My dissertation is centered on the moral dimensions of belief and testimony as these topics bear on members of marginalized communities. Specifically, I focus on deference to moral testimony regarding “identity-based moral harms,” those moral harms which individuals experience qua their identity as a member of a marginalized group.[1]

 My primary goal is two-fold: First, I argue that there is a prima facie duty for people who are not members of the relevant identity group to defer to those who are, when such individuals testify about identity-based moral harms that they themselves have experienced. Second, I argue that the literature on moral deference currently conflates a variety of deference and epistemic attitudes, and, in particular, fails to recognize a distinction between two types of deference: Epistemically deferring—which is to believe an individual’s testimony is credible—and actionally deferring—which means to act appropriately, in line with the content and context of the testimony (even if one does not believe the testifier).[2] I demonstrate a range of cases which show that these strains of deference can (but do not always) come apart.

From the first goal stems the following questions, which I plan to explore: What is the nature of this duty to defer? Is it a duty of epistemic deference, actional deference, or both? And if there is a duty of epistemic deference, is it a duty to believe or merely accept the testimony of the testifier? Under which conditions does this duty hold, and under what circumstances can (and should) this duty be overridden? In cases where marginalized persons disagree regarding whether something is or is not an identity-based moral harm, to whom do you defer, and why?

From the second goal, there remains the foundational question of what, exactly, it is to defer to someone’s testimony. Currently, some in the literature reject the notion of moral deference based on the seemingly “fishy”[3] quality of transmitting moral knowledge via testimony. Still others use the terms “accept” and “believe” as interchangeable attitudes regarding the act of deference. It seems to me that there are a range of potential epistemic attitudes including not only acceptance and belief, but also suspension of disbelief, or treating it as a real possibility, etc., that would be relevant. I am interested in clarifying the relationships between or among these attitudes and determining where to set the epistemic bar for moral deference.

I also plan to explore the normative emotions of trust and respect, and how they affect the epistemic dimensions of belief. Does some principle of respect motivate the prima facie duty to defer? Perhaps a lack of trust will undermine belief, but ought it to undermine our actional deference as well? In my dissertation, I seek to cache out how the relations of trust and respect come to bear on the act of deferring and on our obligation (or lack of obligation) to defer under particular circumstances.

Another point of interest is the role of intention in acts that are perceived by a marginalized persons to be harmful. I have argued that a member outside the relevant marginalized identity ought to defer to a member of that identity regarding the identity-based moral harms that they themselves have experienced. And yet, one of the symptoms of marginalization is a sensitivity to such harms—call this the sharpened antenna phenomenon. On occasion, this sensitivity may lead to a misinterpretation of a truly benign action as an act of racism, sexism, transphobia, etc. How might we square this with a general moral obligation to defer to marginalized people about their experiences with identity-based moral harms? I plan to show that regardless of the benign intention of the actor, such acts are not necessarily harmless in the context of systemic injustice and personal experience. Lack of blame on the part of the actor does not amount to lack of harm in the action. I will demonstrate that despite this apparent challenge to deference for identity-based moral harms, the prima facie duty to defer holds under such conditions.

Last, the question of moral deference regarding marginalized people poses an interesting opportunity to clarify the relation between individual and group harms, and the extent to which one person is licensed to speak for their community affected by such harms. It is known that it is problematic to ask one person about their experience in order to generalize them as representative of their entire marginalized community (tokenism). However, there does seem to be a way in which identity-based harms generalize: We need to have an understanding of what an identity group finds harmful in order to respect members of such a group. How do we navigate these necessary generalizations without short-changing individual agents? I will explore the relation between an individual’s testimony as it relates to collective, systemic harms.

[1] Elizabeth Williams and I have co-authored this definition

[2] This distinction is also a result of my co-authored work

[3] Enoch’s word: Enoch, D. (2014) ‘A Defense of Moral Deference’, The Journal of Philosophy, 111: 1–30.