As a radical feminist living and learning from an online radfem community, I’m always aiming to uncover male-influence on our societal and psychological structures so that they can be questioned. One such area that I believe has been influenced by a domination of men in philosophy is our general moral thinking and approach to ethical dilemmas.
The punching of Richard Spencer, white supremacist of the “alt-right” – more commonly and truthfully known as neo-nazi arseholes – has become the millionth example of the action vs consequences moral dilemma. Is punching, as a form of violence, an intrinsically wrong action and therefore not okay, or does the fact that it will lead to a neo-nazi with an aching face and increased solidarity with the victims of their hate, mean it’s okay?
It’s roughly a deontological approach saying it’s wrong or a consequentialist approach saying it’s right. But framing the situation as this two-way dilemma hides from us with a little slight-of-hand the fact we’re already accepting a certain type of moral system by engaging with this two-pronged interpretation of it; that morality is a formula floating around somewhere onto which you hold up the action in question like an x-ray onto an illuminator and read the secret message. Yay or nay?
I think this is a very masculine approach, an approach to morality which takes away the most crucial bit; the agent, the personhood, the geezer, behind the action in all their complex thoughtful and intentional glory. To isolate the most boring bit of the situation – a fist flung through space causing pain, the action – and ask whether it’s right or not, without addressing the immense web of desires and emotions and motivations behind it, is like asking which of two cakes is better for you starting with the fact they are in fact, both cakes, rather than considering the ingredients.
There is no one Morality Formula floating outside of us, instead there are hundreds of drafts and redrafts of little situation-embedded formulas flurrying around like bus tickets, expressed within people’s emotional reactions, thoughts, motivations, behaviours and impacts on others. Like Aristotle said, there is no one rules-based system which could possibly cover them all. Very roughly, to base morality on the agent’s overall character and composition instead of just the action itself, is Virtue Ethics, and constitutes an agent-based (aretaic) rather than actions-based (deontic) moral account. It recognises that it is our characters and intentions that crucially imbue all our actions with the complex details relevant to whether it’s right or wrong. Throughout my years studying for my degree and masters degree I saw all the women rooting for virtue ethics; Rosalind Hursthouse, Phillipa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, Julia Annas, Nancy Snow, Naomi Meara. Truly but unfortunately, that many women in a branch of philosophy sticks out to you. It was a woman, Elizabeth Anscombe, who dramatically tore up traditional moral philosophy as ‘laws-obsessed’ and called for a new focus on character, the role emotions play in morality, which personality traits we should see as good and also the requirement of an understanding of moral psychology in order to go forward in moral philosophy. Anscombe also, in response to being told she would not be admitted to a restaurant in trousers as they were not proper for women, took them off.
We can look at the type of people behind an idea and sketch some moral forecasting. This is something that virtue ethics would more confidently endorse than other, action-based ethical accounts. I look to women, to wise and quick-witted women, and work out from there. We are intrinsically social creatures and to completely cast out this tendency in the name of an internally-coherent but cold external ethical account is, in my view, to put the cart before the horse. In reality, we mull over ethically-provocative scenarios, discuss it with peers, take a position and then tweak it over time, and often have our true convictions fleshed out through emotional experiences (for example, support of gay marriage will be bolstered by having a daughter who can’t marry, support of abortion could come from losing a close friend who tried to abort her baby herself.). I mean, if morality isn’t about us, what is it about?
Watching Spencer get punched and watching Trump supporters punch women does not invoke impressions in me of eery and uncomfortable similarity . Instead, I am struck completely by the the polar opposite-ness of the characters involved. By the types of personalities here that are ruffled up and moved by completely different causes. To ignore this is to gloss over the actual moral content of actions. One punch encapsulates tangible anger against enforcing fear and violence onto people of colour and outrage as the ugliest parts of our history start to repeat themselves, the other punch encapsulates a childish rudimentary emotional response to control and hate others. Are these causes equal? Will they differ radically in how they will affect people? Have these personalities been forged by the same fires? Our arguments and debates are becoming limp and flavourless with the erasure of the moral fucking realm. Who can honestly say they’re driven more by the spooky floaty principle of “exploring all points of view” over abuse and disrespect towards members of demographics society systematically puts in more vulnerable positions? It just strikes me as the type of thing men would be more likely to do than women; to eschew people’s personal lives and emotions in the name of a fake kind of politics and morality (except when it suits them, like in the case of the FIFA-poppy debacle). Feminists are better at grasping the importance of context to actions; they know that going around cat-calling men will not bring gender equality.
Without the courage and wisdom to deem intentions and motivations as right or wrong we get nowhere and debate is washed away. We were all accused of living in ‘echo chambers’ online, that we should take time to ‘reach out’ to the other side, but particularly for women and poc on the left ‘living in an echo chamber’ actually meant refusing to read harmful sexist and racist crap on your newsfeed and refusing to waste your time with people who won’t think through their standpoints. For the Trump-supporters, it meant cutting themselves off from from the possibility of connecting with the needs and experiences of people whom their politics harms and oppresses. The same action, means different things for different people. We need to be straight with ourselves about why enemies do what they do, and why we do what we do.
I have to end with a quick note that I am not claiming any of the virtue ethicists mentioned, or virtue ethics itself, would necessarily endorse punching nazis. But my application of it leads me to conclude that it’s okay to do whatever we need to do to stop their harm.
Addition 18/04/2017: I found in this article Edie Weiner, President and CEO of a world-leading futurist and consulting firm, note that when men are judges, they tend to focus on finding out whether a law or contract was broken, whereas women will look for justice and whether a law or contract was valid in the first place. For me, this is a first shoot of empirical evidence of men’s tendency to dilute something as vast and complex as justice to simpler yay-or-nay rules. Where would be we without women’s ability to question the norms we hold ourselves to?