New Virtues and Vices for Our Feminist World

Jonathan Haidt has alerted us to a new sociology paper by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning discussing the evolution of our moral culture from one of dignity to one of victimhood, with the culture of dignity itself having evolved from a culture of honor. Here is the gist of the three cultures (The quotations are from the paper, with Haidt’s emphases):

In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing, such that “in honor cultures, people are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so” (Cooney 1998:110). Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights (Cohen et al. 1996; Cooney 1998:115–119; Leung and Cohen 2011)… Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or nonexistent and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack (Cooney 1998:122; Leung and Cohen 2011:510).

In a culture of dignity,

[r]ather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others (Berger 1970; see also Leung and Cohen 2011). Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor (Leung and Cohen 2011:509). People are to avoid insulting others, too, whether intentionally or not, and in general an ethic of self-restraint prevails.

And now,

A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization. … Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.[p.715]

In a culture of victimhood, domination is the ultimate vice and victimhood under oppression is the chief virtue. This is clearly a Goldilocks story, but sure, I’ll bite: the culture of dignity seems pretty nice and we should keep it. But its evolution into a culture of victimhood follows a kind of logic. Indeed, the roots of victimhood culture lie within the culture of dignity, especially in its egalitarian emphasis on the inherent worth of all individuals. The dubious elevation of victimhood to a virtue is an bastardization of the real virtue of respect for persons. How exactly the culture of victimhood goes off the rails can be illuminated by the language of virtues and vices.

virtues of feminism

I believe it is essential that the culture of dignity incorporate feminism, with its critical analysis of oppression, privilege, and prejudice. A feminist worldview introduces new virtues that must be cultivated if we want to take seriously the dignity of persons, that is, if we want to complete the culture of dignity. One way to think of a virtue is as a kind of moral reason one finds compelling, subject always to considerations of other virtues. Another way is to think of a virtue as a skill necessary for living well, something to be learned and mastered; hence vice results when the skill is applied badly. I’ll discuss two candidates for feminist virtues, though there are potentially many more. These are microvirtues, subsidiary mostly to the cardinal virtues of justice and benevolence. I’ll discuss in turn the corresponding vices, those arising from denying these virtues, exaggerating their kernel truths, or simply trying to apply them and missing the mark.

sensitivity to emergent patterns of oppression

The first virtue is most directly related to the discussion of microaggressions. In many ways the low-hanging fruit of feminism has already been plucked. Women and members of other historically oppressed groups in liberal societies have the vote and other trappings of political equality; they can own, inherit, and will property; they can attend university, earn advanced degrees, and work outside the home with the choice of essentially any occupation. It is more difficult to understand and address the higher-hanging fruit: the subtler ways that social hierarchies persist.

This is especially true when the social disadvantages owe not to overtly vicious behavior (direct discrimination, hate crimes, sexual harassment, etc), but instead to an unintended pattern of injustice that only emerges from beliefs and behaviors that are not in themselves necessarily odious. If a man whistles at a woman on the street or propositions her in (what to him seems) a friendly way, little to no harm is done. In a cultural void, unsolicited compliments or romantic overtures might even be construed as flattering. But we don’t live in a cultural void, and a woman walking down the street alone is not typically looking for romance; she wishes to go on about her business with no more interference than a man might suffer. Catcalls are often derogatory, sometimes threatening, and their sheer persistence in attempting to provoke a reaction can become psychologically burdensome, leading women to alter their trajectories in order to avoid stress. The insignificant effect of a singular catcall is, when pluralized, magnified into a pattern of limited access for women to public spaces. The logic is subtle, easily missed by men who have learned their behavior from parents and peers without thinking through the consequences. It is also just one example.

The virtue of sensitivity to microaggressions entails being on the lookout for the indirect ways one’s behavior could negatively impact others or perpetuate macroscale patterns of injustice, and correcting such behavior as best as one can. This virtue is relevant for counteracting biases about gender: assuming an unknown nurse is a woman or surgeon is a man; or assuming that a young girl wants to wear pink dresses and play with dolls or that a young boy wants to play baseball, grow up to date women, or even grow up to be a man at all. A single case of any such bias doesn’t hurt anyone too much, but if the bias pervades it can powerfully inhibit the power of individuals to act according to their own reasons and ends. Attentiveness to emergent patterns of injustice pertains, a fortiori, to behaviors that are themselves vicious. The threat of sexual violence circumscribes women’s freedom. The feminist libertarian Charles W Johnson describes its effects:

“These constraints operate through felt danger and through explicit warnings: don’t walk alone; not after dark; not in that neighborhood; don’t go to that party; not dressed like that; watch what you drink; watch what kinds of ‘signals’ you give off. Paternalistic double-binds often narrow the range to a vanishing point: don’t leave a late-night event without a man to walk you back; don’t leave with a man, unless you intend to invite him in …”

And the pattern of injustice is reinforced by the tendencies for institutions to rally around their constituents who are accused of rape rather than those constituents who bring charges, for the media to focus on the effects of rape accusations on the accused instead of the effects of sexual violence on the victims themselves, and for the instinctive belief that “there must have been some misunderstanding”, that the men we know are good men and are therefore incapable of sexual violence.

But this sensitivity to patterns of social injustice has corresponding vices. The most obvious vice is simply denial. “Women can vote and work. What are they complaining about? They have all the rights men have, and maybe more, what with affirmative action and other social justice policies.” This attitude ignores the complexity of social relations, legalistically reducing life down to rights and the enforcement thereof, with no consideration of the effective freedom to live as one will in a world where most things that really matter involve the sentiments and cooperation of other human beings.

But one can be oversensitive. Sometimes a compliment is just a compliment, and having a door held open for you has nothing to do with gender, either by intention or by indirect effects. And responses to microaggressions should be proportional. “Manspreading” may or may not be a microaggression, but it’s best dealt with by direct, polite engagement. Ditto “mansplaining”. Sexist jokes or apparel might deserve censure but Internet shaming campaigns and forced resignations betray the vice of intemperance.

Awareness of social privilege

Privilege means living in a society where things tend to be arranged to one’s benefit, and one is treated by default with trust and respect. As an educated white cis-male, I can walk up to a police officer and expect to be regarded merely as a citizen with some question or concern rather than a criminal intent on harm. I can buy a house and expect a welcome from the neighbors. When I learn about my nation’s history in school, I learn about people who look rather like me. There have never been laws passed aimed at marginalizing people like me or limiting my freedoms (Ed. – except for your atheism). When I consult a physician, I am believed when I report my symptoms. Indeed, being believed and receiving the benefit of the doubt are important aspects of privilege. Likewise, having one’s own construals taken seriously is vital, as with a woman being able to report sexual harassment without it being automatically interpreted as just a little harmless flirting.

Members of those social groups who inherit social advantages are uniquely positioned to acknowledge their privilege with grace, to be cognizant of the disadvantages others face, and to work to eliminate or at least stop perpetuating unjust privilege. Awareness of one’s privilege is a frame of mind to adopt when thinking about social outcomes and when discussing social issues.

The vice of unawareness of privilege is feeling entitled to the blessings one enjoys through no actions of one’s own. This can be merely gauche, but the vice commonly takes a more extreme form: defensiveness or fragility. Some members of privileged classes are triggered by the mere mention of the word “privilege”, and immediately infer that any such discussion attacks the legitimacy of their genuine achievements. They fear that discussion of privilege is just an excuse to target them with special taxes, tilt admission and hiring competitions unfairly against them, and to create just the kind of social hierarchy that social justice advocates claim to oppose. Discussion of privilege feels to these individuals invalidating and accusatory. But privilege as such implies neither wickedness nor (taken on its own) sufficient justification for any particular social policy.

On the other hand, accusations of privilege can be used to bludgeon, shame, and muffle. Consider the Twitter shaming swarms directed against white, male, privilege-embodying scientists Matt Taylor (who wore a shirt featuring bikini-clad women) and Timothy Hunt (who ultimately resigned from his academic post on account a tasteless joke concerning women in science). Blogger Scott Alexander writes earnestly about the feminist shaming of nerds:

I live in a world where feminists throwing weaponized shame at nerds is an obvious and inescapable part of daily life. Whether we’re “mouth-breathers”, “pimpled”, “scrawny”, “blubbery”, “sperglord”, “neckbeard”, “virgins”, “living in our parents’ basements”, “man-children” or whatever the insult du jour is, it’s always, always, ALWAYS a self-identified feminist saying it. Sometimes they say it obliquely, referring to a subgroup like “bronies” or “atheists” or “fedoras” while making sure everyone else in nerddom knows it’s about them too.

In its extreme, this tactic of rhetorical convenience can become a strategy of elevating historical lack of privilege into a brand new kind of privilege, or in Campbell & Manning’s terms, elevating victimhood into a virtue. Those who use privilege accusations as a weapon to subdue others forget that the entire point of feminism is to remove the barriers to equality of dignity between persons. As feminist Susan Griffin says in the Way of All Ideology,

A deeply political knowledge of the world does not lead to a creation of an enemy. Indeed, to create monsters unexplained by circumstance is to forget the political vision which above all explains behavior as emanating from circumstance, a vision which believes in a capacity born to all human beings for creation, joys, and kindness, in a human nature which, under the right circumstances, can bloom.

When a movement for liberation inspires itself chiefly by a hatred for an enemy rather than from this vision of possibility, it begins to defeat itself. Its very notions cease to be healing. Despite the fact that it declares itself in favor of liberation, its language is no longer liberatory. It begins to require a censorship within itself. Its ideas of truth become more and more narrow. And the movement that began with a moving evocation of truth begins to appear fraudulent from the outside, begins to mirror all that it says it opposes, for now it, too, is an oppressor of certain truths, and speakers, and begins, like the old oppressors, to hide from itself.

and so caution

The culture of victimhood is real. It is a dangerous deviation from the culture of dignity. But there are kernels of virtue within the culture of victimhood that are genuine extensions of the culture of dignity. If Manning and Campbell are correct in their diagnosis, it is because these true virtues have been warped into vices. But we should take care not to over-correct and discard the good along with the bad. As with all virtues, there is no sure-fire guide to apply these feminist virtues in a way that avoids derailing into vice. We just have to wade in, make mistakes, talk about them, and try to learn from them.

7 thoughts on “New Virtues and Vices for Our Feminist World

  1. Suggestion:
    “Chivalry” and “Humility”.

    Not quite their historic meanings, but close, and virtue-words have all evolved—witness McCloskey’s description of the history of honesty (

    “In English our bourgeois word “honest” once meant not mainly “committed to telling the truth” or “paying one’s debts” or even “upright in dealing,” but mainly “noble, aristocratic,” or sometimes “dignified,” in a society in which only the noble were truly dignified.”

  2. Paul Crider

    Humility plays a big role and can definitely be stretched to cover precisely these topics. I didn’t worry too much about naming these virtues. They’re kind of specific applications of the same basic cardinal virtues we all know and love to a new environment.

    Repurposing chivalry to be feminist? Wow. I don’t think I have it in me to be that subversive. 🙂

    1. So, in undergrad, I went to a school with a very pronounced Honor System. (Always Honor System, “honor code” was verboten.) As I progressed in my time there, I became fascinated by how students were genuinely obsessed with (sometimes to the point of parsimony) with the dictum not to lie, cheat, or steal, while at the same time, the social scene of the school completely revolved around debaucherous frat parties, binge drinking, and sexual exploitation of women. What honor this? So I ended up writing my undergrad thesis on it. I started with the idea of repurposing “honor” in a feminist context, and I did come up with a framework for that, but by the end I was sort of just grossed out by “honor” and thought maybe it was better to just ditch it all together.

      One thing that happened, with input from a feminist campus org I was involved in, during my junior year of college, is that we produced a poster series with the health promotions office with the theme “Real gentlemen get consent.” Because of Robert E. Lee’s quote that “every student must be a gentleman” (uhhh, let’s not even unpack the class stuff going on there), the idea of being a “gentleman” was a big thing on campus. So we repurposed the idea. I alternated between find the whole thing gross (the concept of “gentleman” kinda sorta makes my skin crawl, even now, thanks to W&L) and finding it subversive/effective. The student body reaction to it was largely positive, which at the time I found shocking, so maybe we did something right. Or maybe we just reified a horrible oppressive concept. One of those.

      1. Or they were comfortable being public moralists and so receiving your message positively while remaining morally bankrupt in private. I’m sure all the men who took advantage of drunken women thought of themselves as feminists most of the time.

      2. Paul Crider

        This reminds me of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book on honor codes. His story was that the only way to ever defeat really awful policies/norms that are held up by honor is to subvert the idea of honor in question. You can’t reason people out of dueling, for example, but you can maybe get people to believe the more honorable thing (being the “better man”) to do is to walk away.

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