Featured Philosop-her: Marina Oshana

Marina Oshana

Marina Oshana is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Davis. Her publications include Personal Autonomy in Society (Ashgate, 2006) and The Importance of How We See Ourselves: Self-Identity and Responsible Agency (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010). She is the editor of Personal Autonomy and Social Oppression: Philosophical Perspectives, (Routledge, 2014).

I want to thank Meena for starting this wonderful blog—a venue for all philosophers to learn about the important work being done by women in the discipline—and for inviting me to contribute to it. Mentoring women in philosophy, particularly undergraduate women, has become a project dear to me. In 2013, I founded u-POW (Undergraduate Philosophically Oriented Women) at the University of California, Davis. I was moved to begin the group after it became woefully apparent that the women in my classes felt isolated and silenced in most of their philosophy classes. They attributed this to their underrepresentation in the classroom, to the paucity of philosophical scholarship by women in the curriculum, and to the culture of our discipline, one that encourages and rewards aggressive interlocution and that is, too frequently, disparaging of what is deemed a “female” perspective. I am happy to report that u-POW has been a phenomenal success. Our numbers have grown, and the young women have developed heightened confidence and become a presence to reckon with in the department. I’m telling you this because I attribute our success in part to forums such as this one. Philosop-her makes visible to my students the presence of a diverse group of strong, vibrant, and successful professional women philosophers whose research and vision reflects the richness, depth and variety of our field.

My research interests are centered in moral philosophy, with an emphasis on issues in personal autonomy, responsible agency, and self-identity. Of late, my research has been inspired by classes I have taught on the self, in philosophy of law, and in analytic feminism. Most recently, I have been absorbed by issues centering on the social dimensions of responsibility. (I am co-editing a book on the topic with Catriona Mackenzie of Macquarie University and Katrina Hutchison of Monash University.) In “A Feminist Approach to Moral Responsibility,” (forthcoming in the Routledge Companion to Free Will, ed. Meghan Griffiths, Neil Levy, and Kevin Timpe, New York: Routledge, June 2016), I suggest that a feminist theory of responsibility would be relational and contextualized in its treatment of the conditions for accountability and answerability, and in its assessment of what agents bear responsibility for. Drawing on work in feminist ethics (by Maggie Little) as well as work in feminist social epistemology (by Miranda Fricker) and feminist jurisprudence (by Martha Minow and Mary Shanley), I argue that a feminist account would broaden the foci of responsibility beyond concerns about the independence and free will of the actor or concerns about the psychological control conditions for responsible agency. I begin by asking two basic questions: “What does it take to be a responsible agent?” and “What is involved in holding a person responsible?” My belief is that a feminist answer to these questions would attend more closely than is typical to the socio-relational circumstances that shape the aretaic profile—the character and the values—of a potential responsible party. A feminist approach might, moreover, be less apt to stress the deployment of principles of rationality in moral reasoning. In addition, a feminist approach would likely question the usefulness (as well as feasibility) of impartiality of perspective in calculating desert, assigning fault, and in pressing for an explanation from the responsible actor. Perhaps the language of rights would play a diminished role in such an account.

In earlier work I have focused on what we can expect from the putative responsible agent, having determined that specific conditions requisite to being held accountable have been met. My focus was on the ability of the agent to account for her actions. Like the majority of contemporary analyses of responsibility, attention was directed on criteria that the presumed responsible agent must satisfy. This focus has left a lacuna in the literature, for little attention has been paid to the dynamics of power and of social status that operate between the presumed responsible party and those who judge her responsible. I am presently spending my sabbatical year (the first one ever!) completing a paper in which I expand the analysis of moral responsibility as a form of accountability to attend to these dynamics of power. While I do not plan on revising my view that ascriptions of responsibility are essentially expectations that an account be forthcoming from the actor, I do believe this is too myopic a picture and one that blithely assumes that the power dynamic involved in ascriptions of responsibility is symmetrical. I examine scenarios in which the power had by interlocutors and those held accountable is relativized to their gendered, economic, and ethnic social status, and is frequently asymmetric because of gender, class, and ethnicity. The paper will form a chapter in the volume I am editing with Katrina and Catriona.

My recent work on the self can be found in “Memory, self-understanding, and agency,” (in The Philosophy of Autobiography, ed. Christopher Cowley, University of Chicago Press, 2015). In the paper, I discuss the aspects of a person’s identity or “selfhood” that must be available to the person, and the manner in which these must be available, in order for the person to function as a self-governing agent. I argue that one functions as a self-governing agent when one anticipates one’s intentions as leading to action by way of self-monitoring behavior. This requires access to a subset of the beliefs, values, dispositional traits, skills and experiences that undergird one’s motivational psychology and that make possible recognition of oneself as a temporally-extended being. Absent such access, a person lacks an adequate psychic connection with her past activity, and is ill-equipped to think of herself, to treat herself, and to be treated by others as a being whose life stretches to the future. In addition, the relevant material must be subject to reflexive direction, and must be material for which a person is disposed to answer. It is, in short, material that supplies reasons for what the person does—material the person can draw on to make sense of what she does as activity that is owing to her agency. In order for self-recognition on this level to transpire, the standard manoeuvres of self-monitoring and self-representation must be operational. These manoeuvres heavily involve autobiographical episodic memory. By drawing on several case studies, I argue that self-governing agency is largely absent in the lives of persons beset by certain disorders of memory and of senility.

I remain strongly interested in the subject of personal autonomy. In a recent paper, “Is Social-Relational Autonomy a Plausible Ideal?” (in Personal Autonomy and Social Oppression), I defend a relational account of autonomy against certain objections that have been levied against it and that have not been adequately answered by proponents of such accounts, myself included. The account I defend maintains that autonomy is constituted by a person’s possession of influence and authority of a form and to an extent sufficient for a person to own her choices, actions, and goals, and to oversee undertakings of import to her agency. The presence of social roles and relations that afford a person this influence and authority are mandatory if the person is to count as genuinely self-determining, whatever her choices are for and however laudable they appear to be. There are three concerns that form part of a more general objection to my account. These are that the strongly substantive account denies the oppressed a voice in public deliberation; that the account denies social reformers status as autonomous; and that the account is empirically untenable. The general objection is that the substantive account is too strong to be realized in this world. My hope is that I have been modestly successful in quieting these concerns, and that I have demonstrated that the characterization of autonomous agency I favor is aligned with liberal values and is congruent with common sense.

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