Featured Philosopher: Paul C. Taylor


Paul C. Taylor teaches philosophy and African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University, where he also serves as the associate dean of undergraduate studies. His books include Race: A Philosophical Introduction and Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, and he was one of the founding editors of the journal Critical Philosophy of Race.

Because Who Needs Another Tarzan Movie:

Guilty Pleasures in the Black Lives Matter Moment

Paul C. Taylor 

(Author’s note: This piece grows out of ideas that I develop in a few places, including in my recent book on Black aesthetics. It answers to an aspiration that has increasingly come to shape my work: to write in ways, and in venues, that connect with people outside the academy. So it might grow up to be an op-ed or a personal essay.)

We all have guilty pleasures, especially when it comes to entertainment and culture. I like Tom Cruise movies, to a degree that my friends rarely understand. But the movies are mostly harmless, and my friends have embarrassments of their own, and life gives us plenty of other things to worry about. So we agree to live and let live, and leave each other to the occasional cultivation of mindless, unworthy enjoyments.

Societies have guilty pleasures too. Think of the fondness that Scandinavians have for fermented fish. Or of the weakness that whoever likes Justin Bieber has for Justin Bieber.

Few of these pleasures involve actual guilt. I don’t feel remorseful for having watched Cruise’s “Jack Reacher” eight times. And I am probably not culpable for anything, save for distorting Netflix’s calculations about the relative popularity of its offerings.

Similarly, the Norwegians I know reasonably well, all two of them, are not remotely ashamed of lutefisk. They agree that it is revolting, and they rarely eat it. But they think of it the way one thinks of family quirks. There are some real characters in this family, we think, as we continue wrapping the holiday presents.

Tom Cruise films and lutefisk may not be truly guilty pleasures, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Some amusements ought to shame us and leave us contrite. Especially when they reflect the tastes of an entire society.

For example: Films that celebrate misogyny and sexual violence. The violent, brain-pulverizing spectacle that we call “American football.” Or narrative relics from our racist past.

Like the new Tarzan movie.

“The Legend of Tarzan” is a Hollywood film that either has opened recently or will open soon. I don’t know which because I have tried very hard not to pay attention to it. To be honest, there have been other things to pay attention to here in the US, like more black people dying tragically in dubious (at best) encounters with police officers, and police officers dying tragically in vengeance-driven assassinations by ex-military black gunmen.

But paying attention to these real-world tragedies turns me back to the fiction worlds of film. Certain of our films embody and express a widespread ambivalence about the value of black life. And in doing so, they further alienate black people from the society that we nevertheless, many of us, still try to think of as our own. There is no excuse, of course, for assassinating public servants in cold blood, any more than there is for shooting a cooperating driver at a traffic stop. But there should also be no excuse for tolerating, for promoting, the conditions that make these inexcusable actions more likely rather than less.

To see what “The Legend of Tarzan” has to do with all this, let’s consider how the Warner Brothers website describes the film:

“It has been years since the man once known as Tarzan left the jungles of Africa behind for a gentrified life as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, with his beloved wife, Jane at his side. Now, he has been invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, unaware that he is a pawn in a deadly convergence of greed and revenge, masterminded by the Belgian, Leon Rom. But those behind the murderous plot have no idea what they are about to unleash.”

I am guessing that what the Belgians are going to unleash is Tarzan, which will serve them right for visiting death and destruction on the Congo. But a shorter description would nearly have sufficed:

A white male hero will do heroic things against a backdrop of suffering dark people.

That description doesn’t really distinguish Lord Greystoke’s saga from “The Last King of Scotland,” “Mississippi Burning,” or “Training Day.” Or, for that matter, from “Gone With the Wind” and its literary forebears. Or, if we change “suffering dark people” to “dangerous dark people,” from “Zulu” or “Colors.”

But why should we distinguish these films from each other? They all tell the same story, at least for anyone who thinks non-white people should at least on occasion be more than props in other people’s dramas.

The stories are not identical, to be sure. Tarzan’s Congo is not the US south of “Mississippi Burning.” And the artistry of Denzel Washington goes a long way toward redeeming “Training Day,” which at least knows it’s trading in racist tropes. (What else can it mean when Denzel shouts “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me”?) But what difference does it make whether we’re in the Mississippi Delta or the Congo, if what we find there are white heroes and black accessories? If we can erase the heroism of everyday black people in segregated Mississippi in order to make the FBI of COINTELPRO (and much else) into a saintly force for good, why not strand a British white kid in an invention called “The Jungle” (plucked from the same imaginative shelf as “The Orient” and much else) and have him somehow become a superhero?

This determination to subordinate black agency to white heroism leads in film to narratives of moral gentrification. These are stories in which white people become the main protagonists in ethically and racially fraught narrative settings – the Congo under Belgian rule, Mississippi under Jim Crow, Uganda under Amin – while the sensible expectation that people of color will exercise some agency in these settings goes unmet. Black people aren’t the only ones rendered invisible in tales like these. Consider, for example, “The Impossible,” a film that explores the 2004 tsunami in south and Southeast Asia by surrounding Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts with “kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything.” But the black version of this phenomenon is of particular interest to me in the age of Black Lives Matter.

In addition to being an exercise in moral gentrification, the new Tarzan movie appears also to be an instance of whitely antiracism. This is what happens when a narrative decenters black agency in the ways we’ve seen, and insists on white heroism, but does all this while also explicitly endorsing anti-racist ideas.

Our new version of the “Lord of the Jungle” apparently fights against colonialism, sort of, and, I’m told, allies himself with an actual black associate. (Where by “associate” I mean “sidekick.” Keep gettin’ dem checks, Sam Jackson).

The problem is that even here, while we’re openly rejecting anti-black racism, we still can’t imagine black heroism.

It should be easy to imagine an adventure story about fighting evil in the Belgian Congo, or in the segregated US south of “Mississippi Burning,” that has black heroes. It would be easy, in fact, in a world untainted by what Eddie Glaude calls “the value gap,” which assigns white people more value than everyone else. But here, in our actual world, what’s easy is imagining black people as window dressing, or, at best, as sidekicks. This is why Quentin Tarentino’s Django isn’t even the star of his own movie, and why Will Smith turned down the role (keep gettin’ dem checks, Jamie Foxx). This is why Danny Glover’s Haitian Revolution movie got scuttled by potential producers continually asking where the white heroes were. And it’s why all the serious heroes in Marvel Studio’s “Ant-Man” are white and Anglo, while the black, brown, and Eastern European characters (the last of which is, in an age of cinematic fascination with Russian gangsters, not white enough) are helpful clowns.

Thinking of film industry imperatives here is supposed to make us feel better about all this. We’re supposed to think of the fact, if it is a fact, that films that don’t feature white people will not fare as well at the box office. Or that the people who finance films genuinely worry about this threat to the box office take, and govern themselves accordingly. But this fear seems to be misplaced if it is entirely about return on investment. Which makes one think its persistence and influence must be about something else. Like an abiding inability to imagine non-white heroism.

This brings me, finally, to what these films say about our orientation to the Black Lives Matter moment. If our films celebrate and reinforce the idea that black lives are less interesting than white lives, is it any wonder that only 40% of whites support the Black Lives Matter movement (compared to 65% of blacks)? If our films routinely erase black agency, if they can’t help but see blacks not as persons but as a monolithic mass, is it any wonder that we can’t distinguish peaceful protesters from ex-military assassins? After all, the mass either quivers in fear or pain (“Mississippi Burning”) or rises up to threaten civilization (“Colors,” “Zulu”). There is no room to establish a middle ground or to make distinctions – between, say, those who engage in creative non-violence while others buckle under the traumas of PTSD and the corruptions of bitterness.

The people behind this Tarzan film are surely talented, and are almost certainly not racists. (Though one could be forgiven for wondering about Craig Brewer, director of “Hustle and Flow” and “Black Snake Moan,” and one of the screenwriters behind “The Legend of Tarzan.”) But they have used their talents to affirm that some human lives are best thought of as props in other people’s stories, and that freestanding black heroism is, strictly speaking, impossible. They, and we, ought to feel guilty about amusements like this.



Featured Philosopher: Robert Gooding-Williams


Robert Gooding-Williams is the M. Moran Weston/Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies and Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. His areas of research and teaching interest include Social and Political Philosophy, the History of African-American Political Thought, 19th Century European Philosophy, Existentialism, and Aesthetics. He is the author of several books, including the award winning In the Shadow of Du Bois (Harvard UP, 2009).

Notes on Du Bois’s Notion of a Science of Human Action:

W.E.B. Du Bois, Max Weber, Moral Judgment and Literary Form

Robert Gooding-Williams

  1. My remarks will be relatively brief. Their aim is to shed some light on an idea that is evident in, and critical to the argument of, the last chapter of BR [Black Reconstruction in America], entitled “The Propaganda of Human History.” In particular, I want to sketch an account of Du Bois’s concept of a science of human action, note the affinities between Du Bois’s and Max Weber’s understanding of such a science, and say something, finally, about Du Bois’s understanding of historiography as a philosophical and prophetic art, the proper execution of which, I think he believes, depends on a proper understanding of the historical science of human action.
  1. Let me begin, then, with a few passages from “The Propaganda of History” that illuminate Du Bois’s thinking as a philosopher of the social sciences:

a) After criticizing histories that discuss slavery with moral “impartially,” depicting America as helpless and the south as blameless, while explaining the difference in development, North and South, as “a sort of working out of cosmic social and economic law,” Du Bois writes:

“One reads for instance, Charles and Mary Beard’s ‘Rise of American Civilization,’ with a comfortable feeling that nothing right or wrong is involved. Manufacturing and industry develop in the North; agrarian feudalism develops in the South. They clash as winds and waters strive, and the stronger forces develop the tremendous industrial machine that governs us so magnificently and selfishly today.

Yet in this sweeping mechanistic interpretation, there is no room for the real plot of the story, for the clear mistake and guilt of rebuilding a new slavery of the working class in the midst of a fateful experiment in democracy; for the triumph of sheer moral courage and sacrifice in the abolition crusade; and for the hurt and struggle of degraded black millions in their fight for freedom and their attempt to enter democracy. Can all this be omitted and half suppressed in a treatise that calls itself scientific?”

Or to come to the center and climax of this fascinating history: What was slavery in the United States? Just what did it mean to the owner and the owned?”[1] (pp. 714-715)

b) “What we have got to know, so far as possible, are the things that actually happened in the world. Then with that much clear and open to every reader, the philosopher and the prophet has a chance to interpret these facts; but the historian has no right, posing as a scientist, to conceal or distort facts; and until we distinguish between these two functions of the chronicler of human action, we are going to render it easy for a muddled world out of sheer ignorance to make the same mistake ten times over.” (p.722)

c) And, finally, in answer to his own question as to why the history of African Americans is made a mockery of and spit upon, Du Bois answers “Because in a day when the human mind aspired to a science of human action, a history and psychology of the mightiest effort of the mightiest century, we fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.” (p.727)

  1. With an eye to these remarks, as well as to what Du Bois writes elsewhere in the conclusion to BR, let me sketch five theses regarding Du Bois’s understanding of history as a science of human action.
  1. Thesis 1: For Du Bois, history, so far as it is a science of human action, cannot model itself on the natural sciences. At issue here, of course, is something like the older, nineteenth century distinction between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften, which, I argue elsewhere, already informs Du Bois’s thinking, possibly due to Dilthey’s influence, in the important, early essay of 1897, “The Conservation of Races.” Now for the Du Bois of BR, historians who model their inquiry on the natural sciences (historians like the Beards) seek to identify the causal uniformities, or “cosmic” laws, governing human events, which events they conceptualize by analogy to the behavior of the winds, waters and other forces of nature. The problem here, Du Bois suggests, is not with the effort to identify the causal uniformities governing human events per se. Rather it is with the tendency in that effort to neglect the human meaning of human events, which is tantamount to treating specifically human events as inhuman, natural forces that lend themselves to a purely “mechanistic” explanation—by which I take Du Bois precisely to mean explanation in terms that make no reference to the meanings that the human beings who participate in those events attach to them.
  1. Thesis 2: For Du Bois, history, if it is to be a science of human action, and not pretend to be a science of nature, must take account of the subjective meanings of actions and events. That, I conjecture, is why Du Bois implies that the historian, as a scientist of human action, cannot truly tell the story of “the mightiest effort of the mightiest century” without taking into account the psychology of the agents whose individual actions sustained that effort—for to take psychology into account, Du Bois thinks, is to take subjective meaning into account. And that, I conjecture, is also why he asks: What did slavery mean to the owner and the owned? Du Bois insists that, to understand slavery, taking into account what it meant to the owned is no less important than taking into account what it meant to the owners. But as a philosopher of the social sciences, he also wants us to see that, in demanding that the historian of slavery attend to the slaves’ stories about slavery, he presupposes the fundamental, methodological tenet that the historian’s task is what Max Weber called Verstehen, or “interpretive understanding,” not mechanical explanation. According to Weber, the sciences of human action, including history and sociology, “speak of ‘action’ insofar as the acting individual attaches subjective meaning to his behavior—be it overt or covert.” And a central task of those sciences, Weber argues, is to place human actions “in a more intelligible and inclusive context of meaning”—as, for example, when we interpret a woodchopper’s chopping of wood as an act undertaken to secure a wage; or, alternatively, to provide a supply of firewood for the woodchopper’s use.
  1. Thesis 3: Du Bois stresses what I take to be his Weberian understanding of the science of human action, in part because he is committed to the view that moral judgment is a critical component of historiography. Du Bois, I take it, is a moral realist (Weber, of course, rejects moral realism) who believes 1) that there exist moral facts and 2) that moral judgments truly or falsely report those facts. In addition, he believes that historians should issue moral judgments—that, unlike the Beards and any number of other historians of American slavery, they should attribute moral responsibility and pronounce judgments of moral right and wrong. But historians cannot attribute moral responsibility and pronounce judgments of right and wrong unless they understand human action in terms of subjective meanings. For they require some such understanding of human action to render intelligible their application of the vocabulary of moral judgment— a vocabulary that, for Du Bois, includes talk of “guilt,” of “moral courage and sacrifice,” and of “the degraded black millions.”  In Du Bois’s view, I am suggesting, a necessary condition of the possibility of the sort of moral judgment that we should expect the historian’s practice of the science of human action to include is a more or less Weberian, Verstehen-centered approach to that practice—or, more exactly, that the historian explain human actions in terms of subjective meanings.
  1. Thesis 4: The distinction that Du Bois draws between 1) the function of the historian, inasmuch as he or she poses as a scientist of human action, and 2) the function of the philosopher or prophet who interprets the facts that the historian has chronicled (including facts of subjective meaning and moral facts) points to what I conjecture is Du Bois’s view that the task of philosophical and/or prophetic interpretation is to grasp the meaning, writ large, of the story the historian tells. I am suggesting, in other words, that Du Bois thinks of the prophet and the philosopher—here, really, the philosopher of history—as asking and answering the question: what can we take to be the significance of the story that the historian, the scientist of human action, has chronicled, if we consider that story as a whole? If this suggestion is correct, then we need also to ask: when Du Bois, the philosopher/prophet, considers the story that Du Bois, the scientist of human action, chronicles in BR, what does the former take to be the significance of the latter’s story, taken as a whole? And the answer to this question, I think, is “tragedy.” For I want to suggest that when Du Bois thinks about the meaning of the story he has told, writ large, he asks himself: what literary form, or, perhaps, what literary genre, describes the character of the story I have told? In the closing chapter of BR, Du Bois, I believe, considers two options: tragedy and romance. The plot of the “magnificent drama” he has recounted is, Du Bois, tells us, the plot of a tragedy, not that of a “flowery romance,” or a “fairy tale of beautiful Southern slave civilization.”
  1. Thesis 5, my final thesis: That just as Du Bois argues that a Verstehen-centered approach to the science of human action is essential to the historian’s fulfillment of his or her vocation as moral judge, so too he seems to suggest that such an approach is essential to the philosopher/prophet’s fulfillment of his or her task of grasping the story that the historian has told as a meaningful whole. For whether identified as tragedy, romance, or as an instance of some other genre, genre identification will depend on the ascription of subjective meanings to human actions and events. In the case of BR, the identification of the story of Reconstruction as a tragedy depends not only on the ascription of subjective meanings, but, in addition, on an interpretation of those meanings in moral terms that resonate with a certain way of conceptualizing tragedy. For when Du Bois writes of the “real plot of the story,” of a “clear mistake and guilt,” and of a “fateful” experiment in democracy, it is difficult for me not to sense in his choice of words, not only the legacy of Greek tragedy per se, to which he alludes, but, perhaps, and more specifically, the legacy of Aristotle’s interpretation of Greek tragedy.

[1] In The Rise of American Civilization (1927), Charles and Mary Beard reprised the explanation of historical events in economic terms that Charles Beard had already advanced earlier in his scholarly career, most influentially in his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). For useful treatments of both books and of Beard’s methodological commitment to the moral neutrality of historical inquiry—a commitment with which Du Bois takes issue in “The Propaganda of Human History”—see Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968).


Featured Philosopher: Lee A. McBride

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[Photo credit: Foster Cheng]

Lee A. McBride III is associate professor of philosophy at The College of Wooster (Wooster, Ohio). He received his Ph.D. from Purdue University (2006) and specializes in American philosophy, ethics, and political philosophy. Recent publications include: “Racial Imperialism and Food Traditions,” The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics, eds. Tyler Doggett, Anne Barnhill, and Mark Budolfson. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming; “Insurrectionist Ethics and Racism,” The Oxford Handbook of Race and Philosophy, ed. Naomi Zack. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming; “Insurrectionist Ethics and Thoreau,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter 2013, pp. 29-45; and “Agrarian Ideals and Practices,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Volume 25, Issue 4 (2012), 535-541. McBride is currently working on two articles (viz., (i) “Race, Multiplicity, and Intercultural Polyglossia,” Philosophizing the Americas: An Inter-American Discourse, eds. Jacoby Adeshei Carter and Hernando A. Estévez. New York: Fordham University Press, forthcoming; and (ii) “Anger and Approbation,” Moral Psychology of Anger, eds. Owen Flanagan and Myisha Cherry. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming) and a book tentatively titled Bold Comportment: Forays in Insurrectionist Ethics.

Forays in Insurrectionist Ethics

Lee A. McBride III

I have long sought for an assertive critical philosophy that provides conceptual tools for members and allies of oppressed groups. I want to help people understand the structural institutions under which they live; to help them understand the social and economic conditions that limit and constrain their lives. Spurred by the work of Leonard Harris, I am currently working on a book – Bold Comportment: Forays in Insurrectionist Ethics. It is my attempt at articulating my own tenable iteration of insurrectionist ethics, one that squares with my commitments to anti-absolutism, fallibilistic experimental inquiry, democratic theory, and meliorism.

Insurrectionist ethics is an attempt to work out the types of moral intuitions, character traits, reasoning strategies that culminate in action, and methods required to garner impetus for the liberation of oppressed groups (McBride 2013b, 27; Harris 2002; Harris 1999a). Emphasis is placed on the liberating of people from various oppressive and debilitating boundaries; for instance, boundaries that impose and enforce racial, gender, and class categories, boundaries that that mark a population as bereft of honor and dignity, boundaries that deny access to social and material capital (Harris 1998a, 450; Harris 1999b, 437; McBride 2013a, 31). The focus here is on destroying those existing conditions which cause or sustain oppression, injustice, and degradation.

Insurrectionist ethics espouses four core tenets (McBride 2013a, 32; Harris 2002, 192).

(1) Practitioners of insurrectionist ethics exhibit a willingness to challenge norms and quotidian practices when those norms and practices sanction or perpetuate injustice or oppression (McBride 2013a, 32; Harris 2002, 195). They are willing to challenge civic and moral authority when those authorities conspire to denigrate a population, allowing a dominant group to exploit a stigmatized group for its labor or seize its assets. And, thus, the practitioner of insurrectionist ethics sees reason to disrupt relatively stable social orders, if those social orders countenance oppressive or unjust practices and institutions.

(2) Insurrectionist ethicists maintain conceptions of personhood and humanity that motivate moral action against obvious injustice or brutality, justifying militancy and radical action on the behalf of oppressed or persecuted peoples (McBride 2013a, 32; Harris 1999a, 238; Harris 2013). Personhood, on this view, assures membership in the human family and secures those basic human dignities afforded to its members. Yet, countless populations have been denied full personhood based on sex, ethnicity, religion, caste, race, and gender. A commitment to humanity, to the recognition and dignity of oppressed persons, offers ardent motivation to engage in insurrectionist moral action, even when consequences are likely to be unfavorable in the immediate future (McBride 2013a, 33; Harris 2002, 196).

(3) The practitioners of insurrectionist ethics work to achieve a broader, more universal liberation through the advocacy of particular oppressed groups (e.g., Indigenous peoples of North America, black Americans, or Dalits of India) (McBride 2013a, 33; Harris 2002, 196). Social agency is required to make substantial changes in institutional and material conditions, and social agency is not marshalled without the concerted effort of individuals mobilizing around shared goals and identity. On this view, communities and coalitions of resistance function as heuristics in the process of building effective, social agency aimed at a localized form of struggle, demand, and compulsion. They are understood as porous, evolving coalitions with contingent futures (Harris 1997; Harris 1999b 440-443; Harris 2002, 198; Mohanty 2003, 46; Lugones 2003, 159; Lugones 2006, 84). As such, this position runs contrary to nationalisms and rooted identities; it opens possibilities for moderate forms of cosmopolitanism, multiplicitous subjectivities, and intercultural polyglossia (Locke 2010, 143; Harris 2010, 70; Lugones 2006, 84).

(4) Insurrectionist ethicists give esteem to insurrectionist character traits (McBride 2013a, 33-34; Harris 2002, 196). On this view, audacity, tenacity, indignation, and guile are recognized as valued character traits to exhibit when faced with debilitating networks of oppression (e.g., the degradation and brutality of racism). In particularly egregious situations, the practitioner of insurrectionist ethics gives approbation to those character traits that embolden a beleaguered people, that disrupt commonplace social practices, that passionately gives rise to social agency. Insurrectionist character traits help to make resistance possible; they allow for the bold, resolute voices that demand the liberation of the oppressed (Harris 2002, 208).

I argue that this insurrectionist ethos can be located in both Henry David Thoreau and Angela Y. Davis (McBride 2013a; McBride forthcoming). Furthermore, I argue that the approbation of insurrectionist character traits influences the demeanor, behavior, bearing, the manner in which the oppressed person carries or conducts him- or herself. This bold comportment opens new avenues of resistance, new articulations of one’s self and one’s coalitions, new imaginative scenarios of emancipation.

Thanks to Meena Krishnamurthy for inviting me to contribute to this blog. It is an honor to be considered among such a distinguished list of philosophers.


Harris, Leonard (1997), “The Horror of Tradition or How to Burn Babylon and Build Benin While Reading a Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note,” African-American Perspectives and Philosophical Traditions, ed. John Pittman. New York: Routledge, pp. 94-118.

——- (1998a), “Universal Human Liberation,” Theorizing Multiculturalism, ed. Cynthia Willett. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, pp. 449-457.

——- (1999a), “Honor and Insurrection or A Short Story about why John Brown (with David Walker’s Spirit) was Right and Frederick Douglass (with Benjamin Banneker’s Spirit) was Wrong,” Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader, eds. Bill Lawson and Frank Kirkland. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., pp. 227-242.

——- (1999b), “What, Then, Is Racism?,” Racism, ed. Leonard Harris. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, pp. 437-450.

——- (2002), “Insurrectionist Ethics: Advocacy, Moral Psychology, and Pragmatism,” Ethical Issues for a New Millennium, ed. John Howie. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 192-210.

——- (2010), “Conundrum of Cosmopolitanism and Race,” Philosophic Values and World Citizenship: Locke to Obama and Beyond, eds. Jacoby Carter and Leonard Harris. Lanham MD.: Lexington Books, pp. 57-73.

——- (2013), “Walker: Naturalism and Liberation,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter 2013, pp. 93-111.

Locke, Alain (2010), “World Citizenship: Mirage or Reality?” Philosophic Values and World Citizenship: Locke to Obama and Beyond, eds. J.A. Carter and Leonard Harris. Lanham MD.: Lexington Books.

Lugones, María (2003), Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition against Multiple Oppressions. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

——- (2006), “On Complex Communication,” Hypatia, vol. 21, no. 3 (Summer 2006), pp. 75-85.

McBride, Lee (forthcoming), “Insurrectionist Ethics and Racism,” The Oxford Handbook of Race and Philosophy, ed. Naomi Zack. New York: Oxford University Press.

—— (2013a), “Insurrectionist Ethics and Thoreau,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter 2013, pp. 29-45.

—— (ed.) (2013b), “Symposium on Insurrectionist Ethics,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter 2013, pp. 27-111.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade (2003), Feminism without Borders. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Featured Philosopher: Naomi Zack


Naomi Zack received her PhD in Philosophy from Columbia University, has taught at the University at Albany, and is now Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oregon. Zack’s newest book is Applicative Justice: An Empirical Pragmatic Approach to Correcting Racial Injustice (2016). Her recent books are: White Privilege and Black Rights: The Injustice of US Police Racial Profiling and Homicide (April 2015); The Ethics and Mores of Race: Equality after the History of Philosophy (2011, 2015). Forthcoming is Zack’s edited 51-essay anthology, the Oxford Handbook of Race and Philosophy. Zack has discussed white privilege discourse in popular media:

PhilosophyTalk.org, “White Privilege and Racial Justice,” Feb. 14, 2016.

Interview about critique of white privilege discourse on PRI, “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” Oct. 17, 2015.

Interview by George Yancy, “What ‘White Privilege’ Really Means,”  NY Times, Opinionator, Stone, November 5, 2014.

Uses and Abuses of the Discourse of White Privilege

Naomi Zack

White privilege in real life is something real that exists. White privilege discourse is thought, talk, and writing about white privilege––it is not the thing itself.

Our present idea of white privilege was introduced by Peggy McIntosh in 1989: “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”[1] The idea lives on in exhortations to Check your privilege! on college campuses[2] and through broader public and social media.[3] But the discourse of white privilege is problematic from two angles—it goes too far in blaming all whites for all forms of racism and it does not go far enough in directly addressing injustice against nonwhites. Both perspectives are worth consideration but the second is more important because it involves violations of fundamental human rights.

Whites cannot call or email or log onto a Bureau of White Privilege to check their white accounts, draw on their white assets, withdraw white funds, or use white credits to make purchases. But whites are generally better off than nonwhites––in health, wealth, freedom, education, longevity, and a host of other human goods. That is, although overt oppression expressed by an official ideology of white supremacy is largely past in our post-civil rights era of formal equality, racist historical effects persist. White (European and American) “privileges” endure. White privilege is a network of dispositions in society whereby individuals behave differently, that is, better to whites than nonwhites, solely because whites are white. Attitudes, beliefs, and emotions are the internal psychic component of white privilege and they include freedom from worrying about or suffering from racism.

However, not all whites, all of the time, enjoy privileges compared to nonwhites or are responsible for the comparative disadvantages of nonwhites. And even though some whites may be complicit with the racism of others, their expressed non-racist views and cultural contributions should not be dismissed solely on the grounds of their race. That is, to shut down speech just because it is uttered by a white person would be unfair and when racial ad hominem is robustly denounced on behalf of people of color, the fallacy should be recognized in an even-handed way. (We continue to be shocked by Kant’s, “This fellow was quite black. . .a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”) Still, “Check your privilege!” or white privilege discourse has more serious pitfalls than such insults to white people. The discourse seems to be incapable of addressing injustice against people of color.

In progressive, left-liberal society, it is virtuous not to exaggerate one’s disadvantage or ignore unfair or unearned advantage. The motivation for white privilege discourse is that the person being asked or told to check her privilege will be ashamed after recognizing that she has unfair or unearned advantages solely due to being white––and that insight will serve social justice. It’s as though the discourse of foodies about their abundant culinary choices and self-indulgent practices could correct the problems of world hunger!

White privilege discourse is largely about the facts of white racial advantage and what white people think and feel about that. Building awareness of racial imbalances is progressive. But as a leading response to contemporary injustice, white privilege discourse may miss the importance of racial injustice and degenerate into just another display of the advantages that white people have of not being required to respond to racial injustice against their racial group. After all, and for the most part, whites are treated justly, in wealthy, democratic, capitalistic societies.

Awareness by whites of their privilege, in an ongoing discourse that whites conduct, is neither cognitively nor rhetorically adequate for addressing injustice. If black people can be killed or executed by police officers, without trial or even the appearance of criminal action, while white people are left alone, this is not wholly or solely a matter of white privilege. Yes, white people are better off, but to confine resistance to the injustice done to nonwhites to discourse about how whites are privileged in being left alone (i.e., to only talk about white privilege), minimizes or trivializes the injustice against nonwhites. This injustice could only be wholly or solely a matter of white privilege if we lived in and accepted the norms of a maximally repressive totalitarian society where it was customary for government officials to execute anyone without trial or even the appearance of criminal action. Against that background, we could say that those who were not treated that way were privileged. They would be privileged in enjoying that perk of exceptional leniency. But we do not live in such a system or accept a normative totalitarian description of the system we do live in. We live in a system where everyone, regardless of race is supposed to have the same basic rights. That nonwhites are not recognized as having these rights is not a privilege of whites, but a violation of the rights of nonwhites.

Nevertheless, human rights have only an ideal status. Philosophically they are only posits and morally those who are outraged by the injustice of rights violation have little power. But, the basis for outrage concerning the recent high profile cases of summary execution of unarmed young black men by police officers is a legal issue, a matter of positive law in U.S. jurisdictions. US citizens are constitutionally protected by certain rights that most, especially whites, still correctly assume are in force for them: the right to privacy from unjustified government search and seizure (where death is a form of seizure); the right to due process; the right to equal protection by government officials.

The Fourth Amendment states that “the people” have a right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. . . but upon probable cause.” The Fourteenth Amendment reads in part that that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Police racial profiling followed by summary execution violates both amendments. However, these constitutional rights have been steadily eroded by the U.S. Supreme Court in recent decades. In Graham v. Connor in 1989, the Justices ruled that claims that police have used excessive force must be analyzed under an “objective reasonableness” standard referring to officer behavior, rather than rules of due process or probable cause. In Plumhoff et al. v. Richard (2012), the Court ruled that Fourth Amendment rights must be balanced against the “qualified immunity” of officers. These rulings and similar ones come to bear in cases like the shooting of Michael Brown, where all an officer need do to avoid indictment or conviction for manslaughter or murder is claim that he believed his life was in danger.

To protect the rights of minorities against police––really everyone’s rights, but the recent killings of unarmed young men concern minorities––it will likely be necessary to revisit at least Graham and Plumhoff. The civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s were led by impassioned and brilliant lawyers, constantly bringing cases before the courts. These days, the legal cases that get the most attention are those aimed at dismantling affirmative action. Yes, whites are privileged, but no amount of exhortation to “check” their privilege or confessional discourse in response, will correct the legal injustice of police homicide based on racial profiling.

Police racial profiling and its attendant violence is not the only form of rights violation that corresponds to nonwhite race in the United States and is neglected by white privilege discourse. Unequal educational resources in materials and teacher skills have persisted after Brown v. Board of Education called for integrated education “with all deliberate speed” in 1954. But K-12 schools are funded by local property taxes that are directly related to real estate values. It’s been widely publicized since the 1970s that the differences in tax-based educational resources per child are as much as 1000 percent between mainly white neighborhoods and mainly black and brown neighborhoods, as residential racial segregation has persisted due to differences in wealth and income, along with social preferences regarding the race of neighbors. All modern democracies uphold public education as a fundamental right at this time, but that right cannot be fully implemented in the United States given the disparities in opportunities for children that result from ongoing residential segregation. No amount of positive descriptions of the privileges of white middle class school children mitigates the deprivations of poor nonwhite children who do not have comparable learning opportunities. Needed is egalitarian educational reform to enlarge those opportunities. No amount or intensity of discourse about the privilege of white children a few blocks away could fill in for what poor nonwhite children lack. And again, if equal adequate education is a right, a structure in which nonwhite children are deprived of that right is a problem of injustice in and of itself. And that problem is not addressed by talking about the fact that white children enjoy the right! (That there are structural inequalities that perpetuate rights violations of nonwhites underscores the importance of resistance that attends to rights instead of privileges.)

[1] http://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack

[2] http://siskiyou.sou.edu/2016/02/10/did-you-check-your-privilege/; http://www.thestranger.com/blogs/slog/2015/06/01/22316372/nine-photos-from-saturdays-privilege-party-at-the-university-of-washington

[3]http://www.bustle.com/articles/133774-5-ways-to-check-your-white-privilege; http://www.ttbook.org/book/check-your-privilege

Featured Philosopher: Syd Johnson


Syd M Johnson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Bioethics in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University. Her work is primarily focused on brain injuries, particularly severe brain injuries, disorders of consciousness, and brain death, and sport-related neurotrauma, including concussion. She’s also interested in research ethics, particularly research on animals. Syd’s recent work considers the ethical implications of epistemic uncertainty and knowledge gaps in neuroscience. She is currently co-editing The Routledge Handbook of Neuroethics (fortcoming in 2017), for which she is writing a chapter on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the topic of this post.

Paternalism, Protection, and Athlete Autonomy

Syd M Johnson

Before his death, Muhammad Ali had experienced decades of cognitive decline and motor neuron disease, the result of Dementia Pugilistica (DP), a neurological disorder that affects boxers. DP was first described in 1928 by New Jersey pathologist Harrison Martland; he called it Punch Drunk Syndrome [1]. Today, DP is known to be a variant of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE affects individuals who have experienced repetitive mild traumatic brain injuries, including concussion and sub-concussive injuries. The populations affected include athletes, combat veterans, and victims of domestic abuse.

CTE is a neurodegenerative disease in which tau proteins accumulate in the brain. There are numerous symptoms, including cognitive decline and early dementia, mood disorders, explosivity and aggression, impaired executive functioning and decision making, and Parkinsonian motor dysfunction. Substance abuse and suicide are common among the athletes diagnosed to date with CTE. CTE can only be diagnosed postmortem, and there have been about 150 confirmed cases. Most of them were professional athletes, and most of them died relatively young. Among those, some had no history of concussion, indicating that subconcussive brain trauma is a cause of CTE. At present, it is not known what the threshold of injury is, how hard a hit causes subconcussive neurotrauma, or how many hits it takes to initiate the neurodegenerative process of CTE. Once it begins, however, it appears it continues long after athletes stop getting injured. There are no treatments at present for those already affected by sport-related neurotrauma and CTE.

At the height of his boxing career, Ali was as famous for his sharp wits as for his skills in the ring. He was a raconteur and a poet, pummeling opponents with words as well as fists. Ali used his fame as a boxer to promote social causes: He was a civil rights activist, an outspoken humanitarian, a conscientious objector who was banned from boxing for several years after refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. The effects of CTE would eventually render his sharp tongue mute. In the last several decades of his life, he could no longer control the hands he once used to ply his trade. Some would say that Ali paid a terrible price for his success as an athlete, but he himself denied having any regrets. When his daughter Laila Ali became a professional boxer at the age of 18, her father objected, but she persisted, and was undefeated in her 7 year boxing career.

It would be implausible to suggest that Ali was not aware of DP, or that he did not choose to box. Even less plausible to think Laila Ali did not know what boxing could do to a brain. Despite a long campaign of obfuscation and denial about the risks of concussion and CTE by professional sports leagues, adult athletes participating in neurotraumatic sports today are well aware of the risks. A few have famously quit their sports because of the risks to their brains. As adult athletes, they have the liberty to make informed choices about the risks and benefits of sports participation, and their autonomy and choices should be respected. We should not presume to tell a smart, capable, autonomous individual like Muhammad Ali how he ought to use and develop his talents.

And yet, the measures that have been adopted by sports organizations to prevent or “manage” concussion and CTE do not promote or respect the autonomy of athletes. The primary remedy for the neurotrauma problem in many sports has been to adopt Return-to-Play protocols (RTPs) that were designed for pediatric athletes. RTPs typically mandate two things: (1) athletes suspected of having sustained a concussion are to be removed from play and medically assessed, and (2) concussed athletes cannot return to play until they are asymptomatic for concussion. It should be obvious why RTPs do not prevent concussions, as they don’t take effect until an athlete has already sustained a concussion. The true purpose of RTPs is to prevent Second Impact Syndrome (SIS), a devastating and almost always fatal swelling of the brain that exclusively affects pediatric athletes. As the name implies, SIS is hypothesized to result from a second impact after a concussion, although it is controversial whether this is the case. Thus, RTPs were never intended to prevent concussions, or to manage concussions in adult athletes, and it’s not even clear that they can prevent SIS in pediatric athletes. At best, they offer minimal protection to athletes: an acutely concussed athlete might experience several effects – including dizziness, blurred vision, and slowed reaction times — that could impair their ability to play and protect themselves from further injury.

Frequently, professional athletes do play while concussed, both because concussion can be difficult to diagnose, and because current sideline concussion assessments typically rely heavily on athletes reporting their subjective symptoms. An athlete motivated to continue playing is motivated to hide their symptoms and be noncompliant with RTPs. A team motivated to keep an athlete in the game is similarly motivated to overlook signs of concussion. [2] RTPs, then, are both ineffective and paternalistic. Ineffective because they were never intended to solve the problems of concussion and CTE in adults, and paternalistic because they would restrict athlete freedom concerning self-regarding conduct – the risks of neurotrauma for the athletes themselves. [3]

Professional and elite-level athletes are a rare breed, small in number, but occupying an outsized space in our awareness of sports and sport-related neurotrauma. There are millions of less visible athletes, children playing in school and recreational sports, and high school athletes, who are subject to the same risks of neurotrauma as professional athletes. They are known to be more susceptible to concussion. More than a million high school students play football in the US alone, and they make up the largest subset of the population that suffers concussions each year. Worldwide, many more youths play neurotraumatic sports like soccer, rugby, hockey, and martial sports. We currently have no idea what the longterm, lifetime effects of sport-related neurotrauma are for those athletes – serious neuroscientific study of CTE is relatively new, and those longterm effects have not been studied. It might take decades to find out. The youngest person diagnosed with CTE was an 18 year old multi-sport athlete who died after a sport-related brain injury. Other athletes in their twenties have been diagnosed, some with quite advanced CTE. Those cases suggests that the neurodegenerative process of CTE begins with participation in youth sports, and youth athletes are the ones we should be trying to protect, not the relatively small number of adult, professional athletes who know the risks of sport and can voluntarily consent to them. The focus on professional athletes is a distraction, one that makes it appear that solving the sport-related neurotrauma problem is a lot harder than it really is. It’s not hard.

Given the unknown level of risk, and the seriousness of CTE, paternalistic measures to protect youth athletes are not only justified, they are morally required, and among the fiduciary duties adults have to protect the health and well-being of children. RTPs, as noted above, are too little, too late. Radical measures, such as eliminating many forms of body contact in sports, are necessary if we are serious about reducing the risks of sport-related neurotrauma. That means doing the unthinkable and the unpopular, such as eliminating tackling in football, and bodychecking in hockey, and prohibiting youth boxing altogether. [4] Importantly, this would strike a reasonable balance between the risks and the benefits of sports for the health and well-being of young people. The protective effects would not be limited to youth athletes, however. Every professional athlete starts out as a kid, and plays and trains for a decade or more before beginning a professional career. By reducing the risk of sport-related neurotrauma in youth athletes, we could reduce the lifetime burden of neurotrauma for all athletes, which will benefit the exceptional few who become professional athletes without imposing on their freedom to choose risky sports participation as adults. In that way, the health and the autonomy of adult professional athletes can both be preserved.

Thanks to Meena Krishnamurthy for the invitation extended to me, and other philosophers of color, to share our work on this blog.

  1. Martland, H. S. (1928). Punch drunk. Journal of the American Medical Association, 91(15): 1103-1107.
  2. For more on this, see Johnson, L.S.M. 2015. Sport-related neurotrauma and neuroprotection: Are Return-to-Play protocols justified by paternalism? Neuroethics 8(1): 15-26.
  3. There are interesting questions concerning whether participation in contact sports is ever strictly self-regarding, and whether an athlete can consent to being harmed by another. I’ll have to set those questions aside for now, but a preliminary answer is that, in some sports at least, consenting to take on the risk of harm is effectively consenting to be harmed by another.
  4. For more on this, see Johnson, L.S.M. 2012. Return to play guidelines cannot solve the football-related concussion problem. Journal of School Health 82(4): 180-185.

Featured Philosopher: Sukaina Hirji


Sukaina Hirji is a PhD Candidate in the Philosophy Department at Princeton University. This Fall, she will begin a position as an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at Virginia Tech. She works primarily in ancient philosophy and, in particular, on Aristotle. In addition to working on the history of philosophy in its own right, she is interested in the potential that ancient thought has to contribute to contemporary debates in ethics and political philosophy. As such, some of her work is at the intersection of ancient and contemporary ethics. For more information, you can visit her website: http://www.sukaina-hirji.com.

First, I just want to thank Meena for continuing to run this wonderful blog. I’m truly honored to participate, and really excited for its new incarnation!

I’m a person of colour, a woman, and an ancient philosopher. For the most part, I love being all three of these things at the same time. This hasn’t always been the case. If I’m being honest, one of the things that initially attracted me to ancient philosophy was the idea that, to truly understand the thoughts of old dead white men, I had to cast off my brownness, to be a disembodied mind in the realm of pure logos. Growing up as a second generation immigrant in western Canada in a conservative Muslim household, I was confused, and tired of trying to figure out how to negotiate my social identity. I thought of philosophy as a way to escape my body and all the complications that came with it.

Thankfully, I’ve gotten older and wiser. I no longer think of discarding my social identity as a desirable — or even possible — way of doing philosophy, or, for that matter, of being a person. We’re always doing philosophy from a certain perspective, with a certain background of experiences and commitments. And, I suspect, we do philosophy better when we try to be self-conscious about that perspective, and to be in dialogue with people from many different perspectives. I now think it’s a real gift to be able to approach ancient thought rooted in a particular body, with its own particular set of experiences. Growing up uneasily balanced between cultures has been helpful, in part, for appreciating that not all the philosophical questions and commitments we might take to be central are universally shared. After all, although it is tempting, it is often misleading to take as an implicit starting point that philosophers two thousand years ago were motivated by the same concerns and commitments that preoccupy us today.

Below is a description of part of my current research on Aristotle. It is an example of how ancient thought can challenge what questions we take to be central to an area of philosophy, and how it can provide the resources for developing genuinely new ethical views.

Aristotle on Virtue and Happiness

Sukaina Hirji

One of the enduring attractions of Aristotle’s ethical theory is its supposed ability to explain why it’s always in an agent’s own interests to be ethically good. According to Aristotle, having a virtuous character and performing virtuous actions is necessary, and very nearly sufficient, for living a happy life. However, I believe the way Aristotle conceives of the relationship between virtue and happiness, or eudaimonia, has been badly misunderstood. In my current research, I reconsider how Aristotle understands the relationship between being good and being happy, and suggest why his ethical theory deserves renewed philosophical attention in its own right.

According to a highly influential strand of contemporary virtue ethics, inspired by Aristotle, what makes certain character traits count as virtues is the fact that they tend to promote a happy or flourishing life. What makes certain actions count as good or virtuous is, in turn, the fact they express these virtuous character traits. This analysis of the concept of virtue in terms of the concept of happiness establishes a tight connection between being ethically good and being happy, but it does so at the cost of the theory’s being fundamentally egoistic: what explains why a character trait or action is virtuous is, ultimately, the way in which it contributes to an agent’s own happiness.

This familiar picture, typically attributed to Aristotle himself, gets the structure of Aristotle’s own theory almost entirely backwards. I argue that, for Aristotle, what makes an action virtuous is the goodness of the ends or results it aims to realize independent of an agent’s own happiness. What makes certain character traits count as virtues is, in turn, the way they equip an agent to reliably identify and be moved to perform virtuous actions with a full appreciation of their goodness: virtue of character, on the interpretation I defend, should be understood as an in part rational capacity for a certain kind of practical agency.

If this is the right – if, for Aristotle, virtue of character is not analyzed in terms of the concept of eudaimonia – the connection between being virtuous and being happy is more complicated, and comes via the way Aristotle conceives of the value of rational activity. I argue that it falls out of Aristotle’s natural teleology that there is something deeply valuable about organisms developing and exercising the natural capacities that are distinctive or characteristic of their essential nature: when an organism develops and exercises its most characteristic capacities, it is most fully realizing the sort of thing it essentially is. The most characteristic and distinctive capacities that human beings have are their rational capacities, specifically, their capacities for theoretical and practical reason. When human beings perfect and then exercise these capacities, they are most fully realizing the sorts of beings they essentially are, namely, rational beings. And, I take it, this is precisely the way in which their excellent rational activity is the highest end and best good for them.

On the view I defend, recognizing and being moved to perform virtuous actions because of the good ends they aim to realize is an exercise of the developed state of an agent’s practical rationality. And, for Aristotle, when a human being exercises the developed state of her practical rationality, she is engaging in the sort of activity characteristic of her essential nature; she is, quite literally, most fully being the sort of thing she most properly is. The upshot is that virtuous actions are good because of the good ends or consequences at which they aim. However, when a virtuous agent performs these good actions with the right reasoning and desiring, she is also, at once, engaging in the sort of activity that is itself an end; she is fully realizing her potential for practically rational agency.

If the interpretation I defend is right, here are two significant interpretive upshots. First, my view

absolves Aristotle’s ethical theory from the familiar charge of egoism. On my metaphysical account of the way in which ethically virtuous activity is an end, Aristotle’s theory is not egoistic either in its explanation of the value of virtuous actions, or in its description of a virtuous agent’s motivations when she performs these actions. Second, my view advances the long-standing and persistent debate about the nature of eudaimonia by making available a position midway between “intellectualist” and “inclusivist” interpretations. My view is “intellectualist” or “monistic” by taking at face value Aristotle’s repeated and explicit identification of eudaimonia with a single good, excellent rational activity. However, my view is also “inclusivist” by establishing ethically virtuous activity as a genuine form of happiness alongside contemplation.

A more general consequence of this interpretation is that we need to be careful assuming we know what question Aristotle takes to be central to ethical theorizing. It is a mistake to assume that what we get from Aristotle is a distinct normative theory alongside deontology and consequentialism. Likewise, we are bound to be disappointed if we look to Aristotle for a worked out view about how to determine the content of morality. Rather, the chief insight of Aristotle’s view is how prudential and moral value might come to be aligned through a certain conception of human agency. Aristotle is not centrally interested in the question of what morality consists in but, rather, why we should care, in the first place, about being moral.

How plausible is the view we are left with? Even if we don’t buy Aristotle’s teleology wholesale, I want to suggest there is something in the vicinity of his view we might find plausible. We might, for example, be willing to accept that one of the essential components of a good life is successfully exercising one’s capacities and that, amongst these capacities, one of the most important is a certain kind of capacity for human agency. That is, we might find plausible the idea that one of the chief components of a good life is being able to correctly identify and appropriately respond to genuine value in the world, including genuine moral value. If we find this plausible, and if we are realists about moral value, we are well on our way to thinking, as Aristotle does, that being virtuous is an essential component of being happy.



Featured Philosopher: Meena Krishnamurthy


Meena Krishnamurthy, the editor of Philosopher, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Michigan. She works in political philosophy on a variety of issues such as the value of democracy and the nature of our duties toward the global poor. The underlying theme that runs through her work is a concern with equality (political, economic, and social). She is currently writing a series of related papers on the work of some of the radical political thinkers mentioned below.

Decolonizing Analytic Political Philosophy[1]

Meena Krishnamurthy

[What follows is an excerpt from my remarks at the Canadian Philosophical Association’s  EquiT Panel on “Decolonizing Philosophy.” Thanks to Chike Jeffers for inviting me to participate and to the other speakers for their contributions.]

A story that I was often told as a student – indeed, one I have since retold my own students – is that contemporary analytic political philosophy began with John Rawls. After John Stuart Mill’s work on utilitarianism in the 19th century there was no further work in political philosophy, the debate was considered settled, until the publication of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, which was foremost a rejection of Mill’s utilitarianism.

I am not the only one who has been told this “standard story”. As Charles Mills’ notes, the standard story is one that is prevalent in the discipline and appears in works across analytic and continental political philosophy.[2]

I came to realize just how false this story was about two years ago. Two years ago, I decided that I would like to learn more about politics and political thought in India. I was interested in these things because my family is from India. My parents often talked about British colonialism and Indian independence. They also talked about how the dialogues between Gandhi and Nehru about these things shaped their own thoughts and experiences in India during the time. Essentially, I wanted to learn more about where my people were from and what shaped their history and thinking. At the time, I took my reading about these things to be recreational.

I began with Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s treatise on the immorality of British Colonialism and the moral importance of Indian self-rule. To get a better understanding of some of Gandhi’s views about non-violence and its importance in resistance, I turned to Martin Luther King Jr. as an American interpreter of Gandhi. I began with Why We Can’t Wait and then read many of King’s other books including Strength to Love, Stride Toward Freedom, and Where Do We Go From Here. This was only the beginning. To understand King better, I read Malcolm X and then slowly started reading the Black political thinkers who preceded both King and Malcolm X and shaped their thinking. I became fascinated with W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Booker T. Washington – thinkers who I would later come to realize influenced Gandhi (and some of his Indian critics) greatly.

What I came to realize was that this work was deeply philosophical and, more importantly for me, engaged with some of the most important questions in political philosophy about social, political, and economic inequality. What I also realized was that most of this work took place in the so-called dark times in political philosophy – when supposedly nothing was being written in political philosophy.

As the work of Gandhi, King, Malcolm X, Washington, Du Bois, and many others demonstrates, the dark times were not so dark. The years between Mill and Rawls were a very productive time.

Why then have these times been dubbed the dark and unproductive years? One answer is suggested by the (North American) academe itself, where thinkers like Gandhi and his Dalit critic B.R. Ambedkar are delegated to classes on “Indian Political Thought” in political theory or classes on Du Bois and Washington fall under “Black” or “African American Studies”. Among other things, what this suggests is that the work of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Du Bois, Washington, and many other radical political thinkers is not considered “philosophy”.

There are many reasons for why we should be worried about the exclusion of these thinkers from the discipline of philosophy.

The first reason is epistemological. Exclusion of this work from political philosophy is problematic because it means that political philosophy has not benefitted from the unique and distinct political insights of these thinkers. In my paper, “White Ignorance and Racial Oppression as a Transformative Experience,” building on an argument I trace back to Martin Luther King Jr., I argue that oppression involves a distinct phenomenal or what it is like experience, namely, the experience of what it is like to belong to a social category that is negatively valued by others. This is an experience that the racially oppressed are most likely to have. When Du Bois and King write about what makes racial oppression wrong it is based on their experience of what it is like to be racially oppressed. This is something that the racially oppressed are in the best position to do. The racially oppressed often have distinct knowledge claims to develop and convey. In excluding the voices of the oppressed we miss out on these distinctive contributions and we lose the opportunity to learn from them. As a result, our political theories of justice and equality may become epistemically distorted. To avoid this, we must take the voices of the oppressed and colonized seriously.

The second reason is social. On many people’s views, philosophy is in a state of crises. Academics and public intellectuals outside of professional analytic political philosophy believe that it has become irrelevant to today’s most important social and political struggles and, in turn, that it is disconnected from the concerns of today’s people. People are left wondering what the purpose of political philosophy is if it cannot be used to challenge today’s structures of injustice.

Many historical thinkers including Aristotle and Plato have held that philosophy’s true purpose is ultimately to aid us in ensuring the just and good life. If they are right about this, then including radical political thinkers in mainstream analytic political philosophy may bring us closer to realizing philosophy’s true purpose by helping us theorize about some of the most important political issues of our time.

Furthermore, it has been widely noted that philosophy also lacks diversity among its student body. In part, this may be because of philosophy’s lack of connection to real and lived social injustices. At least some (certainly not all) people of color, who are concerned with contemporary racism, for example, leave philosophy and turn to other disciplines to understand and address issues of racial injustice. Similar things can be said of those who are interested in colonialism. One reason for including such a broad range of thinkers is that we might be able to increase the number of minority students enrolled in philosophy courses and programs.

One might object, arguing that these sorts of reasons could be given in favour of counting almost anything as philosophy.[3] The real question, one might suggest, is whether the work of Gandhi and other radical political thinkers is actually philosophy.

This question brings us to the third reason for considering the work of Gandhi, Ambedkar, King, Malcolm X, Washington, Du Bois, and many other radical political thinkers as part of philosophy properly understood. Philosophy at its core is a method. It is the method of critical reflection, the giving of reasons in favour of one’s conclusions, and the consideration of potential objections to the reasons that one gives, and the development of responses to these objections. All of the thinkers that I have mentioned today engaged in this method. For example, following a tradition that can be traced to classical Hindu texts such as the Upanishads, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj is written as a dialogue. (Gandhi was also an avid reader of Plato’s dialogues.) In it, Gandhi outlined his arguments in support of Indian home rule and he responded to concerns that are raised by an imagined interlocutor. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King responded critically to the 8 clergymen who asked him to wait patiently for justice. King’s letter was a rejection of the reasons that they gave for waiting and an argument in favour of immediate action. Du Bois developed his own views about the wrongness of racism and the best means to eradicate it. In Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois responded critically to the writings of Washington. Malcolm X not only developed his own original views, but did so in critical response to King and Gandhi’s work, among others. The works of these radical political thinkers are deeply philosophical (in the analytic sense).

The fact that the true philosophical nature of this work was and continues to be ignored suggests another and more pernicious reason for the exclusion of these thinkers from contemporary analytic political philosophy: namely, white supremacy.

The discussions that I have mentioned so far took place between people of color and, for the most part, only people of color. To consider an example in slightly more detail consider the work of Du Bois, Washington, Garvey, Gandhi, and Ambedkar. I focus on these thinkers only because my own current work is in relation to them and I think they are a good example of the phenomenon that I have in mind. Their work represents a discussion that took place between the four of them, four people of colour who were challenging the political systems of their time. Du Bois’s initial work was a response to Washington’s; Garvey’s was a response to Du Bois. Du Bois and Garvey were also responding and taking into account Gandhi’s work and thought. Ambedkar was responding not only to Gandhi, but taking into account Du Bois’s work on racism. It might be that this body of work has been traditionally discounted because it was not engaging with the work of other white philosophers. Unlike Rawls, this discussion did not take John Stuart Mill as its starting point. If a discussion wasn’t in response to or taking seriously or developing the thought of other white philosophers, then it seems that it wasn’t and still isn’t considered philosophy. As Charles Mills suggests, the “philosophical color line still exists.”[4]

Furthermore, it is important to note that this body of work challenges the white supremacy that underlies racial discrimination and colonialism more broadly. What we have then is a group of predominantly white philosophers discounting work done by philosophers of colour that challenges the legitimacy of an ideology and set of institutions that have worked to benefit white individuals.

In short, the genuinely philosophical nature of work by Indian and African American thinkers has been systematically ignored. To the extent that white voices are privileged and challenges to white supremacy are not considered to be real philosophy, philosophy as it is traditionally conceived may itself be understood an expression of white supremacy. This is perhaps the most important reason to “decolonize” philosophy. We should decolonize philosophy because if we don’t, then philosophy remains philosophy of the privileged. It would then be a philosophy not worthy of the name “philosophy.”

In response, it might be argued that, even if some works by radical political thinkers were philosophical, some of their writings were less so. More specifically, it might be argued, there are some works that did not engage in the philosophical method of giving reasons and considering and responding to objections.

I concede the point. Some of the works by the radical political thinkers I have mentioned may not themselves be works in analytic political philosophy. However, this does not mean that these works are not appropriate or good for philosophical consideration. Philosophy is a method that can be brought by us – the readers – to any work.[5] Pamphlets, journals, dialogues, plays, poetry, fiction, songs, and even visual art become appropriate grounds for philosophical exploration. In taking up this approach, we can develop reasons that are implicit in what is conveyed. We can develop an account of reasons that should have been developed given the other thoughts expressed by the author or creator. We can also imagine what we might give as reasons today in relation to whatever is being discussed or expressed by the creator. We can use the experiences that are described as a basis for making our own arguments about justice and the good life. Of course, these are just a few things we can do as part of engaging in the philosophical method when we approach diverse mediums. There are likely many other things that we can do when we approach something philosophically.

In short, we have good reasons for decolonizing philosophy and considering the work of both Indian and African American political thinkers as an important part of analytic political philosophy.

[1] My thinking here has benefitted from Charles Mills, Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy, New Political Science, 37:1, 1-24; John Drabinski, “Philosophy, Decolonization, #NotAllWhites” and Diversity, “Neutrality,” Philosophy; Eric Schliesser, “Pursuing the Truth in and about the Philosophy Canon; On The Very Idea of Western Philosophy”; Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is”; Lisa Shapiro, “What is a Philosophical Cannon” Thanks also to Esa Diaz Leon for feedback on an earlier draft.

[2] Charles Mills, Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy, New Political Science, 37:1, 1-24 at pp. 5-7.

[3] This line of argument can be found here, Amod Lee, “Why philosophy departments have focused on the West.” 

[4] Mills, “Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy,” p. 8.

[5] On this see Lisa Shapiro, “What is a Philosophical Cannon,” p. 14. Shapiro has a somewhat different understanding of what constitutes a philosophical work. On her view, there is no preferred method of doing philosophy. What is most central is the questions that drive the work. I agree that questions are central to analytic philosophy to the extent that they are often part of the analytic method itself, the method of giving reasons for an argument (i.e., rhetorical questions) and raising objections (through questions). Questions are relevant, however, only because they are part of the preferred analytic method.



A New Focus

For the last three years, this blog has been devoted to featuring and highlighting the work of women philosophers. The blog will now cast its net wider. For the next six months the blog will feature posts by philosophers of color. After this time, the blog will feature work by philosophers from underrepresented groups in philosophy, more generally. In doing so, the blog seeks to highlight the work of the diverse range of individuals who are philosophers.The blog, previously named Philosop-her, has been renamed, Philosopher, to capture this new focus.

Thanks to all of the readers for your support over the last few years.

Featured Philosop-her: Gwen Bradford


[Photo credit: Simon Cabulea May]

Gwen Bradford is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rice University. She earned her PhD at Yale in 2010, and has been a Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Public Affairs at Tulane University. She works in value theory and normative ethics, and has work on well-being, achievement, pain, responsibility, epistemic value, and her newest project is about the role of uniqueness in value. In 2015, Oxford University Press published her book, Achievement, which is the topic of this post.


Gwen Bradford

Many thanks to Meena Krishnamurthy for hosting this excellent series and for inviting me to contribute. It’s a real pleasure to be among such esteemed company.

Running a marathon, writing a novel, winning at chess, baking a perfect soufflé, cultivating a bonsai tree, publishing a philosophy article…

All of these achievements are impressive in one way or another, and all more or less important. Indeed, in many cases we sacrifice a great deal for the sake of our achievements. But we might well wonder: why is achievement worth the effort? Or, more fundamentally still: what makes something an achievement at all? What do all these diverse activities have in common, if anything, that characterizes them as achievements?

It’s a relatively uncontroversial observation that achievement is one of the central goods in life, and as you might expect it appears on many philosopher’s lists of such goods.[1] Yet for all this, there has been relatively little discussion about the nature of achievement or its value in the philosophical literature until recently. In this post, I will present the starter-kit version of the view that I develop in my book Achievement (OUP, 2015), and a few implications.

First, let’s separate a descriptive question and a value-theoretic question – (1) what is achievement? And (2) why is it valuable? – and look at them each in turn.

Starting with the descriptive question, one observation is that achievements are characterized by a certain structure, namely a process that culminates in a product. But not every process that culminates in a product is an achievement, of course – an acorn grows into an oak tree, but this is not an achievement.

We might begin our account with the prima facie plausible thought that achievements characteristically result in an important impact on the world; that is, that achievements have valuable products. Developing the cure for cancer might be a paradigmatic example. But it doesn’t take much reflection to see that there are many great achievements that have products of no value whatsoever. Paula Radcliffe running a marathon in record-breaking time, or Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzin Norgay climbing Mt Everest for the first time are great achievements even though they don’t result in any great life-saving good. Crossing a finish line or being on top of a mountain have no value in themselves at all. So having a valuable product is not essential to achievement.

What else? Consider this: if I tie my shoelaces, it does not constitute an achievement for me, whereas for Jim, who has only one arm, tying his shoes presents a unique challenge and it is an achievement. What’s the difference? It’s very difficult for Jim. A mundane and ordinary activity can be an achievement if it is sufficiently difficult. This is why, for example, learning how to drive is an achievement, but once you know how, just driving around on an ordinary day is not; or why winning at chess is an achievement, but winning the lottery is not.

Difficulty, I argue, is a central feature of achievement. Reaching the summit of Mount Everest is an achievement only if it is difficult. We could accomplish the same result by taking a helicopter, but surely the getting to the summit by helicopter is hardly an achievement, whereas reaching the top at the end of a challenging climb is. Writing a dissertation, running a marathon, or even smaller scale achievements, such as winning a game of chess, baking a soufflé, or cultivating a bonsai—all of these achievements are difficult to do. If they were easy, they wouldn’t be achievements. So there is reason to believe that difficulty is necessary for achievement.

But is it sufficient? Not just any difficult process is an achievement. Consider, for example, a very difficult but hopelessly misguided process. If you engage in some process toward a goal, but with a genuinely confused understanding of what you’re doing, it doesn’t seem that you are in the running for an achievement. Conditions of non-accidentality are notoriously difficult to pin down. A natural thought is that the process needs to be the sort of thing that would reliably produce the product, that is, that in relevant nearby possible worlds, the process brings about the product. But this is not, in the end, a viable approach for achievement.[2] Many bona fide achievements do involve a healthy dose of luck, and yet are still genuinely creditable to the achiever, such as the development of penicillin, or winning a race against a large number of very skilled competitors.

Rather, what makes the difference for achievement is competence: the process involves a sufficient amount of competence in order for the achievement to be genuinely creditable. Appealing to competence allows us to capture that something can be an achievement even if success was extremely unlikely, such as a close race, and cases with very serendipitous circumstances.

As an aside, there is an interesting twist for epistemology: some epistemologists, such as Greco and Sosa, have argued that knowledge is an achievement – the difference between mere justified true belief and knowledge is that for knowledge, the truth of the belief is brought about by the successful exercise of cognitive ability.[3] Yet achievement requires knowledge in the form of competence and so knowledge can’t be achievement on pain of requiring itself and hence circularity.

In a nutshell, then, achievements amount to a difficult and competent process that culminates in a product.

But how strange that something valuable is characterized by difficulty. By and large we don’t think of difficulty as something that’s good – we generally do what we can to avoid it. How can something that is characterized by difficulty be good?

The account that I develop to answer the value theoretic question draws from perfectionism (which has nothing to do with “perfectionism” in the colloquial sense, namely, a perpetual dissatisfaction with anything less than perfect); rather, it is a theory of value with its roots in Aristotle, according to which the exercise of certain characteristically human capacities is good. There are certain capacities that are deeply characteristic of human beings, such as rationality. The exercise and development of these capacities constitutes our good – our flourishing, as some perfectionists put it.[4] The view is often motivated with a contrast to objective list theory, according to which our good is comprised of a pluralistic list of goods, such as knowledge, friendship, achievement, and pleasure. Perfectionism steps in to give a unifying explanation of the list items. Knowledge, friendship, achievement, and so on are all good because they are manifestations of the excellent exercise of our characteristic human capacities.

But precisely how does perfectionism account for the value of achievement? What I propose is that we acknowledge a previously overlooked and deeply characteristic capacity – the will. We exercise our will almost all the time, and we exercise it extensively when we engage in difficult activity. Since all achievements are characterized by difficulty, and all difficulty involves the exercise of one of the perfectionist capacities, achievement is therefore good for this reason, inter alia. To round out the explanation of achievement’s value, we can also point to the value of the exercise of the rational capacity, which is involved in the other essential feature of achievement, namely competence. And of course many achievements have products that are of great value, making those achievements additionally valuable.

Even from just this rough sketch, we can see that more counts as achievement than we might previously have thought. But perhaps, one might think, too much. Consider housework. Are boring and tedious chores valuable achievements? Washing all your clothes the old fashioned way in a basin with a washboard would be very difficult, and therefore an achievement. But surely you have no reason whatever to start washing all your clothes the old fashioned way.

So it seems, and yet there are many other cases of people doing just this sort of thing –baking their own bread or brewing their own beer (when even better bread or beer is easily obtainable), or taking up carpentry, and so on. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people somewhere getting interested in vintage clothes-washing techniques and making their own laundry detergent. Hobbies are indeed very telling since leisure time is, by definition, spent doing things for no further reason but themselves, so what we think is choiceworthy in our leisure time is an indication of the sorts of activities that we think are worth engaging in strictly for their own sake. Of course, much leisure time is spent enjoying passive pleasures, but many popular and gratifying hobbies are difficult, so the idea that difficulty is valuable for it’s own sake is not so strange after all.

But surely there is still something disagreeable about difficulty – surely we don’t have reason to make our lives more difficult at every opportunity! Indeed, the claim is not that difficulty is the most important or valuable thing. Much of the time there are more important or more pressing things that demand our time, attention, and energy. The obligations to others, to our jobs, or even to ourselves in many cases generate stronger reasons than the reasons generated by the value of achievement.

Yet on closer inspection some of those other things that demand our time and attention are also achievements, such as having a successful career, cultivating flourishing relationships, or raising a family. There may be many other reasons to pursue these things as well, but all these things too are difficult – and therefore achievements. Part of the explanation, then, for why you shouldn’t do laundry the old fashioned way is because there are more valuable achievements that you have more reason to pursue.

So we see that achievement is broader than we might have thought in another sense, too. In American popular culture, a life of achievement is typically thought of as a life of, say, a rich, successful businessperson with fame and influence. But now that we have a more thorough understanding of the nature of achievement, we can see that many life paths that commonly would not be seen as “achievement-oriented,” such as being a subsistence farmer or a “stay-at-home” parent or being an avid carpenter in your spare time, are indeed lives of achievement. Of course, these lives are rich with other values too, but among what makes such lives go well is the value of achievement.

[1] See, for instance, Guy Fletcher, “A Fresh Start for the Objective List Theory of Well-Being” Utilitas 2013; Christopher Rice, “Defending the Objective List Theory of Well-Being,” Ratio 2013.
[2] As I argue in Achievement and “Knowledge, Achievement, and Manifestation,” Erkenntnis, 2015.
[3] Cf. John Greco, Achieveing Knowledge (CUP, 2010) and Ernest Sosa, Knowing Full Well (Princeton University Press, 2011).
[4] Cf. my “Perfectionism,” in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being. Ed. Guy Fletcher. Routledge, 2016 and Thomas Hurka, Perfectionism (OUP, 1993).


Featured Philosop-her: Rachel Cohon

photo Cohon July '11.jpeg

Rachel Cohon specializes in ethics and its history, particularly the moral philosophy of David Hume, but also ethical theory, applied ethics, and the philosophy of action. She is Professor of Philosophy at the University at Albany, S.U.N.Y. She earned her PhD at U.C.L.A., and taught previously at the University of California, Irvine, and Stanford University. She edited an anthology on Hume’s ethics, Hume: Moral and Political Philosophy (Ashgate, 2001), and wrote the entry on Hume’s moral and political philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Her book, Hume’s Morality: Feeling and Fabrication (Oxford U.P., 2008), reinterprets Hume’s meta-ethics and virtue ethics. Her published articles mainly address topics in Hume’s philosophy and on the nature of reasons for action. She is currently reflecting about character and promises.

Promises and Willing to Be Obligated, with (and without) David Hume

Rachel Cohon

Thanks, Meena, for inviting me to contribute to this blog. I’ve enjoyed reading it and learning about the work of some really interesting philosophers. It’s an honor to be in such accomplished company!

I have longstanding interests in normative ethical theory, metaethics, moral psychology, and the history of philosophy, and I have particularly focused on the moral and political thought of David Hume. I care both about doing accurate textual exegesis in historical context and about grappling with the systematic issues that Hume and others were confronting in the eighteenth century, issues that still puzzle and fascinate us today. My book Hume’s Morality: Feeling and Fabrication focused on two areas: Hume’s metaethics and his important distinction between what he calls the natural and the artificial virtues.[1]

I didn’t begin my career doing history of philosophy but rather writing about reasons for action and reasons to be moral, and I was drawn to Hume at first because I thought I disagreed with his position that cognitions alone cannot move us to action, with his rejection of reason as a foundation of ethics, and with his defense of moral sentimentalism. In the end I do disagree with several of Hume’s positions, but I mainly discovered that Hume was not saying what he was largely believed to have said. For example, he does not deny that beliefs can move us to action – or so I argue in my book. His view is weirder and more interesting than it is usually made out to be. According to Hume reasoning, the process of making inferences, is not by itself a motive to action and doesn’t cause desires or aversions on its own; but causal beliefs about how to obtain pleasure or avoid pain for the agent are perfectly able to generate new desires and aversions that move us to act. (Hume does, however, deny that reason is the foundation of morality and he does defend sentimentalism. But not in quite the ways that many suppose.) There is a good deal we can learn from Hume about how one might develop a normative ethical theory, and specifically an account of the virtues, on a sentimentalist foundation, and how difficult it is to do so. Contemporary sentimentalists and expressivists have to take account of the intersubjective character of moral evaluation: they need to explain why we don’t live in isolated bubbles of individual moral judgment but rather tend to share our judgments and persuade others of them with arguments. And they have to explain what is involved when we distinguish between biased and impartial moral judgments, and when we criticize our own (erstwhile) moral perspective or that of our society. Hume is in fact concerned about avoiding bias in our moral judgments, and about avoiding both individual and (to a lesser extent) cultural relativism; and I argue that he has some successes and also some failures that show both the powerful resources and the limitations of sentimentalism. On the other hand, Hume’s conception of an artificial virtue, a virtue that depends for its existence on human conventions, is, I think, a response to enduring concerns about how to explain the foundations of the virtues of honesty with regard to property and fidelity to promises, on any metaethical theory whatever. Hume’s idea of a social convention is ingenious and he uses it to skirt certain paradoxes that he thought must arise if we try to understand these virtues on the model of a virtue like benevolence.

More recently I have looked at some systematic questions in ethics on their own and also from Hume’s perspective. One of these questions is the nature of the obligation to keep a promise, its ground, and the prerequisites for promising sincerely.

I co-wrote an article called “Promises and Consistency” with my colleague Jason D’Cruz about the challenge posed to the possibility of sincere promising by a conviction that some philosophers have reached from a study of empirical psychology: that human behavior in general lacks cross-situational consistency. [2] This thesis is a crucial component of John Doris’s situationism and some related positions.[3] (Doris and others use it to challenge the existence of character, but Jason and I don’t discuss that role of the thesis at all.) Jason and I argue that someone who is persuaded that consistency across varying (even only slightly varying) situations is quite rare and not to be expected in human beings is consequently incapable of promising sincerely. Jason wrote a lovely follow-on piece working out some further dire consequences of such a belief for the possibility of trust, and it actually beat our original article into print.[4]

Contemporary writers on the nature of promissory obligation disagree about whether a social practice is necessary to explain why promises are morally binding. The practice view has been developed in various current forms (see, for example, Rawls and Hooker), and both roundly criticized and challenged by alternative accounts (Scanlon and Shiffrin are examples).[5] I am working on two papers in which I try to figure out where Hume’s own position would fall in this debate and how Hume’s thought might illuminate it for us today.

One objection to a practice-based account of promissory obligation turns on the insight that this obligation is what we may call directed: its fulfillment is owed to a specific individual (the promisee), who has a claim on the promisor and is wronged if the promisor reneges. (There are other directed obligations, such as the obligation to care for one’s child and some of the duties that arise from property rights.) According to some recent authors, both the views of present-day practice theorists and Hume’s practice-based account imply that the duty to keep a promise is owed not to the promisee but to someone else entirely – it is directed to the wrong party.[6] I argue in a paper I am now revising that leveling this “wrong party” objection at Hume shows a deep misunderstanding of the structure of Hume’s argument about promises and practices. This argument requires me to uncover Hume’s conception of obligation or duty, which is hard to find in his virtue-oriented ethical system. I argue that Hume’s version of ethical sentimentalism (his reliance on sentiments of approval and disapproval to determine what is ethically good and bad) plays a role in his account of promissory obligation, and while his view does not imply that the duty to keep a promise is owed to the wrong party, it is difficult for him to account for the directedness of obligations at all. Difficult, but not impossible. We would have to move beyond the details Hume gives us to account for it, but not necessarily beyond moral sentimentalism.

My other paper in progress is about Hume’s idea that in order to make a morally binding promise, we must perform an act of choosing to obligate ourselves. Hume argues that such an act (he describes it as willing to be obligated) could not possibly be efficacious if performed entirely within the mind, and all talk of that is nonsense. (I can’t actually incur obligation simply by thinking “I hereby choose to place myself under an obligation,” no matter how hard I concentrate.) Some contemporary authors do invoke an act of willing or choosing to be obligated as necessary for promissory obligation,[7] and do not seem worried about Hume’s arguments to the contrary. Carefully investigating the details of Hume’s arguments, I find that while he thinks a private act of self-obligation is impossible, he nonetheless still assumes that some kind of voluntary act of self-obligation is necessary (and with only minimal additional conditions, also sufficient) for incurring the obligation of a promise. Since a private mental act could not have this effect, Hume proposes that a voluntary social act is what creates binding promises. This is one of his strong reasons for adopting a social convention theory. By contrast, it follows from Scanlon’s contemporary account of promissory obligation (according to which we incur the obligation of a promise by intentionally inducing someone to expect us to act as she wants us to) that a choice to obligate ourselves is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a promissory duty. The question is: who is right? While I don’t know yet whether I think a practice is necessary and/or sufficient for promises, my hunch is that some sort of choice to obligate ourselves in fact may be necessary, and at least is, with the addition of just a few very simple background conditions, sufficient. The question I am stuck on is what, exactly, this act of will or choice can come to. How can an agent create a moral duty for herself just by deciding to create a moral duty for herself? Hume and Anscombe[8] offer arguments why this seems impossible. Shiffrin argues that of course it is possible since we do it all the time, just as we create moral permissions by giving consent.[9] Maybe Shiffrin is right that we do it all the time. But what is it that we do?

[1] Oxford University Press, 2008. The book draws on many of Hume’s writings, but most centrally on David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford University Press 1739-40/2000.

[2] Forthcoming in Questions of Character, ed. Iskra Filevå, Oxford University Press, Sept. 2016.

[3] Best known for advocating this view is John Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior, Cambridge University Press, 2002. See also Gilbert Harman, “Moral philosophy meets social psychology: virtue ethics and the fundamental attribution error,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 99, 1999.

[4] Jason D’Cruz, “Trust, Trustworthiness, and the Moral Consequence of Consistency,” Journal of the American Philosophical Association 1;3, Sept. 2015.

[5] John Rawls’s often-cited practice view is in A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, revised edition 1999), pp. 301-308. An example of a rule-consequentialist, practice-based view is that of Brad Hooker, Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule-consequentialist Theory of Morality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000) and “Promises and Rule-Consequentialism“ (chapter 10 of Hanoch Sheinman, Promises and Agreements (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011)). Alternative approaches and objections to practice views are offered by T. M. Scanlon (most famously) in T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Harvard Univ. Press, 1998), chapter 7; and Seanna Shiffrin, “Promising, Intimate Relationships, and Conventionalism” (Philosophical Review 16:39, 2008).

[6] Scanlon (ibid.) is just one of many who level this criticism.

[7] See Shiffrin, “Promising, Intimate Relationships, and Conventionalism,” op. cit., and David Owens, “A Simple Theory of Promises,” Philosophical Review 115;1, 2006.

[8] G.E.M. Anscombe, “Rules, Rights, and Promises,” in Collected Philosophical Papers, V. III, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981.

[9] Shiffrin, ibid.


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