Beginning the Muddle: A PhD project outline in Political Philosophy


“So this sounds as if it’s a muddle and in some ways it is a muddle because it’s at its beginning” – Lorraine Code.

This first post marks a tentative foray into blogging my PhD in Political Philosophy. It is three months in, the second time around. My aim in sharing my work-in-progress here, in public, is to invite constructive conversation of the sort less available to those of us whose working practices result in fewer opportunities than usual to converse with colleagues in departmental settings. My hope is that you’ll be patient with me as I feel my way through the project and the material it engages. My concerns are many, but the most forceful worries about doing injustice to the rich and complex literature in feminism, critical philosophy of race and other scholarly sites of focus on oppression. A further hope is that by engaging these questions I can contribute something in multiple directions, extending and developing existing work in those areas for use in the service of theorising oppression, while simultaneously adding further stimulus to dialogue between that conversation and those had by those with more “mainstream” concerns. For now, thanks for joining me in navigating the muddle of the beginning. If I fuck anything up, I’d consider it a favour if you let me know.

Working Title: Motivating Privilege to Undo Privilege: A Climate-Sensitive Analysis

PhD Project Outline – December 2012

Motivating privileged agents to meet the demands of climate justice has been described, plausibly, as the most pressing moral problem of climate politics (McKinnon 2012). If it is plausible to claim that climate politics itself ranks amongst the most pressing domains of philosophical concern of the current generation, given the time-critical “shrinking window of opportunity” to prevent potentially catastrophic global harms that will disproportionately affect precisely those who bear least of the responsibility for creating dangerous anthropogenic climate change and who are least well-placed to adapt to or mitigate for those harms (McKinnon 2012), then it seems plausible that constructing a robust understanding of the philosophical character of this “motivation problem” for climate justice sits among our most urgent moral and political concerns.

For all that this is true, I want to argue that the issue of motivating privileged agents to meet the demands of climate justice is the most pressing moral concern except for all of the others. The problem of how to motivate privileged agents to meet the demands of justice — especially when those demands require the deconstruction or dismantling of precisely those conditions that confer privilege, and where privilege is itself historically or currently based on systems of exploitation — is, I believe, not unique to the climate case. If one steps outside of the standard concerns of Western mainstream analytic political philosophy, one discovers that for decades philosophers working on problems of class, gender and race have been engaging a similar question within a theoretical architecture that foregrounds exploitative inter-group moral, political and epistemological relations. The literature found here on “epistemologies of ignorance” will, I argue, prove especially salient to the motivation problem, since it offers the beginnings of an account of how privileged groups construct ways of thinking and talking about political reality that obfuscate and otherwise erase both the realities of privilege and the systems of exploitation through which privilege is constructed (see Sullivan & Tuana 2007, Proctor & Shiebinger 2008). This resonates strongly with Stephen Gardiner’s recent analysis of the “problem of moral corruption” in climate justice, in which privileged agents engage in evasive, self-deceiving ways of thinking and talking that serve to cognitively shield them from the stringency of moral demands arising in response to climate justice (2011). If we can establish that privileged agents are engaged in proactive cognitive strategies that undermine their ability to even perceive, let alone grasp, normatively-significant and, crucially, socially and politically constructed states of affairs in relation to which they bear duties or responsibilities, this may provide traction in at least furthering our understanding of the motivation problem for climate justice at least, and perhaps racialized, gendered and other forms of (in)justice too, if not pointing us towards how we might frame philosophical suggestions for how to solve them.

While I am unclear at this stage whether it can be argued that the forms of privilege and exploitation represented by the climate case can be easily mapped onto a social ontology of oppressive inter-group relations and so constitutes a form of structural injustice, I nonetheless believe that any robust account of climate justice that can cope with the problem of motivating privileged agents in situations of exploitation needs to be framed so as to be able to handle existing structural injustices, while addressing concerns about the tendency of mainstream political philosophy to fail to engage with precisely those forms of structural injustice with exclusionary or idealizing outcomes for the substance of normative theories so framed.

This concern notwithstanding, I seek to argue for three main claims. First, I argue that by drawing on the specific model of epistemology of ignorance offered by Charles Mills (1997, 2005, 2007, 2013) we can offer a formalized account of a general phenomenon of privileged group ignorance. Such an account would be framed so as to be sufficiently sensitive to particularity to accommodate existing accounts of racialized or gendered ignorances while offering a general model that can be extended to other locations recognized as sites of interplay between privilege and exploitation or oppression, including sexual orientation, gender presentation, disability and, most controversially, social and temporal location with respect to climate justice. The first task here will be to clarify the conceptual terrain identified by the literature on epistemologies of ignorance, including analysis of its purported building blocks of social epistemology on the one hand, and ideology on the other. One concern that must be addressed is whether epistemologies of ignorance are really just old ideology-flavoured wine in new terminological bottles, though our answer to this question may be less important than excavating precisely what work either concept can do in furthering our understanding of motivational impediments of privileged agents.

Second, I will utilize this model to construct an account of a more general privileged group motivation problem. I am least clear on the particulars of this claim, but it flows from the attempt to understand the specific motivation problem for climate justice as a token of a broader type of problem, and one on which philosophical resources already exist at least with respect to race and gender, though my sense is that it or something like it could be argued to appear even in mainstream philosophical literature on (distributive) justice and that it may sit beneath something like Rawls’s original position and veil of ignorance. At the very least, I want to interrogate the extent to which mainstream moral psychological commitments address the issue of motivating privileged agents, and seek to draw on critical approaches to moral psychology offered by feminists and critical philosophers of race that, to my mind, seem much better placed to gain leverage on the specificities of motivating privileged agents. Although my tentative understanding of this literature is that it focuses more on understanding moral motivation of the oppressed under conditions of oppression, and focuses more on understanding responsibility for oppression on the part of oppressors (i.e. privileged agents) (SEP, ‘Feminist Moral Psychology’), I nonetheless anticipate finding more resources here to address the question of motivating privileged agents than elsewhere. One notable example would be the work of Barbara Applebaum on motivating white understanding of racism and complicity with racism under conditions of white supremacy and white ignorance (see e.g. Applebaum 2011). One strategy that might be available after this work is done is to offer a comparative analysis on the moral psychologies offered by the standard Rawlsian model compared with Charles Mills’s descriptive/normative radical social contract, “the domination contract”, including the intersectional extension he supplies when considering the question of how to incorporate the multiplicative oppressions of race and gender as experienced by black women (Pateman & Mills 2007), since this is purpose-built to accommodate the presence of male and white privileged group ignorance in the polity. By locating the specific moral psychological demands of the privileged group motivation problem, and with an understanding of the nature and implications of privileged group ignorance, we are better placed to make assessments of attempts to solve the motivation problem for climate justice using standard or non-standard philosophical resources.

Third, I will draw on the foregoing to reject the current formulation of the claim that Western mainstream analytic philosophy is blighted by a theoretical inadequacy when confronted with certain features of the climate case (see e.g. Gardiner 2011, Jamieson 1992, Woods 2012), since “with some imagination and a little digging” (McKinnon, in conversation) it would appear that other philosophical resources do exist to give us some leverage on thinking through the problem. Instead, I argue, our theoretical inadequacy comes from how we theorize about global normative problems like climate justice (extending and drawing upon claims made by e.g. Mills 1997, Code 2006, Flikschuh 2012).

Full bibliography to follow.

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