Online Symposium on An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility 

Readers of BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY may be interested in the online symposium of my book, An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility. This week’s exchange between me and fellow disabled philosopher Sofia Jeppsson focuses on the relationship between responsibility, disability, and oppression. What follows is a brief summary of my book by Ryan Lake, followed by highlights of my conversation with Sofia. 

Ryan Lake’s Introduction

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

Sofia Jeppsson’s Comments

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.

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.

My Reply: pt. 1

I now realize that I was not sufficiently precise in my original critique. I have since argued, following Marylin Frye’s influential work on oppression, that the reactive attitudes are “soft” forms of social control that police and enforce double-binds, which function to uphold systems of oppression…

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

My Reply: pt. 2

My work on responsibility focuses on… the impact of stereotypes of disability on blame and praise. We can observe a clear, dualistic construction of disability in the Western imagination, which informs legislation and the responsibility system. On the one hand, there is a long legacy of dehumanizing attitudes toward disability, which David Livingstone Smith explains as follows: 

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

(Blog of the APA 2022). 

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

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

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

Addendum

While I recruit some of the literature on disability – specifically, references to negative stereotypes and attitudes – in support of my thesis about responsibility’s relationship to oppressive double-binds, I should note that this blog has hosted insightful critiques of some of these sources. I invite readers to share their thoughts on my analysis, either in the comments below or on the symposium webpage.

About Mich Ciurria

Mich Ciurrial (She/they) is a disabled queer philosopher who works on intersectionality, feminist philosophy, critical disability theory, and justice studies.

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