Code: PD-8



Four Confirmed Participants: Two Presenters, One Respondent, and One Moderator


Panel Abstract:


                Freedom of Choice and the Dilemma of Responsibility:

                    Reflections on Beth Singer’s "Operative" Rights


"In all of its expressions, morality is fundamentally interpersonal; it arises out of and is reproduced or modified in what goes on between or among people.  In this way, morality is collaborative; we construct and sustain it together."

Margaret Walker


To be in the city of Birmingham, Alabama is to be made forcefully aware of the debt that contemporary movements for social justice owe to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.  It is impossible to imagine the shape of contemporary feminist activism, for example, in the absence of those struggles forged so courageously here and elsewhere in the south.


            In light of this recognition, we propose to undertake a critical examination of one aspect of this legacy: the appeal to rights so central to second wave feminism’s efforts to secure women’s political, social, and economic equality.  From the perspective of twenty-first century feminist thought, especially that couched under the rubric of third wave or "difference" feminism, however, this appeal to rights as a means to advance feminist aims has come under increasing suspicion.  In particular, many feminist theorists worry that the notion of a ‘right’ is too beholden to atomistic, Enlightenment, conceptions of the self with their correlative neglect of the particular relationships that constitute and sustain the particular self that one is.  Moreover, the crucial element of community – so essential to the civil rights movement in Birmingham – is, at best, minimized, and, at worst, lacking in much rights-based discourse.


            We, too, share these worries but we differ from each in whether the notion of a ‘right’ can be sufficiently rehabilitated so as to be a tool for personal liberation and social amelioration.  Starting from our conviction that Beth Singer has articulated the most thorough delineation of a rights-based approach to ethical understanding that we know, we propose to interrogate her analysis of the abortion debate.  We do so for two principal reasons.  First, the bringing to public consciousness of the need to rethink our approach to reproduction was, on our view, one of the major bequests of second wave feminism.  (That the legalization of elective abortion was central to this achievement should not, however, obscure the equally important victories made against forced sterilization and involuntary medication.)  Secondly, to our mind, no other practice crystallizes the moral demands of integrity, autonomy, and responsibility as immediately and forcefully as does that of elective abortion.


            To be specific, the two speakers will approach these issues in the following way.  In "’If  Men Could Get Pregnant …’: Singer and Gilligan on Abortion,"  the first speaker will argue that Beth Singer’s analysis of rights as operative social norms is sufficiently veridical to the actualities of our decision-making so as to make sense of the personal and political complexities of the abortion debate.  In particular, she will argue that it is only by means of Singer’s analysis that we, as feminists, can reconcile our sense that Carol Gilligan’s celebration of empathy and partiality gestures towards something definitive of our experience while still enabling us to avail ourselves of the politically efficacious language of rights.  In "Whose Rights and What’s the Difference? A Critique of Beth Singer’s ‘Human Rights: Some Current Issues," the second speaker will formulate a critique of Singer’s position by asking what responsibilities rights-bearing individuals bear towards others.  Her concern is that the emphasis Singer places on rights-bearing individuals and the respect others owe to us leaves out any articulation of what we may owe to others, except in view reciprocal exchange with other autonomous rights-bearers.  Using analyses informed by "difference" or "third-wave" feminism and John Dewey, whose own radical "experimental method" acknowledged both the influence of social conditions and the incommensurability of individuals, the second speaker will argue that rights and principles do not suffice even as meliorative tools when a fundamental issue for life lived among others is the persistent interruption not of being but of becoming – or, in the case of pregnancy and the question of abortion, of being not yet.      


First Paper Abstract:

       "If Men Could Get Pregnant …": Singer and Gilligan on Abortion

A colleague and I were trying to decide whether to cut one of our students yet more slack.  As we considered our options, he turned to me and quipped, "Wow.  Here I am worried about my integrity while you are worried about how this will affect our friendship.  This is such a Gilligan moment!"


            I begin with this anecdote because I think it nicely illustrates just how strongly Carol Gilligan’s work has gripped the cultural imagination.  As popularized in her 1982 book, In a Different Voice, Gilligan’s distinction between a feminine ethic of care grounded in a recognition of our sociality and a masculine ethic of justice grounded in the equally important insistence upon individual rights continues to resonate with us.  It continues to resonate, moreover, despite current awareness of the conceptual and methodological shortcomings of her research.  Further complicating matters is the fact that many second wave feminists – feminists whose efforts were directed at securing women’s rights – have hailed Gilligan’s celebration of the traditionally feminine virtues of empathy and partiality as a feminist breakthrough.


            I will argue that these tensions stem from our failure to consider carefully what it is that we mean by a ‘right.’  Put more strongly, I will argue that these tensions can only emerge if we accept the standard explanation of a ‘right’ as something we possess by virtue of our humanity, either by God’s benevolence or because such possession is intrinsic to our nature.  What is needed, I believe, is an account which emphasizes the social origins of rights – an account, moreover, that must embrace Margaret Walker’s insight that "social segmentation and hierarchical power-relations are the norm, rather than the exception, in human societies." (1998, 17)


            It is my claim that Beth Singer’s conception of "operative" rights accomplishes this.  Fundamental to this conception is Singer’s insistence that rights are essentially "social norms": "they only exist in communities or societies in which it is understood that they ought to be respected." (2002, 1)  Conversely, the best way to demarcate a ‘community’ in her sense is through identifying which rights are operative.  (Indeed, Singer is adamant that a truly human society is only possible because of such norms: "It is impossible for persons to live in a way that we would consider human without some system of social norms to regulate their mutual relations." (11))


            On my view, two important consequences follow from Singer’s conviction that rights are essentially social in nature and origin.  First, her analysis blocks any easy identification of rights with entitlements.  Rather, "to be a right, an entitlement must be accompanied by the obligation to respect it and to actively express this respect whenever this is appropriate and possible." (2)  This means, therefore, that one can only legitimately have a right if one can respect that right in others.  Secondly, Singer’s analysis requires us to look at how a society actually functions – to determine, that is, whether or not each member of that society is accorded the autonomy and authority necessary for the exercise of rights – if we are to talk fruitfully of the rights constitutive of that society.  While often an important first step, legal codification is thus not, in itself, sufficient to bring a right to life.


My specific aim in this paper, therefore, is to show how these elements of Singer’s work can allow us, as feminists, to reconcile our sense that Gilligan has gestured towards something definitive of our experience while still enabling us to avail ourselves of the politically efficacious language of rights.  In order to ground my discussion, I will compare Gilligan and Singer’s treatments of abortion.  I do so for two reasons.  What has been called Gilligan’s "abortion research" is both her central case study and that aspect of her work that has been subjected to the most criticism.  In contrast, I will argue that Singer’s discussion of the purported right to elective abortion captures not only the personal but the social complexity of this issue.  In particular, I will argue that only Singer’s orientation can explain the motivational power of the poster of the stylized coat hanger with the slogan, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."    



Second Paper Abstract:


                               Whose Rights and What’s the Difference?

         A Critique of Beth Singer’s "Human Rights: Some Current Issues"


Beth Singer’s arguments for the understanding and application of what she names "operative rights" bear significant import for analyses of social issues, as Singer well argues in her essay Human Rights: Some Current Issues.  But does Singer’s conjoining of liberal individualism and communitarianism – and her modifications of both – result in a vital, pragmatic marriage?  In upholding the coherency of community as foundational for the rights persons bear in fact and in practice, is too much influence granted to the community?  Singer is aware that socially inscribed norms inform the basis of individual rights as operative but recognizes that discrepancies and inequalities exist.  Describing social norms gives the concept of operative rights a prescriptive as well as a descriptive valuation, since not every individual or group of individuals within a given society has full access to institutional practices that should serve all community members.  But Singer wants her conception of individual rights to do more than express the best social norms.  She states: "But to say that only operative rights exist must not be taken to mean that those rights are the only ones that ought to do so.  I have argued – and will argue here – that certain rights ought to be established and be operative in all communities." (2)  Singer is thus determined to find an external measure upon which the equal rights of individuals can be ideally based, widening further the gap between "is" and "ought."  This measure rests upon two principles, on the basis of which Singer makes a supervenient claim for extra-societal rights.  In principle, these principles might be useful guidelines, but who are the individuals whose rights are the focus of Singer’s concern?  What is the relation between individuals and rights within a community?


            Further, and of fundamental concern to me as I formulate my critique of Singer’s position, what responsibilities do rights-bearing individuals bear towards those – others – who will themselves become rights-bearing participants in our shared social world?  I raise this question because the emphasis Singer places on rights-bearing individuals and the respect others owe to us leaves out any articulation of what we may owe to others, except in view of reciprocity, as they themselves are autonomous rights-bearers.  The problem here is that if what it means to be an individual as a member of a community implies that personhood is not a fact of being, not something given, but something achieved, a fact of becoming, via shared life within a community, then it would seem that we bear a great deal of responsibility towards those who are not fully persons, in Singer’s sense of rational, moral, rights-bearing agency.  In fact, it would seem eminently pragmatic to be so concerned and so responsible.  Instead, Singer emphasizes the role of community norms, which describe operative rights, without fully considering individual responsibilities towards specific others.  Others are viewed by Singer not as specific others, whether in view of being or becoming, but are described as the "generalized other."  It is this "generalized other" each of us should keep in mind when we choose to speak or act or otherwise express our rights, and from whom we should expect respect, and so respect in turn.  Singer does not demand that we autonomous moral agents care for, much less love, this "generalized other," but she asserts reciprocity on principle.  And is it the case then – not in principle but in fact – that we owe anything at all to a "generalized other" with whom it is assumed we shall abide peacefully?


            For my part, I am increasingly wary of the "generalized other," who seems in any case, and often annoyingly, to be continuously usurped by a particular other over another other.  But I would rather live in a society where persons were respected over rights.  Absent such a possibility, however, I am not convinced that rights and principles suffice as meliorative tools when a fundamental issue for life lived in community is the problematic fact not of being but  becoming.  What do we owe others who are not quite?  Or not yet?  I will raise these questions in relation to Singer’s analysis of one current issue: abortion.  Informing my own critique will be analyses formulated by "difference" or "third-wave" feminism, the latter re-thinking and rejecting the emphasis on rights so significant for "second-wave" feminism.  Attention to difference, to particularity, to uniqueness as such and not solely in relation to the whole or totality of a given community are concern emphasized in recent European philosophy, to be sure; but these concerns also find voice in the work of John Dewey, whose own radical "experimental method" acknowledged both the influence of social conditions and the incommensurability of individuals. Dewey wrote, "Each individual is incommensurable as an individual with every other, so that it is impossible to find an external measure of equality." (LW, Volume 7; 346)   It is my view that in the analysis of the role of norms and community in relation to what it means to be a person equality should not be the only – or even the primary – measure against which we stand in relation to each other.