Featured Philosop-her: Sally Haslanger

I am very excited to welcome Sally Haslanger as the next featured philosop-her.  Sally Haslanger is a professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT. She has published on topics in metaphysics, epistemology and feminist theory, with a recent emphasis on accounts of the social construction of race and gender. In metaphysics, her work has focused on theories of substance, especially on the problem of persistence through change and on Aristotle’s view that substances are composites of matter and form. Her work in feminist theory takes up issues in feminist epistemology and metaphysics, with a special interest in the distinction between natural and social kinds. She has co-edited Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays (Cornell University Press, 2005) with Charlotte Witt, Theorizing Feminisms (Oxford University Press, 2005) with Elizabeth Hackett, and Persistence (MIT Press, 2006) with Roxanne Marie Kurtz. She regularly teaches courses cross-listed with Women’s Studies. Before coming to MIT, she taught at the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and the University of California-Irvine.

Her post follows.


What is the Domain of Social (not Political?) Justice

I.  Between the Individual and Political

Recently I’ve been arguing that there has been insufficient attention in the analytic philosophical literature to the domain of social practices.  On the one hand, mainstream analytic political philosophers spend a lot of time thinking about the State and institutions that form the “basic structure” of society, but (perhaps due to the influence of political liberalism) do not consider the micro-politics embedded in the practices of everyday life.  Ethicists, on the other hand, tend to focus on individual action (character, will) and often don’t even consider that an agent, in acting, is engaged in a social practice.

This may be a serious misrepresentation of recent history of philosophy (I know it leaves out a LOT of us who are working outside the mainstream, e.g., in feminist and critical race theory).  However, even if it is a distortion, it is worthwhile to get clearer on what constitutes the domain of social justice, i.e., the domain which we have reason to think is outside the state’s purview, but also a realm where we aren’t just talking about individual actions but structures and practices.

Recently, I heard the objection that there isn’t a separate domain of social justice.  The objection comes from two sides, the individual side and the political side.  On the individual side, the claim is that if you have a society of good people, you will have justice, for good people arrange themselves in ways that prevent injustice.  On the political side the claim is that if you have justice in the basic institutions of society – usually understood in Rawlsian terms – then that’s all justice requires.  Under such conditions things might not be perfect, but that’s due to moral wrongdoing.  It isn’t injustice.

I find both of these arguments startling.  If the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Movement of the late 20th century taught us anything, they taught us that state action cannot reach many sources of bias that are responsible for persistent inequality, and this persistent inequality is unjust.  The state can’t tell us whom to love, trust, or admire; it can’t tell us what to aspire to, where to live, what to care about.  But these issues aren’t just a matter of individual psychology and individual agency either, for who we are and how we live is conditioned by the social practices and social meanings that structure our lives.  As individuals, we aren’t responsible for social meanings (though we must constantly navigate them) or social practices (though we can act to resist or sustain them).  Good people enact problematic practices: they may enact them unintentionally or without awareness; they may even think that the behavior in question is entirely natural and they have no choice; or they may not be in a position to have any idea they are problematic.  And some of the practices in question cannot be ruled out by state intervention and so could occur even within a politically just society.

Maybe the suggestion that, “Good people arrange themselves in ways that prevent injustice,” is exactly what I’m worried about.  Good people are, by the time they are socialized, already arranged.  We are embedded in social meanings.  We live in a social world structured by practices.  It is true, of course, that these meanings and practices can change.  But the change must be social change, collective change.  It isn’t about just changing the State or just changing my individual attitudes.

I take the point here to echo G. A. Cohen’s critique of Rawls.  Let us assume for the moment that Rawls’s theory of justice is a good example of a theory that applies to the basic structure of society.  Cohen has argued that a just structure is not enough:

A society that is just within the terms of the difference principle, so we may conclude, requires not simply just coercive rules, but also an ethos of justice that informs individual choices. In the absence of such an ethos, inequalities will obtain that are not necessary to enhance the condition of the worst off: the required ethos promotes a distribution more just than what the rules of the economic game by themselves can secure.  (Cohen 1997, 10; also Cohen 2000, 119-123)

Cohen frames his critique of Rawls by echoing the feminist slogan “the personal is political.”  This would suggest that the source of injustice in such a society is personal.  But note also that he describes the site of an additional constraint on justice as the social ethos. One might argue that individual and institutional injustice are the expression of deeper and less tractable sources of inequality in social meaning.  But what exactly is social meaning?

II.  Social Meaning

Begin (very briefly) with a background social ontology.  Social structures are networks of social relations. Social relations, in turn, are constituted through practices.  Social practices are, in the central cases, organized responses to a resource; shared schemas are what organize us. Borrowing from contemporary social science, I have proposed this hypothesis:

Practices consist of interdependent schemas and resources “when they mutually imply and sustain each other over time.” (Sewell 1992, 13) 

What is social meaning?  Social meanings can be understood on the model just presented as schemas. Lawrence Lessig says:

Any society or social context has what I call here social meanings – the semiotic content attached to various actions, or inactions, or statuses, within a particular context…[the point is to] find a way to speak of the frameworks of understanding within which individuals live; a way to describe what they take or understand various actions, or inactions, or statuses to be; and a way to understand how the understandings change. (Lessig 1995, pp. 951-2)

Extending Lessig’s suggestion, we should allow that not only actions/inactions and statuses have social meanings, but also include things such as corn, traffic signals, money, jewelry.  Pink means girl and blue means boy, no? Importantly, Lessig points out,

[Social meanings] change, they are contested, and they differ across communities and individuals.  But we can speak of social meaning, and meaning management, I suggest, without believing that there is a single, agreed upon point for any social act… (954-55)

However, social meanings are “in an important way, non-optional.  They empower or constrain individuals, whether or not the individual choses the power or constraints.” (955; see also 1000) Two examples, (a) stigma, and (b) stereotypes/ideals.

a) Elizabeth Anderson characterizes racial stigmatization during Jim Crow:

The condition of racial stigmatization consists of public, dishonorable, practically engaged representations of a racial group with the following contents: (1) racial stereotypes, (2) racial attributions or explanations of why members of the racial group tend to fit their stereotypes, that rationalized and motivate (3) derogatory evaluations of and (4) demeaning or antipathetic attitudes (such as hatred contempt, pity, condescension, disgust, aversion, envy, distrust, and willful indifference) towards the target group and its members. (Anderson 2010, 48)

Stigma, like other social meanings, and like linguistic meanings, are collective and public.  Such meanings affect us and our interactions even if we reject their content, e.g., whistling Vivaldi. (Steele 2011)

b) George Lakoff offers an analysis of our ideal of mother in terms of five overlapping cognitive models based on birth, genetics, nurturance, marriage, and genealogy. (Lakoff 2000, 395)  He says,

…more than one of these models contributes to the characterization of a real mother, and any one of them may be absent from such a characterization.  Still, the very idea that there is such a thing as a real mother seems to require a choice among models where they diverge.  (395)

The central case [is] where all the models converge.  This includes a mother who is and has always been female, and who gave birth to the child, supplied her half of child’s genes, nurtured the child, is married to the father, is one generation older than the child, and is the child’s legal guardian. (400)

Women’s lives are substantially organized around practices of mothering – in anticipation, in avoidance, in enactment, in resistance.  But why do we even employ the concept(s) of mother?  Why do we persist in thinking that one’s sex is relevant to one’s parental nurturing?  How we define ‘mother’ and whether we continue to categorize people as mothers is a matter of justice.  The same is true for ‘race.’ Insofar as social meanings define our social practices, and internalized meanings guide our interactions, social justice requires attention to – and changes to – social meanings.  “Social meaning management” can be done through law (this is the point of Lessig’s article), and can be achieved through social activism (“slut walks”?), but if we focus entirely on the individual and the State, then we obscure the significance of such meanings and the necessity of changing them in order to achieve justice.

10 responses

  1. Pingback: Sally Haslanger on Philosop-her | Feminist Philosophers

  2. Thanks for this. I’ve been looking to read more on social practices in the philosophical literature since reading Todd May’s Our practices, our selves. (I know it’s a popular work, but then I’m an amateur philosopher.)

    I’d like to follow up on some of the cited works, but the bibliography isn’t included in the post. Maybe an update is possible?

  3. Definitely! Sorry I didn’t include the references in the post. Here are references (plus a couple of extras that are cited in a longer version).

    Anderson, Elizabeth S. 2010. The Imperative of Integration. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    ______. 2012. Epistemic justice as a virtue of social institutions. Social Epistemology 26(2): 163-173.

    Cohen, G. A. 1997. Where the action is: On the site of distributive justice. Philosophy and Public Affairs 26(1): 3-30.
    ______. 2000. If You Are an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Fricker, M. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Lakoff, George. 1999. “Cognitive Models and Prototype Theory.” In Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence, eds. Concepts: Core Readings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 391-423.

    Lessig, Lawrence. 1995. The regulation of social meaning. University of Chicago Law Review 62(3): 943-1045.

    Sewell, William. 1992. A theory of structure: Duality, agency, and transformation. Amer. Journal of Sociology 98 (1): 1-29.

    Steele, Claude. 2010. Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. New York: W.W. Norton.

    Tilly, Charles. 1998. Durable Inequality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  4. Sally,

    Here are some inchoate thoughts (I’m working on a paper responding to Bourdieu’s arguments that the habitus is social and explains, and as you have said in your writing, you are influenced by Bourdieu. I feel like I grew up with Bourdieu). It is surely not possible to deny that you are right about the sociology of the field. We always appeal to individual psychology and we are hesitant to appeal to sociological explanation (sociologists are I think aware of this, which is why at least those of my dad’s era avoided psychological explanations, which did leave a bit of a gap). It is also clear that social facts must explain something, and not just as it were derivatively via individual psychology. And something like social meanings must exist and do explanatory work. Maybe conventional implicature as it occurs in the slur literature for example is a fancy way of doing that (we philosophers like to semantically ascend). And it’s not just slur words that have something like conventional implicature. At any rate, so that’s a lot of agreement. However, one needs to explain *being in a social practice*. Presumably that is a matter of having certain mental states. Sociologists ignore that I think because of anxiety that the social practices will not be explanatory, as I said above. Then there is a further question of what those mental states are, and whether they are rational states, like belief. You still may not be responsible for having certain beliefs, and that responsibility is explained by the social practice in which you find yourself. You also might not be able to give up certain beliefs; they are still beliefs (Susan Stebbing calls these “cherished beliefs” in Chapter 3 of *Thinking to Some Purpose). Maybe the racist has a racist belief. Facts about social practices may leave the racist not responsible for racist beliefs; I read an interview with the Rabbi of a former Jobbik politician who discovered he was Jewish, and the Rabbi’s description made it sound like there are apparently functional people who are profoundly confused and ignorant. You might suffer from epistemic injustice in Fricker’s sense, and just not have the conceptual resources given your social position to frame certain options. You are not responsible there either. But it may also be that plenty of people preserve their “cherished beliefs” because of fear that they won’t any longer fit into their native culture. For example, people like to think it is a mark of how responsible one is that one pathologizes black American culture. Following Stebbing, I’d like to hold such people responsible for such absurd beliefs. I think they hold them out of “comfort”. it’s an open question of how much we call racism is due to that I think. Anyway, probably not much disagreement in the end. I’m just saying that maybe if we think of being in a social practice having some beliefs, we can still say that some people aren’t responsible and others are just being lazy. But I’m not sure if we disagree at all. If we don’t, you can agree with me about knowing how!

    Thanks for writing this – there is so much more to say! Very interesting.

  5. Sally, thank you for your post. I am trying to understand what exactly is the claim that ethics and political philosophy together cannot tell us everything that we need to know about justice. What you write explains why we need social philosophy in order to know *what* to change: not only formal institutions and individual behaviour and attitudes, but also social practices (because individual behaviour and attitudes cannot always be changed without tackling social practices: institutions cannot always reach individuals directly, and individuals cannot always change by fiat as it were.) So social philosophy contributes to answering the ‘what to change?’ question.

    But to answer the question of ‘who should do what?’ we can only point to individual agents and institutions, and to types of action that are either legitimately enforced by states or better left up to individuals’ discretion (the latter of course can be taken by groups of individuals who figure out a way to create collective agency). So for this we’ll still need to look at either ethics or political philosophy – right?

  6. Jason – thanks for your reply. All good things to think about. One of the things I’m interested in right now is something like conventional implicature writ larger. (There are many things to think about, as you say, this is just one.) I believe (and Liz A talks about this when discussing racial stigma in the _Imperative of Integration_ that social meanings affect our interactions even if we don’t accept or endorse their content. Consider a non-racist white teacher who is has some unruly students in her class. Suppose she throws kids out of her class when they cause a certain level of disruption, and (for the sake of argument) suppose that she throws out white and non-white students exactly on a par insofar as they reach that level. Nevertheless, I believe that the social meaning of her throwing out a black student differs from her throwing out a white student, *regardless* of her intentions, beliefs, etc. You might say that whether it has a different social meaning depends on the attitudes/perceptions of the students (the students thrown out and the students who remain). I want to say that her actions do have different social meanings, even if they don’t see her as racist (perhaps they have come to trust her); the social meaning in the case of their trust remains, even if they take her action to have a different speaker meaning (so to speak).

    My point here is that social meanings may depend broadly on certain psychological dispositions, but they supervene more globally on psychological states rather than narrowly, just as, I would think, semantic facts supervene globally not locally.

    All that said, however, I agree completely that there is a complicated relationship between the psychological phenomena and the social phenomena that needs to be sorted out. I do believe that there is a kind of epistemic and semantic negligence that is morally problematic. (Appiah has talked about this helpfully in his paper “Racisms.”) However, I also think that good actions on the part of individuals to disrupt meanings is not sufficient. I can personally refuse to use the term “slut” or when I use it mean something different, e.g., as the Toronto marchers proposed. But just as I can’t change the meaning of the term by myself, people who try to change social meanings by having good intentions, etc. aren’t going to be successful (or rarely so). What we need is social activism, collective efforts to bring about social change.

    I hope you read this as on topic….I’d love to continue this conversation.

  7. HI Anca – thanks SO much for your question. I guess I believe there is a third option. An individual can act, and the State (formal institutions, law, etc) can act. But I also believe that groups can act. I don’t mean here to invoke the idea of “we” intentions (a la Searle) or collective intentionality of the sort that some social theorists point to (though all that is interesting and useful). I am interested in social movements, social activism, group agency that is much less organized and coordinated than what is discussed in the context of we-intentions. As I mentioned in the context of my response to Jason, there is little that I can do to bring about change of meaning, alone. Think of it this way: how would you go about changing the meaning of a word?

    That said, I want to allow that individuals CAN reach out to others to initiate collective action (and this is to be evaluated in moral terms), and the state CAN take action through law to provide incentives to change (this is what the Lessig article is all about). So the impetus for change can be individual and/or legal or political. But this isn’t all there is. Groups can bring about change, and what changes may be at the level of groups.

    Perhaps the issue is social causation? Here I want to suggest (and Steve and I have talked about writing a paper on this) that just as there is mental causation (not just causation at the level of brain activity) there is social causation (not just causation at the level of individuals). This shouldn’t be TOO surprising, because everyone allows that, say, the Supreme Court and other institutions can cause things. But they are just organized groups. But I agree COMPLETELY that more needs to be worked out on this issue.

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