It’s always interesting, unsettling, and difficult to try to figure out if we can ground our moral and political commitments. I read a sentence about James Fitzjames Stephen’s criticism of Mill’s On the Subjection of Women this morning that caught my attention – ‘His [Stephen’s] own position was that equality was like liberty: it was not an absolute good but sometimes good and sometimes not.’ Not that that’s a startling idea, of course. It’s not a news flash that equality has not always been thought an absolute good or even a good at all, and that for instance the famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence struck most contemporary observers as downright absurd rather than self-evident. And Leslie Stephen’s brother was notoriously a hard guy, fond of saying harshly unsentimental things to dewy-eyed Victorians. No, it’s just that for whatever reason it made me ask myself if I thought it was an absolute good, or a quasi-absolute good, or at any rate a general good, and if so, if I could ground the thought, or if I just thought it because I thought it because I thought it.
Well (you won’t be surprised to hear), I do think it’s a general good, though also one that’s often in tension with other goods. (Can I get away with saying general instead of absolute?) But I would think that – I was born into a time and place in which the thought is taken for granted. So why do I think it apart from that.
Because I think it’s not good for people to think they are by birth somehow globally (not in particular attributes but all over and overall) subordinate, inferior, low. Born to obey, born to serve. Why? I find it hard to go farther than that. Because it’s limiting, narrowing, stunting. It closes off hopes, dreams, possibilities, ambitions. It makes people feel bad, i.e. inferior, and that seems to be a bad thing by definition. Not desirable, not what we want, not what we like. Do people say ‘I’m inferior and that makes me happy, I don’t want to be told that I’m not inferior’? Not that I’m aware of. They change it to ‘different,’ as in ‘Women are not inferior but different’ from anti-feminist women.
The subject links with the ‘What’s so great about nature?’ articles by Paula Bourges Waldegg and Edmund Standing we’ve published lately. Subordination is natural enough, certainly. Many animal species have elaborate hierarchies, enforced with sharp teeth and heavy bodies. Bully for them. We don’t like it. Or rather, those of us on the bottom don’t like it, and after of millions of years some of us have come to the conclusion that the bottom view is the better one, that the happiness and well-being and flourishing and ability to carry out life projects of the people on the bottom, should trump the happiness that the people on top derive from having a pool of born subordinates to use as they like. That the first is worth more than the second, and causes things to go better overall. At least we seem to have; and in some places we have, at least formally and legally; hence the arguments.