Pragmatism to Perfectionism,” 343.

Works Cited

Brooks, Thom. “A Critique of Pragmatism and Deliberative Democracy.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 45, no.1 (2011): 1-50.

Dahl, Robert A. “Democratic Theroy and Democratic Experience.” In Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaris of the Political. Edited by Seyla Benhabib. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996. 336-359.

Davis, Emmalen Mika. “Testifying Across Difference: Responsibility for Interpersonal and Structural Epistemic Injustice.” PhD, dissertation. Indiana University. (2017): 1-50.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. London: Oxford Scholarship, 2007. 45-430.

———. “Forum on Miranda Fricker’s ‘Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing.” Theoria: An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science 23, no.1 (2008): 69-71.

Hildebrand, David L. “Genuine Doubt and the Community in Peirce’s Theory of Inquiry.” Southwest Philosophy Review 12, no. 1 (1996): 31-45.

Kal, Gain. The Problem of Political Foundations in Carl Schmitt and Emmanuel Lavinas. London: Springer Nature, 2016. 1-26.

McKinnon, Rachel. “Epistemic Injustice.” Philosophy Compass 11, no.8 (2016): 35-56.

Medina, Jose. “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Inquiry.” Social Epistemology 25, no. 1 (2011): 15-35.

Origgi, Gloria. “Epistemic Injustice and Epistemic Trust.” Social Epistemology 26, no.2 (2012): 221-235.

Pollack, Shoshana. “An Imprisoning Gaze: Practices of Gendered, Racialized, and Epistemic Violence.” International Review of Victimology 19, no. 1 (2012): 103-114.

Roscigno, Vincent J. “The Cultural and Political Foundations of Inequality.” American Behavioural Scientist 60, no.2 (2016): 127-130.

Rorty, Richard. “Idealizations, Foundations, and Justifications.” In Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaris of the Political. Edited by Seyla Benhabib. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996. 359-380.

Plumwood, Val. “Has Democracy Failed Ecology? An Ecofeminist Perspective.” Environmental Politics 4, no. 4 (1995): 134-160.

Talisee, Robert B. “A Critique of Pragmatism and Deliberative Democracy.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 40, no.1 (2009): 551-739.

———. “From Pragmatism to Perfectionism: ‘Cheryl’s Misak’s Epistemic Deliberative of Inquiry.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 33, no. 3 (2017): 387-406.

———. “Towards a Peircean Politics of Inquiry.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 40, no.1 (2004): 21-38.

Featured image by Michael D Beckwith via flickr


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