Rationalism and Feminism, labels part 3

Ooops, I meant to keep writing some of the random things I think about down. Sorry for the delay, real life has been in the way a bit. I had a bit of a series going about the labels we do and should use, which I’d like to continue. In this instalment, I will talk a bit about how skepticism, the application of rigorous doubt and the desire for logic and evidence to support positions, fits with some forms of feminism. This is prompted in no small part by the fact that Ada Lovelace day is upon us.

Feminism is a very weighted term, one with a lot of history. Much of the history has been positive, with great steps, in the west particularly, toward the legal recognition that women should be treated as equals to men. Sadly, as with any movement I guess, there is also a set of negative connotations. Some feminists have made ludicrous claims and statements, and some have been openly hostile to men. Here I will explain why I think there is still a need for feminism, why I think that is the rational position, and what I hope a modern feminist to look like.

I have suggested previously that skepticism and rationality are Good Things, and this approach is the one that reliably leads us to increase our knowledge and understanding. This underpins the scientific method and the rules of logic. However, this is just an approach, a method. Skepticism, and the particular instance of skepticism that is atheism, does not in itself have a moral opinion. It is not skepticism that will say that a wage gap between men and women is unfair, but it is skepticism that will assess whether there is a wage gap, and the extent to which that is explained by known factors.

First, the moral aspect. I propose that as a decent foundation for an ethical code, something like ‘the interests of any party are of equal value to the equivalent interests of any other party’ is not too far off. This means that my suffering is as bad as your suffering, your need to eat is as important as mine, and your self determination should be defended as ardently as mine. Regardless of who you are. However, different interests should be weighted differently – your need to have shelter is greater than my need to have sugar in my tea. The interests of a society can be weighed against an individual, as seen in the legal system.

This equal weighting of interests does not lead necessarily to a particular ethical approach. One could be deontological or utilitarian and use this as a central tenet. Personally, I favour a form of utilitarianism although that is a different discussion.

If we accept the proposition that equivalent interests are of equal value, we are lead to the conclusion that women and men should be treated equivalently, as they have largely the same and broadly similar interests. In many areas this means they should be treated the same, as men and women have the same basic needs for food, shelter, water and medical care. However, there are real differences between the sexes, and these should be recognised too.

Some of the old school positions and myths that I find damaging now, although they may have made important points when first introduced, include the separatist family of statements including ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’. These opinions are still around, although they are in a small minority now. The fact is that to operate in modern society you have to deal with both men and women.

I think in the west many of the biggest feminist battles have been won. This means that most of the obvious moral problems have been solved – women are not owned by men, can vote and get an education. Many of these were hard won rights, with women losing their lives for their principles. The remaining steps to be taken are more subtle, tweaking around the edges of legislation, or understanding the processes involved in complex systems. This will need a more collaborative and reasoned approach, and is much more subtle. Where previously the fight was to allow women to work, now we should be talking about the differential in pay. Where previously it was unrecognised that rape within a marriage could exist, now perceptions need to talk about the associated conviction rates. We are now into the age where science, logic and reason should identify areas where we are not meeting the requirement to treat equal interests equally, as the cases are less likely to be overt and simple moral failings.

The role of the skeptic is to impartially and thoroughly assess claims made that suggest there is an imbalance between the genders. I am not doing that here and now, but as I’ve suggested there are cases to discuss around equality of pay, social expectations of gender role, and sexual representation that are of concern. The skeptic should look at the evidence available to say whether there is inequality, and the feminist should campaign to change it where necessary.

I have written a little before about activism. In this case I think there needs to be extra care taken over representation, due to the baggage. It only takes one person to say that all sex is rape to tarnish all feminists as man-haters unable to comprehend basic but beautiful human relationships. Where the evidence says there is a problem, this should be the basis for a discussion including all the people involved, of both sexes. Where the evidence does not show a problem, and this may occur in areas you might not expect, this should be publicly noted and accepted too.

I think I have shown why I call myself a feminist. I recognise that this relies on a moral statement and cannot be arrived at by reason alone, but I think it is a broad enough position that people find it difficult to argue with. I am very hopeful that we in the west are able to move in the right direction, as the trend over the last century has suggested, but this is something we should keep pushing at. As the inequalities become more difficult to spot, the greater the need for thorough skepticism to find and assess them.


Edited out an accidental and unnecessary strawman

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