Unreasonable liberty taking

March 1, 1996

As Martha Nussbaum rightly notes (THES, January 26), some feminists have in recent years sought to challenge liberal emphases on individualism, objectivism and reason. She is also correct in her observation that in the past liberal arguments, such as those offered by John Stuart Mill, have been used successfully to defend the rights of women. Yet Nussbaum misses the point of the feminist critique of liberalism.

It is suggested that the aims of individualism are synonymous with the aims of feminism, and so that the claim of liberalism to defend everyone's right to be respected as an individual is wrongly rejected by feminists.

By separating this feminist "mistake" from that which challenges the primacy of reason, Nussbaum oversimplifies the issue. From a feminist perspective, the problem is that liberals define individuals - those who are to be treated equally - in terms of a male-biased concept: reason.

Nussbaum allows that liberalism has been used for antifeminist as well as feminist ends, but says that this represents a betrayal of "true" liberalism. She elsewhere argued precisely the same point in defence of reason, and is mistaken in both instances, because neither of these ideas exists in any sense which is value-free. Feminists have no more right to claim liberalism for their own than do Gary Becker or John Rawls, whose version of liberalism Nussbaum criticises.

I was particularly concerned by the intimation in Nussbaum's article that the feminist critique of reason is in some way responsible for a whole range of human rights abuses, listed separately from Nussbaum's comment under the second half of your title "The Sleep of Reason. . . is a Female Nightmare". The notion that liberal policy can deal with these atrocities in a way that radicalism cannot is assumed and unconvincing.

Nussbaum is wrong to attempt to silence other perspectives on political philosophy. Societies may progress by becoming increasingly more open to those who were not heard when the structures which form them were set up in the first place.

In an essay referred to by Nussbaum, "On The Subjection of Women", Mill concedes to the chauvinists that contemporary women intellectuals were imitators not innovators. Yet he also adds his hope and confidence that in the future, their work may emancipate itself from the influence of accepted models, and guide itself by its own impulses.

JoANNA Kerr Department of philosophy University of Edinburgh

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