January 17, 2019

Against purity and for a politics of responsibility

Sponsored by the CRC in Race, Inequalities, and Global Change

Seminar with Dr. Alexis Shotwell, Carleton University
Thursday, January 17th | 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. | PCOH 2012

Often there is an implicit or explicit idea that in order to live authentically or ethically we ought to avoid potentially reprehensible results in our actions. Since it is not possible to avoid complicity, we do better to start from an assumption that everyone is implicated in situations we (at least in some way) repudiate. This presentation investigates that category of complex or big problems toward which we bear impossible responsibilities. Although these responsibilities arise from our particular and situated context — our individual lives — they are not resolvable individually. But most ethical systems on offer posit and return to an individual knower, willer, and actor, enjoining them to aim for personal ethical purity. An ethical approach aiming for personal purity is inadequate in the face of the complex and entangled situation in which we in fact live. Individualism, in the context of relations perceptible through considering embodiment, is an ethical problem because it constitutes ethical success as personal purity. Such personal purity is simultaneously inadequate, impossible, and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth. While personal purity may be a winnable aim in some ethical situations, is impossible in situations such as energy use and eating. We do better to aim for different sorts of ethical practice more consonant with the entangled and complex situations we meet. I explore the idea of a “politics of responsibility” as one way to practice this sort of ethics.

Alexis Shotwell is an associate professor at Carleton University, on unceded Algonquin territory. She is the co-investigator for the AIDS Activist History Project, and author of Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding and Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Her website is alexisshotwell.com