Epistemic Injustice in the Political Domain: Powerless Citizens and Institutional Reform


Democratic legitimacy is often grounded in proceduralist terms, referring to the ideal of political equality that should be mirrored by fair procedures of decision-making. The paper argues (§1) that the normative commitments embedded in a non-minimalist account of procedural legitimacy are well expressed by the ideal of co-authorship. Against this background, the main goal of the paper is to argue that structural forms of epistemic injustice are detrimental to the overall legitimacy of democratic systems. In §2 I analyse Young’s notion of political powerlessness and claim that in structurally unjust social contexts members of powerless groups often are not properly acknowledged as functioning members of the polity, hence being jeopardized in their ability to develop part of their personal identity. In §III, I define gerrymandering as an example of political disempowerment that involves an epistemic harm for oppressed citizens, namely, to be prejudicially excluded from the community of epistemic trust. My thesis is that being epistemically disempowered has a negative impact on the way in which citizens understand themselves as political actors, since they suffer a lack of social recognition that may impede a proper development of their reflexive agency. In §IV, I discuss the proposal of granting epistemic privilege to members of oppressed groups, given their specific experience of social injustices. I introduce two concerns about this proposal, one morally grounded and one pragmatically oriented. Finally, in §V, I briefly sketch some institutional remedies that can be employed in order to politically fight systemic forms of epistemic injustice.

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  1. 1.

    By contrast, recent instrumental conceptions of democratic legitimacy have claimed that to be legitimate a democratic decision-making process needs to promote substantive values and pursue the common good (Van Parijs 1998). According to this perspective, the legitimacy of a decision-making process depends exclusively upon the substantive quality of its outcomes, it does not require political equality. Within this framework, political disenfranchisement might be justifiable if such an unfair treatment would ensure substantively better choices (Arneson 1993). As a consequence, instrumental conceptions of legitimacy could justify a decision-making process in which citizens are treated as mere beneficiaries of policies rather than as political agents. As it will become clear in what it follows in the paper, this perspective is quite the opposite to the one I defend here.

  2. 2.

    It is important to distinguish between: i. minimalist proceduralist accounts (Dahl 1959; Riker 1982), according to which the legitimacy of democracy is grounded in the very existence of a scheme of rules and procedures of consent formation under conditions of fairness, where no reference is made to the values promoted by those procedures; ii. normatively oriented versions of proceduralism (Ceva 2016; Christiano 2008; Urbinati and Saffon 2013; Waldron 1999) according to which democracy incorporates substantive political values that democratic procedures instantiate. For a more nuanced review of different proceduralist accounts, see Biale and Liveriero (2017) and Peter (2007, 2008).

  3. 3.

    “In contrast with minimalist conceptions, proceduralism imposes a robust normative standard for democracy, which goes beyond the overcoming of violence among factions”, Urbinati and Saffon 2013: 2.

  4. 4.

    It is important to clarify that, according to a non-minimalist reading of the ideal of co-authorship, this ideal is not exhausted by the democratic practice of voting. Co-authorship is a richer normative notion, that regards the kind of respect citizens owe each other qua political agents as well as should inform the informal participatory (and deliberative) practices that characterize democratic systems. As we shall see, in the formal and informal settings that shape the public sphere of a political society, the ideal of co-authorship is often disregarded in public conflicts over the definition of social standards and the management of public space. I thank an anonymous referee for suggesting this clarification.

  5. 5.

    Famously Jeremy Waldron (1999) urged that neutrality per se does not grant substantive fairness. As long as neutrality among citizens is concerned, tossing a coin and majority-rule solution would both be procedurally valid. Normative oriented accounts of proceduralism reply to this criticism stressing that decision-making process should also reflect the commitment of giving equal weight to each person’s opinion, a feature that lacks in random selection. The criterion of equal consideration at work here is responsiveness: outcomes of democratic decision-making process should mirror the demands of participants involved in the decision making either by meeting their valid claims, or by offering a justification for rejecting their claims that would be acceptable to them (Estlund 2008; Mackie 2011).

  6. 6.

    The notion of opacity respect derives from the fundamental distinction provided by Steven Darwall (1977) between recognition-respect and appraisal-respect. The first is attributed in virtue of the recognition of others as persons. Ascribed by default, it is a priori and unconditional and does not admit of degrees. Appraisal-respect, instead, expresses the positive consideration of a person. It is a posteriori, conditional on actual conduct and comes in degrees. Intersubjectively, agents relate to each other through appraisal-respect, but at the political level, as citizens, they should establish relations that are grounded in a form of recognition-respect. Opacity respect is a specific form of recognition-respect and is a fitting response to dignity in other persons when we are reasoning about political interactions among political institutions and citizens (Carter 2011: 557).

  7. 7.

    “When is opacity respect an appropriate attitude? I suggest that we have reason to adopt the attitude of opacity respect toward a particular being when two (jointly necessary) conditions obtain: first, that being possesses dignity as agential capacity (which is to say, it possesses at least a certain absolute minimum of the relevant empirical capacities); second, we stand in a certain relation to that being such that it is appropriate for us to view that being simply as an agent. The basic idea is that when an agent is laid bare—when it is considered as an agent and no more than an agent—our respect for that agent depends on our clothing it with outward dignity as an agent—that is, on our adopting an external point of view, taking the agent as given and refraining from “looking inside” it in the sense specified earlier”, Carter 2011: 556 (italics in the original).

  8. 8.

    We can debate about how inclusive the right-to-vote-threshold should be and we ought to be careful to avoid any form of prejudice-based argument in establishing the absolute minimal criteria that ought to be met in order to be granted the right to vote. Yet, there is a sense in which people with severe cognitive disabilities, animals – and, as mentioned by one of the anonymous referees, may be even the environment – are bearer of rights, but cannot be directly included among the constituency of voters. I should note that Martha Nussbaum (2009) contends that the equal citizenship of individuals with substantial intellectual impairments requires that they are enabled to exercise such political rights as voting and jury service through appropriate surrogates. I do not have space hear to address this topic, but I agree with Nussbaum that the normative commitment to political equality imposes to find ways to include as much as possible subjects with cognitive disabilities in the decision-making processes, otherwise a large group of citizens would end up simply as disqualified from the most essential functions of citizenship.

  9. 9.

    Naturally, a functioning democratic system should be able to provide public procedures to establish which subjects ought to be acknowledged as epistemically privileged sources to whom we should defer for deciding specific matters (e.g. a special committee for political matters intertwined with scientific findings; members of juries; members of boards with technical goals, etc.). The model I am defending here requires that for public choices each citizen is regarded as a putative epistemic authority by default, as an input condition. This does not mean though that legitimate forms of epistemic asymmetries should be ruled out. Rather, when epistemic privileges must be granted, then the opacity requirement should be bracket, in order to properly assess – through public accountable procedures – who deserve to be ascribed epistemic authority over specific matters. Here then the legitimacy derives from the adequacy of public and accountable procedures for establishing who can be warranted the status of expert to decide over spectific relevant matters.

  10. 10.

    Recently, a very interesting literature has been spurred by Miranda Fricker’s book Epistemic Injustice (2007) concerning distinctively epistemic forms of injustice suffered by subjects specifically in their capacity as knowers. Fricker (2007: 1) introduces two distinctively epistemic forms of injustice: i. testimonial injustice, that “occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word” and ii. hermeneutical injustice that “occurs when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.”

  11. 11.

    Structural explanations can be distinguished from aggregative explanations. Structural explanations describe a phenomenon as part of a larger phenomenon that sets constraints on the behavior of agents, in this regard providing an account of structuring causes that are not coincident with incidental-triggering causes.

  12. 12.

    Allen Buchanan (2004) develops an interesting argument according to which functioning liberal institutions tend to impose a significant constraint on epistemic deference, providing citizens with the context to develop an entitlement to expound and defend their own personal opinions, rather than refer to socially imposed epistemic authorities. I do agree that liberal institutions, in theory, are more suited than other collective models to avoiding epistemic forms of injustice, exactly because the ideal of co-authorship is engrained in the historical development of this model. However, in this paper my goal is to analyze why the model does not pay off as ideally envisioned and to provide a brief sketch of possible remedies.

  13. 13.

    “The powerless are those who lack authority or power even in this mediated sense, those over whom power is exercised without their exercising it; the powerless are situated so that they must take orders and rarely have the right to give them,” Young 1990: 56.

  14. 14.

    It is worth mentioning that there are different versions of gerrymandering that relate to specific categories that tend to be politically disenfranchised by the manipulation of district borders. For example, we can talk of racial gerrymandering; partisan gerrymandering; ethnic gerrymandering. For the scope of this paper I do not need to specify differences among these kinds, since I believe that the general argument I lay out applies in all these cases.

  15. 15.

    Very recently, the US Supreme Court declined to set limits on gerrymandering (see Rucho et al. 2019v. Common Cause et al. No. 18–422, 588 U.S._2019). With a 5–4 vote, the justices ruled that the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to regulate election maps. Along with a widespread debate concerning the questions to include in the US 2020 census, this decision by the Supreme Court could seriously increase partisan redistricting.

  16. 16.

    Fricker (2007: 44–51) distinguishes between primary and secondary aspects of harm. However, she specifically focuses on instances in which the epistemic harm – the harm done to the knower qua knower – is the primary harm, whereas secondary harms involve many practical aspects, such as imperilment of professional advancement. Correctly, Fricker notes that secondary harms are often overlooked, while they have broad and deep effects of people’s life. Here, I am focusing on structural and institutional circumstances of real-world democracies, such as gerrymandering, in which the primary harm is political-procedural, and the epistemic harm is secondary, namely, the treatment of specific members of the polity as not epistemically trustworthy members of the political community. I maintain that exposing the consequences of unfair procedures as gerrymandering both in their political and epistemic dimension is important, in order to fully grasp the wide-raging negative impacts on people lives of these forms of political disenfranchisement. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point.

  17. 17.

    Catala develops the interesting notion of epistemic domination drawing upon the republican notion of non-domination (Pettit 1997) and extending this analysis to the epistemic realm.

  18. 18.

    Correctly, speaking of cultural imperialism as a form of oppression, Young (1990: 59) states: “The culturally dominated undergo a paradoxical oppression, in that they are both marked out by stereotypes and at the same time rendered invisible. As remarkable, deviant beings, the culturally imperialized are stamped with an essence. […] White males, on the other hand, insofar as they escape group marking, can be individuals.”

  19. 19.

    Dotson (2011: 244) speaks of epistemic smothering: “Testimonial smothering, ultimately, is the truncating of one’s own testimony in order to ensure that the testimony contains only content for which one’s audience demonstrates testimonial competence. Testimonial smothering exists in testimonial exchanges that are charged with complex social and epistemic concerns.”

  20. 20.

    Refusing to grant epistemic privilege to situated agents does not mean to be oblivious of the ability of specific agents to conceptualize particular social experiences. For example, it is important to stress that women are better equipped for understanding and providing insights into and critical analyses of the phenomena of sexual harassment or that African Americans have more epistemic resources to discuss and characterize the impact of race on the lives of US citizens. Yet, I think it is possible to thematically distinguish between epistemic privilege and epistemic expertise, where the second can be publicly recognized in certain members of the constituencies without necessarily referring to their specific personal experiences and biographies.

  21. 21.

    More powerfully, Nora Berenstain (2016) argues that requests by privileged persons to be educated on oppression by marginalized persons involves a specific form of epistemic exploitation. “Epistemic exploitation is a variety of epistemic oppression marked by unrecognized, uncompensated, emotionally taxing, coerced epistemic labor. It maintains structures of oppression by centering the needs and desires of dominant groups and exploiting the emotional and cognitive labor of members of marginalized groups who are required to do the unpaid and often unacknowledged work of providing information, resources, and evidence of oppression to privileged persons who demand it—and who benefit from those very oppressive systems about which they demand to be educated” (2016: 570).

  22. 22.

    Michael Fuerstein (2013) develops an interesting argument about the game-theoretical character of epistemic trust relations in social settings.

  23. 23.

    For example, I think that the notion of reasonableness, as a practical virtue of citizenship, can be extended in order to include a further feature, that is, critical sensibility toward epistemic misrecognition. This means that a political agent cannot be properly defined as politically reasonable if she proves to be unmindful of instances of epistemic oppression.


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I presented some of the arguments developed in this paper at the Swip-UK 2019 Annual Conference, Epistemic Injustice, Reasons and Agency, held in May 2019 at the University of Kent. I want to thank the participants to this event for their valuable comments. I am particularly indebted to Magali Bessone, Amandine Catala, Emanuela Ceva and Alessandra Tanesini for their helpful remarks. Special thanks also to Giulia Bistagnino, Anna Elisabetta Galeotti and Davide Pala for their written comments. I am very grateful to the two anonymous referees for their detailed feedback and critiques.

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This work was supported by the Italian National Operational Programme on “Research and Innovation” PON (2014-2020), which is largely funded by the European Fund for Regional Development and the European Social Fund. Grant number: AIM1813255-1. CUP: B26C19000040001.

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Correspondence to Federica Liveriero.

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Liveriero, F. Epistemic Injustice in the Political Domain: Powerless Citizens and Institutional Reform. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-020-10097-w

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  • Non-minimalist account of procedural legitimacy
  • Opacity respect
  • Political powerlessness
  • Epistemic injustice
  • Structural reform