Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy




Skelton, Anthony


One goal of feminist philosophy is to challenge unjust systems of power like patriarchy, which privilege some social groups while oppressing others. In this three-chapter dissertation, I argue that to achieve this goal, we need a better understanding of privilege and its implications.

In chapter one, I raise objections to some existing philosophical accounts of privilege. These accounts are either too broad in defining privilege as always advantageous or they are vague regarding what privilege comprises. I provide an account of privilege which clarifies that privilege is generally advantageous and that privilege includes tangible resources and options to do certain things or be a certain way.

In chapter two, I utilize my account of privilege in the context of feminist debates on relational autonomy. Recently, strong substantive and constitutive accounts of relational autonomy have come under criticism. Critics argue these accounts generate perverse conclusions about oppressed agents. I show these accounts generate the same perverse conclusions about privileged agents. Critics also argue these accounts are poorly suited to achieve feminist goals, which are to combat systems of power and to offer an account for how autonomy is influenced by oppression and privilege. I defend an alternative account of relational autonomy given by Andrea Westlund and explain how it avoids the perverse conclusions while still achieving the second goal, as it can explain how oppression and privilege can influence autonomy. However, I argue that autonomy alone is not enough to achieve the first goal of combatting systems of power.

In chapter three, I investigate the issue of vaccine hesitancy, where parents delay or refuse routine vaccinations for their children. Some empirical literature suggests a proportion of these parents are privileged. However, this literature lacks a clear definition of privilege. I supplement and strengthen this research with my account of privilege. I demonstrate how my account of privilege captures additional elements of parents’ privilege. Using my account of privilege, I show how privilege can potentially influence some of the reasons parents have for delaying or refusing vaccines. I also clarify how my discussion impacts public health policies aimed at addressing vaccine hesitancy.

Summary for Lay Audience

One goal of feminist philosophy is to combat unjust systems of power which work to benefit some (e.g., men) while harming others (e.g., women). The benefits one group receives are privileges, while the harm faced by other groups is oppression. Feminist philosophers have done much to clarify oppression. There are, by comparison, few attempts to clarify privilege. This three-chapter dissertation seeks to remedy this situation.

Chapter one clarifies the notion of privilege and its benefits. I argue privilege confers both 1) resources and 2) options to behave in unique ways. Chapter two examines feminist debates concerning autonomy, which refers to living the kind of life a person chooses and doing so in accordance with their own preferences and values. Feminist philosophers have argued we need to conceive of autonomy in a way that accounts for how oppression influences a person’s preferences. Relying on my account of privilege, I argue feminist accounts of autonomy have failed to consider how privilege influences a person’s preferences. When we plug privilege into these views, they generate some conclusions feminists should avoid. I defend a rival account of autonomy that avoids these worries.

Chapter three applies my account of privilege to the issue of vaccine hesitancy, a phenomenon where some parents delay or refuse routine vaccinations for their children. There is some research suggesting that a proportion of parents who delay or refuse vaccines are privileged. I argue this research lacks a clear definition of privilege. To properly account for how these parents are privileged, I supplement the research with my account of privilege from chapter one. I argue that vaccine hesitant parents are privileged because they have both resources and options to behave wrongly in this case. I demonstrate the advantages of my account of privilege in the context of this issue and discuss how it impacts policies aimed at addressing vaccine hesitancy.