Leonard Harris on Insurrectionist Ethics

Alain Locke Society founder Leonard Harris presents a talk on Insurrectionist Ethics.


1. Classical pragmatism’s instrumentalism and consequentialism is rejected: it cannot justify slave insurrections and require that slaves reject the condition of self-deprecation.

2. Classical virtues are expanded beyond virtues of benevolence and piety to include self-confidence and tenacity.

3. People who are the least well off, collectively, are agents of human liberation – representative heuristics and its ontology allows the support of group agency, given that such thinking is sometimes misleading. Classical pragmatism cannot warrant a special place to the interest and agency of workers, slaves, etc. as agents of liberation. The ethics of insurrection can warrant a special place to group agency.


M.L. King was an insurrectionist: imagined a future; a transcendent imagination.

Prison abolitionist favors restorative justice is favored over punitive justice; but cannot use instrumentalism, consequentialism, verification, evidence or past experience as sufficient to warrant radically different future possibilities.

Narrative Summary

“Why sit ye there and die?” asks Maria Stewart. David Walker demands to know why one should spare a slave driver’s life? When Harris appeals to a liberationist ontology of humanity, – a primordial liberty that warrants the entitlement of normal emotions of filial care and self-respect – he appeals to a philosophy born of struggle – a philosophy that takes the view of the despised, degraded, and self-deprecated. What kinds of questions would they ask? (pt1-3:00)

“An ethics of insurrection requires you to reject instrumentalism and consequentialism and to promote a different set of virtues and self-reliance” (pt. 1-4:45).

Virtues therefore must be evaluated in relation to liberation. Desirable virtues, in order to be ethical, must guide action in the direction of liberation and therefore may be contingent upon the habits of activity that will be transformative. Whereas liberation may be served in many times and places by virtues of piety, benevolence, tolerance, there may be other times and places where the virtues of liberation would be differently enumerated as self-confidence, self-assurance, irreverence, enmity, or tenacity.

Following Thoreau, Harris argues that insurrection is transcendentalist in the sense that it acts in behalf of an imagined world that does not yet exist. Following Stewart, Harris argues that insurrectionist ethics asserts its duty to reject an existing order that denies the validity of “primordial emotions, the basic sentiments of care for your family, for your children for yourself . . . the right to reasonable return on labor . . . all forms of dignity, comportment, to see yourself as a worthy person with reverent pride and a sense of hope.” As Harris argues, “If we are in favor of humanity as such this [world of denial] cannot be warranted.” (pt2-12:00.)

Walker argues from a Christian point of view. God does not divide humanity. Christians who divide the world by race violate God’s unity. When God’s people have been unjustly divided, insurrectionists have a duty to speak in behalf of the oppressed, engaging in what Harris calls representational heuristics. “Advocacy [insurrectionist advocacy] happens in groups” (pt3-2:40.) This is the ontology.

Insurrectionist ethics affirms the abolitionism of Angela Davis. Prisons should be abolished forever now. MLK was an insurrectionist.

The claim Harris makes about the ontology of humanity is not to be tested according to clinical psychology, or discerned in the data of social psychology. As an ontological claim, the innate liberationist view of humanity is the claim that must necessarily be true for an ethic of humanity to be possible. Liberationist ontology indicates a category of what must be held true in spite of infinite counterexamples. Liberationist ontology is true in the direction that Alain Locke argued we must sometimes look for truth: not as verification of some status quo existent but as an attitude to be sustained “in spite of.” Not an arid abstraction, but a viable social agency of multiple groups – workers, African Americans, women, etc.

A student in Shanghai, at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, 2013, asked Harris whether insurrectionist ethics validates ruthlessness as a virtue, such as was seen in the Cultural Revolution. Harris hopes not, but it is a danger, just as piety can be dangerous as Nietzsche argued, or benevolence in the harmful dependencies of a welfare state.

Insurrectionist ethics “encourages a different view of what counts as right, it gives credence to those who promote very difficult choices in the face of an irrational world. . . . Insurrection is about altering categories, rethinking what counts as appropriate.” (pt4-12:40).

Greg Moses, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX

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