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The Subjection of Women

February 10, 2013

Following my last post, another issue that came up that was interesting was the question of a sort of relativism: if someone is content with their situation, who are we to judge that it is bad?

In a little more detail, the problem is as follows. Say that someone is born into the bottom of the caste system in India. We may judge that the caste system is a bad thing, as it systemises discrimination, leads to extreme problems relating to things like marriage outside the caste, and generally contributes to limiting the well-being of individuals via the accident of birth. The counterargument is that many people are content with their lot – they are born into the caste system, do not consider it a bad thing and help to perpetuate it. If we judge it to be a bad thing we are either being paternalistic or just plain wrong. It can’t be bad as we can point to someone who is affected and is content (I will call this person Bob).

The argument certainly seems attractive at first glance. We don’t want to say that there is only one way to live “the good life”. Indeed, the good life would seem less attractive if everyone we encountered was interested in exactly the same things as us. So, maybe the caste system is just another form of the good life, which Bob exemplifies.

The answer to this is as follows. While there are different forms of the good life, it is not the case that Bob’s contentment means that (s)he is living one of them. Indeed, Bob may be part of a system that is helping to perpetuate the means by which Bob is being held back from the good life.

This was pointed out by John Stuart Mill in 1869 in The Subjection of Women. In a utilitarian argument, Mill argues for equality of the sexes. He notes a possible counterargument of the form above:

But, it will be said, the rule of men over women differs from all these others in not being a rule a rule of force: it is accepted voluntarily; women make no complaint, and are consenting parties to it.

Western readers cannot fail to agree with the fact that for many (but not all) women, the system of inequality was accepted voluntarily. As Mill goes on to point out:

All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of other. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections.

Society made it such that women came to belief that there position in society was that that made men superior. They became “willing slaves”. This does not mean that their situation is good! If we accept that women should not have been treated thus, surely we should accept the analogous argument relating to the caste system?

Another point worth noting relating to their lot is this:

a great number of women do not accept it. Ever since there have been women able to make their sentiments known by their writings (the only mode of publicity which society permits to them), an increasing number of them have recorded protests against their present social condition

Women had been arguing vocally for some time in favour of improving their conditions. We could note Mary Wollstonecraft arguing for the education of women 100 years before Mill wrote. Mill was continuing this tradition, and pushing it further. While Wollstonecraft argued that women should be educated to make them better at their “womanly” roles at home (with some nods towards further emancipation), Mill argues that they should be educated to give them the chance to be mens equals in life, not just at their “complementary” roles to those of men. We can find similar examples of arguments against the caste system. Not everyone is content.

These are just two lines of argument relating to the idea that contentment with life implies we shouldn’t criticise the conditions of that life.There are also arguments about rights and about different forms of the concept of equality. But those would fill another couple of posts, so I’ll leave them for now!

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