Babcock examines a concrete case of the conflict between Hayek and rationalism: feminism.

Grant Babcock
Philosophy & Policy Editor

Grant Babcock is the Philosophy and Policy Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and a scholar of political philosophy. He is especially interested in nonviolent action, epistemology of the social sciences, social contract theories and criticisms thereof, and finding libertarian‐​compatible responses to cultural problems.

What should rationalist and Hayekian libertarians think of feminism—specifically, of the desire of feminists to replace certain existing beliefs and practices they believe are morally bad with novel beliefs and practices that are better? Today, I’ll talk about what feminism is and what it says is wrong with society. Building on the last few columns, I’ll also discuss the Hayekian challenge to feminism’s critique of society’s norms and customs. Next week, I’ll talk about how a feminist might go about trying to change things in a way that’s informed by Hayek’s insights.

Sometimes you hear people say feminism just means believing in equality between men and women. That’s a poor definition. Lots of people believe in gender equality of some form or another, and not all of them are feminists. Beyond that, what do we mean by “equality,” anyway? Equal rights? Equal outcomes? Equality is a slippery concept.

You also sometimes hear people object to the “equality” definition by saying feminism is about special rights, not equal rights. That’s a poor definition, too. By putting at the forefront the socialist programs supported by a substantial number of feminists, this definition reduces feminism to a shallow caricature—something like a special interest lobby for women. The “special rights” definition doesn’t engage with why, beyond shallow self‐​interest, someone might want a socialist program that benefitted women.

Both of these definitions ignore that in addition to being a political program, feminism is a tradition of philosophical analysis, a way of understanding the social realities we face day‐​to‐​day. We need a better understanding of feminism than is provided by the vacuous “men and women are equals” definition and the erroneous “special rights” definition.

Feminism, as a philosophical tradition, is the analysis of how gender roles shape society, and especially how historically this has entailed the subjugation of women and gays. While feminism might tell us something about how best to address those problems, it doesn’t lock you into supporting specific strategies like affirmative action laws. You can understand patriarchy and be committed to fighting it while disagreeing on the best way to do that. The political program is to a large extent independent of the philosophical analysis.

Feminism, as a political tradition, is about attacking the aforementioned historical subjugation both in its effects (for example, by establishing full rights for women, including natural rights like holding property or civil rights like voting), and at its source (for example by exposing prejudices about “how women are” and “how men are” that erase individual differences). Feminism isn’t fundamentally about securing “equal rights” or “special rights.”

In my paper “Libertarianism, Feminism, and Nonviolent Action: A Synthesis,” I offer the following explanation of how sexism and patriarchy are perpetuated, drawing on feminist theorist bell hooks:

Where does patriarchy come from, we must ask, and how is it sustained? John Bradshaw writes that “patriarchal rules still govern most of the world’s religious, school systems, and family systems” and that among the worst of these are “blind obedience—the foundation on which patriarchy stands; the repression of all emotions except fear; the destruction of individual willpower; and the repression of thinking whenever it departs from the authority figure’s way of thinking” (qtd. in hooks, 2004, p. 22). To this, hooks herself adds the following instruction: “Listen to the voices of wounded grown children raised in patriarchal homes and you will hear different versions with the same underlying theme, the use of violence to reinforce our indoctrination and acceptance of patriarchy” (hooks, 2004, p. 21). Although important, hooks stresses that the use of violence is much less common than a practice of socializing young men through rejection and shaming. “Most patriarchal fathers in our nation do not use physical violence to keep their sons in check; they use various techniques of psychological terrorism, the primary one being the practice of shaming” (hooks, 2004, p. 47).

A theory of patriarchy begins to emerge. Patriarchal gender roles are learned when we are children and continually reinforced as we grow. Failure to conform to them is met with emotional abuse, or, as a final resort, physical violence, first at the hands of our parents and, later, also our peer group.

There are a lot of reasons you might think rigid traditional gender roles enforced with harsh social and physical sanctions are ethically problematic. I don’t want to go too deeply into any one reason or every possible reason, as there isn’t space here to make the case properly, but I will try to outline a few arguments that might make it seem plausible that there are ethical problems with patriarchy.

For one thing, the gender roles in question create a hierarchy that assigns more moral worth to some types of people, or conditions people’s moral worth based on their conformity to certain stereotypes. Most ethical theories reject treating moral agents that way.

Another big issue is that forcing people into binary patriarchal gender roles shows a huge lack of empathy for people who don’t neatly fit into those roles. Sure, some men really do feel at home doing traditionally male things, like physical competition, wearing pants, and focusing on their careers. And some women really do feel at home wearing makeup, homemaking, and watching figure skating. Some men like to lead; some women like to follow. But if people want to behave in ways that transgress those boundaries, why should society judge them for doing so? They aren’t hurting anyone, and it might bring them happiness.

In a lot of ways, gender categories are artificial. No one seriously thinks it is a law of nature that people with two X chromosomes must wear dresses. Gender is very much conventional, rather than essential. Why pretend otherwise? We don’t try to force left‐​handed people to write with their right hands any more. It’s needless standardization that puts an undue burden on some people.

In feminist jargon, being genetically male or female is referred to as a person’s sex, and the artificial trappings associated with being biologically male or female (conventional clothing, for example) are called the person’s gender. This can be confusing, because outside of feminist discourse the terms are often used as synonyms, but we need to make the distinction for feminist analysis to make sense.

Some people are intersex—neither biologically male or female. Should society shove them into one of two gender boxes, pretending they fit? Some people feel more at home with the gender constructs typically associated with people of the opposite sex. Should we put any energy into shoving them into the gender box they’ve rejected? What would doing so say about our priorities?

Like most people, libertarians think passing judgement on people for irrelevant reasons like their race would be morally wrong. Even if it shouldn’t necessarily be a matter for the law, we think that a person who, for example, kicks a black customer out of their place of business is revealing a flawed character. Just like race, sex and gender don’t determine a person’s moral worth.

I have as yet only barely touched on the content of the gender norms in question. Think about what you were told as a child about what it meant to be a man or a woman. Think about what your parents told you, about the behaviors they and other adults modelled, and about what you observed in portrayals of gender relations in the stories you encountered. Were all of those messages healthy?

Violence may be wrong—but it’s very manly, isn’t it? Meekness may make you follow instructions you shouldn’t, or countenance behaviors you should protest—but it’s very feminine, isn’t it? Is it ethical to instill those messages in young boys and young girls? If we are concerned—ethically concerned—about the welfare of our children, is it good to tell boys it’s not okay to show weakness, and girls it’s not okay to show strength?

Okay, well, it sounds like maybe we should just jettison gender roles entirely. It sounds like they’re nothing but trouble. Is there another side to the story?

Gender roles are, at core, inherited traditions. And if we’ve read Hayek, we know there are good reasons to be skeptical of attempts to throw out inherited traditions. Hayek tells us that we shouldn’t assume inherited traditions are merely vestigial. We need to ask what work the traditions are doing in society. How does conforming to the rules, even if we can’t come up with good reasons for those rules, help us? In Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Hayek writes:

These rules of conduct have thus not developed as the recognized conditions for the achievement of a known purpose, but have evolved because the groups who practised them were more successful and displaced others. They were rules which, given the kind of environment in which man lived, secured that a greater number of the groups or individuals practising them would survive. The problem of conducting himself successfully in a world only partially known to him was thus solved by adhering to rules which had served him well but which he did not and could not know to be true in the Cartesian sense.

And elsewhere:

We live in a society in which we can successfully orientate ourselves, and in which our actions have a good chance of achieving their aims, not only because our fellows are governed by known aims or known connections between means and ends, but because they are also confined by rules whose purpose or origin we often do not know and of whose very existence we are often not aware.

Man is as much a rule‐​following animal as a purpose‐​seeking one.

That’s the key. There are two big reasons gender roles persist, even though they are in many ways harmful. Part of it is that some people benefit from them remaining in place. But another part of it—and this is what Hayek has identified—is that customs help us orient ourselves, help us navigate our relationships with other people.

Think about how ritualistic dating is. There are so many rules! Why do we have them? Well, the rules and rituals constitute a sort of language of dating. If I bring a woman flowers and chocolate, she understands that signals romantic interest. Maybe there’s a culture where instead I bring her a nice fresh salmon. But we’re not in that culture. That’s not our language.

This Hayekian position on gender politics is explained very well in this comic strip by Randall Munroe. It gets right to the core of Hayek’s worry:

Media Name: drama.png

To destroy all conventions about gender would, on this account, be something like the fall of the Tower of Babel. The rituals of dating constitute a language that lets us express ourselves, and without new rituals everyone understands, we’re deaf and mute.

But the gender conventions of the dating world are patriarchal conventions. So what’s a feminist to do?

Let’s now leave the question of whether feminists are correct about which norms are sexist and whether those norms are morally bad because they are sexist. I think feminists are correct, at least mostly, about those questions. Moving forward, I’m going to take that position as given. If you disagree, feel free to read what follows as being purely hypothetical—if feminists are right in their normative analysis, what should they do? You should still be able to get something out of the discussion that could be applied elsewhere.

Xkcd comic strip "Drama" used in complience with this Creative Commons license.