Feminism and Moral Realism

In this short critical discussion, I argue that feminist commitments and moral judgments require moral realism. That is, moral realism advances the possibility of true moral judgments, a robust moral epistemology, and taken together, these elements deliver on the promise that feminists are presenting moral beliefs that can stand the test of time and are not otherwise in error like the unfeminist world. Feminism coupled with a moral realism implies that the evaluative claims of feminism are, in fact, true.

For the purposes of this post, I dare not define the limits of feminism, and I do not want to delimit its possibility in any one form. Primarily, I understand feminism in the largest and broadest possible interpretation to be a critical and normative evaluation about social, political, economic institutions, and personal experiences that contribute to the harm of women. As such, I will simply write about feminist moral commitments, but neither will I specify their content or prescribe any one way to think about feminism. I will assume that feminists wants to accurately evaluate oppressive elements of culture and in some instances prescribe what we ought to do about those oppressive elements. In order to do both, feminism needs to make normative judgments.

I am familiar with postmodern and Continental feminisms. In these varieties, feminism employs tools of Foucauldian genealogy, his analyses of power, Derridean deconstructive analyses of which part of a binary is more privileged, and psychoanalytic interpretations about cultural works and representations about sex and gender. The list could go on, but I want to drive the point home that these strategies are largely anti-realist. By anti-realism, I mean that these Continental feminists do not believe in a moral reality to which their analyses are seeking to represent. I do not want to argue such an extensive claim here about these methods and ask the reader to concede their anti-realist nature without argument.[1] Within the purview of those tools and methods, truth is a matter of internal consistency to the method or framework employed, but these methods do not seek to accurately represent moral reality and offer correctly apprehended moral beliefs. This may be a desire of employing such methods, but the embrace of anti-realism, which involves the acceptance of moral anti-realism, cannot offer true moral beliefs. If I am right, then what should feminism do? Should feminists give up on offering universally true moral beliefs about the particular conditions of culture in the here-and-now? I do not think they should.

Let me try to offer a solution in the very way that Russ Schafer-Landau sees moral realism. First, let me define moral realism. Moral realism is the thesis that an irreducible moral reality exists and “that there are moral truths that obtain independently of any preferred perspective.”[2] Put another way, what we believe about those moral beliefs has nothing to do with a moral judgment’s truth, and a moral judgment’s truth is the last feature of moral realism that underscores its theoretical attractiveness for feminists. Moral realists are cognitivists about moral judgments. Cognitivism allows “for a central class of judgments within a domain to count as beliefs, capable of being true or false in virtue of their more or less accurate representations of the facts within the domain.”[3] Here, like Schafer-Landau, I am focusing on the domain of moral beliefs.

There are four reasons why the embrace of moral realism makes sense in the ordinary way we understand employing normative language.

First (and perhaps the most important feature), moral realism’s embrace of cognitivism “preserves ordinary talk of moral truth.”[4] When someone asserts that “Such and such deserved to be raped because of what such and such was wearing” social media erupts with moral condemnation of such an utterance. Such an utterance is a mistake because it is a false belief. It blames the victim and fails to see sexual assault as wrong in-itself and deflects moral responsibility from the perpetrator. If moral claims are not truth-apt, then we would have to abandon that such utterances were false.

Second, taking that same example, when we construct an argument against such a view, moral realism allows for moral argumentation. Moral arguments can take the logical form of other types of arguments whereas if we were anti-realists about moral judgments (e.g., expressivists), moral claims could not serve in the premises. Here’s an argument by analogy that only works because of moral realism. We do not blame people for being Jewish in matters of the Holocaust just like we should never blame victims of rape for what they are wearing. Victims are wronged by perpetrators. If someone asserts that the victims of genocide or rape somehow deserved to be victims, then they are blaming the victim for the wrong they received and failing to observe the wrongness done to them. Such reasoning is callous and false.

Third, because such reasoning can be false, people can be wrong and in error about the moral knowledge they have. Moral realists can make sense of moral error. Error can only be recognized because beliefs, including moral beliefs, can be false. Let me drawn an analogy to a perceptual belief. If I witness a ceramic deer in the dark as I drive through Western Pennsylvania late at night, I can mistake the ceramic deer for a real deer. I can be mistaken about my sensory perceptions. By analogy, people can be wrong about some moral beliefs they hold. When we seek to condemn someone for uttering the example above, “Such and such deserved to be raped because of what such and such was wearing,” our condemnation is a simultaneous evaluation of another’s moral knowledge. And the fact that many people in the world hold to such erroneous beliefs (what some feminists have accurately described as “rape culture”) is a reason to offer feminist evaluations as a corrective to such shortsighted people’s moral knowledge.

Finally, a moral realist can make real fact of the matter recommendations about what we ought to do since a moral realist can inquire into what we ought to do. For the moral realist, there is some fact of the matter, some moral fact, in which moral recommendations are made in virtue of that are true.

Based on the preceding four factors, there is theoretical benefit to adopting the cognitivist underpinning of moral realism. Feminist moral commitments that come out of a feminist analyses are not just one interpretation in a sea of possible others, but might come to genuine moral insights about the normative world.


[1] For an account of how the appropriated sources of Continental feminism, depending on the variety and what the feminist appropriates and transforms from Continental philosophy in general, can be interpreted as anti-realist, see Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2007).

[2] Russ Schafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defense (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 15. I will cite this as MRAD hereafter.

[3] Schafer-Landau, MRAD, 17.

[4] Schafer-Landau, MRAD, 23.


Where to go from here?

The mind that stretches touches the soft ephemeral light

The light grows. It seeps, and bleeds from the soulless flight

Ascending, loss of concrete due to philosophical height.

The pompous pretensions of the moribund know no bounds.

There’s nothing left but a cold winter ahead, and the unsavory taste of the stale thoughts of a useless mind going to waste….

Marcel Studies

There’s a new journal called Marcel Studies. I want to highlight this journal since Marcel is virtually untouched by many philosophers. I read Marcel for the first time this past summer. I loved it.

And, according to his biography, the man gave one of the William James Lectures…

Connecting Cosmopolitan Vision to Philosophical Work and Teaching

Vallabha is right about Park, and everything else. This passage sums up the general point nicely about how willful ignorance is really no way to get to the cosmopolitan ideal:

The reason why most Anglo-American philosophers don’t worry about learning non-Western philosophy is that they assume cosmopolitanism is an ideal developed by Western philosophy. This assumption can create an amazing amount of institutional inertia. Western philosophers assume that the tradition of Plato and Spinoza and Russell just is the cosmopolitan tradition, and that it is up to non-Western traditions to join in with the Enlightenment. In this sense, there’s an assumption of inequality between Western and non-Western philosophical traditions: Western philosophy is not really Western because it is actually universal, and non-Western philosophy is really only a local tradition that should merge with Western philosophy.

I don’t think I have much to offer, yet I do not think putting this at the feet of just analytic philosophers is entirely fair. I know many scholars interested in Heidegger or feminist epistemology and that’s just it. They don’t do anything else. Therefore, the local tradition in power could conceivably be any Western iteration of philosophy. It need not be solely analytics; they just happen to be the gatekeepers espousing willful ignorance.

Vallabha is highlighting the cosmopolitan ideal. One benefit of teaching philosophy is that it breaks down the conceptual barriers to poor thinking. Among its many benefits, philosophy also teaches us to think from the viewpoint of others and cognitively appreciate opposing viewpoints to our own. At its core, this ability generates virtues of understanding that can help us facilitate the many avenues of living in a globalized society filled with difference. This claim is a familiar one. When confronted with the possibility of philosophy or any of the humanities, we find ourselves screaming about diversity, multi-culturalism and some type of cosmopolitan vision. Being an informed citizen is ultimately being a good world-citizen.      However, I had a problem with Vallabha leaving implicit about how one ought to pursue the cosmopolitan ideal. The most serious manifestation of cosmopolitan ideals comes out in our teaching; the fact that philosophy departments might be the only departments that have to teach religion is a very common reality at many state universities without religion or theology departments.


Vallabha’s ambiguity resides in his articulation of the concept. He never explicitly defines what cosmopolitan vision works, but only hints that it is something at the center of philosophy itself.

However, cosmopolitanism doesn’t belong to any one tradition. It is about different traditions coming together in order to create an increasingly universal understanding of human life. This ideal is central not only to Western philosophy, but to other traditions as well. In this sense, all philosophical traditions carry within them the seeds of their own transformation. To excuse oneself from this impetus to change – and to do so in the name of cosmopolitanism – is to excuse oneself from the challenges of philosophy itself.

Even though we don’t know what it entirely means, I can be sure of what it might mean in practice. Getting to know non-Western philosophy is one way to claim pursuit of the cosmopolitan ideal(s).  So when I picked up Stephen Batchelor’s lovely text, Along With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism this morning from the bookshelf, I am supposed being closer to the cosmopolitan ideal. In truth, I was reviewing the text in full, seeing how it was written, and wondering if this book could articulate Buddhism to a Millenial generation better than when I used What the Buddha Taught. My concern was not to get to know the world for myself, but I am to know the world for others. Only in service to others do philosophers ever really claim to know the world. As a philosopher teaching both at John Carroll University and the University of Akron, I am supposed to know about some things even beyond the course content. For example, I have been watching a ton of documentaries on drones and their role in warfare and possible commercial application. From this teaching experience, I am thinking about a possible applied ethics piece on drones and their use in warfare. Consider the Buddhist example again. I may never accept the four-noble truths, though I could read Buddhism as articulating claims about the structures of possibility in existential thought. Thinking though Buddhism is not something I will ever do entirely, but to the extent that I think students should be aware of the world, I need to know about Buddhism, and ways to demonstrate those connections to my studentsd. In fact, this duty to know the world for others is a higher duty than being a specialist in phenomenology or the problem of moral realism in metaethics.

Cosmopolitianism must involve an ethical duty to share knowledge. That’s really my point. I may publish exclusively on Putnam’s Twin Earth Thought Experiment, Tyler Burge’s semantic externalist reading of it, and how this view can help in debates in analytic philosophy of mind and language, but I need to know about the world for others. The world for others of the scholar is that scholars are also teachers. We have to be model-inquirers in the classroom. As teachers, we have to show young people how one might ask a question about Buddhist metaphysics of the self. We have to treat the texts before us as ways into these various lifeworlds, and we have to traverse them for others and (maybe?) for ourselves. I am unclear faculty at graduate institutions, however, really feel this existential burden as much as those of us that teach exclusively at the undergraduate level. Consider for a moment when a graduate department (and to me it doesn’t matter distinguishing between Continental, American, or Analytic on these points) puts out an ad for an expert in epistemology. Our fictional graduate department wants someone that can do research on epistemic internalism versus epistemic externalism more than the department wants a candidate who can teach non-Western philosophy. When the eventual ad comes up, there may be a desire for an “area of competency,” but given that philosophy is already divided up into self-promoting categories of specialization, one can equally be disburdened at some instituitions to never know about that other stuff. One doesn’t need to know about Latino thought, Dubois and Fanon on race, and Confucian thought. It’d be nice. Certainly…but not required.

I don’t know about you, but the philosophy classroom is a spark of creativity for me. I am not as cynical as some about teaching students of today. My students are bright, and getting them caught up to speed about philosophy is what I love to do on this earth. Often, my students want to know about the world, and sometimes, they have questions about things I don’t know about. Given that Western pedagogy started with Socrates and his maxim: “All that I know is that I don’t know.” Socratic honesty can be a way into learning to appreciate the world again in one’s teaching and how one goes about living out that philosophical life. To get to that point, however, the scholar and the teacher must be wholly integrated, and this integration means that one cannot just be an expert in one’s AOS (area of specialty). Instead, the intellectual habits of being a philosopher must emanate and undergird one’s life. Let me share with you how this happened to me in the past year (note these threasd of inquiry are not chronological). My interest in Buddhist thought became revived when I read through Scheler’s later metaphysics, and the chance to teach a Comparative Religions Course at Kent State proved insatiable to my philosophical wonder. I found myself verifying the demographics of the world religions since the citations in Smith’s World Religions have never really been updated (sad to say), picking up Tillich once more, and reading about the connections between Buddhism and Christianity (a theme that has proved insatiable as both are reformer traditions). This class and recent connection to Scheler caused me to explore themes in religion in general. I found myself diving head first into Scheler’s On the Eternal In Man, Edith Stein’s Finite and Eternal Being, J. Aaron Simmons God and the Other, and writing on personalism to the point that I attended the Personalism Forum at Western Carolina University’s conference on Bonhoeffer and King. This experience opened up Brightman, Bowne, and Maritain all at once. True, I confess. Some of this inspiration was already there. Scheler offers us a form of “personalism,” but the point is that my intellectual horizons became expanded from experiences I had in the classroom. I invite you to see teaching in the same way.

The insight to take away from this post is simple. Philosophy is a way for us to know about the world for others. When we acknowledge that knowing about the world for others underlies the practical identity of being a philosopher (to put the point in Korsgaardian language), the call for cosmopolitian ideals should be clear. Cosmopolitan norms about knowing the world include knowing about others even from their point of view and reference. Opening up the intellectual horizons of others is the first time we experience this if we are teaching and reading outside our “specialty.” Yet, we need to remember that our specializations and how those specializations are reflected in how we organize intellectual labor can have a devastating effect on realizing a cosmopolitan vision in our own philosophical work and especially how we teach philosophy to others.