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.

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