14th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Burns

Ewan Burns

Conservatism’s Problem of Epistemic Oppression: A Solution?

In this paper I defend conservatism against the objection that it is committed to epistemic oppression. First, I discuss what I take conservatism to be. I argue that conservatism is a commitment to two things: traditionalism and free market economics. I suggest that an argument for conservatism can be developed from the idea that moral knowledge is a species of social knowledge, encoded in traditions. Second, I consider what epistemic oppression is, and why the conservative may be committed to it. I argue that epistemic oppression is persistent and unwarranted infringement on individuals’ ability to utilise shared epistemic resources in respect of knowledge-acquisition, knowledge-transference and criticism of those epistemic resources. I also contend that it may appear that conservatives are committed to epistemic oppression. On some conservative views, traditions are the sole source of moral knowledge, and its preservation may seem to require the persistent and unwarranted dismissal of the testimony of those who question traditional beliefs. Crucially, this is sometimes done on the basis of epistemically irrelevant factors, in which case it is clearly unjust. Third, I sketch a possible response. I suggest that while it may appear that the conservative is committed to dismissing others’ testimony on the basis of epistemically irrelevant factors, this is not so. According to conservatives, traditional beliefs have high default credibility. If that claim is true, then it is likely that someone who questions a given traditional belief is mistaken. That, however, clearly is epistemically relevant. Crucially, the default credibility of traditions can be overridden. This allows us to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted exclusion. Where there are reasons for taking a given traditional belief to be false, exclusion is unwarranted. Where there are no such reasons, the exclusion is warranted.