Featured Philosopher: Lee A. McBride

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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.


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