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.
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.
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.
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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
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.↩
Sally Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).↩
Vargas, Building Better Beings, 73–74, 102–4.↩
Cheshire Calhoun, “Responsibility and Reproach,” Ethics 99 (1989): 389–406.↩
Iris Marion Young, “Political Responsibility and Structural Injustice,” Lindley Lecture (University of Kansas) 41 (2003), https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/handle/1808/12416; Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).↩
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.↩
Thanks to Henry Argetsinger and Daniel Speak for helpful feedback and discussion on these ideas.↩
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.
Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press, 2017), 66.↩
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.↩
Manne, Down Girl, 74.↩
Manne, Down Girl, 66.↩
A friend reminds me of the Maya Angelou.↩
Glen Pettigrove, Forgiveness and Love (Oxford University Press, 2012), 52.↩
Pettigrove, Forgiveness and Love, 52–53.↩
Editorial Board, “The Republicans Who Embraced Nihilism,” New York Times, December 11, 2020.↩
Daphna Renan, “Presidential Norms and Article II,” Harvard Law Review 131.8 (2017): 2190.↩
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).
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.
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.↩
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
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
All references unaccompanied by other bibliographic information are to M. Ciurria, An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility (Routledge, 2019).↩
Most likely, the three conditions are mutually implicated, and cannot be stably disentangled, but that won’t affect this discussion.↩
The standing to blame of non-parents (like me) is also an interesting issue in cases like this, but I’ll omit it here.↩
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).↩
Presumably, Ciurria does not want to eliminate excuses for the oppressed, as well as for the privileged. We should require a principled story here.↩
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.↩
I’ve been endlessly scolded about such attempts by Steve Stich. Maybe I’m learning.↩
This circumstance indicates that, however expedient, the methodological/substantive distinction is infirm.↩
3.12.22 | 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.
C. W. Mills, Black Rights / White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2017), 29.↩
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).↩
J. Medina, “Hermeneutical Injustice and Polyphonic Contextualism: Social Silences and Shared Hermeneutical Responsibilities,” Social Epistemology 26.2 (2012): 209.↩
A. M. Jaggar, “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology,” Inquiry 32.2 (1989): 165.↩
M. Stocker, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories,” Journal of Philosophy 73.14 (1977): 453–66.↩
M. M. Moody-Adams, “Culture, Responsibility, and Affected Ignorance,” Ethics 104.2 (1994): 291–309.↩
S. Tremain, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability (University of Michigan Press 2017) .↩
M. Frye, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Crossing, 1983).↩
T. J. Curry, The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017), 306.↩
S. Tremain, “How Ableism in Philosophy Has Destroyed Me,” Biopolitical Philosophy (blog), May 7, 2021, https://biopoliticalphilosophy.com/2021/05/07/how-ableism-in-philosophy-has-destroyed-me/.↩
I. M. Young, Responsibility for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2010).↩
J. Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and the Social Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2013), 17–18.↩
Mills, Black Rights, 51.↩
Moody-Adams, “Culture,” 296.↩
S. Harding, “Two Influential Theories of Ignorance and Philosophy’s Interests in Ignoring Them,” Hypatia 21.3 (2006): 20–36.↩
A. Kelly, “Apple and Google Named in US Lawsuit over Congolese Child Cobalt Mining Deaths,” Guardian, December 16, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/dec/16/apple-and-google-named-in-us-lawsuit-over-congolese-child-cobalt-mining-deaths.↩
K. Whyte, “Settler Colonialism, Ecology, and Environmental Injustice,” Environment and Society 9.1 (2018): 125.↩
R. Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, vol. 3 (Beacon, 2014).↩
Whyte, “Settler Colonialism,” 138.↩