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.

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