I contend that victims have a moral obligation to resist their own oppression. I start by criticizing the three grounds most commonly given for why resistance is required and why failing to resist is blameworthy: that non-resistance is a counterfactual cause of continued oppression; that non-resistance contributes directly to the oppression of other victims; and that non-resistance constitutes a failure to respect the moral law. I then advance a self-regarding obligation to protect and promote objective well-being, grounded in the idea that resistance is a self-respecting, autonomous response to oppression and so is good for victims. While considerations of well-being sometimes justify non-resistance, I argue that neglecting one’s own well-being through compliance or complicity is the sort of wrong for which agents should blame themselves.
Papers in Progress
“Complicity and Well-being”
I’ve argued that victims owe themselves resistance, grounded in the obligation to protect and promote objective well-being. However, complicity in one’s own oppression can protect and promote many of the same constituents of well-being. To answer this serious challenge, I first consider a number of strategies for arguing that the well-being benefits of resistance outweigh those of complicity. Demonstrating that each attempt is either vulnerable to counterexample or relies on a problematic essentialism about what should matter to victims, I then argue that resistance is a better response to the way oppression limits victims’ opportunities to promote their well-being. Complicit victims improve their lives through continued trade-offs, picking whichever constituent of well-being is more valuable: for example, making progress in their projects at the cost of their self-respect. Resisting agents reject oppressive limitations, and attempt to improve their lives by undermining, changing, or escaping the system that demands well-being trade-offs.
“Oppression Without Patterns”
The prevailing model of oppression in feminist philosophy identifies it as a patterned relationship of domination, exploitation, and dehumanization between the members of structurally privileged and disadvantaged groups. I argue that this ‘group relationship’ model either misses or mischaracterizes a range of cases, both by treating distinct forms of injustice as necessary conditions of oppression and by failing to adequately account for intersectional differences in victims’ identities and personal circumstances. In other words, by treating the injustice of certain institutions and social arrangements as oppression, the model loses the ability to flexibly characterize the diverse experiences of victimhood. I argue that we should instead understand oppression in terms of its effect on victims: specifically, a person is oppressed when their autonomy or their overall life prospects are systematically and wrongfully burdened. Oppressive burdens are often shared by victims, but any number and combination of harms can together produce this effect.
“Passing as Privileged”
We judge that someone belongs to “that group” or “my group” using visible characteristics and other markers that are themselves given salience by inaccurate assumptions and limiting stereotypes about what members of groups are like. An agent is said to ‘pass’ when she is either mistaken for, or actively presents herself as, a member of a privileged group. Examples include members of racialized groups who match our expectations of white appearance, LGBT persons who act in ways we typically associate with straight cisgendered persons, and may others. This wrong creates an opportunity for some – but only some – agents to escape the oppressive burdens that come with correct identification and to enjoy certain benefits that come with misidentification, albeit at the possible expense of other constituents of their well-being. So in some ways passing resembles resistance. But in other ways it resembles complicity. In this paper I explore the moral status of passing, and what victims who can pass owe themselves and others.
“Rage and Virtuous Resistance”
Tessman argues that effectively resisting oppression may require the cultivation of morally problematic dispositions – for instance, feeling unrelenting rage and withholding sympathy from one’s oppressors. I worry that agents with hardened dispositions may be disposed to perpetuate rather than eliminate oppressive burdens, both during and after their resistance. The test for practically wise actors should be whether dispositions are conducive to both resisting well and ruling well. I develop Aristotle’s account of virtuous political agency, arguing that the virtue of ‘ruling and being ruled’ is such a disposition. Politically virtuous resistance involves opposing oppressive burdens in ways that nonetheless acknowledge the equal moral status of others, a disposition that agents will need if they are to later realize the kinds of post-oppressive relationships and institutions that facilitate flourishing for all. And participation in nonviolent civil disobedience movements can provide victims an opportunity to cultivate as well as display this disposition.
“Resisting for Other Reasons”
Does a victim have to intend to resist oppression in order to discharge her obligation to do so, or is it sufficient to resist oppression intentionally in the course of pursuing other life plans and projects of importance to her? This is the difference between, say, a woman calling attention to sexist double standards in the workplace in order to advance the cause of equality, and a woman calling attention to them because she wants to advance in an otherwise rewarding profession. I argue that resisting intentionally can be sufficient to discharge a victim’s obligation: given that certain valuable plans and projects are systematically complicated or blocked by oppressive burdens, their active pursuit by victims sometimes just is resistance. Requiring that victims count ‘ending oppression’ among their projects misses a wide range of everyday responses to oppressive burdens – responses that are morally worthwhile and that can still cost victims greatly.
Monograph in Progress
Looking Out for Yourself
The phrase “looking out for yourself” often has a negative connotation, like when we accuse a person of “merely” looking out for themselves. It evokes a certain small-minded selfishness or disregard for others, a failing that is only compounded in circumstances that call on us to act or sacrifice. Imagine someone who opts out of the fight against oppression, considering it more important to minimize costs to themselves than to take part in a shared struggle. When we say they’re looking out for themselves, we mean that they’ve made the wrong choice. If that person happens to be a victim of oppression rather than a privileged bystander, then we might relent and withhold blame, but understanding or forgiving their choice isn’t the same as approving of it.
And yet, “looking out for yourself” does have a positive, self-respecting connotation, especially if one is a victim of oppression. It tracks the importance of taking care of yourself when confronted with corrosive burdens, and pressing onwards with the life you want in circumstances where your opportunities are unfairly limited, or when you face socialized pressure to instead divert your emotional and physical labor toward the benefit of others. Victims who struggle against these burdens, limitations, and pressures aren’t motivated by a small-minded selfishness, nor are they ignoring oppression when they strive to minimize costs. Looking out for yourself doesn’t always mean you avoid the important fights – sometimes, it means you recognize that improving your own life is a fight worth having.
Both senses of “looking out for yourself” matter for the action-guiding question of what victims ought to do, and neither sense is obviously mistaken. Both apply to acts of self-regarding resistance, or cases where victims are motivated by something other than solidarity or a desire for social change. Someone who protests a sexist double standard in the workplace because they, personally, were denied a promotion is looking out for themselves. And strikingly, both senses apply to everyday cases of compliance with oppressive norms or complicity in oppressive relationships and institutions. Complicit victims are opting out of a larger fight against oppression, and at least in some respects, such victims are making their lives significantly better by not resisting. So when is it okay to look out for yourself? When might you even have an obligation to do so? Can that obligation ever be compatible with acts of complicity? Can we reconcile prioritizing the life you owe yourself with the decision to shut out the legitimate claims of your fellow victims? And for that matter, what does “looking out for yourself” even mean? For example, if a victim gains security and opportunity by passing, but at the price of severed family connections, have they succeeded in looking out for themselves? Or have they failed themselves?