Why can’t a man be more like a woman, and other problems in moral philosophy

Richard Rorty

  • Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics by Annette Baier
    Harvard, 368 pp, £33.95, February 1994, ISBN 0 674 58715 4

The applause which greeted the conclusion of Annette Baier’s presidential address to a 1990 meeting of the American Philosophical Association masked a faint susurrus, caused by a thousand male philosophers trying hard not to ask themselves why a woman can’t be more like a man. Men, as Henry Higgins pointed out, are so decent, so morally straight. They never mix the personal with the professional. They would never take advantage of a presidential address in order to indict the organisation over which they are presiding. Women allowed to occupy traditionally male offices are expected to be happy to be treated as honorary men, and to play it cool.

Baier did not behave as expected. She began her address – ‘A Naturalist View of Persons’ – by saying: ‘According to John Knox, in his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, it is “repugnant to nature”, as well as “contumely to God, and the subversion of good order”, to promote a woman to any position of superiority in any realm. We in the Eastern Division of the APA have not often subverted the patriarchal order that John Knox so passionately defended.’ In the course of her talk, she connected Knox’s view of women with the Kantian tradition in moral philosophy, the tradition which emphasises the separateness and autonomy of persons, and which culminates in what she called ‘that vital Kantian conceptual link between personhood and dignity’.

For this tradition, she said, ‘to be a person is not to be born of woman, nor indeed to be born at all, but to spring forth from some fertile noumenal field of Ares fully formed and upright.’ Pausing to note that men perhaps have a thing about uprightness, she went on to say that this picture of personhood stands behind ‘the Lockean and Kantian notion that to be a person is altogether to transcend biological nature, to enter into some supernatural realm where we are no longer essentially related to and dependent upon others, unless we choose such relationships.’ Women, she pointed out, find it easier to adopt ‘a naturalist view of persons, like Hume’s or Darwin’s or Freud’s, that takes our biological nature seriously, takes it not as a handicap but as the source of strengths as well as weaknesses’.

If she had wanted to, of course, Baier could have omitted reference to the difference between men’s and women’s perspectives, and simply contrasted a Kantian, non-naturalist view of persons with a Humean, naturalistic view – contrasted moral psychologies which emphasise autonomy and rationality with those which emphasise interdependence and benevolence. She could have said a lot of the same things without ever mentioning gender. Doing so would have been regarded by her audience as a properly, admirably, professional performance. For her audience contained many men like that ‘respected older mentor’ who, Baier reports, described her way of doing philosophy as ‘great fun’, but doubted that it was ‘real professional work’.

For many American moral philosophers, professional work consists in acting as a judge in a court charged with administering the Moral Law. Just as judges in US courts are required to reinterpret statutes and constitutional provisions so as to render them consistent, and to bring them into accord with changes in public opinion, so these philosophers reinterpret traditional, intuitively plausible moral principles and social practices so as to bring them into line both with each other, and with changed intuitions about how to resolve moral dilemmas. To rise to eminence in this profession, a philosopher must find a novel reformulation of a traditional principle or practice, or a novel distinction which can be used to apply the principle or change the practice.

Another way of attaining professional distinction in this field, however, is to develop a meta-ethical theory about the nature of our obligation to obey the Moral Law. Kant’s way of developing this analogy was, like Plato’s, to develop an explicitly anti-naturalistic theory about our noumenal, non-empirical, non-biological selves. Since Darwin, moral philosophers have had to work hard to reconcile Kant’s sense of absolute, unconditional obligation to categorical moral imperatives with an anti-metaphysical, naturalistic, worldview. But taking on this almost impossible assignment has seemed preferable to giving up on unconditionality. That is why meta-ethicists who undertake to defend moral realism (the doctrine that moral principles are built into the ahistorical nature of the human species, or of the universe) are especially admired. They are stand-up guys, admired as much for their moral sturdiness and professional uprightness as for their theoretical ingenuity.

To admit to doubts about unconditionality is still, among moral philosophers, pretty much tantamount to unprofessional conduct. Those who, like Dewey, toss out unconditionality in order to make room for biology, or who, like Hegel or MacIntyre, insist on putting morality in a historical context, are often said to have sold the pass to relativism, rhetoric, sophistry and Nietzsche. Such philosophers blur the sharp Kantian line between morality and prudence, and this blurring is often seen as contempt of court, an offence to the majesty of what Kant called ‘the tribunal of reason’. In blurring the line between ahistorical Reason and historically contingent sentiments, they blur the line between the moral philosopher as quasi-judge and the various special pleaders – the novelist, the anthropologist, the historian, the journalist, the politician – who come before him. (Him or her? No, Baier would insist: him.)

Philosophers who fear relativism and seek unconditional moral principles tend to pride themselves on the rigour of their argumentation, and on the tightness of the connections between the elements of their theories. They admire in each other the same intellectual virtues which judges admire in one another, those which Plato thought distinguished the philosopher from the sophist and the rhetorician. It is true that, in what Baier calls the ‘locker-room atmosphere’ of the American philosophical world, moral philosophers are regarded by their colleagues who work on ‘main line’ problems (in, for example, metaphysics, or philosophy of language) rather as tennis players are viewed by football players. But a moral philosopher who exhibits sufficient rigour and tightness can win commendation, even from a philosopher of language, for transcending the inherent wimpiness of his field.

In recent decades, many books of moral philosophy – the majority by women, but some by writers whom Baier nominates for the position of ‘honorary woman’ (Stocker, MacIntyre, Hacking) – have urged that philosophers stop worrying so much about principles and obligation, and stop asking about the source or ground of obligation. Other Kant-bashing books – notably Bernard Williams’s Shame and Necessity, an acute and sensitive rethinking of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy – have pointed out that some cultures, notably that of pre-Socratic Greece, enabled people to live very rich (and, if it comes to that, very manly) moral lives in seeming unawareness of the existence of moral obligations ‘dictated by reason’. At the end of Shame and Necessity, which may be the best historical study of ethical ideas in recent decades, Williams says that

Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel are all on the same side, all believing in one way or another that the universe, or history, or the structure of human reason can, when properly understood, yield a pattern which makes sense of human life and human aspirations. Sophocles and Thucydides, by contrast, are alike in leaving us with no such sense.

Once one grants that Sophocles and Thucydides were neither less morally sensitive nor less rational than Plato and his successors, and begins to suspect that Plato’s attempt to replace convention with nature, nomos with physis, led moral philosophy down a blind alley, one may stop expecting moral philosophers to come up with a principle of principles – a principle which will provide guidance in hard cases, rather than simply abbreviating our habitual practices. This makes it easier to admit that morality may be just as messy as, and may blur into, prudence. One becomes able to grant that hard cases are just as irresolvable by appeal to principle as is suggested by Antigone’s dilemma, or by Huck Finn’s decision to go ahead and be damned.

In the first of the 14 essays included in this volume – ‘What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory?’ – Baier says that if a moral theory is ‘a fairly tightly systematic account of a large area of morality, with a keystone supporting all the rest’, then ‘women moral philosophers have not yet, to my knowledge, produced moral theories or claimed they have.’ To have a keystone, you have to agree with Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel that there is some larger pattern within which human life can be placed. But if, like Baier, Darwin and Dewey, you think of people as biological organisms – as members of a species which differs from the other animals only in its ability to reshape itself by communal deliberation and decision – it will be hard to make room in your worldview for any such pattern, or for unconditional obligation (except the sort of conditional unconditionality which inheres in the revisable rules of social practices like chess, commerce and war). Everything, including the resolution of moral dilemmas, will look relative to circumstance, dependent on a local situation, messy. There will still be (as the examples of Antigone and Huck suggest) plenty of room for moral struggle, but not much chance of moral purity. Nor will there be room for the sort of metaphysical purity characteristic of the two great heroes of modern philosophy, the Cartesian cognitive subject and the Kantian autonomous will. These two are the sort of men John Knox would have admired. Baier, like most of the women moral philosophers she cites (e.g. Bartky, Benhabib, Diamond, Frye, Lovibond, Murdoch, Okin), does not.

Baier is convinced that the rugged independence of circumstance exhibited by these two heroes, as well as their creators’ need for unconditionality and for rigorous, architectonic theory, are products of a specifically patriarchal culture. That is why she chose, both in her presidential address and in the essays in Moral Prejudices, to accentuate the differences between the life-chances, and the moral concerns, of men and women. By contrast, most male moral philosophers think it a sufficient concession to feminism to grant that Cartesian subjects and Kantian wills have turned out to be encased in female as well as male bodies. They welcome the recent discovery that females, unlike children, can respond directly to the Moral Law, rather than, as our ancestors assumed, needing to have it interpreted to them by their fathers, brothers or husbands.

Baier thinks that this concession is not enough. She argues that our idea of what makes for a good moral theory has been tailor-made to suit the concept of obligation, and that this concept has been tailor-made to suit the needs of the patriarchs. The patriarchs have, for example, taken for granted that the women can be trusted to raise the children. Most of the messy things that men have taken for granted that women would take care of are not, however, easily viewed as matters of obligation. Baier asks:

Is there an obligation on someone to make the child into a morally competent promisor? If so, on whom? Who has failed in his or her obligations when, say, war orphans who grew up without parental love or any other love arrive at legal adulthood very willing to be untrue to their word? ... The liberal version of our basic moral obligations tends to be fairly silent on who has what obligations to new members of the moral community, and it would throw most theories of the justification of obligations into some confusion if the obligation to rear one’s children lovingly were added to the list of obligations ... We cannot substitute ‘conscientiously’ for ‘lovingly’ in this hypothetical extra needed obligation. But an obligation to love, in the strong sense needed, would be an embarrassment to the theorist, given most accepted versions of ‘ought implies can.’

For the same reasons that it is hard to imagine a Cartesian subject or a Kantian autonomous will raising a child, it has, until quite recently, been hard for philosophers to think of the people who usually do raise the children as being either.

Since, as Baier says, ‘there is no coherent guidance liberal morality can give’ on such questions as ‘to fight or not to fight, to have or not to have an abortion, to be or not to be an unpaid maternal drudge’, liberal morality can say only ‘the choice is yours’ and hope ‘that enough will choose to be self-sacrificial life providers and self-sacrificial death dealers to suit the purposes of the rest.’ She nicely sums up the result of tailoring moral theories to fit the concept of obligation by saying that

morality on this model becomes a nasty, if intellectually intriguing, game of mutually corrective threats. The central question of who should deprive whom of what freedom soon becomes the question of whose anger should be dreaded by whom (the theory of obligation) supplemented by an afterthought on whose favour should be courted by whom (the theory of the virtues).

Baier suggests that we start moral philosophy over again, this time using ‘justified trust’, of the sort a typical child has in a typical mother, as our central moral concept, rather than ‘obligation’, of the sort which a subject has to a sovereign.

Accepting her suggestion would free us from having to take the notion of unconditional obligation seriously, and thus from the need to reconcile this notion, and the Kantian idea of intrinsic human dignity, with a naturalistic worldview. Kant proclaimed that all human beings, or at least all adult male human beings, were (in moral, as opposed to legal, matters) their own sovereigns. This proclamation, like that of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (a proclamation which Olympe de Gouges, before being guillotined, vainly tried to get extended to cover women), served the Enlightenment, and the pre-feminist phases of egalitarian politics, well. But it has done rather little for women. As Catharine MacKinnon has pointed out, to do violence to a woman has, until very recently, been looked on not as offering violence to a sovereign, but rather to a subject whose sovereign (her father, her husband, her pimp) might take offence.

Moral philosophy built around the notion of justified trust will not, however, produce anything very rigorous and tightly organised. It will be something much messier than philosophers have grown accustomed to. Baier is rather non-committal on how much precision or guidance we can expect to get out of a theory of trust, and on how much chance there is of filling up the blank in: ‘trust is justified if and only if ...’ She says that ‘a complete moral philosophy would tell us how and why we should act and feel toward others in relationships of shifting and varying power asymmetry and shifting and varying intimacy.’ But she suggests that once we have broken out of what she calls ‘the male fixation on contract’ – the contractarian tradition in moral philosophy according to which a complaint of broken faith is justified only if one can point to the terms of an antecedent agreement – it becomes less likely that we shall ever have a moral philosophy which is complete in that sense.

Baier goes on to say that ‘a trust relationship is morally bad to the extent that either party relies on qualities in the other which would be weakened by the knowledge that the other relies on them.’ But she points out that ‘what will be offensive forms of reliance on one’s psychological state will vary from context to context, depending on the nature of the goods entrusted and on other relationships between the trusting and the trusted. Variations in individual psychology will also make a difference.’ Baier makes the further anti-theoretical point that her criterion of moral badness applies only to ‘two-party trust relationships’ and ignores ‘the network of trust’; so, she rightly says, it is ‘unrealistic, since any person’s attitude to another in a given trust relationship is constrained by all the other trust and distrust relationships in which she is involved.’

When one remembers that both Creon and Polynices were equally justified in trusting Antigone, or that both Aunt Sally and Jim were equally justified in trusting Huck – and once one begins to reflect on the constant tension and interplay between large political and institutional networks of trust and the smaller networks which bind relatives and friends – the hope of getting general principles which legitimise trust or distrust seems as vain as the hope of replacing statistical thermodynamics with classical mechanics. But this is no disaster. Baier is right to suspect that the male fixation on contract may have as one of its side-effects a fixation on complete moral philosophies – theories which spell out the exact terms of the contract into which God, or Nature, or Reason has entered with the personne moyenne sensuelle. Our notions about what counts as a complete moral philosophy may not be expansible enough to include something that makes no reference to contracts and obligations.

That may not matter, however. What we do not learn about the justification of trust and distrust from philosophical treatises we may well learn from novels or biographies, or from watching plays, operas or soap operas. If attempts to pour the new wine of trust into the old bottles of moral philosophy will not work, that may count more against the philosophers’ distinction between morality and prudence than against Baier’s suggestion that we take trust rather than obligation as our primary moral concept. And even if we somehow get a more explicit theory than seems likely, Baier is right to say that ‘it may ... be the better part of wisdom, even when we have an acceptable test for trust, not to use it except where some distrust already exists, the better to take non-suspect trust on trust.’

Still, we might as well take theory as far as it will go, and there is genuine theoretical enlightenment to be had from Baier’s reformulation of her criterion for the moral goodness or badness of trust:

trust is morally decent only if, in addition to whatever else is entrusted, knowledge of each party’s reasons for confident reliance on the other to continue the relationship could in principle also be entrusted – since such mutual knowledge would be itself a good, not a threat to other goods. To the extent that mutual reliance can be accompanied by mutual knowledge of the conditions for that reliance, trust is above suspicion, and trustworthiness a nonsuspect virtue. Rara temporum felicitas ... quae sentias dicere licet.

One striking feature of this formulation is that it is so close to Kant’s principle of publicity: ‘All actions that affect the rights of other men are wrong if their maxim is not consistent with publicity.’ It is also pretty close to the first principle of Habermas’s quasi-Kantian ‘discourse ethics’: that communication be freed from domination. These coincidences remind us that the differences between the much-bashed Kant and the much-praised Hume (who used the phrase Baier quotes – ‘Rare the happy times when we can ... say what we think’ – as the motto of his Treatise) are more important to professional philosophers than to anybody else. Both men spoke for the Enlightenment, and the emancipatory hopes they shared are more important than the differences between their accounts of the relation of reason to the passions. Further, if one puts feminism to one side for a moment, the differences between Baier and Habermas (and between both and John Rawls, that paradigm contractarian) are more important to the philosophical profession than to human emancipation. What matters most to all three of these contemporary philosophers is that everything be up for negotiation, that power always be asked to justify itself. All three are still engaged in what Habermas calls ‘the uncompleted project of modernity’, the project which Kant and Hume jointly helped formulate.

But we should not put feminism to one side for more than a moment. For Baier’s paradigm case of morally indecent trust is the kind which men typically have in women: trust that they will uncomplainingly do the dirty work, raise the children to be trustworthy citizens while changing their nappies, and leave ‘any position of superiority in any realm’ to men. This was the kind of trust which the Harvard Corporation (a bunch of stand-up guys) took for granted when it told Mary Whiton Calkins (later to be the first woman president of the American Philosophical Association) that ‘the Corporation is not prepared to give any Harvard degree to any woman, no matter how exceptional the circumstances.’ The inequality of power relations between men and women is the men’s ‘reason for confident reliance’ on the women.

The patriarchs have traditionally taken that inequality to be non-discussable. What is there to discuss, after all? One can hardly argue with a divine dispensation, or a biological law. Some things, the patriarchs say, don’t change. They just have to be accepted. This, of course, is the sort of thing that the whites used to say to the blacks (in their role as sons of Ham) and that the factory-owners used to say to the workers (in their role of the poor, whom we shall always have with us). Moral progress, we all agree, has been made since that time. In the days when the whites and the capitalists got away with this, Habermas would say, communication was more distorted by domination than it is now. Really existent moral rights, Kantians would say, were not recognised. We have, both Rawls and Habermas would agree, been getting more rational recently.

All these descriptions of recent moral progress, I think Baier would say, are fine as far as they go. But they miss something. What they miss is the point she makes in a sentence Nietzsche would be happy to have written: ‘The important moral questions have always been “Whom or what may I assault or kill and when and how may I kill it?” not “May I assault or kill?” ’

One might paraphrase this sentence as: the truly emancipatory moral question has always been ‘Which people matter?’ rather than ‘What actions are we allowed?’ The difference between the two questions is that the latter takes a certain choice of ‘we’ for granted, whereas the former puts it in question. Moral progress is made by changing the extension of the term ‘we’, enlarging the range of people taken to be moral agents and subjects – raising the possibility that the situation of the helots, or the blacks, or the workers, or the women, is not natural, but a suitable topic to discuss with them. It is made by enlarging the range of imaginable conversational partners, the range of people with whom one can imagine discussing the question ‘is your trust in us, the possessors of power, justified?’ The importance of asking Baier’s question ‘Is their trust in us morally decent?’ rather than ‘Are we acting justly?’ is that the former instantly raises the question: ‘can we tell them everything we know and still keep their trust?’

Baier enlarges on her point that the important question is ‘who?’ by saying:

Boundaries between human and non-human, between foetus and infant, between one’s own domestic and someone else’s, between in-group and out-group, ally and enemy, military and civilian, attacker and defender, guilty and innocent, authority and protester against authority or aspirant to authority have to be learned, and learning them, rather than just learning ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ constitutes our education in the morality of violence.

As for violence, so for every other facet of human relations. First we decide who matters, then we who matter agree among ourselves about what is or is not morally decent. Moral emancipation – the process Baier calls ‘a progress of sentiments’ (the title of her book on Hume) – has been largely a matter of reconsidering our initial decision about who matters.

Luce Irigaray has said that feminism may be to the 21st century what socialism has been to the 20th. It may be the great, inspiring dream that makes us continue questioning our institutions and practices, makes us keep on asking whether our sympathies are sufficiently wide and deep. If this is so, Baier’s essays are likely to be widely read by moral philosophers in the next hundred years. Anscombe, MacIntyre, Schneewind, Williams, and other contemporary philosophers have expressed well-founded suspicions about the value of moral philosophy as it has been practised in the English-speaking world since the days of Sidgwick. But Baier goes a step beyond these suspicions. It is her feminism, and the attention which feminism brings with it to specific, concrete, injustices, that have enabled her to do so. She offers not just suspicion, but an original, constructive, promising new account of the place of moral philosophy in culture. Sometimes people suspected of unprofessional conduct are recognised, a generation or two down the line, as having revitalised the profession in question.