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In Search of the Philosophical Origins of “Oxrev Feminism”

Ryan Klein

Several few months ago, a public debate which was to be hosted by Oxford Students For Life at Christ’s Church College concerning the societal impact of abortion was cancelled due to threat of mob action. In anticipation of that debate the Oxford Students’ Union group Oxrev Fem had created a Facebook page titled “What the F*ck is ‘Abortion Culture’?” from which they called for students to rally outside the venue and “take along some non-destructive but oh so disruptive instruments to help demonstrate to the anti-choicers just what we think of their ‘debate’.”[1] The group’s main issue with the debate, it would seem, was that both the pro-choice and the pro-life positions were to be represented by men. “It is absurd to think,” said another feminist group, “[that] we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies.”[2] As the popular pro-choice motto puts it, “no uterus, no opinion.”

In response to the vast media coverage which this story has received, cries of support have been raised for both the Oxrev Fems and the Students for Life – but the legion of tweets and Facebook statuses in defense of the former show that its position is far more heavily sympathized with. Given historical trends, this does not seem surprising. For centuries now, Westerners have been witnessing a steady growth in respect for the autonomous status of persons, and in the motto of the pro-choice movement it is easy to see that trend evolved to new heights. Perhaps next step will be a redefinition of the limits of acceptable speech such that only people like oneself will be allowed to say anything about one’s life; that only women can speak about women, only homosexual people about homosexual people, only trans people about trans people, and so on.[3]

If those are the new boundaries of speech, they are recent developments. For centuries past, perhaps millennia, people thought that universal “ought” statements were both possible and proper across cultures and sexes: we are all human, we thought, and because ethics and law are about humans, we should all be able to say something meaningful to and about each other. But for some reason, that idea of objectivity is being put aside in favor of the philosophical anthropology that makes “no uterus, no opinion” intelligible.

How did we get here?

It is difficult to say; as Graham Greene once noted, “‘A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”[4] But I think we could learn something important about our situation if we turned our attention to a small 18th century German town and the cultural legacy which one of its townsmen inspired.

I.      From Good Will to Moral Law

In 1785, the University of Königsberg’s professor of Logic and Metaphysics set out to ground an ethical system which would never – could never – be torn down. According to Alisdair MacIntyre, this professor, Imannuel Kant, had finally gotten tired of old and shabby ethics: virtue theory had been lost in the popular rejection of Aristotelian teleology, David Hume’s reliance on the passions was inadequate, divine command theory simply lacked good arguments, and so on.[5]

Rather than starting ethics with relativistic passions or intuitions, as he had seen others do, Kant proposed that we set out to ground it on “pure reason”[6] alone; that is, on the truths which reason can discover a priori, objectively, and “independently of all experience.”[7] For if pure reason is universal to all rational beings, and if it can lead to ethical truths, then anything it produced would be both universal and necessarily true. Thus, the project.

Kant began with a query concerning “goodness”: is anything good in itself? There is no possibility, he says, “of thinking of anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will.”[8] Talent, wealth, intelligence, power, health, and honor can certainly be used for the good, but they may just as easily be used for evil; their moral status depends on the will of their user. Now, the will in itself may be good or evil, but by definition, a good will can only ever be good.

But even with a good will, an agent’s actions may result in evil; a saint may intend well, but if she is ignorant of the entire context in which she acts, she may accidentally create pain and suffering. Yet even then, says, Kant, her will is good and her action is moral; “a good will,” he says, “is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e., it is good in itself.”[9] Effects are irrelevant to ethics, and it is intentions alone, which he calls maxims, that constitute the moral status of actions.

Imagine that an inexperienced customer, who does not know the standard prices of items, comes to a store in search of medicine. For the sake of example, assume that it is the shopkeeper’s moral responsibility to offer the woman a fair price. Now let us imagine that the shopkeeper, knowing that the woman is inexperienced, considers overcharging her. He is intrigued by the chance to pocket some extra money, and he knows the transaction would go without a hitch. But as a prudent man, the he also knows that the woman might later reveal what was really an outrageous price to the other townspeople. This would earn him a negative reputation, which would be bad for business. Thus, out of prudence, he offers the woman a fair price.

Now in a sense, this man has done his duty; but he has done so accidentally. Had overcharging the woman been in keeping with his long term goals, he would have done it. His maxim is something like “I will do what is my interest,” which may or may not lead to action in line with duty. But because it is the maxim alone which counts for morality, and because his maxim is ambiguous, we cannot say he acted morally.

But what does it mean for a maxim to be moral? Here, it is essentially that the maxim follows the lines of “I will do X out of respect for the moral law.”[10] Here, again, Kant intentionally excludes any possible effects of the maxim’s action. For just like the maxim of the prudent shopkeeper, any motivation that focuses on the fulfillment of one or another incentive (Kant’s term for desire) will fit into the formula of what he calls the “hypothetical imperative”:[11] “if you want X, do Y.” But this formula is amoral, capable of leading to either wickedness or virtuousness. Morality is an afterthought, accidental to the action. Therefore no maxim motivated by the actualization of incentives can bear intrinsic moral status. The only truly moral actions are those done simply because they’re right.

Of course, “right” is an historically ambiguous term, quite as obscure as “moral,” “good,” or “virtuous.” But Kant has something definite in mind: essentially, practical reason. We might put his logic together in the following way. The maxims of a good will are unconcerned with particular circumstances, which is to say that its maxims have universality. Now the moral law defines the good will. Therefore, the moral law must also have universality. But, as Kant argues in his Prolegomena, nature is full of particulars; nothing universal exists in it. Therefore morality must not be something to found “out there” in the world, but must instead be present to us a priori. But to say that it is a priori is to say that it is an aspect of pure reason, viz., pure reason as it pertains to human action. This would be pure practical reason. But if the moral law is pure practical reason, then its content will simply be the rules which pure reason follows.

Now the first principle of reason is the principle of non-contradiction. Thus, the same principle will be the grounding of the moral law. And, as we said, that law will come in the form of universality. Now as we said earlier, the moral law is concerned with maxims. Therefore, we can proclaim the first principle of morality, which Kant called the Categorical Imperative: “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”[12]

II. From Autonomy to the Kingdom of Ends

It might not be obvious just how action according to the above imperative could be possible. For if Aristotle was right that “every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good,”[13] then the idea of an action unmotivated by incentive may seem inconceivable. Kant’s answer to this worry seems to be a distinction between two types of ends: On the one hand there are “subjective ends, which rest on incentives,” and on the other there are “objective ends, which depend on motives valid for every rational being.”[14] This is a partial agreement with Aristotle; humans certainly do act out of desire most of the time. But contra Aristotle, Kant does not think that all actions can be described as such. For it seems to him that, unlike all other creatures, rational beings can act out of “respect” for law, especially moral law.[15] If for example a person strongly wants to kill another for her own gain, has reason to believe that she will never suffer negative consequences for it, and yet knows that murder is wicked, she can deny desire and choose to do what is right; even without desire it is possible for her to act out of respect for the law, which is to say that she is capable of “duty.”[16]

This ability fascinated Kant. In the Prolegomena, he had previously argued that everything in the natural world necessarily and without choice follows a certain set of laws, the foremost of which is cause and effect; a ball dropped will fall, a log heated up will be set ablaze, and a window smashed will shatter.[17] Such things are bound and determined by laws existing outside themselves – heteronomous laws, as Kant called them.[18] When the rational being acts from within the hypothetical imperative, she too follows heteronomous laws; her desires are determined for her by a long chain of cause and effect, and so when she acts on them she is just as determined as everything else, even given her self-consciousness.

But when she steps past the hypothetical, beyond the chains of cause and effect and into the realm of respect, she enters into freedom.[19] Now unchained from nature’s heteronomous laws she finds in herself the ability to choose what she will do; in freedom, she can “be a ground of determinate laws,” subject only to her own choosing.[20] She is self-legislating, which, in Greek, is literally translated autonomous.[21]

Now there may be a temptation, especially today, to equate this notion of autonomy with the mere capability to determine one’s own action. Certainly autonomy does include this self-determination, but it is only part of the picture. For self-determination is possible only in light of self-legislation of the moral law, where the content of the moral law is not to-be-determined but is rather a given for rational beings to live in to. Detached from a respect for that law, the will falls down through the hypothetical imperative and into the world of causal incentives. But when connected to respect, the rational will becomes autonomous and thereby comes to deserve every bit of the respect owed to the law from which it stems. Just as one is to obey the moral law simply because it is the moral law, so also must one respect the autonomy of another simply because that autonomy is possible through the same moral law.

This may seem paradoxical. For how can autonomy truly be self-legislation if the law-to-be-legislated pre-exists the legislator? But this is to deeply misunderstand Kant’s notion of the moral law. For the law just is reason as it applies to human action, and though reason is universal in one sense, it is also deeply individual in another. In Kant’s mind, rational beings are not rational by their relation to some transcendent and external “Reason” but rather bear their rationality in the very structures of their particular minds. Therefore the agent only participates in reason insofar as she is her reason; that particular rationality is her own, and it cannot be shared by anyone else. Thus, in a sense, her autonomous moral deliberation is simply her legislation of herself to herself.[22]

But at the same time, continuing from his argument in the Prolegomena, Kant claims that the structures of reason in each rational being are formally identical. Thus, because morality just is pure practical reason, it will be the same for all rational beings. Indeed, if all such beings were to legislate without error, they would promulgate identically. Therefore we can say that by legislating the universal law, each rational being becomes the ground of her own action.

Of course, people do not always legislate the law perfectly. We are quite capable both of making missteps in logic and of dressing a pursuit of mere incentives in the guise of moral action. When we do so our wills are, in a sense, cut off from reason, and thus from the moral law, and thus from autonomy and the respect it deserves. The connection of these things is absolutely crucial for Kant. Self-determination is only respectable when it is autonomous, and to be autonomous, it must be correct legislation of the moral law. Choice in itself does not demand such respect. So, when a person defends what we see as a morally questionable action with the argument that we must respect autonomy, we need not be silent. We all follow the same moral law, and therefore when we believe that another person has acted immorally and thereby tarnished their autonomy, we are quite capable of critiquing them without insulting their dignity as persons.

So much for Kant. Now you may be wondering what all this has to do with a debate at Oxford. To make this clear, I would like to tell a story.

III. A Thought Experiment

Imagine that the year is 1815 AD. The moral philosophy which we’ve been discussing has had such an impact on its first readers that, by now, just about everyone in Germany has had some interaction with the ideas it proposes. In fact, its influence has gone beyond cultural boundaries, spreading throughout countries and continents to the point that today, no moral philosophy which fails to engage it can be taken seriously.

Over the years, this philosophy proves to have quite a bit of staying power. Always it is seeping deeper and deeper into cultural consciousness, forming the way that most everyone thinks about even the most mundane moral dilemmas. “Duty” becomes the moral compass even of people raised without interaction with philosophy. The moral law is attributed an increasingly holy status, and deep respect for individual autonomy is numbered among the first precepts of common decency.

After some time, the philosophic winds change. New minds emerge into popular consciousness. Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault assault the Enlightenment project for epistemic certainty, barraging each of its pioneers with arguments that what had been taken for certain and universal premises were in fact beliefs of western post-Christendom smuggled in as disguised presuppositions, albeit unknowingly. Soon the cultural belief in universal, tradition-less reason is abandoned as an early modern naivety.

Now as we saw, the autonomy of Kant’s rational beings was grounded in respect for the moral law, as was the demanded respect of that autonomy. The moral law was in turn grounded in pure practical reason, which, for Kant, had to be a universal. Therefore universal reason, or at least the idea of it, was the foundation upon which morality, autonomy, and respect were built; without it, each of the latter loses its rational grounding, and logic would dictate that they be let go of as invalid conclusions.

But imagine what would happen if, even in the rejection of universal reason, people were either unwilling or unable to let go of the rest of the system; if, hoping to preserve as much of their intellectual and moral heritage as possible, they tried to reformat the system around the absence of its foundation. Would they not simply move everything down a level? Where reason had once grounded morality, which had then grounded both respect and autonomy, “morality” would become the new foundation, and autonomy and respect would rest atop it. But in the original system morality had been so closely identified with reason that this would not likely last very long. Soon morality too would be removed, and the levels would be moved down. “Autonomy” would then sit as the foundation of the rest, with respect directly above and stemming out of it. The meaning of “autonomy” would then have to change in the absence of objective moral law, but the change would be an easy readjustment. For even without a direct object, “self-legislation” is a clear enough idea that it can be grasped by most anyone.

Now without a given law through which autonomy’s legislation is validated, “respect for autonomy” would no longer be so concerned with any such law. What would matter is whether a person decided something for herself; choice alone would demand all the respect once allotted to the moral law. Indeed, given the abandonment of universal reason, there would no longer be a reason to think that two people share the same inner structures. Therefore it would be disrespectful to reprimand someone for their choice on a moral basis; autonomous action is the legislation of one’s self to herself, and because you don’t know or share the inner structure of that self, you have no grounds to say whether it was a valid action. Her action is up to her, and it is entirely unwarranted for a self unlike herself to tell her what she is morally obligated to do.

Are these not the very claims of the Oxrev Fems? “No uterus, no opinion” sounds like the epitome of such a conception of autonomy and respect; if you are not a man, you are incapable of saying anything meaningful about what a women should do with her body. In fact, even pro-life women ultimately lose the right to say anything against abortion; for even if women are more alike to each other than a man is, a woman’s choice to abort is an autonomous act which is to be respected by others. And to even voice opposition against such autonomy would upset the rights of others so greatly that it would threaten their very dignity, and risk bringing a mob of angry protestors down atop the objector’s head..

Now, to be sure, history is far too complicated a subject to allow for the claim that the postmodern turn’s effect on the Kantian tradition single handedly produced the contemporary liberal identity politic. But I cannot but think that that politic shares the form of a gutted Kantian system – a corpse of a project – which is now, quite literally, devoid of reason.

 

Sources:

[1] Henry Shalders, “Christ Church JCR Pressure College over Abortion Debate,” Cherwell, Nov. 17th, 2014, http://www.cherwell.org/news/college/2014/11/17/christ-church-jcr-pressure-college-over-abortion-debate

[2]Ibid. [sic]

[3] This is a generous reading, in my opinion; on the abortion issue; for instance, I think there is evidence to say that the limits of speech are being redefined such that the only people who can talk about it are those already converted to the pro-choice side. Thus the feminist groups will accept the input of males who identify on their side, and reject the words of women who identify as pro-life. But, if we take these groups at their word (no uterus, no opinion), the real criteria is just that the people who speak must be like those they speak to. This is the generous reading.

[4] Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951), p. 1

[5] See Alisdair MacIntyre, “The Predecessor Culture,” in After Virtue (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2007)

[6] Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), s. 389, p. 2

[7] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Project Gutenburg, 2003. Ch. 2, SS. 9, section 1.

[8] Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, s. 393, P. 7

[9] Ibid. s. 394, p. 7

[10] Ibid. s. 400, p. 13

[11] Ibid. s. 414, p. 25

[12] Ibid. s. 421, p. 30

[13] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bk. I, ch. 1.

[14] Ibid. S. 427, p. 35

[15] Ibid. s. 427, p. 35. What he here speaks of as “objective ends valid for every rational being” turn out to be: (I) the moral law itself, and (II) whichever beings bear the moral law. The motive here could only be respect, as opposed to a good for oneself.

[16] Ibid. s. 400, p. 13

[17] See also Ibid. s. 412, p. 23. “Everything in nature works according to laws. Only a rational being has the power to act according to his conception of laws.”

[18] See Ibid. s. 441, p. 45

[19] Ibid. S. 446, p. 49

[20] Ibid. S. 428, p. 35, emphasis added

[21] Ibid. s. 446, p. 49

[22] Ibid. s. 431, p. 38