Featured Philosopher: Javier Hidalgo


Javier S. Hidalgo specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics. He is an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. He earned his PhD at Princeton University in 2011.

The Individual Ethics of Immigration

Javier S. Hidalgo

I want to first thank Meena for her generous invitation to contribute to this blog! The following discussion draws on a forthcoming paper of mine, which you can find here.

Most states heavily restrict immigration. They erect walls topped with barbed wire, detain migrants at borders, and routinely deport unauthorized migrants and failed asylum-seekers. These policies stop millions of people from immigrating.

Many people think that immigration restrictions are permissible. I disagree. Like Joseph Carens and other authors, I think that immigration restrictions infringe on valuable freedoms, such as freedom of association and occupational choice, and are objectionable for this reason. Immigration restrictions coercively trap millions of people in conditions of poverty and oppression.

I’m not an absolutist. I can grant that immigration restrictions may sometimes be justified, although I’m very skeptical that actual immigration restrictions are permissible. But I don’t want to make the case for open borders here.[i] Instead, I want to focus on what follows if justice requires broadly open borders.

It is easy to feel despair if you favor free immigration. Almost everyone rejects open borders. You only need to observe the rise of nativist movements in Europe and the United States to see that free immigration is a political non-starter. Even advocates of open borders concede that this policy is utopian.

Let’s assume then that (a) justice requires open borders and (b) open borders are politically infeasible. If (a) and (b) are true, then arguing for open borders appears to be an exercise in moralistic futility. Why bother defending open immigration if it’s never going to happen?

But lately I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the ideal of open borders could matter for individual conduct, even if free immigration is infeasible. I now want to discuss one way in which this ideal could inform individual ethics.

When states restrict immigration, they do more than authorize state employees to stop people at the border and deport migrants. States enforce immigration laws by imposing legal obligations on private citizens. Here are some examples:

  1. Governments forbid employers from hiring unauthorized migrants.
  2. In certain jurisdictions, landlords are obligated to refuse to rent to unauthorized migrants and evict them if they discover their immigration status.
  3. Transportation companies must sometimes screen their passengers and decline to transport unauthorized migrants, even within the borders of a state.
  4. In the United Kingdom, banks are required to check the immigration status of their customers and decline to open bank accounts for unauthorized migrants.
  5. States also more often compel government employees to monitor immigrants and report them to immigration agencies. For instance, police officers and civil servants may be required to check the immigration status of people that they interact with and report them if they are unauthorized migrants.

In these ways, states conscript ordinary citizens to assist in abridging the rights of unauthorized migrants, and in deterring unauthorized immigration.

If justice requires open borders, then these laws are clearly unjust. But notice that these laws make citizens complicit in violating the rights of migrants. After all, if citizens refused to obey these laws, then they would be entirely ineffective. And, in fact, some citizens do disobey these laws and thereby render them less effective than they would otherwise be.

My claim is that we are morally required to disobey laws like (1-5). Why? It is pro tanto wrong to contribute to violating the rights of others, and these laws compel us to help violate the rights of unauthorized migrants. Consider an example. Imagine that the owner of a restaurant discovers that some of her employees are unauthorized migrants. Depending on the jurisdiction, the law may require this employer to fire these workers. Compliance with this law would in effect erode migrants’ rights to freedom of occupational choice. So, if the owner of the restaurant complies with this law, she would contribute to violating the rights of these migrants. At first glance, the owner has moral reasons to refrain from facilitating rights-violations. If these reasons defeat countervailing considerations, then she is morally required to disobey the law.

Many citizens are more-or-less in the position of the restaurant owner in this example. They often interact with unauthorized migrants and they face a choice: should they be complicit in violating the rights of unauthorized migrants?

You might say: disobeying the law is too risky. States punish people who break the law and we aren’t required to bear these risks. Two quick responses to this concern. First, it is not always very risky to disobey the law. For example, employers in the United States (notoriously) face little risk of punishment for hiring unauthorized migrants. Most get away with it.

Second, sometimes morality requires us to perform risky or costly actions. Suppose the government conscripted you to fight in an unjust war and, if you obey, there is a significant risk that you will end up killing a morally innocent person. My view is that you are obligated to sit in a jail cell (or emigrate) rather than comply, despite the fact that defiance may be costly.[ii] While the stakes are obviously lower when it comes to compliance with laws like (1-5), it remains the case that citizens can be obligated to refrain from contributing to injustice even though this has significant costs for them.

You might object: we have duties to obey the law. I’m a philosophical anarchist and, so, this concern has little weight for me. But, even if we do have duties to obey the law, almost everyone agrees that these duties can be overridden. It is plausible that, if the law requires you to violate the basic rights of other people, then the reasons to avoid violating rights can outweigh the reasons to obey the law. Advocates of open borders say that immigration laws violate basic rights. If that’s correct, then we lack duties to obey these laws.

In other areas of practical ethics, philosophers focus on individual action. For example, philosophers debate whether it is wrong for individuals to purchase animal products or contribute to climate change. In contrast, philosophers who write about immigration focus almost entirely on public policy. But a similar individualist project is possible in the ethics of immigration. The injustice of immigration restrictions could matter for individual conduct. Even if open borders are infeasible, the ideal of open borders could help guide how we live our lives.

[i] For some excellent defenses of open borders, see: Michael Huemer, ‘Is There a Right to Immigrate?’, Social Theory and Practice, 36.3 (2010), 429–61; Joseph Carens, The Ethics of Immigration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Bryan Caplan and Vipul Naik, ‘A Radical Case for Open Borders’, in The Economics of Immigration, ed. by Benjamin Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 180–209; Kieran Oberman, ‘Immigration as a Human Right’, in Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership, ed. by Sarah Fine and Lea Ypi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 32–56.

[ii] My views on these matters have been heavily influenced by Jeff McMahan’s arguments in Killing in War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).


Featured Philosopher: Brandon Hogan


Brandon Hogan (J.D. Harvard Law School, Ph.D. University of Pittsburgh) is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Howard University. His areas of research include the philosophy of law, meta-ethics, Hegel’s political philosophy, and the later Wittgenstein.

My work is unified by my interest in thinking about the scope and aims of criminal law. Particularly, I’m interested in thinking about the point of state-sponsored punishment. Given that the United States imprisons more persons than any other nation and that black Americans are incarcerated at shockingly higher rates than white Americans,[1] the topic of punishment takes on a unique importance for me as a black philosopher.

I believe that we can use Hegelian resources to develop a compelling argument for a restorative conception of criminal justice. What follows is a brief outline of that argument.

A Hegelian Argument for Restorative Criminal Justice

Brandon Hogan

Naturally, we can’t start to think clearly about the point of punishment until we answer some more basic philosophical questions. Perhaps less naturally, I believe that a discussion of punishment must begin with a discussion about the nature of personhood and freedom.

A punishment regime should exist to preserve person’s personhood and freedom. Following G.W.F. Hegel, I take it that personhood and freedom must be understood relationally and recognitively. Hegel believes that free persons are only free to the extent that they are so recognized by other free persons. Freedom, on this view, is relational. Persons are only persons, and only free, in relation to others.[2]

(I ask my students whether “black lives matter” is a factual or aspirational claim. That is, I ask if black lives actually matter or whether we simply want them to matter. My view is that the claim (or, hashtag, really) is incomplete. Mattering, like being a person, or being free, isn’t a natural property. I believe that we only matter to others, that we are only persons to others. And, sadly, far too many Americans believe that black lives don’t matter.)

What does it mean for one person to recognize another? I contend that recognition is a form of treatment. To recognize another is, in part, to treat that other as possessing certain rights and as obligated to act (or refrain from acting) in certain ways. Children aren’t fully recognized because they aren’t treated as having the same rights as adults. In the same way, those deemed legally insane aren’t fully recognized because they aren’t held responsible for their ostensible violations of the criminal law. The recognized person, then, is the subject of both rights and responsibilities.

I understand the connection between recognition, personhood, and freedom in the following way. To be treated as having both rights and responsibilities is to be treated as a (full) person. I think most of us can agree on that. My more controversial claim is that this treatment is constitutive of personhood. I draw no distinction between being a person and being so treated. (Of course, a lot must be said about the forms of treatment—or mistreatment— that would completely undermine an individual’s status as a person. Obviously a single rights violation would not render a person a non-person).

The connection between recognition and freedom is less straightforward. Following Kant and Hegel, I understand freedom as a type of autonomy. The free, autonomous person governs her actions by rules that she has chosen for herself. Following Korsgaard, we can call this set of rules a “practical identity.”[3] Further, the set of rules that constitute one’s practical identity (or, in most cases, practical identities) can be understood in terms of rights and responsibilities.

For example, consider an expansive practical identity— that of a U.S. citizen. The rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens are spelled out in various legal documents, the most foundational of which being the U.S. Constitution. Citizens are afforded a certain amount of bodily autonomy and are permitted to own and exchange property. Additionally, citizens are obligated to act in accord with the criminal law.

It’s relatively easy to see the connection between the recognition of rights and freedom. Persons cannot act as citizens (or as tennis players, parents, or students) if their efforts to do so are hampered by others—that is, if their rights are not respected.

I contend further that if we are to be free, others must hold us responsible for acting or failing to act in accord with our practical identities. This claim appears counterintuitive because we tend to think that the truly free person does not have to answer to anyone except herself. However, as Hegel points out, an individual cannot unilaterally determine whether she is acting in accord with some practical identity. If that were the case, there would be no distinction between her acting correctly in light of that identity and her merely thinking that she is acting correctly. And, in that case, there would be no identity to speak of. Practical identities must be administered by others.

To use a concreate example, one’s identity as a citizen is partially constituted by one’s compliance with the criminal law. It makes little sense to believe that any individual can unilaterally determine whether he or she is complying with the law. Whether an individual has complied with the law is determined by a complex network state actors.

Of course, one can always renounce one practical identity in favor of another. I can choose to renounce my American citizenship and move to Ghana. But my understanding of myself as an American or Ghanaian citizen turns on my recognizing others as capable of recognizing my rights and as having the authority to hold me responsible for violating the rights of others. In short, acting in accord with a practical identity—and thus being free—requires that one recognize the capacities and the authority of others. I can’t be free in relation to a community of parrots because I don’t recognize parrots as capable of either respecting my rights or as having the authority to hold me responsible. Freedom, I contend, requires a community of persons that recognize one another as capable and authoritative. Hegel’s title for a community structured by relations of reciprocal recognition is Sittlichkeit, or “ethical life.”

I’m intrigued by the concepts of reciprocal recognition and ethical life because I believe they can be used to help us develop better theories of criminalization and punishment. (Indeed, I think that understanding reciprocal recognition is the key to understanding every type of normativity. But I clearly won’t be able to follow up on that claim here.)

What types of actions should be criminalized? I claim that crime should be understood as a failure of recognition. To be clear, not all failures of recognition should be considered criminal, but all crimes should constitute failures of recognition. The criminal, on this view, is one who fails to recognize another as the subject of rights and responsibilities. Or, in other words, the criminal fails to recognize a person as a person. Assault, murder, and robbery are clearly crimes on this view. Prostitution and the sale and use of drugs, on the other hand, should not be criminalized because they do not undermine the personhood of others. (To be sure, nothing I’ve said entails that the state is not permitted to regulate victimless, yet socially undesirable activities without employing the criminal justice system.)

This recognitive theory of criminalization is attractive because it allows us to explain why we care about crime and treat criminal acts as in need of special attention. Criminal acts, as I understand them, undermine the freedom of all. In addition to suffering bodily harm or the loss of property, the victims of crime lose a sense of safety and security. The perpetrators of crime are harmed as well because they attack the community that is necessary for their own freedom. In undermining ethical life through the promotion of criminal activity, the criminal threatens her own freedom.

Finally, I turn to the issue of punishment. If crime damages ethical life, punishment should seek to repair that damage. While retributivists see punishment as a means to give criminals what they deserve, and deterrence theorists punish in order to deter would-be criminals, only restorative justice takes community repair to be the primary aim of a criminal justice system. Restorative justice programs seek to bring victims and perpetrators of crime together to discuss the meaning of the crime in question, offer and accept apologies, and to think through fair penalties. Penalties can range from community service to prison time. These penalties are unified by the aim of restoration.

Clearly, designing a system of restorative justice suitable for the United States will be a difficult task, one that necessarily involves a wide variety of thinkers and policy makers. I take it that my role as a philosopher is to provide the arguments necessary to motivate a shift in our thinking about crime and punishment. In considering system design, we should start by looking to Norway’s prison system (reported here and here) as an example of a punishment regime that embodies Hegel’s conception of Sittlichkeit. 

[1] See “Shadow Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System.” The Sentencing Project, http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/shadow-report-to-the-united-nations-human-rights-committee-regarding-racial-disparities-in-the-united-states-criminal-justice-system/. Accessed 7 August 2016.

[2] Derrick Darby argues for a similar view in Rights, Race, and Recognition (Cambridge, 2009).

[3] Christine Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (Oxford, 2009).


Featured Philosopher: Alex King


Alex King is an Assistant Professor at SUNY Buffalo. She works on ‘ought implies can’ and related issues in metaethics, aesthetics, and metanormativity. She also runs the Aesthetics for Birds blog.

Toward a More Respectful Discourse

Alex King

I am very grateful to Meena for inviting me to contribute to this series. When I received the invitation, I realized I wanted to take the opportunity to express some thoughts about being a person of color – in particular, what my perspective on the issue is as a multiracial person. What came out is a response to much of the race-related awkwardness I’ve experienced in professional philosophy and interactions with people more generally.

Over the course of my life, I have repeatedly discovered that people play a sort of guessing game behind my back about what my ethnic background is. (I am in many contexts white-passing, likely in part owing to my surname, but in others not.) Sometimes I find it funny, other times I am annoyed.

Why do people do it? I think it’s mostly curiosity, but sometimes it’s practicality. Ethnicity has become increasingly relevant because of efforts to increase diversity. Conference lineups, special volumes, and hiring committees often seek diversity. And most people who play this guessing game don’t mean to be cruel, hurtful, or malicious. In fact, I know that many people who have done this would feel horrible if they thought I were hurt by it.

But I don’t think these guessing games are the best approach. In this post, I’ll explain what’s so frustrating about this situation, and then suggest a concrete alternative.

Two initial caveats: These reflections come from my experience as someone of mixed race in the United States. I can only really speak for myself, but I hope it will be illuminating for others. Part of what I aim to explain as frustrating is the idea that people of color all think the same things and want to be treated the same way. So while I will offer some general information and advice, I cannot and will not presume to be offering The Right Way to interact with people of color. Second, I am not a philosopher of race and I haven’t come close to addressing everything I would want. So, I’m sure there are distinctions and relevant points that I’m overlooking.

I. Understanding

Respectfully interacting with people of color involves at least two things. It requires some degree of understanding, and it requires respectful behavior.

There are two central things to understand.

First, not all people of color are the same. Our experiences vary in incredible ways. Our own families and cultures have different histories, have come to the US in different ways, have experienced different sorts of oppression, and have assimilated into white American culture differently. This varies not only across cultures and families, but across individuals. Thus, to think that there is one solution to racism or one all-purpose, best way to treat people of color is to make a foundational mistake.

Second is one very common and uniting experience. This is one (and maybe the) central source of discomfort faced by ethnic minorities, and in a notable form for mixed race people.

This frustration arises from being approached as a curiosity. In a predominantly white society, people of color are experienced as a curiosity, and as a result experience themselves as a curiosity, too. It is difficult to just be; one is constantly subjecting oneself to third-personal examination. For example, one experiences oneself as a black/Asian/etc. that likes certain things rather than simply as liking certain things. This is a subtle but crucial distinction.

Sartre said it, and others have said it too: when you notice that people treat you as an Other, you can’t help but also experience yourself that way. I find parts of Franz Fanon especially poignant on this score. He writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics” (112). He later adds, “And so it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there” (134).

So one is forced to make choices in this third-personal way: given that I am an X, how will I behave? One questions oneself and one’s motivations: “Why do I really listen to this music/eat this food/want to take this trip? Is it just because I want to be more/less authentic?”

As multiracial, and thus not immediately identifiable as one or another race, I have experienced a particular flavor of frustration with this in two ways. First, it’s not clear which category I belong to. Given that I am a … wait, what exactly am I? What does it even mean to be culturally authentic, when you’re multiracial?

Second are the guessing games I mentioned above. The feeling of being a curiosity is all the more palpable when I find out about such a game. It is a conversation in which I, the person under discussion (the object of discussion), am prevented from participating and so, in an important sense, really objectified.

II. Respectful Behavior

Let me underscore here that I only speak for myself, but I would much rather someone simply ask me than speculate with others. In general, I don’t hold any ill-will toward people who ask. For me, it approximates the way that it’s interesting to know what people think your age is: it can be depressing, surprising, or just awkward. I have never found an actual guess offensive or hurtful.

Some people prefer not to be asked, preferring to address it themselves if and when they choose to. This is obviously thorny territory if you don’t already know the person’s preferences. But in my case, this results in guessing games because people simply won’t stop thinking or wondering about it, even if they’re too nervous to ask. And in cases where it is practically important, e.g., for diversity measures, avoiding asking may not be a good solution. Incidentally, this is why databases like the UP Directory can be incredibly useful.

And there are better and worse ways of asking. Some approaches feel objectifying, and others just feel like the person, in completely good faith, wants to know about me and my experiences, background, and life. Unfortunately, there aren’t exact rules because every person and situation is different, but here are some pointers:

Don’t let it be the first (or even second) question out of your mouth when you meet someone. Better to get to know the person a little bit first. Don’t say things like, “So are you Indian or what?” or “You look so exotic/interesting.” These are definitely bad. Better option: “Hey, you don’t have to tell me, but I was wondering, what’s your ethnic background?” Err toward restraint, and try to read the individual’s personality.

I have a second suggestion as well: ask open-ended rather than closed-ended questions. Some people are comfortable saying simply, e.g., “I’m Asian.” Others are more comfortable saying, “I’m Chinese,” or, “I’m Han.” Some people will say, “I’m half Indian,” with the tacit understanding that the other half is white; or “I am half-black, half-Mexican.” (Incidentally: I am half Han Chinese and half white Western European.)

These are all fine answers to open-ended questions like “What is your ethnic background?” But these are not always acceptable answers to closed-ended questions, which are often the questions people face.

What to do when one must tick a box on a form or answer a question like, “Are you a person of color?” Notice that the space of answers is constrained. What if my box isn’t there? Is there an “Other” or “Multiracial” option? Does my ethnicity count as non-white? (Hispanic, e.g., officially counts as white in the US.) Can I tick more than one box? Maybe I have to choose an allegiance, whether to be white or Asian today.

The question whether someone is a person of color (or, in Canada, a “visible minority”) is more difficult and conceptually loaded than it appears. It clearly isn’t about actual skin tone, but about race. But that doesn’t resolve the question.

It forces me to wonder what someone wants in asking such a question. Are they really asking what race I am? (Which races count?) Are they asking whether I’ve faced a certain set of disadvantages? (Which set counts?) Are they asking about pure percentages: how white or non-white I am? (Which percentages count?) Are they asking to trick me into saying yes when they think I should say no, or vice versa? Are they asking to figure out what I take it to be, to be a person of color? (This CollegeHumor short captures the experience pretty well.)

Furthermore, it’s often taken that person of color and white are contradictories. But I am a person of color as well as white. What I am not, is only white.

Asking these form-like, closed-ended questions set the terms of discourse. But thankfully, you are a person, not a form, and so you can ask questions that let the person you’re talking to set those terms in whatever way is most comfortable or appropriate to their situation. This is to treat someone with the respect and sensitivity that any fellow human being deserves.

So, am I a person of color? I tend to say yes, in part because I want to demonstrate that there are many ways to be a person of color, with mine just one among them. And I am very grateful for this invitation and series, especially as an opportunity for us to set the terms of this discussion for ourselves.

Featured Philosopher: Luvell Anderson

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Professor Anderson (PhD, Rutgers University) is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis. Before coming to Memphis, he was Alain Locke Postdoctoral Fellow at Pennsylvania State University. His research lies principally in Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Race, and Aesthetics. He has published articles on the semantics of racial slurs and on racist humor.

Hermeneutical Impasses

Luvell Anderson

(Author’s note: What follows is a brief sketch of something I’m working out in longer form. Thanks to Meena for the invitation to contribute to this wonderful blog.)

We all have moments in which we encounter something or someone we have trouble understanding. We might interact with someone who speaks a different language from us. We may encounter a non-native speaker with a “heavy accent” that makes it difficult to decipher their meaning. Engagements with unfamiliar cultural expressions or allusions also cause breakdowns in communication and understanding.

Lauren Ahearn reminds us “language is not a neutral medium for communication but rather a set of socially embedded practices.”[1] As such, it is not difficult to envision the emergence of interpretive tools that develop in smaller groups of language users, ones such groups develop to cater to their particular needs. Differences in sounds, expressive elements, and syntactic constructions emerge among these various groups.

I think we can begin to see that along with these kinds of divergences in language development we also get breaks in understanding between different linguistic groups. I will refer to these types of breaks as hermeneutical impasses. More specifically, by ‘hermeneutical impasse’ I mean to pick out instances in which agents engaged in a communicative exchange are unable to communicate effectively because of a gap in shared hermeneutical resources.

I envision at least four types of hermeneutical impasses:

  1. Speakers of different languages, X and Y, who do not know the other’s language; e.g. a French speaker and a Korean speaker.
  2. Speakers who speak the same language X, but misunderstand each other do to ‘national’ differences (e.g. American vs. British vs. Australian/Kiwi English).
  3. Speakers who both speak different dialects of a language X and share a national identity, where misunderstandings arise due to unfamiliarity with elements of the other’s dialect. E.g. misunderstandings that arise due to ignorance of specific cultural references (‘on fleek,’ ‘lit,’ Desiigner’s “Panda”?), inflectional differences, phonemic differences, etc.
  4. Misunderstandings that arise due to differences in perceptual experiences (ways of perceiving social reality) and presumed knowledge base; e.g. ‘All lives matter’ in response to ‘Black lives matter.’

I should note that even though I focus on language and discursive practices here, I believe a discussion of hermeneutical impasses goes beyond language, touching all of our expressive practices. Also, the four types are rough sketches and could stand sharper definition. I leave that for the longer version.

For some of these impasses, they seem to be resolvable with linguistic remedies. For instance, informing an American English speaker that the word for ‘elevator’ in British English is ‘lift’ suffices to clear up any misunderstanding. Yet for others, it seems linguistic remedies are insufficient. Impasses of type (4) appear to be such instances. Consider the ‘all lives matter’ response to ‘Black lives matter.’ There have been countless explanations of the phrase’s significance, carefully explaining that it expresses a plea for the respecting of Black lives as equally valuable to those of others. Regardless of those explanations, the response remains just as vehement and tone deaf as it’s always been.

This particular example might illustrate two subspecies of a hermeneutical impasse: (a) willful impasses, and (b) unwillful impasses. The two subspecies might correspond with two explanations of ‘all lives matter’ responders continued failures of understanding. The first explanation views the responders as genuinely confused. For whatever reason, their default interpretation is an exclusive reading. If the response to correction is one of deference, then we likely have an unwillful impasse on our hands. Another explanation describes responders not as genuinely confused, but as willfully obstinate. On this account, the ALM responder denies a claim they take to be behind the slogan. Jason Stanley, for instance, claims (during a public lecture) that when ALM responders give their retort what they are actually doing is denying the presupposition that Black lives have mattered less in America. This denial results in their refusal to accept the inclusive, ‘Black lives matter, too’ reading. What we end up with is a willful impasse supported by the ALM responder’s obstinacy.

Obviously, if the hermeneutical impasse is a willful one, then linguistic strategies will be unhelpful for bridging it. Willful hermeneutical impasses could appear in any of the four types I’ve sketched above. But what I want to claim is that they are more pernicious when they occur in types (3) and (4). This is because impasses of these types are often hidden behind presumed innocent judgments of grammaticality.

I will attempt to flesh out this idea by presenting a broad sketch of two American English varieties, Black English and Standard American English. James Baldwin, in an op-ed piece entitled “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” writes that different languages (presumably, varieties) develop to articulate or control different realities. Baldwin goes on to highlight one difference in realities articulated between Black English and Standard American English:

There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself, and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long.[2]

This quote encapsulates a hermeneutic tension that exists and has been cultivated between these two linguistic varieties. Suggested in Baldwin’s words is the idea that the language of the whites developed in a fashion that systematically misinterprets certain aspects of reality. (We find a similar sentiment, for instance, in Charles Mills’ work on white ignorance[3]). There are protective mechanisms in place that allow subscribers of this particular linguistic framework to speak in a fashion that allows them to (1) evade assent to explicitly racist statements, and (2) deny complicity with any involvement in racism.

The process of standardization of language allows for the vilification and dismissal of people based simply on the way they speak. Recall the way Rachel Jeantel was dismissed, not only as a reliable testifier in the George Zimmerman trial, but as a human being worthy of respect. Numerous tweets described her as stupid, grotesque, unintelligent, and the like.[4] Jeantel’s “deviant” way of speaking signaled distance from the “ideal” mode of speech, i.e. Standard American English. Such distancing is important since the notion has wrapped up in it differential power relations, processes of legitimization, and marginalization. This is how we get the inferences from her inability or unwillingness to reproduce the standard speech patterns to her presumed stupidity, for example. Baldwin points out that language is “a political instrument, means, and proof of power.”[5] Ultimately, the standard variety is a tool in the service of the state. This point is also highlighted in a passage from the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu:

The official language is bound up with the state, both in its genesis and in its social uses. It is in the process of state formation that the conditions are created for the constitution of a unified linguistic market, dominated by the official language. Obligatory on official occasions and in official places (schools, public administrations, political institutions, etc.), this state language becomes the theoretical norm against which all linguistic practices are objectively measured. Ignorance is no excuse; this linguistic law has its body of jurists—the grammarians—and its agents of regulation and imposition—the teachers—who are empowered universally to subject the linguistic performance of speaking subjects to examination and to the legal sanction of academic qualification.

Both Baldwin and Bourdieu make manifest what many do not realize, namely, that judgments of grammaticality or criticisms of speech against the backdrop of a perceived standard are not innocent and value-neutral, but value judgments in service of a particular power structure.

Presumably, the standard variety has associated with it a certain state-sanctioned (or maybe a range) identity. This is the identity that emerges from its being taught and policed by educators, and its place of prominence in official settings. Being dubbed “the standard” already confers a kind of super-legitimacy on this particular language variety, and by extension, its associated identity. This seems to follow from its role as the standard by which purported grammaticality is judged. Being in such a position disincentivizes its adherents from exhibiting the sort of humility necessary to learn from and possibly embrace alternative values.

Baldwin intimates that Standard American English encodes obscuring mechanisms that distort reality. In the same breath he intimates similar mechanisms are also encoded in Black English. Notice, the need of his parents and siblings to warn him of danger from the white man “in a language [he] could not possibly understand.” Black English speakers need a language that hides its true message from threatening entities. In contrast to Standard American English, the obscuring mechanisms in Black English do not work to obscure reality for its speakers. Rather, they operate to mask reality from those who are perceived as a threat to the speaker’s (and intended audience’s) well-being. Taken together, the obscuring mechanisms in both language varieties (dialects?) create a pernicious hermeneutical impasse. It is pernicious because coming to an agreement on the correct interpretation of some event or utterance requires coming to an agreement on the values that undergird one’s language. But as we’ve seen, those who buy into a particular identity associated with the standard variety have little incentive to yield.

Thus, what we end up with is the cultivation and preservation of a hermeneutical impasse between Black English speakers and Standard American English speakers. Can this impasse be bridged? And if so, what would it take to bridge it? It seems clear that the impasse is bridgeable, but what it would take to bridge it transcends linguistic remedies. This is because the investment in maintaining the impasse hinges on the protection of certain interests. In the case of Standard English the interests are tied to the preservation of an advantaged identity. In the case of Black English, the interests have to do with self-preservation in the face of a hostile environment where revealing reality has historically brought dire consequences upon Black and Brown bodies. Ultimately, what I aim to show in the longer version of this is how certain hermeneutical impasses are really distracting devices for more complex social and political impasses. I want to explore the linguistic mechanisms that function to divert our attention from these more complex impasses.

[1] Laura M. Ahearn, Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, 1 edition (Chichester, West Sussex, UK ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

[2] James Baldwin, James Baldwin : Collected Essays : Notes of a Native Son / Nobody Knows My Name / The Fire Next Time / No Name in the Street / The Devil Finds Work / Other Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), 782.

[3] Charles Mills, “White Ignorance,” in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, ed. Shannon Sullivan Nancy Tuana (State Univ of New York Pr, 2007), 11–38.

[4] “Good, Bad and Ugly Tweets about Rachel Jeantel (with Images) · SherriWrites,” Storify, accessed July 27, 2016, http://storify.com/SherriWrites/good-bad-and-ugly-tweets-about-rachel-jeantel.

[5] Baldwin, James Baldwin, 781.

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.




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