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Prejudiced beliefs based on the evidence: responding to a challenge for evidentialism


According to evidentialism, what is epistemically rational to believe is determined by evidence alone. So, assuming that prejudiced beliefs are irrational, evidentialism entails that they must not be properly based on the evidence. Recently, philosophers have been interested in cases of beliefs that seem to undermine evidentialism: these are beliefs that seem both prejudiced (and, thus, irrational) and properly based on the evidence (and, thus, rational). In these cases, a believer has strong statistical evidence that most members of a social group have some property and then comes to believe that an individual member of that social group will likely have that property. For example, a server at a restaurant has statistical evidence that most Black diners tip less than average and then comes to believe that a particular Black diner will likely tip less than average. The goal of this paper is to defend evidentialism from the challenge posed to it by beliefs like the server’s by developing a plausible evidentialist account that explains away these conflicting intuitions.

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  1. 1.

    A few terminological notes are in order. “Evidentialism” is used to pick out several different views in contemporary epistemology. Throughout the paper, “evidentialism” exclusively picks out this account of epistemic rationality. Importantly, this account concerns doxastic rationality, rather than propositional rationality. I will use “rationality” to refer to epistemic rationality of this sort from here on. “Evidence” is meant, broadly, to include all truth-related considerations. A belief “based on the evidence” is sometimes used as shorthand for a belief that’s properly based on evidence that supports it.

  2. 2.

    This is an adapted version of a case introduced by Basu (2019b). The adaption is from Gardiner (2018).

  3. 3.

    For discussions of such cases, see Basu (2019a, 2019b, 2019c), Basu and Schroeder (2019), Begby (2013, 2018), Bolinger (2020), Gardiner (2018), Gendler (2011), Moss (2018), and Schroeder (2018).

  4. 4.

    These philosophers go on to argue that cases like The Server call for a new account of epistemic rationality that makes room for morality: what is epistemically rational to believe is determined, in part, by moral considerations. This paper, however, will engage with only the negative part of their argument (against evidentialism) rather than the positive part (for moral encroachment).

  5. 5.

    See Sect. 5 of Gardiner (2018) for a helpful discussion of this point.

  6. 6.

    Arpaly (2003) and Arpaly and Schroeder (2014) develop a volitional-based account of prejudiced belief. They argue that all prejudiced beliefs are based on ill will or a lack of good will. Such accounts echo J.L.A Garcia’s volitional account of racism (which we might extend to other forms of prejudice such as sexism and homophobia). See Garcia (1996, 1997, 1999).

  7. 7.

    Encoded stereotypes and biases might be thought to constitute implicit biases. For a helpful discussion of the epistemic impact of implicit bias, see Gendler (2011) and Egan (2011). For a helpful discussion about the psychology of implicit bias, see Devine (2009).

  8. 8.

    The above characterization of internal and external prejudice is admittedly rough. In real life, the line between them is often blurry, and they interact in complicated ways: internal prejudice can cause and undergird external prejudice and vice versa. Growing up in a community marked by external prejudice against Black people, for example, can foster internal racism against Black people. And internal racism against Black people can lead to continued dissemination of harmful stereotypes and evaluative biases.

  9. 9.

    In other words, it’s possible for a belief to be propositionally rational without being doxastically rational.

  10. 10.

    It’s worth noting here that the implicit conjunct may, instead, be thought of as forming a distinct belief without any substantial changes to the account that follows. In this case, the possibilities in play would be Spencer having only one of the two relevant beliefs (the belief that Jamal is likely to tip less than average) and Spencer having both of the relevant beliefs (the belief that Jamal is likely to tip less than average and the belief that likely to tip less than average reflects poorly on Jamal).

  11. 11.

    The relevant virtue or vice may be nonmoral.

  12. 12.

    Characteristic features of G are stable and permanent, as opposed to superficial or incidental. They serve to identify G, help distinguish G from other social groups, and are instantiated by typical and, thus, most members of G.

  13. 13.

    See Brewster and Mallison (2009) for a helpful overview and critical discussion of the relevant sociological literature.

  14. 14.

    Nussbaum (2001).

  15. 15.

    Gendler (2011) cites a 1995 study where participants were asked to name traits that were stereotypically associated with Black Americans. The most typical traits named were negative. See p. 43 of Gendler (2011) for discussion.

  16. 16.

    See Okin (1989) for an insightful discussion of sexism’s continued impact on women in the workplace. See Knox et al. (2018) for various discussions about the racial-oppression thesis, which says that social injustices suffered by racial minorities are significant causal determinants of gang membership and activity.

  17. 17.

    This second thing about prejudice is important because we need to be able to distinguish prejudiced attitudes against particular people from other negative attitudes against particular people that arise from personal interactions with them. There is a difference between having ill will towards Joan qua woman, for example, and having ill will towards Joan qua individual-who-constantly-complains: the first amounts to prejudice, the second does not. See chapter 1 of Begby (2021) for discussion.

  18. 18.

    This is indicated by standard dictionary definitions of the different forms of prejudice. For example, one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of racism is “the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.”.

  19. 19.

    S’s belief goes beyond the evidence if S’s evidence favors, on balance, the truth of its content but not to the degree required for rationality, or if S’s evidence favors, on balance, the truth of some of its content and neither favors nor disfavors the rest. S’s belief goes against the evidence if S’s evidence favors, on balance, the negation of part or all of its content.

  20. 20.

    This example is adapted from a case discussed in Schroeder (2018).

  21. 21.

    For empirical studies on pregnancy discrimination in hiring, see Cunningham and Macan (2007) and Becker et al. (2019).

  22. 22.

    For one interesting discussion of the moral significance of attention, see Bommarito (2013) who argues that attention patterns are central to the virtue of modesty and the vice of immodesty.


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For tremendously helpful feedback on this paper, I would like to thank Nomy Arpaly, Joshua Schechter, Arianna Falbo, Zach Barnett, Emily Hodges, Chad Marxen, and the members of the Fall 2020 Dissertation Workshop at Brown University. Special thanks to Endre Begby and David Christensen.

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Correspondence to Anna Brinkerhoff.

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Brinkerhoff, A. Prejudiced beliefs based on the evidence: responding to a challenge for evidentialism. Synthese (2021).

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  • Prejudice
  • Epistemic rationality
  • Evidentialism
  • Moral encroachment