Monday, August 26, 2013

Unavoidable Conclusions: Reasoning & the Role of Identity

          Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, delivered a speech in 2001 on the role one’s identity plays in making judgments.  The transcript of this speech was published in the Politics section of the May 15th issue of the New York Times online. The speech was largely about equality and minority representation in the judiciary, and how increasing minority representation will undoubtedly change how cases are decided.  Her thesis was that the individual experiences of people, specifically those who make up minorities, because of their different perspectives from their positions within the society, affects the way they see the issues they deal with and necessarily will result in different judgments.  Sotomayor’s beliefs were echoed and expanded on in Linda Martin Alcoff’s article, Sotomayor’s Reasoning, in the March, 2010 issue of “The Southern Journal of Philosophy.”  There can be little doubt that experiences and perspectives leave an indelible mark in a person’s psyche and affects how they interpret their environment, situations, issues, and no two people can possibly see a complex problem and interpret each of the components with exactly the same.  While this may be a fact, some believe that to accept this position threatens the idea that there is a truly objective measure of justice, and is why merely giving voice to this fact can be seen as undermining the idea of justice in a way that might make many believe that justice is purely subjective, arbitrary, and grounded in nothing more than another’s beliefs, and could result in a less civil society as the rule of law cannot have been based on a universal and objective sense of justice.
Sotomayor pointed out the changes that were already happening in court rulings as a result of increasing numbers of women judges, specifically in the arenas of family law and domestic abuse.  One could easily argue that her speech was a criticism of objectivity in general by denying its existence with her use of the quote, “there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives – no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging,” by Professor Martha Minnow, and her stated acceptance that the experiences of a person affects their decisions.  Sotomayor referenced a position held by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that states, “…a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases.”  The rebuttal of O’Connor’s sentiment, which very nearly kept her from having her appointment to the Supreme Court confirmed by the Senate, was, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”  This statement by Sotomayor resulted in a firestorm in the world of politics and the press, and during her confirmation hearings made the decision to recant that statement.  That she qualified her position by noting that not only are there variations between groups, there are wide variations within groups, and used Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative leaning African-American as an example of just how extensive within-group variations can be.
Linda Martin Alcoff addresses the concerns of Sotomayor’s critics who feel that identity must not play a role in judging, and fear that an acceptance of views based on identity based experiences will lead to partisan identity politics.  This fear stems from the critics’ belief that identity groups discard concepts of justice and begin political debates and arguments with their self-interested conclusions already firmly fixed to achieve a beneficial end for themselves, and are not approaching disagreement with the goal of fairness or justice.  Alcoff goes on to show how identity, regardless of its content, has a subconscious affect on how people behave by citing various scientific studies and experiments.  These various studies show that if snap-decisions, also called “thin-slicing” are based on prior knowledge, experiences and perspectives then it becomes possible to make changes to those variables in a way that future generations’ decisions and judgments will differ from those of prior generations.  This is important because people will believe, for example, that they do not treat others differently based on color, but the experiments show that their actions do not agree with their belief.  Alcoff asserts that learning one’s beliefs and behaviors do not agree with each other can have, “transformative effects on our motivations and modes of attentiveness” (131). 
Alcoff closes her article by explaining Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of the hermeneutic horizon.  Hermeneutic is a fancy philosophical way of saying interpretation.  The horizon is explained as, “a substantive, perspectival location from which the individual looks out at the world; thus it is…in constant motion both temporally and spatially” (135).  The idea is that where a person is physically, and within the social groups they are a part of, and the time at which something is perceived or experienced, makes a difference.  If this view is accepted, and it is further accepted that no two people can occupy the exact same hermeneutic horizon, then it must be accepted that interpretation of events and circumstances must vary between individuals and groups.
While both Sotomayor and Alcoff point out the role identity plays in reasoning and reaching conclusions, and they both address to varying degrees what shapes ones identity, what is missing is an explanation of right reasoning or good judgment.  The ideal of justice requires both.  A critic interested in seeing that legal institutions seek justice will need reassurance that justice is not sacrificed by the role identity plays in adjudicating disputes, and the knowledge or belief that social identity affects adjudication needs amelioration.  A civil society, especially a democratic one based on traditional western thought, needs to believe that justice is attainable within its legal system. 
While it is understood that the focus of their arguments was to identify the role identity does play, and not to rectify the disconnect between the commonly understood belief that knowledge and experiences shape reasoning and judgment, and the also commonly understood desire for blind, objective justice, it is important to look at how their arguments may be used this way.  Sotomayor lent much credibility to the idea that how people and societies understand justice is constantly changing.  By pointing out the various changes in law resulting from the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement, she shows that the justices who had opposed these changes over hundreds of years did not have a monopoly on the meaning of justice.  This signifies that, generally, when it comes to questions of justice, regardless of their belief in justice and their goal of seeing that justice is served, old white men in robes and wigs were either wrong in their interpretation or that justice itself changes, and not just people’s understanding of what is just and unjust.  Providing, for the sake of the critics, that justice is an ideal that does not change, it becomes necessary to explore how the understanding of justice has changed, arguably for the better. 
As Sotomayor pointed out in her speech, the most profound changes to how justice is understood by society have taken place in the legal system and were spearheaded by minorities.  This indicates that there is a possibility that the broader the experiences and the more empathetic one is to those who have experienced what a judge has not experienced, the closer the system gets to realizing and incorporating “true justice”.  This tactic would require the critics to acknowledge that judges and people in general are always fallible as the result of their lack of knowledge and experiences, and that the search for justice is just that, a search; a striving for a currently unrealizable ideal.  It further requires the acknowledgment that the only practical way to broaden the experience and empathy, in the interest of justice, is to involve more diversity into the judiciary.  Treating the conflict between the realities of human life and the search for an objective justice in this manner does not deny that there is, or may be, such a thing, but serves as a clarion call to diversity in the interests of getting closer to the ideal of justice that people have such a strong desire for. 
Personal Comments & Observations  
I remember the controversy over Sonia Sotomayor’s comment fairly well, but what I don’t remember hearing was others aggressively coming to her defense.  I also remember thinking at the time that her comment was poorly phrased and warranted the criticism, but there was no way she could have meant exactly what she said, though if so, she should not be confirmed.  What I did not do, however, was track down the speech in an attempt to gain context for the comment.  Reading her speech just proves that context is vitally important.  I still hold that the comment, on its face, was not just impolitic, but wrong.  There is no way, after examining the entirety of the speech, that anyone can reasonably claim that she honestly believed that merely being Latina put her into a better position to determine what is and is not just in all possible disputes.
Considering the importance of context, the source of criticism levied against Sotomayor for her comments, and the valid concerns held by the critics, I find it odd that Alcoff’s piece did not address the idea of justice.  While she made a great argument that people’s knowledge, experiences, and perspectives from within society affect their interpretations, I’m not sure the argument was very relevant to the concerns.  Alcoff made a case for what I believe most people already know, at least intuitively.  If there are any arguments that both support the ideal of justice, or at least what should count as acceptable judgment, in a civil society while incorporating the facts that there will be different interpretations at some level, I’d love to know of it.  A quick search on the library database and Google scholar was fruitless.
I think one important criticism of the perceived status quo that was missing from the speech and Alcoff’s response was the fact that there are already stated interpretive preferences by the Supreme Court justices.  An exploration into what leads a judge to apply a specific type of frame to their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, whether contextualist, literalist, or framer’s intentions, might have been somewhat effective.  This could have forced the critics to acknowledge that the interpretive problems they have with justice are already present to some degree, and the problem they have with allowing, for example, Sotomayor’s or Thomas’, or O’Connor’s interpretations, may be based to some degree on fear of “other” and not merely on their concerns that differing interpretations are an inherent risk to the concept of justice.               

Works Cited
Alcoff, Linda Martín. "SOTOMAYOR'S REASONING." The Southern Journal of Philosophy. Volume 48. Issue 1. (2010): 122-138. Print.
Sotomayor, Sonia. "Lecture:‘A Latina Judge’s Voice’." The New York Times. May 15 (2009). Print.

Margaret Mead: Worth Consideration, But With A Few Caveats

In the Margaret Mead Selection, From Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, taken from Feminist Theory: A Reader, she looks at the justifications for gender roles.  She examines the huge range of variances that gender roles have across cultures, and determines that it is ludicrous to suggest that one is naturally predisposed to universal traits, temperaments or roles because of one’s sex.  Furthermore, she asserts that all cultures dramatize certain traits that are based on biological sex, though which traits are affiliated with sex differ to varying degrees between cultures.  After comparing the differences between cultures, performing a thought experiment on a possible alternate cause for the creation of gender related dispositions and roles, and identifying three possible directions a civilization may take regarding the these roles and temperaments, Mead proposes a solution to the arbitrariness of sex based cultural inculcation.  Society should focus on each individual’s capacity and potential based on his or her own, unique predispositions and temperaments, and in order “…to achieve a richer culture we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”(134)  This essay will explore how Mead develops her theory, and will find much to agree with her about, while providing an examination of some potential problems resulting from possible incompleteness and research bias.
Mead begins by qualifying her paper in terms of what it is not intended to be.  The paper is not intended to be a quantitative or qualitative analysis of sex differences among cultures, nor is it meant to explore whether women vary more or less than men do in terms of temperaments.  The paper is not intended to be a survey of women’s rights, nor an inquisitive look into the foundations of feminism.  All it is, in her words, “is…an account of how three primitive societies have grouped their social attitudes toward temperament about the very obvious facts of sex-difference.”(130)  Mead claims that her purpose in studying this phenomenon in these “simple societies” is because they are similar to the industrialized Western complex societies, merely differing in size and scope.  Her investigation was centered on a “fierce” group, a “gentle” group, and a “graceful” group, the Mundugumor, Arapesh, and Tchambuli, respectively.  Beyond that, she mentioned that the gentle group insisted that women’s heads were stronger than men’s heads.  Otherwise, her only mention of these particular groups in the selection was that they each focused on sex-difference as a factor for determining which temperaments to promote and which social roles each individual of the group were to be groomed for, though they each chose different temperaments to apply to females and males of the group.  To support her claim that different cultures treat sex-difference in varying ways, Mead goes on to mention five other groups and a particular characteristic, or temperament, of each.  The specific group she gives the most space to in the selection being discussed is the Dakota Indians, where she talks about the berdache. The berdache were males who failed to prove their masculinity and have given up the battle, choosing to take on the social role of women and thenceforth serve as a tool of warning to shame other young males into not giving up the fight for maleness.
In order to not take a cheap shot and criticize Mead for her lack of exposition on her findings in the selection, it becomes necessary to find any available resource that more fully explains the relevance of the three tribes she investigated.  Class discussion and a look at the Library of Congress webpage devoted to a Margaret Mead exhibition from 2001-2002 filled in a few missing pieces.  Briefly, the men and women in the Arapesh tribe were found to be “gentle, responsive, and cooperative.”  The men and women in the Mundugumor tribe were found to be “violent and aggressive, seeking power and position.”  The Tchamubli tribe consisted of men and women who were distinctly different from each other in temperament, “the woman being dominant, impersonal, and managerial and the male less responsible and more emotionally dependent.” (LOC)  When these three tribes gender behaviors are put on a chart, it becomes obvious that sex-determined inclinations or propensities become substantially less likely and that the inclinations of men and women are largely, and perhaps entirely, the function of socialization within a given culture.  The table below shows that each of the four cultures displays different temperamental norms, and it appears that those norms are not necessarily the function of biological sex.  Assuming there is a causal factor, a reasonable explanation is cultural inculcation, not sex.  Also, it is interesting that Mead finds that any deviation from the cultural temperament norm is seen as being worthy, within the culture, of condemnation by others within the culture, and this is universal. (131)
Biological Sex Identification

Male / Female

Male / Female

Male / Female

Male / Female
Observed Temperament – Gender based (Masculine/Feminine)



Fem. / Masc.

Based on this observation, Mead identifies three different courses of action for any society wishing to experience a “planned order of society.”   The first option is the Western option where men and women are raised to be “contrasting, complementary, and antithetical” to each other, and direct all of the society’s institutions to pursue such an end.(131)  The risk with this option is that any child with temperamental inclinations that don’t comport to the cultural norms is forced into a social structure where those gifts are lost, or at least minimized, and replaced with the behaviors trained into the child by society.  Mead asserts that this wasting of talents is hurtful to men and women, and “does violence” to them both.(132) 
The second option is to ignore biological sex and raise children to be either masculine or feminine in order to fulfill the roles defined by the culture, and which requires either a masculine or feminine temperament.  This can result in masculine and feminine males, and females, not defined by their sex, but by their gendered behaviors and inclination, which would be trained into them by the society.   Mead seems to find this option to be an advance compared to the first option, though still arbitrary in nature, calling it a “parody of all the attempts that society has made…to define an individual’s role in terms of sex, or color, or date of birth, or shape of head.”(133) 
Mead’s third option is to not only refuse to apply gender roles based on masculinity and femininity as a result of biological sex, but to refuse the idea of gender roles altogether.  By focusing on a child’s talents, inclinations, temperament and character as they become evident, society could raise them around the variety of traits and the temperaments that are unique to the individual.   This eliminates superficial classifications and serves as a way to promote the individual and the special qualities each person can bring into society, each performing according to their supported, natural talents.(134)  No longer would social roles be based on an arbitrary characteristic, but on the chosen roles of the individuals that make up the society.
At first blush Mead’s third option seems to be an egalitarian, individualistic ideal that promotes self actualization and personal liberty.  It would probably not be difficult to find many who would support such an ideal, but there are some potential risks involved.  First, such a society takes the primacy of the individual to levels never before realized by even the most individualistic society.  This elevation of the person as sacred is likely to come at a risk to the society at large, also known as a community, which may have competing ideals.  Granted, if it is assumed that somehow a society could ever exist along the lines theorized by Mead, it can further be assumed that the society would not have any competing ideals, otherwise her utopia would never have come into being.  The ideal she puts forth is currently unattainable in the near future.  This is not to say that over a long enough time it could not be realized, but when you consider the thousands of years of human existence and the fact that even in one of the most individualized countries of the world, the U.S.A., there are still vestiges of coverture in the laws and the culture at large, to believe Mead’s third option can be realized within the next few generations seems absurd.  However, it is one worth working toward.
One possible problem with the idea that temperament is a function of cultural inculcation is that it isn’t quite conclusive.  Mead’s research is not quantitative in any sense of the word, nor does it address any aspect of evolutionary biology, or evolutionary psychology.  It is entirely possible that there are some few temperaments that are generally most prevalent in men or women, based on their sex.  Furthermore, it is possible that these general traits are such that they contribute to the survival of the species through mate selection, child rearing, emotional attachment over time, or some other important end as yet unknown.  If there are studies that tend to show this as being the case, Mead might argue that the genetic contribution is both minimal and, given the right environmental conditions, unnecessary.  If she is right, then over time it is quite possible that any possible genetic traits that create a propensity toward certain temperaments depending on a person’s sex might eventually be relegated to the status of the appendix.  This basically means that while it is still present in each person’s genetic make-up, this genetic trait will be no stronger or weaker in one than it is in another, regardless of sex.
            In conclusion, Mead has shown a very strong argument against the belief that women have feminine traits, and men have masculine traits, as a function of and in proportions appropriate to their sex.  What she has not done is show that any and all variations that have ever been deemed to be masculine or feminine are not in any way generally the result of one’s sex.  She also hasn’t accounted for the origins of social customs regarding sex based roles and temperaments.  Without knowing the genealogy of gender it is impossible to know from where it comes or why it is there.  Also, to assume that biological sex is the equivalent of eye color in terms of arbitrariness for the determination of social roles seems somewhat biased in that it makes sex generally meaningless in all areas other than simple procreation.  While it may be true that simple procreation is the only identifiable purpose of sex differences, social roles throughout history have shown that the core of society is, in large part, family.  To have family, there must be at least one to care for and raise the infant to self-sufficiency.  Has biology, through sex, or perhaps merely identifiably based on sex, provided the temperaments to men and women in different measures for this, or another, natural purpose, or purposes, that modern, civilized people no longer need?      

Works Cited
Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture - To the Field and Back | Exhibitions -Library of Congress. Library of Congress. nd. Web. 30 September 2012 <>
Mead, Margaret. “From Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Feminst Theory: A Reader. Wendy Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000. p130-134. Print

Was Monty Python Right About Kant?

     Perfectly rational beings give themselves laws from a position of pure objectivity without inclinations or impulses to the contrary that they would wish to be universal and that all rational beings follow.  This natural law is what constitutes the whole of moral law and serves as a binding obligation on all who are rational.  A moral act is one that comports with this universalized natural law and is done out of a sense of duty to do the right thing.  If it is done for any other reason the act is no longer considered morally good, though it may still be prudent.  However, I believe there are at least two problems with Kant’s moral theory.  By elevating reason as the primary factor for determining the moral value of any given act and by treating human emotions primarily as problems which should be overcome with reason Kant has begun his entire theory by making a value judgment on which aspect of humanity (which we are to treat only as an end and never only as a means) has value and which does not, and does so while making the assertion that his theory is in accordance with so-called natural law.  The natural law is also referred to as the moral law.  In addition to this a moral act stems purely from the correct use of reason regarding the moral law which results in actions that are done from a sense of duty.  This duty can only exist in circumstances when there are other acts that an agent would prefer to do, or at least cause the agent to prefer not to act on said duty.  This is only possible when there are inclinations such as emotions at play in opposition to the duty, and the perfectly rational being would have no such inclinations, and would therefore only act according to reason, in my opinion, have no humanity.  Many inclinations stem from the relationships forged between family, friends, and others in a society, and the degree of importance each person gives to these various relationships.  These relationships and the emotions, desires, and inclinations people have to act in particular ways to strengthen them, or distance themselves from them, could rightfully be seen as morally permissible, or even obligatory, from a practical (prudent) standpoint.  For example, it is doubtful that a new mother would willingly allow her newborn to be killed for the sake of not violating a universalized maxim against lying, and while it’s possible, it is also doubtful that Kant would support a public outcry against a woman for committing what his theory would adjudge a morally reprehensible and wicked act.  “For to deviate from the principle of duty is beyond all doubt wicked…”  Kant’s elevation of reason and rationality to the pinnacle of a moral theory, dividing beings into those who are imperfectly rational and those who are perfectly rational, a seems little more than an application of his own anthropocentric values to his religious beliefs in an attempt to tie religion and ethics into a nice, tidy package.
      Kant begins his argument for a moral foundation with the assertion that the only possible good that is good in itself is a good will.  A good will is good not because of what it seeks to bring about or effect but good simply as a result of its volition, or ability to choose and determine a course of action.  This ability to choose, or will, must be based on purely objective reason and it must be free from subjective inclinations or impulses which could make an act the result of heteronymous forces brought about by circumstances and not a purely autonomous act.  Rational beings, by using objective reason, are ideally suited to determine practical laws of reason that may be applied universally and serve to delineate the duties and obligations that they have toward themselves and others.  This is how Kant sets the stage for the categorical imperative.  There is only one categorical imperative that has several formulations, though the formulations do not lend themselves to articulating a single overarching statement from which each formulation provided can reasonably be extrapolated.  The first of his formulations of the categorical imperative is, “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  Based on Kant’s belief that all things in nature act according to laws he is able to rephrase the categorical imperative as, “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”
     Kant adds to the aforementioned precepts his assertion that rational beings exist as ends in themselves, and “not merely as [a] means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will.”  His discussion in this section focuses on how objects of the inclinations only have conditional worth and as such are subjective in nature, the value of which would be nonexistent void of the relevant inclinations which give the object value.  Furthermore, Kant separates the value of beings into two broad categories as far as inclinations are concerned; non-rational beings which he calls things and have only a relative value as means, and rational beings which he calls persons and have objective value and must be respected as rational agents.  Based on this reasoning, Kant further asserts, regarding inclinations, “ must be the universal wish of every rational being to be wholly free from them.”  From here Kant is able to formulate his categorical imperative in a third way, “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only…,” which is to say that all beings that are capable of rationality are to be respected for that capability and should be treated as autonomous, self-directed beings, and supported in their reasonable pursuits to a reasonable degree.  Kant bases this on the principle that rational nature exists as an end in itself.  Furthermore, based on what Kant said at the beginning of the piece, it appears that Kant believes the more perfect the rationality, the more good the individual’s will is likely to be.

            The will is the ability to make a conscious choice for a reasoned purpose (volition), and a good will chooses as its purpose the fulfillment of universal duties when there are inclinations to not act according to these duties.  Kant has claimed, as natural law, that mankind’s reasoned purpose ought to be morality, as he sees it, by acting in ways that are void of inclination and in ways that if all rational creatures acted in similar fashion there would be a “Kingdom of Ends,” or a Rousseau-like utopia where everyone knows and adheres to the (moral) general will, flourishing in commodious peace and harmony.  But that particular end cannot be the reason for any action, not even for striving to eliminate those inclinations that would inhibit bringing about such an end even though Kant claims we must attempt to be wholly without them.  Apparently we have an imperfect moral duty of self-perfection to eliminate all inclinations that put us at risk of not acting according to moral law, and Kant supports this belief with his snippets of scripture; the divine commands are, “Be holy,” “Be perfect!” and, “If there is any virtue, if there is any praise, aspire to it.”  Kant has taken one aspect of what constitutes the whole of humanity, reason, and has decided it must be the foundation for a moral theory.  He did not choose love, or empathy, or kinship, or self-preservation, or desires for power or indolence, or any other of the numerous traits that when agglomerated make up what I believe to be the whole of what is called humanity.  I personally see no particular reason that man’s unique (as far as we know) ability to reason should be more valued than other traits, or should serve as a foundation for a moral theory in place of any of the other traits.  Not only did Kant choose reason above the rest, as previously mentioned, he urges the removal of inclinations altogether.  I think his wish for man to be wholly without inclinations would tend to make humans less than human and remove their humanity, or at least cripple it and deform it to the point of being unrecognizable.
            Kant is likely to disagree with how I view humanity in this case.  Perhaps he would state that humanity is really not all of the traits, and more, that I have referred to, but instead is nothing more than the presence of rationality regardless of any other traits that may or may not be present, and it is this rationality that defines humanity and makes it necessary to treat the possessing “person” as an end in himself.  This would mean, according to Kant, that a creature with the traits I am referring to, without rationality, would be a “thing” unworthy of being treated as an end in itself, and he does state as much at one point of the writing.  Perhaps Kant would also urge me to read other writings of his where he elaborated on the specific differences between inclinations, desires, and emotions.  I think he would have to admit that he did not do a good job of differentiating them in this particular piece, and that sometimes things get lost in translation.  Kant would probably tell me that he used humanity in reference to other imperfectly rational beings and it is implied that perfectly rational beings, with or without the characteristics present which I would deem necessary to possess humanity, must also be treated in the same manner as universal law dictates we treat imperfectly rational beings, though in this case it would not be because of their humanity (which Kant may or may not say they possess), but because of their perfectly rational nature.     
     In closing, and on a personal note; Kant is slippery! Just when I think I’ve grasped a given concept it slips beyond my understanding as soon as I see related concepts and try to tie them all together. This rewrite forced me to look more fully into the self-development section of the piece, where Kant makes a good case for humanity, including all the messiness I believe is inherent in humanity. However, he is able to somehow slip around the imperfect duty of eliminating inclinations by allowing for each individual’s reasoning to be used to find a sort of Aristotelian balance between perfect rationality and the more animalistic and emotional aspects that make us human. The end result of Kant’s allowance for and understanding of humanity in general is what leads to his “kingdom of ends” where people are free to seek a reasonable, autonomous end for themselves within society. Also, I know I’m verbose, but to fully explain what I think Kant is saying and to state with clarity and detail what I’m thinking in response to him does NOT lend itself to a mere four pages. As far as the title goes…no, Kant is not a piss-ant as Monty Python claims, but he is slippery as an eel!