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Susan E. Babbitt, Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination. Boulder, Co., Westview Press, 1997.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2020

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Book Reviews
Copyright © 1998 by Hypatia, Inc.

“God created me to be a slave, just as he created a camel to be a camel.” The New York Times (Sunday, 12 October, 1997, p. 56) reports these words of Fatma Mint Mamadou, a woman who seven years ago fled from slavery in contemporary Mauritania, where an estimated ninety thousand other human beings continue in a condition technically abolished by that country in 1980. The Times also quotes Boubacar Ould Messoud, the man who helped Mamadou successfully petition for the freedom of her son and daughter. “You have people like my mother, who thinks that there is nothing wrong with slavery. They have no other universe. After fifteen or twenty generations, people become totally submissive” (p. 58). Yet one day after a severe beating, Mamadou, without plan or prospects, and leaving behind her three small children, ran. And Messoud, born a slave to a mother who did not see the wrong in it, founded SOS-Esclave, an “underground railroad” for Mauritanian slaves.

Susan Babbitt's book is precisely and passionately concerned with cases in which “social structures and practices make certain possibilities unimaginable, in which standards of reasonableness preclude the understandability, even the identification, of relevant options” (3). The relevant options in question are those actions that achieve or express some people's real or “objective” interests in their own human flourishing. Perhaps Babbitt's clearest distillation of the central argument that recurs throughout her book is this:

it is often thought, in moral and political philosophy, that individual interests and individual autonomy are defined in terms of individuality, in terms of who the person really is. We start with a conception of who the person is—usually defined in terms of deep-seated commitments—and define interests, responsibilities, and autonomy in these terms. In some cases, however, who a person is at a time does not provide an appropriate basis for answering such questions. In some cases, for instance, what an individual is is, in fact, degraded and dehumanized. (119-20)

Babbitt's central positive thesis is that a theory of individual rationality needs to identify the reasonableness of choices and actions for people in terms of paths of development that really constitute or open up for them ways to greater human flourishing; for instance, to living with autonomy, dignity, and self-respect. Yet sometimes oppressed or degraded people cannot see in advance the actions and engagements that will set them on those paths. The reasonableness of such alternatives for these people “comes to be articulatable only as a result of … transformative action that makes possible understanding of the social order that was not possible previously” (100). People must discover in and through action what they could be, despite the deprivation or ravages of “social conditioning” (103) or “ideological oppression” (39). “In some cases individuals have to act and choose first before the ends that make their actions reasonable become imaginable” (6).

Babbitt's greatest success in this book, in my view, is showing how a variety of philosophical views of individually rational action, including those of Rawls, Brandt, Railton, Kymlicka, and Hill, are inattentive to or complacent about problems faced by human beings whose worth and dignity are not presupposed in their social worlds. Only at one point does Babbitt mention that the pictures of rational agency she critiques are theories of economically advantaged white male philosophers (75). For the most part, she focuses on the conceptual structure of these views—what they presuppose and imply, and what they do and do not explain. In the first half of the book, she usefully explains the appeal of these “liberal” views of rational action: they preserve “the centrality of the individual's perspective” on living and choosing (40), and they rule out, as incompatible with individual autonomy, transformative experiences that manipulate or coerce people into seeing what they have been made to desire as “really” in their interests (46).

Babbitt can give these views their due because she herself believes in “the primacy of individuals” (129). She shares the ideal of people's being able, in Kymlicka's evocative phrase, to lead their lives “from the inside” according to their own conceptions of good and reasonable beliefs. What troubles Babbitt are cases in which the “inside” is dramatically impoverished or distorted; where dignity, integrity, or self-respect are “impossible dreams.”

There is a good deal more to Babbitt's book, however. Even the book's ambitious subtitle does not quite forecast its contents, although it suggests more cohesion than I found among them. While chapters 1 through 5 offer a sustained treatment of individual rationality, only chapter 5 attempts to say more about the morally informed conception of individuality or integrity that is needed for a less epistemologically and politically conservative understanding of individual rationality. (Unfortunately, as Babbitt herself acknowledges, she uses “individuality,”“identity,”“personal integrity,” and, it seems, “autonomy” interchangeably [105]. This confusing usage is not helpful to the reader nor to Babbitt's own development of her position.)

Nor does Babbitt's characterization of “moral imagination” grow much beyond “the capacity to envision alternative social arrangements” mentioned in the introduction (7). Babbitt argues in chapter 2 that the knowledge crucial for rational choice may be “nonpropositional,” involving “different interpretive positions” or “epistemic standards” for organizing propositional information about one's social world (50), but she does not firmly connect this claim to the discussion of feminist particularism and the epistemological and political significance of personal relations in chapter 7. The argument of chapter 6 defending “essentialism” was puzzling; Babbitt seems to argue for the reality of similarities and differences, at least relative to particular epistemological and other interests, but concludes that this argument supports the claim that things (and social “kinds”) have “real essences.” This claim seems far stronger than the claim that some categorizations are nonarbitrary and that they support significant generalizations. The final chapter critiques Martha Nussbaum's Aristotelian view of judgment and enters a concluding plea for the indispens-ability of “distanced” theoretical perspectives—at least, a “broader moral vision” (204)—in assessing the relevance of particular details in concrete situations.

It is possible that I sought more unity in these essays than Babbitt intended a reader to find. Yet a potentially rich set of connections is left largely undeveloped. Babbitt opens the introduction with LeRoi Jones's political epiphany on his visit to postrevolutionary Cuba; and in an epilogue, she defends some Cuban feminists who were criticized at a feminist conference for “universalizing” the situations of women and human beings in their discussions of women's struggles for equality since the Cuban revolution. Babbitt seems to want to say something in defense of “the social imposition of value and meanings” (209) represented by the educational and political systems of Cuba for the past thirty-five years, an imposition that violates autonomy on standard liberal assumptions. Or at least she wants to level the critical playing field here.

The epilogue brings out something encrypted in Babbitt's thorough discussion of the limits of liberal rationality. The North American and Cuban contexts both impose a national-social identity on people “so that some possibilities are conceivable and doable and others are not” (210). The difference, Babbitt contends, is that in the Cuban context the imposition is overt and discussed; while in the “neutral” liberalism of our North American philosophies, the prescribed vision of humanity is unacknowledged. Worse, that vision of living from “inside” one's values, allowing adjustments for belief and instrumental reasoning but prohibiting interference with “conceptions of the good,” itself seals off from criticism acquired values noxious to members of disadvantaged or despised social groups (210). I would like to have seen Babbitt develop the reflexive epistemology needed to diagnose this situation more fully and explore the political strategies for freeing moral imaginations not only of “the oppressed,” but of everyone in affluent North American society imbued with the liberal social conception that values “the individual” so highly.

Had Babbitt done this, she might have exposed a deeply troubling feature of her main argument about rationality, which left me with the most serious reservation about the book. Given her themes, Babbitt has many opportunities to comment on the diminished and demeaning identities foisted by a socially dominant group on many other human beings in oppressive social schemes. Slaves' full humanity has “no place in the structure of slave society” (25); a certain society cannot “accommodate” the existence of someone “as a full human being” (51); a social structure “can deny the possibility of full personhood” (72) or “disallows individuality” to certain groups (110); someone “cannot be seen to exist as a human being within a conceptual system” of a certain kind (91). In other words, people are “perceived as individuals [or not] according to social norms and values” (110).

Yet Babbitt also says, at least as often, that a deferential wife may not possess “a self at all” (43); that it is not possible for some people “to be an individual in the first place” (60); that certain people “cannot exist as people” in some systems (90); that some people “cannot possess some sorts of significant individual traits” once other traits have been ascribed to them (108); that some “are not individuated as people at all” (114); that for some “belief in oneself as a person is itself, on current terms, unavailable” (115); that for a black woman in a certain situation, being “a fully self-respecting human being” is “not there to be chosen” (173). In some of these cases Babbitt seems to express the perspective of the privileged on those they disrespect or despise, using elliptical expressions for the view looking down. Unfortunately, Babbitt often seems to mean what these words say: that it is a common or general condition of the “oppressed” or “excluded” that they are not actually persons or do not possess important or valued qualities of persons, and that they appear this way in their own eyes or the eyes of their peers and their communities.

This view is misleading, epistemologically and politically, for three reasons. First, it fails to acknowledge that noxious ideologies saturate everybody's self-conception in societies where they prevail. It is as important to question the moral adequacy and reality of the self-conceptions of the “privileged” as those of the “oppressed.” Not to do so is to remain within an ideological construction in which the privileged “really” are the best sorts and possess the good qualities, whereas the disadvantaged “really” fail at or fall short of personhood. This entirely misses the importance of a system of dominant and subordinate or diminished identities structured by power and privilege: some people are in a position to deny recognition among themselves to others who actually do have the selves that deserve it.

Babbitt's only concession to this problem is to remark in passing, “people who are more favorably situated also need to undergo personal change if they are to understand the ways in which their actions and thought presume their privileged social positions, working to damage the prospects of others” (121). It is true that the social privilege of some constitutes, by definition, a reduction in prospects of some others. It is invariably true that the material advantages of the more powerful are in an inverse relation to the material resources of the less powerful. But it is not necessarily the case that the privilege of some actually destroys or cripples the selves, the dignity, the self-respect, or the integrity of others, even if it can obscure or discredit their personhood and worth. Under particularly brutal conditions, like those from which Fatma Mint Mamadou escaped, perhaps the actual diminishment of self can occur. Yet even Mamadou's cowed and starved self could decide to run for her life. To assume that radical diminishment of self characterizes the situation of “the oppressed” is to render them a spuriously homogeneous kind. This is the second mistake. If “real essences” do exist, “being oppressed” is not plausibly seen as one of them. Many different histories and social processes form and subordinate groups; many different kinds of opportunities for solidarity and resistance arise within groups variously disadvantaged; and many different situations allow group members to be selves and strengthen them.

Finally, to drift between speaking of people's being perceived as diminished and their being diminished misses the opportunity to mark the distinct epistemic positions, powerful in different degrees and credible in different places in society, from which anyone's “identity” is seen or construed. While Babbitt explores different philosophical theories that set criteria for rationality, she does not keep track of the social positions from which people are seen or denied to have identities, integrity, autonomy, or rationality. But this rigging of self-flattering distributions of credibility about who has a self is part of what the privileged have the power to do.

One of the enjoyable features of Impossible Dreams is the use of striking examples from novels, stories, dramas, and political memoirs. But the rhetoric of self-no self or adequate self-inadequate self with which Babbitt often frames them does not clarify the epistemic complexity of real social orders, which mete out selfhood in varying proportions and qualitative dimensions to different kinds of people, and not always consistently across different contexts of interaction. Nor is her emphasis on seemingly “crazy” actions (such as that of Toni Morrison's Sethe in Beloved, who kills her children with a handsaw rather than see them enslaved) a good way to exhibit the clearly sane feats of hope, courage, and integrity of which countless human beings have shown themselves—their selves—capable under grinding and cruel conditions. Babbitt's book is admirable. It joins careful thought about normative philosophical ideals in our professional discourse to a political view that exposes the ideological presuppositions of that discourse. I am not sure that I have fully understood the epistemology of her book; but I think that for its own purposes it needs to see some of what it looks at from more, and other, places.

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Susan E. Babbitt, Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination. Boulder, Co., Westview Press, 1997.
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Susan E. Babbitt, Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination. Boulder, Co., Westview Press, 1997.
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Susan E. Babbitt, Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination. Boulder, Co., Westview Press, 1997.
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