Moral fault and culpability

Our exalted Founding Fathers owned slaves. And of course they were founding “fathers” because they didn’t recognize the moral or political equality of women. Our ancestors perpetrated genocides, enslavement, torture, war, rape, forced conversions, mass sterilization, etc. You know the drill. The perennial question is What kind of judgment can we pass on our forebears? How could they have been so evil? Especially since we are keenly aware that our own grandchildren may look back on us with cold condemnation. Debates around this question rarely get anywhere. We want to avoid the cultural relativism that would exonerate our ancestors completely but also remain able to criticize what they got wrong.

In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker offers a novel way out of this jam. She distinguishes between culpable fault and non-culpable fault. I’ll let her explain it below. A bit of background for her example: Fricker refers to the Talented Mr Ripley, a play in which Marge has critical information that could prove Ripley murdered Mr Greenleaf’s son (and Marge’s philandering lover), but Greenleaf allows himself to be drawn into Ripley’s portrayal of Marge as merely a “hysterical woman”.

In the case of Herbert Greenleaf, we see this historical contingency played out in respect of the absence of a critical awareness of gender prejudice in the society in which his ethical and epistemic second nature were formed. While the Herbert Greenleafs of this world were always at fault in failing to exhibit the virtue, I suggest they were not culpably at fault until the requisite critical consciousness of gender became available to them. As we might put it, they were not culpably at fault until they were in a position to know better. There is no precise answer to the question at what point a Herbert Greenleaf comes to be in a position where he should know better than to neglect the possibility that Marge is right. And this question is surely best construed as a matter of degree, not least because the requisite collective gender consciousness is something that is likely to dawn only gradually. But no doubt a figure such as Herbert Greenleaf would be in that position long before he actually lived up to it by taking on board the gender-critical insights made newly available to him. Thus there will tend to be some period of historical transition in which a Herbert Greenleaf, well-intentioned as he may remain, moves from non-culpable fault to culpable fault. He lacks the virtue of testimonial justice with regard to gender prejudice throughout, but the relevant advance in collective consciousness is needed to render the shortcoming in his epistemic conduct blameworthy. Under the historical circumstances, then, my suggestion is that Greenleaf is not blameworthy for the testimonial injustice he inflicts on Marge.

There are some important points here. Fricker abjures relativism but doesn’t thereby advocate anything like a simplistic moral realism. Phrases like “historical contingency,” “critical consciousness,” and “collective gender consciousness” all point to the idea that the individual requires some kind of social resources or tools in order to understand and practice morality, however objective that morality might be. For example, it would be unreasonable to expect a 19th century man to understand or practice gender equality given his historical context. Mary Wollstonecraft had advanced her arguments in the end of the 18th century that women are educated in a way that undermines their rationality and dignity, but those arguments weren’t yet widely accepted by thought leaders. When John Stuart Mill wrote the Subjection of Women in the middle of the 19th century, he was writing in direct opposition to essentially the entire Western philosophical canon. There were of course radicals who advocated gender equality, but they were, well, radicals. Gender equality is not a simple idea to construct on one’s own when gender norms were so deeply entrenched and there wasn’t even the concept of “gender norm” with which to probe the issue.

Or for an example with a different political valence—this isn’t really a post about feminism—take free trade. It’s intuitive that we want to protect our country from shady foreigners. Buy American. But of course lobbying for protection against trade with foreigners wrongs both native customers and foreign producers, especially poor foreigners whose economic prospects are significantly diminished by being forcibly cut off from lucrative markets. Understanding the moral case for free trade requires concepts from both cosmopolitan ethics (or just universal equality) and the discipline of economics that explains technical concepts like division of labor and comparative advantage. In contexts where these resources aren’t readily available, free trade is going to be a hard sell.

Fricker further distinguishes between routine and exceptional “discursive moves in moral discourse.” Mill’s argument that there should be equality between women and men was an exceptional move. His contemporaries can hardly be morally condemned for failing to grasp this exceptional move. In contrast, Mill’s contemporaries could be condemned for, say, murder or other violence. The moral understanding that violence (absent some overriding justification) is wrong was and is routine.

However, our ancestors aren’t entirely off the hook for things like slavery, Jim Crow, unjust war, etc. And we’re not off the hook with our grandchildren either. Mill’s contemporaries who participated in the subordination of women were wrong after all. And Fricker allows we may justifiably feel some resentment toward those sexists of the past who just didn’t get it. As we move forward in time and the basic arguments of feminism have gone mainstream, that resentment of the masses transforms into condemnation of misogynist holdouts. To the skeptics of feminism in the audience, I’m not being controversial here, and you’re free to insert your own moral example to bring home the point. I’m thinking of misogynists who believe women shouldn’t vote and shouldn’t be given the same education as men. These are exceptional holdouts who mirror the exceptional reformers from before the moral paradigm shift.

Hopefully it’s clear that this is a continuous process. There’s no magic moment when the heavenly trumpets sound and a person goes from merely wrong to condemned. In the historical moment most of us are just doing the best we can in the collective—and internal, for that matter—moral discourse. These moral paradigms can shift rapidly and catch non-culpably wrong people up in the maelstrom. I’m thinking about the folks who participated in the common exclusion of GLBT people in, say, the 80s and 90s and failed to keep up with the rapidly shifting moral understanding of the last couple decades.

Now let’s get to the burning question. With Fricker’s distinction, can we both respect George Washington and condemn Adolf Hitler? It seems that we can. George Washington owned slaves. But so did most people in his landowning class in his time. He was wrong to do so, but he wasn’t exceptionally wrong. His failure to respect the dignity of these human beings by freeing them was in line with the routine moral understanding that slavery was a part of the natural order since biblical times. Indeed, if the stories are true (I haven’t done the research here because it’s not critical to my point), Washington treated his slaves as humanely as was consistent with the existence of slavery, and he provided for their manumission in his will, suggesting he was at least thinking critically about the justice of the peculiar institution. Washington was wrong about slavery, but the man was not evil.

What about Hitler? It seems as though the moral understandings available to Hitler at the time were sufficient to prevent not only genocide of Jews but also aggressive war. The understanding since the Treaty of Westphalia, since the bloodshed of the Napoleonic Wars, and since the horrors of the Great War all pointed to the clear moral evil of aggressive war. Jews meanwhile were citizens who had been participating peacefully and productively in civic life amidst their fellow citizens for centuries. The principles of religious freedom and tolerance were widely available since Europe’s centuries of religious warfare. Hitler and his Nazis were straightforwardly evil.

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I Am So Sorry

I would like to apologize for the role my behavior played in recent events.

As I was saying recently, we have a tendency to adopt certain identity-segmentation paradigms as mental models to try to explain the world around us, but those paradigms aren’t necessarily very good.

When the news hit that “Orlando gunman” Omar Mateen had a profile on a gay dating app and that he was a regular of the very club he ultimately attacked, many of my friends on social media responded very predictably. Many of them said something to the effect of, “Yet another conservative homophobe who is actually a repressed, self-hating person.” There’s an almost snide tone to it, as if some are satisfied, in a way, to note that anyone who hates the LGBTQ community is actually gay himself/herself. It’s a reaction that leaves me very unsettled, because it seems so nasty to try to score a point for one’s ideological narrative when real people’s lives are on the line.

For the record, my reaction was a terrible and profound sadness for Mr. Mateen. Who really knows what he had to endure? Who knows what sort of emotional pain would drive him to this? Indeed, this is similar to how I react whenever I hear about an on-the-record homophobe who is ultimately outed as gay. How sad. These people must be in such pain.

Needless to say (I hope), none of this excuses terrible people from doing terrible things, but when tragedy strikes, some of us immediately start angling for their version of “justice,” while others (like myself, I hope) feel only grief.

(It’s also worth mentioning that, as of the time of this writing, we still don’t really know if he was genuinely gay, or just “casing-out” a target location.)

Yes, I readily admit it: I felt sorry for the perpetrator of the crime, and in truth I also felt guilty.

The first time I really remember feeling this way was back in 2003, when all-around-bad-guy Rush Limbaugh publicly admitted to being addicted to oxycontin. His critics were not kind. Here is but one example. If one has a taste for schadenfreude, then there is a rich temptation to punch down here. After all, there is this:

“Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country. And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs. … And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up,” Limbaugh said on his short-lived television show on Oct. 5, 1995.

During the same show, he commented that the statistics that show blacks go to prison more often than whites for the same drug offenses only illustrate that “too many whites are getting away with drug use.”

In reality, it’s sad. Like so many other people, Rush Limbaugh accidentally acquired an opioid addiction as a result of fairly routine surgery. There’s nothing to feel triumphant about. Limbaugh’s addiction doesn’t validate the position of people who are kinder to addicts, it’s simply a sad reminder of how dangerous these newer opioids are.

But, the paradigm problem cuts both ways. It cuts in Limbaugh’s direction: he was painting all addicts with the same brush, but unbeknownst to him, modern opioids can lead even the best of us down the path to addiction. It cuts against his critics too: it doesn’t work to call him a hypocrite without conceding Limbaugh’s implied point that it’s the addict’s fault that he’s addicted. “Two legitimate but contradictory beliefs, one held consciously, one unconsciously, alternating variously.” (See what I mean now?)

Now, in Orlando, the ideological positioning is in full effect, with many people calling for stricter gun regulations, and many others calling for stricter immigration regulations, and others still calling for an eradication of intolerance. There are many reasons why each of these narratives fall flat, but while we’re busy calling each other names, a true gaping cultural hole has been exposed in America that can’t be filled with “better laws” or “fewer foreigners” or “more liberalism,” at least not without the same kind of contradiction we saw with the Limbaugh schadenfreude. 

I helped rip this hole open, and for that I am so incredibly sorry. I don’t think I did it alone, but I can only apologize for my own part of it.

Mr. Mateen was a first-generation American, and this is a demographic that we already know struggles to identify both with their native culture and their parents’ culture. Combine this struggle with the conservatism of Mr. Mateen’s parents’ culture, especially regarding homophobia, and then combine it again with the struggles of Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants in American culture as it stands. If it’s true that Mateen was a gay – comma – Muslim – comma – first-generation American – comma – from a South Asian family then none of our politically or identity-driven narratives begin to do justice to the multitude of struggles a person in his position would have to endure. Relaxing any one of those assumptions still leaves Mateen with a hefty emotional bag to carry.

We will never see that kind of narrative presented in the popular press, in the “blog-o-sphere,” or in our political discourse. It is far too satisfying – an indulgence far too tempting – to simply double-down on the familiar words: intolerance, radial Islam, terrorism, gun control, immigration, mental illness, the patriarchy, illiberalism. These ills are social, and we latch-on to them because they socialize the problem.

On Stationary Waves, I call it shared guilt: It’s our tendency to see social problems when the problems are in fact individual ones. We all do it, including myself, and for that I am sorry and I am ashamed.

Omar Mateen wasn’t “a Muslim.” That is, he wasn’t a guy who went on a shooting spree because he was a Muslim. He doesn’t fit that profile. Mateen wasn’t “a homophobe,” either, at least not in the sense that he went on a shooting spree because he couldn’t bear to live in a world with gay people. For that matter, he wasn’t even “a terrorist,” at least not in the sense that he had a clear political message to impart to the Government of the United States of America.

The problem with the various social-ills narratives is that no one of them is strong enough to account for the full force of the situation Mateen must have found himself in – a situation to which we all contribute, all of us.When we pin it on that particular thing, we grant ourselves permission to overlook this particular thing, and this particular thing is probably something to which we ourselves contribute. I know it’s true, in my case.

It’s surprising to me, however, because I would expect a pervasive social problem like misogyny, or homophobia, or gun control, or etc., to be a much more difficult to solve than solving our own individual shortcomings. Yet people are so quick to invoke shared guilt and thereby evade responsibility for producing an environment where one of our own neighbors wants to go on a shooting spree.

So for my cowardice, my weakness, and my inability to fully account for those shortcomings I wish to offload onto the shared guilt of identity narratives, I can only apologize, and try to make amends.

I’m writing all this because I happen to know what it feels like to be an outsider, and I have learned over the years just how rare true outsiders are. Even a very small team is a team. Most “individuals” feel individualistic because their team is very small. Very few of us just don’t fit in anywhere. I don’t expect many to understand it, so I am compelled to write. I don’t write this for the benefit of those of us who already know, but for the benefit of those who have always had a social group to belong to, and thus struggle to understand the motives of a person who is simply lone.

There are probably many reasons why Omar Mateen did what he did. We cannot overlay any narrative paradigm, no matter how personally appealing it is, because like everyone, Mateen must have experienced a wide variety of different kinds of antagonism and marginalization over the course of his life. Which one of them was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Was it any one of them? Was it any one in particular? Is it the combination of three or more that turn someone into a killer?

No, please. It’s all of them. At any point in time, you may belong to this segment or that segment, and at any point in time you may find yourself the brunt of some social force that pains you deeply. Remember that feeling. We all feel it, all of us, yes, even the privileged white males like myself who find ourselves on the outside more often than you think.

Remember that feeling, because the moment you feel it, you know what you need to heal. You don’t need identity politics, you don’t need new laws or new immigration policies. You don’t need better philosophy or more liberalism.

A person can only take so much hate before they break, and when they do, it might be a suicide or a homicide, a drug bender, a car accident, or anything else. A person might find a healthy outlet for their pain, or they might never. But it’s you and I that are causing this pain – and by “you and I,” I mean literally YOU and literally ME .

We speak and write and laugh and sing and act at the expense of each other, and we do it all the time. We even do it right here on this blog. We come out of tragedy with an “other-ing” mentality, where Those Who Commit Heinous Crimes are always them and never us. It doesn’t matter whether them is “bigots” or “gun nuts” or “homophobes” or “immigrants” or “conservatives” or “the patriarchy.” Whoever it is, it’s them. And because it’s them, we exonerate ourselves, even if we share some vague sense of responsibility for eradicating our favorite root social cause. The point is, we’re one of Those Who Know Better, even if that means we must indict our segment.

My hope here is that, in reading this, you think back to someone you’ve known who didn’t deserve what you gave them. Think of someone you unfairly ganged-up on, and think about what a lifetime of receiving such treatment would do to a person.

Would it turn someone into a killer? Maybe not. But what if it could? Would you change your behavior – your individual behavior – then?

Identity Segmentation

Part of what I do professionally involves attempting to identify groups of people who act a certain way, so that businesses can meet their specific needs. The marketing term for this is “customer segmentation,” and it’s a powerful set of tools for setting marketing strategies.

One problem with customer segmentation, however, is that when we carve out a particular segment of customers because they exhibit Behavior X on average, we accidentally include a bunch of customers who do not exhibit Behavior X, because they diverge from the average. Sometimes they even exhibit precisely the opposite behaviors. Just because you own a smart phone and an Xbox and happen to be a male aged 27 years doesn’t mean you’re going to watch the Super Bowl this year, even though most people who are like you on paper probably will.

Or, to put it pictorially:

GunfighterVenn
Go ahead, punk, book me to speak at your next marketing conference.

If you run a business, then you don’t actually care who gives you money (for the most part), you just want them to give it to you. Finding out what your key customer segments are is a means by which you attempt to identify people who have a high probability of giving you money, subject to the assumption that demographic data is predictive of a person’s giving you money. It also helps give you a language with which to communicate to them.

But that’s all it is. Your prediction may very well be wrong.

In business, this means that a lot of the people who get your direct-mail-or-whatever will completely ignore it and not give you any money. That’s because, despite your smart phone and Xbox ownership, your sex, and your age, you might not want to watch the Super Bowl; or, despite your looking a lot like the average childless male gunfighter, you might actually be a female customer service rep who is raising her grandchild; or, etc., etc.

Notice: It is quite often the case that many individual members of the nebulous group of people we believe to have a certain set of characteristics do not actually have any of those characteristics at all. Our customer segment includes both groups of people.

The error a lot of marketeers make occurs when they observe the multitude of behaviors exhibited by a particular segment that do not seem to cohere in a way that can be exploited through marketing strategies. They first think that they didn’t get the marketing message right, so they invest a lot more money into getting it right. When that doesn’t work, they decide that they got their segmentation wrong, and then go looking for “the real segment.” (When they find it, the process starts over again.)

Either way, for a long time, they’re stuck in their segmentation paradigm. Whatever else they choose to change, they don’t change the paradigm. The problem here is that, at a certain point, the marketeers have conflated their customer segment with what they really want to know. They don’t really want to know “Who is in Segment A?” Instead, they want to know, “Who is going to give me more money?” Segmentation is just a means to an end. It’s just a paradigm.

So it goes with all forms of segmentation. It’s tempting to describe the world – and especially human interaction – in terms of “people segments,” subsets of the population who we believe, on average, to behave a certain way. As I stated before, though – and I don’t want to belabor the point, but it bears repeating just one more time – any time you choose to create a segment, you include large swaths of people who behave very differently than the segment itself is said to behave. What this means is that, when you aim to talk about a segment – even your own – you wind up being terribly wrong about a good number of people in that segment.

So, what good is a segment?

Segmentation can be useful as a sort of mental model: If all individual behavior more or less corresponded to the behavior we wish to assign to a group, then what does the world look like? Once we’ve answered that question and come up with a rudimentary view of the world, we can then think about relaxing some of our assumptions, making the “segments” a little fuzzier, and assessing what that does to our basic world view.

This only works, however, if we agree to at least two rules.

First, we shouldn’t make the mistake of conflating our segment-oriented mental model with the actual state of the real, physical world. It might be useful to pare things down a little bit to gain some grasp over the broadest strokes, but the simple fact of the matter is that the real world is more complex than our mental models.

Second, as we relax our assumptions – and we must relax them – we must also agree to test how relaxing them impacts not only the behavior of our model, but also its credibility. If your model of how Purple People related to Blue People only explains, say, 30% of the interactions between Purples and Blues, and only does so if we agree to use the loosest language possible, then perhaps its time to reconsider whether Purple-versus-Blue is the right cut of the data. Maybe it’s Purple-versus-Green. Maybe it’s Triangles and Circles instead. Purple-versus-Blue might be the story with the most emotional power, it might be the story that wins you the highest number of friends or blog followers, it might be the story that wins the largest quantity of grant money, and it might be the one that everybody wants to hear about.

But it might still be wrong nonetheless. As one who puts people into boxes, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your boxes are worth anything.

If you hated this post, boy, are you going to hate these:

The Courage to See, the Courage to Kill

Featured image’s source is NASA.

The struggle between enlightenment and spirit, detached reason and emotionally embedded life, is one of the characteristic conflicts of modernity. It has played out in arguments and in art, in politics and policy. Charles Taylor has traced the contours of this and related conflicts with remarkable skill and subtlety.

The 1954 science fiction story “The Cold Equations” is a useful example. A middling midcentury parable that is long on exposition and short on plot, it sets up a stark scenario in which fellow feeling and detached reason are at odds, but the latter must necessarily triumph.

Author Tom Godwin describes a future in which resource constraints on the frontier of space allow for almost no margin of error. They give ships just enough fuel for the exact amount of mass they are carrying. So any stowaway must be tossed out into the void immediately, or there won’t be enough fuel to decelerate, and everyone aboard will die.

Continue reading “The Courage to See, the Courage to Kill”

Is Marriage Worth It? For Poor Women, No.

I scratched my head (figuratively) as I scanned Laurie Penny’s latest for sufficient class consciousness. Known for being a fighter for those at the bottom, her latest essay, Is marriage worth it? has an odd focus on well-to-do women. Odd first because of its author, but second because rich women are by-and-large still saying “yes” to that question. Middle-class women are getting married, though at later ages than previous decades.

Her points about the pros and cons of modern marriage are well-articulated (as per usual for Penny) and salient. But while she shines light on the unfair, gendered division of the mostly unnoticed and seldom-discussed “emotional labor” required to run a household, I am not buying that the question of who has to remember the birthdays has much impact on when and whether low-income, low-education women marry.

“It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, realising how terrible their working conditions are and have always been, women everywhere are simply going on strike.”

It is beyond the bounds of possibility though. Maybe not the bounds of possibility, but certainly the math doesn’t point to that conclusion. The math says that the demographic group going on strike against marriage at the highest rates are poor women. (Despite conservative handwringing and fringe movements such as MGTOW, the majority of men at all income levels report the same desire to get married they always have.)

Poor women are opting out of marriage entirely, while rich women only delay it. And they’re doing so not because it’s a bad deal emotionally, not because they want their freedom, not because they don’t need no man.

As Penny points out, “Over half of Americans earning minimum wage or below are single women – and single mothers are five times as likely to live in poverty as married ones.”

Conservatives have long exhorted poor women to get married before having kids. In a speech he gave on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Marco Rubio called marriage “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty.”

Later at an Atlantic summit on female poverty Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich had a retort to this idea. “When you say to women, to get out of poverty you should get married, my question to them is, how many men you have to marry? Marrying a 10-dollar-an-hour man gets you nowhere, so you’d really have to marry three or four.”

The idea that putting a ring on it will lift women out of poverty shows that conservatives fundamentally misunderstand cause-and-effect. Women aren’t poor because they don’t get married. They’re unmarried because they’re poor.

Poor women don’t reject marriage as an institution. They simply can’t find men to marry.

“It isn’t that having a lasting and successful marriage is a cure for living in poverty,” says Kristi Williams of Ohio State University. “Living in poverty is a barrier to having a lasting and successful marriage.”

The average woman wants to marry a man who earns more than she does. Even women who graduate from Harvard. “Being the breadwinner has been a linchpin of U.S. men’s masculinity for decades,” Dan Cassino wrote for HBR.

Most marriages today are between two people who earn almost the same amount, but with a slightly higher salary for the man. Assortative mating is the norm at all income levels.

Here’s the math problem that both neoconservatives and Laurie Penny fail to grapple with. At the lower end of the income scale, women outearn men on average. That means if every low-income woman married every low-income man, the majority of those marriages would have a woman breadwinner.

When they’re not telling black and Latino women to get married, neoconservatives are responding to the economic reality that soon the average childless woman will outearn the average childless man with attempts to “bully, threaten and cajole wealthy white women back to the kitchen and nursery,” according to Penny. These attempts “are as much about racist panic as they are about reinstituting a social order which only ever worked for men.”

Rather than telling men to step up and follow women’s lead in figuring out how to contribute profitably to the modern information-and-service-based economy (and this despite sexism), conservatives are instead telling women to step back to give men a chance to catch up.

None of this is going to work, of course. Poor women aren’t going to stop having kids, and rich women aren’t going to sacrifice their earning potential to soothe male egos indefinitely.

But the reason poor women aren’t going to stop having kids before they get married is that there’s no one for them to marry profitably. There simply aren’t enough men who make more money than women at the bottom to go around. The average poor woman can’t marry a middle-class man because he’s married to a middle-class women, of which there are plenty. In fact, there are currently more college educated women than there are men.

Four times as many black people have never married today than in 1960. This correlates with the fact that, according to Pew, “There are 51 employed, never-married young black men between the ages of 25 to 34 for every 100 black women in the same boat.”

Katherine Boo followed two black women African-American enrolled in a marriage promotion antipoverty program based in their Oklahoma City housing project for “The Marriage Cure.”

What she found should surprise no one with a passing familiarity with both demographic data and any sense of how poverty works on the ground. There was no one for these women to marry. All the men around them who were single were both unemployed and unemployable due to their criminal convictions.

“For these women of modest means, it seemed that finding a partner meant looking for someone who wasn’t an economic drag on them, which was a tall order. In other words, instead of poor folks being poor because they’re not married — they might not be married because they’re poor.”

And it’s not like he’s not going to help around the house.

Husbands, on average, do not do as much domestic work as wives do. This isn’t news. What’s interesting is that this holds true regardless of income or employment. That is, even when wives work more hours outside the home than their husbands, wives still do the majority of the domestic work.

There’s actually evidence that as wives who outearn their husbands’ income increases, men decrease the amount of time they spend on domestic work. As Cassino put it, “Even the potential of making less than one’s spouse threatens accepted gender roles.” These wives seem to be reassuring their spouses. By cooking the meal they also bought, they seem to be saying to their husbands, “Don’t worry. You’re still a man.”

The irony is that the backwards gender roles that conservatives keep trying to shove down people’s throats make marriage a horrible deal for poor women.

Fragile masculinity means marrying just creates more work for poor women. It’s the reason that the less educated a man is, the less likely he is to marry.

Penny writes, “If women reject marriage and partnership en masse, the economic and social functioning of modern society will be shaken to its core. It has already been shaken.”

I predict women won’t reject marriage and partnership en masse. Marriage still works for middle- and upper-class women, which makes Penny’s focus on them all the more ironic. Women at the bottom have already rejected marriage en masse (though not partnership, many live with partners to whom they are not married). But they’ve done so for reasons completely separate from the calculus of rich women. They’ve done so because there’s no one for them to marry, and that problem is likely to get worse. Right now only about 15% of U.S. men make less than their spouses. But younger men are far more likely than older men to earn the same or less than their spouses.

Penny: “The question of how households will be formed and children raised is still unsolved.”

Correct. Until and unless low-education, low-income men figure out how to either outearn low-education, low-income women or figure out how to do the majority of domestic labor, single parenthood will continue to be the norm for low-education, low-income people.

Near the end, Penny speaks of enjoying going to her friends’ weddings. “It’s just that I also happen to believe in dismantling the social and economic institutions of marriage and family.”

Similarly, I might like to remarry as well. As a college-educated woman, if I marry a college-educated man, we enter the cohort most likely to get and stay married. And as a college-educated woman, I’m much more likely to be able to find a college-educated man to marry than I would be without one. Mrs. degree FTW.

“I’m a romantic,” Penny writes. “I think love needs to be freed from the confines of the traditional, monogamous, nuclear family – and so do women. I think wrapping up the most intimate, exhausting aspects of human labour in a saccharine slip of hearts and flowers, calling it love and expecting women to do it thanklessly and for free is a profoundly unromantic idea.”

I’m a romantic as well. And while love needs to be freed from the confines of the traditional, monogamous, nuclear family, property doesn’t. The practical benefits of marriage are considerable, at the individual and societal level.

Even after controlling for income, compared to their peers children raised in a home with both biological parents have fewer behavioral problems, less asthma, less hunger, and better grades. A recent study by Economist Raj Chetty showed that nothing, not neighborhood segregation or school quality, impacts income mobility more for a low-income child than the family structures she sees in her community.

All else equal, I’d love to take advantage of the proven benefits of marriage. Middle-class families protect and grow their wealth by taking advantage of marriage’s economies of scale and division of labor.

But even more importantly, I’d like to extend those benefits downward to the poor.

The fundamental problem is not that we’ve wrapped up the most intimate, exhausting aspects of human labour in a saccharine slip of hearts and flowers, called it love and expected women to do it thanklessly and for free. It’s that we’ve wrapped up the most intimate, exhausting aspects of human labour in a saccharine slip of hearts and flowers, called it love and told men in no uncertain terms that to do it thanklessly and for free as women have always done they are acting womanlike and that to be womanlike is the more humiliating thing you could possibly do.

There are many reasons men at the bottom of the food chain don’t earn as much as women, including the degree gap, eroding demand for low-skill labor, and overincarceration.

But there’s only one reason low-earning men aren’t worthwhile husbands, and it’s misogyny.

If we want low-income families to be able to take advantage of marriage’s tremendous benefits, we will have to convince men that domestic labor is real work and that real work is honorable, even if it’s work women used to do.

Radicalism as a virtue

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As any Intro Ethics final will note, Aristotle’s describes the virtues as “the middle state” between extremes of excess and deficiency. The paradigm case is courage, the virtue that sits between rashness and cowardice, respectively. This conception of virtue is labeled “The doctrine of the mean”, or simply “the golden mean”, and has its precursors in the Delphic Oracle’s imperative “Nothing in excess” and the Analects of Confucius.

The Doctrine of the Mean seems to oppose radicalism on its face. The very term “radicalism” connotes an extremism of views; if the virtue lies in the middle, then no radical view can be virtuous. As Paul and Adam suggested in a recent discussion, a virtue ethics seems to preclude compatibility with radical feminism by its very formal structure. Liberal feminism, as the more moderate view, seems prima facie the more virtuous position.

But this prima facie argument fails to appreciate the subtleties of the Golden Mean. For both Aristotle and his predecessors, the virtuous mean must be understood in relation to the extremes it avoids. A central motivation of these views is that the virtues can’t be known by any absolute criterion, but must be reckoned through reflection on the relationships we observe around us. To find the courageous mean, we must have models of not just courageous persons, but also of cowardly and rash persons. Not that we should be like the extremists, but we should watch them carefully because they set the boundaries, and it is in terms of these boundaries that I can hope to chart the virtues.

This argument has not yet established radicalism as a virtue. So far, I have only argued that the extremes have instrumental value to the virtuous. At most, this implies that the extremists cannot be eliminated from the discourse without moving where the middle lies. Indeed, the Overton window is moved not by negotiating the virtues, but by policing the extremes.

To go farther and see radicalism as a virtue, one must show that pursuing a radical or extremist beliefs is the most reasonable way to arrive at a virtuous or “middle” position. This may sound incoherent, but hopefully can be made intuitive with a few examples. First, consider orbital mechanics (more fun than archery). To get a probe to Pluto, it’s not enough to launch the probe at Pluto (and cross one’s fingers). Since Pluto is also a moving target, one must also anticipate where Pluto will be when you arrive (ten years later!), and adjust your launch path accordingly. This means that at the start, you’ll be launching a probe in a direction quite radically (!!) other than where you intend to go. But if you calculate carefully, in order to hit your target it’s precisely this radical direction you ought to aim. In this case, the radical solution just is the virtuous solution.

The point is that *aiming* at extremist views can be the most effective way to *arrive* at the correct (‘middle’) views. And, by extension, aiming at moderate views might land you on a view that isn’t virtuous at all. For a normative example that doesn’t involve space ships, consider Paul’s recent defense of liberal feminism against radical feminism.

Paul’s criticism of radical feminism (that it fails to respect the particular stories of individuals) seems lame in the face of the radical response he cites in the article (“that it doesn’t much matter how women construe their sexual choices as these choices are formed within and inextricable from male supremacy”). Indeed, at several points Paul remarks on how much of the radical feminist position is reasonably taken up by the liberal feminist view, and how hard it is to find solid ground to critique the radical.

Well, then, why think there must be a critique at all? Why can’t the radical feminist simply be correct? Paul responds by appeal to the golden mean: the extremist simply can’t be correct!

But look again at the case: Liberal (ie, moderate, “virtuous”) feminists hold views that are clearly grounded in and consistent with (if less radically articulated than) the radical feminists. This seems to exactly be a case where aiming at the radical position CAN leave one on the correct trajectory to a virtuous view. The radical is there to set the bounds of the discussion, and thereby shift the middle towards their preferred views. By articulating strongly radical views, it brings many of those positions into the mainstream where they can be sensibly adopted by the moderates, reinforcing these new norms *as* the norm. The moderates legitimize the work of the radicals at the edges (or discard what cannot be tolerated from the middle) until all the minis have been maxed. And behold, a virtue is born.

The point here is not that the radical is “correct”, or that the liberal is “correct”. The point is that both positions play a dynamical role in the discourse, both simultaneously serving to locate and reinforce the middle where they see fit, and both work together to accomplish this task even where they disagree. That the liberal and radical feminist overlap so strongly in the present is evidence that the destinations they’re tracking are so far away as to converge at the horizon. If anything, the overlap of these views is evidence of the distance we have yet to cover; given where we are, their disagreements are effectively irrelevant.

But while this doesn’t let us decide between the radical and moderate views, it does suggest that any simple-minded aim at a moderate position will likely fail to appreciate the dynamics involved. One ought to advocate for radical views in situations where radicalism helps move the discourse towards the virtuous center; often, advocating for the center is not such a view. One ought to advocate for the center in a way that helps to locate and reinforce it, but when moderate views appeal to the center-as-default, it can be counterproductive to any actual moderation precisely because it obscures the effort to find it.

Thus, and absent any deep paradox with virtue theory, the radical can indeed behave with more virtue than the moderate. The radical might not only help others better find virtue, but might herself stand as a model of virtue.

Be radical, kids.

Adam Knew His Wife Eve

And she acquired not the Lord, as she hoped, but a murderer.

It is an odd euphemism, isn’t it, for sex. “To know” someone has for millennia elicited stifled giggles from the adolescent male, “in the biblical sense,” knowwudimean? It is doubly strange because the Bible, especially the Christian Old Testament, blushes not to describe sexual activity in ways that would make Chaucer blush. The story of Onan and his brothers is so explicit that it is simply off-limits in mixed company (Genesis 38). Translators of the prophets often notoriously smooth over certain images to prevent hyperventilation among the Ladies Aid set, whose fundraisers pay translator salaries (Isaiah 64:6). And some images are untouchable (Ezekiel 16).

So why to know as a euphemism?

It’s not a euphemism: it’s the story of sexual dominance. The bible is describing exactly what Radical Feminists are expressing, as Paul Crider reports in his latest post. The bible is describing the fall from a graceful relationship, in which the woman came out of man to help him have dominion over the earth, a relationship which seems best to describe as a willing partnership, unfettered by coveting, which is the sin of the self which drives all the other sins. Now, instead of a willing partnership, which was to have dominion over the earth, in part, by filling it up, multiplying, the primary relationship of a man to a woman is that of sexual dominance: Adam knew his wife Eve.

God had set them in a garden, where he gave them leave to eat the fruit of any of the trees of that garden, even the Tree of Life, but they were forbidden to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Except the translation is difficult, and can’t express what this tree is for.

A little Hebrew: the noun knowledge might be a verb (I hereby make the case that it is), which changes the nouns following, i.e., “good and evil” from a genitive relationship into the direct objects of the verb. Thus, we would render the phrase as “You may not eat of the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil.”

It becomes, therefore, parallel to Adam knowing his wife Eve.

But first, why would God not want his creatures to know good and evil? I think a second question helps answer this one, and also furthers us into understanding just what in the hell happened at that tree: how would they know what good and evil are, so that they could choose between right and wrong?

Ah, but it’s not about intellectual information: they would first trust God to teach them, then they would learn information as they set themselves to the task of having dominion over the earth, also known as wisdom, reasoning with each other, and their many and varied offspring, as to the best course for developing the resources of the earth for the good of all. Instead, knowing good and evil is about acquisition. It is a rare usage, which makes this entire post tenuous, at best, but it is a usage nonetheless that when one acquires property, one knows it, to the effect that one has control over it and exercises authority over it. That is what this tree is for: to exercise authority over good and evil.

With application to sexual activity, a counterexample is helpful. The Son of God became flesh, John says, and made his dwelling among us, not by the will of a man, but by the will of God (John 1:12-14), a reference to Jesus’ origins which are much discussed through the heart of John’s Gospel, the Jews of whom called Jesus a Samaritan, which is equivalent to calling Mother Mary a whore.

And so, to know someone sexually is for the male to overcome the female (no furtive giggling, you there in the back row), for him to acquire her for the sake of begetting. The story of Jacob acquiring his two wives, the daughters of Laban, through fourteen years of labor, exemplifies this, and their desire to acquire him, one over the other, is made plain when, in the etiological Sadie Hawkins dance, after purchasing the rights to Jacob from Rachel by means of mandrakes, Leah runs up to Jacob, saying, “You must come into me tonight, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes!” (Ah! The romance of youth!) (Genesis 30:14ff).

At the beginning, Eve was certainly aware of this relationship change, seeing it as plain as day that her husband had acquired her in a relationship of domination, thinking that she was due her own acquisition in the process: “I have acquired a man, Yahweh (the Lord)!” And she called him Acquisition (Cain), the progenitor of human culture, starting with murder.

Human culture has its primeval foundation in sexual domination, which the Lord pronounced against them, either as part of the curse for reaching out to acquire domination over good and evil, or as a mere description of the consequences of the same. He says, “You, Woman, shall desire to be over your husband [in a dominating relationship], but he shall lord it over you.” Yes, the willing partnership is now dissolved, and a grappling of domination has taken its place.

All respect is due, then, to the Radical Feminists, who have seen and named the sexual relationship as it is, agreeing in whole with the picture presented in the first part of the Christian Bible, especially when they condemn pornography and prostitution as vehicles to perpetuate the domination of the man over his woman. We shall see, having progressed so far as to produce the Radical Feminists, whether our society can unloose what our mother and father wrought.