The sleep of reason...

February 2, 1996

Feminists have denounced liberalism for being too individualistic, too abstract and obsessed with reason. But Martha Nussbaum argues that where you mistrust the habits of prejudice, there you have the most need for reason.

Over the past 20 years liberalism has been thought by many feminists to be a political approach that is totally inadequate to the needs of women, and in some ways profoundly subversive of their aims. Many have treated liberalism as at best negligent of women's concerns and at worst an active enemy of women's progress. But liberalism has not died in feminist politics; if anything, with the dramatic growth of the movement to recognise various women's rights as central human rights under international law, its radical feminist potential is just beginning to be realised.

At the heart of the liberal tradition is a twofold intuition: that all, just by being human, are of equal dignity and worth, no matter where they are situated in society; and that the primary source of this worth is a power of moral choice within them, which consists in the ability to plan a life in accordance with one's own evaluation of ends. To these two intuitions the liberal tradition adds one more: that the moral equality of persons gives them a claim to certain treatment at the hands of society and politics. This treatment must respect the liberty of choice, and it must respect the equal worth of persons as choosers.

Feminists have made three charges against this liberal tradition. First, that it is too "individualistic": that its focus on the worth of the individual unfairly subordinates the value to be attached to community - to families, groups and classes. They have charged second that its ideal of equality is too abstract, that it errs through lack of immersion in the concrete realities of power in different social situations. Finally, that liberalism errs through its focus on reason, unfairly slighting the role we should give to emotion in the moral and political life.

It has frequently been claimed that liberalism cannot atone for these defects without changing utterly, and that feminists interested in progress beyond the status quo would be better off choosing a different political philosophy - whether a form of socialism or Marxism, or a form of communitarian or care-based political theory.

In answering the first charge I would argue that liberal individualism does not entail egoism. Making the individual the basic unit for political thought means liberalism responds sharply to the fact that each person has a course from birth to death that is not precisely the same as that of any other person. The separateness of persons is a basic fact of human life; in stressing it, liberalism stresses something experientially true and fundamentally important. Liberalism holds that the flourishing of human beings taken one by one is prior to the flourishing of the state, the nation or the religious group.

Put this way, liberal individualism seems a good view for feminists to embrace. For it is clear that women's individual well-being has far too rarely been taken into account in political and economic planning. Women have very often been treated as a part of a larger unit, especially the family, and valued for their contribution as reproducers and care-givers, rather than as sources of worth in their own right.

But conflicts for resources are ubiquitous in families, and women are often the victims of these conflicts. When food is scarce in families, it is frequently women who get less, who become malnourished and die. When there is an illness and only some children can be taken to the doctor, it is frequently girls who are neglected. Amartya Sen's well-known statistic of "missing women" estimates that 100 million women are not alive in the world today who would have been alive had they received nutrition and health care equal to that given to males. When there is violence in the family, women are overwhelmingly likely to be its victims. Here there are depressingly many statistics, [see the box below right for just a few]. As for marriage itself, many of the world's women do not have the right to consent to marriage, and few have any recourse from ill-treatment within it. Divorce, even if legally available, is usually not a practical option, given women's economic dependency and lack of educational and employment opportunities. Marital rape is a ubiquitous fact of female life; both western and nonwestern nations have been culpably slow to criminalise it.

To people who live in the midst of such facts, it is very important to say, I am a separate person and an individual, I count for something as such, and my pain is not wiped out by someone else's satisfaction. When we reflect that a large number of the world's women inhabit traditions that have denied the separateness of persons we have all the more reason to insist that liberal individualism is good for women.

Nevertheless, it remains true that liberalism cannot escape feminist criticism on this point. For where women and the family are concerned, liberal political thought has not been individualist enough. Liberal thinkers tended to segment the private from the public sphere, considering the public sphere one of individual rights and contractual arrangements, the family a private sphere in which the state should not meddle. This tendency grows, no doubt, out of a legitimate concern for the protection of choice - but too few questions were asked about whose choices were thereby protected. This meant that liberals often failed to notice the extent to which law shapes the family institution and determines the privileges of its members. They then failed to ask whether there were legal deficiencies in this sphere that needed addressing.

In 1869 John Stuart Mill urged British law to address the problem of marital rape, which, he said, made the lot of women lower than that of slaves. Mill's arguments in The Subjection of Women showed that a concern for the individual well-being of family members, and a determination to use law to further that concern, was in no way alien to liberalism. But most of the liberal tradition did not follow Mill's lead. Thus John Rawls, while envisaging a society in which each individual's well-being would be a matter of social concern, still imagined the contracting individuals as heads of households, who would be expected to take thought altruistically for the interests of spouse and children. Likewise Gary Becker, whose model of the family has hugely influenced policy modelling worldwide.

Liberal reluctance to interfere with the family has run deep. Shockingly many liberal thinkers have not noticed that the family is not always characterised by a harmony of interest, that males are not always beneficent altruists. No model of the family can be adequate to reality if it fails to take account of competition for scarce resources and differences of power.

Liberalism has much to learn from feminism in this area. It should begin by learning the facts of women's hunger, domestic violence, unequal access to education. It should go on to correct these facts by laws and by moral education. But what we see here is not a failure intrinsic to liberalism itself but a failure of liberal thinkers to follow their thought through to its socially radical conclusion. What is wrong with the views of the family endorsed by Becker, Rawls and others is not that they are too individualist, but that they are not individualist enough. They give people too much credit for altruism and are not worried enough about the damages of competition. For this reason they fail to ask rigorously their own question, namely, how is each individual doing? They fail to ask this, perhaps, because they are focused on the autonomy of males, and they want to give these males scope for planning their lives in the private sphere, but that is not the liberal tradition, when this freedom is bought at the expense of violence to other individuals.

To turn to feminism's second charge against liberalism - that its vision of persons is too abstract and that by thinking of individuals in ways that sever them from their history and social context, liberal thinkers have deprived themselves of insights of great importance for political thought.

This attack is pressed by Catharine MacKinnon, Alison Jaggar and other feminist thinkers. Their claim is that liberalism's disregard of differences between persons that are a product of history and social setting makes it adopt an unacceptably formal conception of equality, one that cannot in the end treat individuals as equals, given the reality of social hierarchy and unequal power.

It seems plausible that the liberal principle of formally equal treatment, equality under the law, may, if it is applied in an excessively abstract manner, end up failing to show equal respect for persons. In a 1994 sexual harassment case brought by the first woman to work in the tinsmith shop in the General Motors plant in Indiana, the lower court judge, abstracting from the asymmetry of power between the woman and her male coworkers, held that the use of obscenities by the men reflected only the "ribald banter of the tinsmith's shop". Judge Posner, overruling the lower court judge on the findings of fact, held that the asymmetry of power, including its social meaning in historical terms, was a crucial part of the facts of the case. If liberal neutrality forbids one to take cognisance of such facts, this would indeed be a grave difficulty.

Liberalism has sometimes been taken to require that the law be "sex-blind", behaving as if the social reality before us were a neutral starting point, and refusing to recognise ways in which the status quo embodies historical asymmetries of power. Feminists have worried, for example, that this sort of neutrality will prevent them from demanding maternity leave as part of women's equality of opportunity. Many feminists support a variety of affirmative action programs based on women's history of disadvantage. If liberal feminism would prevent the government of Bangladesh from investing its money disproportionately in literacy programmes aimed at women this would lose liberalism the regard of most feminist thinkers in international politics - including not only thinkers such as MacKinnon, who is commonly described as a radical, but also Gary Becker, who, in his column in Business Week has argued for government support for female literacy in connection with global population control. To a wide range of thinkers, formal abstract neutrality makes little sense, when one is confronted with entrenched asymmetries of power.

It seems to me mistaken, however, to think that liberalism has ever been committed to this type of abstraction. Liberals standardly grant that the equality of opportunity individuals have a right to demand from their governments has material prerequisites, and that these prerequisites may vary depending on one's situation in society. One way of putting this is to say that liberalism aims at creating equality of capabilities, meaning the aim is not just to distribute resources around, but also to see that they truly go to work in promoting the capacity of people to choose a life in accordance with their own thinking.

Finally, let me address the third charge - that liberalism, which traditionally holds that the dignity of reason is the primary source of human equality, errs in its focus. Feminists worry that by placing all emphasis on reason as a mark of humanity, liberalism has emphasised a trait that males traditionally prize and denigrated traits, such as sympathy, emotion and imagination, that females traditionally prize. This emphasis has permitted men to denigrate women for their emotional natures and to marginalise them on account of their alleged lack of reason. This would not have been possible, the argument goes, had political philosophy been grounded in a conception that gave equal weight to reason and emotion.

Most feminists who make such claims do not argue for innate differences between the sexes. Their argument is that women, as a result of their experiences of mothering, have rightly valued some elements in human life that men devalue. The most powerful criticism that feminists have made against liberal views of reason and emotion is that emotion, desire and preference are not, in fact, given or "natural", but powerfully shaped by social norms - and that many emotions of both men and women are shaped by social norms that subordinate women to men. MacKinnon, for instance, has argued that not only male aggression and female timidity, but also the character of both male and female sexual desire, are powerfully influenced by the social norm that women ought to be the subordinates of men. Men eroticise domination and learn to achieve sexual satisfaction in connection with its assertion. Women come to eroticise submission and learn to find satisfaction by giving themselves away. This, MacKinnon argues, is a profound detriment to both individuals and society.

What is new and remarkable in the work of MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin is the insight that even sexual desire - which has often been thought to be natural and presocial - has a social shaping and that this shaping is often far from benign. It seems hard to avoid granting that they have identified a phenomenon of immense human importance, one that lies at the heart of a deal of human misery. Insofar as liberalism has been committed to leaving the private sphere unexamined, this critique of desire is a critique of liberalism. It challenges liberalism to do for desire what it has sometimes done with greed and anger and envy - that is to conduct a rigorous examination of the social formation of erotic longing and to think of the moral education of children with these aims in mind.

Does this not ruin sex? Does the liberal not ask women to have "one thought too many"? Does sex at its best not involve a heedless giving away of oneself to the other, an erasing of conscious reflection? Yes and no. Liberal feminism does not ask women not to abandon themselves to pleasure, any more than it asks them not to invest themselves deeply in caring for children. Once again, however, it says: fine, so long as you think first. Abandon yourself, so long as you do so within a context of equality.

Wherever you mistrust habit, there you have the most need for reason. Feminists have lots of grounds to mistrust most habits people have had through the centuries, for both male and female desire has been formed in conditions of profound social inequality. This means that feminists have an especially great need for reason. In an age sceptical of reason we have a hard time unmasking such deeply habitual fictions. For Mill the romantic reaction against reason that he saw in his own time seemed to him profoundly subversive of any reform that went against deeply seated custom. "For the apotheosis of Reason we have substituted that of Instinct; and we call everything Instinct which we find in ourselves and for which we cannot trace any rational foundation." Contemporary feminism should ask itself to what extent the same can be said of its own arguments.

Martha Nussbaum is professor of law and ethics, University of Chicago.

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