[Update in progress]
Forthcoming. “Passing as Privileged.” Ergo
This paper rejects sweeping verdicts about passing as privileged, or attempts by members of oppressed, stigmatized, or discriminated-against groups to improve their lives by being misidentified as members of an advantaged group. Not only do many familiar arguments rely on problematic assumptions about authenticity and resistance, but they strain to accommodate the diverse identities, circumstances, and individual differences that ought to be affecting our verdicts. In this paper I examine the other-regarding and self-regarding considerations that might bear on the decision to pass. The potential other-regarding considerations are that passing involves deception, that passing reinforces stereotypes, and that passing agents opt out of the struggle to end oppression. The potential self-regarding considerations are that passing is a form of resistance, that passing is too costly for victims, and then my own position: that passing is a permissible form of self-regarding complicity. I close by hinting at the ethics of looking out for yourself, or the sort of action-guiding framework I think we need to develop in order to fully appreciate and assess strategies like passing.
“Should We Understand Mental Illness as an Invisible Disability?”
While mental illnesses resemble invisible disabilities – or those disabilities that aren’t immediately apparent to others – this paper argues against the increasing trend of understanding mental illness as an invisible disability for the purposes of ethical action-guidance. The framework of invisible disabilities emerged to capture a characteristic struggle for recognition on the part of those whose claims on disability accommodation were greeted with suspicion and disbelief, but many people with mental illness struggle to avoid being recognized as such, and strive instead to be seen as ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’. That makes the framework of passing and covering a better explanatory fit. This second framework focuses on the possession of stigmatized identities, and on the struggle of marginalized individuals to either conceal their identity or to mitigate its impact after a disclosure has taken place. These are distinct ethical dilemmas, and action-guidance needs to track the diverging experiences and circumstances underlying them.
“Identity Passing.” For Philosophy Compass
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.
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 plans and projects of importance to her? I argue that resisting intentionally can be sufficient: given the ways that oppression interferes with the lives of victims, trying to counteract that interference by living the life you want is genuine resistance. Requiring that victims have justice-oriented or agency-preserving reasons before their actions count as resistance will distort or miss a wide range of everyday responses to oppressive burdens.
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.
“Costly Bodies in an Ill-fitting World.”
“‘Fag’ and the Ethics of Repurposed Slurs,” with Ralph DiFranco
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?