Is Everything Relative? Anti-Realism, Truth, and Feminism
Mikkola (Mari)
Source: Hazlett (Allan) - New Waves in Metaphysics, Chapter 9
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. This chapter takes issue with feminist views that eschew objectivity: minimally, the view that there is an objective gap between what is the case and what we take to be the case. As I see it, doing so is politically worrying and philosophically unfounded. Imagine that a company CEO claims it is an acceptable part of normal working life to ask junior staff sexual favours in return for promotions (they are explicitly condoning quid pro quo sexual harassment). To the best of my knowledge, every feminist disagrees with the CEO. But following some feminist philosophical positions we cannot say that the CEO's claim is simply false. Such positions are (in my terms) anti-realist about objectivity. One such well-known position is Catherine MacKinnon's: for her, truth is relative being 'produced in the interests of those with power to shape reality' (1989, p. 118). There is no 'ungendered' reality (MacKinnon holds) that adjudicates between what is the case and what we think is the case because there is no 'ungendered' Archimedean perspective from which such reality can be described and inspected. Actually, those who are socially powerful can shape reality so that what they think is the case becomes the case.
  2. MacKinnon's metaphysical position has significant political implications.
    1. First, her anti-realism implies that there are different perspective dependent realities. It is true (relative to the CEO's worldview) that it is acceptable to ask for sexual favours in exchange for promotions; and it is true (relative to a feminist worldview) that it is not. This is not so only with evaluative judgements; all claims about reality are true or false relative to some perspective and conceptual scheme. Call this 'the relativist implication.'
    2. Second, MacKinnon's metaphysics implies that reality just is the enforced projection of the powerful group's needs and desires. So, if the powerful group constructs a reality where it is in fact acceptable to condone quid pro quo sexual harassment, the feminist claim that it is not turns out to be in fact false. Call this 'the quietist implication.'
  3. As a fellow feminist, as someone who thinks that unjust social arrangements disadvantaging women should be eradicated, I find these implications unnerving. Following the relativist implication, it is not possible to say that anti-feminist claims are just false; and following the quietist implication, feminist claims about reality end up being false. These consequences are politically worrying. If we allow anti-feminist perspectives to have a claim to truth, how can feminists justify their claim that some ways of treating women are just wrong? And if feminist claims about reality come out as false, how can feminists critique the way the world is? Now, MacKinnon does not intend her anti-realism to have these implications. Although she thinks that what is true of reality depends on one's perspective, MacKinnon does not intend to endorse 'anything goes' relativism: for her, a feminist reality is unequivocally better than an anti-feminist one. Further, she certainly does not intend to be quietist about gender oppression. Is there, then, a way to avoid these implications while retaining anti-realism about objectivity? I see no possible way to reconcile the quietist implication with feminist political goals: it is time to give up one's metaphysics, if it leads to such a quietist take on oppression. But, the situation is less straightforward with respect to the relativist implication. Some non-feminist philosophers, notably Hilary Putnam, have argued that it is possible to block radical relativism while endorsing worldview pluralism. Putnam's 'internal realism' takes there to be a plurality of conceptual schemes between which we cannot adjudicate by appealing to some scheme independent reality; nonetheless, we can rule out some schemes as being rationally unacceptable. Perhaps Putnam’s position, then, enables MacKinnon to retain her anti-realism about objectivity without problematic relativism.
  4. While many of Putnam's insights are attractive, I will nonetheless argue, they cannot save feminist anti-realism from relativism. Putnam's conception of objectivity simply isn't objectivist enough for feminist purposes. My discussion will take the following shape. A large bulk of this chapter deals with the claim that anti-realism is politically problematic.
    1. In Section 2, I will look at MacKinnon's anti-realism and its metaphysical implications. Since I hold that the quietist implication is a non-starter for feminism, I will leave it to one side and consider whether the relativist implication can be reconciled with feminist goals. With this in mind, I will explore whether Putnam’s internal realism can dispel my relativist worries.
    2. In Section 3,I will outline Putnam's view in more detail.
    3. However, in Section 4, I go on to argue that it cannot sufficiently undercut the relativism that anti-realist feminism implies.
    4. Finally, in Section 5, I will discuss why feminist anti-realism is philosophically unfounded claiming that the reasons given for why one should eschew objectivity are not good.

Author’s Conclusion
  1. I have argued that feminists should not eschew metaphysical objectivity. Those feminists who fear it fear something that need not be feared. And those who endorse anti-realism about objectivity grant too much to anti-feminist views doing feminism a serious political disfavour.
  2. As I see it, feminist metaphysical positions must not grant anti-feminist perspectives a claim to truth - otherwise, what would be the point of feminism as a political movement? What would be the point of a political movement that aims to do away with unjust gender oppression, if that movement's own metaphysics suggests that the existence of unjust gender oppression is somehow in doubt? I see no better way for feminists to undermine their own claims about the reality of oppression. This is why objectivity should be retained: it is needed to make good crucial feminist political claims.

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