Where’s the Responsibility? Donna Rotunno and How We Teach Moral Philosophy

Everybody says, ‘Oh, are you telling women that if they go to hotel rooms they deserve to be raped?’ No. What I’m saying is that after having drinks and being at a party and sitting in a bar with somebody and going to their hotel at midnight, don’t be so ridiculous as to say, ‘I thought I was going to see a script.’ At some point, where is the responsibility?[1]

Donna Rotunno

I can’t help but feel like you continue to place the burden of safety on women, on potential victims in general. Should the burden rest on them? Or should it rest on the perpetrators?

Megan Twohey

I think it should rest equally. And we’ve moved this conversation so far away from what we were talking about, but if you go out with someone, you can’t have it both ways. We can’t have things like Tinder, where people swipe right and go meet whoever they meet — and most of the time those are sexual interactions — and then say, you know what? I went out with them, and I went to their house and we were flirting or kissing or whatever. And then say I had no idea that he may want to do this. You just can’t have it both ways. So I’m saying that women need to be very clear about their intentions. I think women need to be very prepared for the circumstances they put themselves in. And I think absolutely women should take on equal risk that men are taking on. And the responsibility should be equal as well.[2]

Donna Rotunno

I listened in astonishment and anger to the entire podcast exchange. It was a face-off between Megan Twohey, an investigative journalist who helped to break the story of the sexual-assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and Donna Rotunno, Weinstein’s attorney in his criminal trial ongoing in Manhattan. Later that day I mentioned it to my friend. Incredible, isn’t it, I said, that someone can assert, in all apparent seriousness, that a woman will bear an equal share of responsibility with the perpetrator of a sexual assault, if in advance she had reason to believe it could happen? My friend replied, “But don’t a lot of people believe this?” Yes, they do. That is obvious to nearly anyone who has ever talked with anyone else about sexual assault.

I suddenly felt embarrassed at my own reaction. Embarrassed, but also curious. It seemed and still seems to me obvious, a priori obvious, that the woman bears no moral responsibility at all for being attacked. One can ask whether prudence should dictate against placing oneself in such a situation—but then the answer will depend on the weight of one’s desires, represented in such considerations as how much risk one will tolerate against the prospective benefits of transacting socially with a potential predator. But surely, I had told myself, the perpetrator of violence is the sole bearer of moral blame and responsibility for the violence he perpetrates. In a Euclidean system of ethical principles, surely that would be an axiom (or at worst a very easily derived theorem)! And yet, talk to people; find out just how fixed a supposed fixed point like this one really is.

I was embarrassed not only because I failed to imagine moral sensibilities at odds with my own. Worse, I was embarrassed because I hold a Ph.D. in philosophy and I used to teach ethical theory to undergraduates. I asked myself, to what extent does the philosophical investigation of ethical problems oblige you to suspend your particular moral convictions? When you are discussing the nature of the moral wrongness of rape, can you bracket your belief, evidently far from universally shared, that a rapist is solely responsible for raping? Should you bracket it? When I was teaching, did I presuppose, and presuppose that my students presupposed, the validity of that moral belief? And was that bad?

Like many philosophy teachers, I wanted to encourage students to think for themselves.[3] That meant, in part, to identify the assumptions they took for granted in their commonsense thinking and to try, if only as a thought experiment, to treat them skeptically.[4] But the skeptical attitude is metaphilosophically problematic. The procedure Descartes followed in his Meditations on First Philosophy turns out to rest on a number of high-calorie assumptions about the nature of God and of mind and matter that are far from as “clear and distinct” as we are supposed to believe. Anglo-American academic philosophy has seen a decades-long debate over the reliability of “our intuitions” about particular cases in assessing philosophical theories.[5]

You can’t really question everything, can you? Like Descartes digging in with “I am, I exist,” or G.E. Moore proving the existence of the external world by saying “Here is one hand and here is another,” gesturing appropriately in the act, you surely need a fixed point or two to anchor any attempt at thinking a question through. As Wittgenstein said in response to another form of philosophical skepticism, at a certain point you’ve just got to say “I’ve hit bedrock; my spade is turned.”[6]

And yet, whose fixed points? The question can be awkward, even painful. My career as a philosophical pedagogue began as a Teaching Fellow in the Harvard College Core Curriculum, under the direction of T.M. Scanlon in his Moral Reasoning course, Issues in Ethics, attended mainly by first- and second-year undergraduates.[7] A few weeks into the term, one of my students paid a call during my office hours. Ostensibly she was there to discuss a short assignment, but her agitated mood suggested something else. Eventually she told me what was troubling her: in all of the assigned reading for the course, and throughout the lectures so far, not a single word had been uttered about what she had always thought, and had been raised to think, was the ultimate foundation of morality: God.

Seated in front of me, she began weeping as she described what we might now call being gaslighted. She felt she was being asked to treat her entire understanding of morality as a mere mistake, something to snap out of—that the framework she lived inside was being devalued through the class’s deeming it irrelevant. I tried to be comforting, to assure her those feelings were important. I suggested that the approaches to ethics we were studying—Aristotelianism, Kantianism, and Utilitarianism mainly—were perfectly compatible with belief in God. Look at Kant’s Lutheran piety, after all!

But I knew even as I spoke that this response was inadequate. And probably just wrong. That Moral Reasoning course, like so many introductory surveys in ethical theory taught in philosophy departments everywhere, started by mentioning the “divine command theory” of morality so as to oppose it to the entire range of frameworks covered in the course, and then quietly to set it aside.[8]

It isn’t hard to see how this way of teaching ethics can signal to a religious student, like the one in my office, not only that there are alternatives to their God-grounded metaethical assumptions, but that their cherished assumptions are irrelevant. And it is hardly accidental that such an approach would prevail at an elite East Coast school, where, given the socio-cultural matrix, one can generally get away with it without prompting a large, dissenting outcry.

So there is a tension in the philosophical pedagogue’s self-image: as a standard-bearer for independent and relentlessly skeptical inquiry, and as the laborer in the conceptual slough, working to map out, clear up, and reconstruct the philosophical conceptions that are “our” particular historical and cultural heritage. This latter image is famously limned in John Rawls’s concept of “reflective equilibrium” in moral theory. The idea is that we begin with firmly held “considered judgments” about particular kinds of cases (“It is wrong to torture babies” or “A rape victim bears no moral responsibility for being raped”); we look for more general principles to which these cases conform and which explain or justify these cases (perhaps principles about the badness of deliberate harm generally, or of the relationship between action and responsibility); and we work back and forth, this way and that, among the theoretical principles and the particular cases, revising or rejecting potentially any of these in the process, until we achieve the fullest logical coherence and explanatory or justificatory adequacy.[9]

While it would be a mistake to dismiss the method of reflective equilibrium as “moral garbage in/moral garbage out,” it’s nevertheless clear that the overall shape of the moral conception you arrive at by this method is going to depend centrally on your intuitive starting points. And as a philosophy teacher, I would never have wanted to present any method for moral reflection as purely solipsistic: I wouldn’t have wanted to say merely, “This course is going to present ways for you to think about your own intuitions.” My orientation was intersubjective: I proposed to my students that we take a closer look at how to justify the firm convictions “we” have and how to think about the cases “we” find difficult. And as my experience as a first-time teacher should have made vivid, that “we” is bounded in ways that are as definite as they are easily overlooked.

Donna Rotunno’s views about the placement of the moral onus in cases of actual and potential sexual violence are, in my firm and considered judgment, monstrous. And yet. For one thing, variants of those views are weaponized against women all the time, as they are gaslighted and silenced and cajoled into expressing “himpathy” for predators. Hence a question: would I be bringing my male privilege into the classroom with me if I expressed or assumed that victim-blaming is so obviously wrong that we need not bother to confront it squarely? For another, to treat this as an axiomatic fixed point is to miss many opportunities for broadening moral philosophy’s reach: to meet, on their home ground, students from social, cultural, or family backgrounds in which Rotunno’s attitude might likely be accepted as merely hard-headed common sense.

Moreover, the Rotunno example, sensitively handled, can generate fruitful discussion about a number of ethical questions, such as the distinction between the requirement not to inflict violence upon others and the requirement, such as it may be, not to place oneself at the risk of foreseeable violence. Since so much of philosophizing consists of hermeneutic squirming—what is this person really trying to say here?—it can be useful to invoke conceptual distinctions to assess differing reactions to provocative utterances like this one from Twohey’s interview with Rotunno: “I think absolutely women should take on equal risk that men are taking on. And the responsibility should be equal as well.”

If we distinguish a man’s responsibility to refrain from sexual assault from a woman’s responsibility, such as it may be, to protect herself from harm, can we invoke that distinction to justify the notion of “equal responsibility” at work here? I personally don’t think so. Rather, I think it may be useful to separate those two kinds of responsibility in working to dispel the air of plausibility that attaches to Rotunno’s “women need to take responsibility” rhetoric.

Philosophical pedagogy that aims to tackle “real” moral issues, rather than prescinding from them to a level of theoretical abstraction on the order of Euclidean geometry, needs fixed points in the form of shared considered judgments, even if these are simplified to the point of boring obviousness: “It’s wrong to torture children[/lie to friends/set a cat on fire] for fun.” Moreover, careful philosophical reflection, as I just mentioned, requires exhaustive and exhausting hermeneutic labor: “You might mean by that thesis either p, or q, or r; there are actually two concepts here we might be running together; the premise in support of claim X seems to presuppose that X is true;” etc. The search for common ground and the respect for nuance, however, are exactly what are disfavored by the incentive structures of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter—the forums in which most of us actually try to hash ethical issues out among strangers.

Indeed, if I were teaching ethics to undergraduates today, I would structure my pedagogy far more thoroughly than I used to around the aim of showing how, in reasoning together, we need to make a commitment—in our actual world, with its profusion of perspectives, voices, and vocabularies—not to circumscribe the “we” so as to freeze large parts of that world out at the very start. This is difficult to carry off. It tries anyone’s patience to give respectful attention to what one thinks are terrible beliefs.

But, now that I am a librarian with a professional interest in information literacy and the ways social media threaten it, I think I’m much more sensitive now to the importance of using pedagogy to model forms of shared inquiry in a discursively fragmented culture. For this reason, it’s vital to pay respectful notice to the full range of beliefs, however “unphilosophical” by the lights of the profession, held by actual people.

Donna Rotunno included.

Garbage in, enlightenment out.

Tony Corsentino completed his PhD at Harvard University in 2006. He taught philosophy as contingent faculty at Columbia University, Wellesley College, and Boston University before withdrawing from the field in 2011. He retrained for a career in librarianship, earning an MLIS from Simmons University in 2018. He currently works at the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and at the Public Library of Brookline, Massachusetts.


[1]     “The ‘ultimate feminist’ defending Harvey Weinstein,” Michelle Mark, Business Insider, February 5, 2020 (https://www.insider.com/donna-rotunno-harvey-weinstein-lawyer-profile-feminism-2020-2)

[2]    New York Times Daily Podcast, February 7, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/podcasts/the-daily/weinstein-trial.html)

[3]   Here and everywhere else in this essay I mean by “philosophy” academic philosophy in the predominantly Anglo-American tradition as practiced in the United States.

[4]   “Skepticism” here in the ancient Greek sense of suspending judgment for the purpose of unprejudiced investigation.

[5]    Philippa Foot’s “Trolley Problem” has ascended from the pages of the Oxford Review to the pantheon of KnowYourMeme.com, and is as paradigmatic as any philosophical thought experiment has ever been of the methodology of assessing theories by evoking “intuitions” as data.

[6]   “If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.” Philosophical Investigations, §217.

[7]  It is Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other, that the character Chidi Anagonye on NBC’s The Good Place wields as a talisman in his efforts to cure his fellow Bad Place inmates of their moral depravity.

[8] As an undergraduate in my first philosophy course, I myself was encouraged to dismiss the idea that God, whether through His goodness, knowledge, power, or mere existence, was the ground of the validity of moral principles. The lecturer—who soon became my mentor—was a vocal atheist who assigned Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, which climaxes with Socrates’ refutation of Euthyphro’s claim that a thing’s being pious consists in its being loved by the gods. Socrates pins Euthyphro on the horns of a dilemma: is a thing pious because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is pious? The extension to divine command theories of morality is straightforward: is an act morally right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally right? If yes to the latter, then the fact that it is commanded by God cannot on its own ground its moral rightness; if no to the latter, then “morally right” adds no content beyond “it’s just commanded by God, is all.” Which sounds less like an analysis of morality than a denial that we have distinctively moral reasons for action at all.

[9]   See, for example, Rawls’s 1971 A Theory of Justice, §9.