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"What is Insurrectionist Ethics?" by Lee A. McBride III (Keywords: Pragmatism; Naturalism; Ethics)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("Philosophy: The New Basics").

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Lee A. McBride III is Professor of Philosophy at the College of Wooster. He specializes in American philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of race, but has additional interests in feminist philosophy, decolonial philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy, environmental ethics, and philosophy of food. His book, Ethics and Insurrection: A Pragmatism for the Oppressed, was published in 2021 by Bloomsbury.In this interview, McBride talks to alicehank winham (of opp, about his book and his philosophical work more generally.

To put this conversation in context, it is worth clarifying some of Professor McBride’s goals in writing Ethics and Insurrection:

1) Inspired by thinkers like Leonard Harris and the tradition of “insurrectionist ethics”, McBride uses his book to clarify commonly used terms such as “racism”, “decolonial”, and “oppression” to make available new vocabularies and possibilities for to (re)imagine and shape futures with less subjection and less degradation;

2) McBride considers his book to be an “attempt at articulating an ethical perspective that squares [his] commitments to pragmatic ethical naturalism, critical pragmatism, and insurrectionist ethics”, building a framework around these commitments;

3) McBride argues against those professional moral philosophers and others who preclude “negative” emotions, such as anger, as warranted responses to oppression. He considers oppressed groups’ need for an “insurrectionist ethos (or spirit)” as a legitimate approach to ethics rather than seeing “carefully articulated moral arguments” as the only legitimate means for social amelioration.


alicehank winham (ahw): Your philosophical work is strikingly written in digestible portions and clear language that addresses pointed issues. These pieces are approachable and effective. What is your approach to philosophical writing that you intend to share with others? What pedagogical aims do you have in mind and methods do you seek to use?

Lee A. McBride III (LAM): Thanks so much for complimenting the style of writing. I cannot say that I always consciously approach writing with particular patterns or styles in mind. In general, I struggle with being terse; I often worry about not writing enough words. I almost always have to expand or unpack my thoughts. But I also get frustrated with writers who spin out pages and pages but do not express anything of substance. So, I am elated to hear that you find the style of my writing digestible and clear, approachable and effective!

But, to your question, I will mention two things. First, I am a teacher. In the classroom, I like to be clear about terms and definitions. I typically build concept upon concept toward a complex idea or a tangible conflict. My writing does, at times, mirror a set of lecture notes. Second, having a book contract in hand and an extremely supportive editor (Liza Thompson at Bloomsbury) freed me from some academic protocols and emboldened me to write with a bit of flair.

ahw: Who is your intended audience for Ethics and Insurrection?

LAM: I wrote the book to give voice to a perspective that does not often gain headway in professional philosophy. I was writing to the oppressed – to those who are placed within boundaries, who are restricted, moulded, and made to be subordinate to a dominant group. This, of course, can manifest in various ways. In my immediate context, I think of black Afro-descended peoples, indigenous North American peoples, women, LGBTQ+ peoples, and those deemed menial castes. But I hope that my work speaks to groups beyond this list, especially those who do not fit neatly into the categories of the dominant discourse. From this perspective, I wanted to offer pragmatists a critical way to rethink their tradition. I also wanted to outline a philosophy born of struggle, a philosophy that begins with the struggles of oppressed and immiserated corporeal beings.

ahw: Does your book reach beyond or outside philosophy in the presuppositions you make to help question and shape philosophy, and what role should philosophy play in ethics?

LAM: Following Leonard Harris, I argue that values arise from a provincial place or perspective. I aspire to do philosophy in the world, recognizing human finitude, conceptual and perceptual limitations, and bias. I advocate a critical pragmatic naturalism as a challenge to those positions that advocate resignation to supernatural agencies, be it fate, a teleological cosmic Nous, or a monotheistic Redeemer. I suggest that we (as human communities, traditions, or societies) must create and recreate our values and norms. Transvaluation – the reassessing of our postulates, our intervening background assumptions, our closely held values – will need to happen intermittently. But we mustn’t lose sight of the idea that it is “we” that codify and maintain these presuppositions, values, and norms.

I aspire to do philosophy in the world, recognizing human finitude, conceptual and perceptual limitations, and bias.

Now, I do see a use to giving arguments, exchanging reasons, and attempting to justify a proposition, practice, or principle. But, as a pluralist, as someone who does not assume an Absolute or some antecedent immutable truth, I do not assume that my view or the view of my favoured tradition will map onto Reality. Rather, I am suggesting that we will have to build moral traditions among coalitions and communities of trust, reflecting our values, norms, and ideals. I hope that the folks we associate with (in civil fashion) can come to agreement on some basic values and norms. To this end, I would use formal deductive logic, evidential inferences, clever allegory, and/or storytelling to try to convince people, for example, that neither perceived sex nor racial phenotype should preclude human beings from basic dignities, reciprocity, or access to the resources that make corporeal health possible.

ahw: You explore and engage with various global traditions including some Abhidharma work in Buddhist philosophy, and you also reference influences of Deweyan pragmatic naturalism, Lockean critical pragmatism, and Harrisian philosophy born of struggle. Your book includes certain terms and frameworks or arguments that seem strongly reminiscent of other traditions. Could you share more about how various global philosophies consciously shaped some of your approaches expressed in this text and beyond?

LAM: You are right that I draw from several traditions. First, I have a substantial background in ancient Greek philosophy, and spent an inordinate amount of time wrestling with ancient Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle. I spent a couple of years at Claremont Graduate University (working with Charles M. Young), translating the Greek text and teasing out the arguments as we went. I transferred to a Ph.D. program at Purdue University thinking that I would write my dissertation on Plato. But that was not to be.

Second, I am trained in the American pragmatist tradition. I am quite comfortable with the works of William James, John Dewey, Jane Addams, and Alain Locke (especially Dewey). I wrote my dissertation under pragmatist feminist Charlene Haddock Seigfried. Seigfried introduced me to radical empiricism and helped me to see the ways in which pragmatic philosophical approaches could be wielded to counter sex- and race-based oppression. (Note, Erin McKenna and I co-edited Pragmatist Feminism and the Work of Charlene Haddock Seigfried which was published in 2022.)

Third, I have a subterranean interest in South Asian philosophy, especially the early Buddhist discourses and the work of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. In 2008, The College of Wooster sent me and a group of my colleagues to India as a faculty development opportunity. We travelled through Delhi, Haridwar, Devprayag, Agra, and Chennai. Long story short, I now teach a course that covers some Vedic scriptures, Upanishads, early Buddhist discourses, Nyaya sutras, Advaita Vedanta texts, and finishes with P.T. Raju, M. Gandhi, and B.R. Ambedkar. As you note, I am intrigued by the debates surrounding the Sautrāntika school of Buddhism, especially the rejection of caste hierarchy, questions about (inferable) realities external to minds, and the tendency toward efficacious human efforts to end misery/dukkha. Moreover, there are scholars, like David J. Kalupahana and John J. Holder, who have detailed the resonances between these early Buddhist and pragmatist philosophical perspectives.

Fourth, I have a deep appreciation for Leonard Harris, Sylvia Wynter, and Kwasi Wiredu. Each has been vital in helping me to understand the complexity of black Afro-descended (or Africana) philosophy. Harris, obviously, has been most influential.

Fifth, I have definitely been influenced by women of colour and transnational feminisms. Maria Lugones, Sylvia Wynter, Vandana Shiva, Chandra Mohanty, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and Kristie Dotson figure prominently in my thinking about coalition building and decolonial philosophy.

ahw: You speak about your difficulties with coming to terms with Leonard Harris’ philosophy born of struggle (or philosophia nata ex conatu). I opened your book assuming you might have initially aligned with the Harrisian approach broadly, if not in particular details. Could you share more about your difficulties with the Harrisian approach and how your commitments and motivations came to change over time with his insights?

LAM: Leonard Harris was one of my teachers in my doctoral program at Purdue University. I learned a lot from him. But, at the time, I thought the revolutionary/insurrectionist line of thought was “crazy”. I was, at the time, trying to convince people, through philosophical argument, that we in the United States required a new conception of liberalism, a new way of conceiving individualism. I wanted people to realize that we need positive liberties; that is, the nation should provide better, more robust institutions – economic and educational – to give individuals the opportunity to develop into reflective autonomous beings, those types of beings that could participate in a democracy that resembles Dewey’s democracy as a way of life. This, I thought, would issue us toward a form of socialist liberalism. I could only think of revolution and insurrection as violent, and violent revolution was outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour. I was raised to think that rational, civil discourse within democratic parameters was the only legitimate way to address oppression and unnecessary injustices. I was trapped within a customary order of things, ensnared in intervening background assumptions. I could not see the nuance, the creativity, the complexity of Harris’ position.

I could only think of revolution and insurrection as violent, and violent revolution was outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour.

Much later in 2010 while on my first pre-tenure research leave, I was afforded the time and space to read and think. I spent a semester in Eugene, Oregon reading and thinking about Harris’ insurrectionist ethics. At first, I was looking to discern and explain where my views differed from Harris’. But the more I read and the more I wrote, the more I saw that Harris’ position was not “crazy”. In short, his philosophy opened new vistas for me. In 2013, I curated and edited a special Symposium on Insurrectionist Ethics, which included papers from John Kaag, Jacoby Adeshei Carter, Kristie Dotson, and Leonard Harris. Since then, I have worked closely with Harris; I send him my papers and pester him for advice, and I edited A Philosophy of Struggle: The Leonard Harris Reader, which was published in 2020. The time I spent working with Harris to edit that book was the most fruitful time I have ever spent doing philosophy.

ahw: I found the following line in your book intriguing: “Note, there is an underlying assumption that democratic methods (so conceived) have worked historically and provide our only viable way forward”. What democratic methods and forms, as well as alternative structure(s), appeal to you for alleviating oppression?

LAM: I am still partial to democracy ideals. If our choices are rule by one, rule by the few, rule by the many, or freewheeling anarchy, I would opt for rule by the many (or democracy). This reveals a faith in human beings to think for themselves and shape their own lives to an extent, assuming each gets robust educational and economic opportunities. Now, one of the big issues is that many see extant democratic states as inherently neoliberal, acquisitive, pecuniary, and racist. To be clear, I am not defending the white supremacy, the capitalist impulses, the acquisitiveness of the democracy in the United States. I would urge us to seek alternatives when articulating the democratic nations of the future. I would urge us to find ways to build structures that are far more socially-oriented, structures that provide positive liberties to all human beings. But, of course, it is hard to think of democratic methods as liberating as long as the instantiation of democracy is built upon white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, the exploitation of labour, and the callous acceptance of gross economic disparity.

ahw: Insurrectionist ethics seeks to “ameliorate” social suffering. This is a fairly broad term that could cover other narrower and not necessarily always coinciding avenues such as “reconciliation”, “resolution”, “recompense” or “reparations”. How and why did you come to choose the term “amelioration”?

LAM: I like the term “amelioration”. It gives us a position between optimism and pessimism. “Optimism” is the view that things will be resolved in the end. “Pessimism” is the view that things will not be resolved; things will end badly. “Meliorism” is the view that things could potentially get better with strenuous human effort, but there are no guarantees. Thus, we may work to ameliorate this or that social context. I do not assume that our efforts will resolve all suffering or ultimately resolve the issue, but we should try to make things better, if we can.

ahw: Please can you say something about the kinds of qualities or character traits that you associate with insurrectionist ethics? How does your (insurrectionist) rendering of compassion and empathy compare to the ways in which these character traits are interpreted in other traditions (e.g. Buddhism)?

LAM: This is one aspect that drew me to Leonard Harris’ insurrectionist ethics. His position proffers character traits like tenacity, pugnacity, indignation, and guile as virtuous. These are the types of character traits required for oppressed people to break with conventional norms, to challenge authority under duress, or to demand the liberation of a subjected group from institutionalized immiseration and corporeal degradation. First, these insurrectionist character traits seem to run contrary to what we, in the Western canon, typically call the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and courage) and the theological virtues (faith, hope, and caritas). I am not trying to discredit one’s ability to evince prudence, temperance, compassion, and love of humankind; rather, I am trying to make sure that oppressed people can still utilize the insurrectionist character traits to struggle against the boundaries and barriers that confine them and limit their opportunities. To preclude the insurrectionist character traits from the oppressed groups locks them into their subordinate position, as docile weight-bearing “camel spirits”.

To preclude the insurrectionist character traits from the oppressed groups locks them into their subordinate position.

I wrote a piece on anger for The Moral Psychology of Anger (edited by Myisha Cherry and Owen Flanagan). In this essay, I am reacting to Martha Nussbaum’s neo-Stoic position that renders anger a counterproductive vestige of bygone days. And, in the early stages of this project, Owen Flanagan shared his critique of Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic (WEIRD) Anger with me. Flanagan’s view draws from Buddhist works like Śāntideva’s The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Nussbaum and Flanagan seem to agree that anger is only destructive. (I would suggest reading Emily McRae’s “Anger and the Oppressed: Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Perspectives” (in The Moral Psychology of Anger), which further complicates the Buddhist views of anger in light of oppressed groups.) But I did not really wrestle with the Buddhist tradition on anger. Instead, I turned to Aristotle, Maria Lugones, and Leonard Harris; I focused on oppressed populations and their need to experience, mark, and respond to oppressive situations and conditions with anger. Anger, as I depict it, is an insurrectionist character trait that should be deployed in relation to the right person(s), in the right amount, at the right time, with the right aim in view, and in the right way.

You can watch a recording of a conversation between Lee A. McBride III and Andrea Pitts here and you can find out a lot more about insurrectionist ethics in a fantastic free online course put together by alicehank and the folk at opp:


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("Philosophy: The New Basics").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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