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Michelle Ciurria, An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
Author:
Lucy McDonaldSt John’s College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, Lm675@cam.ac.uk

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Michelle Ciurria, An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility (New York: Routledge, 2019), 268 pages. isbn: 9780367343972. Hardback: $160.00.

Social justice activists have long drawn attention to the ways in which our blaming practices are both affected by and contribute to oppressive structures. For example, people of colour are often disproportionately blamed and punished in the criminal justice system in ways which compound racial injustice; in the United States, Black men typically receive prison sentences that are 20% longer than those received by white men who committed the same crime.1 Women who have been victims of sexual assault, meanwhile, are often blamed for their own assaults, while male perpetrators, if blamed at all, are rarely blamed enough, which perpetuates men’s sexual domination of women. One in five Europeans surveyed thought that women sometimes ‘provoke’ violence, and that women often exaggerate or lie about sexual abuse.2

It is striking, then, that many moral philosophers and psychologists examine our practices of blame through a thoroughly apolitical lens. In An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility, Michelle Ciurria boldly breaks with this tradition. After setting out an account of intersectional feminism, she critiques prevailing theories of apt blame on intersectional feminist grounds, offers her own intersectional feminist account of apt blame, and then examines the ways in which current ‘responsibility practices’ fall short of intersectional feminist goals.

As this summary indicates, the book is not actually about moral responsibility, but rather about blame. Ciurria understands blaming someone as the act of representing them as a norm violator, directing negative attitudes towards them in light of that violation, and seeking uptake for that representation from a respondent. Ciurria observes that philosophers have proposed a range of criteria for what makes an act of blaming apt, including that the violation in question is appropriately connected to the blamee’s ‘deep self,’ that the blamee was sufficiently in control of the violation, that they are capable of ‘answering’ the blame, and that the blame serves some positive function. Ciurria herself proposes a variant of the latter, functional criterion: blame is apt if it functions to realise or promote intersectional feminist aims. Much hangs, then, on her account of intersectional feminism.

Ciurria treats intersectional feminism as an overarching discipline consisting of several subdisciplines, including feminist theory, critical race theory, queer theory, critical disability theory, and intersectionality theory. She lists five aims that these subdisciplines share, and characterises these as the aims of intersectional feminism. This seems to assume, somewhat optimistically, that there is broad methodological and substantive agreement across this vast array of theories. Moreover, the idea that an intersectional perspective is merely an agglomeration of the perspectives of different emancipatory theories seems to run counter to the primary insight of intersectional theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw (who is not cited), namely that different oppressions are not additive.3 At times Ciurria depicts intersectionality as requiring merely inclusion of a range of perspectives and acknowledgement of a variety of oppressive axes; this overlooks the complex metaphysical claims intersectional theorists make about oppression.

The five aims Ciurria attributes to intersectional feminism are: to foreground and diagnose the intersectionality of injustice, oppression, and adversity; to actively combat this injustice; to use ameliorative methods; to use relational (as opposed to individualist) methods; and to engage in non-ideal (as opposed to ideal) theorising. Most of these seem plausible, even if Ciurria somewhat strawmans ideal theorists as people who believe that society is ‘nearly perfect’ (p. 6). Ciurria’s claim that intersectional feminism requires the kind of politically motivated conceptual engineering engaged in by Sally Haslanger, however, is unsupported and implausible.4 Many people typically classified as intersectional feminists neither engage in nor endorse this kind of revisionary conceptual analysis.

Setting aside the limitations of this particular account of intersectional feminism, however, Ciurria’s revisionist proposal that blame is only apt if it promotes anti-oppressive aims is novel and thought-provoking. Some may argue that Ciurria is politicising a practice – blaming – that should not be politicised; they might argue that blame is and should be a matter of desert, not politics. Ciurria establishes, however, that blaming is already political; our current blaming practices are already intimately intertwined with patriarchy, white supremacy, and other oppressive structures. The choice as she presents it is not between apolitical blaming and politicised blaming, but rather between oppressive blaming and anti-oppressive blaming.

Ciurria’s account also has the interesting upshot that apt blame will sometimes be contemptful and/or uncivil; expressions of contempt can enable marginalised people to protect their welfare by withdrawing from oppressive scenarios, whilst ‘rude’ and ‘angry’ blame can undermine norms typically invoked to derail and distract from important political discussion. The theory can therefore accommodate (and in some cases, requires) radically unorthodox forms of protest.

Because Ciurria’s theory of intersectional feminist blame does away with the idea that we should only blame a person if they ‘deserve’ it, it is vulnerable to an objection often levelled at utilitarian theories of blame, namely that it licenses us to engage in seemingly unfair practices. For example, it entails that we can aptly blame people even if they had no control or knowledge of their actions. Ciurria acknowledges that this is counter-intuitive, but argues that her theory is deliberately designed to alienate ordinary people from their intuitions, since those intuitions are shaped by oppressive ideologies. As such, it does not matter that blaming a person who acted involuntarily and unknowingly ‘feels’ wrong.

The theory also seems to license us to make false allegations if doing so promotes intersectional feminist aims. Ciurria argues that false allegations would not promote intersectional feminist aims as a general rule, since they would make it harder for people who make truthful allegations to be taken seriously. However, this presupposes that liars will always be found out. If one could guarantee that one’s lie would not be found out, a false allegation of rape which significantly raises awareness of sexual abuse would seem to be apt blame on Ciurria’s account, because it would largely promote intersectional feminist aims. This implication is likely to be palatable only to readers with strongly consequentialist intuitions.

Ciurria’s observation that existing work in moral psychology is curiously and perniciously detached from considerations of power and social hierarchy is astute and timely. While her proposed theory is probably too revisionary for some, given it requires us to do away with our deepest, most strongly felt intuitions about fairness and desert, the book certainly satisfies Ciurria’s stated aim to ‘start a constructive conversation’ (p. 3) about blame and oppression.

1

United States Sentencing Commission, Demographic Differences in Sentencing: An Update to the 2012 Booker Report (2017), https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-publications/2017/20171114_Demographics.pdf.

2

European Commission, Gender-based violence (2016), https://europa.eu/eurobarometer/surveys/detail/2115.

3

Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1 (1989): 139–167; Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (1991): 1241–1299.

4

Sally Haslanger, “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?,” Noûs 34 (2000): 31–55.

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