Political Epistemology Network joins Ethics Lab students in discussing matters of truth, knowledge, & polarization

Ethics Lab’s Assistant Director and Senior Ethicist share insights with a student group during the workshop.
A team of philosophers and students sorts stakeholders in the early stages of mapping the moral landscape.
Members of the Political Epistemology Network pose for a group photo in the Lab.

We just wrapped up a workshop on Political Epistemology here at the lab. Political Epistemology is a subfield that sits at the intersection of political philosophy and epistemology (which asks questions about the nature and acquisition of knowledge). Political Epistemology explores topics like disagreement and polarization in public discourse, the epistemic merits (and limitations) of democracy, and the role of truth and knowledge in politics. 15 specialists came for a workshop organized by Senior Ethicist, Elizabeth Edenberg, leading to an edited volume titled Political Epistemology.

This semester we are also running the third iteration of our flagship course on Social Media and Democracy, in which students explore the ways in which the internet has radically changed how people form beliefs, develop world views, and assess claims. The students in this course have been delving deep into questions of political epistemology, examining questions of truth, democracy, and politics in the age of social media by drawing on contemporary case studies and philosophical tools from ethics, political philosophy, and epistemology.

Given the fact that many of the philosophers whose articles they read in class were going to be walking through the doors of the Ethics Lab, the students were very excited to get the opportunity to meet and interact with them. We also had several alumni from previous iterations of Ethics Lab courses interested. Rather than have the students sit through a series of talks, though, we wanted to facilitate greater interaction and a chance for philosophers and students to learn from and with each other in an interactive way.

We decided instead to host a pizza party and interactive workshop that put visiting philosophers in small groups with students to work through questions of truth and knowledge as they impact politics. We ended up with a full house; the event sold out very quickly after advertising it!

In the first part of the workshop, participants explored differing perspectives and common value-alignments through an Ethics Lab card game focused on discussions of truth, knowledge, justice, equality, respect, disagreement, and polarization. The game asked participants to select visual representations of these concepts to prompt discussion. For example, when we think of equality, do we think of the aspirational concept (like a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr.) or clear challenges (like a photo of two business people sitting on the opposite site of a bench as a homeless man sleeping)?

We then led all participants through an exercise called “mapping the moral landscape,” which was designed to surface ethical issues and relations between parties focused on a case of manipulation of the US election by foreign entities through social media. This activity asks teams to work together in a way that is fun, constructive, and creative. Students impressed the visiting philosophers with how much they knew about both the topic and the core philosophical challenges. This was a great way to kick off the volume workshop, and really set the tone for the collaborative atmosphere of the next two days of talks. We’re looking forward to the publication of the volume and to having exciting new work on this very timely topic in print.