Beyond Adaptive Preferences: A Different Model of “Hard Cases” for Feminism
Feminist critique is a kind of moral critique of things and people that contribute to the inequality or oppression of women. But an important challenge for feminists quickly arises: what should feminists say about women who participate in and endorse practices that contribute to or constitute the oppression of women?
Many feminists understand such participation via the lens of “adaptive preferences,” i.e. preferences that have been shaped by conditions of oppression to favor those conditions (e.g. Nussbaum 1999). However, this puts feminist critics in the position of critiquing the apparently free choices of adults, and it risks critiquing “legitimate but unfamiliar conceptions of the good” (Khader 2012, 302) while impugning the agency of precisely those who they are centrally concerned to protect and uplift, rendering them as “dupes of the patriarchy” (Narayan 2002). On the other hand, regarding endorsed norms or practices as legitimate risks abandoning feminist critique (since most objects of feminist critique have women who defend them).
We can recognize the rationality of women who participate in and endorse oppressive practices, and understand feminist critique as a sort of moral critique of the women and practices by adopting an understanding of gendered practices as norm-governed, suboptimal Nash equilibria for social coordination. Such a model sees participants in oppressive, gendered social practices as rational, and without better individual alternatives. But it sees feminist critique as a fundamental sort of moral critique – a critique of “altruism failures” (Kitcher 2011) that make everyone worse off than they might otherwise be.
The model also avoids commitment to specific, substantive conceptions of the good which are likely to involve question-begging assumptions in the context of cross-cultural critique. Thus, this model offers a new and normatively better explanation of what Natalie Stoljar (2013) has called “hard cases” for feminist accounts of autonomy.
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