Monday, August 9, 2010

Feminism and Moral Standards

Before I get going in this post, first a definition to avoid confusion. This post is mostly a post about values. "Values" is a broad term used to encompass all the stated reasons why members of a certain culture will act the way they do. In this way, values encompass norms and intelligible opinions and attitudes cultural members will have internalized and attempt to justify for why it is the fact they will or have acted in a given way. Next, I use the term cultural relativism to explain the thesis that there are no culturally-transcendent values; instead values are relative to a cultural framework/domain. Framework and domain are used interchangeably.

Now, this post is not really meant for philosophical colleagues. Rehearsing the all too often rejection of cultural relativism as a sound approach to moral theorizing is not my sole purpose here--although admittedly, it is here. Instead, the purpose of this post is to reveal that these problems are embedded in the social scientists' mainstream approach in their discipline--this holds for all of social science.

On a brief office visit to a sociologist friend, I sat down and asked her plainly that if one adopts a feminist commitment, then certainly one has adopted prima facie a commitment to addressing the immoral practices and unjust circumstances that women find themselves in. She agreed to that. Next, I asked independent of feminism, what is the status of those values that feminism will call upon? She did not give up the much anticipated answer that there are moral frameworks, and indeed we can study them empirically. We can survey attitudes and the values people hold of, say, the morality of homosexual marriage or female genital mutilation, but in the end, these values are simply groundless. They have no backing independent of the cultures that engender them. In her words, "there are no absolutes" and this view is consistent with the postmodern skepticism that social scientists can have knowledge that is definitively culturally transcendent. To observe, say, the unequal distribution of salaries of women in a profession is wrong only insofar as the cultural framework has conventions that can spell out exactly why it is wrong. If another culture dominates women to the point that they are denied equal opportunity under the law and that culture has no feminist critics, then one cannot get any moral point of view going since to construe morality as deriving from culture is a non-starter. This can be explained with a much needed example.

Suppose two cultural frameworks, I will call the first C1 and the second C2.

C1 is the cultural domain in which women have no rights under the law, are considered property and prescribed a "proper" place as domestic workers and mothers only.

C2 is the cultural domain represented by women with advanced education, empowered with a range of opportunities, possess equal rights under the law, and are not considered property by anyone.

Both C1 and C2 express values, and empirically they disagree on the fundamental role women play in their society. Yet, in keeping with the cultural relativism adopted in social science, we cannot say that one culture is better than another since to invoke better appeals to concepts outside either C1 and C2. At the same time, this has another consequence. As a member of C1, I cannot be within that culture and disagree with that culture. Sure, I may disagree personally, but my disagreement has no status if I oppose my culture. Since values originate in culture, C1 can never be wrong. It is inerrant in that C1 is the source and justification of its own values. This is what I meant that cultural relativism is a non-starter.

Aside for not allowing moral reform and criticism from two very different cultures, cultural relativism is defended not on multicultural grounds, but on the motivation for the social scientist to understand as much as possible. Multiculturalism is just the result of trying to be value-neutral. Let me explain. Social scientists spend lots of time studying many different groups, and in their opting to make no judgments as to how those members of that group are, they regard their activity as value-neutral. If I am a political scientist attempting to understand how various groups vote, I will not impose my liberal politics on the question, but instead opt for an impartial value-neutral perspective that surveys all the different groups and their voting patters. This is an often repeated suggestion for what the social scientist is doing. Yet, to regard is to value. The attempt at being value-neutral is motivated by valuing value-neutrality. It is not a value-neutral position itself.

If the social scientist concedes that they value value-neutral perspectives, it could be they don't want to become the very thing they study. Social scientists often can give deeply troubling reasons for why some groups fare better in societies than others. Oftentimes, this comes from one group imposing its values on another, even quite dogmatically. They don't want to do the same thing since that might give rise to oppression in some way. This is an admirable quality, and so of all values, perhaps the only value a social scientist will recommend is multiculturalism. It fits with studying different groups as a scientist in the first place, and as such the endorsement of cultural relativism is the after thought multiculturalism. Yet, cultural relativism should be teased apart from multiculturalism. Here's why.

Multiculturalism is valued in terms of prudence of governments having a diverse population to rule. Multiculturalism therefore has more to do with tolerance than it does with cultural relativism. Remember, cultural relativism is a certain skepticism that we can have culturally-transcendent values. It is commonly associated with multiculturalism for this reason, but the reasons why we back multiculturalism are not that we can't have culturally-transcendent moral knowledge; instead, it is prudent and pragmatic way to govern.

Now, let's bring back the discussion of feminism. Feminists make moral claims that there are injustices against women. From the previous example, this might look like C2 making claims about C1. Cultural relativism will limit the moral claims members can make to either C1 or C2. Moral claims can only be internal to the cultural domains they come from. Again, there is no legitimacy for C2 members to make claims about C1 if this is so. However notice what motivated my friend's compliance with cultural relativism, it was a limitation of method and that method involves a constant explanation of people in terms of being members of a cultural domain. Social science does not seek to explain people as committing to a standpoint that transcends or acquires knowledge apart from culture. Culture is, in fact, an uber-explanatory force that removes us from viewing ourselves from the first-person standpoint, what I call moral agency. This type of explanation does not see people as beings  with desires, values and intentions that act freely on their own accord. For ethics itself looks to explain people in terms of the experience of individual freedom to respond to moral situations.

The next limitation of method in the social sciences is a conflation of two categories--the descriptive and the normative. When social scientists empirically observe differences in culture, say again C1 and C2,  the social scientist immediately infers that we should adopt cultural relativism. Yet, the empirical observation of their disagreement does not entail cultural relativism. The fact that C1 and C2 differ is only a description about the world, it does not remove the possibility that there is no fact of the matter that moral knowledge can be culturally-transcendent (and therefore objective). Moral knowledge instead looks to see how the world ought to be, not is. Disagreement is an observation of difference and no reason to think there is no truth, plain and simple. For example, in one culture people might have believed that the Earth is flat, and another culture might have thought the Earth is round. Given that there is disagreement between the two cultures (even if both cultures have no science or mathematics to really settle the issue), we cannot say that all knowledge is relative to culture.

So where does that leaves us? Feminism could be a proposed set of moral judgments about values we should see in our history, culture and social experiences that dominate women. In this way, it is an orientation that follows out of thinking that moral knowledge is culturally-transcendent in much the same way that basic truths of mathematics are true in all cultures at all times. Moreover, this does not mean that moral knowledge and the various theories we hold about morality are clearly known and dogmatic. On the contrary, moral knowledge is hard, difficult and there is much left unsettled. Given its hardness, it is better that we think that moral knowledge requires much effort and take to heart how easily it is for us to be wrong about things, even morality. This means that we should approach moral matters with a sense of humility, but on some things, we need not be as humble to think that genocide and systematic oppression of women are theoretically unsettled. They are just plain wrong, and any skepticism otherwise is untenable.

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