Sex, Culture and Justice: The Limits of Choice

March 20, 2008

Clare Chambers has written an interesting, important, wide-ranging and well-argued book that contains a controversial proposal that will, no doubt, be widely debated.

Her book is unusual in two respects. First, it combines a sophisticated theoretical account of forms of social construction, extended to cover choice as well as desire and preference. It brings together theorists such as Foucault and Bourdieu with a thinker who is usually discussed in a different context - Catharine MacKinnon. Second, it offers a well-informed discussion of contemporary liberal political philosophy.

A particular concern throughout the book is gender injustice. Chambers argues that the mere fact of choice cannot be sufficient in and of itself for liberal justice. One example on which she focuses is the practice of breast implantation. Many Western women undergo this form of cosmetic surgery to enhance their body image, to feel better about themselves or to improve their career prospects. Chambers argues that these choices are socially formed and rest on a sex norm that both causes physical harm and is unjust, as it perpetuates gender discrimination.

As a solution, Chambers advocates state intervention. She argues that some causes of unjust social conditioning should be remedied by proscription. Practices that should be banned are ones chosen only to comply with a social norm and where the harm involved is sufficiently severe that proscription would not be vastly disproportionate. The case is strengthened when the relevant norm is unjust.

In an extension of MacKinnon's thinking about pornography, she proposes an "equality tribunal", where individuals could bring a case if they felt they had been disadvantaged on grounds of sex by a social or cultural norm in their community. She is thinking, for example, of Jewish or Muslim women who against cultural practices want a divorce but do not wish to leave their cultural groups.

The measures she suggests for gender injustice are directly designed to deal with flagrant cases. There are many other social norms that fulfil her conditions where proscription would be very unlikely.

The underlying "universal" feature accepted by Chambers is a commitment to the principles of autonomy and equality. Importantly, she recognises that there are limits to the extent to which liberals must accept the principle of autonomy, since they also have to accept principles of equality and well-being.

She offers a carefully nuanced variant of the notion, but it is nonetheless Kantian in the sense that the principles are accepted as "good" in themselves. But as Pistorius said of Kant: one must ask the question whether the principles are themselves good. For Kant, they are simply facts of reason. There is an assumption in the liberal tradition that autonomy and good are linked, but this is not always the case.

I am uncertain whether state action would do the job required of it. Might not a ban on breast implants drive the practice underground? Would a ban ameliorate the sexist norms that give rise to it? It is only with much deeper work to change people's emotional attitudes and core beliefs that we will really begin to undermine these norms.

Sex, Culture and Justice: The Limits of Choice

By Clare Chambers
Penn State University Press
256pp
£35.95
ISBN 97801033013
Published 15 January 2008

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