Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Anca Gheaus (Page 1 of 2)

A puzzle of liberal childrearing: may neutral states allow parents to dominate children’s value-formation?

This is another post about childrearing and, like my previous ones, it is complaining about the status quo. This time I’m thinking about what we actively do to expose children to various ways of living and views about what makes for a good life (too little) and about how much we let parents screen such sources of influence out of children’s lives (too much.)

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What is the wrong of misgendering?

More precisely: how to make sense of the wrong of attributing to someone, and treating them according to, a gender that’s different to the one they say they have?

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Having slaves and raising children

When I said yes to co-writing a book on surrogacy, I thought it would be just a straightforward application of my general view that moral rights over children, including the right to custody, are grounded in children’s own interests rather than in any interest of the right holder. And in a way it is: in a nutshell, I argue that custody is a prerogative, and hence cannot be sold or gifted. A practice that permits people to transfer it at will is illegitimate. But, along the way, I’m making interesting discoveries; one of them is just how far one may push the analogy between holding slaves and raising children in a world like ours, which has not yet fully outgrown the long tradition of denying rights to children. Many contemporary philosophers of childrearing should find the analogy plausible, even if they don’t share my view about the justification of the right to custody. Let me explain.

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“Level playing fields”: a misguided complaint about discrimination against well-off women

This is the third, and last, of a series of three posts about gender justice and conflicts of interest between women who belong to different classes. In the first post I argued that priority should be given to the worse off women: When a particular policy (which is otherwise justified) would benefit poor, or working class, women, there is a strong presumption in favour of that policy even if it would, at the same time, set back the interests of better off women. Many care-supporting policies are like this: The very mechanism that makes them work in favour of those women from low socio-economicbackgrounds who are saddled with care duties leads to the reinforcement of statistical discrimination and other biases against professional women.

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Feminism and the top end of the payscale

Class is a deep dividing line in feminism for two, mutually compatible, reasons: One is about the strategic use of limited time and energy in the feminist movement. The interests of poor and working-class women often diverge from the interests of the more privileged, hence the need to set priorities. This is what my previous post was about.

But the more important reason – captured these days by the agenda of the Feminism for the 99% movement – is that the problems of women who make it to the top are parasitic on a structure of the labour market and schedule of rewards that should not exist in the first place. This second complaint against lean-in feminism (sometimes and, I think, mistakenly, identified as “liberal feminism”) is not merely about misplaced priorities, but about identifying feminism with the gender cosmetisation of deeply unjust existing arrangements. The worry with the upper class feminism is, as Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser put it, that “[i]ts real aim is not equality, but meritocracy. Rather than seeking to abolish social hierarchy, it aims to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women to rise to the top.”

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Feminism for Working-Class Women Is the Best Feminism

This extended post is a response to a recent Boston Review article by Gina Schouten, called “‘Flexible’ Family Leave is Lousy Feminism”.

This must be one of the most animated debates amongst feminists: how to find the best remedial policies for women who are disadvantaged because they serve as main care-givers for their children, elderly parents, sick relatives or friends. They are disadvantaged in many ways. Some are economic: lower lifetime earnings and fewer work-related benefits compared to people without care commitments – hence more dependency on spouses. Others are social: part-time workers take a hit in status, stay-at-home mums even more so. Finally, there are the relational and psychological disadvantages: women who are economically dependent on their partners have less negotiating power than their partners, and many face tremendous difficulties when they want to leave abusive relationships.

The gendered division of labour – women’s assignment to the hands-on care that we all need at different periods of our lives – explains, to a large extent, not only the gender pay gap but also the feminisation of poverty and the private domination to which many women are subjected. No surprise, then, that feminists have two distinct aims: to protect women from the risks of being a care-giver, and also to do away with the gendered division of labour, which is a main source of the problem. I am one of these feminists; I would like to see women and men equally engaged in the labour market, and looking after anybody who needs care.

But I’m also adamant that we should pursue these two aims in the right order: we should give priority to protecting women from the worst consequences of the gendered division of labour over the abolition of the gendered division of labour itself. Moreover, we should be aware of the unavoidable tension between the two aims, and keep this in mind when advocating for particular gender policies.

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Multi-parenting: what would it take for it to work?

Earlier this year I published a short article arguing that multi-parenting can provide a solution to a contemporary conundrum: on the one hand, many people are increasingly worried about climate change and environmental destruction. They know that having fewer children is, for a majority of people, the most effective individual action they can take to reduce their carbon footprint. Some women go on “birth strikes” – they decide not to bring children into the world. On the other hand, life without children can be terribly impoverished. Parenting may be the most important – and creative! – act one can engage in, a non-substitutable occasion for personal growth and, for many, the central source of meaning in life. (Which is not to deny that, for many other people, a childless life is perfectly fine.)

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There is too much division of labour: Against all-or-nothing social roles

Marx might have been right, too strict a division of labour is making us worse off in an important respect: we cannot but fail to develop core human abilities, and this failure cannot but affect our sense of wellbeing, of being at home in the world. Not that we should, or could, fully undo the division of labour such that you and I can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” But is it really unavoidable, or good for us, to have to live by a radical division of labour where the main social roles are an all-or-nothing business?

Consider: you either enter politics, dedicating it a large amount of time, or you have virtually no say in any public affairs. You’re either a parent or someone who can have children in their lives only very sporadically and precariously. You typically either have a full-time job (for many over-engulfing) or an unsatisfying one, which you can all too easily lose, and which probably doesn’t pay enough to live. You’re either in a monogamous relationship, or else your relationship(s) are not socially sanctioned as serious, meaningful, worthy of protection – as marriage and civil partnerships are.

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On what we should get out of work (other than money!)

bruegel_peasants

Remember what good things you hoped awaited you within a future job when you were very young and still preparing for one. And have you ever been unemployed long-term, worried that you’d not find work in the near future? In this case, remember why it was distressing (if it was). Here I’ll talk about the things we can, and should, get out of work – and argue that these goods are so important that we ought to reorganise employment.

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How to criticise a gender norm

This post discusses how to go about criticising gender norms (in a wide sense of the term, including explicit expectations but also things like gender schemas – implicit bias and stereotype threat.) Like many other feminists, I find gender norms bothering because of the undue pressure they put on people to behave in ways that limit their freedom and which very often result in unequal opportunities for women and for men. Overall, women are at the losing end of these inequalities; I will not rehearse here all the counts on which women are worse off than men even in liberal egalitarian democracies that are formally committed to gender justice. (They include political representation, the holding of well-paid, prestigious and interesting jobs, income gaps and various daily, micro-inequalities.) Also – and maybe unlike some feminists – I think that men, too, can be the victims of gender norms; for instance they get conscripted into armies and killed in wars more than women, and probably suffer more injustice than women at the hands of police and the criminal system – especially when gender combines with race, as in the case of black men.

So there’s a clear prima facie case against gender norms: most of us would benefit if they were to disappear, and we’d also have a fairer world for that reason. Yet it’s not clear which of these norms we really want to change. Presumably, not all gender norms are equally bothering and in need of urgent rethinking; also, some may be very difficult if at all possible to change. Further, it is not clear what we want to put instead of the existing gender norms. Take an example: one stereotype has it that women are nurturing and men are competitive. In combination with a competition-based economy and the fact that we as a society don’t reward care generously, this stereotype results in women ending up with less pay and social status and men ending up with less family time and, possibly, fewer caring relationships overall. Now, there are many ways in which we could aim to change this situation into one that is more gender-symmetrical: We could try to change the gender norm of women = care and men = market success into a norm that requires women and men to be equally focussed on market success (and let the care be done by whoever happens to want it, or can’t avoid it). Or we could try to change it into a norm that requires men and women to take equal responsibility for both care and market success. Or we could try to change it into a norm that universally values care in both personal relationships and relationships amongst citizens, and is therefore critical of the very ideal of market success.
Now, some of this discussion has been taking place, but, to my mind, not enough of it. I assume one explanation is that the (academic and popular) debate about gender norms often gets stuck in the question of their origins, as if their origins was overwhelmingly important. Much debate is about the social construction of gender: Some people stress that gender norms are not given but created by social practices and institutions. Others – often seen as unsympathetic to feminism – argue that they are a result of evolution. I’m increasingly of the opinion that whether gender roles are a result of evolution (as evolutionary psychologists often claim) or of social construction (as many others think) has in itself little normative relevance. More important than the origin of a gender norm are, to my mind, the following questions:
(a) Is it desirable to get rid of the gendered nature of a particular norm?
(b) Does the gender norm in question promote a behaviour that is morally valuable, morally neutral, or morally indifferent?
(c) Is it possible to change the norm in question, and at what (moral) cost?
Defenders of evolutionary psychology and of the social construction model can in principle meet on the same answer to (a). If a gender norm puts some people at arbitrary disadvantage, then we have a plausible reason for opposing it, whatever it’s origin. If boys come into the world with less ability to express themselves and women with less talent for maths, then maybe we should invest more in boys’ linguistic competence and girl’s mathematical skills – rather than the other way around.
On (b): Some of the gender norms that regulate women’s and men’s behaviour seem to be, in themselves, morally neutral: for instance, those related to dress, appearance or courtship codes. (This is not to say that it cannot be harmful to aim for some ideals of feminine beauty, or that it is fair to expect women to invest more in their appearance than men in order to be socially acceptable.) There’s no harm in just abolishing them. But other gender norms have moral content. Women are expected to be more nurturing and caring than men. It’s very contested that women do in fact tend to respond to individual needs and relationships better than men. But the norm itself promotes a morally valuable behaviour, which suggests we should universalise, rather than abolish, it.
Yet, moving on to (c), it may be feasible to get to a less gendered society only by universalising the norms associated with male behaviours. Take professional success: Some people claim that, in order to ‘get ahead’ as a woman you need to emulate male behaviour (and over-do it a bit.) And the existence of implicit bias and the tendency to discount women as knowers may mean that for women it is particularly important to be self-assertive in order to be taken seriously (an interesting discussion here.) If so, as a parent or mentor you may have only one effective way to undermine gender norms: to nudge your female child or mentoree to be more self-assertive and, more generally, emphasise that women can and should be just as self-assertive as men. This, I assume, it a genuinely difficult moral choice.
In any case, it seems to me that it’s not worth spending so much energy on discussing the origin of gender norms, but focus instead on whether we want them around and what we should replace them with. I’m curious to find out what you think.

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