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Seeing Difference: The Ethics and Epistemology of Stereotyping


When we call something a stereotype, we tend to mean it as a criticism.  If someone says, "Asians are good at math" or "women are empathetic," for example, I might interject, "You're stereotyping" in order to convey my disapproval of their utterance.  But why is stereotyping wrong?  One tempting idea is that stereotyping fails to treat persons as individuals.  Yet this idea itself is puzzling.  How should we understand it?  One possibility, to which many people are drawn, is to articulate the wrong in epistemic terms: we see the world in an incorrect way when we stereotype.  Call this the epistemic hypothesis about the wrong of stereotyping. Another possibility is that the relevant failure is moral in nature: stereotyping is always morally wrong.  In this dissertation, I consider both the epistemic and moral hypotheses and show that neither is defensible.  Actually, stereotyping can be morally and epistemically permissible.  One upshot is that we must give up the idea that stereotyping as such is wrong and think more carefully about how to distinguish permissible and impermissible cases.  I argue that there will be no simple way to make this distinction, as there is no one wrong--epistemic or moral--that unifies all bad cases. So we must be pluralists about what's wrong with stereotyping. Moreover, we must recognize that the wrongs of stereotyping are purely extrinsic in nature, i.e., due to bad causes or consequences rather than due to features intrinsic to the very act of stereotyping. A second upshot is that we must think of stereotyping as normatively diverse: sometimes epistemic and moral norms prohibit it; other times, they do not.  Epistemic and moral norms also have the potential to conflict in specific cases: a person might be epistemically rational to stereotype even if stereotyping is seriously objectionable from a moral point of view.  I examine cases of alleged conflict and argue that, in fact, bona fide conflicts between moral and epistemic norms are far rarer than one would expect. Moreover, I demonstrate that--despite first appearances--they do not present tragic normative dilemmas in which people are forced to choose between morality and epistemic rationality.  People can do the right thing without being irrational.

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