Research Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times

Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times

This year’s Central APA featured an author-meets critics session on Alexis Shotwell’s new book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Below, I interview the four panel members about their experiences and their thoughts on the book’s content.


I understand you were part of the panel on Alexis Shotwell’s book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times.  How did it go?

Mark Lance: I thought it was wonderful. I’m particularly happy that issues around organizing, social transformation, etc. are being taken seriously in philosophy venues these days, rather than dismissed entirely or relegated to some “applied” backwater as they have been for most of my career. The audience was engaged and asking great questions, and I learned a great deal from the other papers.

Michael Doan: The conversation was extremely thoughtful and rewarding. It was the first time I’ve seen people in the audience at a philosophy conference chiming in just to thank panelists for focusing on certain questions—as though these were questions that weren’t meant to be asked or pondered at any length. It was moving! I think it speaks to the quality of Alexis’s latest book, to the ways philosophy continues to change, and to the palpable need for more work born of, and grappling with, the complexities of acting collectively from positions of complicity and compromise.

Kathryn Norlock: Yes, I agree with Mark and Michael that the panel discussion went so well partly because the audience was so superb. It was an intensely lovely session because discussants were seriously committed to working out, in light of Alexis Shotwell’s book and our responses, how to actually make change for the better happen in the world, how to avoid getting burned out and stay motivated when it feels like the opposite of progress is happening. Our listeners were not just there to hear a few words from us. They wanted to get to work on implementing some answers!

Alexis Shotwell: For me, having the chance to talk together about these questions was an amazing gift – even after writing a book about purity and what’s worrying about it, I could talk about it all day. Beyond the really dense and generative thinking Kate, Mark, and Mike brought to the room, it was also so amazing to hear from others in the room.

Why did you participate in this session?

ML: I admired this book before being asked. I taught Alexis’s previous book last year and am teaching this one this year. As someone who has lived in both the professional philosophy world and the activist-organizer world for a long time, I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to further grapple with some of the issues arising in the latter using the tools of the former.

MD: I’ve been an admirer of Alexis’s work since graduate school, where I first read her earlier book: Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender and Implicit Understanding. I still make use of her account of implicit understanding in my own research, while teaching it in my social epistemology and moral psychology courses. So, I was eager to dig into her latest manuscript. Then I discovered that she and I were both developing critiques of ethical individualism in the context of climate change, and also thinking about what might lie beyond. So, I realized getting together for this panel would be an important learning experience for me.

KN: I am always impressed by the thoughtful care of Alexis Shotwell’s scholarship, and I find it difficult to say no to any request of Ami Harbin (Oakland University), who organized this panel, so it was largely the motivation of deep admiration for excellent scholars. (I also love going to the Central APA, my favorite chapter and so often in my hometown of Chicago.) I greedily wanted to take the opportunity to read Against Purity as well, because I’m a newcomer to non-ideal theory, still working up my own scholarship in this area, and recently wrote an essay on maintaining politically engaged attitudes even when pessimism is correct.

AS: The North American Society for Social Philosophy is a wonderful part of the philosophical ecosystem on this continent, and I love their conferences and panels at APA meetings – so I was really honoured when Ami Harbin proposed this panel, and really excited to have the chance to talk with these panellists. Book panels sometimes threaten to be kind of weird, because the author sometimes finds the material of the book rather over-masticated and stale by the time it’s actually out and ready to be discussed in person – I knew that these folks would open up fresh ways to think together about things I care about, and they did!

What do you think is the most important, intriguing, or compelling aspect of the book?

ML: There are so many deeply inter-related points that it doesn’t really make sense to pull one out. For me personally, the way the book forces us to foreground our complicity in the systems of oppression we are working to overcome was key. Of course, put that generally, this is not a new point, but it really is deepened and made the focus in this book in a way that I’ve not seen before.

MD: Wow, this is a tough question—and a personal one. When you have a book that addresses everything from historical memory in colonial contexts; to the epistemic dimensions of AIDS activism, particularly the work of ACT UP; to the impossibility of exempting ourselves from relations of suffering and death by, say, going vegan and taking our houses off grid; to the relationship between speculative fiction and queer disability prefiguration… it’s not going to be easy—or worthwhile, even—to isolate the most compelling moment. That said, I do find it awfully compelling to find a philosopher whose work synthesizes so carefully, without forcing. It’s also intriguing to read a book that resists the urge to just “make a point,” or tie everything up neatly, and yet doesn’t disappoint. Just the opposite: thank goodness for loose ends.

KN: I loved the urgency of attention to collective and relational approaches to ethical questions. Alexis Shotwell surprised me with criticism of one sort of attitude of some vegans and vegetarians – not all, of course! But she describes the attitudes some take toward food choices as mistaken when those who pride themselves on their dietary habits fancy themselves as “opting out” of systems of agriculture, migrant labor, environmental degradation, illness and death – as if veganism were an action-guide in a world with right choices that lead to a pure self. Shotwell’s attention to the relational nature of oppressions and systems of production enables her to clarify that rightly intended actions are still enacted in thick contexts from which no opting out is possible. Shotwell keeps front and center a relational account of what it means to be a body (interdependently) and what it means to be a moral agent.

What do you think were the most contentious or challenging points?

ML: Maybe not directly answering what you are asking here, but the section I’m having the most trouble with – that is, am still figuring out what I think about – is the section on pollution and the ways that our alterations of the world change the status of our own bodies. There are lots of fairly straightforward points here concerning the impossibility of any dichotomy between environment and self, but I feel that there is more that I’m not quite getting, in particular that this has implications for the organizing strategy stuff I wrote about. The best books leave us thinking about their implications for a long time, and that’s what’s happening here.

MD: You know, purity is a pretty sensitive issue. One of the things I find most memorable and challenging about this book is the way it comes at the idea of purity from so many different angles, pressing on so many tender nerves. In one way or another, each of our lives are informed and deformed by the ideas and aspirations of material purity: purity of race, gender identity, and sexual desire; purity of the body from toxicity, disease, and disability. As Alexis points out, the material conditions characteristic of interlocking systems of oppression are partly a product of theoretical purity (in distinctions, categories, classification schemes, and so on), and can only be very awkwardly addressed by the sort of ideological purity often encountered in certain leftist scenes (“correct line” politics, sectarianism, etc.). Moral purity (cleanliness of hands, heart, and conscience) both conditions and emerges from out of this messy soup. What could it mean, then, to be against purity in any or all of its guises? Totally against? Uncompromisingly? Purely…?

KN: As the author and my fellow panelists know, I took the opportunity of the panel to work out what to think of Alexis’s idea of what she calls non-individualistic, non-voluntarist approaches to gender change. I am clearer on what she describes as a voluntarist approach, especially as voluntarism appears in some trans-exclusionary writing, when she says voluntarism refers to “a political position that places emphasis on individual choice and liberty, implicitly assuming that individuals are the locus of change” (145). Alexis calls “the supposition that we make change as individuals” a “danger of voluntarism for engaging with oppressive norms” (146). I appreciate that the whole excellent book tilts at overly individualized conceptions of practices that are better seen as relational, including gender practices, but I’m still trying to work out if she’s saying that we not only do gender relationally (I’m on board, I get that), we also ought to take up the attitudes and practices that contribute to collectively changing norms. I mean, all the time? Can I enact some gendered practices and presentations individualistically, and others collectively? Do I have to carry out gender with an eye to making the world a better place, or is it compatible with her view that some splendid forms of gender expression are not for the purposes of collective change and are just for me? I don’t know if collective change should be a disciplinary norm. I’m still working that out.

What sorts of discussions took place in the session?

ML: Hmmm. I’m not sure I want to try to summarize these. It was a very wide-ranging discussion.

MD: All sorts, really. The book, and our panel, sort of encouraged that. One discussion that stuck out to me concerned the anti-social nature of purism. A lot of us find it difficult to be around people who act as though they’re ethically or politically beyond reproach. First, there’s the hostility: from the faintest gestures of superiority, to the most strident of “interventions” and “call-outs.” We feel put on the spot. And then the hypocrisy inevitably shines through: beyond un-called-for, now their hostility seems un-earned. After all, purity is impossible—this is part of what Alexis is saying. Yet as someone else pointed out during our session, all of this anti-purist bashing can be pretty anti-social in its own way. Ironically, it can also be pretty purist. I mean, does everyone have to be perfectly civil with everyone else, come what may? How much injustice do we need to tolerate in defense of hurt feelings? And if incivility is sometimes called for, are only the perfect called to be uncivil?

KN: There was some especially intense and excellent discussion toward the end of the session on the motivation to keep pursuing collective action when it seems like there aren’t as many prospects for change and progress as one might need to believe in to keep going, sometimes. Burn-out on the part of moral agents is a real pre-occupation of mine, so this stood out to me. I did my usual bit where I suggested that moral progress isn’t really a thing, and one needs to keep contributing regardless, that moral life and social change is more like the laundry or the dishes; just because you have to do it all over again, doesn’t mean you should never do it! I loved Mark Norris Lance’s corrective response to my pessimism (which sometimes I do to excess). He reflected on his activism against South African apartheid in his youth, and then told us of a day, years after apartheid’s official end, when he flew to South Africa and a black woman was the officer in the Customs line; he said, “I know a country’s not perfect, and I know there’s more work to do — but I handed her my passport and thought, ‘This is better than apartheid!’” And I needed that reminder; that’s right, better is possible! It was such a great, anti-purity moment: Sure, we’re not going to make pure and lasting progress, but we can make situations better or worse.

What are some areas for further research on this topic?

ML: There are so many. Every chapter was more a signpost – pointing us in the direction of fruitful research than a finished account. For me personally, much of this is going to influence my work in the next year on my book – which I’m writing with a historian-organizer comrade – on revolutionary nonviolence. The goal of that book is to articulate concrete strategies and tactics for challenging core systems of oppression, for making nonviolent movements truly revolutionary. And in many ways, the impurities described by Alexis are the starting point for thinking about that.

MD: I’m curious to see if any defenses of purity will emerge in response to Alexis’s book—whether defenses of the idea(s) of purity, or of ethical and political purism as practical orientations, or both. Of course, apologies for purity and purism are already a philosophical sub-genre in their own right. There are also plenty of philosophers already grappling with the “over-demandingness” objection, among other offspring of ethical individualism. But I can’t think of anyone who’s taken seriously the thought that, “an ethical approach aiming for personal purity is inadequate,” not to mention “impossible and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth” (Shotwell 2016, 107). Part of the reason for this, I think, is that issues surrounding anti-authoritarian organizing, collective action, and efforts to prefigure other worlds are not often appreciated for how they bear on mainstream debates in ethics and social and political philosophy. But as mentioned earlier, that is changing.

KN: I’ve been thinking lately that there’s this group of feminist philosophers who write about non-ideal ethical theory. Alexis Shotwell doesn’t say her theorizing is “non-ideal” more than once or twice, but I’m drawn to the possibility that those of us who tend to concerns with moral failure, moral dilemma, imperfection, and pessimism should perhaps make it clear that — among other motivations to be pragmatic or stoic or anti-purity — our feminist reasons matter as justifications for those sorts of perspectives. There is something promising and peculiar about the attention of feminists to the endlessness and urgency of social change that can be undone, and must be redone, and redone again. We should be more attentive to this trend in the near future.

What are your top tips for authors and critics when they meet in sessions such as these?

ML: Organize them with people who get along, and are cooperative. That’s not to say with people who agree, but with people who are in a common project of figuring things out. If the panelists amongst themselves, or the panelists vis a vis the author, are just critics, it feels much more like a game. I thought this group felt like we were all inquiring together.

MD: Organize sessions around books you care about, and that care enough about you and the world to make working together irresistible.

KN: Ami Harbin did something wise, when she solicited participation in the panel. I saved her email so that I can grow up and be just like her, because she said that, “rather than be mere critics, [we] readers of Against Purity should provide a focus on [our] ways of using and developing its themes in [our] own research.” That was exactly the right thing to say in order to encourage a panel of collaborative inquiry rather than just criticism, although I engaged in some of that, too!

AS: Over the last six years, as both someone having a book commented on and commenting on other people’s books at APA and SPEP sessions, I’ve been so happy to see a form of engagement with books that really aims to let audience members “in” to a book, where people bring their curiosity and intellectual generosity to the table, and in which there’s still space for asking really hard questions. It’s like the opposite of a caricatured version of agonistic philosophy where everyone just trying to beat each other’s arguments to the ground. It’s exciting to think that this is becoming more of an available mode of engagement in these kinds of panels.

What are you working on at the moment?

ML: As I mentioned, this Revolutionary Nonviolence book is the biggest project for the next year. (I have research leave all next year – YAY!) Maggie Little and I are also picking back up some work in moral contextualism that we wrote a bunch of papers on a decade ago. We have this idea for an argument explaining why morality has to be structured according to defeasible rules. That is, why our form of life would be impoverished if either the moral rules were absolute or if there were none and morality structured around either pure particularism or utilitarianism. I’m also very involved in a number of activist projects including

MD: One of my research projects focuses on understanding and working to remedy collective inaction in response to climate change (“Climate Change and Complacency” was my first on this topic). Another focuses on the relationship between epistemic oppression, authoritarian state intervention laws (e.g., Michigan’s Emergency Manager laws), and community-based activism in response to ongoing ecological and social crises (“Epistemic Injustice and Epistemic Redlining” is among my latest). I’m currently co-authoring a paper on the health activism of the Black Panther Party and its relevance to ongoing conversations concerning responsibility for the provision of public health. I’m also working on a number of activist projects with Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM), the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement (DIFS), and the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.

KN: With Mark and Michael, I’m writing about this panel for an upcoming issue of the APA Newsletter on Feminism! And as grading winds down and the summer begins, I’m completing a chapter on forgiveness (for which Manuel Vargas and John Doris wait patiently) for the Oxford Handbook of Moral Psychology. Then I’ll turn my attention to developing the next iteration of the “Feminist Ethics” entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

AS: Over the time since the book’s come out, I’ve been working on a couple of areas that I feel I didn’t step up to enough in the book. The first is about how people who benefit from oppression can step up to fight it; I’ve been working on a paper called “Claiming Bad Kin,” which comes after or out of the chapter in Against Purity about the inheritances of colonialism in North America. This was sparked in part by racialized and Indigenous people on social media asking white people to “collect your people” when, for example, there’s a racist thread on someone’s facebook wall, and in part by the continued problem of white settlers claiming Indigenous identity for their own benefit. I’m trying to work through what it looks like for us white settlers to own up to our inheritances of enslavement, border militarism, and colonialism alongside the material and psychic enrichments we receive in the present at the expense of Black people, Indigenous people, migrant people, and people of color. In another piece, called “Unclean Eating,” I’m doing more to think about what’s wrong with imperatives to “eat clean,” why my fellow vegans really need to stop worrying about Indigenous sustenance hunting, and what anarchist conceptions of mutual aid might offer to ethical decisions about consumption. I’m also finishing up an oral history project about the history of AIDS activism that has been really generative for me.


Michael D. Doan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Michigan University. He is a community-based activist and a Board Member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. He is currently working on a series of papers on transformative social movements and epistemic oppression.

Mark Lance is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. He has also been an activist and organizer for 30 years on a wide range of issues. He is currently working on a book on Revolutionary Nonviolence.

Kathryn J. Norlock is Professor of Philosophy and the Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics at Trent University. She is currently working on the next iteration of the “Feminist Ethics” entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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.


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