Native North American Ethics

by Sonja Dobroski and Quentin Pharr


Native North American Philosophy has so much to offer us, both as philosophers and human beings. And yet, within both academic philosophy and society at large, it has often been caricatured, forced into ways of thinking which do not do it justice, dismissed, or simply ignored. And, sadly, even worse can be said of how Native North Americans and their lands have been treated, both historically and presently. But, if there is one thing that even a minimal acquaintance with Native North Americans and their philosophies has to offer, it is a picture of resilience, wisdom, and hope, despite some of the gravest challenges that any set of cultures has ever faced. In general, Native North American communities are diverse and so are their intellectual and philosophical traditions. But, if this introductory set of readings does anything right, it will be in showing that their tradition-based ethical thought appears to be at the heart of their lives and, ultimately, that there is a great deal to learn from them when it comes to such things as: how to care for one’s self, how to care for one’s community, how to care for future generations, how to care for one’s sovereignty, how to care for one’s land, how to care for non-human life, and more. Content wise, due to the multitude of philosophically rich texts by indigenous authors, we have only focused on Native North America. But, we acknowledge that Native Meso and Latin-American thinkers and their philosophies should also have their own reading lists in this series. We have also tried our best to find readings from communities across North America and not just from any one particular locale. Even still, we have left a number of gaps – but, hopefully, future work will fill them in.

How to use this blueprint?

This blueprint is somewhat unusual, in that your weekly schedule should follow the topics rather than the readings. There are only seven weekly topics, but each of them is rich in content. So, readers should feel free to either select several readings to focus on collectively for each week or to take on different readings individually so that they can share with each other in weekly discussion. And, of course, they should also feel free to read everything collectively each week if they have the time and the energy.



    Week 1. Introducing Native North American Philosophy

    Each of the texts in this selection offer conceptions of Native American philosophy and how it compares with that of Western academic philosophy: how they receive each other, what historical circumstances underlie the relations between them, how they are distinct from one another, how they are similar to each other, and so on. They also introduce some of the overarching themes that the other sections of this blueprint will cover in more depth, including: historical background, issues of colonialism, the difficulty and importance of finding and including new or different ways of thinking, the importance of respect and responsibility to others (as well as oneself), and so on. Acquaintaince with these readings will constitute sufficient background for subsequent readings.

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    Heinzelmann, Nora. Compensation and moral luck
    2021, The Monist 104 (2):251-264.
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    In some vicarious cases of compensation, an agent seems obligated to compensate for a harm they did not inflict. This raises the problem that obligations for compensation may arise out of circumstantial luck. That is, an agent may owe compensation for a harm that was outside their control. Addressing this issue, I identify five conditions for compensation from the literature: causal engagement, proxy, ill-gotten gains, constitution, and affiliation. I argue that only two of them specify genuine and irreducible grounds for compensation, and that factors determining the agent’s obligations may be beyond their control. However, I suggest that this is unproblematic. There is thus no problem of circumstantial moral luck for compensation.

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    Dhanda, Meena. Philosophical Foundations of Anti-Casteism
    2020, Dhanda, Meena (2020)'. 'Philosophical Foundations of Anti-Casteism. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. 120 (1):71-96..
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    The paper begins from a working definition of caste as a contentious form of social belonging and a consideration of casteism as a form of inferiorization. It takes anti-casteism as an ideological critique aimed at unmasking the unethical operations of caste, drawing upon B. R. Ambedkar’s notion of caste as ‘graded inequality’. The politico-legal context of the unfinished trajectory of instituting protection against caste discrimination in Britain provides the backdrop for thinking through the philosophical foundations of anti-casteism. The peculiar religio-discursive aspect of ‘emergent vulnerability’ is noted, which explains the recent introduction of the trope of ‘institutional casteism’ used as a shield by deniers of caste against accusations of casteism. The language of protest historically introduced by anti-racists is thus usurped and inverted in a simulated language of anti-colonialism. It is suggested that the stymieing of the UK legislation on caste is an effect of collective hypocrisies, the refusal to acknowledge caste privilege, and the continuity of an agonistic intellectual inheritance, exemplified in the deep differences between Ambedkar and Gandhi in the Indian nationalist discourse on caste. The paper argues that for a modern anti-casteism to develop, at stake is the possibility of an ethical social solidarity. Following Ambedkar, this expansive solidarity can only be found through our willingness to subject received opinions and traditions to critical scrutiny. Since opposed groups ‘make sense’ of their worlds in ways that might generate collective hypocrisies of denial of caste effects, anti-casteism must be geared to expose the lie that caste as the system of graded inequality is benign and seamlessly self-perpetuating, when it is everywhere enforced through penalties for transgression of local caste norms with the complicity of the privileged castes. The ideal for modern anti-casteism is Maitri formed through praxis, eschewing birth-ascribed caste status and loyalties.

    Study Questions

    1. What sorts of conceptions of love, sexuality, sex, and gender do you (the readers) have?
    2. What sorts of conceptions of the same do Native North Americans have?
    3. How do these conceptions compare and contrast?
    4. In what sorts of ways has colonialism affected Native North Americans’ relationships with other members of their communities and themselves?
    5. What sorts of worries have Native North Americans raised about the differences in various conceptions of love, sexuality, sex, and gender?
    Week 2. Becoming Human: Community, Family, and Individuality

    How individuals become a part of their communities, as well as become self-sufficient and autnomous humans, is a frequent and indispensable topic in Native North American philosophy. Two components typically comprise it: a metaphysical one (that is, an interpretation of how reality is or works), and an ethical one. But, although we can think of these components seperately, they are usually treated as indistinct or, at the very least, as intmately linked with one another within Native American philosophy. And so, this section’s readings will not only introduce readers to how metaphysics and ethics are often one in Native North American thinking, but will also be essential for readers in acquainting them with how different indigenous communities think about the metaphysics of the human and non-human world, the metaphysical relationship that individuals bear to their communities, kin, and environment, how those relationships embed various responsibilities for all parties involved, and how personhood can be cultivated ethically in light of those things.

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    Khader, Serene J.. Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic
    2018, OUP USA.
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    Publisher’s Note:

    Ecolonizing Universalism develops a genuinely anti-imperialist feminism. Against relativism/universalism debates that ask feminists to either reject normativity or reduce feminism to a Western conceit, Khader's nonideal universalism rediscovers the normative core of feminism in opposition to sexist oppression and reimagines the role of moral ideals in transnational feminist praxis.