Friday, November 03, 2006

Agency and Feminist Philosophy

Burden of Proof Tennis
I've been struggling a bit with this groupblog lately. It seems that a lot of what we do is spend time defending the very notion of what we're doing. Rather than exploring what men can do as feminists, we seem to tend to be asking the question and then spending a lot of time defending the very fact that we think these are good questions to be asking.

Not that we shouldn't have to defend our ideas, mind you. It's just that it seems that the burden of proof is always placed on us. I think the problem of on whom the burden of proof is placed is a difficult problem--when Geo talks about how girls play and how boys play, is it up to him to justify his assertions in a way other than anectdotally, or is it up to, say, Eric to justify his opposition to those ideas? Probably a combination of the two, of course, but still, 'burden of proof tennis,' where we bandy back and forth with "prove it!" doens't seem to be very desirable.

Theory, Anyone?
That said, I think this is where discussion of theory can often be helpful. Being a person who almost has an MA in philosophy (but doens't!), I am suspicious of theory-without-practice, and sometimes suspicious of theory in general, especially when it uses obfuscating technical language. But I think that there is a place for theory, and I think conceptual discussions are at bottom one of the ways that we understand how we understand the world. And, of course, 'the world' includes all of the things that we might want to understand better as men who support feminism.

For example, I wonder if a discussion of feminist conceptions of agency might shed some light on where I'm coming from in the discussion (or debate, depending on your point of view!) on the moral implications of simply walking down the street in a society where sexism exists in spades. I think that the place that a lot of people come to that discussion from is informed by conceptions of the 'rational agent'. This conception, whether one recognizes this explicitly or not, comes handed down from a long tradition. From the Standord Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Two views of the self have been prominent in contemporary Anglo-American moral and political philosophy — a Kantian ethical subject and homo economicus. Both of these conceptions see the individual as a free and rational chooser and actor — an autonomous agent. Nevertheless, they differ in their emphasis. The Kantian ethical subject uses reason to transcend cultural norms and to discover absolute moral truth, whereas homo economicus uses reason to rank desires in a coherent order and to figure out how to maximize desire satisfaction. Whether the self is identified with pure abstract reason or with the instrumental rationality of the marketplace, though, these conceptions of the self isolate the individual from personal relationships and larger social forces. For the Kantian ethical subject, emotional bonds and social conventions imperil objectivity and undermine commitment to duty. For homo economicus, it makes no difference what social forces shape one's desires provided they do not result from coercion or fraud, and one's ties to other people are to be factored into one's calculations and planning along with the rest of one's desires.

This is, basically, the subject that Eric and Malachi are invoking, I think, and the subject that a lot of us seem to have in mind when discussing morality. This subject supports the notion of the individual as importantly separate from whatever social forces help to shape him or her. This subject makes choices in various contexts, but the choices are always completely and utterly their own--the context affects them, but that (somehow, magically, in my mind) isn't seen as affecting their choices, except in ways that they also choose.

Lots of verisons of feminism take issue with this sort of conception of self and agency:
Feminist philosophers have charged that these views are, at best, incomplete and, at worst, fundamentally misleading. Many feminist critiques take the question of who provides the paradigm for these conceptions as their point of departure. Who models this free, rational self? Although represented as genderless, sexless, raceless, ageless, and classless, feminists argue that the Kantian ethical subject and homo economicus mask a white, healthy, youthfully middle-aged, middleclass, heterosexual MAN. He is pictured in two principle roles — as an impartial judge or legislator reflecting on principles and deliberating about policies and as a self-interested bargainer and contractor wheeling and dealing in the marketplace. It is no accident that politics and commerce are both domains from which women have historically been excluded. It is no accident either that the philosophers who originated these views of the self typically endorsed this exclusion. Deeming women emotional and unprincipled, these thinkers advocated confining women to the domestic sphere where their vices could be neutralized, even transformed into virtues, in the role of submissive wife and nurturant mother.

While this theorhetical analysis of the self and agency isn't exactly the discussion that we were having about walking down the street, I think it informs the discussion in a huge way. I think it is no accident, for instance, that it was suggested that it is irrational for women to feel threatened while walking down the street. And this word is used without a mind to all the baggage that comes along with it, as if it were an untterly objective claim, as if there's nothing more to be said after you point out that somebody is being irrational.

I think part of what is going on in the discussion is that I have a different conception of how agency works than the traditional Adam Smith-ish/Kantian model; I have a feminist conception of agency. In coming posts I will try to sketch out that conception in more detail.

If anybody is still reading, what do y'all think about the idea of including more in depth conceptual analysis, more theory, here at Feminist Allies?
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