Privilege, Again …

So, as promised, I want to take on part of the FAQ about feminism from the finallyfeminism101 site. And I want to look specifically at privilege, with an FAQ on male privilege and one on female privilege.

So let’s start with male privilege, where privilege is defined as this:

Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.

So … it’s about being normal, or having a norm? Well, um, sure but this seems to be utterly unavoidable and likely to be part of any system we could possibly have — there will always be a norm in any system — so it seems like something that you wouldn’t be able to build an actual movement around (although it does make for some interesting philosophical fodder.). So there has to be more to this:

Male privilege is a set of privileges that are given to men as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women as a class. While every man experiences privilege differently due to his own individual position in the social hierarchy, every man, by virtue of being read as male by society, benefits from male privilege.

Note the immediate gender distinction, but I can’t fault them for that … yet. But we immediately start by talking about “institutional power”, without ever really clarifying what power really means, and without ever really examining whether that sort of power is good or bad, or whether it conveys more privileges than detriments. This is one of the big problems I have with this, because philosophically we’ve discovered that assumptions of power or benefit can be shaky at best. So, what we’d need to do is look at it from the perspective of men as well as the perspective of women to conclude that it’s a privilege overall. And we see the problems with this in the first example (given by Lucy):

[T]rue gender equality is actually perceived as inequality. A group that is made up of 50% women is perceived as being mostly women. A situation that is perfectly equal between men and women is perceived as being biased in favor of women.

And if you don’t believe me, you’ve never been a married woman who kept her family name. I have had students hold that up as proof of my “sexism.” My own brother told me that he could never marry a woman who kept her name because “everyone would know who ruled that relationship.” Perfect equality – my husband keeps his name and I keep mine – is held as a statement of superiority on my part.

Well, the issue here is not so much a sort of institutionalized idea that gender equality, in and of itself, is perceived as inequality. It is right to suggest that because the norm is that women take the name of their husband, people wonder when that doesn’t happen. And they start to look for reasons, and the general reason that’s given is a feminist one, that in some sense the woman thinks that it’s sexist to follow that tradition and is imposing that on her husband, who it is argued has no reason to prefer her keeping her own name. Thus, the comments about it being her who would rule the relationship, because she is imposing something very dramatic and noticeable on her husband who presumably both doesn’t want it and, presumably, should care about her taking his name.

And from this, we can see one of the main issues in the analysis: there is a cultural norm, and it is presumed by everyone — including our feminists like Lucy — that the man should find it a benefit that his wife takes his name. Even the men who object might simply object to wasting time and resources and inviting hassles over something that they consider at best symbolic and at worst meaningless; they’d be perfectly happy with it if it was the norm, but since it is not it is just easier to go with the norm. Thus, for them it’s not inherently a benefit at all, but following the norm is. But, more importantly, all of these issues arise even if the husband would rather she keep her own name. Perhaps she has a relatively famous name that she can trade off of in her work, and changing it would cause them financial problems as she works to re-establish her name. Perhaps he is a feminist and really believes himself that her taking the name is sexist. And God forbid if he thinks there’s a reason for him to take her name.

Now, the immediate objection here is that privilege is being talked about in general, as a social or institutional rule, and that it’s acknowledged that some individuals won’t benefit. But my point here is that in all of this analysis, the male perspective is never considered. It is assumed that this is something that benefits men, but no analysis is done to see if it actually does, or if it does how it does, and if it does if that’s something that we still need. I find it unlikely to be the case in the “taking the last name” case that there is a significant benefit that it would severely disenfranchise men if they lost it … but that’s mostly because I don’t see it as a benefit for men at all. And so, in my ideal egalitarian approach, I wouldn’t be arguing that this is some kind of sexist social structure, but simply say that it was a social tradition that we simply have no need for anymore, and that in a lot of cases it’s a massive difficulty for them to overcome. Again, no notion that this is something that men are supposed to want or benefit from, or that it represents a male perspective, because it doesn’t. Most of the opposition to changing this is not because from the male perspective it’s seen as being good, but because it’s seen as being a norm that people see little need to change. Pointing out why it should change because it is overly restrictive is the best way to fight a norm.

And this is where part of the problem comes in. If you represent having the wife take the husband’s name as a benefit, then eliminating that practice or even choosing not to take it looks like taking away something from the husband, at which point they can ask what they get in exchange, and what improvement in actual, real terms is being made. This is a hard argument to make for this name case. But if instead it’s presented as something that people ought to be able to choose and that right now they can’t, then there’s no need for men to feel like they’re losing anything. Men, then, would see this as a gain … a gain in freedom for themselves and for their wives and for women in general. Presenting it as part of a move to reform society for the benefit of everyone is less likely to meet resistance than presenting it as a move to take a benefit away from men to give … something to women.

Moving to the analysis:

In this case the inequality is perceived, in part, because taking one’s husband’s name is considered “normal” for a woman, whereas choosing to keep one’s own name deviates from that. Popular culture often labels this behavior as “emasculating” to a man, but never bothers to question how a woman might feel being asked to give up something that has been part of her since her birth. This is an example of a culture of male privilege — where a man’s position and feelings are placed above that of the woman’s in a way that is seen as normal, natural, and traditional.

But the problem is that this analysis ignores that the man’s position and feelings as an individual are still not being taken into account, and that the alternative — women should be able to choose what they take — places her position and feelings above his because she’s given the choice based on what she wants. What we have is a restrictive system that assumes what everyone’s feelings are and cares not one whit for what they actually are being replaced with a system that runs the risk, at least, of making the woman’s actual feelings paramount. To determine if this is true, I would like all feminists to ask themselves this: if the husband doesn’t want her to keep her name, and she does, or if he wants her to keep her name, and she doesn’t, whose opinion should be taken in this case? I suspect that for most feminists the idea would be that she should have the choice, or else she’s being restricted in her agency … but then this holds no matter what the reasons actually are, which is a problem. Now, wouldn’t everyone agree that whether any name gets changed should be a completely joint decision of the couple just like all others in an equal society? If it is, then shouldn’t it be presented as a choice that people aren’t getting as opposed to a reflection of a culture of male privilege? Isn’t that just a more accurate way of describing it?

Most people do not think twice about a woman who shares the same name as her husband; they simply assume that the shared name is his family name. This is an illustration about how male privilege operates in stealth. When a wife does not share the same name as the husband, however, it often leads to confusion and even anger — as Lucy’s example illustrated. This is because the male-oriented option (wife taking husband’s name) is seen as default, and the neutral option (both parties keeping their original names) is a deviation from that norm and therefore comes across as privileging the woman because it doesn’t privilege the man.

The problem here is that the options are being classified as “male-oriented” and “neutral” when they actually really aren’t. The idea here is that keeping the husband’s name is male-oriented because it, well, is the male name. And the neutral option is neutral because it doesn’t. But in terms of actual situations that people are in when they are deciding this, the fact that taking the husband’s name is the norm changes things up, because the easiest thing to do that has all of the structural support is the supposedly male-oriented option. So, in that sense, it is the default: you just do what everyone does because it’s pragmatically easier, and so in that case and in the minds of most people it isn’t male-oriented. And since the “neutral” view is not the norm, it requires an explicit reason, and a lot of that reason as expressed here is not neutral but women-oriented, an idea that at least some women feel that they’re being forced to give something up just because they’re women. But that is a female-oriented view. In real terms, though, the reasons given are how you should judge the orientation of an option, not some sort of abstracted notion that doesn’t apply to most of the decisions being made.

Now this, of course, can be seen as the problem: patriarchal structures set out these sorts of “male-oriented” options as the default, and then it looks like any attempt to move away from that to a neutral position is being female-oriented. I do concede that in some sense, although I would disagree that these structures have to be seen as “male-oriented”. If someone goes to the owner of a stadium and says “I’ll pay you $X to change the name of the stadium from yours to ours”, that’s not a “payer-oriented” move. It’s an exchange, and so is potentially, at least, equal. So since it is unlikely that changing the name was instituted to oppress women, we would need to wonder why it was instituted, and what exchange went on to guarantee that. As will be seen in the article on female privilege, one reason might well be that women were supposed protected by their association with a man, and changing the name while married made that clear. There are also potentially issues around property inheritance, and an idea that you had an exchange where women got their children supported while men got a guarantee that the children were theirs. None of these seem to be required anymore, and so analyzing it from this perspective that makes no presumptions about it being unequal seems to provide the best possible argument you could think of for why it’s simply unnecessary in this day and age. And demonstrating that leads us to being able to point out cases where people would rationally choose not to change the name, and then we can make a pretty solid case for why society and our institutional processes should change to make making that choice easier for everyone. And ultimately, isn’t that what feminists should want?

So, now, on to female privilege, or rather why women don’t have it:

Short answer: No, what is commonly called “female privilege” is better described as benevolent sexism. Systems like the draft and chivalry often seem advantageous to women at first glance, but when examined more closely they in fact reinforce sexist institutions that keep both women and men from true equality.

So, in answer to the short answer, the question is why all the instances of “male privilege” cannot be seen as things that look advantageous to men at first glance, but really reinforce sexist institutions that keep both women and men from true equality? Again, note my rather long discussion of how having the wife change her name doesn’t really seem to benefit men themselves, and is limiting to the sort of relationship they might want. It reinforces a specific role for men, but one that is sexist. So why insist that it be called privilege?

We see kinda why later:

However, the difference is that the status quo for men is one which grants them status and power in both the public and private spheres, whereas the status quo for women is one which limits their power to the much smaller, and more specific, domestic sphere.

And this is, again, one of my main issues with feminism, as they rightly identify that patriarchy divides men and women up into gender roles and limits them to specific spheres … and then decides that the one sphere is better than the other and so men have it good and women have it bad, end of story. But the real issue, and one that has plagued feminism for decades, is that having power in certain spheres isn’t in and of itself good, but is only good if you like having power in those spheres. Having power doesn’t just grant benefits, but also grants responsibilities. While men, for example, may have had the power to run a household they also, generally, had full responsibility for what happened to it or in it. While a man had the power to work, they had the responsibility to provide for their family, and if they didn’t manage that they were failures, often even to their wives. A man, then, who had a skillset that better suited them for the domestic sphere than for the public sphere was a failure, for no other reason than that the social structure set them out for a role they couldn’t possibly succeed in. And even if the woman was better suited for the public role, they simply could not swap the two of them out. Society had left them stuck.

Thus, having power in the public and private sphere or in the domestic sphere is only food if you are suited for that sphere. Again, the real problem with patriarchy is that it imposes a specific role on people that don’t want it and aren’t suited for it. The key to eliminating patriarchy is not to define one sphere as being better than another, but in recognizing that the whole problem is limiting people to spheres in the first place. If a woman only wants to be in the domestic sphere, more power to her. If she wants to be in the public sphere, more power to her, too. And the same thing applies to men as well.

Now, it can be pointed out fairly that because of the underlying social issues, if things are left as they are men and women will drift into those roles anyway because of the momentum of social attitudes. And yes, we need to do a lot of work to change those attitudes. But it surprises me not at all that feminists get push back when they adopt a strategy that says that the public and private spheres are where all the goodies are, and men have to get out of the way and let women get some of the goodies, too. It looks like an attempt to push men out of the things that are good because women want them, or want them too. But if it was expressed as being choices, and choices that everyone needs to and should make, with neither being considered necessarily any better or any worse than the other, then we can get to real choice and real equality.

Now, I can say this because I don’t think that each role is inherently better than the other, which is something that feminists seem to deny. I also think, however, that all roles are necessary, and if it could be demonstrated that one is inherently worse than the other stressing the necessity of those roles and that they must be performed by those who are better suited for it. The risk of this approach is that people will use it as a justification for saying that women are in general better suited for it and so should stay there, but I think that’s easy to refute and that sort of approach removes the idea that men have to give up something because women want that thing too, but instead places it entirely in a context of “This is what we need to do to have a free and equal society”.

See, I think that some of the problems that men face now- some of the things that people like Burton complain about and see as examples of female privilege over males- are a direct result of the flaws a patriarchical system. It’s not that women have more power than men, it’s that patriarchy is an inherently flawed system that sets standards that are harmful to everyone. It’s a double edged sword. And as attitudes have changed and feminists have helped to break down some of the systems that have held women back and prevented them from reaching their full potential, some men are finding that, shock of shocks, there are some serious problems with the way things are.

I agree with this, but must ask: why isn’t things that are seen as male privilege seen the same way?

To summarize the point of this section: When it’s called benevolent sexism it’s recognized to be tied to the system of sexism, and can therefore be fought (successfully) with tools like feminism, whereas when it’s called “female privilege” the solutions called for tend to call for strengthening the status quo, which ends up making it harder to end the offending practices

So, let’s imagine that we didn’t introduce this distinction, dropped the notion of “privilege” entirely, and called all of these instances whether for men or for women “benevolent sexism”. Why wouldn’t this do the same thing? Why wouldn’t this make all of the instances of male privilege recognized as tied to the system of sexism itself, and so things that should be fought, whereas when it’s called “male privilege” it’s seen as something men have that they shouldn’t really have, and so it looks like an attempt to take things away from men and give them nothing in return? Because as Roy said in the above quote, it’s really not hard to see things that patriarchy imposes on men that are hugely problematic. As feminists themselves say, patriarchy hurts men, too. So instead of dividing it up into men versus women, why not just collapse the difference, call any of these cases “benevolent sexism”, tally them all up, order them by actual, objective severity, and see what needs to be done? Why not muster everyone — including the MRAs who are really interested in eliminating the harms that patriarchal sexism does to men — against the patriarchy as a whole, instead of setting up a hierarchy of an outside group that’s benefiting from the situation? Why don’t we find out just how many people want something other than the traditional gender roles, and work to find out just what those roles should be?

The instant feminists introduce privilege, they place their arguments in a divided context, where men and women do not have the same interests and where men, in theory, have an interest in preserving the status quo and women do not. This is flatly contradicted by reality. For the most part, everyone has an interest in moving to a post-patriarchal society that judges you by your own interests, desires and capabilities and not by a defined set of gender roles that doesn’t reflect how most people want to live. By working in a philosophical structure that pays at best lip service to this, feminism actually impedes progress in this manner. By attacking “men” as privileged and needing to give up some of that up, they place men on the defensive and raise anger for men who don’t find this supposedly privileged life at all fulfilling, and the emphasis on women finding a fulfilling life looks like feminism taking things away from men to give to women so that women can have something that many if not most men never had. If feminism is going to make life better for everyone, its underlying core principle and all of its actions should be demonstrating that as much as it possible can. That for the most part its principles and actions seem aimed at make life better for women is, for me, telling.

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23 Responses to “Privilege, Again …”

  1. laplace Says:

    The instant feminists introduce privilege, they place their arguments in a divided context, where men and women do not have the same interests and where men, in theory, have an interest in preserving the status quo and women do not.

    I don’t think this is accurate. Privilege doesn’t imply that men have an interest in preserving the status quo. Privilege implies that, all other things equal, men are not forced to confront the inequalities in the status quo in the same way that women are.

    By analogy, so I can speak from experience, I’m gay. I’ve been looking for new housing lately, which for me involves a process of trying to find out if landlords are gay-friendly, asking them directly in some cases, and in general negotiating a whole bunch of nonsense that straight people don’t have to think about. Straight people have the privilege of being able to simply assume that their romantic liaisons aren’t the business of their landlord (generally). I’m in grad school, and a couple professors invited the math grad students out for drinks at the end of the semester — girlfriends/boyfriends welcome. I couldn’t invite mine, because I simply couldn’t know (without asking, which has its own risks) whether he’d be welcome. Straight people have, generally, the privilege of assuming that their romantic partners are included in such invitations.

    These may seem fairly minor, but the list continues. In many places, I cannot hold my boyfriend’s hand in public. I’ve been beaten up over this in the past, and I learned my lesson. Walking in public with your significant other and holding hands is a privilege that straight people have.

    But none of this implies that straight people aren’t interested in changing the status quo. Many are! And straight people will benefit if society changes so that gay relationships are assumed to be as welcome in the general public sphere as straight relationships. Nonetheless, straight people are routinely surprised when I point these things out, they aren’t forced to recognize all the elements of their lives which are privileges that I do not have. Nor does any of this imply that there aren’t straight people who lack this privilege: as one example, I have a friend whose boyfriend is strictly forbidden from visiting her since he’s Christian (and her family is not.) These things are complex. But, nonetheless, in general, in our society, the heterosexual norm is privileged, but in no way do straight people have to be invested in maintaining the status quo.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I don’t disagree with any of this, but my question is: why are you saying that this is an example of “straight people having privilege” as opposed to this being an example of how gay people don’t have the things that everyone should have? The things you talk about are not things that should be seen as benefits that one group has that another does not, but as things that all groups should have that they simply don’t. I don’t see how it makes sense to talk about it as “Straight people don’t have to think about this and can just go ahead and do it, while we have to” except as “Look, you may not think it is or that there is a problem, but that’s only because you don’t see it if you don’t try to”. And that I already agree with is useful, as outlined in one of my earlier posts on privilege:

      https://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/privilege/

      So, I encourage that sort of, perhaps, perspective-raising (some would call it “consciousness raising”), but feel that calling it privilege both reveals and imposes an “us vs them” attitude, where one side has it good and has to be forced or at least pushed to let the other side get the good as well. That’s what I don’t like.

      • pslaplace Says:

        I seem to have misread your post. Is your issue less with the idea of privilege itself and more with the contentiousness potentially caused by the implications of the word?

      • verbosestoic Says:

        It depends on what you think the idea of privilege is. I think that it goes beyond simple notions that people have different perspectives and that those perspectives will be shaped, in part, by their group identity. Note, again, the FAQ I responded to. Why did they call the things in patriarchy that benefit men “male privilege” and argue that you should call the things that benefit women “benevolent sexism” instead? Because the concept of privilege, as they put it, doesn’t work that way. If we were talking about it simply as perspectives, for example, or as aspects of an overarching structure, then you can see how the terms should be identical — and likely should be “benevolent sexism”.

        Privilege encompasses at least two ideas: differing perspectives, and the place people have in the society. Hopping from one to the other makes for very bad philosophy, and not taking the common meaning of privilege into account in doing that is just as bad.

  2. Crude Says:

    Now, it can be pointed out fairly that because of the underlying social issues, if things are left as they are men and women will drift into those roles anyway because of the momentum of social attitudes. And yes, we need to do a lot of work to change those attitudes.

    What exactly is the goal, as you see it? In one sense you’re pretty clear about this – I’d take away that you think the goal should be that there is no societal pressure for a woman or man to prefer one role over another, and thus each individual is ultimately free to pursue whatever kind of life they wish. This would seem to include that there are no, or at least there are minimal, cultural norms.

    Let me ask this, for example. The Telegraph reports that ‘a dad is the tenth most popular Christmas list request for children. Should that be viewed as something that needs changing – this idea that children should have both a mother and a father, or that it’s okay for a child to want both a mother and a father?

    After all, that’s a norm which places pressure on various people: men who don’t want to be fathers or who don’t want to marry women with children. Lesbian couples, certainly. Women who want to be single parents and don’t want anyone else in a parental role in the lives of their children. So, should we be reacting to that with horror? For the same reason, is government support for single mothers a form of benevolent sexism – a thing that should end?

    Also, is it assumed that A) people’s preferences and goals should not be influenced by culture (there should be no encouragement for say.. women specifically to be homemakers), or B) that their preferences should be influenced, but only in certain ways (that if there are too many women being homemakers, it’s time to encourage women to be something else and discourage that)?

    Merry Christmas, by the way.

    • Crude Says:

      Also, just to add on.

      The instant feminists introduce privilege, they place their arguments in a divided context, where men and women do not have the same interests and where men, in theory, have an interest in preserving the status quo and women do not.

      Well, if this is the case, then isn’t the talk of ‘the patriarchy’ out of bounds immediately anyway?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, the idea would be that people should be able to pursue their own interests as far as is reasonable. Which means, generally, that social and cultural norms as, well, normative norms have to have a reason behind them, which can be analyzed and discussed and demonstrated. So, for example, if in general society has to subsidize single parenthood, then it has an interest in not encouraging it and instead encouraging the forms that it doesn’t have to subsidize. However, we can also see that because single parenthood may indeed happen through many different ways that the person has no choice over, society has to be prepared to support them in those cases because it benefits it to do so. Thus, we can see that society might discourage single parenthood by choice while ensuring that there are as few barriers as possible to single parents being able to properly raise the children we have.

      Ultimately — and this is getting a bit beyond the initial quick statement — this is a clash between individualism and communitarianism. Few live at the extremes of these two positions, arguing either that individual choice is completely paramount and community concerns can never override it, or that the community standards are paramount and trump all individual considerations. But when you get into the middle of the continuum, you run into all sorts of problems deciding when the community trumps the individual, and vice versa, making things quite complicated.

      Now, your father example is, I think, a better example for that article from “X-Men and Philosophy” that I linked — and if you haven’t been reading the “Philosophy and Popular Culture books, I strongly suggest you do, because they’re really good. Anyway, why are those children wanting a father? Because that’s the “norm” in the sense that in general most children have a father that’s involved in their lives, or at least they did. Thus, they note that they don’t have what’s “normal”, and they want it. We can ask, in terms of the question in THIS post, if that’s a norm that’s being artificially imposed, and because of how children are created and the amount of time and resources that it takes to raise them to adults that’s not likely. It generally takes a man and a woman to create a child and for the most part, then, if you go looking for the resources to raise them — which is more than money — that’s where you’ll go. So it’s likely that if this continues then the largest percentage of families will still be the traditional father-mother example … and if it doesn’t we would need to look at what social conditions are creating it and if they’re useful.

      So, then, we can see that a norm in terms of what is the most prevalent in a society isn’t a problem as long as it isn’t being artificially imposed, and we can see that for fathers in some ways it is just natural and in some ways people might be trying to artificially impose it. And if we have good reasons for imposing it, we might take the imposition because to not do so would be to leave society in dire straits. As I said above, it gets really complicated.

      As for patriarchy, that depends on what you think patriarchy is. If you consider it to be a system that privileged men and disenfranchised, perhaps, women, then it does indeed have the same problems. If you see it, as I do, as a system that traces lineage through the male and has highly restrictive gender roles that may have had benefit once but are now outdated, then it doesn’t have that problem.

      • Crude Says:

        Well, the idea would be that people should be able to pursue their own interests as far as is reasonable.

        One problem I have here is similar to what Stanley Fish has pointed out – this all seems to turn on ‘secular reasons’, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t seem as if there are such things. So you talk about ‘as far as is reasonable’, but who’s going to be determining that again? The culture which people are in the middle of railing against and demanding change because individuals and groups rejected the status quo? The individuals with whatever values they prefer? The various counter-culture movements which want to be the new people in charge? (Now, I think some values are better, even objectively better, than others. But I also recognize that people can dig in their heels eternally on these things, and I get the impression you see this happen as well.)

        On the flipside, you say ‘people should be able to pursue their own interests’. But here’s a twist – clearly people’s interests can be influenced by outside sources. In fact, that’s a large part of the issue to begin with, this idea that there are such and such roles that people are being influenced to take and This Is Wrong. The reaction there isn’t simply ‘well, they’re being forced against their will to take these roles’ but also ‘their will has been influenced such that they desire these roles’. So here comes the counter-influence, but that’s the key – counter influence. Yet another outside force guiding and determining what both the individual AND the group should think, even though there’s some recursion going on.

        We can ask, in terms of the question in THIS post, if that’s a norm that’s being artificially imposed, and because of how children are created and the amount of time and resources that it takes to raise them to adults that’s not likely.

        Well, you say artificially imposed. But how do I detect that again? This reminds me of the George Carlin bit about ‘all-natural’ food – you know, as if twinkies are made of elf dust. Take the modernist metaphysic and there’s only one kind of imposition on offer to begin with – every arrangement is as artificial or as natural as any other. It certainly isn’t the case that the people pushing for these changes recognize ‘oh, well, a mother and a father are pretty well the most natural setup, we should recognize and support that’. Hence you have lawmakers in the UK talking about how the very idea of viewing a family as ‘mother, father and children’ is outdated and offensive to ‘new family arrangement’. Hence France stripping ‘mother’ and ‘father’ off the paperwork and throwing in ‘parent 1’ and ‘parent 2’.

        That’s before noticing.. I mean, you yourself have been, I think, noticing that feminism seems to concern itself – for all the words to the contrary – with advancing power for women, contra men. (Actually, probably broader than that – but always contra the white, heterosexual, orthodox Christian male.) And your response seems to be, well, no, that’s a wrong way to go about it, a wrong way to even consider the issue altogether, this isn’t about men of privilege versus the oppressed masses, and this shouldn’t be about winning power but making things fair. I admit, I read that and I start to wonder how realistic it is, in part because it all cycles back to the start – influencing the people, driving the culture, changing what individuals and groups desire rather than serving the individuals and groups. Even if the rhetoric here and there may be a bit more idealistic, the reality often seems to cash out in terms of good old-fashioned power (in secular terms) or religious values.

        Oh, and I did read the X-men entry. I thought it was well-written – you have a nice blog here. I see what you mean at some points.

      • Crude Says:

        To add more fuel to this particular fire.

        So it’s likely that if this continues then the largest percentage of families will still be the traditional father-mother example … and if it doesn’t we would need to look at what social conditions are creating it and if they’re useful.

        Are you saying, or at least opening the door to saying something like the following…

        “Some family arrangements SHOULD be privileged.”?

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Crude,

        I think all of this is pretty much what I meant when I said it was complicated [grin]. It’s not easy to disentangle the community and the individual, which is one reason why you won’t find too many people at the extreme edges of communitarianism or individualism (and might be one reason why communist societies don’t work out as well as some think they should). It will always be the case that in some sense the community standards will be “imposed” on individuals, if for no other reason that it being the norm. And my view is that you will always have a norm because you will always have something that most people do, which is what the norm is to me. As long as that’s as far as it goes, then I think it’s acceptable as just happening, even if we have cultural entanglements that might influence that. But what I want to avoid is the society creating a norm just because it makes it so much easier or more desirable to have that norm, and importantly that it doesn’t do it for a good reason. By good reason, I mean here a reason that involves how the community itself must work in order to benefit everyone. I guess here I’m looking at the society/individual a lot like Hobbes’ Social Contract, and noting that we all benefit from being in one. Thus, society should be encouraging making choices from self-interest — at least one of the primary considerations in all my decisions is my own interest — but discouraging ones made out of selfishness, where the decision is made to follow one’s self-interest REGARDLESS of the impact that has on everyone else.

        Thus, we can see how in some cases society might want to discourage the choice of certain family arrangements, to address your example. Say that society has an interest in providing resources to single-parent families because they can arise through no real fault of either parent and society feels it should help in those cases. But if it provides that help, then it opens the door for people to choose that, which then takes more resources away from the other people in society to supplement that choice. Choosing it as a lifestyle choice could be seen as selfish, since it can be seen as choosing an option that takes from others solely to satisfy your own desires. And so it would seem to me that society could discourage that without stepping over the line, even while it wouldn’t want to make those who are single parents not by choice feel bad or unreasonably impeded because of that.

        Which, of course, all sounds great in theory, but in practice because of how people are is, well, much more complicated. We are never, I think, going to have the perfect balance of this, but that’s no reason to work as if that isn’t the ultimate goal.

        Oh, and the X-Men reference was to the actual article in the book, because he talks a lot about the norm there while I focused on group identity.

      • Crude Says:

        VB,

        Well, yes, you’re absolutely not treating all these things as oversimplified. 🙂 I think a lot of your criticisms are valid as well. It’s just that I think these complications are of the sort that strike at the project before it gets off the ground, rather than after. The way I see this discussed so often, ‘privilege’ is a dirty word – such that once you agree that such and such people or arrangements are privileged, the next step is automatically ‘well, how do we eliminate or at least reduce that privilege?’ But what I’m asking starts opening up responses of ‘yes, there’s privilege – so what?’ or even ‘yes, there’s privilege here – and there really should be.’

        So when you say that there’s always going to be some norm, even some imposed norm – I don’t view that as, say, a statement about a necessary evil, or how there’s always going to be failings like that but we have to learn to live with them. Instead, there’s going to be some norms and imposed norms because there really should be. Some things or even people are privileged because they should be. Maybe you’re agreeing with this, or maybe not.

        And so it would seem to me that society could discourage that without stepping over the line, even while it wouldn’t want to make those who are single parents not by choice feel bad or unreasonably impeded because of that.

        A difficulty here turns on ‘not by choice’. I think you can get pretty far with saying that few people choose to be single parents. I don’t think that’s an absolute, but sure, let’s say it’s few. The difficulty is that even if we grant hardly anyone chooses to be a single parent – just like hardly anyone chooses to be in a car accident – you can set conditions such that the possibility is not seen as a very big deal, responsibility falters on the individual end and is not or is minimally assigned on the societal end, and in the end you’re not really discouraging that lifestyle after all except in the most faint ways.

        In fact, that could be an example to use of ‘benevolent sexism’ / ‘privilege’, take your pick.

        We are never, I think, going to have the perfect balance of this, but that’s no reason to work as if that isn’t the ultimate goal.

        Part of the problem is I question whether that ultimate goal is even in sight, whether one is even possible, or (if it is) whether that goal really is really worthwhile to begin with. Some of the less than ultimate goals are far easier to get behind.

        But actually, putting it in terms of social contract, to me, seems to flip the whole situation on its head. Excluding models which are based on God-given rights (because the moment God is in the picture, the game is largely over – some things are privileged, period) that social contract model always struck me as a situation of perpetual bargaining, negotiation and power plays. It’s not really an idyllic model of ‘everyone gives up some of their freedom for everyone else’s sake, because the goal here is for everything to be fair and nice for everyone’. Instead it seems to be ‘individuals and groups make pragmatic deals to benefit themselves, all while working to advance their own agendas’.

        Which, actually, may go a long way towards explaining why so many feminists talk about (at least in some situations) how feminism benefits men too, how it’s not just about women, etc… yet ultimately it really does seem like ‘equality’ is a secondary concern to advancing the power of some people at the expense of others, and regarding one thing as benevolent sexism and another as privilege.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Crude,

        I don’t think that having a norm in the sense that due to various conditions there is a choice/lifestyle/whatever that happens to work out for most people is a necessary evil. I think that just happens. What would be an evil is if society imposes that or encourages that directly even for those where it doesn’t work out as well. But that might be a necessary evil if having that norm is required for a society to function.

        So, that some people get “privileges” under a system isn’t a problem, as long as they are deserved and are, perhaps, mostly conferred by their actual capacities. If someone doesn’t want to be ambitious and seek to be rich, they probably shouldn’t complain if others are rich and they aren’t.

        As for the Social Contract, my view of that is taken from Hobbes and not from, say, Rousseau, and Hobbes’ view is built on self-interest/selfishness and, yes, on power, in that the main reason to have a Social Contract is because there is no way you can guarantee that you can get what you want/need no matter how much personal power you have, so you need the Contract to ensure that you can get what you need. Hobbes argued strenuously that for it to work you needed a monarch or institution (perhaps) that had absolute power and so could always enforce the contract, and so power is indeed a big part of it. Now, I personally don’t hold egoist ethics, and so don’t hold that your end should be the sorts of self-interest that guide that … but I acknowledge that right now the only thing we have to appeal to that will appeal to pretty much everyone is self-interest, and so that’s what we have to use.

        Hence, the idea that society should allow people to pursue their self-interest but strongly discourage selfishness. And yes, under this model a lot of the analysis will be over power, and it is a valid concern … but I still think that dividing it this way is wrong. Perhaps the best way to put it, then, is that it looks like it strikes against the self-interest of the “privileged” group, and that’s something that will always be resisted, and the “Patriarchy hurts men, too” can be seen as a way to try to restore the appeal to self-interest and avoid that.

      • Crude Says:

        So, that some people get “privileges” under a system isn’t a problem, as long as they are deserved and are, perhaps, mostly conferred by their actual capacities.

        Sure, but that wasn’t the sort of privilege I was defending – at least if I understand you right. I don’t mean ‘Mary and John, specifically, are privileged because of acts they themselves engaged in.’ but broader – ‘Typical heterosexual married couples with children are expressly supported and encouraged by society over and above other arrangements’.

        Note that that doesn’t mean imposing anything in the sense of ‘Alright, gay man, time to knuckle under and find a wife or it’s prison for you’. But it does mean privileging, even if it’s an optional kind of privilege (‘You don’t have to get married, but you won’t be getting this tax break then.’) Maybe not even exclusive privilege necessarily. Part of the problem here is that so much of the criticism is at ‘privilege’ with the assumption that privilege is bad.

        Now, I personally don’t hold egoist ethics, and so don’t hold that your end should be the sorts of self-interest that guide that … but I acknowledge that right now the only thing we have to appeal to that will appeal to pretty much everyone is self-interest, and so that’s what we have to use.

        One problem for me is, I don’t see how you get from the above, to the below.

        Hence, the idea that society should allow people to pursue their self-interest but strongly discourage selfishness.

        Something seems wrong here – perhaps I misunderstand. First off, I think there’s an obvious problem with trying to both encourage people to pursue their self-interests yet at the same time discourage selfishness, and it’s only complicated by the fact that people’s self-interests can be influenced, even strongly influenced, by cultural factors.

        More than that – you seem to be working in an assumption that, if a given individual or even group is truly self-interested, they will pursue some kind of ultra-egalitarian end goal because that is the best they can do for their interests at least in the long term, possibly in the short term. But if that truly is the assumption, it seems wildly wrong, even naive. It falls prey to every other attempt at building a tolerable ethic out of self-interest: the moment it seems likely that you can get away with imposing your will over others, well, self-interest will strongly demand you do exactly that. If everyone is naive or cowardly, you can possibly get away with this – but ‘everyone’ never is.

        And, of course, imposing that will is just another way to say ‘enforcing privileges’.

        Pardon me if I’m in a bit of a ramble here, but I’m trying to explain why I just don’t see this kind of approach as ultimately working. I suppose one factor is you make reference to ‘making an appeal that will appeal to pretty much everyone’. Maybe that’s too broad of a population to set your eyes on.

  3. verbosestoic Says:

    Crude,

    Let me move this out because the reply chain is getting a bit long.

    There seem to be a few misunderstandings going on here. The first is that I’m promoting this as an ethic. I’m not. It might be best to say here that I’m doing political philosophy, not ethical philosophy. My preferred moral system is not Hobbesian Social Contract, but is Stoic/Kantian. What I’m proposing is a political/social system that will work with that morality and yet can also work if most people don’t accept it, and that’s why I say that you have to appeal to something that can appeal to pretty much everyone in some way.

    By the same token, again, I’m not talking about everyone being all nice and egalitarian because they see that the Social Contract benefits them. That’s more Rousseau than Hobbes. Hobbes insisted that people might not, and insisted on having structures in place — a king, in his case — who could impose the rules on people and make it so that they would follow them … in his case by giving the ruler the power to kill anyone who breaks the rules, since that’s the ultimate punishment. So there’s no naive egalitarianism here, which is why I do talk about societal encouragement and discouragement.

    Ultimately, under this model, society has one goal: basically, its own self-interest. So, to take your heterosexual marriage example, society can give tax breaks to them if it benefits the society to do so, and if it needs it to promote and preserve its society. This is because everyone ought to see that being in a society is better than not being in one, and so arguments that really do point out how it is better for society to spend the tax contributions a certain way should win out except for those who are acting selfishly … and society should strongly discourage that however possible. So, in that sense, these things don’t seem like “privileges” to me, but resources that people get in order to encourage them to do what society needs them to do. And there is no problem with society doing that, as long as it really does need them to do that.

    (And, of course, figuring out where that line is isn’t always easy.)

    So, this leads to self-interest versus selfishness. Unlike Hobbes, I think there is a distinction there, so let me use this example. Imagine that I go down to the corner store to buy some milk. I would argue that this action is self-interested; I want milk and so go out to get what I want, without having to justify whether it benefits everyone more for me to get it or not get it. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, imagine that while I’m at the store I notice that there’s someone who has a young child who needs milk, and this is the last jug of milk. Should I take it? I would argue that in that case what I’d be doing is selfish, in that I’d be acting on my own self-interest regardless of how I know it will impact others. That other person needs the milk more than I do; I can live without it, while they can’t. So to still buy that milk becomes selfish, not merely self-interested.

    Now, what I expect society to do is to discourage the latter sort of action, where I act knowing that I will, essentially, be taking advantage of others to pursue my own self-interest. Thus, in the case I described if I took the milk anyway I should be seen as a “jerk”, someone who is acting overly selfish. This gives me encouragement to not act selfishly to avoid that sort of branding, while still allowing me to pursue my own self-interest (by buying the milk under normal conditions, or walking further to the grocery store to buy my milk, or to buy the soft drink to replace the milk, and so on).

    The problems with Utilitarianism seem relevant here. First, it does not acknowledge that sort of self-interest, which is problematic. Second, it falls into the “forward looking” trap, where if I think that that might happen I have to think that I might be acting selfishly based on things that might happen but that I don’t know will happen. For example, if I know that there’s one person with a young child who usually comes in about an hour after I do, Utilitarianism seems to suggest that I shouldn’t take the last jug of milk. But that person might have stopped at the grocery store, or not used as much milk, or been in earlier. Under Utilitarianism, what should I do in this case? Under my model, it’s simple: Since I don’t KNOW that I’ll be having that impact, I can proceed in my own self-interest; it’s only when I know that that’s the case that I have to avoid acting selfishly.

    Note that this fits fairly neatly into the Stoic view because the sorts of things that most people call “self-interest” are Stoic indifferents, and so things that you can pursue as long as you don’t act viciously to get it. In a sense, then, selfishness can be defined simply as pursuing self-interest in a way that commits a vice, although a lot of work would be needed to define exactly what vices activate where.

    Is this a bit clearer?

    • Crude Says:

      I’ll try to just understand where you’re coming from here instead of launching into my own views.

      First, I take you to mean what you’re advocating here is a pragmatic system rather than an ideal system. Am I correct?

      One thing I’m not clear on – you mention that the Hobbesian view (which I take you as advocating a version of) centers around having an authority in place that can keep the peace by imposing these views on the society. I’m going to guess you’re not a monarchist, so what would fill the roll of this authority in your view?

      Is your view dependent on all or at least most people being able to see a singular route that will benefit all of them?

      This gives me encouragement to not act selfishly to avoid that sort of branding

      Are you sure? I mean, there’s a gulf between ‘avoiding that branding’ and ‘not acting selfishly’. What happens when the main reaction isn’t to ‘not act selfishly’ but ‘avoid that sort of branding’?

      Is this a bit clearer?

      In some ways, sure. I’m trying to clarify more here. I do see your distinction between ‘selfishness’ and ‘self-interest’. I see how your system differs from utilitarian ones.

      I also wonder about this claim.

      This is because everyone ought to see that being in a society is better than not being in one,

      Is this meant to be applied universally or only locally? I mean, would someone in Pennsylvania think that chaos in California is necessarily a bad thing, if they thought they were insulated? And if they are insulated, is it in their self-interest to care about that anyway?

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I’m going to guess you’re not a monarchist, so what would fill the roll of this authority in your view?

        Well, society and government have to fill that role. The problem, of course, is that every available option for that role is flawed. A monarch could have the power and make the decisions easily, but having that much power is too likely to corrupt them into acting selfishly with that power. A democracy in theory avoids that, but still it is relatively easy to corrupt a democracy and it artificially promotes the “overthrows” that are supposed to keep the rulers in line, which means that people feel like things are going to change when they haven’t. Society doesn’t have the required focus; being without organization, it is hard for it to know that it is bring its power to bear on the right problems. All of this stuff is really, really hard [grin].

        Are you sure? I mean, there’s a gulf between ‘avoiding that branding’ and ‘not acting selfishly’. What happens when the main reaction isn’t to ‘not act selfishly’ but ‘avoid that sort of branding’?

        Well, if this was an ethical proposal, I’d care about that distinction, but in a pragmatic proposal all I care about is the behaviour. So if they give the jug of milk to the parent because they think it’s morally right, that’s great — and far more admirable — but if they do it because they don’t want to be considered selfish that’s fine, too. As long as they do it, I don’t really care why in this proposal.

        Is this meant to be applied universally or only locally? I mean, would someone in Pennsylvania think that chaos in California is necessarily a bad thing, if they thought they were insulated? And if they are insulated, is it in their self-interest to care about that anyway?

        This seems to me to be a special case of the “I don’t have to care about the consequences because I can get away with acting selfishly” case. In the case you give, it’s the government that would say “This is part of your society and so we have to care and legislate accordingly”, and thus give them a reason to care.

      • Crude Says:

        Well, society and government have to fill that role. The problem, of course, is that every available option for that role is flawed.

        Ha, no kidding.

        But that leaves me at a loss. Since it ultimately sounds like you’re supporting this system for pragmatic reasons, yet you also seem to think it’s unworkable anyway.

        As long as they do it, I don’t really care why in this proposal.

        Well, I think you may misunderstand what I meant.

        Using your example, if the goal is ‘avoid that branding’.. then maybe he’ll take the jug and plead ignorance. Or maybe he’ll take it and make believe he thought there was more left. Maybe he’ll say there was another jug left and some other jerk must have taken it. Or… etc, etc.

        That’s the problem with relying on shaming for acts. When you can pull off the act and still evade the shame, why not do so?

        In the case you give, it’s the government that would say “This is part of your society and so we have to care and legislate accordingly”, and thus give them a reason to care.

        Well, sure, I suppose you’re right on back to having that powerful central authority enforcing things, and all the problems that come with that. I also think this starts to blur self-interest and selfishness. Do I have to care how the government in the Congo is being run too? And if the Congo is okay not to care about (it’s too far away, it’s outside my scope, it’s not part of my nation), how do you draw the line? Maybe I’m sick to death of how Californians manage themselves and want to wash my hands of them.

        But if I DO have to care about all these things, then how in the heck do I prioritize what I care about?

      • verbosestoic Says:

        But that leaves me at a loss. Since it ultimately sounds like you’re supporting this system for pragmatic reasons, yet you also seem to think it’s unworkable anyway.

        I think it isn’t perfect, and so still has some problems and still allows for some abuses. But, really, nothing is going to be perfect, so that doesn’t really strike against it as being the best political/social option.

        That’s the problem with relying on shaming for acts. When you can pull off the act and still evade the shame, why not do so?

        Well, of course the problem of “Well, what if you can get away with it?” is still a concern. It’s ALWAYS going to be a concern unless you have it based entirely on set moral principles that everyone agrees with and everyone follows. But knowing that we can have people that are amoral pretty much leaves that option out, notwithstanding that we still don’t really agree on what is the right morality. So all we can do as a society is make the cases where you can get away with it as infrequent as possible … but there’s nothing that can do any better.

        But if I DO have to care about all these things, then how in the heck do I prioritize what I care about?

        You don’t. You care about you. You care about your government because it impacts your life. Your government, in your example, has to care about California because that is also part of its nation. It may have to care about the Congo, but since you give it your resources it has to justify to you why it benefits it — and therefore you — to send some of them to the Congo. And so on and so forth. That’s the heart of this: the government impacts your life and so you care about it, but it exists by the sufferance of those who give it the resources and so it, in theory, cares about you. Keeping this balance is critical … and not always kept, at which point bad things usually happen. But there’s not really another alternative.

      • Crude Says:

        I think it isn’t perfect, and so still has some problems and still allows for some abuses. But, really, nothing is going to be perfect, so that doesn’t really strike against it as being the best political/social option.

        The problem I’m having is that it sounds like it’s flawed in a pretty fundamental way. I mean, when you tell me that the system runs on the firm guiding hand of a central power, but that central power is rife with problems and can’t really be counted on to do the job, that seems pretty fundamental.

        If you reply that this is the only way you can see a large nation functioning anywhere close to optimal, then if anything that seems like an argument against large nations.

        So all we can do as a society is make the cases where you can get away with it as infrequent as possible … but there’s nothing that can do any better.

        The problem seems similar here. Do you think it’s easier to control a neighborhood versus a town versus a city versus a region versus a state versus a nation? And if so, does that factor in at all?

        You don’t. You care about you. You care about your government because it impacts your life. Your government, in your example, has to care about California because that is also part of its nation.

        Right, but what do you say in response to: “California shouldn’t be part of this nation anymore.” I mean, nations do break up at times.

        Actually, do you account for that at all? What’s the optimal size of government or society? Even a ballpark estimate.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Well, perhaps this analogy will make it clearer. There is no way to make a computer’s security 100% secure. That being said, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try, or that things aren’t better with, say, your basic “virus scanner/firewall” software than they’d be without them.

        We are indeed better off under the Social Contract system, even if it isn’t perfect. However, if it becomes too flawed, then that would be a problem, but one that our self-interest should push us to correct. A consideration that applies to everything, including the size of the nation.

      • Crude Says:

        Well, perhaps this analogy will make it clearer. There is no way to make a computer’s security 100% secure. That being said, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try, or that things aren’t better with, say, your basic “virus scanner/firewall” software than they’d be without them.

        Well, the example in the analogy makes more sense to me. But I’d point out that there are some ‘virus scanners’ out there which are ripoffs. They give false reports of viruses, they ignore some actual viruses, and even if they find some viruses at times we may well be better off not using that product whatsoever.

        Actually, there’s a possibility that we’re talking past each other here. I take you as saying that the contract system (A) is not ideal, it’s not even the system you’d prefer, but it’s the best we can practically do right now to gain the most consensus. That implies that, in reality, you’d prefer another system (B), but you just think B is unlikely to be attainable.

        Can you pragmatically support A, while advancing the case for B?

        We are indeed better off under the Social Contract system, even if it isn’t perfect. However, if it becomes too flawed, then that would be a problem, but one that our self-interest should push us to correct. A consideration that applies to everything, including the size of the nation.

        I think this introduces some serious problems – but I also think that the air’s coming out of this conversation, and don’t want it to go on too long. Either way, thanks for spending time explaining your views to me.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Well, the short answer here is that I’d like everyone to act according to proper moral principles and so get a nicely working society that way, but I can’t rely on that because a) people disagree on what that means and b) even if we did agree, some people would be incapable for various reasons of doing that. That means I need something that will get the right behaviour out of pretty much everyone. Self interest generally does that, and is about the only thing that’s pretty much universal. So, we use that, and work out systems that work out better at preserving a society using it.

  4. Charity Boxes … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] this ties into the discussion of self interest that’s been happening in the comments of this post. I am acting in a “good way”, giving money — and an amount that could be […]

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