Politicizing moral responsibility
Michelle Ciurria
University of Missouri-St. Louis
  1. Introduction

Questions about moral responsibility are generally thought to belong to the domain of metaphysics or moral psychology. These approaches tend to present themselves as apolitical. In sharp contrast, feminist philosophy is inherently political. How can feminists contribute anything to moral responsibility scholarship if questions about moral responsibility aren’t political in nature? In this post, I argue that, contrary to the accepted wisdom, moral responsibility is inherently political because responsibility judgments are political artefacts.

  1. Feminist philosophy: political

Few people have written about the political dimension of moral responsibility. As a result, few people have written about the relationship between moral responsibility and feminist philosophy, which is inherently political. Feminist philosophy “originated in feminist politics” and “included from the start discussion of feminist political issues and positions” (Garry et al. 2017: 52). Feminist philosophers are committed to political goals such as ending patriarchal oppression, racial injustice, and other dynamics of power and domination that undermine the possibility of equality between all women. In spite of its egalitarian origins, feminist theory has traditionally prioritized the politics and “voices of white, Western feminists,” who are privileged within feminist spaces (Garry et al. 2017: 53). More recently, one of contemporary feminism’s driving aims is to identify and combat multiple intersections of oppression, “through activist organizing and campaigning[,] not only as separate categories impacting identity and oppression, but also as systems of oppression that work together and mutually reinforce one another” (Gines 2014: 14). This approach combines “critical inquiry” and “critical praxis,” and denies the possibility of a “scholar-activist” divide within feminist thought (Collins & Bilge 2016: 32).

  1. Responsibility theory: apolitical/depoliticizing

Unlike feminist philosophy, responsibility theory generally purports to be apolitical, though it could perhaps be more accurately described as depoliticizing. Although it’s difficult to summarize the vast literature on the subject, responsibility theorists tend to focus on metaphysical questions that abstract away from the political landscape (viz., Chisholm 1964; Inwagen 1980), or the internal capacities of discretely embodied individuals, with no reference to background political conditions or internalized political values. In the ‘capacity’ camp we can include philosophers who focus on the capacity for control (Fischer & Ravizza 2000), the capacity for answerability (Shoemaker 2011; McKenna 2012), and the capacity for enhanceability or adaptability (McGeer 2013). Recently, more attention has been directed to the relationship between people’s capacities and the ‘moral ecology’ within which those capacities are incubated (viz., Vargas 2013). Still, aside from a few notable exceptions (viz., Hutchison, Mackenzie, & Oshana 2018), philosophers have not paid much attention to the malignant asymmetries of power that influence culturally normative perceptions of responsibility, which are, in essence, political artefacts, which play a political role in the moral ecology. When we look at any of the vast data on the relationships between identity prejudice and responsibility judgments, we find significant correlations. Identity prejudices, or prejudices “against people qua social types” (Fricker 2007: 4), are political artefacts – the results of systems of power domination that produce and reproduce familiar political structures, such as patriarchy, white supremacy, cisheteronormativity, and ableism. For this reason, culturally normative responsibility judgments are deeply and insidiously political. Collectively, they function to reproduce and stabilize political structures that benefit the historically privileged.

I’ll give you two quick examples of politicized responsibility judgments, informed by identity prejudices that are political artefacts in the above sense. These examples barely scratch the surface, but they should suffice to give a sense of the impact of the political on folk psychology.

  1. Politicized responsibility judgments

A: Sexism and victim-blaming in rape cases

There is ample evidence that judgments of blame are distorted by sexist bias. One example is the blaming of rape victims. As Laura Niemi and Liane Young note, “observers often assign blame to rape victims,” and these observations are significantly mediated by “ambivalent sexism” (2014: 230). In fact, research shows that many forms of sexism predict judgments of blame toward rape victims, particularly victims of acquaintance rape (Persson et al. 2018).

Why do ordinary people tend to blame rape victims? One plausible explanation is that we live in a patriarchal culture in which men who rape women are protected by widely-shared sexist attitudes. If so, then internalized sexism is a political motive that reinforces the patriarchal order. In other words, the explanation for the blaming of rape victims is a political explanation.

B: Racism and blaming in homicide cases

There is also evidence that racist attitudes influence judgments of blame. Rebecca Epstein, Jamillia Blake, and Thalia Gonzalez have found that Black girls are perceived as “less innocent and more adult-like” than white girls, and this leads to “more punitive [treatment] by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties” (2017: 1). Black girls, for example, face higher rates of discipline for perceived disobedience and disruptive behaviour (2017: 10). The authors say that this disciplinary gap is partly due to racially biased perceptions of innocence and maturity. If so, then racist attitudes are a factor in the blaming of Black girls, who are seen as guiltier of academic infractions such as disobedience and disruptive behaviour.

Why do teachers and other academic authorities tend to blame Black girls more than white girls? One plausible explanation is that racist attitudes reinforce and reproduce political structures that ensure that white people’s children enjoy the same privileges as their parents. In other words, the explanation for the disproportionate blaming of Black girls is a political one.

  1. Politicizing moral responsibility

These two examples don’t tell the whole story, but they suggest that blaming judgments tend to be influenced by surrounding political structures, whether consciously or implicitly. In a society structured by asymmetries of power that reinforce historical identity-based prejudices, we should expect ordinary people’s psychological states to be similarly structured by these prejudices. And if ordinary moral psychology is inherently political, then we can’t treat moral responsibility as an ‘apolitical’ endeavour, since the locus of analysis – people’s responsibility judgments – is political. Responsibility theorists must be concerned with the asymmetries of power that influence intuitions about responsibility, and therefore we must be concerned with politics, given that responsibility judgments are political artefacts that serve political purposes.


Chisholm, R. M. (1964). Human freedom and the self. University of Kansas, Department of


Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality: Key concepts. John Wiley & Sons.

Fischer, J. M., & Ravizza, M. (2000). Responsibility and control: A theory of moral responsibility.

Cambridge University Press.

Epstein, R., Blake, J., & Gonzalez, T. (2017). Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of Black girls’

childhood. Retrieved from: https://www.law.georgetown.edu/poverty-inequality-center/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/08/girlhood-interrupted.pdf

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford University


Garry, A., Khader, S. J., & Stone, A. (Eds.). (2017). The Routledge companion to feminist

philosophy. Routledge: Chicago

Inwagen, P. V. (1980). The incompatibility of responsibility and determinism. Bowling Green

studies in applied philosophy2, 30-37.

McGeer, V. (2015). Building a better theory of responsibility. Philosophical Studies172(10),


McKenna, M. (2012). Conversation & responsibility. Oxford University Press.

Niemi, L., & Young, L. (2014). Blaming the victim in the case of rape. Psychological

Inquiry, 25(2), 230-233.

Persson, S., Dhingra, K., and Grogan, S. (2018). Attributions of victim blame in stranger and

acquaintance rape: A quantitative study. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 27(13-14): 2640-2649.

Shoemaker, D. (2011). Attributability, answerability, and accountability: Toward a wider theory

of moral responsibility. Ethics121(3), 602-632.

Vargas, M. (2013). Building better beings: A theory of moral responsibility. Oxford University


15 Replies to “Politicizing moral responsibility (by Michelle Ciurria for Political Philosophy Month)

  1. NIce post!

    That’s of course a responsibility judgment. How is it a “political artifact serving a political purpose”?

    For many theorists, there are two important constituents of the above assessment: I’ve attributed the post to your practical agency, and I’ve appraised its quality as good (i.e., I’ve praised you). These folks take the core of responsibility to be about the former, the attribution to agency. Blame or praise *for* the thing for which you’re responsible are separate. Those evaluative responses reflect normative demands and expectations. I expect no one except the hardened realist really thinks such demands and expectations are immune to social and political shaping. That’s what your examples nicely bring out. But how does this analysis apply, precisely, to *responsibility* judgments? (Just an invitation to say more.)

  2. Great post, animated by really useful examples.

    This, I think, is lurking behind your post, but it’s worth pointing out that moral philosophy only looks more political when feminists do it because the contributions of groups on the margins always look more political than those of folks at the centre. The centre — and in this case I mean “standard” moral philosophy — is every bit as political as the margins; we’re just not very good at seeing the normate as political.

  3. Much of what you say is clearly right and many theorists working on responsibility (especially in the “reactive attitudes” tradition) will agree with you — there are so many ways that our reactive attitudes, through which we hold people responsible, can go wrong, and of course our biases (sexist, racist, etc) will lead to our having inappropriate reactive attitudes. But I think it is important, for what you say, to pay attention to the “moralistic fallacy” (D’Arms & Jacobson) or the Wrong Kind of Reason problem. In some kinds of cases you might want to say that the reactive attitude through which we hold others responsible is inappropriate in the sense of being unfitting (it gets something wrong about the evaluative features of its object), but in other cases, it might just be wrong in some way (e.g. it might be unfair, it might lead to bad consequences, etc) to have the reactive attitude, despite the attitude being fitting. Both are important and both problems can be politicized, but the politicized claim that a particular RA is unfitting and the politicized claim that it is wrong have a particular RA have different implications.

  4. @David Shoemaker

    Here’s a thought: even if we separate those two components, most responsibility theorists are not concerned with the “bare” attribution of agency. That is, they might be concerned with a certain KIND of agency, or with agency exercised in a particular way, or, in particular, with interpretations of that agency (i.e. that it shows that you have and are exercising certain capacities).

    Before we get to the business of blaming or praising, we have to figure out more about your action (on certain theories, what quality of will it might express, on others, what the action means — perhaps conversationally, or even just whether you had the right capacities for acting). I think it’s plausible that power asymmetries and other things that lead to epistemic mis-firings are going to be pretty common at this stage. So, it’s often at the stage of responsibility attribution itself that social and political shaping can cause problems.

  5. Thank you to all commentators! I hope that no one will mind if I begin by posting a link to another guest post of mine on Biopolitical Philosophy, in which (amongst other arguments) I discuss responsibility for professors’ travel-related CO2 emissions: https://biopoliticalphilosophy.com/2020/01/30/the-costs-of-flying-an-intersectional-analysis-guest-post/?fbclid=IwAR31c19IyuXG1tUmd5X1M1d8habAIMyEFNTUr0s1lCxJJakIrJbCrWOTcro
    There, I also invite professors, especially those belonging to privileged groups, to join me on No Fly Climate Sci: https://noflyclimatesci.org/biographies/michelle-ciurria


  6. David Shoemaker, thank you for your reply!
    Let’s divide responsibility into two parts: (1) responsibility for transgressions and (2) responsible agency.
    Both types of judgment are political.
    (1) If P judges Q, a Black student, responsible for an academic transgression, P’s judgment could be influenced by internalized racial bias, which is an artefact of western hierarchies of power.
    (2) If P judges Q, an Aboriginal woman, to be lacking in practical agency, P’s judgment could be influenced by internalized racial biases that represent certain identities as more ‘agentic’ (or more capable) than others. Katrina Hutchison gives a good example (2018): On the topic of the over-incarceration of Aboriginal women in Australia, she writes, “One justice in Western Australia stated that he sentenced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women to terms of imprisonment [for minor offences] for ‘welfare’ reasons. ‘Sometimes I sentence them to imprisonment to help them. . . . To protect their welfare I put them inside for seven days. They get cleaned up and fed then’ (Kerley & Cunneen 1995: 538).” But the judge didn’t actually have good reason to think that the women were incapacitated or lacking in practical capabilities. He made the judgment of their practical agency on the basis of internalized racial biases, which are again political artifacts created through systems of colonial oppression.
    Judgements of transgressions and judgments of practical agency are equally political in my view.
    I hope this response accurately represented your comment – let me know if it didn’t.
    P.s. I write about this in much more detail in my book.

  7. Henry Argetsinger: interesting reply to David Shoemaker.

    I agree that internalized biases (rooted in overarching power structures) are likely to affect our judgments of what people’s actions mean.

    It’s only in situating an action/omission in the context of broader power structures that we can accurately interpret it. (In other words, individualist analysis tends to leave out morally relevant information).

    Elinor Mason gives a good example of this (2018). She recruits a scenario from Randolph Clark (2014) in which a husband in a heterosexual marriage ‘forgets’ to pick up the milk on the way home from work. It would be easy to interpret this as a non-culpable accident signaling no ill will. It would be easy to dismiss the ‘forgetting’ as an innocent mistake, not something for which the husband bears responsibility. Then if the wife were to blame the husband for the omission, she would be in the wrong.

    But now let’s situate this omission in the broader context of a gendered division of labour in which women do the majority of the domestic labour, including grocery shopping, and men do the minority of the domestic labour, and often tend to ‘forget’ to do household tasks like picking up the milk – at least, these kinds of domestic lapses are significantly more common in men. In this context, we can interpret the omission as a signal of male entitlement, or an act of (enforcing) patriarchal oppression – something that, in tandem with many other similar lapses, functions to restrict women’s autonomy.

    When we see the husband’s omission as part of a broader pattern of patriarchal relations, we realize that it may not, in fact, be an innocent mistake, but instead part of an insidious pattern of patriarchal relations – something for which the husband can be blamed, or held accountable for, or asked to answer for.

    This is precisely why political analysis is so crucial to the allocation of moral responsibility!

    Lisa Tessman, thank you for this clarification.

    I think that in the examples I gave, the reactive attitude is both unfitting (e.g., blaming a rape victim gets something wrong about the features of the target), and unfair (the victim doesn’t deserve blame).

    Can you think of examples where the two aspects come apart? I have a feeling that virtually all instances of prejudiced blame will be unjust and harmful because prejudice is unjust and causes a lot of harm.

    E.g., Say that P blames Q for infraction R because P is prejudiced against Q, but, unbeknownst to P, Q actually committed R. (It’s like a moral Gettier case). P’s blame is unfitting because it misrepresents Q, and P’s blame is unjust and harmful because it expresses prejudice toward Q, and expressions of prejudice are unjust and harmful in general. If someone were to ask P why she blames Q, it would eventually become apparent that P has no good reason, and that P is prejudiced, or at least irrational.

    So it seems to me that prejudiced blame, as a rule, is unfitting, unfair, and also generally harmful.

    Michelle Ciurria

  8. Shannon Dea, exactly correct! Responsibility theorists who aim to address responsibility from an apolitical perspective are still engaging in politics, but their political stance is less likely to be seen as political because it resonates with ‘commonsense intuitions.’ But the problem is that commonsense intuitions are structured by hierarchies of power such as patriarchal oppression, white supremacy, cisheteronormativity, and ableism, which are generally accepted or overlooked in our society because they are so pervasive and so deeply entrenched. That is, commonsense intuitions are highly political!

    Robin Dembroff recently gave an excellent talk on ‘common sense’ in which they point out that so-called ‘commonsense intuitions’ tend to the be the intuitions of the culturally powerful. They ask, ​”Whose​ commonsense constitutes philosophically legitimate commonsense? Whose​ pretheoretical concepts and terms constrain philosophical inquiry? And ​whose intuitions are philosophical intuitions?” (2020 and forthcoming in Transgender Studies Quarterly). The intuitions of the powerful tend to be taken as commonsensical, while “the commonsense of the racialized, poor, queer, transgender, or disabled are considered philosophically irrelevant ‘ideology’, ‘activism’, or ‘delusion’.”
    Transgender theory is “brushed aside as politically motivated,” unlike mainstream cisgender philosophy (Dembroff 2020).

    Forgive me for my long reply but I think that Dembroff’s work is relevant to my post and deserves attention. One of the things that I try to accomplish both in my post and my book is to call into question whose standpoint is commonsensical and whose is political. In fact, they’re all political! But our assumptions about whose intuitions are authoritative tend to disguise that equivalency.

    Thank you for your comment, Shannon – I think we’re basically on the same page about the scope of the political.

  9. Hi Michelle,

    I agree with you that responsibility judgments can be *distorted* by the political environment. But does that really make them mere “political artefacts?”

    In the world of 1984, The Party can twist people’s minds until they think 2 + 2 = 5. Does that show that mathematical judgments are political artefacts? Presumably no, because math isn’t *merely* a thing that people can be brainwashed about: it’s also about numbers, and no matter what The Party says, the numbers tell us that 2 + 2 = 4.

    I had a similar worry about your view of responsibility. As you’ve argued, our judgments here are influenced by politics, and perhaps the way we attribute responsibility helps the powerful groups justify their position. But responsibility isn’t *merely* a tool for defending the political status quo. It’s answerable to facts about people’s minds, bodies, and environments. (Did I know what I was doing? Was there a gun to my head?)

    So here’s a question. Even given that responsibility judgments are influenced by politics, why think of them as mere artefacts of politics?

  10. Hi Michelle, while I suspect that your overall line has something deeply right about it, your response to David is a little odd given the content of the post. In the post, you give the example of Black girls who are blamed more often for certain transgressions. What you are now saying about this kind of case in your response to David is that this is just regular old racial bias, nothing to do with the girls’ agential *capacities*, just disproportionate apportioning of responsibility for similar transgressions. But then the cases you give in the post are, per David’s original complaint, not relevant to your attempted critique of the more metaphysical responsibility-literature, which focuses on blameworthiness as such rather than degrees of blame for particular actions.

    So you give a new case, where “P judges Q, an Aboriginal woman, to be lacking in practical agency.
    P’s judgment could be influenced by internalized racial biases that represent certain identities as more ‘agentic’ (or more capable) than others.” But none of the theorists you are criticizing would make anything like this judgment; quite the contrary. Fischer & Ravizza, Shoemaker and McGeer would all presumably say that this judgment is absolutely false, and they would do so *on the basis* of their theories (Aboriginal women are just as answerable, or reasons-responsive, or adaptable as everyone else). If racial biases were conditioning their theories in some way, you’d expect this to show up in the theories themselves, but the biases do not seem to show up. So why, exactly, are these theorists supposed to be worried about your cases?

  11. Thanks, Joe, you’re right. (Sorry, I got derailed out of the conversation for several days. It may now be toast.) You’ve said what I would’ve said too. None of the flagged theories would have any difficulty at all with these cases. They are cases of racially biased, and *mistaken* responses. For responsibility in these theories to be “politicized” in the worried-about way, then the capacities identified as those delivering responsible agency would themselves have to have been a function of various kinds of politicized bias. But there’s no evidence of that whatsoever in the examples given (or at least of an objectionable kind). In engaging with one another interpersonally, we (all of us) often ask, “Why did you do that?” Here we are attributing some attitude or action to someone’s agential self in a way presupposing that they could, in principle, answer for it, i.e., offer their reasons and evaluation thereof in a way that we, the askers, can then evaluate for adequacy. This is what the responsibility interaction often consists in. *How* these evaluations then take place, or *what* norms of action and attitude we hold people answerable to — these things can of course be politicized and vary from culture to culture. But none of these responsibility theorists in any way denies that, as they are simply looking for the conditions necessary for proper responsibility attributions.

  12. Hi Michelle (if I may),

    Thanks for a great post – I really enjoyed this and am very sympathetic to the project! (And I am excited to learn about your book.) I just wanted to suggest that if you haven’t already done so, you should check out Marion Smiley’s book “Moral Responsibility and the Boundaries of Community: Power and Accountability from a Pragmatic Point of View.” She appeals to some different theoretical resources but I think it’s a very compatible project: Smiley argues that the causal judgments that underlie judgments of moral responsibility are themselves dependent on political commitments (a line that I’ve also pushed forward in a paper about explanations of social inequality). Perhaps some of that work could be used to support your line of argument. Good luck!

Comments are closed.