Sunday, July 15, 2007

Flourishing of a Kind

Another common view that puzzles me is the notion that the criteria for a flourishing life are fixed by one's membership in a kind - be it a particular species, gender, or ethnicity - rather than one's individual characteristics. For example, a nurturing housewife might be thought to have lived an excellent life (for a woman), whereas domestic values would count for less when assessing the life success of a man. Success in a cutthroat business environment might be thought the epitome of white male success, whereas a black person might be criticized for not giving enough back to "their community", or a female disparaged for being childless. No matter the individual's own talents and inclinations, a particular identity is ascribed to them, limiting the forms of excellence or norms of success that are open to them to pursue. Why?

Perhaps there is an empirical assumption in play: that the individual's "own talents and inclinations" will always coincide with the ascribed identity. (Every woman really just wants to be a mother, never mind her protestations to the contrary.) But that's plain ridiculous.

Still, the normative claim seems even less plausible. So what's going on here? Why on earth would anyone believe in (e.g.) sex-specific virtues, norms, or forms of excellence? There's no denying that many do believe precisely this - men are told to "be manly" - but why?

A more rational society would surely do away with gender (or ethnic, etc.) roles altogether.


  1. what if there really is a difference and there is a non zero cost to confirming if a person conforms with expectation or not such that it is not always worth the cost of investigation (failing further information)?

  2. G. - Sure, you're talking about merely descriptive "expectations", right? That's a different issue. My concern here is with normative expectations. This is the sense in which failure to live up to them makes one a "disappointment" (a failure), not just a surprise.

  3. i agree with you, but to hear you argue that individuals should not be constrained by gender or cultural norms seems to me a strange thing to say, i suppose because it's so obvious. it would be like if you made a post which said "i don't understand why there's racism; a rational society wouldn't have racism". i feel as though i must have misread you.

  4. I think this is a really good point. My first reaction was as anonymous', but on a further thought I think Richard is also implying the following. These fixed normative expectations are not imposed by the government or embedded in our genes; they exist because we enact them. Why do we do it, simply out of collective mindlessness and habituation from historical roles? Or is there some underlying advantage to it on a larger social scale?

    Is asking this question tantamount to asking 'why do we stand for racism'? I think not, because unlike racism these fixed roles damage everyone, even the white man (who is frowned upon if he decides to be a full-time dad, say).

  5. isa- the distinction you try to draw is unclear to me. for instance: you argue that "these fixed normative expectations are not imposed by the government", but surely the government has always had a hand in replicating gender (and other) norms. disenfranchisement, the regulation of reproductive rights by abortion laws and the withholding of formal education are just three of innumerable instances wherein government policy enforces norms oppressive to women.

    also, surely racism does affect all races, if not to the same extent; why else do we have words like "honky" and "cracker"? anyway, anon.'s point is not that the norms richard is talking about are completely analogous to the problem or racism, but rather that his argument is as obviously true as is the argument that racism is bad.

    at the end of your post, i'm not sure what you're trying to say.

  6. aceconnors: indeed, it's true that the gov. plays a role, and no small one, and it's also true that by some stretch of the imagination (and I did predict someone was going to argue this as I wrote it) racism harms all races.

    But racism does not harm all races to the same extent. I don't think you can compare the extent to which racism harms the perpetrator with the extent to which it harms the target. But this isn't very relevant to my point, which I'll explain below.

    I wasn't disagreeing with anon actually, I was drawing on his/her point.

    Here's what I had meant to say. The man who decides to become a stay at home dad, and the woman who decides not to have kids, will not be conforming to certain 'fixed roles'. As individuals they'll be criticized or judged not by the gov. (although the gov. is a key player in the big picture, yes) but by their friends and acquaintances (and in my case, family), who in turn also have their "particular identity ascribed to them" in society. It's not (just) an anomalous evil minority or (just) the gov. that upholds these views it's (normal) individual people. After all if most individuals in society did not, do you think these type-based roles would exist, or matter? The same people who are harmed are largely also the ones enforcing these roles, and that's an interesting observation (if true). But maybe I'm absolutely insane in thinking this is so?

    And so what I was asking was "why do we, at the individual level, play along with these roles?"

    To which you might counter: "well why do we put up with racism?" And that's what I was replying to in the end. See it's only relevant if you were to counter as above, and consequently if you accepted that the observation suggested is true.

  7. Anon, right, it does seem obvious (to me at least -- and to other readers of this site, I'm happy to find), and yet these pernicious norms are still very common in our society. For example, it is common for mainstream conservatives to praise the virtues of masculinity (but only for men, of course), whereas few would dare be openly racist anymore.

    Basically everyone recognizes that racism is wrong (though there might be some dispute over what constitutes racism), but the sort of gender norms I discuss seem awfully... well... normal. I assume this must be because not everyone agrees with me that they are obviously pernicious. (And if that's so, I'm curious to get a better understanding of this baffling perspective.)

  8. Another example: academically inclined black students get hassled by their schoolmates for "acting white". Again, there seems to be an underlying assumption here that a good ("authentic") life for a black person essentially differs from what would constitute a good life for a white person. I'm wondering: why would they think this?

  9. Richard,

    Your query: [Why is] the criteria for a flourishing life are fixed by one's membership in a kind?

    A possible answer: We need a way to say with some sort of definitiveness that someone is not flourishing, and without fixing the criteria for flourishing by kinds it would be difficult at best, unintellgible at worst, to have definitive cases of someone failing to flourish. To see this, consider a candidate for someone living an un-flourishing life and fix the criteria of flourishing by individual rather than kind. The following counter-suggestion appears open: "Oh, he, the candidate un-flourisher, is flourishing, just flourishing-for-him. His life is is kind of flourishing, even though we can agree that his life ain't great."

    This wouldn't be an defense, just an explantion.

  10. I agree with Jack that there must be some criteria by which we can distinguish successful from unsuccessful flourishings, but I don't think this entails that our criteria must be tied up with judgments related to 'kinds', or at least not in the sense we are using 'kinds' here.

    As examples of kinds, Richard mentioned species, gender, and ethnicity -- these are what we might call actual, or natural, kinds. I think the motivation for making 'flourishing' a matter of membership or non-membership in a kind is the desire to properly explicate the supervenience our moral vocabulary has on our non-normative/natural vocabulary.

    I don't think this desire alone is enough to support using the 'actual kinds' as providing the criteria for flourishing, however. I can think of a lot of interesting questions to ask on this topic: could one flourish as a philosopher, but not as a human, not as an animal etc.? (Nietzsche spent a word or two on these ideas)

    I take part of Michael Thompson's project to be establishing the primacy (or at least great import) of the species-concept, so you might look to his "The Representations of Life" and "Apprehending Human Form" to get some ideas; of course his work in those papers is barely to the level of meta-ethics (at least in RoL, he's interested in exploring logical categories, not ethical ones)... you'd have to do some work to connect it directly to the ethical questions under consideration here.


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