Thursday, April 07, 2011

Immanuel Kant on the Golden Gate Man-Ban, or, a Philosopher's View

Immanuel Kant would have had no reason to apply for membership with the Golden Gate Mothers Group, being a "small, frail bachelor" without children.

He certainly would not have been interested in strollercising, although his form-fitting 18th century breeches might have gotten him through a few spin classes before falling apart. He most certainly would not have made a pass or leered at any of the moms, being far too North German Protestant for that sort of behavior, but also believing as he did that sex should be confined to marriage and engaged in strictly for the purposes of reproduction. And he had some very fine and feminist things to say about the evils of objectifying the female body.

Yet even if these credentials were enough to get him into the Golden Gate Mothers Group, the solitary and humorless Immanuel Kant would probably have freaked out enough moms to get the group's man-ban reinstated.

But these are all hypotheticals. The point is that Kant would have had no personal interest in joining this group, though he would disapproved of its ban on men, and this on purely ethical grounds. That is basically my position, too.

What are these purely ethical grounds? Fortunately, I don't have to lay them out, because another dad blogger (Backpacking Dad) with far greater knowledge of the philosophical tradition already has. It's worth a read for its concision and comprehensiveness.

The idea is basically this: looked at from any of three contending frameworks for ethical evaluation -- the Kantian, the Utilitarian, and the classical (Aristotelian) framework of moral virtue -- the GGMG man-ban does not really pass the test. BD writes:

I think the policy banning men from joining the Golden Gate Mothers Group is philosophically weak. It doesn’t seem defensible on any of the classic moral grounds, and it would be very difficult for someone to adopt a consistent moral perspective on the world that included this ban as a specific element.

Who cares? Well, Backpacking Dad, being a philosopher, and apparently one versed in ethical philosophy in particular, cares about whether the rules we live by can be rationally grounded. Since most of the rules we live by require consensus in order to be adopted, it's not a bad idea to be able to make arguments for them based on an explicit system of reasoning. That's what he tries to do.

Backpacking Dad's first critique is from the Kantian perspective, or an analysis based on the application of Kant's philosophical version of the Biblical 'Golden Rule,' what Kant called the categorical imperative. Can one apply this rule in all cases in a purely disinterested way?  Not really, because to do so would mean that, if it were moral for every group "promoting the comfort and security of new mothers [to exclude] men from their groups," no men could form such groups, because they would have to exclude themselves.

(Another way of testing the ban from a Kantian perspective would be to ask, "would I will it that all groups, in order to promote the safety and security of their members, be able to exclude at least one type of individual of their choosing?" I'd like to hear BD's appraisal of this formulation, which I think is the defense most likely to be employed by the GGMG. It seems that it would run into all sorts of headaches in terms of how, if universally applied, it would be possible to guarantee that every "type" is guaranteed its own group and access to the same numbers of groups, when it may be likely that some groups find themselves the objects of multiple exclusions.)

BD walks through two more evaluations, one from a utilitarian and another from a classical moral virtue perspective, more or less failing it on both counts. I'll skip the moral virtue evaluation, since I don't think it will make sense to most people, my own Kantian self included. From the utilitarian, or 'greatest good for the greatest number' perspective, the man-ban runs into quantitative difficulty in that the overall good it is intended to advance -- the security and comfort of women -- is likely countervailed by the harm it does to men who are rejected, children who are denied enrichment, women who would like to join but who disapprove of the ban, and the skewing of social capital and resources away from these and other individuals.

Not being of Utilitarian persuasion, I think this sort of cost-benefit analysis is itself morally troubling, although this is how most public policy actually gets developed. But granting that within the Utilitarian framework, a case could be made that past injustice and discrimination against women could be cited to justify the present exclusion of men, BD argues that the man ban would still be problematic because it is such a blunt instrument:

[W]hat is the rule that is really being forwarded by this specific ban? Is it really to reduce male oppression? Then why not let unoppressing males in? Is it because it’s too hard to tell who they are? Why not have a probationary period? The blanket ban, at the least, seems like a nuclear solution to what might be a severe problem, but not one that cannot be addressed through less discriminatory policies.

What's this? So here we have what strikes me as the core of a reasonable and constructive proposal that forces the GGMG to answer for the harms of its exclusionary policy, while offering a way out through a series of more refined admissions tests. Instead of declaring men to be just beastly and banned from the outset, the GGMG is asked to put out some rules and a process that define what is acceptable behavior and what will get people (men) kicked out if these rules are violated.

That, it seems to me, is far more seemly than a justification for exclusion that is made on the grounds of  "your children will be excluded because we feel uncomfortable bitching about our husbands not helping with childcare when you are next to us helping out with childcare."

Then, at least, organizations like the GGMG may benefit from the advantages of enrolling non-beastly dads and their children, which is one of the best ways to ensure that the friends and children of non-beastly dads are themselves even less beastly going forward into the next generation.


Anonymous said...

"But these are all hypotheticals."

Cracking up. Ah, Kant humour.

The other formulation you offer for a possible maxim of action might not qualify as a maxim, for Kant. It's a bit general. If you go all the way up to the level of "I will do something for some reasons" in generality you definitely don't have a maxim of action. And I think building generality into the maxim as you've done "I will exclude () people for the purpose of etc..." in the suggestion might make Kant just say "No, that's not a maxim." It is the actual maxim being acted on that needs evaluation through universalization, and not a maxim type. So although it might look like the GGMG could say "We are operating on the maxim {your general version here}" that wouldn't actually be true. They'd still be operating on the specific maxim, which is one of a type as can be seem from your formulation, but it's the specific maxim that fails the test.

chicago pop said...

Ok, I've already exceeded the speed-limit of my competency here, so I'll just ask you questions. All it takes for a maxim to be morally disqualified is to fail just one universalization test. We start with the rule "I want to start a mother's group and exclude men." This results in a contradiction should I propose such a rule, because I am a man and would exclude myself. Yet why would I propose such a maxim in the first place? I am completely uninterested in forming clubs for women or mothers only, so why should it matter if I am excluded? It would seem that this test would ultimately allow no clubs to form at all, because they would all fail to be universal and cosmopolitan. Or to put it differently, if Kant allows for each maxim to be tested from the position of every possible subject, which seems to be his intention, then no clubs would be possible, unless it embraced all of humanity. Which is my amateur understanding of Kant's orientation. But it is at variance with the tradition in liberal political philosophy, embedded in the Constitutional right of free association, that allows for some segregation and/or discrimination in the private sphere.

Perhaps this slides me over to the Utilitarian way of looking at things?

Anonymous said...

"embraced all of humanity"

This is actually a very Kantian notion, so that we'd end up at such a result isn't outrageous from a Kantian point of view.

Sometimes Kant's position on a particular action becomes clearer if the other tests are used. He thinks they all get at the categorical imperative in one way or the other, just from different sides. So the Formula of Humanity says, in essence, "act only in ways such that you use humanity as an end in itself, never as a means." A policy that excludes men from a group, or excludes any people from a group, has to do so while not using the humanity of those individuals as a means to an end. I doubt such a thing is possible. This test doesn't require that we form maxims first, to test them; it just requires that we figure out if a person's humanity is being respected by an action. I doubt it is, in this case.

Kant's moral philosophy is very, very strict. It's so strict that it comes off as unintuitive in a lot of test cases. Kant is so adamant that lying, for instance, uses a person's humanity (their rationality, basically) as a means to an end that even in the case that a murderer comes to your door, asking if his intended victim is inside, you must answer him truthfully. Even if you could probably save the victim's life by lying, you're not allowed to lie, under the Formula of Humanity.

chicago pop said...

This is actually a very Kantian notion

Yes, I know. :-) It's susceptibility to this kind of idea (the idea of "humanity")that makes me a closet Kantian, despite occasional misgivings. Or should I say, risking more Kantian humor, my better judgment.

Paul Rasmussen said...

I'm just taking a guess here, but I suspect Kant would go back and take a long hard link at the categorical imperative if he had to sit through a mommy-n-me sing along. Given the choice between acceptance in mommy circles and the comfort that comes from belief in a morally tethered, just and more or less reasonable cosmos, bring on the pomods.

Paul Rasmussen said...

I'm just taking a guess here, but I suspect Kant would go back and take a long hard link at the categorical imperative if he had to sit through a mommy-n-me sing along. Given the choice between acceptance in mommy circles and the comfort that comes from belief in a morally tethered, just and more or less reasonable cosmos, bring on the pomods.

Ragweed said...

I really don't have time to get into this, between work, parenting, and starting a new quarter of classes this week - and my notes on Kant are buried way to deep in a box somewhere at the moment.

But the idea of evaluating a question that revolves around gender equality from the perspective of Kant, Aristotle, and Utilitarianism, without acknowledging the significant feminist critiques of those philisophical perspectives, seems deeply troubling.


Anonymous said...

@J Chapman:

Okay, I'll acknowledge the criticisms: at root, feminist criticisms of traditional philosophers like Aristotle and Kant, when not focused on actually misogynistic remarks made by them, try to show that concepts like "reason" and "objectivity" are inherently gendered male in the presentation, and so structures built on those concepts require a very hard look. But it's not like there is broad agreement that Aristotelian virtue ethics, Kantianism, and Utilitarianism are all just failures from a feminist point of view.

Charlotte Witt's article "Feminist History of Philosophy" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is worth a read.

So, the criticisms are there. But there's no agreement about the extent of what effect they really have on the traditional theories: They might just push us to try to excise sexist language while preserving concepts. Or they might have us reject the historical use of certain concepts themselves, and reevaluate the theories in light of the historical bias. This reevalutation might mean a rejection of the theory or it might not. Or they might have us reject concepts outright because the concepts themselves are so sexist or at least one-sided that a theory based on them at all or alone will always be flawed. It's only if you are really convinced of this last that this whole conversation has been worthless.

chicago pop said...

@ J Chapman: remind me before I submit this piece to the Journal of Modern Philosophy to write a critical prelude to Western metaphysics from a feminist point of view, beginning with Evelyn Fox Keller on Plato and proceeding through Julia Kristeva and on to Donna Haraway on Lacan. Or, for the sake of brevity, we can suggest that the history of ideas operates, as Hegel might have said, against the grain, presenting us with frameworks that we remake, remodel, and sometime use against the intentions of the author, but equipped with the author's own formidable resources. I don't accept Kant's racist anthropology or the Enlightenment's overall anti-feminist orientation, nor do I approve of Jefferson having been a slave owner. But in many ways the tools they have left us, suitably critiqued and adapted, are still the best we've got. Perhaps I'm of the generation that just takes this as a given, and doesn't need the warning labels.

Ragweed said...

BPD – I actually think the more significant criticism is not that “reason” is an essentially male mode of inquiry, but the extent to which European and male philosophers claim reason and universality in a way that denies the power relationships that imbue most social relationships. That’s one of the principle lessons of post-structuralism, particularly as employed by third-world and feminist scholars like Gayatri Spivak. It is not that there are no universal rights, but that our ability to conceptualize what “rights” and “virtue” are is deeply determined by our social, cultural and political relationships. We can never get away from what we are to be the universal.

I also think one has to look at the Carol Gilligan’s “Ethics of Care”, not so much from an essentialist take on gender and values (and definitely not from her neo-Freudian causality) but rather to question the privileging of abstract and universal virtue over inter-relationships. Is the quest for “universal” right and wrong it really just a dominant (and male) cultural value? I don’t know that there is a clear answer to that, but I think it is a particularly important question when it comes to the ethics of parenting, in which relationships take on a particular importance. For example – what if the person coming to the door with a knife wants to kill our child? Does that change the equation?

[You could also get into some really interesting territory if you look at the recent research on neuroplasticity and the neurobiology of attachment - the extent to which our very neurology is impacted by our relationships with others raises some really interesting questions about traditional notions of reason – but that is really a question for another day]

CP – See, I knew you had it in you! ;-) (Though I tend to stay away from Kristiva and Lacan – I have never understood the appeal of neo-Fruedianism in some critical circles.)

But why start at Fox-Keller? Why not go back a little further to Mary Wollstonecraft, whose defense of women’s rights is deeply influenced by both Utilitarian and Kantian principles? (which would actually bolster many of the arguments presented in these posts.)

What seems a little weird to me is that we have an issue here which deeply connects with issues of gender, power, and marginalization, and it is being discussed exclusively from a philosophical framework of dead white men (and, with a nod to Mills’ advocacy of suffrage, mostly from the days before women even had the right to vote). It is not that these dead white men didn’t have important things to say, nor that we should automatically reject their arguments because they are white and male – but to look at this issue through that lens alone seems odd to me.

Criticism of a mom’s group could be grounded in arguments for gender equality (which are essentially pro-feminist, if not necessary in agreement with all strands of feminist thought) or they can be grounded in backlash. I would hope that, if we are a group of “pro-feminist beta dads”, as JAS puts so it, that we would take the former approach. When the argument is solely grounding in the works of male philosophers, it begins to feel more like backlash.


chicago pop said...

@ J Chapman: wonderful comment, thanks for taking the time to write it up.

I think we're agreed on the fundamentals of the issue in this blogospheric cause célèbre.

Where we differ is in this: you seem concerned at the absence of certain labels or tokens in the rhetorical presentation of this argument, and that this absence might darkly reflect on the reactionary motivations of not one but two male primary caregivers who have written much about the day-to-day of shared parenting. Not only would that be ironic, it would miss out on the manifold ironies of history itself, in which words, theories, practices, and institutions crafted to deliver one meaning or serve one purpose, come to serve another. Kant mobilized in favor of gender equality by a stay-at-home dad who just spent the afternoon with his kid on the playground so his wife could work -- wherein lies the backlash?

That's the post-structuralist take on easy dichotomies like "progressive vs. backlash," or even masculine vs. feminine.

For my part, if Mary Wollstonecraft derives her arguments from Kant, then why not discuss Kant? She doesn't detract from him, he doesn't exclude her. But to imply that a few male caregivers discussing a male philosopher implies a kind of anti-feminist backlash seems essentialist. By analogy, am I anti-semitic if I'm Jewish and use Kant to make an argument for human rights because he was German, or should I draw my arguments only from the Torah and the 10 Commandments? Was Mao Eurocentric for adopting Marx, originator of the "Asiatic mode of production," or should he have made revolution un-dialectically, and on the basis of Confucius alone? Should MLK not have appealed to the ideals of the Enlightenment (cooked up by white male slaveholders) in working for Civil Rights, or was it appropriate to take the logic of their thought and turn it against their legacy? Or are these ironic twists and turns perhaps par for the course?

I appreciate your sense of what I would call rhetorical "appropriateness," (to critique an exclusionary policy like that of the GGMG why not use Mary Wollstonecraft, being a woman herself, and thus one of the group?), but counter your worries of dark motivations with my own worries over a rhetorical preoccupation with labels and simple classifications as to what may be safely referenced in this or that argument.

That said, I must go now, for I have another post to write: "A Playdate with Jane Austen."

Anonymous said...

@J Chapman:

Spivak and Gilligan are examples of the very last class of criticisms I mentioned: reject reason and objectivity as useful or proper concepts at all, since they are inherently male biased, not just in their history, or their application, but in their nature. I'm not sure why you bring them up, since as I already said, there are lots of relationships feminist critics of traditional philosophers can have with those concepts, and the extreme rejection of the very concepts of reason and objectivity is only one. The traditional ethical theories can survive fairly well intact on other feminist accounts. So while I take the, very minimal, point that the conversation ignored radical feminist criticisms of traditional moral theories that make them completely worthless, I'm not really going to lose sleep over this omission.

But all of that is really beside the point. I was humouring you with my original reply, since it seemed you wanted to leave a hit-and-run comment, vaguely waving at feminist philosophy, but not spelling anything out. It seemed like you had utterly misunderstood my post, or not even read it, so there was no value in doing anything more than pointing out the limit of the criticism itself.

A more honest reply would have been that it doesn't matter what feminist philosophy has to say about the traditional ethical theories, in this case, because I don't think anyone was using anything other than a traditional ethical approach to try to justify the exclusion. All that needed to be done was show that this was a failed attempt at justifying using traditional means. It wasn't an argument about the VALIDITY of traditional ethical theories.

Part of the misunderstanding might be due to a conflation of my post with the threads on Daddy Dialectic. I don't go as far as Chicago Pop does, to say essentially the GGMG is doing something wrong, full stop. I'm too much of a philosopher to actually have an opinion about something outside of my own specialty. But I sure do provide a lot of help, since I demolish a few of the ethical refuges it might at first seem to have.

chicago pop said...

Addendum: I like Donna Haraway, a whole lot. Were she to look at this issue, I think she would not only destroy Kant in a way that satisfies J Chapman, but she would also argue that the GGMG should be open to men, dogs, gorillas, and cyborgs.

I like that.

Ragweed said...


My first post was a bit of a drive-by, but that was genuinely because of the time constraints I mentioned. I really shouldn’t be up at midnight writing this (but it's way more fun than the financial management homework I should be doing).

And I do concede that I am reacting more to Chicago Pop’s article here, than to the piece on your blog (which I would have responded to over there).

The reason I worry it smells of backlash is because there is a long historical pattern of mainstream philosophy being used to maintain the oppression of women and women historically have been excluded from serious consideration by the discipline of philosophy (even Wollstonecraft has been seen as a second-rate Utilitarian - or at least was in my undergrad - because she employs utilitarianism in defense of the rights of women, rather than logically deriving the rights of women from utilitarianism). So it concerns me when a women’s organization is specifically criticized, referencing three male-associated philosophies with little reference to a large body of substantial thinking on gender and power. At a certain point it begins to feel like a group of men getting together and defining what women’s rights should be, without seeking any input from the women in the room. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t good points to be had all around, but the dynamic is troubling.

Historically, men have been quick to claim the discoursive space of the universal, while speaking from a male-subjective position. Because of that history, I think we have a special obligation to be extremely cautious in how we claim that space.

I can accept your point on Carol Gilligan, with some reservations, but I have to disagree with you about Spivak – she does not reject western notions of universality because they are somehow inherently male in their nature. In fact, I am not sure that she rejects the notion of universality entirely – she clearly breaks from the more relativistic postmodern thinkers like Foucault and Deluze (she’s actually quite Marxist –e.g. her comparison of Derrida to Althuser). Her criticism is more that claims of universality from western thinkers aren’t actually universal – they are usually determined by colonial and gendered power relationships, posing as universal. It isn’t that western white men uniquely and inherently can’t think universally, it’s that we generally don’t - and that one cannot escape the cultural power relationships that mediate everything that human beings think or do. Ultimately I don’t think Spivak rejects the notion of an objective reality, just recognizes that it’s damned hard to get there. It’s not about essentialism, it is about power and positionality - and the answer, I think, is to own our subjectivity.

Which is why I find it interesting that you (two posts up) suddenly martial the lived experience of being a stay-at-home dad in defense of this philosophical inquiry. And that is not a criticism – I think we need to ground more of our thinking in the day-to-day experience of life, and less in the creation of abstract reasoned arguments that seem strangely disconnected from life.

CP - I am also quite fond of Haraway (though it has been a LONG time since I read her). Bring on the cyborgs!


Anonymous said...

@J Chapman,

I think you've mixed up me and Chicago Pop. I don't remember mentioning being a stay-at-home dad during this conversation, or relying on it in any way.