When I say I work on the ethics of conversation, many people assume I am talking about good manners or political correctness. Instead, I recommend rude interruptions and argue against PC lists of 'what not to say'. Nor am I merely applying ethical theories to an understudied interaction. Traditional theories break down when we focus on conversation. Even models of hate speech or collective impact fail to capture the complexities of microaggressions--seemingly small slights that can accumulate into serious damage to marginalized individuals.

In my dissertation, I offer a new model of moral responsibility, based on the torts of trespass and negligence. Like trespass, microaggressions that directly target an individual are blameworthy, even when the speaker does not intend to cause harm and does not in fact cause harm. Like negligence, microaggressions that are overheard or read online are only blameworthy when a bystander is actually harmed by the speaker's risky behavior. Neither type of microaggression should be adjudicated in the court system, but the Tort Law Model of Moral Responsibility points us towards more effective remedies: apology and a more equitable distribution of microaffirmations to protect against future damage.

In the future, I plan to consider other sites of conversational damage: repetitive advice,  misinterpreted questions, and refusal to change the subject. 




"Microaggression: Conceptual and Scientific Issues," co-authored with Regina Rini (final darft)

Philosophy Compass 15.4: 1-11 (2020)

Scientists, philosophers, and policymakers disagree about how to define microaggression. Here we offer a taxonomy of existing definitions, clustering around (a) the psychological motives of perpetrators, (b) the experience of victims, and (c) the functional role of microaggression in oppressive social structures. We consider conceptual and epistemic challenges to each and suggest that progress may come from developing novel hybrid accounts of microaggression, combining empirically tractable features with sensitivity to the testimony of victims.

"Theorizing a Spectrum of Aggression: Microaggressions, Creepiness, and Sexual Assault" (Final Draft)

The Pluralist 14.1: 91-101 (Spring 2019)

Microaggressions are seemingly negligible slights that can cause significant damage to frequently targeted members of marginalized groups. Recently, Scott O. Lilienfeld challenged a key platform of the microaggression research project: what’s aggressive about microaggressions? To answer this challenge, Derald Wing Sue (the psychologist who has spearheaded the research on microaggressions) needs to theorize a spectrum of aggression that ranges from intentional assault to unintentional microaggressions. I suggest turning to Bonnie Mann’s “Creepers, Flirts, Heroes and Allies” for inspiration. Building from Mann’s richer theoretical framework will allow Sue to answer Lilienfeld’s objection and defend the legitimacy of the concept, ‘microaggression’.

"Do Your Exercises: Reader Participation in Wittgenstein’s Investigations" (Final Draft)

in Pedagogical Investigations: A Companion to Wittgenstein on Education, edited by Michael A. Peters and Jeff Stickney, 147-159. Singapore: Springer, 2017. 

Many theorists have focused on Wittgenstein’s use of examples, but I argue that examples form only half of his method. Rather than continuing the disjointed style of his Cambridge lectures, Wittgenstein returns to the techniques he employed while teaching elementary school. Philosophical Investigations trains the reader as a math class trains a student—‘by means of examples and by exercises’ (§208). Its numbered passages, carefully arranged, provide a series of demonstrations and practice problems. I guide the reader through one such series, demonstrating how the exercises build upon one another and give us ample opportunity to hone our problem-solving skills. Through careful practice, we learn to pass the test Wittgenstein poses when he claims that something is ‘easy to imagine’ (§19). Whereas other critics have viewed the Investigations as merely a diagnosis of our philosophical delusions, I claim that Wittgenstein also writes a prescription for our disease: Do your exercises.


Escalating Linguistic Violence: From Microaggressions to Hate Speech

forthcoming in Microaggressions and Philosophy, eds. Lauren Freeman and Jeanine Weekes Schroer, 2020

At first glance, hate speech and microaggressions seem to have little overlap beyond being communicated verbally or in written form. Hate speech seems clearly macro-aggressive: an intentional, obviously harmful act lacking the ambiguity (and plausible deniability) of microaggressions. If we look back at historical discussions of hate speech, however, many of these assumed differences turn out to be points of similarity. The harmfulness of hate speech only became widely acknowledged after a concerted effort by critical race theorists, feminists, and other activists. Before the 1990s, slurs were widely considered socially acceptable behavior: mere jokes that weren’t intended to be harmful. Authors like Richard Delgado, Mari Matsuda, and Charles Lawrence pushed back against this dismissal. In this chapter, I show that their arguments for the serious harmfulness of hate speech prefigure and provide support for current debates about the serious harmfulness of microaggressions. Exploring resonances with the 1980s hate speech debate will allow us to explain why microaggressions fall below the cutoff for legal liability but remain apt targets for moral blame.

In Progress

"Microaggressions as Collective Harm but Individual Wrongs"

Moral philosophers writing about microaggressions call attention to two features that pose problems for traditional views of blameworthiness and moral responsibility: ambiguous intent and cumulative harm. However, if these are the sole or even primary features that trouble our ascriptions of moral responsibility for microaggressions, then microaggressions are just another example of an already crowded literature in moral philosophy: collective harm problems.

Many theorists have embraced the similarities between microaggressions and collective harm problems, comparing microaggressions to climate change (McTernan 2017, Friedlaender 2017), factory farming (Rini forthcoming), and Derek Parfit's originating thought experiments (Brennan 2013 and 2016). But I will argue that the victims of microaggressions are fundamentally unlike the polluted environment or the chickens harmed by factory farming, in that microaggressive victims are capable of consenting and objecting to their mistreatment. When consent is violated and objections are ignored, further wrongs are perpetrated that cannot be captured on collective harm frameworks. Moral responsibility for microaggressions must do more than solve the problems of ambiguous intent and the cumulative harm. I’ll show that any account of moral responsibility for microaggressions must also acknowledge the wrongs done to individual victims by individual perpetrators. 


Talks within Current Research Project (     denotes link to handout):

"Are Microaggressions a Collective Harm Problem?"

  • Canadian Philosophical Association, June 2020 *Cancelled due to COVID-19

"Countering Bullying, Harassment, and Microaggressions"

  • MAP Panel at APA Pacific, April 2020 *Cancelled due to COVID-19

"Microaffirmations, Privilege, and a Duty to Redistribute"

  • University of Toronto Centre for Ethics, October 2019 (invited)

  • Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy, October 2019

  • Society for Philosophy and Psychology, July 2019 (poster)

"Microaggressions, Torts and the Right to Apology"

  • Main Program Colloquium Session at APA Pacific, April 2019

  • Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy, September 2018

"From Hate Speech to Microaggressions: A Spectrum of Dominating Speech Acts"

  • Society for Analytical Feminism Group Session at APA Pacific, April 2019​

"What's Aggressive About Microaggressions?"

  • Main Program Colloquium Session at APA Pacific, April 2018

  • Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, March 2018 (winner of the Douglas Greenlee Prize for best paper presented by an early career scholar)

  • South-Western Ontario Feminism and Philosophy Workshop, September 2017 (invited)

"Microaggressions as Collective Harms but Individual Wrongs"

  • Halbert Fellowship Workshop, February 2018 (invited)

"A Duty to Avoid Committing Microaggressions"

  • Canadian Philosophical Association, May 2017

  • Center for Values and Social Philosophy at University of Colorado Boulder, April 2017 (invited)

"Building Philosophical Reading and Writing Skills” (co-authored with Alex Koo)

  • American Association of Philosophy Teachers Workshop-Conference, July 2020

"Frankenstein's Monster as Manipulative Gaslighter"

  • Health Humanities Consortium Poster Session, April 2018

"In My Thoughts and in My Words: The Morality of William James and Iris Murdoch"

  • William James Society Group Session at the APA Pacific, April 2017

"Beyond the 'Will to Believe': A Historical Solution to the Wrong Kinds of Reasons Debate"

  • Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, March 2016

"How Best to Use the IAT: The Moral to Draw from the Moral Responsibility Debate"

  • MAP@Leeds Conference on Implicit Bias, October 2015

"Benevolence and Its Effects in David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature”"

  • Main Program Symposium Presentation at APA Pacific, April 2015

Talks Outside Current Research Project:


©2019 by Emma McClure.