Is There Such a Thing as the Female Conscience?

November 9, 2012

Virginia Quarterly Review:

Surely the most famous crisis of conscience in American letters is the battle of young Huckleberry Finn with his shaggy hold on right and wrong. Having befriended the runaway slave in Mark Twain’s classic, Huck struggles: Should he turn in Nigger Jim? Huck has run afoul of the laws of man and God: He is on the lam with a slave who has bolted. In this, he has violated both the law of the land and his individual, gnawing conscience. His sense of duty tells him to reveal Nigger Jim’s whereabouts to the authorities so that the slave can be captured and restored to his rightful owner. But Huck is tormented. He wants to do the unthinkable; he wants to break the laws of God and man and help Jim in his journey to freedom. After conjuring with himself, Huck finally makes the decision to go against social norms and accept the penalty. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell . . .” It’s a powerful passage precisely because it challenges and upholds our reliance on individual conscience as the sure guide to moral behavior.

In parsing Huck’s dilemma, twin perils are involved. The first is that an individual, echoing society’s compacts, can be in error, complicit with evil. If there is no distance between private and public conscience, we will go along to get along: for proof, look no further than the Holocaust, Pol Pot, American slavery, the Spanish Inquisition. The second peril is that we may find it difficult to decide whether our own conscience, especially if it cuts against society’s grain, is truly right or wrong. In Huck’s case, there was a higher law to which he could appeal: his faith. A reliance on faith was not unusual: Religion drove the vast majority of abolitionists. A collective of individual consciences—which is what religion is—was suddenly asking: Why would someone go to hell for doing the right thing? Obviously, someone should not. Huck becomes a moral hero of sorts because, although he thinks hell will be his fate, he persists in doing the right thing anyway. It accounts for the power of Twain’s narrative.

There is a precedence to this. In the history of Western thought, it was the Protestant Reformation that made conscience the arbiter of moral behavior. The individual’s conscience had been a theme well before the sixteenth century, of course, but the Protestant Reformers, in rejecting the mediating role of Church and priests, stressed a personal bond between God and the individual believer. A well-formed conscience was required to maintain a Christian society.

Given that America was overwhelmingly Protestant, the stress on individual conscience became ubiquitous. American children were taught to trust their inner voices, consult their sense of right and wrong, follow their consciences. Huck’s story unsettles because Huck’s moral universe has been formed within the framework of a slave-holding society, and that society is hardly credible: It has twisted Scripture to its own ends. It has forced injustice into law. Over time, American education deepened the inculcation of Protestant norms. Our great reliance on conscience assumed that the individual would understand what was right and wrong at any given point in his or her life. In other words, there might be a discrepancy—even a gulf—between our individual conscience and the wider law. But Huck illustrates just how difficult it is to disentangle the two. The only way out that he can see is to condemn himself to hell for an egregious violation: all right, then, he says, I’ll go to hell.

The long road to Huck’s little raft on the Mississippi and his own crisis of conscience had begun many centuries before. The Greeks wouldn’t have called it conscience; to them it was virtue and virtue-grounded action. Huck’s story illustrates one of a cluster of questions and conundrums bequeathed to us by the Greeks. The foundational divide between moral law and virtue is usually cast in Greek terms as “the universal” vs. “the particular.” Is moral law the same everywhere? Yes, say the universalists. What we call virtue in Sparta is also virtue in Athens. If murder is wrong in one city, it is wrong in all. To universalists, there can be no separate morality for each and every culture, creating thereby a world in which we are strangers to one another, a world in which moral evaluations are turned upside down as we move from place to place.

Those who defend the other side of the debate—the particular—argue strong and moderate versions. The strong holds that there is no universal language of moral virtue, no general moral truth. There is only the code of virtue embedded in our culture—in our own “language game,” as twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein later put it. Wittgenstein famously argued that the limits of his language were the limits of his world. A weaker version of his thesis holds that, while there may not be a bright line between moral universals and particulars, there can be major distinctions between virtuous and non-virtuous behavior, and what cultures consider right or wrong.

Philosophers never truly settled this matter to anyone’s satisfaction. Which is why it goes unresolved to this day. It surfaces most dramatically in times of violent cultural encounter. Thus, there are those who would defend al Qaeda terrorism on the grounds that, within Osama bin Laden’s frame of reference, killing as many enemy non-combatants as possible, including women and children, is the “right thing to do.” In carrying out his violent quest, as the argument goes, bin Laden was only defending his religious convictions.

I recall occasions post-9/11 when I was challenged on this issue in specifically gendered terms. The questions went something like this: What if they (Arab women) don’t even have the words for gender equality that we take for granted? If the faith demands that a woman wear a burqa, how can we say that her equality is violated when a man requires her to do so? Or beats her with a stick should she unwittingly display a bit of ankle? We may not like it, but it is the way the culture works. These were for me rather surprising questions to be put by young American university students in an age of gender parity. But perhaps, I mused, it isn’t so odd after all if we trace the debate from ancient to present and think through the ways our forebears determined all questions of truth, justice, and moral conscience.

We need to add one more ingredient to this already fulsome mix—namely, whether the moral law we set for ourselves was conceived along lines of what we now refer to routinely as race, gender, ethnicity, or religion. The Greeks distinguished between those who were authentically Greek and those who were barbaroi, barbarians. Among the authentically Greek, a further internal distinction was made, and it was by gender. Are men and women identical when it comes to moral law? Can women know the truth of the Forms (Plato’s question) as men of merit can?

Furthermore, if men and women play different social roles based on their respective natures, how do we calibrate their moral standing? How can we judge where the greatest moral good is to be found? Are men, on average, more capable than women of understanding and internalizing universal standards of Truth and Virtue? Plato’s argument cannot be unpacked in detail here but, to reduce it to its simplest form, he held that men were, by nature, more likely to be fit subjects for the contemplative life, a way of life made possible within the polis or city.

In The Republic, Plato’s utopian picture of the ideal if not perfect city—those who rise to the heights in which truth is contemplated—are overwhelmingly male and form a class he calls “the guardians.” What sort of society was good, just, and worthy of serving as a template of human virtue? Plato’s formula was simple: A just man can exist without a just city, but a just city cannot exist without at least a few just men. Plato’s guardians were responsible for society’s highest functions; as public, spirited, virtuous men, they would rule for the common good.

As it turns out, Plato made room for women: a few could get in on the act. But, according to him, it would be difficult. Why? Because women were oriented to the particular, to an ethic circumscribed by the household. Such citizens would not be capable of achieving the necessary virtue. They would not easily surrender themselves to the unconditional bond between individual and state that Plato believed necessary to render the polis as one. It follows that the few women who made it into the guardian class would be mated with the boldest and bravest male guardians.

But those women were forbidden from knowing their own infants. When a guardian woman gave birth, her child was taken at once to a special section of the city. There, minders cared for the young. When a child needed to nurse, he or she was handed randomly to a lactating female. Why all these wrenchings? In addition to the hope that breeding between superior males and females would continue to perpetuate an aristocracy of the best and the brightest, it was held that private homes, sexual attachments, and dedication to personal aims would undermine a citizen’s allegiance to the city. Plato cried: “Have we any greater evil for a city than what splits it and makes it many instead of one? Or a greater good than what binds it together?”

And so, the gauntlet was thrown. Every subsequent dispute or dialogue about gender and virtue and conscience owes something to these early formulations. In them, women are a divisive force in the polis. Their devotion to their children and their petty, private worlds limits their moral imaginations and knowledge. Mind you, we need women as we need children to be born. But in the context of early Greek philosophy, women were not trustworthy moral beings. This underlying perception set the basis for all subsequent debates about women and their political and social roles, including their niche in what one might call the “moral economy.” Plato considered them civically unreliable in light of their attachment to narrow, family loves. Does the same hold for that other titan of Greek philosophy, Aristotle? Yes, but this wants a bit of explaining. Aristotle ranks action, the vita activa, above all other human enterprise. In his estimation, two classes of people are cut off from thevita activa: women and slaves.

So it was that the Greek philosophers consigned women to a world of lesser virtue, for the oikos, or household, can never rise to universal moral truths. The home is too mired in the realm of biology and reproduction—an indispensable realm, surely, but limited. Women, slaves, and laborers are “necessary conditions” of the state. Men, by contrast, are integral. In such ways was the class or category “woman” deemed inferior to the class or category “man.” From that premise the rest was straightforward: Women are to be barred from citizenship and an active participation in the polis. They cannot be judged in the same way as a free male. And so, despite disagreements on the moral life, Plato and Aristotle held hands on the gender question—with exceptions here and there. That Plato was willing to admit a few women into his guardian class does little to remedy his overall view of the morally limited family and the private life that the overwhelming majority of women serve…

Read it all.

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