Author Archives: Leo DesBois

Social Construction: Myth and Reality

In this chapter, Haslanger argues that feminists and race theorists ought to employ a form of social construction “that is compatible with important forms of realism, an objectivism about kinds, and naturalism” (183). According to Haslanger, this form of social construction best serves the goal of locating “the (often obscure) mechanisms of injustice and the levers for social change” (184). In defending these claims, she covers much of the same ground we have already covered in the course: the distinctions between sex/gender and color/race, social kinds, natural kinds, etc. I think it is most interesting to analyze this chapter in light of our recent discussions of cyborgs and feminist metaphysics.

On page 198, Haslanger defends her “critical realist” stance by arguing in favor of a version of realism. She presents an anti-realist error theory of race, according to which statements involving race are all false, because no races exist. She writes that “on the face of it, this is not a happy result, for if we are going to understand the effects of slavery and long-standing racism in this country we need to have the resources to describe its systematic effects on racial groups.”

This seems like a good example of a feminist philosopher introducing contextual values into metaphysical debate and theory choice. In light of Monday’s discussion, what do we think of this move? Are Haslanger’s political views interfering with what should be a value-free analysis, or is this a healthy case of contextual values supplementing constitutive values, rather than replacing them?

Haslanger’s overall project in this chapter is to establish metaphysical theory that is conducive to the promotion of justice – to changing the world. However, the theory she defends seems rather conservative in light of Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. Can a metaphysics committed to realism, objectivism, and naturalism succeed in undermining oppressive social structures? Or must we radically re-envision the boundaries of reality in order to effect social change? Does Haslanger or Haraway better serve the feminist cause?

Finally, I still don’t think that we adequately addressed Tim’s concerns about how a metaphysical theory might lead to concrete change in the real world. Hypothetically, Haslanger’s ideas might have an impact if most academic philosophers adopted them. Thinkers from other disciplines might then take notice and incorporate these ideas into their own work. Perhaps these thinkers and their followers might then engage in a “long march through the institutions” in order to effect political, economic, and social change. Is this a plausible scenario? To me, it seems highly unlikely. Is Haslanger kidding herself when she claims to have an interest in social change? Should she stop philosophizing and start protesting, or perhaps run for office?

Family, Ancestry, and Self: What Is the Moral Significance of Biological Ties?

Haslanger frames this chapter as a response to David Velleman’s claim “that it is morally wrong to bring a child into existence with the intention that the child will not have contact with one or both biological parents.” An alternative formulation of this claim would be: “Other things being equal, children should be raised by their biological parents.” (158)

Although Velleman primarily has in mind those who conceive children using anonymous donor egg or sperm, his argument has implications for those who adopt children who will not be acquainted with their biological parents.

Velleman wants to challenge what he calls “a new ideology of the family” according to which children raised away from their biological parents can still have families “in the only sense that matters, or at least in a sense that is good enough” (159).

Haslanger rejects Velleman’s view, claiming that families lacking biological ties can be just as good as those with them.

Velleman’s argument runs as follows:

P1: Acquaintance with one’s biological relatives is a basic good, because in coming to know and define themselves, most people rely on their acquaintance with people who are like them by virtue of being their biological relatives.

P2: People who adopt or create children by donor conception already know (or should know) that their children will be disadvantaged by the lack of this basic good.

C: It is morally wrong (or problematic) to adopt or create children by donor conception.

In support of P1, Velleman identifies two ways in which biological ties help us come to know and define ourselves:

  1. They provide a special kind of self-knowledge based on “intuitive and unanalyzable resemblances.” (168)
  2. They provide access to a narrative within which our actions have meaning.

Haslanger rejects P1 on multiple grounds. First, even if most people do construct their identities through biological acquaintances, it does not follow that this is a good way to define ourselves, or the only good way. She cites empirical evidence that adopted children are able to establish strong personal identities despite their lack of acquaintance with biological relatives.

Second, she questions the claim that biological relatives are essential to self-knowledge. We can learn just as much about ourselves through our encounters with friends, fictional characters, public figures, and custodial families. A focus on similarities to family members can even obscure more important aspects of our identities.

Finally, she argues that since all formulations of personal narratives are speculative, these narratives can just as readily be created independently of biological ties.

Haslanger concludes with a critique of the “natural nuclear family” and bionormativity. She argues that these dominant ideologies are not natural or inevitable, and that, like gender, they may be “implicated in structures and forms of life that are unjust” (180). She concludes that parents have an obligation to provide their children with a route to healthy identity-formation, but that this need not be the dominant route consistent with bionormativity. We may even have a moral obligation to resist the conception of the “natural nuclear family.”

Questions and Comments:

In his defense of biological ties, does Vellener limit himself by focusing on issues of personal identity? Are there other reasons why a child might benefit from being raised by his or her biological parents?

Which definition of “basic good” in figure 5.1 do you think is the most accurate or useful? How much force does Vellener’s argument lose if an acquaintance with one’s biological ties cannot be considered a “basic good?”

Can this debate be settled independently of biology, psychology, anthropology, and social science? Might these issues of healthy human development be fully empirical, as Haslanger suggests on page 164?

Finally, I had a WTF moment on page 179, where Haslanger suggests that the centrality of mother-child relations might be explained by the need of infants to breast-feed. Surely the bond between mother and child is established throughout the entire process of conception, gestation, and delivery, and rests on more than mere convenience!