Tag Archives | Feminism

And Tell It Strong and Clear If He Has Not

Two Arthurian knights you never read about in grade school:

The African one, “black as pitch” but “naught unsightly,” and graced with “all that men would praise in a knight,” who fights Lancelot to a standstill, from the medieval Romance of Morien.

The female one, a “beautiful creature … raise[d] as a boy,” “conducting [her]self like a man,” and “of all the knights … most skillful with shield and lance,” who manages to outsmart Merlin, from the medieval Romance of Silence.

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Justice to Antiquity

In a book review of Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual (which I confess I haven’t read), Roger McKinney – evidently following Siedentop – trots out the hackneyed claim that individualism is a product solely of the West, and specifically of the post-pagan West.

In response to the first claim, I’ll simply point to the many anticipations of libertarian ideas that are to be found in ancient China, particularly among the early Confucians. Ideas of liberty, equality, universal justice, and the value of commercial activity – all of which McKinney rightly associates with individualism – can also be found in ancient India and the medieval Islamic world.

But for present purposes I want to focus on what McKinney says about ancient Greece and Rome. To deny the Greeks and Romans a conception of individualism seems startling, since many of the most individualistic features of modern law have their roots in Greco-Roman traditions, and because most Greek and Roman philosophers made the pursuit of one’s own happiness and self-realisation the core of their ethical outlook. (Of course Greco-Roman individualism was not atomistic or antisocial; but that’s surely a feature, not a bug.) So what does McKinney have in mind?

To start with, he writes:

[In Morocco] cheating others is not considered unethical at all but a sign of an astute businessman. … Moroccan business ethics might be appalling to westerners, but ancient Greeks and Romans would have understood and applauded them ….

CiceroI’m not sure how appalling such conduct is to my business ethics students, many of whom readily agree with Albert Carr’s defense of relaxed ethical standards for business life as opposed to family life. In any case, the applause from ancient Greeks and Romans would hardly have been universal. One of Rome’s leading thinkers, Marcus Tullius Cicero, wrote a whole book, De Officiis (usually translated either as On Offices or as On Duties), which is essentially a treatise on business ethics. In it he records some of the leading debates among Greek and Roman thinkers as to what sort of conduct is and is not permissible in commercial transactions. While a variety of views are canvassed, none of them fits McKinney’s description; and Cicero himself insists firmly that justice and fair dealing are owed to all human beings. (Cicero also argues in the same work that each of us has a responsibility to fulfill the demands not just of universal human nature but of our individualised nature, which certainly seems like a kind of individualism.)

Like Moroccans, ancient Greeks and Romans cared little for non-family members. Those “… outside the family circle were not deemed to share any attributes with those within. No common humanity was acknowledged, an attitude confirmed by the practice of enslavement.”

The attitude described here certainly existed (and continues to exist today; indeed it fairly describes u.s. foreign policy), but the suggestion that this view was all-pervasive and unchallenged in Greco-Roman antiquity is a mistake. The Cynics and Stoics defended a vision of all humanity as a single community, a cosmopolis; and even the less cosmopolitan Aristotle, who defended slavery on the basis of bullshit theories of racial inferiority, insisted that foreign races that were not inferior (and he granted that there were some) could not justly be conquered or enslaved. On this basis Aristotle condemned societies with aggressive foreign policies. Aristotle also insisted (NE 1108a9-28, 1126b19-1127a2, 1155a16-31) that we have duties of friendship toward strangers and foreigners. The legitimacy of slavery was also challenged by thinkers from Alkidamas to Zeno of Citium.

For the ancient Romans and Greeks society consisted of a collection of extended families. The heads of the families, including family-based clans and tribes, held all the power and made all of the decisions. Only the heads of families could become citizens in the polis.

Sure, for the most part – though again hardly confined to antiquity, since even the supposedly egalitarian John Rawls in the first version of his 1971 Theory of Justice had “heads of families” as the contracting parties behind the Veil of Ignorance. But likewise again, this perspective was not exactly unchallenged; Plato famously advocated an independent political role for women in his Republic, as well as the abolition of the family; and similar views were defended by the Cynics and early Stoics (and arguably Xenophon to some extent).

Antiquity had no notion of the powers of the government being limited by the rights of individuals, even for family heads.

The entire Athenian legal system was a vast contrivance to limit governmental power. Ancient constitutional thought focused heavily on the idea of structuring the balance of power between different classes so as to prevent any one class from being in a position to impose injustice unchecked on another. And the idea that individuals have claims of justice that states are bound to respect was defended by nearly every ancient political theorist, including Aristotle and Cicero. (For Aristotle, see Fred Miller’s book Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics; for Cicero, see his discussion of natural law in De Republica and De Legibus.)

Consider also Pericles’ funeral oration, as recorded or invented (or some of each) by Thucydides, in which tolerance and respect for individual choice are lauded: “in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes.” Of course Athens did not live up consistently to this ideal (nor do modern so-called liberal societies live up to it today), but the ideal was clearly recognised and formulated.

The ancients had no concept of the equality of man, either. Even for Plato and Aristotle, a natural hierarchy of humanity existed, much like the caste system of India. Some were born to rule, others to serve or fight.

Certainly Plato and Aristotle believed in political hierarchies based on allegedly natural inequalities. But they were not the only political thinkers of Greco-Roman antiquity. The Cynics and early Stoics (such as Zeno of Citium) defended a vision of society in which all hierarchical distinctions of rulers and subjects, masters and slaves, males and females would be abolished. Some Epicureans (like Diogenes of Oenoanda) held similar views. (And turning our gaze momentarily eastward: the caste system in India had its early critics as well, notably among Buddhists.)

Politics and war became the noblest occupations while commerce was held in contempt.

Held in contempt by whom? Successful merchants enjoyed enormous social prestige in Greece and Rome; and Hesiod’s praise of industry and commercial competition is justly famous. As for the philosophers, Plato and Aristotle did disparage commerce (though Aristotle disparaged warfare as well – as did the Epicureans), but again, they were not the only philosophers in classical antiquity. The Stoics in particular were vigorous defenders of commerce, as was Xenophon; and then of course there’s Cicero, whose book on business ethics I’ve previously mentioned. I challenge anyone to read Cicero and come away with an impression of a thinker who is valorising warfare and downgrading commerce. Individualism may not have reigned supreme in antiquity (nor does it today), but its basic concepts were formulated and defended by a good many influential thinkers.

For more on classical Greek and Roman individualism, see my various discussions here.

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Check Your Privilege / Check Your Premises / Check Your Schedule

[cross-posted at BHL]

A reminder for anyone planning to attend the American Philosophical Association in Philadelphia next week: here once again is the info on this year’s Molinari Society panel:

Eastern APA, Marriott Philadelphia Downtown, Monday, 29 December 2014:

Molinari Society, 1:30-4:30 p.m. [GIX-3, location TBA]:
Libertarianism and Privilege

Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)

Billy Christmas (University of Manchester), “Privilege and Libertarianism
Jennifer A. Baker (College of Charleston), “White Privilege and Virtue
Jason Lee Byas (University of Oklahoma), “Supplying the Demand of Liberation: Markets as a Structural Check Against Domination

Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)
Charles W. Johnson (Molinari Institute)

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On Reverse Racism: Three Thought-Experiments

[cross-posted at BHL]

For some, especially on the right, reverse racism is just as serious and problematic as regular racism. For others, especially on the left, reverse racism is impossible; a black person, say, may be hostile toward or prejudiced against white people, but cannot count as racist toward them.

This disagreement is due, in part, to a further disagreement as to whether racism, and/or the badness of racism, is essentially a matter of individual attitudes and actions, or essentially a matter of systematic power relations. And the same issues arise with sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, and so on.

I think both sides are wrong. That is, I think reverse racism (along with sexism, etc.) is a) possible and real, but b) less seriously problematic than the regular sort. Let me say why.

I’ll start with a thought-experiment designed to convince those who already accept the existence of reverse racism (etc.) that it is less seriously problematic than the regular sort.

Thought-Experiment #1: Bobby Shafto’s Burger Shack

Bobby Shafto has an odd obsession with freckles, specifically facial freckles. He likes people with an even number of freckles on their face. (That includes people with no freckles on their face, since zero is an even number.) But he has an aversion toward people with an odd number of freckles on their face, and he refuses to allow them into his Burger Shack, either as employees or as customers. In his world, which we’ll suppose to be ours as well, Shafto’s particular prejudice is of course highly unusual. But on Twin Earth, let’s say, the same prejudice is widely shared among the even-freckled, and as the even-freckled command the lion’s share of economic and political power, they are able to make their prejudice effective.

Suppose Bobby Shafto and his odd discrimination policy really exist somewhere. We might well disapprove. But how concerned would we be about it? Not very, I suspect. And the reason isn’t hard to find: Shafto’s prejudice is so rare that it causes very little overall harm; it’s easy enough to find other places to work or to eat.

By contrast, when we consider the Twin-Earth scenario in which Shafto’s prejudice is the norm among those with economic and political power, then the life-choices of odd-freckled people would start to be systematically constrained, and the prejudice in question would begin to look like something in need of being condemned and combated in a serious and organised way. (Such combating need not necessarily take the form of legal coercion; but that’s a distinct issue.)

When I say that prejudice against odd-freckled people is a worse evil on Twin Earth than in our world, I don’t just mean that it has worse consequences (though that’ part of what I mean). I also mean that it evinces a worse motive and character – since it involves knowingly contributing to ongoing oppression, as Shafto’s does not.

So discrimination against the odd-freckled is a serious evil on Twin Earth; but our world is not Twin Earth. And considering Bobby Shafto in our world – Bobby Shafto the isolated eccentric weirdo – I ask those who think reverse racism is as seriously problematic as regular racism whether they also think Shafto’s discrimination policy is as seriously problematic as regular racism. If – as I predict – they mostly don’t, that would seem to show that they’re committed to acknowledging that the badness of racism is at least in large part a matter of the systematic constraining of people’s options – of their oppression, in Marilyn Frye’s sense. But that means that reverse racism – i.e., racism by an oppressed group against a non-oppressed group – cannot be as serious an evil as racism by a non-oppressed group against an oppressed group.

My argument presupposes, of course, that blacks are an oppressed group and that whites are not. (And ditto mutatis mutandis for women vs. men, etc.) Obviously some of the people who worry about reverse racism will deny that supposition. I think they’re crazy to deny it, but that’s a debate I’m not getting into here. For purposes of this post I’m addressing those who grant that blacks are oppressed while whites (quawhites) are not, but who nevertheless regard regular racism and reverse racism as equally bad. The point of my comparison between Bobby Shafto and Twin Earth is to convince holders of that position that they can’t hold it consistently.

Let me now turn to the second group – those who deny the possibility of reverse racism, on the grounds that racism is essentially about systematic , institutional oppression, not merely individual attitudes. The usual criticism of this view is that it conflicts with ordinary usage. That criticism is, I think, a strong one, but not quite as strong as its proponents suppose.

Why is the appeal to ordinary usage strong? Because the standard use of the word “racism” in ordinary language does treat individual attitudes as sufficient (even if not necessary) for racism. People are of course free to give the word “racism” a special sense as a technical term referring exclusively to institutional racism; but if that is all they are doing, then they are not entitled to criticise others who use the term in the ordinary way. By analogy, the term “trope,” as used in my profession, means something radically different from its use(s) almost everywhere else (whether in rhetoric, in literary theory, or in ordinary language); but it would be silly for me to criticise those who don’t use it as analytic philosophers do.

Why is the appeal to ordinary usage not necessarily decisive? Because a term’s ordinary use can legitimately be rejected if there turn out to be something wrong with that use – as I’ve argued is the case with, for example, the term “capitalism.”

But is there anything wrong with the ordinary meaning of “racism”? It allows for the possibility of reverse racism, of course, but is there anything wrong with doing so? One might think so, if one thought that acknowledging reverse racism as a category committed one to regarding reverse racism as comparable to regular racism either in extent or in moral seriousness; but no such commitment exists. (That the existence of reverse racism does not entail its being comparable in moral seriousness to regular racism was the moral of my Bobby Shafto thought-experiment above.) Of course the sort of people who tend to bang on about reverse racism do typically regard it as comparable, both in extent and in moral seriousness, to regular racism; but we do not need to deny the existence of a category in order to deny that the category has the significance that those who are most invested in the category generally attribute to it.

Another reason one might have for rejecting the ordinary meaning of “racism” is simply the need for a term that conveys the systematic, institutional dimensions of the problem; if “racism” as commonly used doesn’t do that, maybe we should change it so that it will. But in fact we have terms that do the trick, such as “oppression,” “white privilege,” and (mutatis mutandis) “patriarchy.” Those terms are all asymmetric; “racism” doesn’t need to be (nor, e.g., does “sexism”).

In any case, insisting that nothing counts as racism unless it involves systematic, institutional oppression has some consequences that even those who take that view ought to find awkward. This brings me to my second thought-experiment.

Thought-Experiment #2: Unfrozen Caveman Owner

Take someone you think is an obvious racist; presumably Donald Sterling will do (he’s also a sexist, so this example can do double duty), though pick someone else if you like. Now suppose that while touring a cryogenics facility he falls into the vat and is instantly frozen. When he is revived, many years (decades? centuries? millennia?) have passed, and he wakes into a world in which true racial (as well as gender, etc.) equality have finally been achieved. But all of Sterling’s attitudes remain the same as they were in the early 21st century. Is Sterling no longer a racist (and ditto for sexist)?


If racism necessarily involves society-wide power relations, then Sterling in my example is not a racist once he wakes up, since the power relations in question are gone. But it seems bizarre to deny that future-Sterling, with all his attitudes unchanged from those of present-Sterling, is a racist. I don’t just mean that it seems bizarre to me. Rather, I’m predicting (subject of course to falsification) that even those (or most of those) who are attracted to the denial of the possibility of reverse-racism will find it plausible to think of future-Sterling as a racist. But if he is a racist, then racism does not essentially depend on systematic oppression (even if much of racism’s moral interest stems from such oppression), and so the chief case against the possibility of reverse racism must be abandoned.

But perhaps it will be said that future-Sterling counts as a racist only because his beliefs and attitudes were formed in a social context of white privilege and so are still defined by their origin. Well in that case let’s consider a final thought-experiment.

Thought-Experiment #3: The Red and Yellow Peril

Two distinct ethnic groups, the Winkies and the Quadlings, live in adjacent territories. Each side regards the other as racially inferior degenerates who deserve to be either subjugated or exterminated. The two are at constant war with each other, but as they are roughly equally matched, neither side has succeeded in subduing the other. Are the Winkies and Quadlings not racist?

The mutual race hatred between the Winkies and the Quadlings seems like the kind of situation that the concept of “racism” is tailor-made to describe. But while each side seeks domination, neither has it. There’s no inequality, no privilege, no oppression. So racism, I suggest, need not involve these. In which case reverse racism is possible. Though not necessarily that big a deal.

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