In Defense of Social Constructs


This is Part 2 in a series on gender roles and feminism. See Part 1 Feminists for the Patriarchy, Part 3 Christian Hedonism, Part 4 Christian Gender Rolesand Part 5 Proof of the Existence of God(s).

In Part 1, Feminists for the Patriarchy, I argued that Feminists and Complementarians don’t disagree on method but merely on goals; they agree on using the methods of Patriarchy and Chivalry (as defined in part 1) to achieve their goals of attaining rights for women, but they disagree on what those rights should be. In this essay I will start by arguing that there is a third aspect of method which Feminists and Complementarians must agree on; I will argue that if women’s rights are to be established peacefully, they must be socially constructed. By “socially constructed”, I mean that culture and society will need to work to peacefully promote certain behaviors and attitudes which will create a certain set of rights for women. I will then address the issue of how to decide which rights Patriarchy, Chivalry, and social construction should establish for women.

By “social construct” I do not mean that something is not real, or that it is inherently undesirable. As Feminist Philosopher Sally Haslanger has pointed out, although she thinks modern notions of race and gender are social constructs, she also says,

on my view, gender and race are real. However, their reality in the contemporary context is the product of unjust social structures, and so should be resisted.”[1]

It is only these specific social constructs that she is opposed to, not the idea of social construction itself. This seems to be the only reasonable way to talk about social constructs. I think anyone who argues that something is inherently bad just because it is “socially constructed” instead of “natural” is deeply confused; socially constructing norms and roles is one of the most natural human activities there is. If you truly dislike social construction itself, then your only option is to live in complete isolation. On the other hand, if it is merely the social constructs our society has at the moment that you don’t approve of, then you should stay and promote the social constructs that you think would be best.

Many libertarians, often influenced by John Stuart Mill, believe that they have an obligation to oppose societal norms and customs, such as gender roles, in the name of freedom. Part of the argument is often that we should oppose them because they are “nothing but social constructs”[2]. However, what Mill argued for was not that we should oppose social construction altogether (he was smarter than that), but rather that we should socially construct new norms which he thought would be preferable to what existed at the time.

Take the example of seeking to increase the opportunity for women to become doctors (a goal I believe Mill would have supported): If we have this goal, then we must socially construct a society in which patients assume female doctors to be equally competent with male doctors, where medical schools assume female applicants to be equally competent with male applicants, where young girls are encouraged to aspire to go to medical school, where men are equally attracted to women who work full-time as doctors etc. All of these things must be socially constructed by the society. Women will then have the right to an equal (or at least improved) opportunity to become doctors, because society has constructed such a right[3] for them. Social construction, along with Chivalry and Patriarchy, is a necessary part of the method for reaching any goal of peacefully creating rights for women.[4]

Before discussing which women’s rights we should have as goals, I will outline some assumptions that I will make about how to go about deciding these goals.

1.) I will assume that we are only talking about peaceful methods of promoting/discouraging behaviors. (With the exception of discouraging violent assault – in which case violent defense could be used)

2.) I will restrict my analysis to people who use the method outlined in Part 1 Feminists for the Patriarchy. This means that they do not think it is methodologically necessary to equalize the Raw Power or Economic Power dynamic. Unless feminists want to equalize those power dynamics, they will need to use Patriarchy, Chivalry, and social construction to accomplish their goals.

Some people may argue that the only way to reduce rape is to make it so that women are all as physically strong[5] as men, but anyone who doesn’t think this is going to need to either use some men to protect women from rapists (Patriarchy),[6] or change the intention of men who would otherwise commit rape (Chivalry). Changing the culture in this way would be a form of social construction.

Another example would be a feminist who wants there to be more opportunities for women to become CEOs, but doesn’t think this should necessarily require equalizing the Economic Power dynamic. Such a feminist would instead support socially constructing a society where men would change their intentions and stop discriminating against women, stop harassing women, and stop doing business in a “traditional male way” that makes it difficult for women to be included.

3.) I will assume that there is no such thing as a neutral culture. Every culture socially constructs gender roles of some kind. Every culture promotes some behaviors and discourages others. As long as Raw Power or Economic Power aren’t being used, any method of cultural or social persuasion will be considered peaceful social construction. The fact that nobody wants to date you because you don’t shower is peaceful pressure to stay clean. It is not equivalent to people beating you or imprisoning you for not staying clean. The former is peaceful and acceptable, the latter is violent and unacceptable.[7] As stated earlier, social construction is inevitable and there is nothing inherently immoral about it.

4.) I will assume that every proposed goal for women’s rights must be argued for on its own terms. There is no set package of objective women’s rights that must be accepted as one unit without argument. I will not assume that prescriptive egalitarianism is a “given”. The virtue of equality of roles must be argued for just like any other moral or political theory.

We must address goals for women’s rights separately. For example, someone might want to reduce the number of rapes that occur and also want to encourage more women to be CEOs. However, reducing the number of rapes and increasing the representation of women in corporate leadership positions should not necessarily be assumed to be connected, unless a causal arrow can be established between the two. Correlation is not enough; it has often been noted that when people eat more ice cream, the murder rate goes up, but we shouldn’t think it follows that increased ice cream consumption causes an increased murder rate.[8] Unless causal arrows are established, we must treat these as separate goals. One goal is reducing rape and another, separate, goal is increasing the number of female CEOs.

In some cases establishing causal arrows might break up the usual grouping of feminist positions. Let us continue with the goal of reducing rape. Now someone might think they can prove that reducing the number of women in the Military would reduce the rape rate because those women would no longer be put in dangerous conditions. If this causal arrow was proven, then it would make sense to advocate discouraging women from joining the Military in order to reach the goal of reducing rape. Many people would say this would be unfair because the women are being punished for something that isn’t their fault. But that is begging the question by assuming that having more women in the Military is a goal in itself and that to be discouraged from joining is a “punishment”. If our only stated goal so far was to reduce rape and if lowering the number of women in the Military causes the number of rapes to go down, then it follows that we should discourage women from joining the Military. The goal of having women in the Military, if it is going to be a goal at all, needs to be argued for on its own terms.

Conclusion

The question that needs to be answered moving forward for anyone interested in this issue is: “Which rights should we socially construct for women?”

In Part 3  Christian Hedonism and Part 4 Christian Gender Roles I begin to answer this question for Feminist Egalitarianism and Christian Complementarianism. In Part 5 Proof of the Existence of God(s) I prove the existence of god(s).


[1] Haslanger, Sally. 2012. Resisting Reality.

[2] This wasn’t the language that Mill used but some people take Mill’s arguments against the social norms and gender roles of his day and add on the “just social constructs” language.

[3] I am talking about rights being created by society in the sense of their recognition and enforcement being created by society. I am not taking a position on the question of whether there are objective rights that come from God or nature or some other source.

[4] Or any other group, of course, but I’m only focusing on women’s rights in these essays.

[5] Or equally armed or equally aggressive or equally trained or whatever it might take to equalize Raw Power.

[6] This could also be Chivalry in many cases. I am thinking of the use of the Military and Police to enforce anti-rape laws which would fall more under Patriarchy than Chivalry.

[7] By “acceptable” I mean “among those methods of social persuasion which I will be considering” and by “unacceptable” I mean “not among those methods of social persuasion which I will be considering”. I am not going to argue against violent social persuasion. That is outside the scope of this essay.

[8] They probably both have a common cause such as warmer weather.

9 thoughts on “In Defense of Social Constructs

  1. Pingback: Christian Gender Roles | ajrogersphilosophy

  2. Pingback: Christian Hedonism | ajrogersphilosophy

  3. Pingback: Social Constructs (Part 2 of Analyzing Feminism) | ajrogersphilosophy

  4. Pingback: Feminists for the Patriarchy | Liberty Without Apologies

  5. Reblogged this on ajrogersphilosophy and commented:

    “I think anyone who argues that something is inherently bad just because it is “socially constructed” instead of “natural” is deeply confused; socially constructing norms and roles is one of the most natural human activities there is. If you truly dislike social construction itself, then your only option is to live in complete isolation.
    The question that needs to be answered moving forward for anyone interested in this issue is: “Which rights should we socially construct for women?”

    This is Part 2 of the feminism and gender roles series that included Part 1 (Feminists for the Patriarchy), Part 3 (Christian Hedonism)and Part 4 (Christian Gender Roles).

  6. Pingback: Proof of the Existence of God(s) | ajrogersphilosophy

  7. Pingback: Social Construction of Gender in Cameroon | irene's wonders

  8. Pingback: The Presuppositional Approach to Engaging Feminism | ajrogersphilosophy

  9. Pingback: Feminists for the Patriarchy | ajrogersphilosophy

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