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Adam Piovarchy (University of Notre Dame Australia), "Does being a ‘bad feminist’ make me a hypocrite? Politics, commitments and moral consistency"
Philosophical Studies, 2023
Bad Feminist is a series of essays and reflections by Roxane Gay (2018). A New York Times bestseller, and appearing on lists of best books of the year at NPR, The Boston Globe and Newsweek, many essays reflect on instances in which Gay engages in behaviour at odds with her feminist values. As she puts it, she enjoys music that she knows is terrible for women. She loves pink. She sometimes finds it easier to play dumb in front of tradesmen than to accurately represent her knowledge. She isn’t as well-read in key feminist texts as she would like to be.
Experiences like these are very recognisable. Many of us have strong convictions and deeply held values we are willing to defend and expect others to uphold. Nevertheless, we are imperfect: we succumb to weakness of will, we have competing priorities, and sometimes doing what is right feels too difficult. Such experiences are common in many arenas; many readers also endorse saving the environment and mitigating climate change, improving our governmental and economic systems, or upholding civic and political values. And yet we drive cars, claim deductions on our taxes that may be questionable, and use services with track records of exploiting workers.
Since these behaviours look like ‘saying one thing and doing another’, this raises worries about hypocrisy. To know whether we should feel hypocritical, we first need to know what makes behaviour hypocritical. Building on Todd (2019), I propose that agents’ count as hypocritical when they are not sufficiently committed to the values implicit in their pronouncements. That lack of commitment is ultimately what matters is strongly evidenced by two things. First, agents are not hypocritical when their value-discordant behaviour is not evidence that they lack commitment to the relevant values. If the behaviour was a long time ago, such that the person has reformed their ways and is not disposed to commit similar violations, they can now make pronouncements without being hypocritical. Second, agents can be hypocritical even if they haven’t violated the value under discussion, or done anything at all. For example, agents might be disposed to violate the value themselves, but simply lack the means of doing so. Such a person is a subjunctive hypocrite.
I propose this account helps us understand our mixed feelings about agents who fall short of their political values: we are uncertain about what counts as ‘sufficient commitment’. I propose three factors are relevant to determining sufficient commitment.
1: The importance of the value in question and what is required to uphold it
Different values call for different frequencies and manners of compliance. Regarding frequency, someone who leaves the lights on one time, contributing to more carbon dioxide being emitted, can count as sufficiently committed to the kinds of values that condemn the harms that come from climate change. But someone who commits murder (even just once!) cannot be considered committed to the kinds of values that condemn murder, at least at that point in time.
Regarding manner, behaviours that cause greenhouse gas emissions typically aren’t evidence of insufficient commitment if they ultimately lower emissions overall. But values that condemn murder are not like this; most people tend to think that respecting these values requires we consider our own behaviour in more deontological terms. Suppose I hunt serial killers and delight in their murder. In doing so I prevent more overall murders. It would nevertheless be hypocritical of me to argue that we ought not murder. Values which condemn murdering typically don’t treat ‘unless you can prevent further murders’ as an exception.
2: What other goods, interests, and rights are at stake.
Suppose the reason I take a high-emissions job is not that I will one day be able to significantly reduce emissions, but that I am committed to some other worthwhile value. Perhaps I have dependents, and this is the only job available that enables me to fulfil my duties. Here my emissions-producing behaviour is not evidence of insufficient commitment to values that condemn emitting greenhouse gases; rather, it is only evidence of my commitment to my children. Admittedly, it must also be the case that were a low-emissions job that enabled me to meet my duties available, I would take that job. I won’t avoid hypocrisy if it was simply luck that there were no alternatives, and I would have chosen a high-emissions job for trivial benefits. It is not enough that I have the right beliefs about the value and comply with the value, I must also be disposed to give it a certain level of priority over less weighty considerations.
While one should prioritise their dependents in the case just described, this will not be true of all cases. Suppose I could significantly reduce emissions for the whole country by making my dependent trivially worse off, and I refuse. This counts towards thinking that I am not sufficiently committed to reducing emissions. There is a trade-off to be made, and if I truly care about reducing emissions then at some point I should give it priority over other considerations.
3: Capacity and absence of unreasonable costs
When agents simply don’t have the capacity or opportunity to do what the values require, they will not count as hypocritical for failing to comply with said values. If one could only get the low-emissions job by enrolling in a very difficult, expensive and competitive degree, with limited chance of finding a position, we might think that given the unreasonable costs to the individual, their failure to choose this option is not evidence of insufficient commitment. *
When we are uncertain about (1), (2) and (3), it is hard to know whether to consider someone hypocritical. These uncertainties are frequently present in politics and the kinds of behaviours worried about by bad feminists. They tend to involve norms, practices, double binds, institutions, collectives, and systems. As a result, the net effect of any action does not typically result from a single agent violating a single value. To illuminate these difficulties, consider Gay’s example of enjoying music with lyrics that objectify and degrade women. Although such values generate prescriptions like ‘don’t objectify women’ which appear simple enough to understand and codify, the extent to which these values prohibit things that contribute to the objectification of women is much harder to cash out. (What about buying albums by other artists hosted by the same label?) It is also difficult to work out what other goods can take priority (what if my child really likes this music?) and what costs are unreasonable to expect individuals to bear (do I need to look at all lyrics before buying any albums?)
The basic problem is that having identified a value or norm doesn’t always generate clear prescriptions for what one ought to do or how to weigh competing considerations. And thus for our purposes, it doesn’t give us a straightforward answer to what behaviours act as evidence of (in)sufficient commitment. Moreover, because individuals can collectivise, there are potentially limitless ways in which individuals can promote feminist ends. Even if our politicians fail to pass certain laws, citizens can potentially band together to vote for politicians who will.
We can now understand why political movements are ripe for perceptions of hypocrisy. The issues that said movements focus on are often social, complex, difficult, and require lots of co-ordination across multiple levels of society to solve. Interaction effects and causal overdetermination are frequently present, which make it difficult to identify sites at which efforts can be focused and clear norms can evolve. And many of these issues involve co-ordination problems: which option is best or most likely to produce change is often dependent upon what everyone else is doing. The upshot, however, is that there are many ways in which agents can fail to act in accordance with their pronouncements, and yet not count as hypocritical because they were reasonably prioritising other values, or lacked the capacity to comply, or would incur unreasonable costs.
While some readers might feel relief at finding their value-discordant behaviours don’t necessarily qualify as hypocritical, this results cuts both ways: sometimes we need to call out hypocrisy. How confident can we be in our ability to identify it?
The remainder of my paper takes up this question. I propose that we can identify hypocrisy when an agent is not disposed to bear relevantly similar costs to those they expect of others to bring about change, with an exception for instances in which it is legitimate to expect others to bear higher costs. However, working out what costs count as ‘relevantly similar’ and are ‘legitimate’ takes some work to unpack. In particular, our answer depends on if, when calling for change, we think that ‘the buck stops’ with particular agents, or whether citizens incur duties to ‘take up the slack’ when other agents fail. If the former is the case, it will be more common for agents to act in value-discordant ways without qualifying as hypocritical, but I argue that this will mean there is less incentive for things to actually change. In contrast, if the latter is the case, then it will be harder to avoid hypocrisy. But this is as things should be, because it ensures that our pronouncements are actionable. The fact that we don’t comply with a pronouncement is often good evidence that that kind of pronouncement imposes unreasonable costs, or that we need to collectively pull in a different direction. Without strong norms against making pronouncements that we ourselves are not willing to abide by, there is an incentive for people to signal commitment to a cause without actually being committed to a cause. This, in turn, can make it very difficult to tell our Gloria Steinems from grandstanding sycophants. Calling out hypocrisy can be unpleasant, but it can also serve a very important function.
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