Tuesday, November 29, 2016

MacIntyre and Pateman – a comparison on Rawls

Alasdair MacIntyre is an Aristotelian-Thomist philosopher.

Carole Pateman is a feminist theorist.

Both are critics of liberalism. Both have cited John Rawls as an emblematic liberal philosopher.

From After Virtue, by MacIntyre (pp. 246-7):

Rawls argues that the principles of justice are those which would be chosen by a rational agent ‘situated behind a veil of ignorance’ such that he does not know what place in society he will occupy – that is, what his class or status will be, what talents and ability he will possess, what his conception of the good or his aims in life will be, what his temperament will be or what kind of economic, political, cultural, or social order he will inhabit. Rawls argues that any rational agent so situated will define a just distribution of goods in any social order in terms of two principles and a rule for allocating priorities when the two principles conflict.

The first principle is: ‘Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.’ The second principle is: Social and economic inequalities re to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the joint savings principle [the joint savings principle provides for fair investment in the interests of future generations], and (b) attached to offices and parties open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity’. The firs principle has priority over the second; liberty is to be restricted only for the sake of liberty. And justice generally has priority over efficiency. So Rawls arrives at his general conception: ‘All social primary goods – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored’.

Many critics or Rawls have focused their attention on the ways in which Rawls derives his principles of justice from the statement of the initial position of the rational agent ‘situated behind a veil of ignorance’. Such critics have made a number of telling points, but I do not intend to dwell on them, if only because I take it that a rational agent in some such situation as that of the veil of ignorance would indeed choose some such principles of justice as Rawls claims, but also that it is only a rational agent in such a situation that would choose such principles.

From The Sexual Contract, by Pateman (pp. 42-3)

In A Theory of Justice, the parties in the original position are purely reasoning entities. Rawls fallows Kant on this point, and Kant’s view of the original contract differs from that of other classic contract theorists, although in some other respects his arguments resemble theirs. Kant does not offer a story about the origins of political right or suggest that, even hypothetically, an original agreement was once made. Kant is not dealing in this kind of political fiction. For Kant, the original contract is ‘merely an idea of reason’, an idea necessary for an understanding of actual political institutions. Similarly, Rawls writes in his most recent discussion that his own argument ‘tries to draw solely upon basic intuitive ideas that are embedded in the political institutions of a constitutional democratic regime and the public traditions of their interpretation’. As an idea of reason, rather than a political fiction, the original contract helps ‘us wok out what we now think’. If Rawls is to show how free and equal parties, suitably situated, would agree to principles that are (pretty near to) those implicit in existing institutions, the appropriate idea of reason is required. The problem about political right faced by the classic contract theorists has disappeared. Rawls’ task is to find us a picture of an original position that will confirm ‘our’ intuitions about existing institutions, which include patriarchal relations of subordination.

Rawls claims that his parties in their original positon are completely ignorant of any ‘particular facts’ about themselves. The parties are free citizens, and Rawls states that their freedom is a ‘moral power to form, to revise, and rationally pursue a conception of the good’, which involves a view of themselves as sources of valid claims and as responsible for their ends. If citizens change their idea of the good, this has no effect on their ‘public identity’, that is, their juridical standing as civil individuals or citizens. Rawls also states that the original position is a ‘device of representation’. But representation is hardly required. As reasoning entities, the parties are indistinguishable from one another. One party can ‘represent’ all the rest. In effect, there is only one individual in the original position behind Rawls ‘veil of ignorance’. Rawls can, therefore, state that ‘we can view the choice [contract] in the original position from the standpoint of one person selected at random’.

Rawls’ parties merely reason and make their choice – or the one party does this as representative of them all – and so their bodies can be dispensed with. The representative is sexless. The disembodied party who makes the choice cannot know one vital ‘particular fact’, namely, its sex. Rawls’ original position is a logical construction in the most complete sense; it is a realm of pure reason with nothing human in it – except that Rawls, of course, like Kant before him, inevitably introduces real, embodied male and female beings in the course of his argument. Before ignorance of ‘particular facts’ is postulated, Rawls has already claimed that parties have ‘descendants’ (for whom they are concerned), and Rawls states that he will generally view the parties as ‘heads of families’. He merely takes it for granted that he can, at one and the same time, postulate disembodied parties devoid of all substantive characteristics, and assume that sexual difference exists, sexual intercourse takes place, children are born and families formed. Rawls participants in the original contract are, simultaneously, mere reasoning entities, and ‘heads of families’, or men who represent their wives.

So here we see remarkable similarities and remarkable differences between Pateman and MacIntyre on Rawls (and on liberalism more generally, via their criticisms of Rawls). Both speak of Marx in their critiques, because Marxism has been the predominant challenge to liberalism’s deracinated, ahistorical, fully-abstracted individual; and at the same time, both Pateman and MacIntyre are critical, too, of Marxism – MacIntyre because Marxism attempts to impose a ‘social science’ framework on history after establishing the determinative force of ‘material conditions’ in that history (a reversal of Hegel’s idealism); and Pateman because Marxists have ignored the public-private dichotomy in liberal custom and law, speaking predominantly to the ‘public’ sphere, while women have suffered the most at the hands of men in the ‘private’.

When I wrote Borderline, I soft-pedaled my differences with MacIntyre and with virtue ethics generally – even as I claimed them for my own. Perhaps soft-pedaled is not the right word; but I never said explicitly – adhering to the rule “show, don’t say” – that many virtue ethicists (or certain male Thomists, if you will) have nodded to gender as a system that divides power with things like using two pronouns (“his or her”, “he or she”), and have admitted in passing that Aristotle and Aquinas had ideas about women that would not pass muster today with the corresponding suggestion that we can simply subtract this ‘error’ without destabilizing the whole architecture of their arguments. MacIntyre even suggests at various points that Plato’s alternative to Aristotle’s dehumanization of women is corrective – a notion of ‘guardian women’ who are a kind of asexual Amazon figure. It was only in the Foreword to Borderline that Amy Laura Hall wrote:

[Borderline] offers a . . . word to Christians who defend the canonical, Western tradition, especially Christians who admire Alasdair Macintyre. [The author] is an admirer of Macintyre, and so his correction to contemporary Macintyreans is subtle, but significant. Borderline shows how chivalry turns on an axis of weakness versus strength with sex as the motor. If Christianity is cast as a pristine jewel, or a virginal hymen, to be protected with one’s pen as a sword, then Christian scholarship becomes an honorable war. If chivalry provides the rule book for Christian scholarship, then women who are strong or sexually potent, or men who are obviously vulnerable or gay, are a threat to chivalry. (Virginal, submissive women, or powerful, asexual men, can serve as useful ballasts for, rather than threats to, chivalry.) Writing as a Christian is not a matter of honor and dishonor. I need to live and pray and write in a different imaginative world than that. 

Herein I shall become less subtle.

In Borderline and elsewhere I’ve said that the virtue ethical perspective offers a valuable critique to the various schools of feminism, which grew up in a late twentieth century milieu where liberals and post-Nietzscheans and post-Marxists and so on were influential, and where even many Christian feminists could not help but engage the various debates using these interpretive frameworks, sometimes strictly and sometimes syncretically. I likewise have said that feminism offers a valuable critique to many virtue ethicists (or many Thomists, if you like), who have – to my mind at least – valid suspicions about modernity/liberalism, but who have demonstrated an ignorance of and myopia about the standpoints represented within the various feminist perspectives which Thomists often fold into ‘modernity,’ disappearing feminist perspectives (except for the most liberally superficial) with little awareness of the tectonic challenge to many aspects of modernity that have grown up within feminism.

First, I do not want to lose sight of the fact that when Christians look into Plato, as Augustine did, or Aristotle as Thomas did (using Aristotle to ‘correct’ Augustine and Augustine to ‘correct’ Aquinas), these syntheses are part of a search for practical answers about how Christians are supposed to live, about establishing the coordinates for the ‘moral’ assessment of our actions. One of the things I like about Thomism, at least MacIntyrean Thomism, is that is has some built-in mechanisms, if you will, for revision in the light of new information, new evidence, new insights.

Another thing I appreciate about Thomism is what it shares in common, actually, with Marxists; and that is its ontological acknowledgement of the material, whether that is called “Thomist realism” or “historical materialism.” This last in opposition to post-Nietzschean solipsism, at least among the most radical constructivists. I say this because I am – as MacIntyre is – a former Marxist fluent in the Marxian idiom; and Pateman, who I’ve chosen for this comparative analysis, also critically incorporates the most useful Marxian insights into her own work. This strikes me as important because within modernity, the greatest challenges to liberalism were expressions flowing out of Marxist thought. Unfortunately, most Christians, even the most erudite Christians, have but a tentative and highly distorted grasp of Marxism as an interpretive framework (its most valuable contribution) because they have been subject to endless decades of (1) liberal assumptions in their own thought, (2) hostile cereal box summaries of Marxist thought, and (3) the conflation of this philosophical tendency with repressive states that claimed to be Marxist.

Finally, in my list of appreciations of Thomism/virtue ethics, Thomism rejects the most insidious notion growing out of the liberal pretension to universality, that of the abstract individual – a person who is stripped for political-juridical-ideological purposes of any of the actual situations and history and any network of relations that make a person an actual person. It is this concept of the formless ahistorical individual that the excerpts above have in common between Thomist MacIntyre and feminist Pateman, as well as among Marxists whose challenge to liberalism is also that you cannot erase history and situatedness without reproducing the kinds of power that exist prior to the operation of the law, and that, in fact, liberal law is designed to do exactly that: create a form of juridical equality that conceals and reproduces actual inequalities. Imagine Donald Trump and a black working mother in Mississippi each going before the court to answer the charge, hypothetically, of smoking marijuana. Or in contract law, which Pateman emphasizes, this mom applies for a job with Trump: as signatories to an employment contract, the law calls them equal individuals.

What is interesting here, however, is that Thomism’s critique of the individual is one that sees situatedness as the basis for the formation of the person, the basis for the practices that form the person, and the basis for the development, through practice, of the virtues (courage, prudence, temperance, justice, faith, hope, charity). Feminism, in this case modernity-critical feminism like that of Pateman and others (usually ignored in favor of liberal feminists), points out that, no – it is not possible to uproot this individual in actual lived experience, and yes – that liberalism is a failure in its universalizing pretensions; but tradition and situation do not get off the hook based on an analytical superiority to liberalism, because the most unjust (vicious, not virtuous) aspects of tradition are carried into liberalism behind Rawls’ veil, behind this juridical faux-equality.

So they are critiquing the same thing similarly, but from dramatically different standpoints; and by that, I do not mean simply that MacIntyre is a Catholic and Pateman does not publicly associate herself with any faith-based community. They are both dealing with the question of how liberalism translates (and fails to translate) into ‘oughts,’ or in other words, what is right and what is wrong?

So, in a real sense, Pateman (and quite a few other feminists who have been marginalized by both liberals and post-Nietzscheans) has already incorporated a key aspect of Thomism into her critique, though not that Aristotelian architecture that relates virtue to practice to civitas. On the other hand, the Aristotelian-Thomists, assuming what Anne Phillips has called a “false gender neutrality,” have argued from within a conceptual sphere that is designated ‘public.’ Civitas, or polis, is the public sphere. The reason this gender neutrality, attempted by simply adding a feminine pronoun (he or she, he and she), is “false” is because – as Pateman and other feminists have pointed out, from the standpoint of around half of humanity – women suffer many of their greatest injustices (vice, not virtue) in that ‘sphere’ we call private, which is excluded de facto from the Thomist discussion.

When MacIntyre, in his elucidation of practices wherein various virtues are initially, yet incompletely, formed, lists examples of those practices, that list is almost totally devoted to practices that are considered ‘public.’ His one sop is to “the making and sustaining of family life.” And this is exactly representative of a gender myopia based on inattention to one of the most egregious aspects of liberalism, imported into it by tradition as Pateman points out above, and that is the public-private dichotomy. Twenty different practices that include sport, art, science, warfare, et al, which are uncritically accepted as public, and one(!) category for ‘private,’ “making and sustaining family life”  (where feminine virtue is often defined most oppressively!).

MacIntyre is not alone in this. Marxism as an intellectual tradition is, on this count, guilty guilty guilty. It is no accident that – until recently and even still – that the overwhelming majority of Marxists and Thomists who are well-known in public discourse are men. As men, they have been reluctant to stop their momentum, so to speak, step to the side, back up, and spend some time actually familiarizing themselves with the standpoints of women expressed by feminists (and not just a very few visible liberal feminists).

The original meaning of “The personal is the political,” which was met with hostility even by so-called progressives, was that this attention focused on the public half of the public-private dichotomy ignored the actual location of many of the worst injustices suffered by women (at the hands of men!). Women were and continue to be dominated, coerced, and held dependent inside that household where “the making and sustaining of family life” are practiced. Both MacIntyre and Pateman would agree that this private sphere is one that is in many respects held apart from the (public) law, that is, operating prior to the operation of the (public) law, and frequently invisible to the (public) law. What Pateman recognizes is that “sex-right,” for example, the idea that men are entitled under certain circumstances to access to women’s bodies (whether by the marriage contract or the implicit contract between a prostituted woman and a john – contract is the law positing an abstract equality that conceals actual inequality) is but one example of the way the systematic domination of men over women, that is, the injustice inhering in gender as a system that divides not merely tasks but power, happens on the private side of that public-private boundary.

Any account of tradition by Thomists, then, that ignores this – as Amy Laura Hall points out above – is one that will set the experience of women aside as a footnote, alienating women (and rightly so) from Thomists, who have something of value for all of us, and even for feminism itself, because of this monumental myopia on the part of Thomist men and the consequent failure of those men to recognize the location and character of injustices that affect half of the world. This myopia is perhaps the least of our sins, compared to the active and aggressive defense of women’s subjugation, marginalization, and invisibilization by Thomist, Catholic, and many other Christian men; but that myopia alongside these apologetics for power becomes a form of ‘passive’ complicity once it is illuminated and recognized.

I do not believe that the recognition of this form of injustice fundamentally undermines many of the insights and critiques of liberalism from Thomist quarters; but women cannot be blamed for their suspicion of this ‘architecture’ so long as men hide behind it and refuse to acknowledge the ways in which tradition, prior to liberalism and smuggled from tradition into liberalism, hurts women.

Here is an excerpt from Borderline:

In contemporary contractarianism . . . the boundaries that separate one individual from another are so tightly drawn that an individual is pictured as existing without any relationship with others. The individual’s capacities and attributes owe nothing to any other individual or to any social relationship; they are his alone. . . . The individual owns his body and his capacities as pieces of property, just as he owns material property. According to this view, each individual can and must see the world and other individuals only from the perspective of his subjective assessment of how best to protect his property, or, as it is often put, from the perspective of his self-interest. (Pateman, p. 55)
Contract establishes a “civil” society that exists exclusively in that public sphere. The public sphere is politically relevant; and the private is to one degree or another immunized against political intervention, and counted as irrelevant to public/political discourse. Prior to feminist intervention, the public was a sphere of activity where men ruled fraternally; and in the private sphere, men ruled individually. Feminists have produced many of the best analyses of this public-private dichotomy, because feminist critique focuses on domination that happens apart from the public, political gaze. The domination of women, who in the past, and to a great degree in the present, have been excluded from the public sphere except as consumers, happens most often in the intimate settings of the private sphere. This is what feminists meant when they said, “The personal is the political.” The same thing can be paraphrased as “the private is the political,” political referring to social power. In the contractarian origin myths, which are euro-American male myths, there are no political subjects who are not adult white men. The private realm of the husband-headed nuclear family is where the women and children can be hidden from public view and politics. Rousseau admitted of prior social relations in his origin myth, highlighting the public-private split in an explicitly gendered way. “The education of women,” he wrote, “should always be relative to that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable; these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.”

The marriage contract is a good example of how the public-private dichotomy underwrites the alienable body. The woman is a “possessive individual,” a theoretically disembodied self who owns her body, which she can then exchange as property. Her body is alienable. Its ownership can be transferred. In that moment, she is transferred from the public sphere, where her floating-ghost-self is recognized as a legal equal, and into the private sphere, where the legal gaze can no longer penetrate. Her existence in civil society is covert, covered by her husband.

While this account draws a good deal of attention to the exploitative nature of this exchange, the focus of this inquiry is how this concept operates in the world we routinely think of as more egalitarian. In particular, we now see “the right to privacy” as a kind of precious patrimony (it is, in fact, passed down from men). When one begins to reflect on all the common dilemmas we already recognize around this separation of public and private—in family law, for example—we begin to appreciate how ideological this separation actually is, and how impossible it is to maintain in practical reality. The shell game between what is public and private serves to conceal the relations of power from the eyes of the law by constructing an ideological wall between them. This applies to the issue of marital rape, for example, once considered an oxymoron and only recently recognized in law; of freewheeling (“private”) campaign contributions in public elections; and of “intellectual property.” Abstraction in the social contract—the emancipation of an idea from its concrete instantiations—serves to simultaneously conceal and reproduce domination. The actual person must be abstracted for the law and custom to successfully embody the contractarian order. However many billions of us there are, the universalizing imperative that maintains the separation between public and private must find a way to account for them all equally. This is a problem, because equality, at least in the material sense, can never be anything except a fiction. Not only are actual individual people not equal, they are in many ways incomparable. Can we establish the basis for equality on strength, and if so, which kinds of strength? On mental capacity? What kind? On height, weight, language, age? It becomes discernible, once raising the question of what is the basis for equality, that the attributes of actual persons only have meaning in situated, concrete practices. Nonetheless, the self that stands before the public, before the law, cannot manifest any attribute that places her or him above or below or aside from any other person. One can be neither fat nor thin, neither old nor young, neither rich nor poor. S/He is—like the monstrosities of the Hobbesian origin myth—without either history or personal attachment. Feminists have shown how the subjugation of the woman in a private home is not counted as an instance of domination in the public sphere—the only sphere that liberalism affirms as politically relevant. Equality is served. So is fraternity. And this observation is applicable to other axes of power in the “private sector,” where there has been an exchange of obedience for protection precisely at the dividing wall between public and private. The transferability of self, of the body, not only ensures that the legal ghost who owns the body has something akin to autonomy (the ideological account), it ensures that the same body can be transferred readily between the public sphere and the private based on a “right.” We all have the right to sell ourselves.

Wage labor (“free labor”) was the alternative to slavery during the American Civil War—free to work, but also free to starve in circumstances where lack of money means the inability to subsist. The idea of the alienable self was perfected in practice in conjunction with the state-sponsored construction of the self-regulating market described by Karl Polanyi. Individuals could be shifted, using want as the impetus, from point to point in a meshwork of productive activity, where each contracted to exchange obedience for a prescribed time each day for protection from impoverishment in an ever more enclosed and privatized world. We all have the (public) right to sell ourselves; but it’s a buyer’s (private) market. The liberal schema transports alienability from the law into our lives. The self is adrift. Whether the self is seen as socially constructed or individually contained, it is uprooted—a ghost who puts on this or that role, like a garment. The self is that anxious presence of the existentialists, perfectly free but with no direction but will and no constraint except death, which always has the last word. In consumer society, the self is a ruthless master possessed of unlimited desire. (pp. 217-220)

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