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.