I'm Sorry but I Kant Let You Do That

A friend linked this article in the New York Times. This passage is an idea that I had seen mentioned, but never actually explained, and it drove me bonkers - the idea that certain kinds of traditional Western ideas of rationality and freedom were sexist. This is a really clear explanation and the idea makes a lot more sense to me now:

[Most feminist philosophers] argue that, among other things, [Immanuel Kant] is committed to a conception of personhood that unfairly and inaccurately privileges our rationality and autonomy over the social, interdependent, embodied, and emotional aspects of our lives.  This misrepresentation of human nature encourages us to think about people as fundamentally independent, and this, they argue, leads to the exploitation of those people (usually women) who are responsible for caring for those people who are not independent (children, the elderly, the disabled and infirm — all of us at some point in our lives, really).

The article is about an incident David Foster Wallace described in his essay. “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All”:

David Foster Wallace describes a visit to the Illinois State Fair. The friend who accompanies him, whom he calls Native Companion because she’s a local, gets on one of the fair’s rides. While she’s hanging upside down, the men operating the ride stop it so that her dress falls over her head and they can ogle her. After she gets off the ride, Wallace and Native Companion have a heated discussion about the incident. He thinks she’s been sexually harassed and thinks something should be done about it.

Wallace's companion replies that she doesn't think it's a big deal, she can either ignore it and feel okay, or get angry and let it ruin her day. The article points out that there are sound Kantian reasons to believe that the woman had a duty to object.

I didn't much care for the rest of the article's analysis, though, as it seems to describe every plausible response as justified on Kantian principles, including doing nothing at all:

The obligation to resist oppression is this sort of duty: there are lots of things one can to do fulfill it. Native Companion could confront the carnies directly. She could lodge a formal complaint with the fair’s management. We might even think that she actually is resisting her oppression—that by refusing to feel humiliated, refusing to let the carnies dictate when and how she can have fun, and refusing to believe that their sexually objectifying her demeans her moral status in any way—she’s actually resisting her oppression internally.

How does that provide any moral guidance at all?

My guess is that women have a Kantian duty to other women (& themselves as women), all else being equal, to discourage actions that oppress women considered as a class, whether or not the action displeases the particular woman involved. (Just a guess and I am not sure that Kantian morality is correct either; if not, then whether you have a Kantian duty to do something doesn't determine whether you ought to so it.)

There's something in Wallace's story that mucks this up a bit, though - it's not clear whether Native Companion really was totally fine with what happened or whether that's just the story she told herself. Let's turn up the contrast a bit: suppose I were walking down the street, and felt a sudden craving for chocolate. As I pass a chocolate store, an employee runs out and shoves a free sample into my mouth. What is my duty?

Even though I was not harmed (and was even benefited) by this action, as a pedestrian it is my duty to express indignation, because the salesperson could not have reasonably expected that their behavior would be welcome. To thank them would be harming pedestrians with food allergies or other strict dietary preferences, or who simply don't enjoy chocolate, and even my future pedestrian self if the next surprise sample is not to my taste. So while I have been helped as a chocolate craver, I have been harmed as a pedestrian more deeply, and must scold the salesperson.

4 thoughts on “I'm Sorry but I Kant Let You Do That

  1. Jon Kara Shields (@jkshields)

    While I agree with your statement that "women have a Kantian duty to other women (& themselves as women), all else being equal, to discourage actions that oppress women considered as a class" it is not clear to me that your counterexample is sufficiently parallel. I also think that the author of the article is right to say that the duty to resist oppression can be completed in a variety of ways. So I take the author not to be saying that it is okay to resist oppression by ignoring it, but a more subtle claim, that one way of resisting oppression is to refuse to let attempted oppression succeed. Her emphasis is on the fact that Native Companion refuses to let the sexist carnies spoil her evening, and sometimes it is by dragging you into debate (which you cannot win to ultimate satisfaction) is a way that oppression co-opts the victim into further victimizing herself.

    I am not sure if I think that argument is sufficient either. I think that it fails to adequately address Native Companion's duty to other women, but it is not parallel to your example.... Native Companion doesn't desire or enjoy sexual objectification the way that you might desire or enjoy chocolate,... that is to mistake the reasons for complying with the reasons for evading (rather than challenging) the domain-control that the sexist carnie has.

    Just a thought. I have to go take an exam,.. or I might spend more time on this.

    1. benquo

      I deliberately picked an example with higher contrast than the one in the article to try to make the principle clearer.

      It seems easy to confuse the idea that it is right to stick up for yourself when you personally are harmed, with the idea that it is your duty to stick up for people in general when someone commits an offense against you considered as a person in general.

      In the story DFW tells, it is not clear that his particular companion was harmed at all. But if you have the suspicion that she was just pretending not to mind, then that will affect your intuitions about what the right action for her was.

      I thought it would be interesting to take a hypothetical case where I was so far from being harmed in the particulars that I was actually affirmatively benefited as a particular person, and see whether the Kantian argument still seemed right.

      1. Jon Kara Shields (@jkshields)

        That seems alright then. (But that kind of example is likely to get you into trouble.)

        I think I don't find much fault with the article until Hay says

        "The most obvious objection to this line of argument is that holding Native Companion responsible for resisting her oppression shifts the moral burden in this situation onto the party who hasn’t done anything wrong—in effect, it blames the victim. "

        It is not clear to me that this line of defense is open, since as you have pointed out it is not only Native Companion's imperfect duty to self, but also her duty to other women (since she is hypothetically informed about structural sexism and does not see this as merely a harm to herself but a harm directed at a whole class of persons to which she belongs.)


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