Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Victim blaming and ‘asking for it’

A short section of a thing I’m working on at the moment. The overall thing will be about the general notion of victim blaming and the instances it is used to cover. There will be lots of J.L. Austin in it.

The phrase ‘asking for it’, used in so many cases of rape and sexual assault, masks a distinction between two very different notions, and often slides between its two different senses. The distinction is that between a provocation and a request. On the provocation model, a woman’s clothes, behaviour or location are seen as a red rag to a bull – the perpetrator is presented as having been ‘provoked’ to commit the assault. This is similar to the ‘Right, now you’re asking for it!’ of a barroom brawl. On the request model, the perpetrator is claimed to have responded in a reasonable or understandable way to a masked or non-verbal request for sexual contact.

‘Provocation’ itself is typically used in a range of ways: I might be wearing a provocative top, or say provocative things about a renowned philosopher (perhaps both at the same time). These cases are very different: the latter might be a cause for condemnation, while the former is in most cases fairly benign. Perhaps sometimes I might even provoke thought. ‘Provocation’ also has legal and medical uses. The legal use is parasitic on the ordinary understanding of provoking anger: under many jurisdictions, someone charged with committing a violent crime may be excused or exculpated if they have been ‘provoked’ in a way that has led them to lose control. In the medical sense, ‘provocation’ is any technique used in a clinical trial to elicit a particular reflex or bodily response. The legal, medical and anger cases suggest a loss of control or responsibility for one’s own actions, an absence of the capacity for rational thought, and the eliciting of a response that is not fully voluntary. This seems to be an element of the sexual sense too, although one that we are probably better off without.

The sense in which ‘asking for it’ is construed as a request is in strong contrast to this. It is used when a victim is understood to be consenting by behaving in particular ways, for example by going to the perpetrator’s room, or by dancing with him. If we understand it in this way, then the perpetrator is understood as someone who is capable of attending to another person’s intentions, and acting on the basis of what he takes those intentions to be. The behaviour is taken either to express the victim’s desire for sexual contact, or to be reasonably interpretable as doing so.

It seems unlikely that someone could be capable of behaving in this manner, while at the same time being so ‘provoked’ in the former sense that they are unresponsive to the normal reasons for action. On the first understanding of ‘asking for it’, the perpetrator is (partially) excused on the basis that he is not in control of his actions, while in the latter, he is (partially) excused because he has made a reasonable interpretation of the situation before him and acted accordingly. The cases also differ with respect to the perpetrator’s supposed attitude to the victim. In the first case he is portrayed as (excusably) unresponsive to her preferences and wellbeing, while in the second he is portrayed as responsive to them.

In both senses, this phrase is a case of blaming the victim, but for different reasons. In the first sense, the perpetrator is presented as the proximate cause of the attack, but his moral responsibility is taken to be overridden. In such cases, his actions are taken to be caused rather than chosen, and the victim is then taken to be the most immediately responsible party with free agency. This is usually only taken to be ‘partial’ blame, where the perpetrator’s actions are not so beyond his control that he is entirely exculpated, and the blame is ‘distributed’ between perpetrator and victim. The second case is also an instance of victim blaming, but the victim is blamed either (a) for claiming that a rape or sexual assault has occurred when she was ‘actually’ consenting; or (b) for misleading by ‘sending out the wrong signals’. In both (a) and (b) the victim is presented as dishonest or misleading. Again, this kind of victim blaming may be an element of a (purported) partial excuse, but notice that those who blame the victim in this way can present the behaviour of the perpetrator as entirely reasonable.

In reality though, these very different meanings tend to be equivocated, despite their near-incompatibility.

Outward-looking feminism

I should note at the very start that anyone who feels the need to say something like ‘Exactly! This is the problem with feminism’, or to agree with me about the ‘pc nonsense’ is not welcome. You are, in a trivial sense, entitled to your opinion (trivial because all it means is that I should not be allowed to stop you thinking or saying it) but you are not my ally, and if you think that you are in sympathy with this piece you have misunderstood it.

What I want is an outward looking feminism. Not outward looking in the sense of feminine self-sacrifice or self-abnegation, but instead directed to a clearer, less fearful, vision of each other and the world that we cohabit.

As women, we are trained from a very early age to see ourselves as things to be looked at. Many of us find it hard to get away from obsessing about our appearance, our weight, and whether our behaviour is regarded as properly feminine or sexy. This is the triumph of whatever you want to call our target – be it men, patriarchy, systematic oppression – that’s up to you. We are not just policed by legal and pay inequalities, by threats of violence and explicit exclusion from roles and positions, we are, perhaps more than anything, policed by ourselves as a result of how we are raised, trained and shamed. This means that we have ourselves constantly in view – am I up to the mark? Am I projecting the right image?

Under such conditions, it is hard to look outwards. It is hard to enjoy a sunset without thinking about a certain image of oneself enjoying a sunset. It is hard to think about intellectual or political ideas without thinking about the ways in which we are seen to be doing so. Getting away from the panopticon – the all-seeing male gaze that we impose on ourselves – and just looking at what is in front of us, is extremely difficult. Solitude is a project to be achieved, not the simple state of being away from a particular other, because we tend to bring the eyes of others along with us.

Social media doesn’t help with this of course. There is unprecedented scope for us to compare ourselves with others day or night, and to have unprecedented opportunities to project an image of ourselves to others even when we are alone. This may be equalising in a sense, imposing on men (especially young men) many things that had previously been more feminine burdens. But do we want equal self-surveillance and policing for all?

This is a common theme in feminism. Sandra Bartky writes about it very effectively in her book Femininity and Domination (I nicked the image of the panopticon from Bentham via Foucault via her). But what I think we need to see is how this self-obsession has come to infect many areas of feminist discourse themselves.

The most obvious point here is about image. Now of course things like weight, body hair and so on are feminist issues, and they should be discussed in feminist spaces. But a feminism that makes us obsess about our own hairy pits or our own body fat is not a feminism that I can totally get behind. We need to lose that self-consciousness from time to time, and move beyond the particular images that we are projecting to the thoughts and feelings that lie behind them.

But that isn’t enough, because (perhaps another thing ramped up by social media) those thoughts and feelings can become a kind of image branding as well. It is easy to move away from thinking about something important or interesting and start thinking about how we must be seen to be thinking about something important or interesting.

‘The personal is political’ is a great feminist slogan. It reminds us that issues often trivialised or marginalised because they affect us in the private or domestic spheres, in our everyday lives rather than on the global stage, can be matters of serious political concern. But this should not lead us to retreat into an obsessive kind of self-examination, more concerned with how we see ourselves and the way that we are affected by things than we are with the world around us. And I fear that this happens a great deal – we are constantly monitoring ourselves and our feelings for the pernicious effects of patriarchy on our wellbeing.

One thing that I have in mind here is the current feminist concern with safety, which often manifests itself in a heightened sense of danger. There is a need, undoubtedly, for certain safer spaces, for trigger warnings, for all kinds of assurances and provisions to make us more secure. But the proliferation of these and similar things has often had the opposite effect by leading to an exaggerated sense of the danger in situations. Discussions in online forums will rapidly descend into people feeling threatened or hurt by other people’s comments, in a way that moves the discussion away from the topic at hand – we stop looking outward and start looking inward. Meanwhile, the focus on safety vs. danger can make us hesitant in other areas of our lives – afraid to walk the streets alone or speak out in public – we lose sight of our destination, and worry instead about what might happen to us. We need to find a way of acknowledging the real dangers and fears associated with an oppressive system, while finding the strength resilience and good humour to look the world in the face.

Of course, this has always been a peril of developing any kind of political consciousness concerned with domination and oppression – we become aware of threats and slights that might previously have passed us by. But a pernicious inward-looking tendency, itself the product of an oppressive system, can turn an outward-looking positive political movement into an incubator of neurosis. It is an irony that it is the internalised eye of the other that can make us disappear inside ourselves. To overcome this solipsism we need to learn to be properly alone.

I don’t have any easy solutions to this. It is something that we need to arrive at in discussion with each other and through living, campaigning and reflecting. But in order to do so, we need to practice looking – properly looking – rather than looking at ourselves as looked-at. This seems to me the only way that we can be less fearful, less solipsistic and more empathetic.

That bloody dress again – vision and choice in perception and values

I haven’t updated this blog in a while, mainly because of being very busy. I am still very busy, but since I have been gripped by the same thing that everyone is getting by turns obsessed and infuriated about over the past day or so, it seemed worth getting it off my chest.

For some reason, everyone went totally mad over a fairly ordinary quality photograph of a not very nice dress. The reason for this insanity was that people disagreed dramatically over its colour. Some people saw it as blue and black, while others saw it as white and gold. I was closest to the blue and black team, although it was more like a vibrant blue and a dark warm brown colour.

Very quickly, people started offering scientific explanations of the phenomenon. Most explanations put it in terms of a basic contrast effect. When displayed in a particular visual context, different colours appear in different ways. This XKCD cartoon demonstrates the effect.

Now this is part of the explanation, but it doesn’t give us everything that we need to know. Take the famous checkerboard illusion. In this illusion, two squares that are coloured in the image with the same pigment appear as different colours because of the visual context. But with this illusion, pretty much everyone looking at it will perceive it the same way. With the dress, people were pretty close to coming to blows over being contradicted on what just seemed so obviously the colour. Even people looking at the picture in the same conditions disagreed about the colour, so we can’t just put it down to surrounding lighting conditions, the colours of other things on the screen or in the surrounding environment and so on.

We then got other explanations of the difference that referred to stuff going on in people’s visual systems that led them to differ in their colour perception. Different arrangements of rod and cone cells, or different neuronal activity might privilege a certain way of seeing the dress.

It seems that the best explanation is likely to be a mixture of the two, combined with other factors. Certain particularities about the specific configuration of our eyes, our nervous systems and the surrounding environment will all have a role to play. Other things might come into it too: I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that certain moods might incline us to imagine the context as a lighter one or a darker one for example, or that memories of clothes that we have seen or owned might come into it. There are also features about other perceived qualities of the dress. I was eventually able to make the switch to seeing it as a white/gold dress, but only once I started to think of it as much more shiny and satiny in texture than I had previously done.

This is the sort of thing that the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty talks about. In his view, the perception of a quality is not something that happens in isolation. I don’t just see a red, for example, but rather a warm woolly red. Colours are not just colours in the abstract, but they come with textures, smells, occasions, memories and meanings. Perception is a feature of the way that we operate in the world, and the meanings that things have for us. I saw the dress as blue/black when I was imagining it as a matte textured garment that I might squeeze myself into in the morning, with sunlight streaming through the curtains. When I managed (after a bit of work) to see it as white/gold, I was seeing it as a glitzy evening affair that I would put on in preparation for a night out, while my hair was in curlers and I was listening to ABBA. This is a bit of a dramatization because I probably wouldn’t ever wear that dress, but you get the point. Things appear in the way that they do because they have certain kinds of practical significance.

But actually it wasn’t so much the peculiar visual differences around the dress that interested me so much. What intrigued me was quite how mental everyone went about it. Not only was there radical disagreement between people’s visual perceptions, but this was extremely vehement, and people were quite bothered by the fact that other people saw things so differently. People seemed anxious that this was leading them to question objective reality, or the reliability of their senses. Other people flooded to online tests for colour blindness with the conviction that if other people saw things so differently, perhaps there was something wrong with their visual system. The response to the effect seemed very often either to be that either you or I must have some pathology, or the basis of the world that we inhabit is somehow threatened.

This is interesting because people disagree about things on the internet all the time. This is often vehement and entrenched, but it doesn’t usually lead to the same kind of anxiety or questioning. Why not? Probably because most of these disagreements are about politics, aesthetics or ethics. If I say that you need to get your ears tested if you claim not to have enjoyed the latest Björk album (I haven’t listened to it yet actually, but you know) you would not actually think that it was something that you needed to rush to the GP about. If I said that you are wrong in the head for voting UKIP, you probably wouldn’t take that remark seriously (actually, you should). These are value judgments of various kinds, and most people today tend to think about value as subjective: even if our moral, aesthetic or political reaction seems to us to be immediate, obvious or visceral, we won’t usually be surprised that other people don’t see the world in the same way.

Iris Murdoch has an interesting line on facts and values. For her, an ethical outlook is a way of seeing things. People or objects appear to us in certain ways because they matter to us in relevant respects. This is close, in some ways, to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about visual perception: a face, for example, might appear to us completely differently according to the attitude that we have towards the person concerned. There hasn’t been much work, so far as I can tell, on the connections between Merleau-Ponty and Murdoch, but I think there should be. Perhaps that will be my next project.

Another thing that Murdoch talks about is the way in which the classic distinction between facts and values is not as clear-cut as it might first appear. It is certainly useful to make fact/value distinctions in some contexts: for example, it is helpful to challenge people who think that something is automatically good because it is ‘natural’, and bad because it is not. But this approach has its limits. The stark distinction, Murdoch thinks, is itself based on a certain moral take on the world: one that is rooted (she thinks) in Protestantism and Liberalism. Why would we say that? I find the Protestantism aspect a bit harder to grasp (although, informed by my recent viewing of Wolf Hall, I am starting to get some inkling of it) but the liberal bit has two components:

  1. Meaningful discourse must be possible, so we must basically agree on the nature of a public external world that we all inhabit, which furnishes us with ‘objective facts’ that are established through our phenomenal experience.
  2. Disagreement must not be irrational, so ways that things matter or have meaning for us (‘values’) must be private, subjective, and available as choices.

Now, if we live by this kind of framework, of course disagreements about something like the dress will disturb us in ways that disagreements about ethics, politics or aesthetics will not. The ‘objective world’ which we thought that we shared with other people has come under threat.

The dress is an interesting case because (a) it is not set up as an illusion – it isn’t something that has been deliberately set up to trick us, but rather takes the form of the photos that we usually regard as reliable, which makes it more threatening; and (b) many people did not feel that they had any choice in the matter of how they saw it – disagreement seems to make it fit in the ‘subjective’ box, but the absence of choice over how to see it (in contrast with, say, the Necker Cube) seems to make it belong in the ‘objective’ box. The idea that we see things differently, and this is not something that we have any obvious power to change, is understandably threatening to many people.

Interestingly, there seemed in this case to be much more agreement about an aesthetic issue. Most people seemed to be clearly of the opinion that it was a horrible dress. In this case it was the ‘subjective’ issue where there appeared to be the most agreement.

Of course, despite a failure to see the colours differently, we can still come to scientific and philosophical understandings of how the differences come about. Even if we can’t see it how others do, understanding why their perceptual experience might differ from ours might make us refrain from shouting at them that they must be mad, blind or deceitful. And eventually, by trying out different conditions, squinting a bit, and returning to the image, not to mention a bit of imagination, we might actually start to see it differently, even if just for a moment. Here I think the issue of value is no different.

Mill, Wordsworth, Role Models, and Personal Possibilities

I have been spending far more time than is reasonable on an article about John Stuart Mill and William Wordsworth. While a central strand of it has remained constant, the process of writing, rewriting, discussing with colleagues, near misses from journals and more rewriting has transformed large portions of the article. I hope to be getting rid of it towards the end of the month, but maybe this is too optimistic. I had some thoughts about what I am trying to do in this paper that extend to broader ideas about role models and the emulation of others, and particularly to how this might apply to my own situation: a junior woman in philosophy, in regular contact with women who are more junior and more senior.

What happened to Mill is pretty well-known. Short version: he was raised by his father and Jeremy Bentham with the intention of creating the perfect utilitarian theorist. In pursuit of this goal he had a rigorous and rather restrictive education, leading his attention away from such things as art and poetry in favour of the classical languages needed to read philosophical texts, economics, and other disciplines that might be regarded as ‘useful’ to him as a utilitarian thinker, and to society more generally. This may, by the way, put us in mind of certain trends in contemporary education policy, but I’ll save that for another day.

Unsurprisingly, the young Mill suffered from a ‘mental crisis’ in his twenties. His attributes his recovery, in part, to reading the poetry of Wordsworth. Variously, Mill’s crisis is put down to some kind of Oedipus complex, to Victorian repression, to plain intellectual overwork (tell me about it), or to something rotten at the heart of Benthamite utilitarianism itself. Mill’s own interpretation comes closest to the last of these possibilities. He describes the associationist ideas about education associated with Bentham and with James Mill: ‘the object of education should be to form the strongest possible associations of the salutary class; associations of pleasure with all things beneficial to the great whole, and pain with all things hurtful to it’. Pleasure, then, should be taken in those things which serve a purpose. But what purpose is that? To the Benthamite, there can be only one answer: the maximisation of pleasure. Now the risk here is that we open up a massive regress: pleasure in causing pleasure, which in turn should be taken in causing pleasure, and so on. We are at risk of the bottom falling out of it – if this is all there is, then how can we ever take pleasure in something merely for its own sake? Everything we enjoy might ultimately be experienced as empty and meaningless. This seems to be what happened to Mill – his description resembles very closely a lot of first-person accounts of severe depression, in which nothing of meaning or significance can be found in the world.

So how did reading Wordsworth help? Well, it might be nice for us simply to say that Mill realised, through reading Wordsworth, that daffodils were nice too, not just utility maximisation. But this doesn’t really work. Why, if that were the case, couldn’t he get the same effect just from looking at some lovely daffodils? Mill’s answer was that the sensibilities that were needed to engage with natural beauty in a profound way were lacking in him because of the nature of his childhood education. Nothing could have value for him beyond the valuing response itself, and this had lost its charm. What Wordsworth taught him, therefore, was a certain kind of cultivation of the character – a new way that it could be like to be him. Through revealing how the world could appear for Wordsworth, new possibilities lit up for Mill.

Now, there are problems with this that I won’t bother you with, but an interesting puzzle arises when we ask why it was Wordsworth, rather than Coleridge perhaps, or Shelley, who had this great effect. Looking at things that Mill wrote later on, this seems odd: he describes Wordsworth as an ‘unpoetical’ poet (unlike Shelley) and as a poor philosopher (unlike Coleridge). In a sentence that he later omitted from his ‘Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties’, Mill describes Wordsworth’s attempts at lyric poetry as ‘cold and spiritless’. How, then, might this unlikely candidate have been such a great influence on Mill?

The clue, I think, can be seen if we look to Aristotle, a figure who was very influential on both Wordsworth and Mill. Aristotle’s ethics focus primarily on the idea of cultivation of the character – an element that Mill diagnosed as missing from Benthamite utilitarianism. To live a good life, one needs to become a certain kind of person, and this is a matter of feeling, as well as thinking. We get there through developing the right habits. If we repeatedly act in virtuous ways, we train our personalities such that we become virtuous. But the individual cannot do this in isolation – he (and for Aristotle, it was a ‘he’) had to look to the virtuous man (and for Aristotle it was a man), who he could emulate in order to cultivate the appropriate habits. It is through this emulation and repetition that we develop the right thoughts and feelings. Truly knowing (rather than merely imitating) the right way to respond in given situations, is called phronesis, or practical wisdom. This is not something that can be learned merely through philosophy texts, but through observing, interacting and living.

This gives a central significance to the idea of a role model. This is not something to which Wordsworth was blind, and neither was Mill: you can see a version of the idea expressed through his notion of ‘experiments of living’ in On Liberty, where a free society would allow people to develop new ways of living that would serve as an inspiration to others. One of the points that I want to make in my article is that Wordsworth served as such a role model for Mill: a model of practical wisdom, not of theoretical philosophy. Wordsworth opened up possibilities for taking pleasure in the natural world – pleasure of a kind that had been denied to Mill until this point.

But other poets wrote about natural beauty – in Mill’s opinion many of them better than Wordsworth ever did. So we still don’t understand the poet’s particular importance. A plausible answer to this lies in the very things that Mill identifies as Wordsworth’s weaknesses. In the ‘Thoughts on Poetry’, Mill makes an interesting comparison between Wordsworth and Shelley, maintaining that each is strong where the other is weak: Shelley is all emotion, with flimsy and casual associations of ideas flitting about all over the place. He excites sensations beautifully, but rushes from one idea to the other without allowing the intellectual component to unfold. By contrast, Wordsworth is a thinking poet. While he does evoke vivid imagery and emotion, it is always in the service of thought: ‘what he is impressed with, and what he is anxious to impress, is some proposition, more or less distinctively conceived; some truth, or something which he deems such. He lets the thought dwell in our mind till it excites, as is the nature of thought, other thoughts, and also such feelings as the measure of his sensibility is adequate to supply’. Here Mill thought that Wordsworth was lacking. His feelings, and his expression of them, were not of sufficient power and depth to describe him as having a poetic nature.

Mill’s education, even in his downcast state, had allowed him to form associations of thoughts, to engage intellectually with associations of ideas, to turn them over, pick them apart and analyse them. What Wordsworth demonstrated for Mill is how one might grow feelings, insipid as he later deemed them to be by comparison to Shelley, from such unpromising soil. It is the very thing that made Wordsworth ‘unpoetical’ that enabled Mill to see some hope for someone in his own situation, and from his educational background.

An important lesson to take from this is that when we search for our models of phronesis, the striking people from whom we can emulate practical wisdom and learn about how to live, we cannot look for saints or superheroes. We need to find people who can show us that certain things are possible for us, with our self-perceived limitations and weaknesses.

In her fantastic essay ‘Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality’, Iris Marion Young argues that while men typically understand the world around them in terms of practical possibilities for action, women and girls are typically raised in such a way that they see it in terms of an absence of possibility for them. The standard way of relating to the world is not then so much an ‘I can’, as an ‘Others can, but I can’t’. We see obstacles, limitations and danger where we see those same environments as a source of practical possibility for others.

But perhaps through role models, one can start to see the ways in which things are not just possible, but possible for someone like us. For Mill, engaging in the world, valuing it, taking pleasure in it, all seemed impossible until he was shown a way that it might be done by someone who was, in relevant respects like him: limited, ‘unpoetical’, stunted by theory, and (in his later opinion) almost insipid.

A recent study of mentors in academia demonstrated that while in many cases female mentors had a positive effect on the self-esteem and career development of their female mentees, in some cases, counter-intuitively, they seemed to have a negative effect. In these cases, the mentors projected an image of themselves as highly-efficient, confident, and untroubled by a lot of the inner and outer barriers that afflict women in academia. They were demonstrating that what they were achieving was possible, but their mentees did not feel that it was possible for them.

Knowing this does not automatically help. The culture in academia (and in academic philosophy especially) is one in which it is very difficult for women to show any weakness. If we demonstrate a lack of confidence in our ability to do the job, share our imposter syndrome, reveal our feelings of ‘I can’t’, we feel (with some justification) that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what Mill and Wordsworth’s story reveals is that for someone to serve as a model of how things might become for us, they have not only to demonstrate what is possible, but also show how it is possible for someone like me, with all of my limitations, fear and doubt.

What sort of feminist are you?

A while ago, I wrote a piece for the New Left Project about transphobia in some strands of feminism. I faced a number of (very politely) critical responses from people in feminist circles with whom I discussed the article over a few pints. It turned out that much of their concern was not so much with the substance of the article, but with the fact that the link to the article (presumably written by a sub-editor) took my remarks to be critical of ‘radical feminism’, which, in contemporary discourse, pretty much lands me in the ‘liberal feminist’ camp. This was the one concern I had with my dealings with the New Left Project, who, apart from this, had been amazingly helpful and good fun to work with. This led me, over the intervening months, to reflect a bit on the ways that we categorise feminism, and in particular, the use of the words ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’.

What might we take ‘radicalism’ to mean, in the context of feminism? First of all, I want to dismiss the poorly thought through uses of it as a catch-all pejorative term. It is a great shame to see the way that the word ‘radical’ has been hijacked by certain interests in the political and media landscape. Very often, what is meant by ‘radical’ here is ‘extreme’, or even ‘extremist’. In a culture that is purportedly ultra-liberal and in favour of freedom of expression, it is a way of cutting out voices that are not regarded as part of the reasonable spectrum of opinions. You can be a feminist, but you can’t be too feminist. This often goes along with the cartoon image of the hairy-pitted dungaree wearing ‘feminazi’. You are allowed to discuss these issues in the public sphere with us, provided you get a nice haircut and do your make-up first. If you are not prepared to conform to visual expectations of femininity, then you are ‘radical’, and therefore not part of the conversation. ‘Radical’ as a pejorative term is, in this context, utterly obnoxious, and aims to shut people out of public discourse. More on that shortly.

Now, that paragraph looks very much like a liberal feminist point, and to a degree it is. I place a great deal of importance on there being a diversity of voices, opinions and ways of living. Following in the liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill (and not in the liberal tradition of John Rawls) I believe that this vibrancy and noise is part of how we can learn to develop and flourish as individuals and as a society. Notice that what is implied by this is that some ways of living and associating are better for us than others – there is such a thing as development, progress and a good life for human beings. This form of liberalism is sometimes called ‘perfectionist’ liberalism.

For a Rawlsian liberal, the political theorist is supposedly neutral between different ideas of what good lives, and good ways of associating, must be. Sure, they might have their own ethical views, their own ideas about what it would be to flourish as a person and as a society, but in terms of deciding how the basic structures of society should be set up, they have to keep those under their hats when they are thinking about political theory. This embodies a presumption that we should not take one person’s view to be ultimately authoritative, and to trump the views of others. Political theory must be neutral between different conceptions of the good life for human beings. This is known as ‘anti-perfectionist’ liberalism.

Now the problem is that this is, contrary to what Rawls says that he intends, an embodiment of a particular view of the good – namely, liberalism. This means that while non-liberal ethical and political views can be aired within a society, it is only the liberal voice that gets to determine its basic structures. This takes the force out of all non-liberal positions – all voices that are simply permitted within the structure are a clamour of different cries for attention, or perhaps nothing more than a range of lifestyles that one might choose, just as we might prefer different flavours of ice cream. Marxism, for example, is a viewpoint that might be expressed within such a context, but the context strips it of all meaning. This relates to something that concerned Mill – it wasn’t enough that we should simply be able to utter particular forms of words as though they were some sort of incantation – they had to be living breathing ideas with whose meaning we engaged.

When applied to feminism, the problem with the anti-perfectionist approach is that it leads to the conclusion that, provided people are given certain legal negative freedoms, the battle has been won. It is not simply that pornography, strip-clubs, pay differentials and so on are not banned, it is that it is not valid to argue about them, to suggest that they are bad. They are someone’s free choice, and therefore not something that can be reasonably disputed or criticised (or at least, dispute or criticism can be registered, but not really debated, because it is simply a style of living, or a matter of taste). In addition to this, arguments about reorganising the basic structures of society – the mechanisms of government, the institution of the family, and so on, are simply invalid or meaningless.

Now while liberalism of the anti-perfectionist kind is often hallowed as being properly liberal, where perfectionist liberalism is regarded as in some sense illiberal because it dares to base the structure of society on a particular ethical outlook, it appears to me that the converse is the case. Liberalism of the Rawlsian kind renders certain kinds of discourse meaningless, reducing certain viewpoints and opinions to mere clamour. It is a constant source of frustration to me that merely questioning the ethical and social implications of a certain act or institution is taken as equivalent to saying that the thing in question should be banned, and when it is made clear that this is not what is meant, the response is often ‘well, that’s just your opinion, why are you bothering to even discuss it?’ It is as if I have just walked into the room an announced that I like cheese and onion crisps – well, so what?

Now it might be argued that this is no imposition on freedom, because, after all, you can still express your views. Nobody is telling you to shut up. But anyone familiar with the workings of patriarchy will be aware that freedom is not as simple as that. Nobody forces us to wear clothes that restrict our movement, to put on make-up every day, to spend huge proportions of our incomes on our physical appearance, but we live in social conditions that make it very hard not to do these things, and this is all the more pernicious because the coercion is all around us, and not easily pinned on an identifiable patriarch. As Sandra Bartky puts it:

‘…the disciplinary power that is increasingly charged with the production of a properly embodied femininity is dispersed and anonymous; there are no individuals formally empowered to weild it; it is, as we have seen, invested in everyone and in no one in particular. This disciplinary power is peculiarly modern. It does not rely upon violent or public sanctions, nor does it seek to restrain the freedom of the female body to move from place to place. For all that, its invasion of the body is well-nigh total’ (‘Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’ in      Bartky, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (London: Routledge, 1990)

So in short, I do not reject liberal feminism, but I reject forms of it that do not take liberty seriously. There are more ways to dominate, control and silence than simply passing laws or imposing physical constraint.

So what about radical feminism? Well, as I have already said, we must reject the pejorative sense of the word (sorry New Left Project) for reasons that might be described as good liberal ones (albeit Mill’s liberalism, and not Rawls’ version). But many feminists describe themselves as radical feminists. As with liberal feminism, this might have a number of different meanings, which may or may not overlap. In a discussion with my friend Jamie, we picked out four different broad groups of ideas that might be taken as hallmarks of radical feminism. There are probably more, and we might quibble about the way that they are grouped. This is not supposed to be exhaustive or authoritative.

1. Omnipresence of patriarchy

I have already talked about this one. The idea here is that we can’t separate off individual pockets of life that are or are not ‘feminist issues’. Gender oppression, in a patriarchal society, is something that is constantly present to those affected by it, and it imposes itself on a whole way of being in the world. This is something that I agree with. Although there may be some situations where gender oppression might not be the first thing that we mention, it is constantly a factor in female experience. One way in which I ascribe to this that may be controversial, even by the standards of those who broadly agree with the ‘omnipresence of patriarchy’ thesis, is that I take the role of the body to be a foundational aspect of this oppression. The ways in which women are socialised to experience their bodies at all times as objects, rather than as the loci of consciousness, experience and activity, is to me a vital aspect of my feminism. This is somewhat in tension with some aspects of liberal feminist thought, where freedom is often conceptualised as transcending the body, or as ‘mind over matter’.

2. Transformation of consciousness.

Related to this is the idea of what liberation would consist in. For many who describe themselves as radical feminists, freedom from explicit legal or physical constraints is not sufficient. Radical change requires a personal transformation of consciousness that cannot be achieved only through legislation or superficial equality of opportunity. As I made clear earlier, I also agree with this.

3. Gender as the primary or foundational mode of oppression.

Here I disagree. This is something that came up years ago when I was discussing feminism with a late and much-missed colleague called Soran Reader, whose conversation was as exciting and stimulating as it was frequently infuriating. Soran has been a great influence on my feminism, and on my philosophy generally, and, true to what she would have wanted, I don’t always agree with her. She said that when she described herself as a radical feminist, she meant that she held the foundational form of oppression in the world to be the oppression of women by men. Other modes of oppression were secondary to that, and any solution to oppression had to begin with the emancipation of women.

At first glance, this may look very similar to the point about the omnipresence of patriarchy in patriarchal societies, but it is distinct from it. For example, a Marxist might accept the omnipresence of patriarchy thesis, and still maintain that the path to human emancipation had to begin with class-consciousness and the overthrowing of capitalism. I would agree with neither point of view. Volumes have been written on this subject, and volumes more probably need to be written, but in short, I believe that modes of oppression are intertwined and multifaceted. Some critiques of the notion of the foundationality of gender oppression have argued that this is related to the fact that feminism is dominated by white middle-class women like myself. I think that they probably have a point.

4. Gender Essentialism

Many who describe themselves as radical feminists hold some thesis about the correlation between a certain kind of body and a female gender identity. There are variations on this theme, but often the idea is that the way that women are oppressed, although historically conditioned, relate to aspects of the female body which are not historically conditioned (the reproductive body, for example). Variations on this thought often reach a range of conclusions that I would want to reject. For example (a) gender is binary (b) there is no such thing as a trans woman (c) men can’t ever be feminists, only allies, (d) we can understand gender in a way that is totally abstracted from history, and so on.

The opposite of this view is often taken to be a kind of gender constructivism – the idea that gender identity doesn’t really map onto anything – that it is all down to social conditioning and arbitrary social categories.

I want to reject that idea too. In general terms, I think that ‘nature or nurture’ talk is often horribly misguided. The idea that we can look at biological bodies in isolation from culture, or some kind of free-floating disembodied mind which is free from biology, strikes me as a way of thinking that we are best off without. I haven’t fully explored my ideas about gender essentialism in particular, but my suspicion is that both horns of this dilemma rest on a fundamental misconception of the relationship between human beings and the world in which they exist and associate with each other. Further to this, there is interesting work by ecofeminists about the association between nature and the feminine, which aims to challenge a lot of dichotomies that underpin both the oppression of women by men, and the oppression of nature by humanity. We’re talking stuff like nature/nurture, nature/culture, active agent/ passive matter and so on. Look up Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, you won’t regret it.

So, what sort of feminist am I? Am I in the liberal camp or the radical one? Am I a gender essentialist, or a gender constructivist? Am I sex-positive or sex-negative?

Well, this week, I suppose I am a radical liberal socialist ecofeminist. Ask me next week, and there will probably be different words in there, or the same ones in a different order. The point is that any labels and terms like this can be useful, they can sometimes act as shorthand for a complex of ideas. But just like many other notions within feminism, such as ‘privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ (yes- I know I haven’t explained what I think about this one much) they can sometimes mask a vast array of finer distinctions, create false enmities, discourage us from thinking for ourselves and lead us into serious error. What sort of feminist am I? I’m the sort of feminist who likes to think about ideas, preferably over a pint in a nice pub with a bunch of friendly people with different perspectives. Or, you know, we could talk about other stuff too.

The politics of moral dilemmas

This morning I have been mostly overthinking an XKCD cartoon. Here it is.

The cartoon has raised some criticisms on feminist forums. The problem that people have identified with it is that it suggests that the poor guy is stuck in this impossible situation, and not meeting the love of his life, because women are so confusing. Darn those women, if only they could make their minds up about whether they wanted strangers to talk to them or not.
I think this is a little unfair on the cartoon – I see it as raising a genuine problem, rather than necessarily perpetuating it. There are various ways that you can read a rather sparse little comic strip like this, but we do not have to draw the moral that the man is a victim of those confusing women. Rather, we can say that we live in a culture where there genuinely is no right answer about how he should behave (although there certainly are plenty of wrong ones). This is not the fault of the woman in question, or of women in general, but rather the fault of background conditions under which women, as sexual and human beings, might welcome human contact for various reasons, but under which they are also prone to feel intimidated or objectified by a random approach from a man, no matter how well intentioned. Whether an advance is welcome or unwelcome is so dependent on the particular situation that the man is not always going to be able to read it successfully, and the woman herself may well feel conflicted. This is made all the worse by the fact that men are socially expected to make the advances, but (for the same reasons) men often make advances that are unwelcome, or even commit acts of sexual violence and intimidation. Like it or not, scenarios like this one are not just exchanges between two individuals, they are conditioned by the background norms of behaviour. This can lead to impossible choices.

But it is important to remember that there are much more significant impossible choices than this one: should I heat my home or feed my family? Should I choose a career or children? Should I feel trapped in my home or risk sexual assault? Should I suffer violence and oppression, or fight it with violence and oppression? Should I fight the oppressors, or care for those who are dependent on me because they are oppressed? All over the world, people are forced into situations where there is no right answer to these questions, only wrong ones. There are other situations where we face less troubling questions that have no right answers: ‘do I buy a second car or a second home?’ might be one example, or ‘shall I order the moules mariniere or the pan-fried sea bass?’ These are nice choices to have, even if there is no system for determining the answer, and importantly, there are only right answers, rather than (as in the previous examples) only wrong ones.
Moral philosophers often like to think that there is a formula for determining the right thing to do. If you are faced with a decision like this, you apply whatever your well-tested formula happens to be, do what it says, and then you have done no wrong. This does not reflect our experiences in situations like this. I do not believe that any theory is always going to present us with an unproblematic ‘right’ course of action. Sometimes there just isn’t one.

In the cases where there are only wrong choices, this often (but not always) stems from political injustices. Heating one’s home or feeding one’s family is only a meaningful question in situations of poverty. When people are faced with that choice in wealthy countries like the UK, this could have been prevented. The choice between a career and children is most often a genuinely troubling one for women.

If we believe that genuine moral dilemmas of the kind that I have been talking about are troubling and conflicted cases, this might present us with a case for saying that the prevention of them is a central concern of politics. Of course, there will always be some unavoidable situations with no right answers, and learning to deal with these is an aspect of moral maturity, but these situations should not be inflicted on people in gratuitous and radically unequal ways. Many political theories emphasising choice seem to overlook the fact that market-based accounts of freedom tend to create these situations. ‘Choice’ becomes a watchword of the advocates of freedom: the luxury of choosing between the mussels and the fish may be a lovely thing, but in what sense is the choice between starving or freezing either a good or a reflection of freedom?
Political institutions concerned with liberty ought to be in the business not just of maximising the choices that people can make, but in making these choices meaningful ones that do not place people in situations of unnecessary irresolvable conflict.

Should the guy speak to the woman on the train? I have no more idea than he does, and because of that, he ought to do what he can to bring about a society in which women are equal and not subject to objectification and intimidation. If he acknowledges that, then I think we are right to feel sorry for him.

Fracking: Science, Myth and Virtue

Fracking seems to be the big environmental story of the year. Today, two news reports which appear to lend support to conflicting sides of the argument have emerged. One story told us that the economic benefits of fracking may be much less than previously thought, and that gas prices for the consumer will be minimally affected. The other story tells us that a report conducted by the Royal Society for the Department of Environment and Climate Change tells us that the carbon footprint of fracking would be similar to that of other ways of extracting fossil fuels. There is no contradiction between the reports, but they provide ammunition for different points of view.

At a speech at the Royal Society in London, Ed Davey, the energy and climate secretary, said  “You would be forgiven for thinking that it represents a great evil; one of the gravest threats that has ever existed to the environment, to the health of our children and to the future of the planet. On the other side of the coin, you could have been led to believe that shale gas is the sole answer to all our energy problems … Both of these position are just plain wrong. … Gas, as the cleanest fossil fuel, is part of the answer to climate change, as a bridge in our transition to a green future, especially in our move away from coal.”

Consequentialist Arguments

It is interesting that earlier in the debate, much of the opposition to fracking was voiced in terms of its capacity to cause earthquakes. Later, after reports suggested that fracking would cause only very small amounts of seismic activity, the argument shifted to other environmental threats, such as pollution of air and groundwater, and the effect that new sources of fossil fuels would have on climate change. It is also emphasised that fracking is a relatively new and unknown technology, which may have grave long-term risks.

I do not want to undermine any of these arguments. There is growing evidence to support many of the claims about groundwater pollution, and there is a good case that the availability of more fossil fuels is likely to undermine efforts to tackle climate change. Purely in terms of probable consequences, there are good reasons to think that we should not support fracking.

However, when the debate is only had on these terms, it easily leads to a situation where the opponents of fracking are caricatured (as Davey caricatures them in his speech) as the prophets of doom, clinging to their views even in the face of empirically researched, rationally disseminated evidence. The earthquake argument didn’t work, so we found a new danger to focus upon.

The debate is conducted along very crude utilitarian lines, weighing up the costs and benefits to humanity and proceeding according to the best scientific evidence. If it turns out that the evidence comes out against fracking, we decide not to do it, and if the costs turn out to be outweighed by the benefits, then off we go. If we take this approach seriously, there really is very little space for activists and politicians in this argument at all. However much they do their homework, they are amateurs compared with the scientists, engineers, seismologists, geologists, economists and ecologists who really know their stuff. This would suggest that there really is no moral argument to be had here, or at least the moral aspect of the matter is taken care of by a simple formula in such a way that the right way to proceed will become obvious when, and only when, the scientific evidence is in.

Myths versus Science

This rhetoric is typified in the frequent use of the language of scientific fact versus myth. Davey’s speech is entitled ‘The Myths and Realities of Shale Gas Exploration’. He outlines the purpose of the Royal Society report as being that the Royal Society should “make recommendations to ensure exploration in the UK could proceed safely and extraction be managed effectively; Recommendations based on the scientific evidence to ensure that the way forward is informed by fact and not by myth.” He elaborates further on this theme later in the speech: “our society is ill served when we allow myths to proliferate or when we allow debates to be hijacked by zealots or vested interests. So, today, I want to make the calm, rational, objective case for shale gas exploration in the UK in the light of the three equal and overarching objectives I have as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.”

What does Davey mean by myth? It seems that he is using it partly in the usual colloquial sense of meaning bad science, and in this case bad science that is driven by ideological concerns that are not themselves amenable to scientific proof. To some extent Davey is right. It is indeed dangerous when people fabricate scientific results to fit their ideological concerns, and present their own dogma as justified by science, alleviating them of the responsibility to justify their position. More on that in a bit, but first of all I want to point out that the word ‘myth’ gets an unfairly bad treatment in this sort of rhetoric.

Myths, in the traditional sense, are not a pernicious or badly conducted form of science, aiming imperfectly at the truths that science can pinpoint much more effectively. Myths are a different sort of thing altogether – they are fictions, that we know are fictions, and which have a tendency to stick around in the public consciousness. In addition, most myths, folk tales, fairy tales and other stories of these kinds are not based on consequentialist thinking. We do not criticise the myth of Oedipus because we suspect that it is not factually true, and nor do we slate the fairy tale because in actual fact, it is a biological impossibility for a prince to turn into a frog and back again. We know very well the difference between myths and science, and yet we continue to be attracted to the former. Why would we still be fond of myths when science can tell us all that we want to know about the composition of the physical universe? It is because myths are not about truth in the scientific sense, but rather about the sort of psychological meanings that we draw from them, many of these moral.

Myth and the Moral Imagination

These meanings do not work simply by way of a crude symbolism that makes their morals easily translatable into less opaque language, although a lot of contemporary notions of them seem to proceed as though that is the case. I don’t think that we can say for example, as some people try to, that the moral of Prometheus is simply that if you meddle with mighty powers beyond your understanding, then you will inevitably face some horrible punishment. If that were all that was going on, why wouldn’t you just say that in the first place, and why wouldn’t we then run some kind of scientific investigation to determine whether it is actually the case? Rather, the myth expands the complexity and sophistication of our moral imagination. We are initially invited to sympathise with Prometheus as the man who champions humanity in the face of tremendous unknown powers. We experience his tragedy with him, and reflect on his punishment: do we feel that it was deserved? is such a punishment invited by such behaviour? How does Prometheus’ ultimate fate reflect back upon our initial sympathies with him at the start of the tale? What does the punishment tell us about Prometheus’ character, motivations and desires? The ending of the tale is not a statement of the inevitable effects of human meddling, but instead serves to complicate our feelings about Prometheus’ character and actions, and ultimately about our own. It helps us to grow and develop as human beings.

There is a great deal of academic writing on this by people who are a lot more qualified to speak about it than I am, but it is important to remember that utilitarian thinking was not a dominant force in the world where this myth developed. Of course, the hearer of the myth would know that he who defies the Gods in such a story will inevitably fall, but they also know that they are hearing a story, and will witness people around them who ‘have it coming to them’, but are not ultimately punished. The consequence has significance for the hearer because of what it teaches us about human attitudes – not least our own – and not because it is the inevitable effect of a certain action.

A Missing Dimension

This kind of meaning that can be drawn from myth serves a different role from the facts that we derive from scientific enquiry, and is a vital part of our moral education and development. It is also a dimension that appears to be lacking from the current arguments about fracking and other current political issues. Blinded by narrowly consequentialist thinking, there is little space to think about the attitudes and motivations behind actions and policies. I suspect that it is not too much of a stretch to say that some of the ‘prophets of doom’ are actually motivated by the thought not that fracking will bring inevitable calamity upon our heads, but that such calamity would be deserved or appropriate. Judged by scientistic crudely utilitarian criteria, this view is nonsense. Where is the scientific evidence for desert and appropriateness?

To look for evidence is to take the wrong approach. Science cannot provide us with ethical justifications for particular attitudes or courses of action unless we already have some idea about the best way to live. Instead we should ask ourselves when and how it became acceptable to say things like: ‘yes, but they’re only tiny little earthquakes.’ It is remarkable that ‘fracking’, a word irresistibly reminiscent both of non-intimate sexual acts, and of various acts of violence, came to refer to ‘the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure’ (OED definition) and that the word actually has its origin in the oil and gas industry. To come up with the word (even, as it originally was, without the ‘k’) to refer to such an activity, without realising that one is inviting trouble, demonstrates either a casual attitude towards violence, or a view of the Earth as nothing more than an inert cupboard of resources that is not susceptible to violence or harm.

This dimension, based as it is on virtue, vice and character, is not explored in the current argument. Instead, the debate is solely conducted according to what the science tells us. The science, however, can only ever tell us about means, and not about ends. Science does not tell us what is virtuous or vicious, permissible or impermissible, what attitudes we should take towards economic growth, technology and the natural world. To do that, we need to think for ourselves, not to ask somebody else. Myth, then, is not the problem, although the bad science sometimes labelled as myth can be. What is really at fault is the idea that scientific findings, on their own, can tell us what to do, and that any other considerations are nonsense.

When we think like this, any myths that we want to smuggle in have to be disguised as science, and once this is done, they are no longer our responsibility, but are farmed out to unelected experts. The notion of economic growth dogmatically presented as an unequivocal good takes this form, and disguising it as a scientific truth of economics means that there is no space for the autonomous self-reflection that might lead us to question this view.

Let me tell you the story about the King who wished that all he touched turned into gold…

Freedom is Slavery.

One of the most pernicious assaults on rights and liberty is to put the concepts of rights and liberty themselves in the hands of the anti-perfectionist corporatist political right, who model all rights on liberty, and all liberties on freedom of private ownership. This doesn’t just threaten rights and freedoms: it bleeds all meaning from them, and makes their realisation impossible.

A liberal, libertarian or neo-liberal theory is perfectionist if it takes sides about the nature of human flourishing, anti-perfectionist if it does not. Compare, for example, Mill and Rawls. Mill held that there were better ways for human beings to live and associate, even if he, from his individual outlook and historical position, could not exhaustively characterise what that was.  This idea, based on bringing about a better world through individual and social moral progress, was the cornerstone of his liberalism, which he took to be compatible with socialism.  Rawls, by contrast, aimed to create a political theory which eschewed any fundamental role for an account of human flourishing – all conceptions of the good (at least, those that could be held within broadly liberal western democracies) were to be taken as equally valid in the construction of his political theory, with none privileged above any other.

The problem with the latter type of theory is that it takes itself to be essentially above and independent of particular individuals’ notions of the good. It is purportedly value neutral, in that it claims to take no value as more significant than any other.  This is a little like a mid to late twentieth-century trend in ethics, which held that moral philosophers themselves made no moral judgements, but instead merely described the structures and forms of moral judgement itself.  When an anti-perfectionist liberal theory is combined with a notion of choice that is modelled on consumer choice arbitrated by the ‘invisible hand’, this undermines any notion of meaningful or valuable choice, and hence of liberty itself.

Any dissenting voice, any attempt to live life differently, is cast as just another instance of consumer choice, reduced to nothing more than its exchange value.  Of course, such a translation is possible, and according to the rules of translation applied, it is not false. However, what it does is strip all the meaning from the original.  Once dissent is understood in such terms, we are told nothing about the nature of the dissent, only something about the logic of capitalism.

No way of living can be better than any other: revolt is just the selection of an alternative brand, no more meaningful than picking one kind of margarine over another.  It is no threat to the system, because it is transposed into just another non-distinctive mode of existing within it – a different colour, rather than a different form.

On the rare occasions that the almost-silenced voices are genuinely and correctly heard, the call for freedom is recast as an assault on freedom, and the demand for rights as a violation of rights.

Rights and liberty have not, historically speaking, always belonged to capitalists. Nor have ‘liberty’ and ‘socialism’ generally been viewed as contradictory. Rights and liberties have been appropriated and distorted. It is important then that we do not take an anti-capitalist position to be a position that is critical of rights and liberties, but rather one that makes them mean something beyond the capacity of the powerful to exploit the vulnerable.

Locke on property: what belongs to me, and where I belong

What do philosophers of mind and divorce lawyers have in common? They both make money from arguing about other people’s properties.

Pretty lame joke, I know, but it plays on two distinct usages of the same word. We can talk about the properties of objects (their attributes, qualities or characteristics) or about the political and economic notion of property, in the sense of what is owned or possessed. Philosophers are concerned with both senses of the word, although the philosophers concerned with each one don’t talk to the philosophers concerned with the other as much as they perhaps should.

Property in the latter sense is most often discussed by political philosophers. One of the famous figures in the canon is John Locke, whose account of property ownership has influenced figures as diverse as Jean Jacque Rousseau, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Robert Nozick.  Locke is responsible for the now notorious ‘labour mixing’ view of property.

The labour mixing argument is supposed to answer a simple but tricky puzzle. Humans have not been around since the dawn of time, and did not come into existence with private entitlements to bits of the world already doled out, so how things move from a state of not being privately owned to being the property of some person or other?

This is what Locke says:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.’ (Second Treatise of Government, section 26)

This argument is often spelled out like this:

1. I own my body


2.            I own the labour of my body.

3.            I can come to own something by mixing what I own with what I do not yet own,


4.            When I mix my labour with something unowned, I come to own the finished product.

This has raised all manner of criticisms. For example, why suppose that I can come to own something by mixing it with what I already own rather than dissipating my property? Also, what is meant by mixing my labour with something? Labour here seems to be something of an abstraction, while the thing is sitting there for all to see – is there some sort of a category error going on there? And how do we explain this seemingly magical process of coming to own things? Some have explained this in terms of the idea of adding value to what was originally there, and this has led to a labour-mixing theory of value hotly debated, and largely maligned, by contemporary economists.

But the bit that I am interested in here is the first premise: do I actually own my body?  It is a common assumption in some circles that I do.  For example, bodily self-ownership is taken to be a central element of liberal feminist arguments about reproduction.  It also plays a central role in many arguments against slavery: nobody else can claim possession of my body, or any other aspect of my being, because I can only belong to myself.

Once we look at this a bit closer though, it seems as though our normal use of the notion of private property doesn’t do a very good job when it comes to the relationship in which we stand to our own bodies. In legal and political theory, a property right, like many other rights, is usually analysed as a complex bundle of entitlements, prohibitions and privileges.  In front of me right now are the remains of an Aero chocolate bar, which I own. My ownership of it means that I can use it, consume it, break it up, surrender ownership of it to others (my partner has been eyeing it longingly) or sell it for profit (which I might do if I were in a bad mood with my partner).

Things to which I have private property rights stand at some distance to me, and can be surrendered or transferred through legal or conventional processes.  This, for most legal and political theorists, is part of what it means to have a property right over an object.  This does not describe, in any serious way, the intimate relationship in which I stand to my own body or person.  This is one of the reasons why recent arguments comparing rape to theft, and more generally crimes against the person to crimes against property, don’t even begin to get to the heart of things.

Looked at like this, it seems hard to see how the Lockean argument can get off the ground – it seems that it is false from the outset.

But it would be wrong to assume that Locke is stupid, and as with many historical texts, it is best to look beyond our crude reconstruction of his argument to what he actually said, and the historical and linguistic context in which he was saying it.

The (pretty poor) joke that I used at the start of this piece would have been even less funny in Locke’s day, the reason being that the distinction between the two meanings of the word ‘property’ that it relies on were far less distinct.  Locke does not say that I own myself, or my body, but rather that ‘every man has a property in his own person’.

The notion of having a property in one’s own person relates to ownership, but is also to do with having a sort of unity or integrity conferred through one’s properties.  This explains why the ‘property in one’s own person’ is such a significant idea: it expresses the idea that the integrity of the person should be respected, that they should be treated as a person rather than as a mere thing.  Having a property in one’s own person means that one cannot be put to use by another (enslaved, exploited etc.)

By mixing one’s labour with something, Locke seems to be suggesting that one makes that thing an extension of oneself.  This does not seem to be such a crazy idea.  When we work in a place, toil on a piece of land, craft an object, cook a meal, or simply walk regularly in a park, there is a sense in which we incorporate elements of our external environments into our identities, just as we become incorporated in the identity of the object or place with which we interact.  This helps to explain why the spaces that we occupy and the objects that we create are not merely externally and arbitrarily related to us – they come to have an integral significance to the nature of the self.  Things that once seemed meaningless can take on new meanings and speak to us in different ways in virtue of the roles that they play in our projects and activities.

Sometimes institutions of private property and monetary exchange can be tools to safeguard the significance of such things, and give us a kind of autonomy over them.  Equally though, money and private property, like other mechanisms of power, can rob places and objects of the significance that they have for people by making them fungible objects of exchange, or by placing them in the hands of those who stand at a distance to them and do not share the intimate relationship that we have with them (Locke’s thought was used to justify enclosure of the commons, although James Tully has forcefully argued that Locke was opposed to imposing such measures on people by act of parliament).

Locke’s argument then does seem to get us somewhere, although perhaps not as far as Locke would like, and certainly a very long way from the views of many of Locke’s contemporary advocates, who would appear fairly alien to Locke himself. He begins with a premise about personal self-identity, rather than personal self-ownership, and thus fails to explain how the whole bundle of entitlements, privileges and prohibitions associated with private property arise.  What he does give us is an extension of the notion of identity beyond the bare individual understood as wholly separate from the world that she inhabits.

Locke can help us think about the significance of objects – and particularly places – to human lives.  People and places cannot be shifted around like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle to solve logistical and economic problems.  This helps us to articulate how a park became the focus of resistance to autocratic oppression in Turkey – it is not an arbitrary sign.  It also explains some of the injustice of the bedroom tax, whose implementation treats the absence of private ownership as justification for the uprooting of people from the environments and communities to which they belong.  It is almost invariably those who are poorest and most vulnerable who are subject to such treatment in their countries, homes and places of work and rest.

‘Belonging’ is a concept that brings us closer to the more ambiguous sense of ‘property’ that was around in Locke’s day.  You cannot simply overlook where we belong, just because where we belong does not belong to us.

Yucky Girly Nature

This is one of those needing-to-get-something-off-my-chest posts, or to put it a more gendered way, one of those things-that-get-on-my-tits posts.

Something that I have come to notice in a few discussions lately (in academic articles, conference papers and on internet discussion forums – it gets everywhere) is a particular identification of women with nature. Of course, this is not a new thing – it has been around for thousands of years. I have been seeing it come up in order to make points supposedly in support of feminist ideas, and also in support of pretty silly anti-feminist ones that should have been consigned to the dustbin quite some time ago.

So let’s get something straight – as a woman I do not have privileged access to the secrets of life. Having a vagina, breasts and a womb does not put me in touch with the sacred feminine. I do not experience time as cyclical rather than linear because of my innate closeness to natural rhythms, and nor does my possession of these organs grant me access to any special sphere of mysterious empathy with my fellow creatures that is inaccessible to those fellow creatures who have sticky-outy bits where I have sticky-inny bits (hmm, maybe best to leave the stickiness out of things).  Just as a man does not automatically have a brilliant adeptness in the fields of culture and logic, I do not, in virtue of my gender or biological sex, know something mystical about nature and intuition that a man does not.  If I started talking about a rarefied form of sacred knowledge that a man cannot express, but uniquely feels through his bollocks, that would not be sensitive and respectful to men, it would be creepy and weird.  So let’s put away the tambourines and have a bit of a think before we all sign up to the cult of the sacred vagina.

Please do not be tempted to try to resurrect this stuff in the name of reifying the feminine: it does none of us any favours, and if you take the bits of it you like, you may have to put up with the crappy bits of being on that sort of pedestal – it often has pretty uncomfortable implications for reproductive rights for example.  If you begin any sentence with ‘As a woman…’ it had better be a good one, and most sentences that begin that way are not.

I am not alone in thinking that this stuff is really problematic. I think most people in mainstream liberal western cultures would take a similar view.  The response will tend to be that this is some bizarre mystical hogwash, that it is unnecessarily gender-essentialist, that we could have pretty much any arrangement of fleshy bits and pieces in our pants, but that none of this implies any particular connection to nature. Best then to treat everyone equally as cultured, active, free citizens, and leave all this woman-nature stuff well alone.

Well yes and no. The problem with this approach is that it attempts to simply cut off a whole bundle of fairly deep-seated cultural associations which are not going to untangle and shift themselves quite as easily as that.  The thing is that there has been a tendency, going right back to a fair bit of ancient Greek philosophy and literature, and probably earlier, to discard a lot of the things that we don’t like about ourselves into a box marked ‘natural’ and ‘feminine’ (yucky and girly).  Into the yucky and girly box go our biological natures, bodily change, mutual dependence, the fact our actions are often more constrained than we would like them to be, the fact that our emotional lives can be messy and confusing, and so on.  Once these things are in the yucky and girly box, we can shut the lid and pretend to be supremely powerful rational agents who, in our most essential natures, are free from all the inconvenient stuff.  So to open the box and invite the girls out, provided they don’t bring any of the yucky girly stuff with them, is not going to solve the problem (even if this were something achievable).  It expects women to conform to an image of masculinity that never served men particularly well in the first place, and which they could only maintain through a correspondingly implausible image of femininity.

These are some of the central issues concerning ecofeminism.  I have never particularly liked the term – ‘Ecofeminist’ sounds like a distinctly irritating and self-righteous superhero – but the concerns behind ecofeminism are important and fascinating.  It is through unravelling these associations (the same ones that lead to the female personification of nature, and phrases like the ‘rape of virgin forests’) that ecofeminists attempt to unpick the psychological and cultural associations between the idea of dominating and oppressing nature, and the idea of dominating and oppressing women.  In doing both, human beings are attempting to oppress and deny elements of themselves with which they are deeply uncomfortable.  Ultimately both are a form of self-harm that is dangerous and unsustainable.