A Bayesian explanation of the irrationality of sexist and racist beliefs involving generic content

Synthese 197 (6):2465-2487 (2020)
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Various sexist and racist beliefs ascribe certain negative qualities to people of a given sex or race. Epistemic allies are people who think that in normal circumstances rationality requires the rejection of such sexist and racist beliefs upon learning of many counter-instances, i.e. members of these groups who lack the target negative quality. Accordingly, epistemic allies think that those who give up their sexist or racist beliefs in such circumstances are rationally responding to their evidence, while those who do not are irrational in failing to respond to their evidence by giving up their belief. This is a common view among philosophers and non-philosophers. But epistemic allies face three problems. First, sexist and racist beliefs often involve generic propositions. These sorts of propositions are notoriously resilient in the face of counter-instances since the truth of generic propositions is typically compatible with the existence of many counter-instances. Second, background beliefs can enable one to explain away counter-instances to one’s beliefs. So even when counter-instances might otherwise constitute strong evidence against the truth of the generic, the ability to explain the counter-instances away with relevant background beliefs can make it rational to retain one’s belief in the generic despite the existence of many counter-instances. The final problem is that the kinds of judgements epistemic allies want to make about the irrationality of sexist and racist beliefs upon encountering many counter-instances is at odds with the judgements that we are inclined to make in seemingly parallel cases about the rationality of non-sexist and non-racist generic beliefs. Thus epistemic allies may end up having to give up on plausible normative supervenience principles. All together, these problems pose a significant prima facie challenge to epistemic allies. In what follows I explain how a Bayesian approach to the relation between evidence and belief can neatly untie these knots. The basic story is one of defeat: Bayesianism explains when one is required to become increasingly confident in chance propositions, and confidence in chance propositions can make belief in corresponding generics irrational.

Author's Profile

Paul Silva Jr.
University of Cologne


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