No ethics without feminism
Hilde Lindemann interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Hilde Lindemann is a philosopher who bites! She is a key figure in the philosophy of bioethics, feminist bioethics, the ethics of familes, feminist ethics and the social construction of identities. She writes essential dangerous books such as Holding and Letting Go, Damaged Identities , Narrative Repair, and calls us all out to speak truth to power.
3:AM: You’re a leading professor of philosophy, working primarily on feminist bioethics. So were you always a philosophising type of person, brooding on the meaning of things and so forth, or has this career been something of a surprise? Or is it that you just couldn’t ignore certain aspects of the way life seemed to be organized that struck you as being absurd and unfair?
Hilde Lindemann: I was initially trained in German literature and theatre studies, though I always liked doing philosophy (and philosophers – I married two of them). I started out working as a freelance copyeditor for several university presses, because that was work I could do with one hand while diapering my babies with the other. But when I was well into my forties, my husband and I talked our way into jobs at the Hastings Center, a highly respected bioethics research institute just north of New York City. Jim was hired as their associate for ethical studies and I became an editor at the Hastings Center Report. And because it was that kind of a place, I started doing work in bioethics too, and then Jim and I wrote a book together, The Patient in the Family. At that point I decided I’d better get a Ph.D. in philosophy if I was to get serious about a career as a bioethicist, so I did.
3:AM: One of the several important contributions to philosophy has been your work in feminist ethics. To some this will be a new field, so could you begin by outlining what the basic geography is of this field? Alison Jaggar sees it as a response to the way traditional ethics has let women down in five areas – its interests are male biased, it trivialises private realm morality such as housework issues and child rearing, it treats women as morally shallower than men, its values tend to be traditionally more male than female (so autonomy over interdependence) and it favours traditionally male ways of reasoning over female ways (i.e. rules over relationships). Is this about right?
HL: Alison Jaggar is almost always about right. If I were to expand, I’d say that feminist ethics is not a branch of ethics, but a way of doing ethics that uses gender as a central tool of analysis. The idea is that gender is an abusive power system: it consists of social institutions and practices that systemically privilege men’s interests, preoccupations, and concerns over those of women while at the same time requiring women to be subservient to men. The practices and institutions give rise to attitudes, values, vocabularies, and ways of thinking that purport to justify the social order and help keep it going. Feminist ethics identifies the shared moral understandings that sustain these social arrangements, asks questions about who benefits from them or has to be pressed into service to make them function smoothly, and makes normative judgments about whether a particular way of living is actually the best way for everybody who shares in it.
3:AM: You have some very subtle approaches to many of these aspects of the subject that need careful explanation if they are not to be misunderstood disastrously. An obvious way feminism gets attacked is by those who say it’s a war on men when the starting point is that, if there’s a war going on, it’s men who started it and men who prosecute it. Feminism is self-defense. How bothered are you about the way feminism is presented, or is the argument that feminism is too aggressive or what have you just an excuse made by anti-feminists to avoid the issues?
HL: I think it’s a great mistake to see feminism as a war on men. Men aren’t responsible for the subordination of women – they just benefit from it. It’s not politically useful to set men up as the enemy, because that alienates people whom we need as allies. And it perpetuates the victor/vanquished, master/slave relation that’s the whole problem in the first place. If the gender system is ever to be dismantled, it won’t be by declaring war on men. It’s much better to affirm lots of differences among people without insisting that differences have to be ordered into power hierarchies.
Many people, including women, attack feminism as too aggressive or too man-hating or (this one kills me) no longer necessary because we now live in a post-feminist era. These are all ways of avoiding things that are uncomfortable to face squarely, although my “post-feminist” students mostly just haven’t had any first-hand experience of the ugliness of sexism yet. In any case, if you are on the privileged end of any abusive power system it’s easy not to notice that things aren’t so hot for people in other parts of the system – that’s part of what it is to be privileged. Given the understandable reluctance to confront one’s own complicity in injustice, and given how these power systems are epistemically rigged so that we aren’t supposed to notice the abuses that are going on over there in the corner, it’s no wonder feminists aren’t popular. But we’re necessary. Can’t do good ethics without us.
3:AM: Another difficulty is to work out how to avoid treating gender difference using ‘man’ as the standard to which ‘women’ is then measured against. Even the Jaggar list I suggested earlier seems to have that problem a bit. So how do you deal with that kind of worry?
HL: What you’re talking about is androcentrism: the assumption that ‘man’ is paradigmatic for human beings. By the logic of androcentrism, if men are the norm, then women are abnormal, deviant, they don’t measure up. And yes, feminist critique that starts from men, centers on men, uses men as the reference point for what is wrong, is arguably tainted by androcentrism as well. It’s a hard habit to break, but if you think of gender as an abusive system that subordinates women just for being women, the moral analysis can stop focusing on men and shift to the failings of the system.
3:AM: Another problem is one that you note when you write about the Cranford Community Hospital and Eton College sponsoring a Nurses Recognition Day. The woman you are writing about there, Virginia Martin, wasn’t sure she wanted to get involved because she figured, “If you needed a Recognition Day, it must be because you knew you weren’t recognized, and why would you want to draw attention to that? Doctors don’t bother with recognition days, she thought.” I know quite a few very strong women who feel the pull of this kind of thought, that feminism can look like special pleading, an admission of weakness. What do you say to them to address this worry?
HL: I know plenty of strong women like that, myself. The worry is a political one: never offer the enemy your jugular or you’ll get it ripped open. Some feminists won’t, for example, talk about rape ‘victims,’ because they don’t want to contribute to what they see as a culture of victimization; they talk about rape ‘survivors,’ instead. But I don’t think survivor-talk does justice to many women who have been raped. For one thing, being raped can leave you with massive feelings of powerlessness – you don’t at all feel you survived intact. For another, if you have to be a strong survivor, the onus of responsibility is on you, not your rapist. But I do understand the desire for respectful recognition that’s just extended as a matter of course, instead of having to be insisted on. It’s humiliating to have to insist.
3:AM: So it’s the relation of power that you take as a key issue in the discussion of feminism and understanding of gender. You argue that it is through understanding these power relations that the idea of a feminist ethics is developed. In your 2001 book Damaged Identities you write: “A person’s identity is damaged when a powerful social group views members of her own, less powerful group as unworthy of full moral respect, and in consequence unjustly prevents her from occupying valuable social roles or entering into desirable relationships that are themselves constitutive of identity.” You go on to discuss other consequences that follow on top of this, including “deprivation of opportunity” and “infiltrated consciousness”. Can you say something more about this?
HL: Our identities serve as tokens in our social transactions, in that they indicate how others are supposed to treat us and how we are supposed to behave. These ‘supposed tos’ are both socially and morally normative, and what they prescribe sets limits on what we can do, including what social goods we can claim. There are plenty of studies showing, for example, that girls don’t get called on by their teachers as often as boys do, that women don’t get as many of the most prestigious jobs, that their ideas are often credited to their male colleagues, and so on. That’s largely because the stories that constitute the ‘woman’ identity portray women as stupider, more emotional, and more light-minded than men. And if they act smart or ambitious, they get dismissed as bitchy or shrewish and are treated accordingly. I use the term ‘infiltrated consciousness’ to refer to the state somebody is in when the morally degrading terms the power system reserves for a particular social group have to some extent entered into the group member’s own sense of who she is. It constricts her agency. She’ll act more in accordance with how those stories tell her she’s supposed to act, accept more of the obstacles to living well that the power system puts in her way.
3:AM: Looking at recent studies into the state of women in philosophy, do women philosophers have damaged identities in your sense? Could you say something about this? I guess a question that arises from this is how much of current philosophy is therefore constructed in ways that make this happen, and is therefore abusive?
HL: According to the Bureau of Education Statistics, only 20 percent of all postsecondary teachers of philosophy are women, and only 16 percent are in tenure-track jobs. A common explanation is that women just aren’t very interested in the topics philosophy concerns itself with, but I don’t buy it – you can do philosophy on anything. The real problem is that women aren’t welcome. It’s hard to sort out cause and effect, but there’s a strong correlation between how women are viewed and disciplinary boundary-policing. A few years ago I was at a metaethics workshop, and over breakfast a male colleague and I made a game of ranking the different specialties in philosophy according to how prestigious they were – a ranking with a precise inverse correlation to gender. Here’s the list we came up with:
Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Language, and Metaphysics: The alpha-dominant philosophy, done by Real Men
Epistemology and Philosophy of Science: Done by manly enough men
Metaethics: Done by men who aren’t entirely secure in their masculinity
Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy: Done by girls
Bioethics: Done by stupid girls
Feminist philosophy, of course, is not philosophy at all.
All of which is to say, women don’t get much respect – in my language, their identities have been damaged. And the consequences can get pretty nasty.
Rebecca Kukla put it nicely when she was guest-blogging on Leiter Reports last October: “We get shut out of professional opportunities, harassed, discouraged from participating in ‘hard’ subdisciplines or applying to top jobs and graduate programs, openly belittled, presumed to be sleeping with our directors/letter-writers/co-authors.” Women graduate students are ridiculed in seminars, by professors as well as men students, for asking questions that don’t have the right kind of edge to them, and if they develop the edge they get treated as men-wannabes. When they go on the job market they get interviews because most universities require that good-faith efforts be made to recruit women, but somehow, mysteriously, the best qualified people in the candidate pool turn out to be men. We’re routinely omitted from the keynote lineup of major conferences, and when conference organizers get called on this, the favorite excuse is, “We asked a woman but she couldn’t come” – as if only the first woman they approached could possibly be enough of a draw to be a featured speaker. We’re expected to do more committee and administrative work, and we’re paid less well than our male counterparts. Sexual harassment is pretty widespread. So yes, you could say the discipline is abusive.
3:AM: One way in which you argue we should resist and change abusive power is through what you call an analytic and practical tool the counterstory. It is through these counter narrative that we can achieve what I think Martha Montello first called ‘narrative repair.’ Can you say how you characterize this notion of the ‘counterstory’ and perhaps give some examples of how it works, and where it has been successful?
HL: As I employ the concept, a counterstory is a story told for the purpose of uprooting the widely circulating identity-constituting stories that depict members of a particular social group as morally subpar. These are stories of resistance that say, “I’m not who you say I am, and I deserve respect.” They range all the way from the Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to Walt Disney’s Tangled (Rapunzel as action hero), but most of them aren’t written down – they’re the story you tell yourself when your boss gropes you, or when somebody shouts a racial slur at you, or when, if you use a wheelchair, the store clerk asks your able-bodied friend what size you wear instead of asking you. The “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” counterstories that reidentify gays and lesbians seem to be gaining traction, although they still have a long way to go. And transgendered people’s counterstories are beginning to get uptake among the cisgendered, so that’s progress too.
3:AM: This is not an approach that is disconnected with currents in both literary theory and philosophical ethics. So, for example, you mention the philosopher Jonathan Dancy and as people who helped you develop this idea. Is that right? We might wonder: do philosophers who draw on narrative to explain ethics need to answer the question exactly what theory of narrative are they drawing on? After all, there are many different ways of telling stories, so to say ‘narrative will help’ is too vague. You wrote in Stories and the Limits: Narrative Approaches to Bioethicsthat it was in the late eighties that moral philosophers like Bernard Williams, Michael Stocker, Lawrence Blum, Jeffrey Blustein, Annette Baier and Margaret Urban Walker started approaching ethics through narrative. And you link this move to Williams’ observation that impartialist systems of morality ‘elbow out much that gives meaning to life, including anything that could inspire us to take any moral goal system seriously.’ But narrative theory in English departments was pretty controversial at the time, and philosophically weak don’t you think. So did you avoid getting dragged into the bad tempered culture wars of the time with your approach? Can you say where in broad terms your approach connects with ethical theorizing in philosophy? Who are the theorists that you draw on and develop?
HL: One of the reasons I didn’t pursue a Ph.D. in English literature is precisely that narrative theory struck me as bad-tempered – and even worse, sloppy. When I was editing bioethics case studies at the Hastings Center Report, I was fascinated by how the cases could elicit different moral judgments, depending on how they were told. Stories are always selective, and sometimes I felt that the most important details had been left out – I would want to take the story apart and retell it from the point of view of the night nurse, or the patient’s little brother.
But whether a given story is a good one depends on what it’s supposed to be doing. If it’s meant to display a morally puzzling situation, it’s got to be accurate and include everything that is morally salient, so that it faithfully mirrors the moral shape of the situation. I think Dancy is particularly good on this. I favor his account of how moral reasons operate: a moral consideration that functions as a reason in favor of doing something over here might reverse its valence over there in that other situation. But, while the reasons really are there and really do work that way there, you might need practice seeing what they add up to. That’s why it’s often helpful to engage in moral reflection with others – they might see something you missed. Their description of the shape also takes a narrative form, and can serve to correct your story.
I suppose I’m an antitheorist, of the Annette Baier – Walker – Williams stripe. Walker has been hugely influential in my thinking about morality as something we do together, and I also return over and over again to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I learned a lot from my dear friend Sara Ruddick, whose work in care ethics and peace politics is simply first rate.
3:AM: There are so many aspects of this that you address. But some are really hard. In the book of essays you edited Feminism and Families Shulamith Firestone discussed the role of families and concluded that families were so damaging for women that her considered advice was ‘shun them.’ And you thought that this was poor advice, writing, ‘most of us were reared in families, and many of us went on as adults to form new families of our own.’ But when you consider the issue of genital surgery for girls in the USA, this use of fetal dexamethasone, which raises several disturbing ethical issues, you think girls should just live with the problem. But isn’t that as unrealistic as Shulamith’s advice about families? I guess the general question that these issues raise is just how far counter narratives must go to have practical and ethical traction when health care is the issue?
HL: There’s a physician in New York who has been giving dexamethasone to women as soon as they know they are pregnant with a second child, if they have previously borne a child with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), an intersex condition. If the fetus turns out to be female, and if she has CAH, the dex will keep her genitals from looking too masculine. And because it’s given as soon as these women are pregnant, about 90 percent of the fetuses that are exposed to it aren’t candidates for it – only 1 in 8 fetuses started on this treatment are actually females with CAH, and of those who are, 20 percent won’t benefit from the treatment.
That might be okay if the drug were completely benign, but there’s evidence that fetal exposure causes problems with working memory, verbal processing, and anxiety. Is it really a good idea to inflict these problems on 90 children who can’t get any benefit from the drug, just to keep 10 others having funny-looking genitals? As for surgery in infancy to normalize genitals, it turns out that this can require repeated operations and often interferes with sexual pleasure because it deadens nerves. And of course, an artificially created vagina has to be kept open, which means inserting painful expanders that a young child may experience as sexual violation. The problem with both these remedies is that they have serious side effects, and they are done solely because people have a hard time tolerating bodily differences. I wouldn’t want to say to anyone that they should “just” live with it, but I do think the parents of these babies should try hard to accept the way they look and teach their children to do the same. In the immortal words of Mr. Rogers, after all, some are fancy on the outside, but everybody’s fine.
3:AM: Now you are also a distinguished bio-ethicist. A big concern is the link between those working in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries and academia. For many looking in, financial motivation seems to be the overriding factor deciding the research agendas. Can you say something about how you view this situation?
HL: Short answer: with a great deal of suspicion. When, in the early 1980s, universities got into bed with big pharma and the biotech companies, many academics and even more administrators began to forget what universities are for. Those of us inside the academy are supposed to create knowledge, it’s true, but not so that private corporations can profit by it. I’m old-fashioned enough to think knowledge is valuable for its own sake, rather than for the sake of a company’s bottom line. The way the profit motive drives university research agendas has had a truly demoralizing effect on all my academic friends, and it’s not just in the sciences. We philosophers are under increasing pressure to find external funding, and if the funders aren’t interested in what we happen to want to think about, we feel like we aren’t doing our share to keep the university afloat.
3:AM: One of the corrosive aspects of the relationship between research programmes and money is whether it is possible to have independent academic enquiry and discussion of these matters. Many University professors are on the pay roll of large companies and the worry is that they can’t be independent enough. You recently had some worries about an academic journal’s relationship to such industries and you resigned. Is that right? Can you say something about this?
HL: I was on the editorial board of a high-impact bioethics journal, and I was worried about where the money to run the journal was coming from. It was impossible to get a straight answer out of the editor, and the journal’s website didn’t display the information either. There were some other shoddy editorial practices that bothered me too, and I finally just lost all confidence in the editor, so I resigned. Since then I learned that he’s now president for bioethics at a biochemical company that cultures, grows, and banks adult stem cells derived from a patient’s own body fat. He still runs the journal.
3:AM: A really interesting development in philosophy recently has been Josh Knobe’s experimental philosophy that asks that philosophy leave its armchair and test out its ideas empirically. How far are you sympathetic to this approach? It seems as though there are striking experiments about moral agency, for instance, coming out of this and related to work in cognitive science that would be corrosive to many of the sexist justifications for agency that need opposing. I guess this question is wondering whether alongside considerations of the social discourses of power in play, feminist ethics and ethicists generally would benefit from considering this naturalized approach to ethics.
HL: I recently coedited a collection called Naturalized Bioethics: Toward Responsible Knowing and Practice, so I’m already on board here. But where I and my coeditors part company with most naturalized moral epistemologies is that they tend to naturalize moral knowledge to the sciences, whereas we don’t see why that kind of knowledge should have privileged status. Social science may be the most reliable way of giving us genuine knowledge about how morality arises and is passed on in human communities, neuroscience can tell us how our neurological capacities make moral behavior possible, and so on. And the sciences might well, as you suggest, give us fodder for debunking sexist justifications, but what they can’t do is tell us whether a particular form of morality is morally preferable to another.
And if you’re going to naturalize moral knowledge to moral knowledge, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why scientific knowledge shouldn’t just take its place alongside anything else we think we know. Historians can show us how morality changes over time; novelists, poets, playwrights, and other artists can help us see the intricate ways in which it works out – often painfully – in everyday life, or show us how it might change for the better. We need biographers to tell us about admirable, unsatisfactory, and ordinary lives. We need to reflect on our own experiences of social and institutional life. Sometimes, we need to ask people, “What are you going through?” and then we need to listen carefully to the answers.
3:AM: Looking at the landscape for both feminism and bioethics now, are you hopeful or depressed? What do you think are the big challenged facing us all as we move forward and have you any thoughts of where we’ll be in a decade hence?
HL: There is still so much work to do in both areas, but I’m cautiously hopeful. What so often has happened to the work of women in philosophy is that it gets a hearing in its own generation, but then subsequent generations forget all about it. Did you ever hear of Damaris Cudworth, Lady Masham? She was a great friend of John Locke’s (Locke even left his estate to her son) and there was a voluminous correspondence between them, much of it dealing with philosophical topics. But it’s Locke who is remembered, not she. Likewise, people remember that Queen Christina of Sweden invited Descartes to come tutor her and that he died of pneumonia because she insisted on early morning tutoring sessions, but nobody remembers that Christina was a philosopher in her own right. These days, it’s feminist philosophers who don’t get much recognition, and I hope that subsequent generations won’t forget them.
Matters are different in bioethics – that’s where, if you’re a philosopher, you can still find a job. But I’d like to see bioethicists do two sorts of things that, at the moment, I don’t think they are doing very well. One is to engage in a little more activism, especially in cases where they can see patient abuses going on. Most bioethicists don’t see that as their job at all, but their insider-outsider perspective positions them well to speak up. I also wish that clinical ethicists were better trained to teach health care providers, their patients, and the patients’ families how to engage in collaborative moral reflection. Many clinical ethicists seem to think they’re supposed to solve the ethical problems they’re called in on as consultants, but if morality is something we do together, it’s the parties to the problem themselves who have to construct a way forward that everybody can live with, and the ethicist’s job is to show them how to do that.
I’m a lousy prognosticator – I’m not even sure where I’ll be living a decade hence, much less where these two fields are headed – so I won’t try to make any predictions.
3:AM: Finally, are there any books that you have read that you have found inspirational and helpful from outside of philosophy that we at 3:AM Magazine would find enlightening?
HL: Jane Austen’s six novels are important in my life – I reread them every five years or so. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Mrs. Dalloway. Caryl Churchill’s plays. Anything Tom Stoppard ever wrote. And, of course, all of Dorothy L. Sayers’ murder mysteries.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 14th, 2012.