Normative Isolation: The Dynamics of Power and Authority in Gaslighting
Philosophers have turned their attention to gaslighting only recently, and have made considerable progress in analyzing its characteristic aims and harms. I am less convinced, however, that we have fully understood its nature. I will argue in this paper that philosophers and others interested in the phenomenon have largely overlooked a phenomenon I call moral gaslighting, in which someone is made to feel morally defective—for example, cruelly unforgiving or overly suspicious—for harboring some mental state to which she is entitled. If I am right about this possibility, and that it deserves to be called gaslighting, then gaslighting is a far more prevalent and everyday phenomenon than has previously been credited. And it can also be a purely structural phenomenon, as well as an interpersonal one, which remains a controversial possibility in the current literature.
Gaslighting is a form of domination, which builds upon multiple and mutually reinforcing strategies that induce rational acquiescence. Such abusive strategies progressively insulate the victims and inflicts a loss in self-respect, with powerful alienating effects. In arguing for these claims, I reject the views that gaslighting is an epistemic or structural wrong, or a moral wrong of instrumentalization. In contrast, I refocus on personal addresses that use, affect, and distort the very practice of rational justification. Further, I argue that the social dimension of gaslighting cannot be fully explained by reference to bare social structures because this compound wrong succeeds via emotional person-to-person addresses. Rational justification becomes, then, the locus where the struggle for power takes place. This struggle invests in and is operated by not only victims and wrongdoers, but also third parties. They are crucial elements in wrongdoing as well as in victims’ rehabilitation and re-empowerment. Ultimately, this study shows that the deontic structure of wrong is multifocal, and its relationality points to modes of epistemic and moral rehabilitation that are also modes of social empowerment.
Kate Manne is an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University, where she’s been teaching since 2013. Before that, she was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Manne did her graduate work in philosophy at MIT. Manne’s research is in moral philosophy, feminist philosophy, and social philosophy. She has written two books—Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press, 2018) and Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women (Crown, 2020)—and is currently working on a third, tentatively entitled Unshrinking: How to Fight Fatphobia (Crown, 2024). As well as academic articles, she regularly writes opinion pieces, essays, and reviews on moral and political topics for a wider audience, which have been published in venues including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, The Nation, The Atlantic, and Politico.
Carla Bagnoli is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia since 2010. Before then, she was tenured Full Professor at the University of Wisconsin, where she had taught since 1998. She held visiting positions at All Souls College Oxford, Harvard University, the University of Amsterdam, the University of Oslo, the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and the Center for Advanced Studies at LMU in Munich. Her work focuses on practical reason, moral epistemology, and the philosophy of agency, and appeared in journals such as the Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility, Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, European Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Explorations, Synthesis, Ethical Theory and Moral Practices, and Canadian Journal of Philosophy. She published four monographs in Italian, and Ethical Constructivism (Cambridge University Press 2021). She is the editor of Morality and the Emotions (Oxford University Press 2011), Constructivism in Ethics (Cambridge University Press 2013), and Time in Action (Routledge 2022). She is co-editing Reason, Agency, and Ethics and Murdoch’s ‘The Sovereignty of Good’ at 55 (both under contract with Cambridge University Press), and her current book project concerns modes of claiming, disclaiming, and reclaiming responsibility.