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Wiesler, Christine. Epistemic Oppression and Ableism in Bioethics
2020, Hypatia. 35: 714–732.
Added by: Chris Blake-Turner
Abstract:
Disabled people face obstacles to participation in epistemic communities that would be beneficial for making sense of our experiences and are susceptible to epistemic oppression. Knowledge and skills grounded in disabled people's experiences are treated as unintelligible within an ableist hermeneutic, specifically, the dominant conception of disability as lack. My discussion will focus on a few types of epistemic oppression—willful hermeneutical ignorance, epistemic exploitation, and epistemic imperialism—as they manifest in some bioethicists’ claims about and interactions with disabled people. One of the problems with the epistemic phenomena with which I am concerned is that they direct our skepticism regarding claims and justifications in the wrong direction. When we ought to be asking dominantly situated epistemic agents to justify their knowledge claims, our attention is instead directed toward skepticism regarding the accounts of marginally situated agents who are actually in a better position to know. I conclude by discussing disabled knowers’ responses to epistemic oppression, including articulating the epistemic harm they have undergone as well as ways of creating resistant ways of knowing.

Comment (from this Blueprint): Wieseler draws on resources developed by feminists and disability theorists to critique the practice of philosophical bioethics (bioethics done by philosophers). In particular, she argues that philosophical bioethics involves and perpetuates ableism. Among its many problems, this ableism is epistemically fraught. It interferes with disabled people’s ability to participate in various kinds of knowledge production. Wieseler uses a lot of technical terms—like epistemic exploitation, epistemic imperialism, and willful hermeneutical ignorance—but she explains everything clearly and the payoff is worthwhile. Wieseler uses these concepts to develop a powerful and thought-provoking critique of bioethical practice with respect to disability. The concepts are also useful in broader contexts, as we’ll see in section 3.

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