Symposium Introduction

I want to begin by expressing how grateful and excited I am to be part of this discussion of Michelle Ciurria’s important recent book, An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility. Ciurria’s book is an impressive and challenging contribution to the philosophical literature on moral responsibility. In this ambitious book, Ciurria pursues a number of goals. She lays out an account of intersectional feminism, and uses the principles in her account to develop a significant critique of the contemporary state of discussion over moral responsibility. One of her core critiques of modern theories of moral responsibility is that they run afoul of basic intersectional feminist moral commitments. An important insight of Ciurria’s is that any account of moral responsibility is inescapably political, in ways that contemporary theories tend to (to the detriment of oppressed groups) ignore. In the account that she develops, the primary function of the core elements of our moral responsibility practices (blame in particular) should be understood and utilized for their ameliorative power and the role they can (properly employed) play in resisting oppressive social and political structures. Her book is essential reading for anyone theorizing about moral responsibility to think about and engage with, whether they share her core philosophical commitments or not, and I hope that this symposium will help spark broader conversations about the way philosophers think about moral responsibility.

In the first essay of this symposium, John Doris calls attention to the revolutionary nature of Ciurria’s account. To characterize many of the contemporary theories of moral responsibility Ciurria is challenging, Doris coins the term “conservatively revisionary Strawsonians.” As Doris describes, Ciurria’s revolutionary framework probes underexplored assumptions of this kind of moral responsibility conservativism, showing that it is overly complacent. Doris lays out an account of what is appealing about the conservative Strawsonian framework, using the appropriateness of certain cases of moral anger as a paradigmatic example. In support of one of Ciurria’s core contentions, he shows how even a seemingly paradigmatic example quickly runs into political complications. And he raises some important questions for Ciurria’s theory given its revolutionary nature—including whether it should be considered a theory of moral responsibility at all, or whether it moves into the territory of eliminativism (a question Ciurria herself considers but rejects).

Our next contributor is Bruce Waller, a powerful advocate for eliminativism about moral responsibility. Interestingly, in some ways Waller (along with some other prominent moral responsibility eliminativists) is a closer ideological ally to Ciurria than most theorists who defend the existence of moral responsibility. In his work Waller, like Ciurria, makes a powerful case that traditional moral responsibility systems have served to bolster and justify a number of harmful and oppressive social practices. But while Ciurria argues that a moral responsibility system (with proper radical revision) can be a tool to serve oppressed groups, Waller argues that moral responsibility systems are beyond salvation and should be absolutely demolished. In his essay, Waller makes the case for necessity of eliminativism, arguing that the valuable elements of Ciurria’s radically revised ameliorative account of responsibility can be preserved, while avoiding some of the pitfalls that he argues remain in any moral responsibility system.

Another contribution to our symposium comes from Kathryn Norlock, who makes the case that Ciurria’s book is a timely and important contribution to the moral responsibility literature. In her essay, Norlock raises a number of important questions for Ciurria’s consideration. In particular, Norlock presses for more clarity about the role of individual moral character to Ciurria’s intersectional feminist account—is it just unimportant, or in fact nonexistent? Norlock draws comparisons to Kate Manne’s ameliorative account of misogyny, in which Manne similarly shifts the focus from evaluation of individuals as misogynist and instead directs us to focus on the effects of misogyny. Norlock argues that there is more of a role for assessment and blame of individuals and individual character in pursuit of intersectional feminist goals than Ciurria’s account allows for.

Sofia Jeppsson focuses on how best to situate Ciurria’s project in relation to the hugely influential framework for understanding moral responsibility given to us by P. F. Strawson. Ciurria’s book is in many ways a critique of this project, but Jeppsson argues that the divide between Ciurria and the Strawsonians is even deeper than Ciurria may realize. As Jeppsson describes, on Strawson’s theory the reactive attitudes of praise and blame go hand-in-hand with taking a person seriously as a person. Ciurria argues that the reality is quite different—that members of marginalized groups, who tend to be seen as less rational than members of privileged groups, are nonetheless treated as being more blameworthy, not less. Jeppsson argues that this is a profound difference between Ciurria and Strawson that deserves more emphasis.

Finally we have Manuel Vargas, who in some ways might seem to be a kind of ally to Ciurria’s approach to moral responsibility. In particular, Vargas is well known for his advocacy for a revisionist view of free will and responsibility. In spite of this commonality, Vargas raises a several challenging questions about the details Ciurria’s account in his essay. He probes what it would mean to say that the responsibility system itself is broken (as opposed to simply saying that there are deep problems with the way it is implemented), and questions whether responsibility itself is even amenable to ameliorative theorizing. And Vargas raises the possibility that Ciurria’s account is actually shifting topics away from moral responsibility and proposing a theory of something alternative to replace our moral responsibility practices, perhaps something like an account of how blame might be detached from its ordinary uses appropriated for intersectional feminist ends.

As a final note, I want to take a moment to express my deep gratitude to Michelle and to all of the panelists for their insightful and wonderful contributions to this symposium, for their incredible generosity with their time, and for their incredible patience with this entire process. I had the great pleasure of working with both Ciurria and Waller on a previous symposium about Waller’s work, and so when the opportunity arose to put together a symposium working with both of them and the rest of the fantastic panelists on Ciurria’s book, I was very excited. Then the pandemic happened, and all of the craziness in the world that came with it, which led to a number of understandable but unavoidable delays. This symposium has been a long time coming, but I am thrilled at the way it has come together, and hope that everyone will share my view that it has been well worth the wait.

John Doris


Responsibility as Politics

Conservativism & Radicalism

Many philosophers working on moral responsibility can be called, if we don’t object to unlovely mouthfuls, “conservatively revisionary Strawsonians.” Implementations vary, but one way of executing the basic thought is that the emotional (and quasi-emotional) reactions people have to one another on occasions of moral significance are often tolerably on track, and it is here, for want of a better place, that we must begin our thinking on moral responsibility. Very briefly: reactive attitudes track morally responsible agency. This does not, of course, commit the theorist to thinking all aspects of this practice are equally felicitous; on my way of intoning the unlovely mouthful, for example, while many of people’s reactive attitudes themselves are on track (that’s the conservativism), the justifications they would produce for them, were they so asked, might very well be misguided (that’s the revisionism).

I’ve developed a fairly intricate “valuational” theory (which I’m told is a variant on “quality of will” theory) of when attributions of responsibility are justified, embedded in a fairly intricate theory of morally responsible agency (Doris, Talking to Our Selves). I don’t suppose that most folks are likely to produce anything like it, should their moral reactions be subject to interrogation, so for everybody to have well-considered habits of responsibility attribution, they’d have to change their (pre)theoretical ways. I’m also inclined to think that many particular tokenings of the reactive attitudes—when directed at the mentally ill for example—are misguided. So my conservativism only goes so far.

Recently, Michelle Ciurria’s challenging and important new book, An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility, has me thinking that’s too far: when some underexplored assumptions of conservativism are interrogated, it starts looking like conservativism is overly complacent. Ciurria (87)1 claims her own view is “revolutionary,” and I think that’s a fair characterization, on both the substance and the method. Her substantive radicalism, jettisoning presuppositions central to much moral psychology in the contemporary philosophical mainstream, is driven by a methodological radicalism, treating the moral psychology of responsibility as essentially political. However, embracing Ciurria’s methodological radicalism is, as we’ll see, difficult to avoid. If so, the prospects for substantively radical reformation of responsibility practices needs to be taken more seriously than conservatively revisionary Strawsonians typically do. While “the pervasiveness of the political” is a persistent theme in other regions of the academy, especially those regions where scholarship is inflected with activism, it is underdiscussed in moral psychology. Ciurria’s book gives us powerful reason to think this should change.


Before taking up the difficulty for conservativism, I’ll briefly articulate its appeal. As is often observed, Strawson’s class of reactive attitudes is a hot (and heterogeneous) mess. It’s therefore instructive to narrow our focus to the emotions, and anger in particular. Anger appears to be a “basic emotion,” a pancultural product of natural selection, which often earns it a foundational role in naturalistic approaches to ethics. Not to say that such foundations are without fissures. As Greene (2014) points out, our basic emotional liabilities are likely to be most apt in circumstances that resemble the environment of original adaptation; for “large scale” problems like climate change that weren’t on offing when the first Homo sapiens rolled off the assembly line, emotional responses are likely to be less trustworthy. Still, saying our emotional propensities is where we should begin doing ethics is not to say that these propensities do not admit refinement; on D’Arms and Jacobson’s (forthcoming) rational sentimentalism, for example, emotions may be, as the name suggests, rationally disciplined.

Take a case of third-party anger, one I’ll take as a “best case” for the conservatively revisionist Strawsonian. At the grocery store doing your shopping, you see an irritable parent harshly strike their young child. Immediately, a hot flash of rage: you glower at the offending parent, and maybe even intervene. Very plausibly, you are right to feel anger, and perhaps to intervene as anger prompts. It takes a village, and whether the parent is an abuser who should be reported to authorities, or just a harried parent at the end of their rope, the parent has done something wrong, something that ought to be censured. In this case, it appears your anger serves as a reliable ethical signal: it’s cases like these that secure the conservativism in conservatively revisionary Strawsonianism.

If this case is really a best case for the conservative, it must involve appropriate anger. For present purposes, I propose three propriety conditions. The first is that your anger has a positive epistemic status; you’ve got the facts of the situation more or less right. The second is that it has a positive normative status; the evaluation associated with your understanding of the situation is sufficiently justified. Finally, and most importantly for me here, there’s a claim about your status—that you are entitled to feel anger.2

In our example, the epistemic status is probably secure (stipulating-away mistaken appearances, such as the slap being directed at a poisonous spider, not the child themselves): social scientific uncertainties noted, the preponderance of evidence indicates that corporal punishment is generally ineffective discipline, and harmful to children (Alampay et al., 2017; Aucoin et al., 2006; Gershoff, 2010; Sege et al., 2018). In light of these facts, the normative status comes along more or less for free: if anything is morally wrong, it’s pointlessly harming children.

The entitlement condition, however, is not so easily met. It recalls notions of “standing to blame” in the responsibility literature (Todd, 2019): when I blame, I claim for myself a certain moral status. Translating this into Strawsonian dialect, for the reactors’ reaction to be appropriate, she has to enjoy a certain moral status. When the reactor endorses her reaction—say, by regarding her anger as righteous anger—she claims for herself an entitlement, in effect saying, I am empowered to react to you thusly. Hypocrisy is one circumstance where this empowerment falters (Fritz & Miller, 2018): I shouldn’t be angered by a slow response to my email, if I’m routinely guilty of the self-same offense. But now, our best case starts to look not-so-good. By the time they reach middle school, 85 percent of American children have been subjected to corporal punishment by their parents (Gertoff, 2010, p. 31); parents who have themselves committed corporal punishment, one might think, are not optimally positioned to righteously direct anger at other parents for doing so. The most appropriate thought, for the majority of parents, might very well be, “there but for the grace of God do I.”3

The best case is further complicated by the fact that attitudes towards the corporal punishment of children vary culturally. In the United States, Northeasterners may be less approving, while Southerners, evangelical Christians, and the less educated may be more likely to approve (Flynn, 1996). In general, people of lower SES might also be more approving (Hoff et al., 2002; Pinderhughs et al., 2000). Now it looks like our best case is likely to be a best case only for certain demographics: the mandatory response in a Wegman’s might not be the mandatory response in a Winn-Dixie.

When we experience and endorse grocery store anger, we in effect claim for ourselves a position of authority. And that authority is contestable. The contest isn’t ended if we claim (rightly) to have social science on our side, since the authority of that source for our authority is itself contested. If someone doesn’t buy the science for COVID or climate change, why should they buy it for child maltreatment? Here, there seems to me, is an uncomfortable realization: responsibility is politics. A bit sharper: responsibility practices, I’ll say, are systems of entitlement, both reflecting and supporting power structures. The conservative, if this is right, assumes a political position, and to debate cases is to engage in political debate.


As I say, I was mostly oblivious to the foregoing before Ciurria’s book, but she works things differently than I’ve just done. While I’ve been focusing of the reactor, and wondering about cases (well, a case) in which their reaction might be an overreach of entitlement, Ciurria is worried about the reactee, and cases where people “use their privileged status to tilt the responsibility system further in their favor” (83)—most centrally for her purposes, cases of sexism or racism perpetrated by people of privilege. One way this could go: offering excuse, or raising the possibility of excuse, for perniciously biased behavior, in attempt to secure leniency. For instance: I didn’t intend to give offence; things were a lot different when/where I grew up. (This kind of pleading might be theoretically abetted by moral psychologists, perhaps especially by moral psychologists like me touting science intimating the frailty of agency—it wouldn’t be the first time academics, wittingly or not, toiled in the service of privilege.)

Ciurria’s intersectional feminist theory is built to preclude this possibility. On her view, desert

doesn’t track features of the perpetrator’s agency—it tracks a perpetrator’s action(s), and their role(s) in systems of power and domination. . . . Blame serves to diagnose and combat systems of oppression by identifying people’s roles in those systems as a function of their actions. Thus, people deserve blame for their oppression-enhancing social roles, because blaming them in this way serves to diagnose and combat asymmetrical power relations—those to which they contribute. Since I reject the agency criterion, . . . I can blame them for their actions, even if their actions don’t reflect their agency.4

This has radical implications. First, it rejects what I take to be a (near) truism (Doris, Talking to Our Selves, 23–24) that attributions of moral responsibility typically presuppose agency. Still more striking is the fact that Ciurria’s account apparently leaves no room for excuses, at least for those actions that are counter the aims of the intersectional feminism. Indeed, it’s a striking feature of her book that excuses get mentioned only nine times, generally in the context of discussing someone else’s views.5 This is in stark contrast with much writing on moral psychology, including my own (Amaya & Doris, 2014; Doris & Murphy, 2007), which positively obsesses over excuses. It’s also, I’m guessing, in stark contrast with the “ordinary practice” of responsibility, which seems, often enough, to involve the negotiation of excuses. On this score Ciurria is, unlike the conservative, altogether sanguine:

I grant that most people will take [intersectional feminist] reasons to be the “wrong reasons” to blame people, and will thus experience [intersectional feminist] reasons as morally alienating. But I deny that this is a problem because, unlike Vargas, I want to alienate ordinary folks from their ordinary moral intuitions. Since we live in an asymmetrically structured society, many of our acculturated moral intuitions will be deformed, and adopting an [intersectional feminist] framework will alienate us from those reasons. Good! (85)

In other words, bring it on: that’s not an objection to the theory, that is the theory.6

It’s natural that Vargas appears as foil here, since he’s been the leader in helping us think through revisionism, and his thinking ends him in a tolerably conservative place (Vargas, 2013). Not Ciurria:

Most contemporary theories of responsibility, such as Fischer’s (2011) and Doris’ (2015b [Talking to Our Selves]), purport to be moderately revisionary, and are therefore much less revisionary than intersectional feminism, which claims to be revolutionary. The closest competitor to [intersectional feminism], by my lights, is eliminativism, the view that the responsibility system is so broken that we should completely abolish it (Waller 2011, 2015). Unlike eliminativists, however, intersectional feminism favors an ameliorative solution. I am hopeful that we can transform the responsibility system . . . (87)

Ciurria is certainly right to claim that her approach is radically revisionary, insofar as it dispenses with excuses and the agency-responsibility connection. I think she is also right to note that her approach, for these reasons, approaches eliminativism. Then the natural question to ask is, does Ciurria develop a theory of moral responsibility, or is she doing something else entirely? Natural, but perhaps foolhardy: however beguiling they are, the limited utility of Is theory X really a theory of type Y? questions is well known. As a grizzled veteran of too many such topographical expeditions,7 I wonder if Ciurria should simply concede: I’m not playing your game, and if you insist that your game is the only type of game that gets to be called a responsibility game, I’m happy to move on, and continue the intersectional feminist enterprise under another label. I’m not sure Ciurria has to do this. There’s a dizzying diversity of exercises that get counted, without much hand-wringing, as the moral psychology of responsibility, from Kane (1996) to Pereboom (2001) to Smith (2015). So it’s not clear anyone’s in position to deny Ciurria a share of the brand, in the event she would like it.

But rather than litigating taxonomy, I’d like to close with a few remarks on methodology. In thinking about Ciurria’s discussion, it strikes me that there are two distinct principles that might structure our approach to moral agency and responsibility: Priority of the Political and Priority of the Psychological. Many moral psychologists enact the latter: standardly, familiar accounts of responsibility, especially those embodying the hands-on naturalism I favor, are psychologistic, looking to the facts about human psychology to structure the associated account of responsibility. It’s not that such “conventional” approaches to moral psychology can’t inform political agendas; progressive politics of race might be aided by a clear-headed account of implicit bias (Payne et al., 2017), and attempts to address sexual misconduct might be aided by a clearer understanding of what factors influence people’s attributions of responsibility in such cases (Niemi et al., forthcoming) But on the Priority of the Psychological, the politics comes in, as I think Cuirria would put it, only contingently, when the psychology is shown to have political relevance, rather that the politics being “baked in” to the psychology.

For, Ciurria, who embraces the Priority of the Political, it’s the other way around: the moral psychology itself is politically structured, and what to leave in and what to leave out depends on whether such inclusions and omissions further intersectional feminist aims. For example:

I contend that we are licensed to hold . . . people in contempt for their contributions to asymmetries of power when those contributions are something that we have a stake in managing, controlling, treating, or avoiding, for intersectional feminist reasons. (89)

Here, the warrant for holding responsible is issued by the political project: what matters for moral psychology is contingent on what matters for intersectional feminism. Ciurria’s position here, which might be read as rejecting a political/psychological distinction, is in the vicinity of positions which reject the public/private and moral/political distinctions, but it may seem rather more radical: one thing to say discussions of fairness are inevitably political, another to say that discussions of emotions or intentions are.

On my reading, Ciurria’s methodological radicalism, asserting the Priority of the Political, drives her substantive radicalism, rejecting the agency-responsibility connection and eschewing excuses.8 The conservative might attempt to block the substantive radicalism by disputing the Priority of the Political. However, if my discussion of the conservative’s best case is on track, it looks like this rejection risks inconsistency, since righteous anger at the corporal punishment is itself derived from a political worldview. This may whiff of overgeneralizing from a single instance, but I don’t think that’s really an issue: I’m guessing it will be pretty straightforward to make kindred difficulty for other best cases, where we have the time and space.

Alternatively, one might resist Ciurria’s substantive radicalism by rejecting the intersectional feminism that motivates it. If so, the debate is not whether politics, but what politics. In other words, the debate looks to presume the Priority of the Political. And that, if I’m right, is to start thinking about moral psychology in a way quite different than many moral psychologists, myself included, usually think about it. I’m not sure we’ll change our ways. I am sure that Ciurria has shown we’d better be prepared with some very good arguments, if we decline to do so.



Alampay, L. P., et al. “Severity and Justness Do Not Moderate the Relation between Corporal Punishment and Negative Child Outcomes: A Multicultural and Longitudinal Study.” International Journal of Behavioral Development 41.4 (2017): 491–502.

Amaya, S., and J. M. Doris. “No Excuses: Performance Mistakes in Morality.” In Handbook of Neuroethics, edited by J. Clausen and N. Levy, 352–71. New York: Springer, 2014.

Aucoin, K. J., et al. “Corporal Punishment and Child Adjustment.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 27.6 (2006): 527–41.

D’Arms, J., and D. Jacobson. Rational Sentimentalism. Oxford, forthcoming.

Doris, J. M., and D. Murphy. “From My Lai to Abu Ghraib: The Moral Psychology of Atrocity.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31.1 (2007): 25–55.

Doris, J. M. “Doing Without (Arguing about) Desert.” Philosophical Studies 172.10 (2015): 2625–34.

———. Talking to Our Selves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Flynn, C. P. “Normative Support for Corporal Punishment: Attitudes, Correlates, and Implications.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 1.1 (1996): 47–55.

Fritz, K. G., and D. Miller. “Hypocrisy and the Standing to Blame.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 99.1 (2018): 118–39.

Gershoff, E. T. “More Harm than Good: A Summary of Scientific Research on the Intended and Unintended Effects of Corporal Punishment on Children.” Law and Contemporary Problems 73 (2010): 31–56.

Greene, J. D. “Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics.” Ethics 124.4 (2014): 695–726.

Hoff, E., et al. “Socioeconomic Status and Parenting.” Handbook of Parenting: Volume 2, Biology and Ecology of Parenting 8.2 (2002): 231–52.

Kane, R. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Niemi, L., et al. “Moral Judgment of Sexual Misconduct in the News: The Influence of Political Orientation on Attributions of Responsibility, Cause, and Blame.” Forthcoming.

  1. Payne, et al. “How to Think about ‘Implicit Bias.’” Scientific American, March 27, 2018.

Pereboom, D. Living without Free Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Pinderhughes, E. E., et al. “Discipline Responses: Influences of Parents’ Socioeconomic Status, Ethnicity, Beliefs about Parenting, Stress, and Cognitive-Emotional Processes.” Journal of Family Psychology 14.3 (2000): 380–400.

Sege, R. D., et al. “Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children.” Pediatrics 142.6 (2018).

Smith, A. M. “Responsibility as Answerability.” Inquiry 58.2 (2015): 99–126.

Todd, P. “A Unified Account of the Moral Standing to Slame.” Noûs 53.2 (2019): 347–74.

Vargas, M. Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility. Oxford University Press, 2013.

  1. All references unaccompanied by other bibliographic information are to M. Ciurria, An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility (Routledge, 2019).

  2. Most likely, the three conditions are mutually implicated, and cannot be stably disentangled, but that won’t affect this discussion.

  3. The standing to blame of non-parents (like me) is also an interesting issue in cases like this, but I’ll omit it here.

  4. In the interests of brevity, “desert” here elides complexity in Ciurria’s theory, since she has a “stereo” account of desert with both forward- and backward-facing elements, flagged with Doris’s somewhat regrettable “prosert” and “retrosert” (“Doing Without,” 2015).

  5. Presumably, Ciurria does not want to eliminate excuses for the oppressed, as well as for the privileged. We should require a principled story here.

  6. I’ve long thought the objection-theory quip was due Grice, but inquiries have been fruitless. If you know the source, please drop me a line.

  7. I’ve been endlessly scolded about such attempts by Steve Stich. Maybe I’m learning.

  8. This circumstance indicates that, however expedient, the methodological/substantive distinction is infirm.

  • Michelle Ciurria

    Michelle Ciurria


    Response to John Doris

    Thank you for your very considerate and instructive review, John. I think you hit on a lot of the main points of my book, which gives me an opportunity to clarify and expand on these key ideas.

    First, you are right to note that I reject “conservatively revisionary Strawsonian” accounts of responsibility because, unlike Strawson, I take the so-called “ordinary reactive attitudes” (held by the “man on the Claphan Omnibus,” as it were) to be structured by the politics of oppression. In other words, my approach to moral responsibility is a version of non-ideal theory that takes ordinary social conditions and embedded social practices to be structurally unjust. As Charles Mills puts it, “liberalism . . . has historically been [and currently is] predominantly a racial liberalism, in which conceptions of personhood and resulting schedules of rights, duties, and government responsibilities have all been racialized”; and therefore the social contract is “an agreement among white contractors to subordinate and exploit nonwhite non-contractors for white benefit.”1 In a similar vein, Carole Pateman and Stacy Clifford Simplican have argued that the social contract is a patriarchal and “capacity” (or ableist) agreement that disenfranchises feminine-coded subjects and disabled people, respectively.2 In other words, we are living under an intersectionally oppressive social contract, which governs not only laws and policies but also epistemic norms, interpersonal relationships, and subjective emotions. Non-oppressive moral practices are not the norm, but are rather part of what Jose Medina calls an “epistemology of resistance” that challenges and transforms the “mainstream public.”3

    A non-ideal understanding of the social contract (as a domination contract) implies that ordinary moral practices and attitudes of the sort described by Strawson are systematically biased against oppressed groups. Under the domination contract, we are conditioned to acquire and express emotions and values that are hostile to disenfranchised non-contractors. To quote Alison Jaggar,

    [EXT]Within a capitalist, white supremacist, and male-dominant society [like ours], the predominant values will tend to be those that serve the interests of rich white men. Consequently, we are all likely to develop an emotional constitution that is quite inappropriate for feminism. Whatever our color, we are likely to feel . . . “visceral racism”; whatever our sexual orientation, we are likely to be homophobic; whatever our class, we are likely to be at least somewhat ambitious and competitive; whatever our sex, we are likely to feel contempt for women. Such emotional responses may be rooted in us so deeply that they are relatively impervious to intellectual argument and may recur even when we pay lip service to changed intellectual convictions.4[/EXT]

    This psychological observation leads to the conclusion that you highlight, John: that alienating people from their ordinary reactive attitudes and moral “selves” is not a problem for my theory, it is the goal of the theory! Contra Michael Stocker’s panic over cognitive dissonance,5 and related worries about moral alienation, I want ordinary people to be alienated from their moral selves, because I agree with Jaggar that those selves emerged in conditions quite unsuitable to feminism. My goal is precisely to convince ordinary people to reject their enculturated prejudices and proclivity for what Michelle Moody-Adams calls “affected ignorance”6, or what Shelley Tremain calls an “epistemology of domination”7  – both of which entail a preference to ignore, deny, and rationalize systems of oppression. I want people to reconstruct their moral sensibilities in conversation with intersectional feminism and related resistant epistemologies.

    You are also right to note that I treat moral responsibility as inherently political. This may seem unremarkable when you consider that second-wave feminism popularized the idea that the personal is political in the 1970s, and feminist philosophers like Carole Pateman have soundly rebuked the private/political distinction as a patriarchal strategy to confine women to the “private sphere”; but this dichotomy is rarely if ever challenged in the literature on moral responsibility. Strawson thoroughly depoliticized and naturalized moral responsibility by ignoring and erasing asymmetries of power in our interpersonal relationships (such as heterosexual marriage). But the reactive attitudes do not, as he thought, regulate relationships in a purely personal and apolitical way. As Marylin Frye noted in “The Politics of Reality,” the ordinary reactive attitudes serve to police and enforce “double-binds” that reduce the options available to oppressed groups “to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation.”8 That is, these attitudes enforce the terms of the domination contract. Women are blamed for being “loose” or “frigid” no matter how they express their sexuality. Black males are either resented as “criminals” or objectified as amoral “savages” and threats to the “moral community.”9 Disabled people are either infantilized as “morally undeveloped” or condemned as “bullies” and “big mouths” who demand “special privileges.”10 The ordinary reactive attitudes, as such, are political practices that uphold intersectional logics of oppression. And they can only be corrected by a program of transformative justice that reclaims and reconfigures them, turning them against the oppressive class.

    Iris Marion Young has defended an overtly political theory of responsibility that holds people responsible for their connections to social injustice by enjoining them to participate in collective action. She calls this the Social Connection Model (SCM).11 This is certainly an improvement on the classic, apolitical approach. Yet the SCM seems to replicate the traditional public/private distinction by taking morality to be part of the private sphere and politics to be a public affair. As Pateman argues, the (inter)personal cannot be detached from the public/political: the reactive attitudes play a role in politics, and political ideologies shape moral emotions. We cannot, then, transform systems of oppression without identifying, understanding, feeling things about, and blaming the people who uphold the domination contract. Nor can we acquire emancipatory (“outlaw”) emotions without engaging in politics. My understanding of morality and politics – of emotional blame and transformative justice – as a continuum rather than a dichotomy is an established fact in feminist moral psychology, as we see in Jaggar’s work.

    Finally, you are right, John, to point out that responsibility theorists tend to obsess over excuses whereas I am deeply skeptical of them. One reason for this difference is a difference in our theories of ignorance. Responsibility theorists, including those concerned with social justice, tend to see ignorance as a “deficit,” “blind spot,”12 “handicap”13 (all of which, I should note, are ableist terms), as opposed to a prejudice, class-based interest, or refusal to attend to relevant information. I am very influenced by Michelle Moody-Adams’s understanding of ignorance as a disposition to “refus[e] to consider whether some practice in which one participates might be wrong,” particularly by people who are “committed to the internal perspective on the way of life they hope to preserve.”14 Ignorance in this sense is an affectation and a vested interest, not a “deficit” or “culturally-induced inability.” The “inability thesis” (as Moody-Adams calls it), which borrows from scientific theories of knowledge, serves to shield privileged people (including well-paid psychologists) from blame and political backlash for their roles in oppressive systems like eugenics and non-consensual experimentation. It hides and obscures the reality that the privileged share a collective interest (in the Marxist sense)15 in the domination contract, which they are committed to protecting and propagating. Having an interest in a domination contract is very different from being unable to understand social injustice and class privilege. W. E. B Du Bois astutely observed that Whiteness is, in a sense, a religion to which White people are dogmatically committed, and this is why White supremacy persists. Religious dogmas are deeply held, faith-based convictions, but they are not ineluctable, unsheddable, or immune from blame.

    To give a modern example of affected ignorance, the privileged tend to ignore, deny, or downplay the roles they play in regimes of expropriation, such as eating meat from factory farms or wearing “fast fashion” or buying a new laptop that contains metals produced by child labour,16 even though the connections between capitalist supply chains and colonial exploitation and expropriation are common knowledge. Through their consumer habits, the privileged are contributing to what Kyle Whyte calls “settler colonialism,” a system of “ecological domination, committing environmental injustice against Indigenous peoples and other groups,” including nonhuman animals.17 American settlers are not “incapable” of taking responsibility for their role in this system: they simply don’t want to. They would rather invoke flimsy excuses about how “everyone is doing it” or they “couldn’t help it” rather than admit fault or change their lifestyle. They would rather cling to the myth of “the march of progress” and American exceptionalism18 than admit that American history is a story of genocide and slavery, leading to disaster capitalism, cycles of crisis and indoctrination, and catastrophic climate change. On this note, the solution to climate change is not, as many settler environmentalists claim, more green technologies—which come from extractive industries that displace Indigenous communities, poison local ecosystems, use child labour, etc.—but rather, to dismantle the settler state and corporate capitalism itself. Green technologies that use nonrenewable “resources” and wage slavery merely contribute to what Whyte describes as “‘insidious loops,’ which is the pattern of how historic settler industries that violated Indigenous peoples when they began are also implicated many years later in further environmental violence.”19 The only solution to climate change is for the settler class to be held responsible for their role in ongoing colonial violence.

    Having said this, even if moral ignorance is ineluctable in some cases, this would not mean that the ignorant are ineligible for resentment, anger, and contempt, which, according to feminist moral psychology, can serve a range of political purposes, including protesting, raising awareness, bearing witness to, and combating systems of oppression (Frye 1983; Lorde 1984; Bell 2009). Within feminist politics, then, there are many reasons to blame ignorant people, whether or not they could or should have known better. To quote Pamala Hieronymy, “I’ll bet you think this blame is about you” (2019). But blame isn’t always about the wrongdoer: sometimes it’s about justice, or protesting oppression, or showing solidarity. Blame can serve many valid purposes in an intersectional feminist political practice and resistant epistemology.

    1. C. W. Mills, Black Rights / White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2017), 29.

    2. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988); S. C. Simplican, The Capacity Contract: Intellectual Disability and the Question of Citizenship (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

    3. J. Medina, “Hermeneutical Injustice and Polyphonic Contextualism: Social Silences and Shared Hermeneutical Responsibilities,” Social Epistemology 26.2 (2012): 209.

    4. A. M. Jaggar, “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology,” Inquiry 32.2 (1989): 165.

    5. M. Stocker, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories,” Journal of Philosophy 73.14 (1977): 453–66.

    6. M. M. Moody-Adams, “Culture, Responsibility, and Affected Ignorance,” Ethics 104.2 (1994): 291–309.

    7. S. Tremain, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability (University of Michigan Press 2017) .

    8. M. Frye, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Crossing, 1983).

    9. T. J. Curry, The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017), 306.

    10. S. Tremain, “How Ableism in Philosophy Has Destroyed Me,” Biopolitical Philosophy (blog), May 7, 2021,

    11. I. M. Young, Responsibility for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2010).

    12. J. Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and the Social Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2013), 17–18.

    13. Mills, Black Rights, 51.

    14. Moody-Adams, “Culture,” 296.

    15. S. Harding, “Two Influential Theories of Ignorance and Philosophy’s Interests in Ignoring Them,” Hypatia 21.3 (2006): 20–36.

    16. A. Kelly, “Apple and Google Named in US Lawsuit over Congolese Child Cobalt Mining Deaths,” Guardian, December 16, 2019,

    17. K. Whyte, “Settler Colonialism, Ecology, and Environmental Injustice,” Environment and Society 9.1 (2018): 125.

    18. R. Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, vol. 3 (Beacon, 2014).

    19. Whyte, “Settler Colonialism,” 138.

    • Sofia Jeppsson

      Sofia Jeppsson


      Excuses from another angle

      I want to chime in here and discuss excuses, because I, too, am somewhat obsessed with them… but from a different angle than the usual one, I guess.

      It’s true, as Mich points out, that we tend to cut the privileged lots of slack, to the detriment of marginalized and oppressed people who have difficulty objecting to how they’re treated since those who wrong them always have excuses at hand.

      However, I argue over and over now in various papers, that when it comes to mad and neurodivergent people who mess up because of their conditions, we should adopt practices that are similar to how we presently treat more privileged people. Cut us some slack! We were really tired, or really stressed-out, or subject to non-culpable ignorance, etc. Those factors rarely remove all responsibility for wrongdoing, but can seriously mitigate it.

      Excuses based on compassion and understanding are very much preferable to exemptions that go together with Strawson’s objective attitude; being seen as a non-agent, only fit to be “managed or handled, cured or trained” is hard for the person on the receiving end. Even in the grip of psychosis, we often pick up on whether other people at least try to communicate and understand what we’re going through, or whether they move into an “objective attitude” which socially isolates and cuts off the madperson.

      August Gorman pointed out to me that lots of the stuff that mad and neurodivergent people are habitually blamed for tend to be harmless behaviour that disturbs other people merely because it’s “weird”, or behaviour that might be seen as pro tanto wrong, but justified in this instance, because abstaining from said behaviour would have been unreasonably hard or costly for the neurodivergent or mad person. This is also important to stress. But when someone actually does something wrong, but shouldn’t be blamed for it (at least not harshly), the kind of understanding excuse and slack-cutting that is presently mostly used with more privileged people can serve as a model for how we ought to handle mad and neurodivergent wrongdoing.

    • Michelle Ciurria

      Michelle Ciurria


      Blame inverted in conditions of oppression

      Thanks for the comment, Sofia! I agree with August that disabled people are blamed for behaviors that range from completely innocuous to positively emancipatory. One example is when students refuse to conform to the ableist norms and expectations of higher education by doing things like demanding equal access without a medical diagnosis. This behavior may be interpreted by the nondisabled majority as “unreasonable,” “disruptive,” or “ungrateful,” whereas many disability scholars would interpret the very same behavior as a praiseworthy act of resistance against the mandatory medicalization of disability. In an oppressive culture like ours – where major social institutions operate as “the master’s house” – acts of resistance are often perceived as blameworthy, unreasonable, or “insane.” This is why I stress that we need to situate people’s actions in systems of oppression to evaluate whether they are enforcing one of these systems (like ableism) or resisting that system.

    • Sofia Jeppsson

      Sofia Jeppsson


      When one did wrong after all

      Thanks for the reply, Mich.

      Still, I’d like to hear if you had anything to say about when someone actually did wrong – like, hurt people around them – because of their condition. I’m not thinking of crimes here, more the kind of interpersonal stuff that Strawsonians everywhere tend to focus on. Cases in which you actually wronged someone, not in a societally revolutionary manner or anything, but where you, for instance, hurt one of your friends.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about how I drove some friends away during a time when I was slipping in and out of psychosis much more than is currently the case. At least for my own sake, I need some way to handle this – some healthy way to hold myself responsible (because, for several reasons that I delve deeper into in papers, going “well I clearly had no agency whatsoever and should thus be 100 % exempt” doesn’t work). That’s where I think cutting myself some slack and showing myself some compassion, not going too hard on myself, has a place.

      So I’m just curious if you agree, or if your theory would have a different take on this. I guess I can see three options here:

      1. This kind of situation simply falls outside the Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility. The theory is concerned with relationships of power. In relationships where you don’t see these obvious power relationships (I’m not saying there are 100 % perfectly equal relationships in the real world, but there are clearly many situations where people are roughly “on par” in terms of power and privilege), we bring in some complementary theory.
      2. Yeah, the theory can handle this, and it does so roughly in the way I suggest.
      3. Yeah, the theory can handle this, but it does so in a different way.

      Maybe one reason to steer away from point 1 is that there’s still something political about how you or others hold yourself responsible in hindsight, if you have something standardly considered “serious mental disorder”.

      Even if the initial wrongdoing didn’t really do anything “political” – didn’t disrupt the workplace, university, or what-have-you, in a way that might have political implications, but just pushed away a friend – one might say it’s inherently political to either regard the wrongdoer as
      a) “hopelessly ill, can’t help themself, only thing to do is to manage and handle them”, or as
      b) “they totally knew what they were doing and should be blamed for it!”, or as
      c) “well, they did wrong, but they were under so much pressure and didn’t always quite know what was going on, so we should cut them some slack, really”.

      One might say this choice is political, since a) and b) both upholds the status quo in how we tend to regard mad and neurodivergent people, whereas c) is radical, since it treats them on par with how privileged people tend to be treated.

      I’d really like to hear if you agree on this, or have a different take.

    • John Doris

      John Doris


      Reply to Ciurria

      Ciurria and I agree that the reactive attitudes are politically inflected; it may be worthwhile to highlight where we diverge, specifically with regards to the extent of our revisionism.  As I’ve put it elsewhere, revisionist proposals may range from “pruning” to “clearcutting” (Doris, Knobe, & Woolfolk, in Doris, Character Trouble (OUP, 2022)).  In the present context, the pruner recognizes that people’s reactive attitudes are shaped, to a considerable extent, by oppressive political practices and institutions, but insists that at least in some cases, those attitudes can serve as (provisional) anchor points in our theorizing about agency and responsibility.  The clearcutter denies this: given their politically suspect origins, all reactive attitudes are suspect, and ought not figure in theorizing about agency and responsibility (except as examples of error that must be resisted).

      I take myself to be a pruner, and Ciurria to be a clearcutter.  Why be a pruner?  Well, I take it that if we can be confident of anything in the moral domain, it’s that there are absolutely clear cases where we are right – absolutely right — to be angry with perpetrators of violence, oppression and the like (the existence of legitimately contestable cases notwithstanding).    If so, we’re also right to take such cases as provisional fixed points in our thinking in responsibility; such points require theoretical substantiation, but any theory that doesn’t give us space  for appropriate anger at such points is a theory that begins adrift.    Indeed, I think we can read Ciurria’s own arguments as relying on the existence of such points; can her arguments get going if it’s genuinely up for grabs whether we are right to be angry about racist or sexist violence?  Given the extent to which our reactive attitudes are politically inflected, clearcutting is an appealing option, but it is not an option, perhaps, that leaves us a very clear idea of how to begin theorizing about responsibility.

    • Michelle Ciurria

      Michelle Ciurria


      Clearcutting vs. Reforestation

      Thank you, John! This gives me an opportunity to clarify my position. I think that hegemonic responsibility practices need to be eliminated. These practices are sexist, ableist, classist, capitalistic, and otherwise oppressive. In contrast, emancipatory responsibility practices need to be cultivated and strengthened. These practices can be found in marginalized epistemic spaces like the queer community, the disabled community, Black activist groups, and Indigenous Tribes. To give an example, in inclusive queer communities, the standard scapegoating narratives that you find in homophobic spaces are rejected and replaced with queer pride, praise for queer activists’ accomplishments, and disdain for anti-queer bigotry. I want to clearcut hegemonic responsibility practices to make space for queer, disabled, Black, etc., responsibility practices. So, my view isn’t just a clearcutting project: it’s a replacement project. Indeed, this is the main difference between me and eliminativists like Bruce Waller.

Bruce Waller


Oppression and Moral Responsibility

Michelle Ciurria’s An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility is a brilliant book that makes vitally important advances in philosophy, and well beyond the confines of academic philosophy. She not only pioneers a valuable methodological tool that combines research from a variety of views that are too often separated, but also demonstrates how use of that method yields deep insights into a wide range of issues. Ciurria makes many valuable points that are common for all the oppressed groups she surveys: the importance of fighting back against oppression, the legitimacy of anger against oppressors, the shallowness of the claim that we must forgive those who practice oppressive behavior and promote oppressive policies. Though I disagree with some of Ciurria’s views, there are many more points of agreement than disagreement; and our disagreements concern the optimum method for dealing with the fundamental problems that she describes rather than disagreements about the problems themselves.

Ciurria maintains that moral responsibility and blame—when they are (87) radically transformed into an “ameliorative” form, going well beyond “revisionism”—can and should be preserved, and compares that with the view of the eliminativists (including myself) who believe that “the responsibility system is so broken that we should completely abolish it.” That is a fair and accurate depiction of our basic difference in views. I want to absolutely demolish the system of moral responsibility, drive a stake in its heart, and sow salt in its fields: moral responsibility is the heart of an oppressive and unjust system that is beyond redemption. Ciurria acknowledges the severe problems with our traditional moral responsibility system but believes with radical changes it can play a valuable role in the struggle against oppression. Ciurria’s ameliorative version of responsibility is greatly improves the vile traditional system; but even that much improved model still includes destructive elements, while the genuine benefits of ameliorative responsibility can be preserved and promoted without the baggage of moral responsibility.

The moral responsibility system is the source of enormous harms—some are obvious, others more subtle. On the obvious side, moral responsibility promotes and justifies a harsh and profoundly unjust system of criminal “justice.” As Cavadino and Dignan note, it is no accident that neoliberal cultures that are strongly invested in individual moral responsibility (the United States and the UK) embrace harsh punitive measures while social democratic corporatist cultures (such as Sweden and Norway) that de-emphasize individual moral responsibility have much more humane systems of criminal justice (along with dramatically better social welfare programs). When punishment is justly deserved, the infliction of harsh punitive measures is an exercise of virtue: the result is a massive system of incarceration, a system of “supermax” prisons that practice psychological torture in the form of long-term solitary confinement, and a “justice system” more concerned with making sure someone is punished rather than insisting on finding the guilty party (as evidenced by the widespread use of “jailhouse informants” known by prosecutors to be polished professional liars, the use of “forensic science evidence” that prosecutors often know is deeply flawed, the threat of severe prison sentences—including three-strikes life imprisonment—to pressure innocent defendants to plead guilty). Another obvious result of the moral responsibility system is the promotion and protection of a “meritocracy” system (brilliantly described by Lani Guinier) that entrenches the unjust and inequitable neoliberal economic system. On the more subtle side, one of the great harms of moral responsibility is in the blocking of deeper inquiry. As Adina Roskies acknowledges, a system of moral responsibility requires that we find a stopping point for our inquiries—a place where we can say “the buck stops here”—lest our inquiries probe deeper into causes that undermine claims of moral responsibility. Traditionally that stopping point was a godlike causa sui power; but as philosophers have become less comfortable with appeals to miraculous powers, efforts have turned to measures such as Frankfurt’s “higher order reflective resounding affirmation” or even John Martin Fischer’s “middle way” that openly rejects deeper inquiry into the forces that shape our characters and behavior (Fischer ridicules deeper inquiries as “metaphysical megalomania”).

The problems with the moral responsibility system are clear, and they are just as clear to Ciurria as they are to the eliminativists. But what are the elements of the moral responsibility that are worth preserving, in a radically revised ameliorative moral responsibility? They are important, and Ciurria makes a strong and convincing case for their value. But the valuable elements can survive and flourish while we dance on the grave of moral responsibility. Among the most important things that Ciurria rightly wants to preserve is the legitimacy of our emotions, including anger and resentment. For too long, women have been denied the right to feel—much less express—deep justified anger: it’s not “ladylike,” women are supposed to be nice and forgiving and meek. Angry women scare men (162–63) and men rate angry women as less competent. But women should be angry and resentful when treated in a condescending manner, just as Blacks should, and the disabled when confronting “ableism.” As Ciurria notes (107) if they do not resent such mistreatment we should be deeply concerned about their own sense of self-worth. Damasio emphasizes that anger is a vital motivating force for opposing wrong, and sometimes even violent resistance is justified (as in the heroic 1969 Stonewall uprising). Women should not quietly accept “can’t you take a joke” or “you are overly sensitive” when they are subjected to sexist demeaning treatment. But we don’t require any form of moral responsibility in order to recognize the legitimacy of an angry or resentful response to mistreatment; we need only recognize the ugly injustice of the behavior.

We can recognize that behavior is egregiously wrong while rejecting the idea that people are morally responsible for their vile behavior. A dramatic example is Gary Watson’s philosophically famous case of Robert Harris. Harris was a cruel and remorseless and mercurial murderer. We locked him in a cage for a few years and then ritually killed him, but that did not solve the real problems; instead it prevented us from looking hard at our acquiescence in allowing a sensitive child in an impoverished family with a viciously abusive father to be brutally shaped into a cold-blooded murderer, while the privileged ignored his suffering and enjoyed their luxuries. We should be angry at a society that ignores or even promotes the horrific conditions in which children like Robert Harris grow up: conditions of toxic chemicals (often including lead and mercury, with their disastrous effects on cognitive development and self-control); bad schools; brutal juvenile detention facilities (like the one in which Robert was repeatedly raped and attempted suicide); dangerous psychologically destructive demeaning prisons that finally (as Robert’s sister noted) totally destroyed any remaining human empathy. We should be angry at a society that ignores those horrific conditions while grossly enriching a small group who have mansions, multiple homes, and many other luxuries that could have been used to rescue a small sensitive abused boy from a life of misery and violence, and then imprisons and executes the foreseeable result of its policies; and the anger should motivate our struggle to change that culture.

Blaming is not a promising path to such changes. Blaming focuses attention too narrowly, the “buck stops” before we get to the deeper problems, and we often blame convenient targets rather than the deeper causes: we focus blame on Robert Harris and fail to look deeper at the cultural forces that shaped him. Racists and sexists are easy targets for blame, and when they treat people with contempt it feels appropriate to respond with contempt. Ciurria argues that

negative withdrawal-motivating emotions, like contempt, scorn, disdain, and rage, can be implicated in blame proper, and that these emotions are justified responses to uptake-impaired people who commit transgressions that warrant interpersonal withdrawal, as well as uptake-capable people who deserve these responses. I contend that we are licensed to hold such people in contempt for their contributions to asymmetries of power. (89)

Certainly we should struggle against racists and sexists and other biased people who demean people and cause great misery. But blame and contempt entrench rather than solve the basic problems and are too often directed at the wrong target. An important lesson taught by civil rights activists was that showing contempt for those who treated them with contempt blocks understanding and exacerbates the problems: they never treated either the “uptake-impaired” or the “uptake-competent” with contempt. I am particularly appreciative of that, because I grew up feeling deep contempt for all Blacks, and particularly despised any Black person involved in civil rights protests; had that contempt been returned, it would have been much harder to recognize the evil of racism. Later I came to despise the racists in the culture of my youth. Later still—I’m a very slow learner—I finally began to understand that the racists were also victims and treating them with contempt only deepens the problems.

In the north Louisiana hill country of my childhood, farming was almost hopeless: what the boll weevil did not destroy, soil depletion did—and the shallow soil, with hard red clay a few inches below the surface, wasn’t much good to begin with. Most farming—including that of my family—was subsistence farming, with a large garden, chickens, a Jersey cow for milk and butter, and a couple of pigs and a calf raised for slaughter. We didn’t have running water or indoor toilets, electricity and telephones arrived late. We had food, and a roof over our heads (though it leaked like a sieve), and we had shoes. We never thought of ourselves as living in poverty, since almost everyone was in the same economic boat, and many—including most Black families—were worse off than we were. For jobs, most men cut and hauled pulpwood for the regional paper mill. Cutting pulpwood was dangerous: severe injuries were common, and death by no means rare. The income for pulpwood workers was extremely low: there was only one paper mill within hauling distance, and it set low prices for loads of pulpwood. The pulpwood crew could sell its load at the railroad freight yard—but that was also a monopoly, and the payments were even worse. Occasionally there was an effort to organize the pulpwood haulers to unite and demand fair compensation for the hazardous loads they were cutting and delivering. Those efforts always failed, because those who had an interest in blocking higher payments were skilled at using racism to sabotage any efforts at uniting poor Whites and poor Blacks in a common cause. Yes, the Whites were racists; but those who were benefitting from the racism were not the poor Whites, but the wealthy who exploited Black and White alike. Yes, the racism of the poor Whites was vile and ugly; but blaming them blocked a deeper understanding of the real problems.

The vile values and behavior of sexists and white supremacists and MAGA are disgusting, and egregiously wrong. But to get beyond them we must understand them, and deeper understanding—including the recognition of our own contribution to the problems—is what moral responsibility blocks. The better educated often have contempt for the less educated “working class,” that contempt is deeply and legitimately resented, and it entrenches a cultural divide that makes it easier for demagogues to exploit racist and xenophobic attitudes. As Thomas Piketty argues, the Democratic Party has been a much stronger supporter of education—especially public education—than has the Republican Party, so it is not surprising that the more highly educated college graduates have gravitated to the Democratic Party. The party that was once the party of union labor gradually became the party of college graduates, and its policies favored that group; feeling abandoned, the working class moved toward the Republican Party. Piketty acknowledges that overt Republican racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric contributed to the shift, but the self-serving notion that racism was the key factor—Democrats nobly rejected racism while Republicans exploited it—is too shallow: the shift of the Democratic Party away from the interests of working people and toward the interests of the more highly educated, combined with the open contempt of many Democrats toward the “deplorables” of the working class, was the main factor in the shift. The less educated working class learned that the Democrats’ promises were empty and the contempt was real.

Tell a racist joke to your academic colleagues and get fired; a sexist joke and get shunned; tell a joke about the stupid impoverished fundamentalists of rural Appalachia, and everyone joins in the laughter. Open contempt is shown to the people with whom I grew up: poor rural fundamentalist Appalachians. At best they are viewed as quaint, perhaps sadly amusing; more often they are narrowly regarded as stupid monsters, totally defined by their bad qualities. But even racists and sexists and fundamentalists are more than the labels we assign: the racists of my childhood also had virtues, such as loyalty, kindness, “neighborliness,” honest respect for the elderly, and a powerful work ethic. Racists cause enormous suffering, but no small part of that suffering afflicts the racists themselves: obsessed with racism they are deeply insecure, terrified by change, their thoughts constantly twisted and distorted as they clutch their belief in White supremacism and avoid obvious evidence to the contrary. When we treat them with contempt we drive them into the open arms of Donald Trump. If we reject blame, and instead understand that these are individuals much like ourselves with faults and virtues and deep problems, and that it is only a matter of luck that we do not harbor the same hateful bigoted views that cause suffering for themselves and others, then we can begin to look deeper and more effectively at the causes and the solutions. Racism is a terrible destructive force, and racists are among its victims. Blaming racists blocks deeper inquiry into what causes and sustains racism and blinds us to the ways in which we ourselves may contribute to a culture that clings to racism. Anger and resentment and resistance survive and flourish in the absence of moral responsibility; but even a radically revised ameliorative moral responsibility preserves remnants of destructive and myopic blame and contempt, and we see more clearly and act more effectively with an entirely different system that leaves no room for blame and just deserts and moral responsibility.

Ciurria insists that her intersectional feminist view is closest to the eliminativism that I favor, and I agree that our views are basically very congenial. There are a few points where we actually agree but—due to flaws in my writing—that agreement is obscured and Ciurria believes we disagree; and some key points where we clearly agree; and finally some remaining differences.

Ciurria criticizes me for favoring “exculpatory creep”: the view (discussed by Dennett) that we “make ourselves small” when we deny our moral responsibility. I plead not guilty: exculpatory creep is a false fear, akin to the “bogeymen” that Dennett criticizes earlier in his book. Denying moral responsibility does not make us smaller, and the total denial of moral responsibility does not cause us to disappear as moral agents. But I am at fault—not to blame, just at fault—for not making this clear, and for quoting a long passage from Dennett (the quotation Ciurria cites on p. 229 is from Dennett) without making it clear that it is Dennett’s view which I reject. No one justly deserves either punishment or reward, but that does not change the fact that there are some genuinely bad people in the world, with many moral flaws (together with some virtues); and there are some morally splendid (but imperfect) people in the world. It does not “make us small” nor our accomplishments (and our wrongs) less significant. Michelle is not morally responsible for having written a wonderful book: she herself recognizes in her generous acknowledgments all the help, and she knows that from her earliest years there was much help of which she is now not consciously aware. Without those vital formative factors she would not have written a marvelous book; but she did write the book, she accomplished something wonderful, the causes did not bypass her but operated through her. There is nothing in the denial of moral responsibility that prevents us from celebrating Michelle’s excellent work or deploring the brutal racism of Donald Trump or regretting the callous cruelty of Robert Harris; but there is a lot in moral responsibility that keeps us from understanding these things better, strengthening the good, and taking steps to fix the bad.

At the top of p. 217, Ciurria quotes a passage from an earlier symposium, and once again I left my meaning woefully unclear. I do not believe that an illusion of freedom is beneficial for those who are deprived of actual freedom; to the contrary, the “happy slave” (or Frankfurt’s “willing addict”) who believes herself to be free is more deeply deprived of freedom than is one who recognizes and struggles against forces that impair or destroy freedom. One of the most oppressive features of American culture is that many who are systematically deprived of freedom believe that they live in a land of “liberty and justice for all.” The advantage to the assembly line worker, the impoverished person, and the person in long-term care is not in accepting an illusion of freedom, but rather in achieving a better understanding of freedom and thus being empowered to struggle for the genuine freedom they are denied. The profound importance of having genuine control and choices—even when illness or the frailty of old age has circumscribed one’s range of freedom—is documented by the powerful research of Shelley Taylor and Judith Rodin. The first step in the struggle for freedom and a psychologically healthy free will is the clear recognition of the forces—both overt and subtle—that deny people genuine freedom. On this point, Ciurria and I are in complete agreement.

One other point in which my lack of clarity results in misunderstanding. Ciurria states: “Waller doesn’t seem to care that he himself is committed to a revisionary policy that would require a massive amount of willpower and cooperation to implement, viz., the complete elimination of responsibility” (226). I do care, and I do not underestimate the enormity of the challenge. Moral responsibility is deeply entrenched in a powerful interlocking system that includes “pass the pain along” motives, belief in a just world, spurious “meritocratic” elitism, and (particularly in the US and the UK) neoliberalism. Belief in moral responsibility varies from culture to culture, and it is profoundly and destructively cultural rather than genetic. Michelle cites (225) Ryan Lake’s interesting argument for his claim that there is not a diminished view of moral responsibility in Nordic countries, but just a very different one that focuses on restitution rather than retribution. I’m not convinced—their views differ not only on just punishment and restitution but also on social welfare and just distribution—but even granting Ryan’s claim, this would indicate that views concerning moral responsibility are not genetically hardwired: On both Ryan’s view and my own, there are profound cultural differences in the moral responsibility beliefs of neoliberal cultures like the United States and social democratic corporatist cultures like Sweden. Cultural systems are hard to overthrow: having grown up in racism and fundamentalism, I know how powerful and pervasive and stultifying they can be. But though deeply entrenched, they can be destroyed; and though deeply believed they can be rejected. Obviously, no one deserves any special credit for having rejected such a system, since ultimately it is a matter of good fortune: had I been born a few years earlier, when the region was even more insular, I probably would be wearing a MAGA hat.

One force holding moral responsibility in place—especially in the United States and the UK—is the system of neoliberalism. But the gross stupidity, environmental destructiveness, and fundamental injustice of the neoliberal system is becoming obvious to many. And as neoliberalism is challenged, vital elements of neoliberalism—strong belief in radical individualism (the notorious “self-made man”), the glorification of wealth and private property, and insistence on personal/moral responsibility—will lose much of their support. I agree with Ciurria’s critical points concerning the vile system of neoliberalism, but I would go further: a version of neoliberalism—a “proto-neoliberalism”—has been present in the United States from the American Revolution on, and the solidly entrenched neoliberal beliefs (though they did not go by that name) made the United States a very receptive environment for the contemporary version of neoliberalism that emerged in the mid- to late twentieth century; and individual moral/personal responsibility has been a key element of neoliberalism from the racist and elitist Founding Fathers to the racist and elitist present.

Ciurria notes that, “somewhat strangely,” while Waller denies that responsibility can be defended on pragmatic grounds, he believes that punishment can be, because people “cannot get along without some punishment” (194). In our actual world—at least for the foreseeable future—we cannot totally eliminate punishment, including incarceration of people (like Robert Harris) who have been shaped as brutal and callous murderers, and who do not justly deserve punishment. We should painfully acknowledge that incarceration—even when unavoidable for the protection of others—is unjust and undeserved punishment, and that imposing such punishment is morally wrong: recognition that we are participating in an injustice will be and should be very uncomfortable, and should motivate us to make the incarceration as comfortable and positive as possible, and should also motivate us to fix the conditions—lead poisoning is an obvious one, but they are legion—that shape people to become so dangerous that we must subject them to unjust incarceration. It does sound strange—and jarring—to say that in some cases we must engage in punishment practices that are morally wrong; but that is because we have a deep (and largely nonconscious) belief in a just world that inclines us to believe that “ought implies can” and that we can never be in a position in which we must participate in injustice. This deep belief in a just world (BJW) is a major support for belief in moral responsibility (the punishment is not unjust, because the punished justly deserve it); and it also supports the view that victims of rape “brought it on themselves” by their provocative behavior (because in a just world no innocent person could suffer such brutal and traumatic assault), and Augustine’s confident claim that small children are inherently evil: they sometimes suffer, and a just God would not allow an innocent child to suffer. Moral responsibility sustains BJW, and BJW is a major force in blaming victims—including all who are victims of discrimination, who live in poverty, and who suffer abuse. It is painful to see ourselves as contributing to or acquiescing in injustice; but that is much better than belief in righteous retribution, much better than blaming victims, and much better than believing that the privileged are enjoying their just deserts. It is true, as Ciurria emphasizes, that blame can be and sometimes is used to positively modify behavior; but there are better ways of changing character and behavior without the destructive baggage of the moral responsibility system.

I agree with Ciurria that “life hacks” are good, and John Doris does a wonderful job of not only making clear the importance of situational factors but also giving practical advice about how to avoid morally hazardous environments: Lack of Character is a remarkable book. But whether one has the capacity to discover and understand and employ that guidance effectively—including vitally important factors like whether one was shaped a cognitive miser or a chronic cognizer, enjoys strong cognitive self-efficacy or suffers from weak cognitive self-confidence, was or was not nurtured as an infant in ways that promote healthy exploration—is ultimately a matter of one’s good or bad fortune, not a basis for moral responsibility. Fischer notes that we can exert skill in “playing the cards that are dealt us,” and Sher suggests the less advantaged can simply “work harder,” and those appeals to skill and fortitude are supposed to provide grounds for moral responsibility; but Sher’s fortitude and Fischer’s skills are factors shaped by our histories, not godlike powers that somehow transcend the genetic and environmental forces that ultimately create all our abilities.

Ciurria makes it wonderfully clear that asymmetrical power relations are an enormous problem; but moral responsibility justifies them, from the Founding Fathers to the neoliberal present. We won’t eliminate asymmetrical power relations so long as we believe that wealth and poverty and status are “justly deserved” in our “meritocracy.” She also notes that: “A more adequate understanding of agency would tie it to relationships and interdependencies that allow us to pursue IF aims” (228). I agree, and describing this is one of the many virtues of Ciurria’s book; but that more adequate concept of agency neither requires nor supports moral responsibility. As we study the interdependencies we find individual moral responsibility—in which the buck stops here with this radically individualistic choice—much less plausible.

Ciurria and I agree on the importance of the struggle to overcome oppressive forces, and Ciurria’s intersectional feminism enriches our understanding of the struggle. Our disagreement is not as deep, but it is important: it is the question of whether blame and just deserts and moral responsibility are effective tools for winning that struggle.

  • Michelle Ciurria

    Michelle Ciurria


    Response to Bruce Waller

    Thank you, Bruce, for your very charitable reading of my book. I must admit that I do fault and blame myself for not being as charitable in my reading of your book and, as a result, I have misinterpreted some of your arguments, which I will duly correct at the end of my response. Perhaps I am lucky that you don’t believe in blame and have generously excused me!

    To begin, I want to clarify the main points of agreement and disagreement between us, to give the reader a better picture of where and why we overlap (or not). This will bring into focus our methodological commitments, which are not, I believe, shared by most responsibility theorists.

    First, I would say that we are both methodologically committed to non-ideal theory in the sense that we agree that the social ontology is fundamentally unjust, social institutions are asymmetrically structured, and human beings are deeply prejudiced. Insofar as moral responsibility is a social practice embedded in unjust conditions and enacted by ignorant and prejudiced people, it can hardly avoid being a (stubborn) system of oppression. As Marilyn Frye observed in “The Politics of Reality,” moral emotions like resentment and disapprobation serve to police and enforce double-binds that reduce the options available to oppressed groups to a very few, all of which are punished. Women, for instance, “are in a bind where neither sexual activity nor sexual inactivity is all right.”1 In the liberal West, the reactive attitudes play a central role (alongside state-sanctioned violence) in maintaining age-old hierarchies of power. In Alison Jaggar’s words, we are all susceptible to acquiring emotional sensibilities that align with “a capitalist, white supremacist, and male-dominant” social order and that hinder feminist progress.2 Similarly, bell hooks observes that moral emotions like love and fair-mindedness are distorted beyond recognition in our current social context, which she describes as a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”3

    Since responsibility as typically practiced enforces the domination contract, we should, of course, eliminate it (in this form). But eliminating this version of responsibility doesn’t mean that we can’t repurpose the reactive attitudes into a feminist version of responsibility (or responsibility*, if you prefer) that serves feminist interests. This is where you and I differ. Whereas you prefer eliminativism, I favour an ameliorative approach that asks what responsibility can do for intersectional feminism, and that aims to socially engineer a concept and corresponding practice that serves this purpose. The ameliorative method comes from Sally Haslanger,4 who distinguishes between three philosophical methods: (a) the conceptual method, which inquires into our shared understanding of a concept F; (b) the descriptive method, which seeks to identify paradigm cases of a concept F; and (c) the ameliorative method, which inquires into the point of having a concept F at all. Haslanger is particularly interested in how these distinctions apply to race and gender, but her analysis can be applied to other contexts as well. Conceptualists about race, she says, tend to argue that the dominant understanding of race (as a natural kind or biological essence) is flawed, so we should abolish it and stop talking about race (viz., Appiah 1996).5 Race is like “phlogiston”: a myth that has no explanatory or predictive value. This is analogous to eliminativism about responsibility: the standard understanding of responsibility is a myth, so we should eliminate it.

    The ameliorativist about race, in contrast, (re)defines race by reference to systems of oppression: a group is racialized, on Haslanger’s definition, if its members are taken to have bodily features associated with certain ancestral regions that “mark” that group as subordinate (Black, Indigenous, etc.) or privileged (White) within a salient context (e.g., the racial liberal West). While this definition is not beyond criticism (see Jenkins 2014), the main advantage of the amelioraitive method is that it highlights the connections between race and oppression, which helps us mobilize against racial oppression, thereby mobilizing against racial classification itself. (When racial injustice ends, race will no longer be an operative concept). In this way, ameliorativism is a stepping stone on the path to eliminativism: as Haslanger says, “when justice is achieved, there will no longer be white women (there will no longer be men or women, whites or members of any other race),” at which point “we—or more realistically, our descendants—won’t need the concepts of race or gender to describe our current situation.”6 Analogously, when social injustice ends, we (or our descendants) will no longer need responsibility*, as we will no longer need to blame people for their roles in (heretofore abolished) systems of oppression. But in the meantime, ameliorative responsibility can help us understand the connections between hegemonic responsibility and oppression, and weaken those links. It can help us mobilize against key proponents and beneficiaries of power relations.

    In a sense, then, I am an eliminativist, but I’m playing the long game. I’m urging people to use a transformative and counterhegemonic version of the reactive attitudes to protest people’s investments in and contributions to systems of oppression; and once we’ve done away with those systems (if ever), we can do away with responsibility*. Notably, Moya Bailey has defended a similar approach to misogynoir (or discrimination against Black women, nonbinary, agender, and gender-variant folks), arguing that we should seek to transform negative stereotypes and media images of Black women and sexual minorities as part of a broader program of transformative justice.7 While eliminating misogynoir is a seductive ideal, a transformative approach acknowledges that elimination is not possible in this lifetime, unlike resistance. This realism is consistent with a non-ideal approach to social injustice, which recognizes the intractability or “stubbornness” of oppression, and enjoins people to reclaim and transform dominant concepts like “social contract” and “queerness” and “responsibility,” while maintaining a consistent, evolving, and transformative conversation about social injustice. We should not stop talking about race, misogynoir, social contracts, or responsibility – we should talk about them more, while situating them in the context of entrenched systems of oppression.

    In terms of responsibility practices obscuring the “deeper problems” of social injustice, the ameliorative method is actually designed to do the opposite: illuminate the connections between specific concepts and social injustice. Defining race as a class position in a racial hierarchy of power is meant to draw attention to racial oppression, not obscure it. Similarly, holding people responsible for their roles in systems of oppression is meant to draw attention to those connections. We cannot resist social injustice if we don’t understand its working parts, just as we can’t fix a car if we don’t understand the parts of the engine. The working parts of a system of oppression is persons, acting on class-based interests. If we want to resist social injustices, then we need to emotionally engage with, and transform, their human proponents.

    It’s interesting, Bruce, that you say that civil rights activists eschewed contempt. I’m not sure if that’s true of across the board. Certainly, Martin Luther King Jr. rejected divisive emotions and advised us to love our enemies (which, I should note, is not incompatible with resenting our enemies, and may even require resenting them, as Myisha Cherry has argued).8 But Malcolm X, another civil rights activist, criticized MLK for “selling out” to segregationists and using the doctrine of love to make Black people “defenseless . . . in the face of one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken people into captivity: that’s the White man.”9 Malcolm X called White people “crackers,” supported racial separatism and a sovereign Black nation, and defended a “bloody” revolution against American imperialism, explaining that if the revolutionary war against the British was justified (as most US Americans believe), then a revolutionary war against American racial imperialism is (in theory) equally justified (“what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”).10 To me, these positions seem consistent with an attitude of contempt as defined by Macalester Bell:11 Malcolm X is looking down on racial oppressors as deeply flawed and beyond reason, and is refusing to play by their rules. I approve of Malcolm X’s logic: The White majority would not then, and will not now, admit fault, negotiate fairly, or support racial justice. Barely more than half of White people (56%) even admit that there is an advantage to being White in the United States,12 and few of those who do would support transformative policies like racial reparations, decarceration, and electoral reform. Contempt is a justifiable response to people who have witnessed years of political activism and yet stubbornly refuse to admit that racism is a problem.

    Lastly, I apologize for misinterpreting your points about exculpatory creep and the value of freedom. To correct myself, you reject worries about exculpatory creep and deny that false belief in free will (as opposed to positive belief in control and choice) is useful or desirable. Thank you for these corrections, and, even more so, for publishing work that sheds light on the connections between responsibility and systems of oppression. Your analysis, although not explicitly feminist, aligns you with intersectional feminist interests and makes you a valuable ally.

    1. Frye (1983), 3.

    2. Jaggar (1989), 165.

    3. bell hooks, All About Love (HarperCollins, 2000).

    4. S. Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique (Oxford University Press, 2012).

    5. K. A. Appiah, Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections (Princeton University Press, 1998), 30–105.

    6. Haslanger (2012), 266.

    7. M. Bailey, Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance (NYU Press, 2021).

    8. M. Cherry, “Love, Anger, and Racial Injustice,” in The Routledge Handbook of Love in Philosophy, ed. A. M. Martin (Routledge, 2019), 157–68.

    9. Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet (North Hollywood: Pacifica Foundation, 1965).

    10. Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet.

    11. M. Bell, Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt (Oxford University Press, 2013).

    12. Pew Research Center, “Race in America 2019,” April 9, 2019,

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller


      Reply to Michelle

      It is a special treat to participate in a symposium on Michelle Ciurria’s superb An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility, and to once again be involved in a project so effectively organized by Ryan Lake. Ryan has assembled a great cast for comments on a great book. Kathryn Norlock’s “Perpetual Struggle” is a delightful and profound paper, and I hope that her pessimism may include the rejection of belief in a just world along with the rejection of moral responsibility – we opponents of moral responsibility desperately need such insightful allies. And I am eager to learn more about Sofia Jeppson’s argument that marginalized groups are treated as both less rational and more blameworthy: a very important insight. But I am concerned that three brilliant philosophers – who have written outstanding works that raise very serious questions concerning moral responsibility – should all remain on the side of saving moral responsibility. I agree with Sofia that Michelle’s powerful arguments are not so much in favor of moral responsibility as in support of a different and very valuable project of legitimizing anger and resentment at systemic mistreatment. And I am delighted by Michelle’s long-term goal of completely eliminating moral responsibility. But then there is the superb work of Manuel Vargas, who makes very valuable points concerning the problems with moral responsibility and yet opts to reform it rather than abandon it. And John Doris has written two of the best books ever written against moral responsibility – Lack of Character is superb, and Talking to Ourselves is even stronger – and yet still supports belief in moral responsibility. So I find myself in a symposium in which several of the philosophers whose work I most admire – and who are among the most insightful critics of moral responsibility – reach conclusions very different from the conclusions I draw from reading their work. But I expect to learn a great deal from the discussion, and I am indebted to Michelle and Ryan for the opportunity.
      I believe that Michelle and I are fundamentally in agreement. I certainly hope so, since her work in bringing together a remarkable variety of perspectives to better understand the nature and harm of oppression is work I greatly admire. She is correct, of course, that many people involved in the civil rights movement expressed deep – and in many ways justified – contempt for the racists that treated them with contempt and worse. And I would never criticize them for that anger and contempt: expecting people who have suffered generations of brutal mistreatment not to feel contempt for the ignorance and prejudice of their persecutors is to expect superhuman tolerance and understanding; and the anger felt is not only appropriate, but vitally important to motivating a tremendously difficult struggle. But there were some extraordinary people who did not feel contempt, but instead looked deeper at the causes that shaped such vile prejudices and tried to help the racists and bigots who were themselves victims of mistreatment and manipulation; and those are people to whom I feel personally indebted. It is not that feeling contempt for bigots is wrong; after all, they are very bad people who promote stupid and destructive policies. But being guided by such contempt causes serious problems. Michelle is rightly concerned with “uptake” by those whose behavior we rightly resent (though she does not think it essential, she certainly agrees it is desirable); and expressing contempt makes the uptake very unlikely. But the contempt – and the blame – also block us from a better understanding of the deeper causes of the problems. When both sides express contempt, the divisions become deeper and more dangerous and more destructive. Most of the people for whom we feel contempt are people who are suffering and are themselves being exploited. We need to find ways of reaching and influencing and understanding them. Expressions of contempt close off that possibility. In particular, it blocks us from appreciating any good qualities, and blocks any feeling of sympathy. Yes, they are genuinely bad; but they are not monsters, but people whose problems and flaws we can understand and whose virtues we can appreciate. We should be aware of their flaws, which are serious and deep and often appalling; but blame stops there. We can recognize that people are bad – and express deep resentment for their behavior, and strongly protest and reproach their behavior — while also seeking to understand what caused them to become so flawed.
      Moral responsibility is an instrument of injustice, not a means of liberation. It is used to justify a horrific prison industry that imprisons minorities at outrageous rates; it justifies neglect of those who are less fortunate: they deserve it. It blinds us to deeper systemic causes, and blinds us to our own acquiescence in a profoundly unjust system. The country with the strongest dedication to moral responsibility is the country with a massive imprisonment system that targets minorities and insists they justly deserve their cruel treatment, and it ignores – and exacerbates — the terrible conditions that shape people for criminal behavior. That is the main effect of moral responsibility: a coverup of those terrible conditions, so we do not have to consider our role in causing the problems: the problems are totally the fault of those we imprison and impoverish.
      Michelle and I agree that as currently employed, moral responsibility is an instrument of oppression. I think we should bury it at the crossroads, drive a stake through its heart, and sow salt in its fields. It is too dangerous and destructive to save. Rather than “responsibility*” why not emphasize what we should: that there are terrible wrongs being done by profoundly flawed people. Once we start blaming, the victims start getting blamed, and we stop looking deeper at the causes and the institutions that hold the racism and bigotry in place. We can do that better without blaming.
      I enthusiastically concur with Michelle’s view view that: “If we want to resist social injustice, then we need to emotionally engage with and transform, their human constituents.” But treating people with contempt does not facilitate such positive engagement. And I agree that we can “love our enemies” while also deeply – and rightly – resenting their vile behavior. Malcolm X has every right to note – and could hardly avoid recognizing — that some racial oppressors are ”deeply flawed and beyond reason.” Believe me, he was right; I know some of them very well, both old classmates and relatives. Sadly, many of those we will never convert, no matter what methods we employ – ameliorative or harsh blame or whatever. But some can change, especially when they are young; but to effect such change we must understand them better and approach them with at least some degree of sympathy. And we must realize that many of them are both oppressors and victims. And we must recognize that as morally vile as some of their character and behavior may be, they may have other features that are admirable.
      The problem with using shaming in restorative justice is that although the plan was to use only productive “supportive” shaming, it often degenerated into harsh destructive shaming. I fear that any endeavor to turn moral responsibility to productive purposes will involve similar problems. I agree with Michelle that we must eventually eliminate moral responsibility; but I want to do it tomorrow, or sooner. We have excellent resources for studying and protesting the deep causes of oppression: Michelle offers and excellent guide to those resources. We need not take a chance on employing a revision of a method and model that has for too long functioned as an instrument of oppression. We can resent without blame, reproach without blame, protest without blame, show solidarity without blame, demand justice without blame, and understand both individual and systemic sources of oppression and their causes without blame.

    • Michelle Ciurria

      Michelle Ciurria


      On contemptuous blame

      Thank you for your follow-up comment, Bruce! I want to respond to your provocative statement that “we need to find ways of reaching and influencing and understanding [oppressors]. Expressions of contempt close off that possibility….We can recognize that people are bad – and express deep resentment for their behavior, and strongly protest and reproach their behavior — while also seeking to understand what caused them to become so flawed.”
      In many cases, what caused someone to become an oppressor (e.g., a Nazi, a rapist, etc.) – is simply a self-serving investment in a system of oppression that benefits the oppressor or the oppressor’s social class. This is not a sympathetic or complex or even an interesting reason. Moreover, oppressors can exploit our misplaced sympathy to extract attention and caregiving from us, to troll us, to humiliate us, and to further entrench asymmetries of power. Indeed, our capitalist/kleptocratic society is already too sympathetic to the predatory ruling classes. When someone is a self-satisfied oppressor, the person deserves blame, and sometimes contemptuous blame, not for the sake of enlightening or improving the person, but (in many cases) to protest the person’s predatory behavior, to bear witness to the victims, to instigate social change, and to advance other goals that intersectional feminists value and seek to realize in the world.

    • Sofia Jeppsson

      Sofia Jeppsson


      Metaphysics and society

      I really enjoy reading your discussion, Mich and Bruce. I’m more on Mich’s than Bruce’s side here, but I sympathize with both your views.

      However, while Mich largely sets metaphysics aside (in THIS she resembles P.F. Strawson) to focus on politics and relationships, Bruce doesn’t seem to distinguish metaphysical arguments from arguments based on empirical facts. I find this puzzling. I think that distinction is important, and furthermore, that it’s probably more efficient (still not VERY efficient, unfortunately, but MORE efficient nevertheless) to focus on empirical facts in public arguments about what’s wrong with society.

      People can have reasonable disagreements over the existence of moral responsibility; metaphysics is complicated, arguments tend to boil down to intuitions at the end of the day, and intuitions differ between people. However, if someone says that it’s possible to work your way out of poverty, without any improbable lucky breaks coming your way (e.g., lottery win, or meeting the exact right person at the exact right time Hollywood-style), just hard work, even if you earn so little that you gotta work twelve hours a day to make ends meet – there’s no reasonable disagreement between us and this person. The person who makes this claim is (willfully) ignorant of empirical facts.

      Since people want to believe that the world is just, however, it’s hard to get people to grasp basic, empirical facts about how society works, and what’s possible or not for regular human beings, even though many of these facts SHOULD be uncontroversial. But would it be easier or even harder to get people to accept the following views?
      – Moral responsibility doesn’t exist at all. It’s not just that poor and oppressed people aren’t responsible for being in trouble, the rich and seemingly powerful aren’t responsible for any of their choices or anything they do either.
      – Total denial of moral responsibility doesn’t imply moral scepticism; there are still rights and wrongs, society can still be just or unjust, and we ought to fight injustice.
      I suspect that this will be a harder sell. The combination of the above two theses is a complicated philosophical position, which you need complicated (and, as I said above, often intuition-dependent) philosophical arguments to support. If people are willing to insist that it’s possible to work twelve hours a day for a pittance and yet save up enough money to eventually become rich and successful, even though nothing about this proposal checks out, surely they can deny that certain philosophical theses are true based on the same motivations.

      To sum up: To fight injustice, I think it’s likely more fruitful to focus on material realities the way Mich does, than to deny that moral responsibility exists at all.

      Furthermore, I’d like to point out (as I always do with Americans) that Sweden and Norway are different countries, and also that all countries can change over time. Sweden is much more politically rightwing now than it was forty years ago, and has a much more retributivist and harsh criminal justice system now than it used to. This goes hand in hand with people being more inclined now than before to think that poor people have themselves to blame, that PoC in rough neighbourhoods who commit crime do so because “those people” have bad moral standards and that’s the entire explanation, etc.
      Of course we still have a much better welfare state and a better prison system than the US, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. So the question of how best to counteract these trends is an important one here too. As I said, I suspect (although it’s possible that I’m wrong – this is an empirical question, after all) that as hard as it is to get social-science-based arguments across, it would be harder still if one focused on metaphysics.

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller


      Response to Michelle

      Though we agree on so much, including the importance of protesting against bigotry and exploitation, I think this is an issue on which we have some differences. The racists and bigots who voice their vile rants are certainly badly flawed, and it is important to reproach them and to protest their vile behavior. But many of them — indeed, the great majority — are not “self-satisfied,” but desperately unhappy. These are people who are dying from suicide and drugs and alcoholism, through “deaths of despair.” They may suppose that their racist views benefit them, but in fact racism is being used to manipulate and exploit them. We need to understand the deeper institutional powers that are causing them to become racists so that we can attack and change those deeper problems, rather than focusing on the more obvious symptoms that are manifested in the racist behavior and attitudes of those who are also victims of exploitation. When we treat them with contempt — as we have for many years — we drive them into the arms of people like Donald Trump, who uses them for very dangerous and destructive purposes. Protest is vitally important, on that we agree; but we can protest without contempt; and we can recognize that people have very deep and serious flaws while seeking to understand and change the deeper causes of those flaws and the forces that are shaping those flaws for exploitative purposes.

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller


      Reponse to Sofia

      Sofia is certainly correct concerning the difficulty of getting people to recognize injustice; and believe me, she is absolutely right about the challenges of convincing people to give up moral responsibility. If we had to choose one or the other, focusing on the empirical facts about what’s wrong with society is probably a better approach. But I’m not as confident of the possibility of separating the metaphysical issues from the empirical ones. When people believe in moral responsibility, that colors the way they see the empirical matters: enormous inequities in wealth do not appear so problematic, because they are distributed in accordance with just deserts; a massive and profoundly unjust criminal justice system is not so bad, because those punished justly deserve such treatment (and as Sofia notes, belief in a just world (BJW) — which underlies belief in moral responsibility — exacerbates the problem, convincing people that those who suffer must justly deserve such suffering). Rather than an either/or, we need to work on both the empirical studies and the metaphysical underpinnings that systemically distort our perspective on the empirical data.

Manuel Vargas


Feminist and Ameliorative Responsibility

There is much to admire about Michelle Ciurria’s An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility (2020). It brings forthright intersectional feminist commitments to theorizing about responsibility, focusing on how everyday responsibility practices operate in a decidedly non-ideal world. The account is particularly sensitive to various communicative dimensions of blame, the role of “withdrawal emotions,” and the potential of blame for reforming normatively unappealing social practices. In what follows, I press a handful of questions about how to understand the account and what it aspires to provide. First, I ask what Ciurria means, and why we should think she is right when she claims throughout that the responsibility system is “broken,” even essentially so (1, 243). Second, I consider whether responsibility is amenable to the kind of “ameliorative” theorizing that she recommends, i.e., a recasting of responsibility in light of emancipatory aims. Third, I ask whether Ciurria’s account constitutes a change in topic. Fourth, I consider whether we should worry that the proposal is self-defeating. Fifth, I ask whether we might understand Ciurria’s theory not as a theory of moral responsibility, but as some other normative notion, one linked to important projects in feminist philosophy.

* * *

Ciurria argues that the responsibility system is broken and needs to be replaced with a “‘healthy’ intersectional feminist responsibility system” (136). What does it mean to say that the responsibility system is broken, and why would that license an ameliorative theory?

Although she doesn’t explicitly characterize what she means by the responsibility system, I take it that she has in mind the set of practices, attitudes, and judgments concerned with moral praiseworthiness and blameworthiness (her interest is explicitly with the latter), where the target of theorizing includes a set of characteristic conceptual distinctions such as the difference between being and holding responsible, exculpation, desert, and so on.1 The relationship of a theory of that system to the system itself might vary. For example, a sociologist might seek to depict operations of the responsibility system as a specifically social practice, with no concern for whether there is a normative unity to it. Philosophers, though, have tended to offer theories aimed at articulating the normative foundations of the practice, specifying the normative logic of the practice (e.g., why actions are excused from blame when they are) and the normative foundations of the practice (i.e., the normative force and basis for having or retaining the practice).

These variable targets of theorizing reflect a distinction between, on the one hand, theories of the structure, function, or nature of a thing and on the other, theories of its deployment. Depending on our interests, we can complain about the nature of the thing. I might hate fascism, no matter how well deployed, and fascism as such can be my target of criticism. However, it is something else to complain about either the way something was deployed (e.g., romance, badly done), or the context in which it was deployed (well-executed slapstick humor at the announcement of the death of a loved one).

Implementation failures don’t obviously speak against the virtues of the thing itself. The rules of a soccer game or a chess match might be well or poorly implemented. A marriage conceived of as governed by norms of mutual regard and companionship might fail to adhere to those norms. What then, is the sense in which responsibility practices are broken? Is it the thing itself? Or, is what is broken something like the context of deployment, or alternately, the manner of implementation of an otherwise normatively appealing responsibility system? These are differences that are normally thoughts to make a difference to philosophers and the folk alike.

To put my cards on the table, I worry that objections to the context of the practice (e.g., patriarchy) and the way the practice is deployed (in biased ways) are being leveraged as objections against going theories of the nature of (pre-ameliorated or pre-revised) responsibility. Ciurria’s thought might be that such disentanglement is impossible to pull off. If that’s the view, the motivation for it is harder to make out. The fact of the existence of diverse theories of the normative core of responsibility seems to speak against any putative impossibility of disentangling biased implementation from normative core. So, it is unclear to me why defective deployments of responsibility justify theoretical amelioration, any more than romantic incompetence justifies theoretical amelioration of the very idea of romance.

In calling attention to serious defects in how responsibility practices are deployed, Ciurria rightly directs our attention to issues theorists have thus far frequently ignored. However, without some reason to locate the defect at the level of the concept (or, perhaps, its basic or foundational function, or if you prefer, its normative core), the appeal of amelioration becomes elusive. Moreover, we can agree on a lot without going in for amelioration. We can, for example, agree that we should pursue interventions that limit the effects of bias and other distortions of responsibility. That our practices reflect biases of the sort common to hegemonically white supremacist and patriarchal social worlds is an important thing to recognize. Recognizing it does not mean that the concept, the normative core, or the essential nature of responsibility itself enshrines those features.

With respect to the aspiration to replace the broken responsibility system, Ciurria explicitly calls for an ameliorative theory of responsibility that seeks to replace our ordinary notion of responsibility with one that construes the nature and function of responsibility in terms of its facilitating intersectional feminist ends. (For simplicity, I will henceforth use “feminist” to mean “intersectional feminist.”) Drawing from Sally Haslanger’s account,2 Ciurria holds that “an ameliorative analysis defines concepts by reference to a set of emancipatory aims, which may or may not be ‘common-sensical.’ To be more precise, it begins by asking ‘What is the point of having the concept in question?’ and then constructs a definition anchored in ameliorative goals, such as mitigating racial injustice” (30).

Haslanger develops the methodology as an approach to the characterization of social identity categories, categories that recognizably change not just in conception but in content over time. What was once a felony can be made legal; who was once disallowed inheritance can now inherit; race was once understood as biological, now it should be construed in terms of a status of oppressive social practices. Normative considerations inform Haslanger’s proposal for thinking about social identity categories, but the target is social ontology and not morality. In contrast, Ciurria’s target for amelioration is a piece of morality itself. So, a second question: is responsibility amenable to ameliorative theorizing?

One way to appreciate why there could be a problem here is to consider a realist conception of morality where morality is understood to be a natural property of the world. In such a case, one might think morality is more like electromagnetic radiation or genes than it is like race or felonies, in that concepts and theories are not stipulatively fungible. For many recognizable forms of realism, concepts are well-ordered to the extent to which they represent things that have some status at least partly independent of us. We cannot rightly change the ontological commitments of such things because it suits our emancipatory interests in the way we can with social categories. Amelioration about radiation or genes threatens to collapse into moral Lysenkoism, insisting on a theory of nature because of purely political convictions, and not because of features of nature itself.

Of course, there are instrumentalist or anti-realist views about both scientific and moral phenomena. My point is only that amelioration about social identity concepts is less metaphysically fraught than amelioration about phenomena that has oftentimes been understood as having a less fungible reality than social identities. Moreover, the basic worry isn’t limited to moral realism. If one thinks morality is a product of widespread and relatively inflexible features of human cognition, as both some rational and sentimentalist constructivist think, it is again unclear how Haslangerian amelioration gets going.

It won’t do to point to the fact that responsibility practices are instantiated as practices. The stakes are responsibility itself, or its normative core. The basic problem arises for any account of responsibility where its features are constituted by, or depend on, implastic pieces of either (i) our moral psychology, (ii) our conceptual frameworks, or (ii) some abstract relationship with moral reality. So, another way to put the second question is: what is the underlying metaphysics of moral responsibility such that it is well-suited to amelioration at all? Is there any way for the ameliorative proposal to go forward without tendentious commitments about the nature of morality?

(An aside of mostly parochial interest: some may think it is no small hypocrisy that I, a committed revisionist about moral responsibility, am raising this concern. But it is precisely why I raise the concern. I regard it as a desideratum that a proposed revision about responsibility be relatively neutral about normative ethics and metaethical commitments, and that the most promising way of doing this is to hew as closely as possible to the kinds of distinctions we find in everyday responsibility practices.3 Ciurria’s approach seems neither neutral about metaethical matters, nor particularly concerned about costs for detaching from plausibly central conceptual features, as I argue next.)

Suppose we satisfactorily address the worry about responsibility’s suitability for amelioration. We might still worry about a third issue: is the proposal at hand a change in topic, rather than a proposal about responsibility?

Ciurria argues that when blame and blaming attitudes can ameliorate inequalities, then we should deploy it in those ways (46). On her account, what justifies blame is not that it is deserved, but that it is conducive to feminist ends. The traditional idea of desert, so far as I can tell, simply drops out and is replaced by the question of whether the agent “actually contributed to hierarchies of power” (81). There is no requirement, though, that these contributions be intentional, controlled, or otherwise contain some basis for deserving blame. The requirement is only some contribution (causal?) to hierarchies of (illegitimate, immoral, counter-feminist) power. Blameworthiness here operates on what is sometimes called a strict liability model.

One way to see how features of Ciurria’s approach suggest changes sufficient to constitute topic discontinuity, is to simply swap out the picture of feminist ends that anchors the normative account. Consider a picture of moral blame according to which something is only blameworthy if in some instance of blaming one moved us closer to achieving personal swankiness. Or consider the same kind of project, but where propriety of blame is limited to its aiding in the amelioration of anthropocentric climate change. Or, imagine a proposal that invites us to think of blame as properly restricted to ameliorating harms to nonhuman animals.

Any of these recastings of blameworthiness entail dramatic transformations in both intension and extension of the term. In the unameliorated parlance of the folk, blameworthiness seems to attach to any instance of culpable wrongdoing with no restriction on the class of wrongdoing. By narrowing blameworthiness to what serves one of these systemic ends, the class of things for which one can be blamed both broadens in one direction (e.g., it becomes indifferent to whether the effects were intentional) and narrows in another (in detaching blameworthiness from wrongs that have no import to the specified teleological value).

This is not a general argument against any instrumentalist or functionalist account. For example, suppose one thinks blameworthiness is justified by its contribution to the formation of agency sensitive to actual moral reasons, whatever that turns out to be. That teleologist about moral responsibility can largely sidestep the concern about a radical reshaping of the domain of blameworthiness because the diversity of culpability-entailing considerations would be left intact, including distinctions about intentionality, desert, and so on. But this is not how Ciurria construes the justifying teleology of responsibility. So, the result is a dramatic reshaping of the intension and extension of blameworthiness.

A Ciurria-style ameliorativist may embrace and even extoll radical revision in intension and extention. By ameliorativist lights, the proposal reflects a moral insight. Correspondingly, it helps us understand our existing practices in a new light—whether that thought is that blameworthiness is bound up with deficiencies of swankiness, the destruction of the biosphere, animal welfare, or the frustration of feminist aims. Accordingly, replacement of our everyday confused notion is in order. What makes tokens of blame apt, when they are apt, is that the blaming advances the specified end.

Given such a project, it is unclear to me whether the proposal for revision leaves enough of blame intact to be a theory of blame. Recall that among the features of the responsibility system for which we are aiming to provide a theory are distinctions like the difference between being and holding responsible, and between deserving blame and it being useful to blame. These distinctions—relatively low level and widely accepted features of responsibility—seem abrogated on the ameliorative proposals just considered.

Traditional theories of moral responsibility, whether self-expression, control, or other sorts of views, present themselves as providing an account of which kinds of agents are in the scope of responsibility practices, and the agential basis for meriting blame. Yet, Ciurria rejects both familiar accounts of these things, and it seems, the demand to ground blame in agency at all (16–17). Instead, she seems to hold that both inadvertent and well-intentioned but wayward actions that contribute to systems of power can be blameworthy if blame in those cases would help weaken and dismantle patriarchal systems of power. In considering agents incapable of understanding or benefiting from blame, or even being able to recognize the relevant considerations, she writes that “we are licensed to hold [uptake-impaired people] in contempt for their contributions to asymmetries of power when those contributions are something that we have a stake in managing, controlling, treating, or avoiding for feminist reasons” (89).

On Ciurria’s ameliorative proposal, the overriding question for the propriety of blame is whether in so blaming we advance feminist ends. Thus, desert for blame, which in ordinary practice seems constrained by nuances in how an action is produced, is transformed into the coarse-grained, causal/behavioral question of whether one contributed to an unjust social order. This picture runs counter to what is ordinarily taken to be an insight gained by reflecting on scapegoating cases (i.e., cases where we condemn the innocent because it is expedient to do so). The utility of holding responsible is not obviously sufficient for determining whether someone is responsible.

Without a story about the agential basis of blame, or a distinction between being and holding responsible, the proposal collapses the distinction between blameworthiness and reproach.4 On Cheshire Calhoun’s influential approach, reproach is an important part of the moral toolkit because it preserves condemnatory force without a presumption that such condemnation is deserved in the special sense at stake in attributions of blameworthiness. Indeed, she introduces the idea precisely as a way of advancing feminist interests in a way that sidesteps reliance on blame and all that it entails. However, in abandoning relatively central elements of blame, we might wonder whether we aren’t just trading a theory of responsibility for a theory of reproach. If that’s a misreading of Ciurria, though, then we still need either a story about the basis of desert that comes apart from its utility, or we need a story about why it isn’t a mistake to insist that desert or culpability turns on the expediency of blaming.

Let’s suppose Ciurria is committed to a strict-liability model of responsibility (or perhaps, reproach). Whatever the theoretical appeal of such a view, it invites a fourth question: is the ameliorative proposal self-undermining? The agent-sensitive features of our current conceptual framework seem difficult to shed, and a hurdle to uptake of the ameliorative proposal.

Suppose that the present responsibility system and our pre-ameliorated concept of blameworthiness are entangled with a concern for intentional vs unintentional wrongdoing, and with categories like recklessness and negligence. If that’s right, it seems that any positive proposal that involves abandoning these distinctions will strike many people as too demanding. The proposal does away with one of the appealing features of our current system of blameworthiness: the affordance of a modest degree of control over whether we are blamed. Because lack of control, lack of awareness, and the like are excuses, we enjoy a modicum of power over whether we are subject to justified blame. Strict liability systems do away with this feature of the present responsibility system.

Ciurria could respond by allowing desert-based, agent-centered distinctions back into the account. But then we would need a story about those things, which is exactly what is at stake in control-focused and identificationist theories of the sort that she rejects. For my part, I think there are tools here readily available to feminist responsibility theorists; I remain unpersuaded that control-based views are “irreconcilable” with feminism (82).

Ciurria rejects “reasons-responsiveness,” or control views more generally, in part because they potentially allow agents to be excused or exempted from responsibility even when holding such agents responsible would promote other feminist aims (69). By my lights, this is an uncompelling basis for rejecting control-based views. Consequentialists, functionalists, and teleologists of various stripes can and have recognized side-constraints in various forms, things that have some independent ground or basis that otherwise constrains the pursuit of target values. It isn’t clear why the same can’t be true of feminism. I, for one, welcome a feminist theory of responsibility that treats things like culpable states of mind, intention, awareness, control-sensitive excuses, and the mentalistic features of action as grounding side constraints in a practice structured by feminist aims. Unless the version of feminism being put forward is intended as both (i) a comprehensive theory of the good and (ii) one that reduces blame to a theory of the right, it is not clear to me why a feminist theory of responsibility must be saddled with the potentially self-defeating strict liability model of (ameliorated) blame.

Thus far, I have argued that in yoking blame to exclusively feminist concerns in a strict-liability fashion, Ciurria has subordinated the distinctive normative structures of blameworthiness to purposes that undo some of what is important about the responsibility system. I conclude by considering a fifth question, namely, whether these features suggest that we should construe her account as offering us a theory of something other than moral responsibility.

Potential evidence for this hypothesis is that she foregrounds her interest in questions of structural injustice, emphasizing that her approach “asks us to diagnose the systems of oppression behind most interactions in a global, asymmetrically structured world” (21). She goes on to reject as comparatively unimportant the sort of data that informs most accounts of the responsibility system. She contrasts her proposal with the emphasis on “petty infractions” (21) that she finds in standard theories of responsibility.

(On the petty infraction thought: I would have thought it relatively easy to find discussions of blame that take up racist and sexist wrongdoing, intentional homicide, reckless endangerment, negligence, oppression, and so on. The nature of these issues doesn’t strike me as manifesting a fixation on petty infractions; and the seriousness with which these questions are considered—with an eye towards things like psychopathy, neuroatypicality, criminal punishment, and so on—suggests that philosophers take the stakes to be varied and wide-ranging. At the same time petty infractions do seem a sizeable portion of everyday blaming, so it does not seem odd to me that theorists would want an account that comports with so ubiquitous a form of blaming.)

These considerations reinforce the thought that perhaps there is an important sense in which Ciurria is not so much offering a competitor to existing accounts of responsibility, or even a theory of what blameworthiness comes to, but something else: a novel normative theory of how we might deploy blame for purposes mostly disconnected from the concerns that animate everyday blaming. On the construal considered here (call it theory amelioration), conventional questions about culpability and blameworthiness are orthogonal to the questions of whether the moral psychology of blaming can be appropriated for feminist ends.

Construed in this way, the account calls to mind Iris Marion Young’s important work on what she sometimes called political responsibility.5 Indeed, we might think that Ciurria is offering a way to merge the feminist project one finds in Calhoun’s treatment of reproach with Young’s feminist approach to political responsibility. As Young saw it, we need a new and further notion of responsibility, one not tied to individual culpability as a precondition for addressing collective problems—including systems of oppression—in an asymmetrical world. By Young’s lights, exclusive reliance on a notion of individual culpability as a basis for demands for moral repair was a chronic barrier to achieving progress on more systematic problems. The relationship of this project to individual moral responsibility as it has ordinarily been understood by theorists is complex, but it does not obviously turn out to be the same thing.6

Perhaps Ciurria’s project can be read as a kind of synthesis or extension of these projects? She never says that this is how she conceives of it—she says relatively little about the accounts of either Calhoun or Young on these matters—but it seems to me fruitful to read her as contributing to this important strand of thinking about the uses and possibilities for responsibility.7

  1. This is the account given of that term in Manuel Vargas, Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 109–10.

  2. Sally Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  3. Vargas, Building Better Beings, 73–74, 102–4.

  4. Cheshire Calhoun, “Responsibility and Reproach,” Ethics 99 (1989): 389–406.

  5. Iris Marion Young, “Political Responsibility and Structural Injustice,” Lindley Lecture (University of Kansas) 41 (2003),; Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  6. For recent discussions, see Maeve Mckeown, “Responsibility for Structural Injustice,” in International Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Hugh LaFollette (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2018), 1–10; Robin Zheng, “What Kind of Responsibility Do We Have for Fighting Injustice? A Moral-Theoretic Perspective on the Social Connections Model,” Critical Horizons 20 (2019): 109–26.

  7. Thanks to Henry Argetsinger and Daniel Speak for helpful feedback and discussion on these ideas.

  • Michelle Ciurria

    Michelle Ciurria


    Response to Manuel Vargas

    Thank you, Manuel, for your incisive questions! They certainly give me a lot to think about.

    Let me start by explaining what I mean when I say that the responsibility system, within which we exchange the reactive attitudes and moral reasons, is “broken.” Following critical contract theorists like Carole Pateman, Charles Mills, and Stacy Clifford Simplican, I take the social contract (that governs our interpersonal relationships) to be a patriarchal, racial, and ableist agreement amongst privileged (white, cisgender masculine, nondisabled) subjects to subordinate and exploit oppressed (non-white, feminine-coded, disabled) non-contractors for profit and status. Consequently, responsibility practices are controlled and exploited by these contractors, while the oppressed are positioned as objects of, as opposed to signatories to, the contract. One way of understanding these dynamics of power is through Marylin Frye’s notion of double-binds. The ordinary reactive attitudes, under the “domination contract,” serve to police and enforce double-binds that limit the options available to oppressed groups, thereby upholding the terms of the domination contract. Women are blamed as either “loose” or “frigid” no matter how they express their sexuality; disabled people are seen as either incompetent children or blameworthy troublemakers; and so on. The responsibility system is “broken” in the sense that it functions to enforce the terms of the domination contract, keeping oppressed groups in a perpetual state of subordination.

    As you say, Manuel, philosophers have tried to identify a unifying logic to our responsibility practices, and have hit on a number of potential explanations that do not fit together in a unified whole. Some tie responsibility to control, others to quality of will, and others to adaptability. The reason philosophers have not identified a cohesive, underlying logic to our responsibility practices, in my view, is because they have not adopted a thoroughly nonideal approach to our interpersonal relationships. A nonideal analysis reveals that the unifying logic of mainstream responsibility practices is the logic of oppression: the reactive attitudes serve to police and enforce the logics of patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, etc. In “Down Girl,” Kate Manne says that the “logic of misogyny” is a logic of oppression: misogyny is “a system of hostile forces that by and large makes sense from the perspective of patriarchal ideology, inasmuch as it works to police and enforce a patriarchal order.”1 Similarly, responsibility as ordinarily practiced is a system of hostile attitudes that by and large makes sense from the perspective of a patriarchal, racist, ableist, capitalist ideology, inasmuch as the reactive attitudes work to police and enforce the domination contract. (The logic of responsibility is an intersectional logic, because the domination contract ratifies and enforces multiple dimensions of oppression.) This explains the “normative unity” and “normative logic” of our everyday responsibility practices in a way that allows us to answer key questions about responsibility: responsibility practices are retained because they protect longstanding hierarchies of power, certain actions are excused because excusing these kinds of actions serves the interests of the ruling classes, and so on. These answers are not forthcoming on an “ideal theory” like Strawson’s, which obscures the role of relations of power and domination in mundane social interactions.

    The logic of intersectional feminist responsibility is the very opposite of the logic of hegemonic responsibility: it serves to challenge and overturn the domination contract using the tools of responsibility, i.e., the reactive attitudes and moral reasoning. Hence, an intersectional feminist will blame people for their participation in the domination contract, thereby challenging, and ultimately transforming, the domination contract itself. My theory, then, is ameliorative in the sense that it seeks to transform the domination contract into an “equality contract” that incorporates, respects, and empowers historically disenfranchised groups. An ameliorative method, as defined by Sally Haslanger, asks what the purpose of having a specific concept is, and seeks to engineer a concept that fits the designated purpose. The point of having the concepts of race and gender, for Haslanger,2 is to illuminate social injustice and position us to mobilize against it. Similarly, the point of having a concept of responsibility (or responsibility*) is to highlight people’s roles in hierarchies of power and mobilize oppressed people to challenge oppressors and exploiters.

    Next, I take your point, Manuel, that my theory elides distinctions between different types of moral responsibility. In objecting to many different theories—the attributability view, the accountability view, etc.—I am not trying to deny that these criteria can be grounds for blaming someone, but I deny that they are necessary or exclusive grounds for doing so. (That is, deservingness of resentment could be a feminist ground for blaming someone, and so on) There are intersectional feminist reasons for blaming people for “controlled” racial slurs, but there are also intersectional feminist reasons for blaming people for “uncontrolled” or “accidental” racial slurs. These theories are too restrictive to respect the diversity of feminist reasons to blame someone.

    Robin Zheng puts it better than I do in her work on structural wrongs and responsibility.3 Zheng distinguishes between two types of responsibility: attributability-responsibility, which attributes fault for individual wrongdoing, and accountability-responsibility, which demands a collective response to structural harms. Whereas attributability presumes that the agent acted “voluntarily and with adequate knowledge,” accountability “need not imply anything about a person’s agential quality, for these burdens may be appropriately laid even on agents who have in no way acted faultily.”4 Zheng holds that both types of responsibility can be effective against social injustice. Blaming Donald Trump (for instance) for endorsing a racist family-separation policy at the border can advance social justice, and so can urging people to vote against Trump. Indeed, blaming Trump for his racist policies goes hand in hand with asking people to vote against him, since blame identifies a reason for voting him out: he’s a bad (racist) President. I take both forms of responsibility to be justified by intersectional feminism because both renounce the racial social contract. I am not, then, saying that either attributability or accountability is not a valid criterion of responsibility, but that both are validated by the same logic. In her 2017 book, Manne notes that the “mechanisms and methods [of misogyny] are so opportunistic—or enterprising, depending on how you look at it—and so various,”5 that we may need to respond with an equally enterprising and various counterattack. Intersectional feminism, I think, should be just as “enterprising” as misogyny: it should employ as many tools and defenses as possible. If we can justifiably attribute responsibility for misogyny, then we should. If we can justifiably hold people accountable for misogyny, then let’s do that, too. Dismantling systems of oppression will require a wide range of tools, but the good news is that once we’ve finished the job, we can retire our toolkit. (This utopian future may be merely hypothetical, but it’s something that we should actively work towards. As Kathi Weeks observes, utopian speculation “possesses its own distinct capacities to spark imagination of other worlds and enable estrangement from existing ones”). .6

    Next, you ask whether I am not changing the subject by defining responsibility so pluralistically. Perhaps my theory is not a theory of responsibility at all . . . ? The same criticism has been leveled at Iris Marion Young, as well as your own “prescriptivist” account,7 because they depart from the classic definition of responsibility as desert-based and backward-looking. (In contrast, you justify blame by what it can accomplish: enhancing the agency of the target.) My theory is even more revisionary than yours in many respects, which makes it even more susceptible to this criticism. Yet I don’t think that it changes the subject, for two reasons. The first is that ameliorativism is meant to allow for a great deal of revisionism. Haslanger’s theories of race and gender are a radical departure from the intuitive, essentialist and binary conceptualizations, but reimagining race and gender as class positions in hierarchies of power is politically and epistemically useful, and still bears enough resemblance to the standard definitions that we can recognize them as members of the same family. Similarly, an ameliorative theory of responsibility is radically revisionary, but close enough to Strawson’s original conceptualization that we can recognize it as a theory of responsibility. Indeed, I fully appropriate Strawson’s definition of responsibility as an interpersonal practice, while denying his background (centrist/liberal) assumptions about the existence of a robust moral community. This leaves enough common ground between us that people should be able to see my proposal as a (feminist) variation on a Strawsonian theme.

    My next point is that I am actually more faithful to Strawson than most Strawsonians, in that I define moral responsibility precisely as he did, i.e., as an emotionally toned interpersonal practice, and I don’t say anything more specific than this about that its fundamental nature. Strawson himself did not distinguish between different criteria for the reactive attitudes: it was post-Strawsonians, mostly writing after his death, who drew the now-familiar distinctions between accountability, attributabilty, answerability, and so on, and eventually tried to reconcile these criteria, or defend their distinctness. But these theorists have not yet been able to agree on a unifying logic to the reactive attitudes. And this is because, as I have said, the unifying logic is the logic of oppression: the reactive attitudes are used opportunistically to uphold systems of oppression. The solution to this logic is to reclaim and transform these attitudes. My proposal, insofar as it does not draw distinctions between different criteria, but instead treats responsibility as a cohesive practice with a unifying “deep logic,” is much more like Strawson’s than most people’s.

    My last comment is in response to your claim that philosophers don’t fixate on petty infractions, but “take up racist and sexist wrongdoing, intentional homicide, reckless endangerment, negligence, oppression, and so on… with an eye towards things like psychopathy, neuroatypicality, criminal punishment . . .” I feel that this comment confirms my worry that, even when philosophers are addressing social injustice, they seem compelled to naturalize, depoliticize, and personalize the politics of racism and sexism (etc.) by attributing them to psychological “disorders” like psychopathy and neuro-atypicality, rather than (investments in) particular social classes and hierarchies of power. “Neuroatypicality” per se isn’t relevant to responsibility on my view. Non-neurotypical people are neither prone to recklessness and criminality, nor morally incapable, as many Strawson-inspired accounts would have us believe. In advocating for the priority of the political, I am rejecting these ableist and sanist platitudes. Unfortunately, when modern responsibility theorists do address overtly political topics, they too often depoliticize and naturalize cognitive and physical states (such as ignorance, ability, and disability), stigmatize marginalized groups, and excuse oppressors in subtle and insidious ways.

    1. K. Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press, 2017), 27.

    2. S. Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique (Oxford University Press, 2012).

    3. R. Zheng, “What Kind of Responsibility Do We Have for Fighting Injustice? A Moral-Theoretic Perspective on the Social Connections Model,” Critical Horizons 20 (2019): 109–26. Cf. R. Zheng (2018), “What Is My Role in Changing the System? A New Model of Responsibility for Structural Injustice.”

    4. Zheng, “What Kind of Responsibility,” 115–16.

    5. Manne, Down Girl, 30.

    6. Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work (Duke University Press, 2011: 209).

    7. M. Vargas, Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility (Oxford University Press, 2013).

    • Sofia Jeppsson

      Sofia Jeppsson


      The importance of empirical facts

      Your discussion, Mich and Manuel, reminds me again of my reply to Bruce Waller.
      I don’t think Bruce and I will ever agree on this, but: It’s simply a matter of fact that unless you’re unusually lucky in various respects, it’s impossible to just “bootstrap” yourself out of poverty, illness, etc. Therefore, it shouldn’t matter if you’re a libertarian, compatibilist, or sceptic about free will and moral responsibility, because none of these theories imply that people can magically change any circumstances they find themselves in by the power of will. No free will/moral responsibility theory in the philosophical literature implies that people can defy the laws of physics and literally pull themselves up by tugging on their own bootstraps, nor does any theory imply that people have science-defying powers to bootstrap themselves up in the metaphorical sense. The reason people blame the poor for their poverty etc is because they refuse to see how society works and the circumstances that poor people actually live under, not because they hold the wrong philosophical theory.

      Now I’m thinking something similar can be said regarding the current discussion. Moral responsibility theories – and let’s go more fine-grained, let’s zoom in on various compatibilist theories, like quality of will theories, reasons-responsive theories – don’t in themselves have conservative implications. It’s all the additional empirical assumptions or empirical mistakes that do that job.

      If we all decided to adopt some super-mainstream moral responsibility theory, like Fischer’s and Ravizza’s, but then took seriously:
      – How very, very far our practices often lie from philosophical theory. For instance (like Mich points out in her book), it’s often the case that some people are seen as generally rational and responsible and get excused all the time, and other people are seen as generally irrational and out of control and get harshly blamed all the time.
      – That real people are complicated, and that this also goes for neurodivergent and mad people – it’s NOT the case that when you have diagnosis A, you lack capacity X, but when you have diagnosis B, you have X but lack Y, etc. Philosophers must stop using these kind of ridiculous simplifications as premises in their arguments about the (lack of) responsibility for neurodivergent and mad people.
      – That philosophers and their intuitions, just like people in general, are likely to be biased in all kinds of ways.
      And so on, so on, all kinds of problems that Mich points out in her book.

      It seems to me that if we took seriously all these problems, even if our theory at bottom was a super-mainstream one like Fischer and Ravizza’s RR theory, we’d end up drawing a lot of really radical conclusions about how our practices ought to change.

    • Manuel Vargas

      Manuel Vargas



      The discussion here has been illuminating in a variety of ways, and I want to thank Ryan Lake, Mich, and the other respondents for a really fruitful discussion. I am especially thankful for Mich’s reply to my remarks. Predictably, I remain incorrigible. But, I am grateful for the opportunity to try to further clarify where the disagreements may lurk. In what follows, I offer four reactions to Mich’s reply, several that are substantially about incorrigibility in those who do not share her starting points.

      I find it plausible that patriarchy and a variety of -isms (class-, race-, able-, etc.) “break” various normative practices in the sense that these things wider social forces will tend to disrupt, distort, or otherwise hijack normative practices that might, under ideal conditions, be morally salubrious. I think we can believe that without also holding that practices are essentially (i.e., in all possible instances, due to the very nature of the practice) broken, and without thinking that all and every instance of the practice as it operates is thereby suspect, or that the only solution is a revolutionary recasting of the practice. Even so, perhaps Ciurria is right that revolution in conceptual and practical aspects of responsibility is the best path forward. If revolution is not the only possible conclusion, then it would be useful to have some clarity about the grounds for when we should conclude that a practice requires radical transformation and when we can retain most of some practice’s core features. So, my first thought is roughly a puzzle about the operative criterion, or the basis for deciding when to favor more over less radical options.

      One can, of course, appeal to whatever metric one prefers (I like theories that entail that I’m right; you might like theories where you are right, or Kant is right, or that promise increased welfare, and so on.) But whatever our personal preferences, we might still hope there is some more general account available of when revolution is better than revision. If there is no general criterion of that sort, we might instead wonder whether we are trading on arguments that require antecedent commitment to a package of normative commitments that might not be widely shared. If so, it will be unclear why my reasons for revolution should be animating for those who don’t share my convictions. This is a question that I will return to below, in a related guise about the efficacy of revolutionary and ameliorative ambitions in this domain.

      Suppose we identify some basis for favoring the radical over the emendative approach that counsels conservative revision. Here is a second thought: I worry that any revolution in responsibility practices will ultimately leave unaddressed the source of the problem: namely, patriarchy and the various “-isms”. To put a more specific point on it: the extent to which those things persist through the period of semantic shift to Ciurria-style blaming, why won’t those forces hijack the replacement notion? What insulates this notion from the one that is already subject to these problems? Why not think that the ameliorative proposal will simply become a new victim of the forces that distorted our existing responsibility practices? Perhaps Ciurria-blaming could succeed after we have vanquished those problems, but it is not clear what insulates it against the very same forces that have polluted existing blame practices.

      In asking these questions, I am also animated by a third concern, grounded in a familiar dilemma in revisionary metaphysics of various stripes: the more there are normative or conceptual pressures for revision, the more revision or replacement seems urgent. At the same time, the greater the degree of revision or replacement, the more difficult it becomes for the proposal to get the traction required for it to be successful. The worry is that the bigger the move away from mere description, the less likely it is that the proposal can succeed on its own terms.

      In a different context but in a similar vein, Sarah Bernstein has noted that ameliorative proposals face a special challenge because the success of the ameliorators’ project requires that they reach those who are not sympathetic to the aims of the amelioration. The worry here about successful adoption seems to me a serious one for a project like Ciurria’s.

      This gets me to a fourth thought, one that is mostly an application of the third. Feminist already agree that we should promote the ends of feminism. But retaining Ciurria-blaming is warranted by its effects in advancing feminist aims. But is there any reason to think non-feminists will take seriously Ciurria-style blaming practices, enough to produce the justifying effects? (Where the prior worry was about the feasibility of widely adopting Ciurria-prescribed blaming norms, the concern here is about the efficacy of blaming by those who do adopt it on those who reject it.) We are already adept at ignoring, dismissing, or regarding as a badge of honor blame that comes from those whose convictions we reject. So, we might wonder, how does a revision that bakes in theoretical commitments that will be, in variously places, widely rejected, have any of the reforming effects that animate their adoption and justify their continuance?

      Unsurprisingly, this is mostly a complicated way of saying that I am skeptical of more radical forms of revision, and that I tend to agree with Sofia’s observation that even within standard philosophical treatments of responsibility there are ample resources for pushing for practical reforms in who and how we blame, and that this is at least partly a function of our improved understanding of empirical features about agents, and a growing sense that we do well to attend to the concerns of more than social elites.

Kathryn Nolock


Blaming Uncivil Characters,

If They Exist

I was very happy that Michelle Ciurria asked me, pre-pandemic, to be a part of this symposium. Much has happened in our social and political worlds, in the intervening year, to confirm her insights. Social conditions persist in being nonideal! And the conviction of a police officer for the crime of the murder of George Floyd is the conclusion to a year in which issues of oppression, responsibility, and blameworthiness for deep and ongoing harms were writ large. This book is timely, and needed.

I have many points of praise and many questions for the author, and in the interests of a fruitful symposium, I err on the side of my questions in this essay. I wish to expand the conversation that her book begins in my mind as to when we can impute blame to people for having certain kinds of characters, not merely for how they act. I want more certainty that Ciurria finds characters of persons to be, not just unimportant to Intersectional Feminist (IF) projects, but perhaps actually nonexistent. Further, I want to sort out why she argues that contempt must not attach to persons, when I see contempt for persons as important and apt.

Ciurria and I are both familiar with Kate Manne’s application of an ameliorative approach to misogyny, in which Manne pointedly encourages her readers to steer our attentions away from the aptness of labels for misogynists and toward the reality and the effects of misogyny. Manne recommends caution “when it comes to calling an agent a misogynist on the whole.”1 Ciurria similarly emphasizes that we avoid the predication of responsibility on agents’ deep selves or attributes of character, which are at best epistemically mysterious and at worst, I gather, fictions that elide the realities of our patchy capacities for rationality and consistency. Ciurria observes in chapter 1 that the “epistemic problems [are] not easily resolved, and the best solution might be to dispense with selfhood criteria of responsibility entirely and focus instead on people’s (properly contextualized) actions” (47). I wish to know if it’s really her position that this not only might be the best solution, but in fact is the solution! More, I’d like to know if she situates her own perspective in the literature arguing that there is no such thing as a person’s character at all.2

Note that Manne, with Sally Haslanger, does not reject all references to character; sometimes agents are proper objects of assessment. Manne describes it as a mistake “to think . . . in terms that are purely structural and social, to the exclusion of the distinctively agentic and interpersonal. As Haslanger has argued, we need to try to do justice in our theorizing to both agents and social structures.”3 Manne suggests “that the term ‘misogynist’ is best treated as a threshold concept, and also a comparative one, functioning as a kind of ‘warning label,’ which should be sparingly applied to people whose attitudes and actions are particularly and consistently misogynistic across myriad social contexts.”4 I wonder if Ciurria’s project would be better served by a threshold concept of a blameworthy agent, especially since she does identify some comparatively! In acknowledging some minimal role for attributions to agents, Ciurria says in chapter 2, “This isn’t to say that selfhood and control considerations are in no way relevant to responsibility: they may be relevant to proportionality, to the extent that they can be measured. (For example, someone who seems ‘deeply sexist’ may be more blameworthy on IF principles than someone who seems ‘slightly sexist.’)” (69).

At several points, Ciurria repeats her view that act-centered assessments better advance the goals of IF, but this seems to throw out possibilities rather than expand them; I suggest that sometimes responsibility really does attach to persons, sometimes contempt really does globally assess characters, and this can contribute to IF goals. We therefore differ on the topic of contempt (and to a lesser extent, forgiveness). Although Ciurria identifies points of connection with her account and Macalester Bell’s account of contempt, Curria faults Bell for a “globalist” and “characterological” perspective; that is, Bell indicates that “contempt is directed towards persons and not simply persons’ actions” (99). Ciurria argues that Bell’s account is too narrow, on the grounds that (1) contempt cannot be exclusively for persons because we also have contempt for acts, (2) person-centered accounts are not best for ameliorative aims, and (3) we can exercise action-contempt “without knowing” if someone’s conduct is “deep-seated” or a “situation-invariantist disposition” (100).

However, the first basis does not seem quite accurate as an account of Bell’s view. Does Bell say that we exclusively contemn persons while never having contempt for acts? Bell says our contempt is not simply for acts, and that adverb matters. (How would Bell have contempt for the person without perceiving that person’s acts, after all?) But the deeper source of my resistance is what I take to be Ciurria’s tendency in chapters 2 and 4 to reject character-based assessments entirely. Her main objections seem to be the additive of the epistemological concerns—that we can know people’s acts but not their characters—and the more metaphysical concerns—there is not (always? ever?) a deep-seated character that directly correlates to all of one’s acts. Am I right that the reasons have an additive weight, or might the epistemological worries depend upon the metaphysical concerns?

I am extremely sympathetic to deep-self skepticism. As I argue elsewhere, we are so fragmented, the project of integrity is vexed, and we can act both consistently and inconsistently. I cheered when Ciurria described uptake as patchy and identity-prejudice as domain specific, yes! However, I do not find our epistemic uncertainty and the multiply motivated, fragmented nature of socio-moral activities to combine to make for sufficiently compelling reasons never to assess characters or traits. That we can be so very wrong about our own motivations and identities may be more reason to focus on what sorts of characters we are really ingraining or perpetuating, not less. Habits become somatic facts. And when a politician says, let’s say, “You can trust me, I love the uneducated,” I think we are called upon to assess his character for trustworthiness, because doing so serves IF goals.5

As Glen Pettigrove says, an act-only account “fails to recognize an important dimension of our moral lives that is central to our experiences of the hostile reactive attitudes.”6 He and Ciurria both recognize that acts may fit into patterns of activity rightly contemned. Yet Pettigrove adds, “These larger patterns tell us something about what matters to the persons with whom we interact and about the extent to which we are among the things that matter to them. They also tell us something about the extent to which these individuals can be relied upon in cooperative ventures.”7

Ciurria concludes that Bell’s account is fatally flawed insofar as Bell includes the criteria that “someone deserves contempt if: (1) they have failed to meet some standard” and “(2) their failure to meet this standard implicates their character”; and Ciurria adds, “To eliminate the globalist constraint, we can simply reject criterion (2)” (100). But why ought we to simply reject the criterion? If it is because our information is imperfect, surely nonideal theorists can agree that no one’s information is perfect with respect to the hearts and minds of others or ourselves (perhaps especially ourselves), and yet as Ciurria observes early in the book, feminists are not eliminativists about selves. Our identities matter. The identities that others repeatedly express matter as well, especially when they are proud to be misogynists, proud of their locker-room talk and their status as winners and yes, that means it’s time to talk more about Trump.

Ciurria sees this coming, I’m sure (!), because she ends chapter 5, “Against Civility Constraints,” by acknowledging that the former US president’s conduct is the basis of an obvious objection to her view that civility is not prima facie valuable. Ciurria argues against the prima facie value of civility “in asymmetrically structured conditions, such as patriarchal, racist, and cisheteronormative cultures” (104), and I am strongly sympathetic to that assessment of our situation. Ciurria notes that calls for civility are often calls upon the marginalized by those in a position of power or privilege, and it is routinely the victims of inequities that are asked to sacrifice their moral integrity for the sake of social cohesion. “When civility conflicts with IF [intersectional feminist] moral values, we should favour morality every time,” she concludes (130). I concur that civility is not as basic a value as justice or moral integrity, but I am uneasy with the dismissal of civility as having any value on the grounds that it is not ameliorative to require it of the marginalized. For surely those of us who are vulnerable to the whims of the powerful would prefer to demand it of those in power, in advance, even as we reject the normative requirements of civility for oppressed people. “Rather than enforcing norms of civility [my emphasis], we should cultivate skepticism of the politics of civility and sensitivity to its role in asymmetrical power relations,” Ciurria says (131), but it does not seem obvious to me that those norms are in place and enforceable; I rather see norms of civility as barely persisting in several domains of the activities of powerful people.

Perhaps this is because Ciurria wrote this during Trump’s presidency and the reemergence of mass protest, whereas I am thinking more about how Trump’s presidency ended, with his refusal to concede the election and its spill-over effects; as an editorial said, concession is more than mere good manners.8 My worries, regarding the view of civility as having neutral value or disvalue, are informed by the norm-breakdown in varieties of shared understandings, caused and reinforced by the former president’s patterns of behavior, including his refusing to concede his loss in an election. The behavior was indicative of something typical of the sort of person that president proudly proclaimed himself to be, and the sort of administration that has the character it had. I concur completely with Ciurria’s analysis of civility as something traditionally demanded of (and denied to) oppressed and marginalized people, but I cannot concur that “we should reject the ideal of civility in favour of intersectional feminist aims, and should demand civility only when doing so would advance these aims . . . [and] should recognize that civility is less politically and epistemically productive than epistemic friction” (132).

The asymmetrical power structures that are important to both Ciurria and me give rise to reasons to uphold the value (not the idealization, but the measurable good) of civility on the part of the powerful, because some institutions are constituted by their normative powers, and what seems mere good manners may contribute to wider norm-breakdowns when abandoned. The US presidency, for example, is “norm-based,” dependent on norms for its infrastructure.9 Acts on the part of the presidency say something about its agent, and contribute to the breakdown of the norms that maintained the institution of the executive branch and the institutions that rely upon cooperation with it. To the extent that the former president identified himself so strongly with his acts, he merits contempt for his person. Could this be a start to a threshold concept, permitting identifications of agents with their acts? Contemptible people are agents that embrace as well as carry out patterns of contemptible behavior. And public, overt embrace of oneself as a person who engages in patterns of activity is more than just a pattern; it is an announcement of one’s identity.

That we can refuse to forgive such a figure is, Ciurria and I agree, one form of taking the objective stance for ethical reasons. That forgiveness is impossible in such asymmetrical societies is not obviously true, however. As I argue elsewhere, women’s forgiveness is a demonstration of their agency, and women in the worst circumstances have forgiven very different things, meriting recognition-respect. I am happy to continue that conversation in our discussion.

  1. Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press, 2017), 66.

  2. I have in mind Gilbert Harman’s provocative claim, “It may even be the case that there is no such thing as character, no ordinary character traits of the sort people think there are” (316). See Harman, “Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 99 (1999): 315–31.

  3. Manne, Down Girl, 74.

  4. Manne, Down Girl, 66.

  5. A friend reminds me of the Maya Angelou.

  6. Glen Pettigrove, Forgiveness and Love (Oxford University Press, 2012), 52.

  7. Pettigrove, Forgiveness and Love, 52–53.

  8. Editorial Board, “The Republicans Who Embraced Nihilism,” New York Times, December 11, 2020.

  9. Daphna Renan, “Presidential Norms and Article II,” Harvard Law Review 131.8 (2017): 2190.

  • Michelle Ciurria

    Michelle Ciurria


    Response to Kathryn Norlock

    Thank you, Kathryn, for your incisive and helpful questions.

    First, I should clarify the position that I hold on character (which may not have been articulated as clearly as I intended in the book). I don’t think that character is irrelevant to blame, but I don’t think it’s required for blame, contrary to the deep-self view. The reason I deny that blame depends on (evidence of) character is threefold: (1) there is no consensus on whether character exists; (2) if it does exist, it’s not epistemically transparent; and (3) actions are morally significant in the absence of character. If we turn to your Trump example, there’s no doubt that Trump’s words and deeds have contributed to a climate of misogyny, but there’s no consensus on (1) whether he has any character at all (as opposed to being a disjointed bundle of emotions and disordered thoughts); (2) whether he really hates women and therefore satisfies (what Kate Manne calls the “naïve”) criterion of being a misogynist; and (3) whether misogyny is a matter of character or social hierarchies. I want to bypass these thorny issues by stipulating that Trump is blameworthy for contributing to a misogynistic culture whether or not he has misogynistic (or any!) character, since blaming people for contributing to patriarchal culture is an apt intersectional feminist response either way. I think this because negative emotions can advance feminist aims, such as protesting oppression and building solidarity, regardless of the target’s character.1 Having said that, I think that people probably do have characters and moral selves—as feminist theorists like Judith Butler, Linda Martin Alcoff, and Sally Haslanger have argued2—but I deny that blame requires or depends on character, or a specific connection between character and action, as deep-self views require. Misogynistic slights can be blameworthy if the perpetrator isn’t a misogynist (at the level of his character or personality), though they may be especially blameworthy if the person is one.

    On a deeper level, I’m opposed to focusing blame on the oppressor and centering the oppressor’s agency and identity in the politics of blame, as opposed to centering the needs and interests of the oppressed. An oppressed person may have a legitimate interest in blaming someone for an action that (at least prima facie) does not reflect the perpetrator’s character. For instance, I may have a stake in blaming someone for buying a laptop that contains metals mined by exploited child labourers in the Congo, even if the buyer’s purchase doesn’t reflect a personal endorsement of child abuse or racial expropriation. When discussing global supply chains, it’s not obvious that consumer habits reflect objectionable character traits or personal values and commitments. But we may have good reasons to blame consumers for their roles in regimes of expropriation nonetheless—reasons such as protesting injustice and transforming dominant epistemologies.

    The reactive attitudes, then, are valuable for many widely-neglected reasons. In hindsight, however, I regret focusing so much attention on contempt as opposed to less controversial emotions like anger and resentment, which are canonically associated with the reactive attitudes and have been extensively studied and defended by feminist moral psychologists. There is substantive agreement that anger and resentment can be valuable responses to political slights and structural harms because these emotions serve moral, epistemic, and political purposes that feminists value. There is also substantive agreement that oppressed people’s emotions are policed and culturally disvalued, which results in their blame being silenced and discounted. Myisha Cherry3 argues that oppressed people are susceptible to anger-policing because the reasons for their anger—such as racial oppression—are foreign to privileged groups and dismissed by dominant political ideologies. Taking up oppressed people’s political anger, then, is a way of protesting epistemic injustice. It helps legitimate and institutionalize oppressed people’s blame towards racist antagonists, groups, and collectives.

    Contempt is a more controversial emotion because it is taken to track character and to devalue the entire person. In my book, I argue that (a specific type of) blame can express contempt, and contempt can track actions as well as character. This is why we can intelligibly say that we hold someone in contempt for a specific offense. Judges, for instance, will hold people in contempt of court for belligerence even if those people are not belligerent in nonjuridical contexts. I want to suggest that we can do the same with “contemptuous blame.” Contemptuous blame is valuable for some of the reasons identified by Bell, e.g., it can serve to “look down on people” who have abused a position of power; it can protest vices of superiority and disrespectful behaviour; and it tends to motivate withdrawal and avoidance as opposed to confrontation and engagement.4 While anger and resentment are valuable in their own right, they do not by their nature point to asymmetries of power in the way that contempt does, which is what makes it especially valuable in conditions of political inequality. Nor do anger and resentment trigger withdrawal from an antagonist: as “participatory emotions,” they motivate confrontation. But confrontation is not always constructive, or even safe, in conditions of severe political inequality. Contemptuous blame can motivate us to withdraw and mobilize in the safety of own communities, which is an important part of a broader strategy of mobilization and collective action. Contempt can foreshadow angry blame and political resistance.

    Finally, you point out that I reject the value of civility as typically understood, i.e., as polite, moderate, temperate, and tolerant discourse, or the disposition to engage in such discourse. One of my reasons for rejecting this “virtue” is because politeness, moderation, temperance, and tolerance are in tension with anger, resentment, rage, and contempt, especially when expressed by members of oppressed groups that are culturally coded as “uncivilized.” When “uncivil emotions” (like anger) are used to promote “uncivilized” aims (like protest, revolution, and revolt), these emotions are politically valuable even if they are impolite. If I refer to Donald Trump as an asshole, this is far outside of the realm of civil discourse, but this doesn’t mean that my speech is worthless (even if it may lack precision). The conventional understanding of civility stems from a liberal bias that presumes that we live in a “civil society” in which “civil discourse” leads to mutual understanding and social justice. In this fantasyland, civility naturally leads to shared understanding and cooperation. But this is a colonialist myth. In reality, we live under a domination contract that distributes rights and responsibilities to the advantage of the privileged, creating structural inequalities and silencing minorities. Under this contract, “civility” is defined as a virtue of the privileged, while oppressed groups are defined as sub-persons and non-contractors. Of course, this is completely backwards: in truth, resistance is civil because it challenges the domination contract, and protestors are civilized because they are engineering a more equitable society. Impolite insubordination is more civilized than polite centrism.

    I suggest that we reclaim civility by reinterpreting it through an intersectional feminist lens as a virtue of civil rights activists and political resistors. To protest injustice is civil (in an ameliorative sense). To dismantle the fabric of “Western civilization” is, in fact, civilized. These interventions are not, however, polite, temperate, or moderate: they are angry, disruptive, and sometimes even violent. As Bell observes, justice is more often obtained by “scorn, angry protest, bloodshed, and war” than by polite conversation.5 Civility as a liberal ideal must be replaced by civility as a transformative practice. Transformative justice is not always polite and moderate, but it is, on my definition, civil.

    1. Viz., Marylin Frye (1983), Audre Lorde (1984), Malacalester Bell (2009), and Myisha Cherry (2021).

    2. J. Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (Fordham University Press, 2009); L. M. Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (Oxford University Press, 2005); S. Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique (Oxford University Press, 2012).

    3. M. Cherry, “The Errors and Limitations of Our ‘Anger-Evaluating’ Ways,” in The Moral Psychology of Anger, ed. M. Cherry and O. Flanagan (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), 49–65.

    4. M. Bell, Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt (Oxford University Press, 2013).

    5. Bell, Hard Feelings.

    • Sofia Jeppsson

      Sofia Jeppsson


      When bullies weaponize a rejection of civility constraints

      Thanks both Kate and Mich for more insightful and interesting texts!

      I want to add something to the civility discussion. Mich is right that demands of civility or “tone-policing” can often be oppressive. But we need to tread a fine line here, because rejections of tone-policing can be misused by bullies.

      Bullies pop up everywhere, including in social justice spaces/spaces that supposedly adhere to intersectional feminist values. And they will use whatever tools that are at hand in the context they find themselves in. In social justice spaces, they will make use of social justice language.

      We’re all members of a number of demographic groups simultaneously. Most of us are privileged along at least SOME axis. So if A, B, C, D, and E (etc) want to bully and ostracize F for some reason, they can usually point to SOME trait that F has that supposedly makes them privileged (even if F is, overall, very low on the social ladder and quite powerless), and pretend to be “kicking up” rather than “kicking down”. The bullies can accuse F of some wrongdoing, and then keep attacking F’s responses as terrible, regardless of what those responses are, until F is utterly ground down. (I.e., if F apologizes, then the apology is flawed and shows that they fail to see what they did wrong, if F asks why it was flawed, then F is accused of demanding of oppressed people that they educate them and do emotional labour for them, if F stops responding, that means that F fails to take responsibility for their wrongdoing, etc etc ad infinitum.) If F or anyone else objects to the bullying, A, B, C, and D will indignantly claim that the objection counts as “tone-policing” or opressive demands of civility, when in fact their anger and resentment of F is perfectly justified.

      I have seen this happen first-hand. And before anyone says “ok, bullying is bad, but it’s still not as bad as structural oppression”, I don’t believe these two can always be neatly separated.

      I was once a member of a big online group supposedly dedicated to intersectional feminism. In this group, a large number of people, mostly white cis women as far as I could tell, seriously bullied a trans man, but they framed the issue as them defending themselves against his male, sexist oppression of women.
      Now, I don’t want to say that only cis men has male privilege. The trans man in question would be the first to admit that looking like an average middle-aged white man gives him advantages in a number of contexts that women generally lack: a middle-aged white man is usually taken more seriously than a woman, and he is less likely to be sexually harassed, for starters. But in THIS situation, he struggled in vain to reason with a large group of angry bullies who were determined to ostracize him, and eventually succeeded to do so.
      I tried to defend him, but I was mostly just ignored. Eventually I, too, left the group in disgust.

      At the time of the bullying incident described, the group was ostensibly committed to defending trans rights and respecting trans people, as part of the whole intersectional feminist package. Remember, the bullied trans man was ostensibly attacked for being a sexist man who oppressed women, not for being trans. However, some time after I had left, I heard from others who had stayed longer in the group that it became less and less trans-friendly, until it eventually was a group for TERFs.

      I don’t think this evolution of the group was unrelated to the above-described (and other) bullying incidents. I believe there are often lots of connections between bullying – even the kind of bullying that happens in supposedly social-justice-dedicated spaces, utilizing social justice language – and structural oppression. Thus, the fact that bullies can weaponize the idea that tone-policing/civility constraints are wrong, might be a reason to recast what it means to be civil, rather than to jettison the idea.

Sofia Jeppsson


Ciurria and Strawson

How Deep Is the Divide

In this text, I will focus on Ciurria’s critique of P. F. Strawson’s incredibly influential paper “Freedom and Resentment,” and more generally present-day Strawsonians about moral responsibility.

Said critique is much needed. Strawson attempts to paint a picture of what our moral responsibility practices, by and large, look like. He further argues that their justification does not rest merely on consequentialist considerations, nor does it require the existence of libertarian free will; our natural emotions and ordinary human relationships can do the justificatory work just fine. This is, of course, a very rough recap, and different philosophers make different interpretations of the paper. Nevertheless, it should be uncontroversial that Strawson does not present a distant ideal for what our moral responsibility practices ought to look like after radical revisions; the paper talks of how they are. Later Strawsonian philosophers tend to follow him in this.

Ciurria rightfully argues that the picture painted of “our responsibility practices,” on the contrary, is highly idealized; it ignores crucial power asymmetries and oppression. I agree with this. However, it seems to me that Ciurria sometimes lacks awareness of exactly how profound the disagreement between her and Strawson and his followers is.

Here is a basic outline of Strawson’s theory, where I try to avoid both controversial interpretations and too much detail:

When interacting with other people, the participant attitude is default. We normally care about what others think of us, and demand a certain level of good will from each other. If a normal fellow human were to treat me with ill will, or at least an objectionable level of indifference, I feel resentment bubbling inside me, and blame him for what he did. If he does not have a good excuse at hand (which might show that what he did was, say, an honest mistake, and not at all a display of ill will or indifference towards me), I blame him (Strawson 1962/2013, pp. 66, 74–75). A retributivist criminal justice system is a natural outgrowth of this kind of normal, human interaction. In a court of law, people are also held responsible for their actions, albeit more serious ones; blame and punishment are both ways of holding people morally responsible (Strawson 1962/2013, pp. 79–80). When others take a participant attitude to me, this has both a pleasant and unpleasant side: On the one hand, they treat me with respect, as a competent adult capable of taking responsibility for myself and being argued with. People can also praise me and express their gratitude for good deeds I have done. On the other hand, they will demand things from me, and blame or even punish me if I fail to live up to said demands.

The objective attitude is reserved for a smaller number of people; mostly small children and people with serious intellectual disabilities or mental disorders (Strawson 1962/2013, pp. 69–70, 75). We can temporarily adopt an objective attitude towards normal adults too, to save ourselves from the emotional strain involved in engaging with them, but it is difficult to keep this up for long—a more enduring objective attitude are for the “deranged,” “underdeveloped,” and children. These people do not really know what they do and cannot control themselves the way normal adults can; therefore, we should not take, e.g., acts of aggression on their part personally and get angry with them. Instead, we must find ways to handle, train or manipulate them as best we can (Strawson 1962/2013, p. 69). Being subjected to the objective attitude, too, has a pleasant and unpleasant side. On the one hand, I am free from many normal demands, and will therefore not be blamed or punished when I fail to live up to them. On the other hand, people do not take me seriously, I do not get to make my own decisions, and others might manipulate me as they see fit instead of being honest and argue with me.

Thus, on the Strawsonian picture, you can be taken seriously and seen as a candidate for both praise and blame, or you are not taken seriously and neither praised nor blamed. These things go together. Strawson allows for the possibility of more mixed attitudes, to be used, for instance, with older children. However, a more mixed attitude presumably means that we take the person semiseriously, or take them seriously in some contexts but not in others. Praise and blame will likewise be toned down and/or appropriate in some contexts only. All this is supposed to be a morally justified way of relating to different kinds of people that we already practice. Not always and not perfectly, but mostly.

Ciurria points out that people tend to see members of marginalized groups as less rational than more privileged ones. Women are considered less rational than men, and black people less rational than white people (e.g., Ciurria 2020, pp. 122; 146). On the Strawsonian picture, seeing someone as largely irrational should modify our reactive attitudes in such a way that we are not only less prone to praise them for good deeds, but also less inclined to blame and punish them when they do wrong. “When we see someone in such a light, all our reactive attitudes tend to be profoundly mollified” (Strawson 1962/2013, p. 69, emphasis mine). This is not how things work in the real world, though: Instead, marginalized and supposedly less rational people are often considered more blameworthy (Ciurria 2020, p. 7; Hutchison, 2018, discussed by Ciurria, also recognizes this). Regardless of whether the Strawsonian picture works as a normative ideal, Ciurria is clearly right about the empirical facts. However, I wish Ciurria had made a louder and clearer point in her text of the fact that she contradicts Strawson here: He claims that seeing someone as underdeveloped and irrational dissolves resentment and blame, when in reality, we tend to amp up blame and punishment. Regardless of how obvious this is to someone well versed in the relevant empirical fields of research, it is certainly not obvious to many moral responsibility philosophers immersed in Strawson and his legacy.

Ciurria most clearly recognizes the disagreement between herself and Strawson, and argues for her own view over the Strawsonian one, when it comes to the assumption that most people are rational, responsive to argument, and thus best approached from a participant stance (Ciurria, 2020, ch. 4). Still, in some places she seems to forget, once again, that on the standard Strawsonian picture, the participant attitude is a strong default for how to deal with people, and the objective one only fit in exceptional cases. This seems to be the case when she criticizes Hutchison’s claim that the objective attitude should be imbued with compassion.

Hutchison writes that toddlers and people in the middle of schizophrenic psychosis are not morally responsible, and thus not fit for the participant attitude (Hutchison 2018, pp. 209, 216–17). She explicitly says that she ignores, in her essay, cases where we temporarily adopt an objective stance as a way of avoiding emotional strain (Hutchison 2018, p. 219). Instead, she focuses on individuals towards whom it would be unfair to adopt a participant stance and demand that they answer for their behaviour (Hutchison 2018, p. 218).

Ciurria writes:

Interestingly, Katrina Hutchison take compassion to be the main driver of the objective stance, regardless of the standpoint or social position of the target—of whether the target is Elliot Rodger or an 8-year-old. (Ciurria 2020, 96)

Ciurria motivates this interpretation of Hutchison by citing her saying that the objective stance is fit for individuals who cannot partake in “normal morally reactive exchanges.” Of course, one might reasonably argue (as Ciurria does!) that people as misogynistic as Rodger cannot do so, at least not with women. But in light of everything Hutchison writes in her text and the entire Strawsonian tradition, it is unlikely that the real disagreement between Ciurria and Hutchison is about whether to be full of compassion towards misogynistic murderers. Rather, the disagreement plausibly concerns whether the objective stance really applies to large swaths of prejudiced, biased and hateful people, or only to children and people with clear intellectual disabilities and mental disorders.

Strawson’s talk about “members of our moral community” does seem to imply that evil is sufficient ground for exemption. But Gary Watson and others in the debate tend to discuss this as a problem in Strawson’s text, and as a likely unintended implication. The objective attitude is supposed to be restricted to little children, the intellectually disabled and mentally ill, whereas evil people are supposed to be blamed and punished. If Strawson’s text implies otherwise, it is a bug—or at least a problem we must find some way to handle—not a feature.1

For instance, Watson writes:

On the face of it, [Robert] Harris is an “archetypical candidate” for blame. We respond to his heartlessness and viciousness with moral outrage and loathing. (Watson 1987/2013, p. 97)

Of course, Watson moves on to complicate the picture. But he does so against what is supposed to be the default view—that people like Harris (or, plausibly, Rodger) should be met with blame and moral outrage, reactions stemming from a participant attitude.

Finally, Ciurria lumps together “calling psychiatrists” and “calling the police” to take care of someone bothersome or threatening. She sees both actions as a way to simply handle—or rather, have someone else handle—a person, instead of holding him responsible and arguing with him (Ciurria 2020, p. 108). I believe she is right in this.

In theory, there is a vast gulf separating the (coercive part of the) mental health system from the criminal justice and prison systems. In theory, the former is all about handling, manipulating and trying to cure those who cannot be held responsible for their actions, due to their mental defects. The latter is all about holding people responsible, blaming them and dealing out the punishments that they deserve. In reality, people subjected to either system frequently experience themselves simultaneously disrespected, objectified and punished. I believe Ciurria is right here and the traditional Strawsonian picture wrong; nevertheless, I wish she had explicitly argued for this view.

It is not clear to me that Ciurria realizes how radically she departs from the standard Strawsonian picture, when lumping the mental health system and the criminal justice system together as ways of “handling” people. As already mentioned, Strawson writes that arresting people and throwing them into prison takes place within the realm of the participant attitude, where we see offenders and prisoners as fellow members of the moral community, expected to accept their punishment as morally justified with no feelings of resentment to those carrying it out (Strawson 1962/2013, pp. 79–80).

Ciurria accuses Strawson of being ignorant of certain empirical facts relating to the prison industry and mental health industry, namely that depending on both your own and your antagonist’s degree of privilege or marginalization, your ability to “handle” people who bother you, threaten or hurt you via these means can vary greatly. This is true enough. But I think she should start on an even more basic level here: Strawson and many of his followers fail to realize that the mental health system can be punitive and the criminal justice and prison system disrespectful. This is how deep the disagreement between Ciurria and Strawson goes.



Ciurria, Michelle. An Intersectionalist Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility. New York: Routledge, 2020.

Hutchison, Katrina. “Moral Responsibility, Respect and Social Identity.” In Social Dimensions of Moral Responsibility, edited by K. Hutchison et al., 206–30. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Strawson, P. F. “Freedom and Resentment.” Proceedings of the British Academy 48 (1962): 1–25. Reprinted in P. Russell and O. Deery, eds., The Philosophy of Free Will: Essential Readings from the Contemporary Debates (Oxford University Press, 2013), 63–83. Paginations refer to this reprint.

Watson, Gary. “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme.” In Responsibility, Character and Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology, edited by F. D. Schoeman, 256–86. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Reprinted in P. Russell and O. Deery, eds., The Philosophy of Free Will: Essential Readings from the Contemporary Debates (Oxford University Press, 2013), 84–113. Paginations refer to this reprint.

  1. To be fair, Strawson does that we exempt “moral idiots” from blame write (1962/2013, p. 72). He does not elaborate on what he means by that term, but it is reasonable to assume that he has in mind the kind of textbook psychopath who is utterly incapable of understanding that it is wrong to hurt others. Still, Strawson evidently believes that criminals, in general, should be met with a participant attitude; this is clear from how he describes the criminal justice system and institutional punishment.

  • Michelle Ciurria

    Michelle Ciurria


    Response to Sofia Jeppsson

    Thank you, Sofia, for pointing out some ambiguities in my critique of Strawson. This gives me a chance to refine my position based on my more recent and better-developed work.

    You correctly note that I say in my book that seeing someone through a prejudiced lens as “underdeveloped” and “irrational” doesn’t necessarily diminish blame: it sometimes “amps up” blame. This is directly contradictory to Strawson’s claim that seeing someone in this light triggers “the objective attitude.” But I now realize that I was not sufficiently precise in my critique. I have since argued, following Marylin Frye’s influential work on oppression, that the reactive attitudes are “soft” forms of social control that police and enforce double-binds, which function to uphold systems of oppression. Women’s sexuality, for instance, is policed and “managed” by policies that both vilify and infantilize women as a group. Women are, on the one hand, infantilized by paternalistic policies that deny them unfettered access to birth control, abortion, and other forms of bodily autonomy, and, on the other hand, vilified by sexist norms that punish them for expressing their sexuality as they see fit. So, women are treated as (paradoxically) both non-responsible sub-persons and blameworthy moral agents by a system of misogynistic double-binds, constituted and enforced by a range of hostile and punitive attitudes.

    This view challenges Strawson’s opinion that we simply adopt a detached stance—the “objective attitude”—towards people deemed “irrational” or “underdeveloped.” In reality, we often view such people with contemptuous aversion, and try to avoid, shun, or isolate them. But we are also prone to “flipping” to a more combative (“participatory”) stance when it serves our purposes. That is, the objective and participatory attitudes are part of a comprehensive strategy (which also involves state-sanctioned violence, or “hard” forms of social control) meant to isolate and police oppressed people. Once we’ve alienated an oppressed group (e.g., through redlining or incarceration), we can resent them whenever we come into contact with them (e.g., with racial slurs, microaggressions, etc.) so as to reinforce the regimes of segregation enshrined in the domination contract. In this way, the participatory and objective attitudes work in tandem to enforce social divisions. People who violate these divisions face the wrath of social gatekeepers.

    A related oversight in Strawson’s work is that he fails to realize that the objective stance is used to manage and police people perceived as “irrational” and “underdeveloped,” which, in modern parlance, typically translates to “mentally ill” and “disabled.” The mental health system—as you note, Sofia—often operates as a form of coercive control or “soft incarceration” to warehouse and isolate neurodivergent and disabled people. The “medical model” of psychiatry and psychology is in thrall to a neoliberal/capitalist agenda that functions to, on James Davies’s analysis,1 depoliticize, privatize, and pathologize people’s (rational) distress under capitalist regimes of exploitation and expropriation. Psychiatry, for instance, pathologizes worker alienation by redefining it as “mental illness,” transforming a political reaction (distress) into a personal affliction. Alienated workers are thus designated as targets for treatment, management, and sometimes even hospitalization under the “medical supervision” of an elite professional class, rather than being recognized as an oppressed class and granted better working conditions, shorter hours, and control over their labor and leisure time. In this way, the medical model transforms counterhegemonic or “outlaw” emotions (Jaggar 2008: 166) into “mental disorders,” suppressing class consciousness and stifling political solidarity. The objective attitude is co-opted by capitalism and used to stigmatize non-neurotypical people as irrational and “mentally ill,” which diverts blame away from the capitalist owners who are responsible for their alienation. As Marta Russell has argued, “disability is a socially created category derived from labor relations, a product of the exploitative economic structure of capitalist society,” and these exploitative labor relations medicalize, marginalize, and render disposable “the so-called disabled body, as one of the conditions that allow the capitalist class to accumulate wealth.” .”2

    The objective stance also supports racial incarceration by designating racialized groups as “irrational” and “underdeveloped,” and placing them outside of the (White) “moral community.” Anticarceral feminists like Angela Davis (2003) and Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) have argued convincingly that prisons should be abolished because they are, in effect, modern-day forms of slavery that use forced penal labour to enrich corporations and sustain racial capitalism. But we can’t abolish prisons without transforming the objective attitude from a stance of objectification into a tool of liberation. The objective attitude racializes BIPOC by treating them as “uncivilized” and “criminal.” The people who truly need to be managed and controlled (via political activism, labour laws, transformative justice, etc.) are the corporate owners who expropriate labour from racialized communities, making them susceptible to imprisonment.3 We need to harness the reactive attitudes and turn them against the profiteers who run the carceral state.

    The carceral system is—as you also note, Sofia—ambivalent about whether its purpose is to punish or “rehabilitate.” As Katrina Hutchison notes, some judges sentence racialized minorities to prison because they see them as “dangerous criminals” who deserve punishment, while others sentence them to prison because they see them as “uncivilized savages” who need 24/7 supervision.4 The fact that there is a stark racial bias in sentencing norms reveals that these stances tend to function as two sides of a racial double-bind, treating BIPOC as either immoral criminals or amoral sub-persons, so as to uphold the racial social contract; each side of the bind justifies racial incarceration. The carceral system is the “hard” enforcement branch of the racial contract, and the objective and participatory stances play a key role in this system of power.

    My proposal is that we reclaim the reactive attitudes and the objective stance and turn them against the ruling classes, as well as private citizens who pay lip service to the neoliberal order. We should resent and recriminate oppressors, and, more generally, transform society using a plurality of interventions, including moral emotions, interpersonal relationships, and collective action. We cannot rely on civil discourse, unemotional reasoning, and electoral politics—which are exalted in racial liberal theory—to overturn oppression: we need to harness our anger, contempt, interpersonal relationships, and epistemic resources to dismantle carceral logics and capitalist ideologies. Whereas feminists like Iris Marion Young focus narrowly on collective action and (in my view) sideline liability and interpersonal emotions as political tools, I say that all cards are on the table: we need liability and collective action, moral emotions and political solutions – in fact, as many interventions as we can muster – to fight structural inequality. Indeed, we cannot effectively organize against oppression without liability and fault-finding emotions, which identify the proper targets of our collective action, and drive us to confront them. Effective collective action is not possible if we cannot locate, confront, and impose sanctions on the robber barons, captains of industry, sadistic kleptocrats, and other moral tyrants.

    1. J. Davies, The Sedated Society (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

    2. M. Russel, Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings (Haymarket Books, 2019: 16).

    3. N. Fraser, “Expropriation and Exploitation in Racialized Capitalism: A Reply to Michael Dawson,” Critical Historical Studies 3.1 (2016): 163–78.

    4. K. Hutchison, “Moral Responsibility, Respect, and Social Identity,” in Social Dimensions of Moral Responsibility, ed. Hutchison et al. (Oxford University Press, 2018), 206–30.

    • Sofia Jeppsson

      Sofia Jeppsson


      Pathologization and disability adjustments

      Thanks for the reply, Mich.

      I want to elaborate a bit on the psychiatry part of it. I think you’re probably more staunchly anti-psychiatry than I am.

      I think there are large structural problems in psychiatry that needs adressing, and it would look very different from its current state in an ideal world. Still, I think we have pro tanto reasons to trust people’s own accounts of whether psychiatry has been helpful, hurtful, or mixed to them. We also have pro tanto reasons to trust people’s own explanations of why they struggle and suffer, whether said explanations lean medical, social, or once again mixed.
      The pro tanto reasons we have to trust people’s own accounts can be overridden by other considerations – people might be wrong about their own case for a number of reasons, including that they’ve been indoctrinated to wrongly see their problems in a mainstream-psychiatric way. However, it’s clear to me that you do find smart, thoughtful and critical people who still argue that the concept of mental illness is an apt description for them, that psychiatric medication has been very helpful for them, etc (Zsuzsanna Chappell, Robert Chapman and others have written about this).

      However, with all this said, I agree very much that structural injustice is often reframed as individual pathologies – or simply individual differences! – in a way that hides serious problems.

      I see a lot of otherwise leftist people, who are no strangers to talk of structural injustice, point to either their psychiatric diagnoses or simply some label like “introvert” as reasons why they find modern life and the modern job market hard to deal with. Always presenting a perfect facade, always being on top, always being super-efficient, always smiling at everyone and being “socially competent” is said to be difficult if you’re autistic, have ADHD, an anxiety disorder, or if you’re just introverted. Well, I’m not gonna deny that living up to all these crazy (pun intended) demands is harder for some people than for others, but I doubt that anyone is naturally fit for this.

      When people subscribe to the myth that those who are both able-bodied and neurotypical do perfectly fine in today’s world, they’ll spend their energy promoting more special disability adjustments, and special exceptions for people with special diagnoses. I’m not saying this is never needed, of course it often is, but it’s important to recognize large-scale problems that hurt all workers (even if the degree of hurt varies).

      I think this is an important insight in your reply to me, and it’s something we should talk about much more.

    • Michelle Ciurria

      Michelle Ciurria


      Disability, Double Binds, & Responsibility

      Thanks for your comment, Sofia. To clarify my position, I’m against the hegemony of the medical model of disability and neurological difference, which medicalizes, individualizes, and depoliticizes these concepts. But this critique is beyond the scope of my book. What my work on responsibility focuses on is the impact of stereotypes of disability on blame and praise. We can observe a clear, dualistic construction of disability in the western imagination, which informs legislation and the responsibility system. On the one hand, there is a long legacy of dehumanizing attitudes toward disability, which David Livingstone Smith explains as follows:

      it is striking how often disabled people have been described as “monsters” and reactions to them have often featured the word “horror”… Such words reflect a set of entrenched, and immensely destructive, folk-metaphysical assumptions about the metaphysical status of disabled people as beings that are an affront to the natural order, and to the place of human beings within it (Blog of the APA 2022).

      This attitude triggers and legitimizes the deployment of what Strawson calls the objective attitude, which includes feelings of “repulsion, fear,” and “pity,” but excludes fellow-feeling and the perception of the target as an equal. The objective attitude also justifies the use of “social policy” as a tool to “manage,” “handle,” and “treat” the (what I would call) objectified group.

      On the other hand, Elizabeth Barnes points out that many disabled people are seen as objects of inspiration and admiration under the guise of the “tragic overcomer – [the] plucky little cripple who beat the odds” (2016: 168). This stereotype inspires approbation and appreciation – positive reactive attitudes – but it is a condescending attitude rooted in privilege and a sense of arrogance, an emotion that Marylin Frye associates with oppression and gatekeeping (1983). Hence, this form of praise is a diminishing type designed to put disabled people in their place.

      These double-binds, and their impact on praise and blame, are apparatuses of oppression that I focus on in my book. Surprisingly little effort has been made to shed light on the relationship between oppression and responsibility, and between double binds and the moral emotions.

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