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

Research paper by Paul SilvaJr.

Indexed on: 26 May '18Published on: 26 May '18Published in: Synthese


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. 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. Second, background beliefs can enable one to explain away counter-instances to one’s beliefs, thus making it rational to retain one’s beliefs in generics in the face 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. 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.