Social justice, mercy, and healing

Featured image is The Angel of Mercy, by Joseph Highmore, c. 1746.

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.

Susan Griffin, The Way of All Ideology

The solution, in tangible terms, is community care and a great deal of awareness of how most of us did not get our needs met at key developmental stages, which means we did not move out of those stages and must do so now. Collective healing is possible. We can heal when we can finally be our whole, unguarded selves, in human community, without shields or guards, and be liked, accepted, seen, held. This is systemic change, spiritual change, at the core levels of our culture, lived each day.

Nora Somaran, The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture

Justice, equity, and mercy

In her essay, Equity and Mercy, Martha Nussbaum contrasts three concepts of moral and legal adjudication: strict justice, equity, and mercy. Strict justice observes that a crime has happened, and demands it be balanced with some proportional retribution. Details of personal history, environment, even ignorance of relevant knowledge have no bearing on strict justice. Continue reading “Social justice, mercy, and healing”


Mother of Exiles

Cryptoconservative moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has delivered another important essay in light of the ascension of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for POTUS. The piece follows his usual pattern of rebuking liberals and progressives for failing to appreciate the rich, technicolor palette of conservative—in this case literally authoritarian—morality. Liberals see racism and conclude their analysis there. But Haidt argues persuasively that this is just the beginning of understanding the conservative moral mind.

[Authoritarianism is] a psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat. It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group. At those times they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force. At other times, when they perceive no such threat, they are not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.

Authoritarian conservatives are different from Burkean conservatives, who merely wish to uphold the dominant traditions and norms of the status quo.

But status quo conservatives can be drawn into alliance with authoritarians when they perceive that progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political actions (such as Brexit, or banning Muslim immigration to the United States) are seen as the only remaining way of yelling “Stop!”

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Epistemic injustice and rape culture

In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker describes two kinds of epistemic injustice, testimonial and hermeneutical. They are “epistemic” in that they impact the individual specifically in their capacity as a knower. Fricker argues that since reason is often what is seen to make humans distinct from other species and individuals capable of morality, epistemic injustice harms an individual in a core aspect of their being in addition to various deleterious secondary effects. In this post I want to describe the concepts involved before applying them to the controversial topic du jour, rape culture.

Testimonial injustice

Testimonial injustice is in its simplest formation the injustice a Hearer does to a Teller when, without good reason, Hearer disbelieves the testimony of Teller. This can be incidental or one-off. Suppose in a sportsball match you don’t believe a referee’s call because it results in a penalty for your preferred team. Even though (suppose) the referee was in a better position to judge and you were peering into your beer at the time of the play, you disbelieve the referee. This is merely an incidental testimonial injustice as it is low-stakes for the Teller and localized in its effects.

The more interesting and nefarious case is when testimonial injustice is systemic: individuals belonging to certain identity groups experience a credibility deficit that tracks broader prejudices against that group. Fricker gives the example of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Robinson is accused of raping a white girl and faces an all-white jury in the deep south in the middle of the 20th century. Atticus Finch has provided the jury with overwhelming proof that Robinson is innocent, but stuck between the words of a white girl and a black man, the men of the jury are simply incapable of believing the latter.

Testimonial injustice can be stealthy, as when it takes a preemptive form: members of certain groups may simply not be asked their opinions on certain matters. Or the credibility deficit of certain groups may come from “residual” bias, where we still act according to patterns unconsciously established long ago despite our conscious and earnest belief in the nonsexist, nonracist ideal.

Imagine, for example, a woman who has freed herself of sexist beliefs–a card-carrying feminist, as they say–and yet her psychology remains such that in many contexts she is influenced by a stereotype of women as lacking the requisite authority for political office, so that she tends not to take the word of female political candidates as seriously as that of their male counterparts. Such a conflicted figure exemplifies the phenomenon of (what we might call) residual internalization, whereby a member of a subordinated group continues as host to a sort of half-life for the oppressive ideology, even when her beliefs have genuinely moved on. Sometimes this might simply be a matter of the person’s affective states lagging behind their beliefs (a lapsed Catholic’s guilty conscience, a gay rights activist’s feelings of shame). But other times it can be that cognitive commitments held in our imaginations retain their impact on how we perceive the social world even after any correlative beliefs have faded away. These commitments can linger in our psychology in residual form, lagging behind the progress of belief, so that they retain an influence upon our social perception.

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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.

Radical feminism: hermeneutically sealed

Radical feminism—and this is a technical term, to be contrasted with liberal feminism, socialist feminism, etc—is often dismissed for some positions that seem facially outrageous, even to other feminists. Heterosexual sex is inherently a manifestation of violent dominance of men over women. “Pornography reveals that male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting. Rape is the paradigm of sexuality.” ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ in rape cases just protects male rapists by privileging their point of view over that of victims. Freedom of speech and the right to privacy likewise act to shield men in their oppression and exploitation of women. Women cannot truly consent to sex work (they can only be “prostituted”). Women who dispute the claims of radical feminism suffer from “false consciousness”. You get the idea.

radfem1I’m a liberal feminist, and so ultimately I conclude radical feminists overextend themselves, bite off more than it’s a good idea to chew. But in reading Catharine MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, I was surprised at the overlap of MacKinnon’s radical feminism with some of the liberal feminism I’ve read. The overlap isn’t unity, for sure, but many of MacKinnon’s criticisms of liberalism have been pretty successfully ingested by and incorporated into the best exponents of liberal feminism, and many of the seemingly outrageous bits are less so when viewed within the radical feminist paradigm. I want to give radical feminism à la MacKinnon the best representation I can before I impugn it. I’ll speak with my own voice again in the final section.

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Objectification, Dehumanization, Pornography

Objectification of women is a recurring theme of feminist discourse. The basic idea is that women are objectified when they are viewed or treated primarily as objects rather than as human beings, whether this is through pornography, modern advertising, or direct interpersonal interactions (cat-calling, ogling, groping, etc). Objectification is a form of dehumanization that can facilitate direct harms like sexual assault as well as more indirect harms like mental health problems, eating disorders, body image issues, etc.

But objectification is not at all a simple concept. Martha Nussbaum has argued that not all objects are treated the same, so it’s worth examining which particular ways we treat objects are inappropriate for treating humans. In her essay Objectification (pdf here, also appearing in her book, Sex and Social Justice), she suggests we treat objects in at least seven different ways, conceptually distinct but not mutually exclusive; indeed they’re often overlapping and mutually reinforcing.

  1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
  6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
  7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Some of these are a little confusing without examples. I couldn’t make sense of “agency” but by “inertness” Nussbaum seems to mean something like “involving processes”; she gives the example of a word processor as something that is not inert, whereas a rock is inert. We use many objects instrumentally, as tools for our purposes, but we often wouldn’t use an ancient tree in a forest as a tool; we may treat an animal as a tool, but rarely merely as a tool, perhaps because animals have subjectivity. Ink pens are fungible and instrumental, but Michelangelo sculptures are not; both lack autonomy and subjectivity and can be owned.

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Migration: a human capability

This essay was originally published at Open Borders: The Case. I’m cross-posting, slightly modified it here in observance of Open Borders Day.

One of the core arguments for free movement of people is the economic logic of the free movement of labor. But of course people are more than just labor, and migrants make the journey for a variety of reasons. If it isn’t for economic gain (or welfare benefits maximization, in the cynic’s version of the narrow economic motive), then the migrant must be fleeing oppression, if the typical migration discussants are to be believed. The role open borders could play in offering sanctuary for the oppressed is important, of course. But this too, is not the full story.

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