Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Liberalism, Feminism, and the Promise of Lovibond's Moral Realism

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Liberalism, Feminism, and the Promise of Lovibond's Moral Realism

Article excerpt

As Alison Jagger showed in her masterful overview of feminist politics,1 the political liberalism of most early feminists has been attacked on many fronts. Despite the universal acceptance of the rhetoric of equal opportunity, the persistence of "glass ceilings" in Western democracies2 reveals at least the inadequacy and arguably the deceptive abstractness of liberalism's focus on equal rights. Nor is merit the most significant criterion of success even in the academy, despite its historical commitment to Enlightenment ideals and despite the public perception that it is a haven for feminists, liberals, and possibly even socialists. In the empirical sciences, for instance, the availability of "hard" results might have seemed proof against gender discrimination. But even there, as a study in the prestigious journal Nature has shown, women really do have to be twice as good as men to be considered their equals.3

And if such political objections might merely provide evidence that liberal principles have been ignored, others have raised more radical challenges to the principles themselves. By revealing power relations within the home, the technique of "consciousness-raising" bolstered the insight that "the personal is political," thereby breaching the line between private and public life-the historic core of liberal theory. One alternative was to retain that theory by extending the notion of rights within the family. But soon Carol Gilligan's work gave empirical support to the suspicion that the "thin" self of liberal anthropology reflected a distinctively Western and male understanding of moral reasoning as abstract, principled, and universal.4

But if liberalism has failed, what can replace it? Its virtue had been the hope it offered: that all rational people could recognize universal rights and responsibilities as the core of a working political accord. But if we cannot now justify this "thin" universal moral and political theory, or if-what amounts to the same-the thin theory is too abstract to give us substantive guidance in concrete conflicts, how can we resist the apparently inevitable slide into parochialism and irrationalism? Must we revert to resolving difficult conflicts "the old fashioned way"-by gender, class, race or ethnic war?

In epistemology, "standpoint theories" raise parallel problems.5 The "standpoint of women," for example, is not gender neutral; it attributes to women an epistemic privilege. Exposed through oppression to experiences from which men are sheltered, women gain insights inaccessible to men. One virtue of a standpoint epistemology is that it can be generalized: other kinds of oppression generate other forms of experience and corresponding counter-narratives. But just as clearly, its generalizability produces a theoretical and practical problem: what happens when different kinds of oppression overlap? Black women are doubly disadvantaged, as are gay women and the disabled. Must we rank forms of epistemic privilege, awarding highest honors to the most victimized? Most recoil before the one-up(man)ship that this presupposes, yet it is suggested by the logic of the theory; and worse, it is a practical concern when belligerent or resentful fragmentation threatens the reconciliation sought through institutional commitments to "multiculturalism."

Can we admit the plausible claim that oppression may produce characteristic insights without at the same balkanizing the discursive community? Can we recognize how hard it is to hear another-particularly when our hearing is impaired by interference which amplifies some voices at the expense of others-while still maintaining the possibility of communication across divisions of race, culture, and gender? In this essay I will draw attention to the under appreciated resources that Sabina Lovibond has brought to the table. I will then point out two puzzles in Lovibond's account. My aim is to point a way through these problems in an attempt to bolster its overall adequacy. …

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