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12.04 Complicity as Motivated Ignorance: Shared Responsibility in Cases of Oppression

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Aim of the project

The aim of the project is to develop an empirically informed philosophical understanding of complicity in one’s own oppression and in the oppression of others, by bringing together social psychological research with philosophical analyses. This project contributes directly to the aims of Scoop by exploring how negative stereotyping in cases of complicity can undermine sustainable cooperation, and proposing a new model of responsibility which goes beyond individual and collective responsibility to capture the kind of shared responsibility at stake in cases of complicity (challenge 12).

We begin by explaining the concept of complicity as it relates to the aims of Scoop, before elaborating the state of the art and giving an overview of the proposed project.

Threats to Sustainable Cooperation

The concept of complicity is one that is underdiscussed in the philosophical literature, and yet it is key to understanding issues of (shared) responsibility, blame, injustice and oppression. Very few philosophers have engaged in a sustained analysis of complicity, and where complicity has been analysed in a sustained way (Lepora and Goodin (2013); Kutz (2000)), it has predominantly been understood in legalistic terms. In this context, complicity refers to an agent’s role in another’s wrongdoing. Its sister concepts are conspiracy and collusion, and complicity is presented as something intentional. However, recent analyses have highlighted that this legalistic understanding of complicity fails to capture many cases of structural and interpersonal complicity, and its role in explaining more everyday cases of injustice and oppression (Aaragon and Jaggar (2018); Knowles (2019; 2021a; 2021b)). In addition to being complicit in a crime, agents can be complicit in unjust social practices and institutions, and in upholding oppressive social norms, narratives and structures.

Complicity represents a threat to sustainable cooperation because it constitutes a key way in which oppression, discrimination and injustice continue to function. For example, (implicitly) invoking racist or sexist stereotypes; failing to call out racism and misogyny; and upholding oppressive social norms and narratives, can all be understood as cases of personal or structural complicity. Through their behaviour, their attitudes or their way of life, an agent helps to reinforce, uphold or perpetuate their own oppression, or the oppression of another (group), and thus is complicit in this oppression. This undermines valuable and sustainable forms of cooperation by perpetuating discrimination, division, injustice and oppression. However, the question of how to allocate responsibility in cases of structural and personal complicity is complex and difficult to unravel. 

Unlike the legalistic analysis of complicity, an agent’s complicity in structural or ‘personal’ oppression and injustice often appears to be unintentional, or at least in some way ‘unknowing’. Although not described as complicity in one’s own oppression, we see this in the psychological literature in examples of meta-stereotyping where the awareness of a (negative) stereotype about the group to which one belongs decreases an agent’s well-being (Gordijn 2010), or self-stereotyping where an agent incorporates an existing (negative) stereotype about the group to which they belong into their own self-conception. Moreover, if the problematic nature of an agent’s behaviour or attitudes is pointed out to them, they may still resist accepting their complicity. As Simone de Beauvoir points out in The Second Sex, women often benefit from upholding or participating in their own oppression, materially, economically and even existentially (1949/2011). Complicit agents may therefore be unwilling to recognise and give up the attitudes, behaviours or practices that contribute to their own or another’s oppression, as this would involve upending their current world view and their familiar way of life. This analysis goes beyond the legalistic account of complicity. One reason for this is that rather than seeing complicity as straightforwardly intentional, in an important set of cases of structural and interpersonal oppression, complicity appears to be better explained as a kind of motivated ignorance. This allows oppressive norms, stereotypes, institutions and structures to go unchallenged, so that an agent does not have to make substantive changes to their own way of life, behaviour or world view.

Complicity organises our lives, our social groups, relations and interactions in particular ways. In this regard, it may appear that complicity is a form of cooperation. However, it is not sustainable. It relies on asymmetric – and thus unstable – power relations. Moreover, this lack of symmetry puts into question whether relations of complicity should even be classed as forms of cooperation, or whether complicity in one’s own oppression is instead a form of indirect coercion. Coming to more clearly understand complicity puts one in a better position to see how complicity undermines cooperation and how complicity can best be tackled, and thus how we can generate more sustainable forms of cooperation that do not rely upon or exacerbate oppressive social structures, organisations and relations. One urgent question to address in the context of tackling complicity, is the role of the complicit agent and their responsibility for upholding, reinforcing or otherwise perpetuating their own oppression and the oppression of others.  

To explore how we can tackle complicity and generate more sustainable forms of cooperation will involve examining how issues of (shared) responsibility are bound up with questions around social identity in complex and interconnected ways. Understanding the responsibility at stake in cases of complicity requires a deeper understanding of social identity formation and stabilisation: how might self- and meta-stereotyping affect the extent to which an agent is able to recognise, take responsibility for and overcome their complicity in their own oppression and in the oppression of others? To what extent does the complicit agent themselves share responsibility for maintaining problematic social identities, and to what extent are they absolved of responsibility by their social context and the identities they find themselves occupying in virtue of their specific social, cultural and historic situation? If we take seriously the idea of complicity as a kind of motivated ignorance, what does this mean for how complicity will be overcome, both with regard to questions of responsibility and the formation and maintenance of social identities which may be constructed upon certain forms of ignorance?

State of the art

The idea of complicity as a kind of motivated ignorance has gained some ground in critical race studies in relation to the idea of ‘white complicity’ (Mills’ ‘White Ignorance’ (2017); Applebaum’s Being White Being Good (2010)). However, in relation to other identity categories like gender, as well as issues of sexuality, class or disability – and particularly in relation to agents’ complicity in their own oppression – the idea of complicity as a kind of motivated ignorance remains underexplored in philosophy. The aim of this doctoral project would be to examine to what extent complicity can be explained as a form of motivated ignorance and to examine the philosophical, psychological, practical and evaluative consequences of such an analysis.

The scope of the issue: the literature that does exist on complicity and ignorance focuses primarily on complicity in the oppression of others (Aragon and Jaggar (2018); Mills (2017); Applebaum (2010). This phenomenon must be distinguished from being complicit in one’s own oppression, although the two issues are interrelated. When one is complicit in one’s own oppression (for example by upholding sexist or racist norms or stereotypes which subordinate the sexual or racial group to which one belongs), one is also complicit in the oppression of others, because the sexist or racist norms and stereotypes one upholds negatively affect all members of the subordinated racial or sexual group. Complicity in one’s own oppression considered in a structural or interpersonal context, will therefore in most, if not all cases, be an instance of complicity in the oppression of others. However, complicity in the oppression of others, need not be complicity in one’s own oppression (as for example in the case of white complicity). Nevertheless, in order to fully understand all of the ways in which one may be complicit in the oppression of others, one will need to attend to the phenomenon of complicity in one’s own oppression, as this is a distinct way in which complicity in the oppression of others can be perpetuated.

Even more so than complicity in the oppression of others, complicity in one’s own oppression is a phenomenon that has received almost no philosophical attention. A deeper understanding of this phenomenon is therefore urgently needed in order to understand the different ways in which oppression can manifest itself and how social cooperation can be undermined. As such, complicity in one’s own oppression would be the primary focus of this project, although such an analysis would necessarily involve attending to complicity in the oppression of others as an interrelated phenomenon.

Theoretical background

The examination of complicity in one’s own oppression would be pursued from both a philosophical and an empirical, psychological perspective.

Philosophically, the project would involve:

  • Undertaking a review of philosophical work on complicity and related concepts with recent literature on ignorance and its role in upholding oppression (E.g. Mills (2017); Medina (2013); Applebaum (2010); Fricker (2007);
  • Examining the relation between complicity in the oppression of others and complicity in one’s own oppression? how are they (structurally) similar, how are they (structurally) distinct?
  • Exploring what this new analysis of complicity indicates regarding effective interventions into complicity at both the structural and interpersonal and intergroup level. How should the relation between these different elements be theorised: must structural change come before change in the agent can be achieved, or vice versa; or must there be a simultaneous change of the agent and their social structures, and how can this simultaneous transformation best be conceptualised.

The empirical dimension of the project, developed alongside the philosophical aspect, would involve:

  • Sourcing examples and case studies of complicity in both one’s own oppression and in the oppression of others, such as the relation between stereotypes around body image and feelings of worthlessness (Gordijn 2010), the behavioural confirmation of (negative) stereotypes about one’s own group (Kamans, Gordijn, et al., 2009; Koudenburg & Gordijn, 2011), the detrimental effect of meta-stereotypes on interpersonal relations (Gordijn et al 2017), and the role of power relations in this (Lammers, Gordijn, & Otten, 2008), and using such examples to inform the philosophical analysis of complicity.
  • Integrating insights from philosophy on complicity and from social psychology on stereotyping, and developing a model that could be empirically tested. Relevant questions here would be to understand when a negative meta-stereotype is incorporated in the self-stereotype, what motivation is behind this (e.g., system justification or motivation to distance oneself from the outgroup), whether people are aware of complying to negative meta-stereotypes, and to what extent it leads to a worse position for themselves and their ingroup and to reduced cooperation with the outgroup.
  • Examining what mechanisms (social, psychological, phenomenological) are at work in cases of complicity in a) the oppression of others b) one’s own oppression, in order to recommend practical strategies that can be employed in the context of the philosophical analysis of structural and personal change to overcome complicity.

The ultimate aim of the project is to develop an empirically informed philosophical understanding of complicity that is able to illuminate and account for structural and interpersonal cases of complicity, and make normative recommendations to combat complicity as it functions in cases of structural and interpersonal oppression. Drawing together the philosophical and empirical dimensions, the project aims to:

  • Propose a new ameliorative analysis of complicity.
  • Explain how this conceptualisation of complicity affects how we should evaluate cases of complicity and attribute (or not attribute) blame and responsibility in cases of complicity.
  • Propose strategies that will be effective in overcoming an agent’s complicity in a) another’s and b) the agent’s own oppression in such a way that aids sustainable cooperation.

We envisage this as a strongly collaborative and interdisciplinary project with the supervisors from philosophy and psychology involved from the start and throughout the supervision process. The suitable candidate for this project would need a strong philosophical grounding in social and political philosophy, and preferably in feminist philosophy and/or social psychology. The PhD student would start with the philosophical component of the project and then also bring in the empirical dimension. With regard to the empirical dimension of the project, the PhD student’s focus would be on the operationalisation of research questions to be tested in the empirical part of the project, by bringing the results of the philosophical analysis to bear on issues such as how to operationalize the notion of complicity, how to determine precisely what gets measured, etc. This will prepare the way for the formulation of hypotheses to be tested empirically (see also above). The ideal candidate should show an ability and willingness to apply theoretical analysis to real-world cases, along with a demonstrable ability or (if not trained in psychological research) desire to engage in practical social scientific research in order to produce an empirically informed philosophical project.  

  • Discipline
  • Location
    University of Groningen, Faculty of Philosophy


Applebaum, Barbara. 2010. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, Moral Responsibility and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Aragon, Corwin and Alison Jaggar. 2018. ‘Agency, Complicity and the Responsibility to Resist Structural Injustice.’ Journal of Social Philosophy 49 (3): 439–460.

Beauvoir, Simone de. [1949] 2011. The second sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chavallier. New York: Vintage.

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gordijn, Ernestine. H. 2010. ‘When thinking that you are fat makes you feel worthless: Activation and application of meta-stereotypes when appearance matters’. Social Cognition28(1), 20-39.

Gordijn, E.H., Vacher, L., & Kuppens, T. (2017). To ‘serve and protect’ when expecting to be seen negatively: The relation between police officers’ contact with citizens, meta-stereotyping, and work-related well-being. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 253-268. doi: 10.1002/casp.2310

Knowles, Charlotte. 2019. ‘Beauvoir on Women’s Complicity in their own Unfreedom’. Hypatia 34 (2): 242–265.

Knowles, Charlotte. 2021a. Responsibility in Cases of Structural and Personal Complicity: A Phenomenological Analysis’, The Monist, 104 (2): 224-237. doi: 10.1093/monist/onaa034

Knowles, Charlotte. 2021b. Beyond Adaptive Preferences: Rethinking Women’s Complicity in their own Subordination’, European Journal of Philosophy,

Kutz, Christopher. 2000. Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lammers, J., Gordijn, E. H., & Otten, S. 2008. ‘Looking through the eyes of the powerful’. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(5), 1229-1238.

Lammers, J., Gordijn, E.H., & Otten, S. (2008). Looking through the eyes of the powerful. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1229-1238.

Lepora, Chiara and Robert Goodin. 2013. On Complicity and Compromise. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Medina, José. 2013.The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mills, Charles. 2017. Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.