Saturday, August 25, 2012

How does an Oxford feminist decide moral issues?

I've often said that feminism is liberalism applied to the lives of women. And at the heart of liberalism is autonomy theory: the belief that autonomy is the overriding good that defines us as human. Therefore, feminism seeks to maximise the autonomy of women.

Sarah Pine is a young feminist at Oxford University. Her comments on two controversies at the university illustrate her commitment to autonomy theory.

The most recent one concerns a dating guide:
A Guide To Dating Posh Girls warns its readers of modest means that a partner from the upper echelons will have had so much sex she has ‘duly worked her way through the Eton rugby team’

Sarah Pine's response was this:
Treating women like objects that lack any autonomy in who they date or sleep with is outdated and boring.

So she isn't concerned to defend the reputation of the posh women being commented on; her focus instead is that there might be a negative connotation to the idea of promiscuity - a limitation on the autonomous choice of women to sleep with however many men they like.

Similarly, in May there was a debate at Oxford University on the topic of legalising prostitution. An American brothel owner, and a prostitute, took part in the proceedings.

This was Sarah Pine's take on the debate:
We welcome debate on such an important issue, but inviting Dennis Hof is irresponsible. We support women who want to sell their bodies, but this does not change the fact that pimps exploit women.

Inviting a pimp undermines women’s autonomy in this business: the Union is foolish to not recognise that prostitutes are the most important people to listen to on the subject of prostitution.

She looks at the issue not from the standpoint of whether prostitution itself is morally right or wrong, but from the angle of what maximises female autonomy. Therefore, she supports the choice of women to sell their bodies, but she wants them to assert this choice independently of such men as brothel owners.

Are feminists doing women a service in making the maximisation of autonomy the key, determining good in deciding such issues?

Certainly not in the long run. What feminists expect is that society as a whole will act to maximise female autonomy. This includes an expectation that men will devote themselves to the cause of maximising female autonomy.

But how long can that last? Eventually men will go one of two ways. Some will cotton on to the fact that autonomy is being treated as the key human good and will demand this good in equal measure for men; others will be put off by the consequences of making autonomy the key good and will return to more traditional masculine standards of upholding the larger good of society (these responses are already emerging in the men's movement).


  1. The last paragraph, concerning men's responses, was excellent.

  2. "Eventually men will go one of two ways."

    I see a Third Way, allowing women's autonomy in theory, but in reality exploiting the situation to get as much as you want out of women. Like the PUAs.

  3. I'm a traditionalist here in the Ozark mountains of Mo. USA.A region of many traditionalist tendency's. Love your blog. In referring to your comments about the lefts attitude toward autonomy, I have noticed the same disjointed attitudes among environmentalists, etc {who also tend to be Left leaning, although not always} They talk about living locally, know your neighbors, local food, supporting small farms,frugal living, etc. Yet when you listen to them, you get the idea that what they REALLY want is something like "Mayberry" with all the proper liberal pieties kept by the community. However, as anybody who live in a small town, or rural region knows, you can never have such a place for very long. You can"t have sado-masichism in your basement with your male lover for very long, because everyone in town will know about it. No gay pride parades here, with all the children around.Feminists tend to find out there are lots of strong women about, but few of them have any interest in feminist ideology.People of different ethnic, and racial ancestry, get watched warily for a while for the simple reason resources are limited in such a place, and no one wants any freeloaders, or troublemakers. The environment tends toward conservative ways of life and thinking.Politically people vary, but living in such a place simply reinforces the traditionalists ways of life.No one can be completely autonomous where people depend on each other so muchI get amused, for if environmentalists ever get the world that many of them want, it might surprise them how it would eventually turn out.

  4. I'm surprised the upper echelons have become so promiscuous, has this always been the case?

    My brush with this type (partners of major law firms) and their blasé attitude towards their young daughters (< 21) being doobies for AFL footballers was surprising to say the least.

    Thursday, I always follow your comments with interest (as sparse as they are nowadays) as your definitely one of the sharpest bloggers I have come across.

  5. Perhaps you should say that feminism is liberalism applied exclusively to the lives of women. In the comments of the lady philosopher, for instance, a young woman is free to "work her way through the Eaton rugby team," but the writer of the dating guide is not free to register the fact. Likewise, a female prostitute is free to exploit her customers, but her pimp is not free to exploit the female prostitute.

    The first example is especially interesting. Whose autonomy is to be protected? That of the slut, or of the slut shammer? If we follow J.S. Mill, it is certainly the slut, since censoriousness was, in his system, a cause of "harm." To express disapproval of another person's lifestyle was forbidden in Mill's system, just like punching them in the nose or running them down in the street. But then, consider the harm done by the young woman working her way through the Eaton rugby team. In the course of her escapades, she will very probably do at least one of the following: transmit a disease, provoke a jealous fight, abort a child, scandalize innocent bystanders, and lower moral standards in the community so that all of these things become more common in future. Additionally, as we've recently discussed here, there is a good chance her behavior will harm her future husband and children by significantly increasing the probability she will obtain a divorce and seriously disrupt their lives.

    Promiscuity does plenty of harm, and yet liberalism defends it. Censoriousness of promiscuity seeks to avert this harm, and liberalism condemns it. Why is this?

  6. It is pointless to reflect on how Leftists think about moral issues, since they don't believe in morality. Even "autonomy" is not their central moral principle, since they will cast this aside for particular groups (e.g. white men) or even for favored groups when expediency requires it.

  7. It is interesting, though not surprising, that Ms. Pine and other feminist types would highlight women's lesser natures and shun their greater and expect something good to come of it.

  8. Even "autonomy" is not their central moral principle, since they will cast this aside for particular groups (e.g. white men) or even for favored groups when expediency requires it.

    There is no doubt that liberals are capable of expediency when the situation requires it.

    But the fact that left-liberals have favoured groups doesn't mean that autonomy theory is not still working away.

    Remember, autonomy theory leads to the idea that predetermined qualities like our sex and race ought not to matter - that they are "arbitrary" qualities when it comes to life outcomes.

    But the reality confronting liberals is that our sex and our race do in fact matter.

    Right liberals tend to believe that there is a glorious march of progress that will gradually overcome this. Left liberals, though, believe that such "inequalities" are entrenched within a system designed to privilege some groups of people over others.

    And so left liberals see men or whites as being dominant oppressors who gain an unearned privilege within a racist or patriarchal society. This then justifies in their eyes a focus on the autonomy (or "empowerment") of women or non-whites - it is thought not only to redress historical inequality but to deconstruct the system that impedes the achievement of "equal freedom".

    If politics remains stuck in this framework then it doesn't matter if men or whites complain about what's happening - that will be assumed to be a defence of privilege or supremacy.

    We have to strike close to the root - to make clear that the liberal framework is a theory that instead of being merely assumed can be held up to the light and criticised.

  9. Heya, I tried to leave a comment before but failed at proving I wasn't a robot, so here's a shorter version.

    The issue of autonomy came up differently to how you've presented it. With the union debate, my point was that Hof should not have been invited to speak: a pimp should not have been asked to represent the women that he exploits.
    With the issue of the dating guide, women were being treated like machines: press the right buttons and you'll get another date with a 'posh' girl.
    Women's autonomy is clearly being undermined in both cases, but the questions I was answering were not on whether women should have the freedom to work as a prosittute, but if they should be autonomous enough to represent their own profession in a debate. The parallel goes for the dating guide comment.

    Anyway, the debate that you brought up is really interesting! Feminism can be seen as a process, achieved when women choose freely (autonomy), or and end, wherby these choices happen in an equal context. I think both are important for liberation.
    However, an equal world does not come about when we tell women which choices are best for them. So, for that reason, implying that women should not sleep with whoever they want, won't help us make any progress. Allowing women to make their own moral decisions is central to putting their wills at thje forefront of their lives. Tackling structural injustice (for example giving women opportunities to avoid sex work if that is what they want) is what will give women meaningful options.

    The question of involving men with feminism is also important. I don't think I dialogue surrounding autonomy is that engaging, so in that way you're right, but that doesn't mean that freedom isn't important. Also, if feminism inspires men to claim freedoms which they deserve, as you suggested, I see no problem with that.

    Feel free to contact me on my email address which is listed on the OUSU website.

    Ps I make my moral decisions by asking 'what would Ellen and Portia do?'. They're so cool it hurts.

  10. We have to strike close to the root - to make clear that the liberal framework is a theory that instead of being merely assumed can be held up to the light and criticised.

    This might have value if the Left were rational. But since facts and logic would defeat them, they simply refuse to engage in rational debate. Instead the Left will retreat into a cloud of ad hominem attacks and other irrationalities, followed if necessary by screaming "Nazi!" and resorting to violence.

    In short, efforts to hold the Left's "arguments" up to the light and criticise them is futile. It wastes your time and they don't care because they are about power and feelings not rational thought.

  11. Nope,

    You're right that once a leftist has settled into a leftist world view that they're unlikely to change.

    But it's still important to make logical arguments against leftism for two reasons:

    a) To try to catch people when they're young (just going to uni), to show them that there are principled and reasonable reasons to reject the mainstream ideology.


    b) To discourage the process by which those on the right are bamboozled into supporting a merely right-wing version of liberalism, rather than rejecting it in a principled way.

  12. To try to catch people when they're young (just going to uni), to show them that there are principled and reasonable reasons to reject the mainstream ideology.
    That only works if people are not penalised for their views, in such a way that their entrance to university is affected if they don't spout the party line.
    You'd be surprised how bad marks stop people from entering higher education - because examinations as assessment, are used to determine competence. But since you're a teacher, I'm sure you have some awareness of marking people differently depending whether they got the answer right or wrong