Questions about moral responsibility are generally thought to belong to the domain of metaphysics or moral psychology. These approaches tend to present themselves as apolitical. In sharp contrast, feminist philosophy is inherently political. How can feminists contribute anything to moral responsibility scholarship if questions about moral responsibility aren’t political in nature? In this post, I argue that, contrary to the accepted wisdom, moral responsibility is inherently political because responsibility judgments are political artefacts.
- Feminist philosophy: political
Few people have written about the political dimension of moral responsibility. As a result, few people have written about the relationship between moral responsibility and feminist philosophy, which is inherently political. Feminist philosophy “originated in feminist politics” and “included from the start discussion of feminist political issues and positions” (Garry et al. 2017: 52). Feminist philosophers are committed to political goals such as ending patriarchal oppression, racial injustice, and other dynamics of power and domination that undermine the possibility of equality between all women. In spite of its egalitarian origins, feminist theory has traditionally prioritized the politics and “voices of white, Western feminists,” who are privileged within feminist spaces (Garry et al. 2017: 53). More recently, one of contemporary feminism’s driving aims is to identify and combat multiple intersections of oppression, “through activist organizing and campaigning[,] not only as separate categories impacting identity and oppression, but also as systems of oppression that work together and mutually reinforce one another” (Gines 2014: 14). This approach combines “critical inquiry” and “critical praxis,” and denies the possibility of a “scholar-activist” divide within feminist thought (Collins & Bilge 2016: 32).
- Responsibility theory: apolitical/depoliticizing
Unlike feminist philosophy, responsibility theory generally purports to be apolitical, though it could perhaps be more accurately described as depoliticizing. Although it’s difficult to summarize the vast literature on the subject, responsibility theorists tend to focus on metaphysical questions that abstract away from the political landscape (viz., Chisholm 1964; Inwagen 1980), or the internal capacities of discretely embodied individuals, with no reference to background political conditions or internalized political values. In the ‘capacity’ camp we can include philosophers who focus on the capacity for control (Fischer & Ravizza 2000), the capacity for answerability (Shoemaker 2011; McKenna 2012), and the capacity for enhanceability or adaptability (McGeer 2013). Recently, more attention has been directed to the relationship between people’s capacities and the ‘moral ecology’ within which those capacities are incubated (viz., Vargas 2013). Still, aside from a few notable exceptions (viz., Hutchison, Mackenzie, & Oshana 2018), philosophers have not paid much attention to the malignant asymmetries of power that influence culturally normative perceptions of responsibility, which are, in essence, political artefacts, which play a political role in the moral ecology. When we look at any of the vast data on the relationships between identity prejudice and responsibility judgments, we find significant correlations. Identity prejudices, or prejudices “against people qua social types” (Fricker 2007: 4), are political artefacts – the results of systems of power domination that produce and reproduce familiar political structures, such as patriarchy, white supremacy, cisheteronormativity, and ableism. For this reason, culturally normative responsibility judgments are deeply and insidiously political. Collectively, they function to reproduce and stabilize political structures that benefit the historically privileged.
I’ll give you two quick examples of politicized responsibility judgments, informed by identity prejudices that are political artefacts in the above sense. These examples barely scratch the surface, but they should suffice to give a sense of the impact of the political on folk psychology.
- Politicized responsibility judgments
A: Sexism and victim-blaming in rape cases
There is ample evidence that judgments of blame are distorted by sexist bias. One example is the blaming of rape victims. As Laura Niemi and Liane Young note, “observers often assign blame to rape victims,” and these observations are significantly mediated by “ambivalent sexism” (2014: 230). In fact, research shows that many forms of sexism predict judgments of blame toward rape victims, particularly victims of acquaintance rape (Persson et al. 2018).
Why do ordinary people tend to blame rape victims? One plausible explanation is that we live in a patriarchal culture in which men who rape women are protected by widely-shared sexist attitudes. If so, then internalized sexism is a political motive that reinforces the patriarchal order. In other words, the explanation for the blaming of rape victims is a political explanation.
B: Racism and blaming in homicide cases
There is also evidence that racist attitudes influence judgments of blame. Rebecca Epstein, Jamillia Blake, and Thalia Gonzalez have found that Black girls are perceived as “less innocent and more adult-like” than white girls, and this leads to “more punitive [treatment] by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties” (2017: 1). Black girls, for example, face higher rates of discipline for perceived disobedience and disruptive behaviour (2017: 10). The authors say that this disciplinary gap is partly due to racially biased perceptions of innocence and maturity. If so, then racist attitudes are a factor in the blaming of Black girls, who are seen as guiltier of academic infractions such as disobedience and disruptive behaviour.
Why do teachers and other academic authorities tend to blame Black girls more than white girls? One plausible explanation is that racist attitudes reinforce and reproduce political structures that ensure that white people’s children enjoy the same privileges as their parents. In other words, the explanation for the disproportionate blaming of Black girls is a political one.
- Politicizing moral responsibility
These two examples don’t tell the whole story, but they suggest that blaming judgments tend to be influenced by surrounding political structures, whether consciously or implicitly. In a society structured by asymmetries of power that reinforce historical identity-based prejudices, we should expect ordinary people’s psychological states to be similarly structured by these prejudices. And if ordinary moral psychology is inherently political, then we can’t treat moral responsibility as an ‘apolitical’ endeavour, since the locus of analysis – people’s responsibility judgments – is political. Responsibility theorists must be concerned with the asymmetries of power that influence intuitions about responsibility, and therefore we must be concerned with politics, given that responsibility judgments are political artefacts that serve political purposes.
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Epstein, R., Blake, J., & Gonzalez, T. (2017). Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of Black girls’
childhood. Retrieved from: https://www.law.georgetown.edu/poverty-inequality-center/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/08/girlhood-interrupted.pdf
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