When The Road Forks, You Can Only Choose One Path

In reading Paul Crider’s recent response to me on feminism, he leaves us with the impression that his kind of feminism is a highly pluralistic dialogue that represents many different kinds of beliefs, often opposed to each other. Indeed, this forms the basis for Paul’s oblique defense of feminism:

These are open conversations, with little to no control (by whom?) over who participates. Essentially anyone can jump into the conversation with commentary that might touch a contemporary nerve and be adopted into the conversation. Any such new entrant may find a hearing by some faction while other factions are hostile. There’s no central control board to authoritatively deem a new voice legitimate or not.

So, you can understand my surprise when, in the context of that very reply to me, Paul rejects this very kind of pluralism. Twice.

Regarding abortion, Paul states:

To suggest, as Ryan appears to, that abortion rights are beside the point of gender equality is to entirely misunderstand the issue.

Further down in his post, he writes:

Libertarians have good reasons to raise the hue and cry about the inherent coercion of using the government to change society. Libertarians (who may or may not be feminists) can and should have this debate with “statists” (who may or may not be feminists). But this is simply a different debate than that of feminism itself.

When it comes to Title IX or subsidized day care, Paul tells us that feminism isn’t really the issue; but when it comes to abortion, Paul tells us that there is no other way to understand the matter.

How, then, might Paul reply to a feminist who claimed that to treat the question of subsidized day care as an economic issue, rather than a feminist one, is to entirely misunderstand the issue?

This Is Not A Post About Feminism

Okay, I admit it: I’m not really surprised. In undertaking a more specific defense of certain feminist principles, Paul is engaging in one of the most derided – but healthiest – aspects of human morality: Being judgmental. Ultimately, Paul must choose between a truly pluralistic feminism and a moral truth; he chooses the latter. He made the right choice.

Let’s set aside feminsm in favor of another point. The jargon version is: Human ethics require an explicit rejection of polylogism, even when that makes you look “judgmental.” We simply cannot have it both ways. The moment we take a moral stance is the moment we reject all others. We “judge” other people by determining right and wrong for ourselves. Not only is that not bad, it’s fantastic. It’s the sign of a correctly functioning moral compass.

At issue isn’t whether and how we should be feminists, but whether it is worth it to accept a significantly biased paradigm in exchange for what that paradigm has to offer. Our answer regarding feminism will guide us with regard to any other ideologically motivated lens.

Ideally, we wouldn’t need any lens at all, we’d just objectively collect data, analyze it correctly, and sally forth. But Paul correctly notes that this isn’t possible:

There is no lens-free option; without some kind of lens (theory), the world is a hopeless blur of disordered sensory data. Pretending to go sans-lens is simply to fail to acknowledge or even be aware of the lenses through which one does in fact peer.

 

Still, not all lenses are created equal. For example, mystic oral history is no replacement for the modern scientific method. When two competing lenses are at odds, one must be discarded. To embrace modern science’s explanation of the formation of the solar system, we must necessarily reject the notion that it was constructed out of a lotus flower.

I don’t doubt that Crider agrees with me on that much, nor would I ever suggest that he is a proponent of polylogism. Still, his view of feminism as a lens or pluralistic dialogue, combined with feminism’s historical love affair with Marxism, reminds me of something Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human Action:

In the eyes of the Marxians the Ricardian theory of comparative cost is spurious because Ricardo was a bourgeois. The German racists condemn the same theory because Ricardo was a Jew, and the German nationalists because he was an Englishman. Some German professors advanced all these three arguments together against the validity of Ricardo’s teachings. However, it is not enough to reject a theory wholesale by unmasking the background of its author. What is wanted is first to expound a system of logic different from that applied by the criticized author. Then it would be necessary to examine the contested theory point by point and to show where in its reasoning inferences are made which–although correct from the point of view of its author’s logic–are invalid from the point of view of the proletarian, Aryan, or German logic. And finally, it should be explained what kind of conclusions the replacement of the author’s vicious inferences by the correct inferences of the critic’s own logic must [p. 76] lead to. As everybody knows, this never has been and never can be attempted by anybody.

If something is true, it is true by all logic, not just feminist logic or non-feminist logic. This applies equally to the issue of abortion and the issue of subsidized day care. An open conversation evaluates all claims on their individual strengths, rather than separating matters as feminist or not feminist. Such a conversation also judges claims on the same criteria. Tolerating multiple viewpoints sounds good, but it’s ultimately impracticable.

While it may be valuable to see something through a particular lens momentarily, that view must be evaluated against the view taken through other lenses, too. But it wouldn’t be right to call oneself an “everything-ist” simply because one is willing to consider all theories before discarding them. So I can’t call myself a feminist after having identified its inherent biases and discarded them in favor of better accuracy through alternative paradigms.

It is for this reason that I originally wrote that “I don’t see feminism as a viable path toward achieving [gender equality].” If something only seems true when viewed through the feminist lens, but not through our other lenses, then how true can it really be? Any sufficiently complicated moral dilemma requires analysis through multiple paradigms and considerations. Finally and crucially, we should then arrive at a conclusion that reconciles with (or improves) our comprehensive moral framework. At that point, the lenses should be discarded and replaced with something better: our individual ethical philosophy – what I refer to at Stationary Waves as a personal creed.

The construction of this kind of highly personal and individualized – but logically consistent – sense of right and wrong, has been the defining journey of my life thus far, and one that I actively encourage others to undertake themselves. “We can make the world a better place by being better people,” and developing a personal creed is how I propose that we do it.

But that also means that I can’t willingly accept biased lenses that violate the logical underpinnings of my moral framework – especially when I haven’t been given a good value proposition for doing so.

Paul might call this an “idiosyncratic reason for disaffection for feminism,” but for me, it’s Step Three in the process of building a creed. I have to recognize that I must choose between competing claims because contradictory paradoxes are nonsense. I might make better sense of something with more information, but in absence of that information, my position is disbelief.

So it is for feminism, and any other idea.

One Final Note

I hasten to add that none of the above is meant to imply that Paul hasn’t analyzed matters, discarded biases, and incorporated his analysis into an updated moral framework. If you’ve read his posts, then you know he obviously has. Constructing a personal creed doesn’t mean that we all end up with the same creed and think exactly the same things. All it means is that we’re all doing what we can to be better people. This is probably even true of feminists. Like I said, though, this isn’t really a post about feminism. If any paradigm can be shown to be too heavily biased, it ought to be discarded, and discovering that bias is a personal process that happens at different times to different people and for different reasons.

So it’s possible that, should Paul write another post on this topic, his explanation will fully reconcile his ideas and mine. It’s also possible that it would require many more posts to reach that kind of reconciliation. It’s possible that he may convince me yet that I am wrong. All any of us can really speak to is our perspective based on our current set of information. Knowledge and truth might exist, and it might make perfect sense, but that doesn’t mean we’ve collected all the relevant information yet.

 

2 thoughts on “When The Road Forks, You Can Only Choose One Path

  1. “Human ethics require an explicit rejection of polylogism”

    That seems to be the crux of the issue. Forget feminism, you two are just using it as a foil to discuss a larger meta ethical issue. For my part, I think ethics lies not in formally consistent logical arguments, but the public recognition of norms. Where norms vary so does public reason. To the extent that some norms are more universal than others, it’s because discourse and other cultural evolutionary biases create normative convergence. Those convergent forces trace an outline of a more general logic behind certain norns that you can call trancendental, in the sense of being abstracted from human particularity.

    So public reason liberalism is by definition polylogic, in the sense of allowing internally coherent communities with their own reasonable bases for action, but that can’t necessarily adjudicate moral questions between one another. Resolving dispute between groups requires reference to those more general, trancendental norms that they’re likely but not guaranteed to share. This is quite different from an anything goes relativism, but also is not as sure footed as moral absolutism. It’s a view that roots ethics in social practice, and thus there are as many conceivable ethics as their are self-reproducing social orders.

    Importantly, everything I’ve just said requires taking a kind of outside view of the situation. It’s breaking the forth wall. Just like I can acknowledge the varieties of systems of etiquette and comment on their functional commonalities, but still be planted within my own social order with my own expectations that I must continue to follow. What I mean is that, it’s fine to point out the polylogism of ethics, but it doesn’t give you a basis to flaunt your own public reasons, including the recognized meaning of words.

    Feminism has a definition. It’s not fixed and invariant, but it also isn’t whatever definition you choose to adopt for convenience. To the extent that we dispute the definition, we should defer to how it’s used in practice. That is, do self described feminists act as though it merely means demanding equal legal rights, or do their demands concern other sorts of inequities? Theres a big difference being value pluralism and definitional pluralism. If feminists disagree on what defines feminism, we should be categorizing the different conceptions to avoid confusion.

    1. Great comment. I particularly like your final paragraph.

      I do disagree with you about ethics’ lying in the public recognition of norms. I’m a bit of an extremist when it comes to individualism. Public recognition of norms doesn’t suffice for me; after all, the German public recognized some highly objectionable norms in the 1930s. The American public recognizes the drone-bombing of innocent civilians today. These norms are still flat-out unethical to me, even despite what the public says.

      For me, it’s important to construct an explicitly individual system, rooted in the idea that at least in a theoretical sense, if everyone thought long enough about it, we’d all more or less agree on “the” ethics. Paul’s dialogue is important here, because I see it as being an important means through which we share ethical information with each other and hammer out right and wrong. But it isn’t the only means, and the community at large is (in my view) more often wrong than right.

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