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.


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.

Feminists for the Patriarchy

This is Part 1 in a series on gender roles and feminism. For more see Part 2 Social Constructs, Part 3 Christian Hedonism, Part 4 Christian Gender Rolesand Part 5 Proof of the Existence of God(s).

A good way to carefully address disagreements is to be precise about three things: system, goal, and method[1]. A system is the context in which you are working- the facts that you are assuming to be the case for the sake of addressing a specific goal. I hope that goal and method are self-explanatory[2] . It is generally better to first start with goal and system, and then figure out the best method for attaining said goal given the system.[3]

I am going to compare two ideologies- Feminist Egalitarianism and Christian Complementarianism- and I am going to argue that, contrary to popular belief, they largely agree on method and only disagree on goals. I believe this is important because realizing this will help us avoid wasteful arguments about method.

Many Feminist Egalitarians criticize the Complementarian ideal of giving women rights and privileges through the methods of Patriarchy and Chivalry, however, I will argue that the methods advocated by Feminist Egalitarianism are nothing but disguised Patriarchy and Chivalry. Then we can move on to the real issue, which is the disagreement about which goals we should be pursuing with the already agreed upon methods of Patriarchy and Chivalry.

The System

I am going to start by outlining a system that most[4] people can agree on in which to address these issues of Feminist Egalitarianism and Complementarianism. The system includes the fact that there exists a power disparity between men and women. The simplest way to frame this issue is to divide power into two types: Raw Power and Economic Power. By Raw Power I mean that men are somehow physically stronger, better fighters, better armed, or anything else that gives them the brute power[5] to murder, beat, or rape women. By Economic Power I mean the power men have that comes from controlling industries and social structures minus their Raw Power.  This is an important point because some people will argue that Economic Power is fully reducible to Raw Power, and that economic and social power structures would not hold any sway if it wasn’t for them being backed up by the threat of violence or Raw Power. The rest of this essay’s argument should still work regardless of your views on the question of to what extent Economic Power is reducible to Raw Power, as long as the conceptual difference between the two is clear.

I don’t think the goal or the system I’ve outlined should be too controversial for either Complementarians or Feminists to accept. Let’s start by analyzing the Raw Power disparity. The rate of male on female rape, assault, and murder is, and always has been, much higher than the reverse.[6] The extent to which men commit violent crimes against women is the most obvious problem that most people think of when it comes to the Raw Power disparity. Men generally have power over women at the most primitive level of conflict; if men and women fought to the death for control, men would win. Of course, Raw Power disparity is only a problem if the people with the power have the intent to use it for malicious purposes. For example, consider a small child whose parents sacrifice their immediate best interests for the child. Clearly, the parents have the Raw Power in that they could easily overpower and kill their child if they wanted to and their child wouldn’t stand a chance of defending itself against two adults. However, most parents choose to sacrifice for their children instead of abuse them, so we must also consider intent.

A similar analysis applies to the issue of the Economic Power disparity between men and women; whether or not the disparity hinders women from accomplishing their goals depends on the intent of the men with the Economic Power. Once again we can use the example of a small child whose parents clearly hold the Economic Power and yet use their Economic Power primarily to help their child succeed.

The Method
Both the Complementarians and the Feminists share the general goal of seeking to create certain rights and privileges for women in the context of the system outlined earlier. Although they differ in their goals of which specific rights and privileges to create for women, I will show that their method of pursuing these goals is essentially the same. In order to see this we first understand that there are three possible methods of dealing with a system where men hold the upper hand in Raw Power and Economic Power.

Method #1 Equalize the power dynamic: This could mean equalizing the Raw Power dynamic by somehow making men physically weaker ( preventing them from training to fight, giving them growth stunting drugs, disarming them, and so forth) and/or by making women physically stronger (making them weightlifters, training them to fight, giving them more weapons, and so forth). Most Feminists argue that this is not their goal, and that to say that Feminism is about turning women into aggressive bodybuilders is nothing but a ridiculous strawman of their position.

Another way of taking this approach would be equalizing the Economic Power dynamic by having an equal number of women as men in positions of economic, social, and political power. This position requires believing that Economic Power is largely not reducible to Raw Power: otherwise getting Economic Power for women wouldn’t change the real power structure. This position would also require making stay-at-home mothers the enemy, as they would be preventing women from equalizing the Economic Power dynamic. Once again most Feminists are clear that all they want is for women to have the option of becoming CEOs or Senators or doctors but that there is nothing wrong with women choosing to stay at home with their children. So we have shown that the method of equalizing the Raw or Economic Power dynamic between men and women is not going to fit with the stated goals of most Feminists.

Method #2 Chivalry: Neutralize the Power Dynamic. Teach men not to rape, murder, or attack women in order to neutralize the Raw Power disparity and/or teach men to use their economic power to help women so as to neutralize the Economic Power disparity. I will call this method Chivalry[7] because it fits with the general idea of teaching men not to act on their power for their own gain but to use it to help others.

Method #3 Patriarchy[8]: Use some men to protect women from the other men. This might require a change in intent but it deserves a separate category because it doesn’t necessarily require that men have good intentions overall, only that some men have good intentions and use their power to protect women from the men with bad intentions.

The approach of the vast majority of human societies throughout history has been to employ some combination of Chivalry and Patriarchy; men were generally taught to protect a certain group of women such as those in their family, tribe, race, social class, or religion and they were taught to change[9] their intent towards those women so as to repress any violent inclinations towards them[10]. The general Christian Complementarian method is one of using Chivalry and Patriarchy by teaching men not to lust after, rape, seduce, insult, or hurt women and by teaching men to protect, love and serve women and to honor and sanctify the idea of women as nurturing mothers. Feminists often complain that this is oppressive because it isn’t about “real rights” and is nothing more than the oppression of Chivalry and Patriarchy , because men still hold the Raw and Economic Power. Through this they presumably insult women by acting like women need to be protected and cared for. But what exactly are Feminists doing differently? Don’t Feminists advocate teaching men not to rape, insult, or hurt women? Don’t Feminists advocate teaching men not to talk over, pass over, ignore, or degrade women in the workplace? So they are using Chivalry just as the Complementarians are. Don’t they also advocate passing strict anti-rape laws, anti-domestic abuse laws, anti-discrimination laws, anti-“deadbeat dad” laws, etc.? And who enforces these laws? Why men with Raw Power and Economic Power of course. Who gives the state its authority and its Raw Power and Economic Power to enforce Feminist legislation (or any other legislation) on the people? Men in the military, men in the police force, men in the arms industry, men in all weapons technologies industries- essentially all armed and/or physically strong men who will use violence to protect the women that the Feminist legislators want protected and of course the men who hold the Economic Power that is used to support the state.

So the feminist movement must use Patriarchy and Chivalry as much, if not more, than the Complementarians. That being said, it is important to acknowledge that there are feminists who make roughly the same point that I’m making, and who argue that, if there is ever going to be “true equality”, feminists must equalize the Raw Power or Economic Power dynamics. Some of these voices, although not all, also argue that in order to truly free themselves from the patriarchy feminists must all become lesbians.[11] However, if you told the average feminist today that feminism was all about turning women into aggressive lesbian bodybuilders they would rightly criticize you for strawmanning feminism; most feminists today want to allow women to be feminine, but want them to be treated as equals and not be harassed, abused, and discriminated against. They might not realize it, but as long as they aren’t trying to overturn the Raw Power or Economic Power dynamic, their method is the same as the method used by Complementarians. 

Some feminists might object that their method is different because they are fighting for “true equality” and “real rights”, whereas Complementarian women just want to be “pampered princesses”. But this is missing the point because that would be an argument about which rights or privileges women should be seeking and that is an argument over goals not over method. The method is the same. The real disagreement that must be addressed is about which rights and privileges women should have, given the agreed upon methods of Patriarchy and Chivalry.

To be clear, there are two other options Feminists can take in order to avoid this conclusion.

One: They could deny that there is a difference in Raw Power or Economic Power between men and women. Of course, this flies in the face of all empirical data and leaves them in the awkward position of trying to explain what exactly the problem is if they believe that there is already true equality between the sexes at the most basic level of power.

Two: They could endorse the equalization of Raw Power and/or Economic Power as the goal of their movement. This would vindicate the common criticism of feminism that it is really just movement to make all women into men and to demonize stay-at-home mothers. An open admission of this by feminists would drastically lower their support among most people.

For more see Part 2 Social Constructs, Part 3 Christian Hedonism, Part 4 Christian Gender Rolesand Part 5 Proof of the Existence of God(s).

[1] Goal, system, method. First figure out your goal, then figure out what system you are working in, and then figure out which method will be most effective given your goal and your system.  A great deal of time and energy can be wasted on a pointless argument about method when the participants’ true disagreement was about what the goals should be or about what system we are operating in. The most practical way to proceed is normally to start with either goals or system and then to work on a method.

[2] In case they aren’t: Your goal is simply what you are trying to achieve. Your method is the means which you are using in the context of your system in order to achieve your goal.

[3] If you want to start with a method then the correct way to think about it would be to make your method your goal. For example, if the most important value to me is using methodological naturalism then I would make the use of methodological naturalism my goal, then decide which system I’m in, and then decide which method would best allow me to achieve my goal of using methodological naturalism. In this case a good method of attaining my goal might be to become a scientist or simply to become an atheist (although a theist can use methodological naturalism as well).

[4] There are going to be some feminists, as well as some Men’s Rights Activists, who are going to disagree with the system I’m outlining. I don’t have space here to address their dissent, but since they are such a minority and their position is so empirically and philosophically weak I am going to ignore it here and move forward.

[5] I don’t want to use the term “hard power” because it is generally associated with states and not with individuals. By “raw power” I mean the most primitive basic brute level of power at the level of person to person violence.

[6] “Male offender/female victim 21.0” & “Female offender/male victim 9.0”.
“Overall, an estimated 91% of the victims of rape and sexual assault were female. Nearly 99% of the offenders they described in single-victim incidents were male.”

[7] Although this word once had a precise historical meaning and referred to certain European warrior codes, today the word is thrown around quite loosely and its exact meaning is no longer clear in our society. I think the general idea both historically and in modern times is captured by talking about changing the intent of men so that they will help and not harm women.

[8] As with Chivalry, Patriarchy is a word with many different meanings in the modern context. This lack of a clear agreed upon meaning is also why I am seeking to give it a more useful and precise definition. The general idea is that men hold the raw power in the society and decide which privileges or rights to give women.

[9] Men’s Rights Activist types might protest that I’m suggesting that men are all violent soulless rapists by nature. That is not the case. Intent is hard to measure. Men can have admirable innate tendencies towards compassion but they also have innate tendencies towards violence and sexual dominance. I’m not making any claim about the exact ratio here. The important point is that if they had no violent tendencies at all we wouldn’t have a problem with rape or murder so there is obviously some tendency there.

[10] Some may protest that I’m ignoring domestic abuse here. The point I’m making is that men in the tribe were not permitted to take advantage of the fact that they were generally physically stronger than the women in the tribe by beating, murdering, raping any women they saw walking around the village, just as adults are taught not to do this to children even though they are physically stronger.

[11] I think might be a good point because as long as women are trying to attract men they aren’t going to want to become aggressive bodybuilders and as long as they are attracted to men they aren’t going to want to promote men becoming weak and submissive.