Sunday, 24 February 2013

When the Model Doesn't Exist

or, Why Should We Find the Invisible Book of Invisibility?

Eve Tushnet just wrote a wonderful post comparing natural law theology and equality feminism (contra choice feminism), indicating that both rely on an ideal which will never directly encounter.

She describes natural law theology as an ethics based on an ideal body:
One cheap but useful definition of natural law is that it’s the belief that there is a universal human nature which is knowable by reason (and here we fight about what we mean by “reason,” but ignore that for now), and so our desires can be rightly ordered based on what would express and support this nature, even though we have never seen this nature instantiated anywhere in our lives or history, ever. You can see why this is both a tempting place to ground your ethics, and a tough sell to people who don’t agree!
After some discussion of the disagreement between choice and equality feminisms, she describes the latter as being based on an ideal (but nonexistent) society:
This is a vision of how the world should be–how men and women would be “if we had equality”–which we have never, ever actually seen. There are AFAIK literally no societies in which men and women make interchangeable choices around questions of sex, work, and family; there are societies with more than two genders but not less. It’s not a statement about how great the Peopleihaventheardof are, and how we should emulate them. It’s a statement about how men and women inherently are, according to their universal, precultural nature.
Tushnet goes on to argue that something like natural law is often used to explain that universal nature.

I generally get excited about this kind of theoretical work, making connections between seemingly unrelated lines of inquiry. This is particular caught my interest, though, because I find natural law theology incomprehensible and irresponsible, but the kind of vision given by equality feminism is one that I find very attractive. As much as I dismiss many telos-sightings as too blurry to be plausible, I am very guilty of positing ideal societies and offering them as a collective goal, despite the absence of any historical precedent. (Maybe this is why appealing to a lost Golden Age is popular; you can at least pretend to have a historical model.)

Human nature in its natural habitat!

In the end I'm not sure the comparison between natural law theology and equality feminism holds, however. I react negatively to natural law theology because it seems to make a mockery of the actual diversity of people's bodies and minds, and could very well require that people with notably atypical bodies or atypical psychologies act in ways that are not safe, possible, or sometimes even comprehensible given their bodily or mental situation. The problem here is that acting towards a counter-factual will never produce that counter-factual. No matter how much I act as if I were not near-sighted, or possessed of bad knees, or whatnot, I will never actually achieve such a state (and here I'm taking as given that there is a "right" eye strength, or a "right" way to have knees, or a "right" way to have a mind, for that matter, which I don't actually think is true). Of course there are particular things (mental illness, broken bones) which, in order to achieve a desired state, require you to act differently than you would if you were in that desired state. (So, in order for your leg to heal, you need to wear a cast and let it rest, etc.) But there are other cases in which the goal is merely surviving your current state, not achieving a desired one, because it is entirely unclear that the desired one will ever be possible (for instance, there is no way to make an autistic person non-autistic).

The reason the comparison doesn't hold is that equality feminism is talking about behaviour, not embodiment; as far as we can tell, all of its concerns are like broken legs and not like missing legs. They can all be brought toward the ideal, whether by acting as though the counter-factual were true or acting according to the current state of things. Either way, the primary focus is that the unseen-ideal will eventually be achieved, will eventually be see-able, which can not be said of natural law theology. Finding the Invisible Book of Invisibility is difficult to do, why bother if it is too invisible to read anyway?

Of course, I might be off topic slightly; Tushnet was describing the source of our ideal, not so much the desirability of either philosophy. Is equality feminism's ideal society actually based on a universal, precultural nature? I am not sure. I don't think that's the only option available. You could claim that there is a biological equality of some kind between men and women that is, therefore, empirically measurable; or you repudiate all claims that men and women are unequal (through, for instance, deconstruction) and come to the conclusion that we must act as though men and women are equal, even in absence of positive evidence of that fact. But this question is interesting to me not least because I find Platonism to be so absurd that I always find it shocking to see its face, or the illusion of its face, in my own thought.

Still, I want to draw a line between Platonism and Christian ideas of becoming Christ-like and ushering in the Kingdom of God. While the Christian ideas can be understood in Platonic terms, they needn't be; Platonism implies that the telos of a thing inheres in the thing itself, while trying to become like Christ, or trying to bring in the Kingdom, only requires that we can observe a difference between is and ought, and the movement from one to the other is possible. It does not need the mechanic of a thing's nature to operate. And I am not abashed to say that one reason I find equality feminism so attractive is that it follows the narrative of Kingdom-building.

(As a final caveat: I find choice feminism attractive as well. If I were a real activist, I would probably try to switch strategically between them in ultimate service of something like equality-feminism. But then, if I were a real activist I would be better educated in these questions, too.)

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