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Why Women Hug their Chains: Wollstonecraft and Adaptive Preferences

  • SANDRINE BERGES (a1)
Abstract

In a recent article,1 Amartya Sen writes that one important influence on his theory of adaptive preferences is Wollstonecraft's account of how some women, though clearly oppressed, are apparently satisfied with their lot. Wollstonecraft's arguments have received little attention so far from contemporary political philosophers, and one might be tempted to dismiss Sen's acknowledgment as a form of gallantry.2 That would be wrong. Wollstonecraft does have a lot of interest to say on the topic of why her contemporaries appeared to choose what struck her as oppression, and her views can still help us reflect on contemporary problems such as the ones identified and discussed by Amartya Sen. In this article I will argue that a close look at Wollstonecraft's arguments may lead us to rethink some aspects of Sen's discussion of the phenomenon of adaptive preferences.

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1 Sen, Amartya, ‘Reason, Freedom, and Well-Being’, Utilitas 18 (2006), pp. 80–6.

2 For recent philosophical papers on Wollstonecraft see Halldenius, Lena, ‘The Primacy of Right: On the Triad of Liberty, Equality and Virtue in Wollstonecraft's Political Thought’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 15 (2007), pp. 7599; Wingrove, Elizabeth, ‘Getting Intimate with Wollstonecraft: In the Republic of Letters’, Political Theory 33 (2005), pp. 344–69; and Brace, Laura, ‘“Not Empire but Equality”: Mary Wollstonecraft, the Marriage State and the Sexual Contract’, Journal of Political Philosophy 8 (2000), pp. 3345.

3 Sen, Amartya, Inequality Re-examined (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), p. 55.

4 See Sen, ‘Reason’, p. 88.

5 Elster, Jon, Sour Grapes (Cambridge, 1987) emphasizes that the phenomenon of sour grapes is causal rather than intentional. It is not the case in the examples discussed by Sen and Nussbaum that people choose to deal with disappointment by forcing themselves to forget about it, it is an unconscious process.

6 Nussbaum, Martha, Women and Human Development (Cambridge, 2000), p. 114.

7 Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, p. 113.

8 For a full and detailed list of the capabilities see Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, pp. 78–80.

9 The use of the adjective ‘stunted’ implies that the preferences did not develop in a natural way. I refrain, however, from describing such preferences as ‘unnatural’ as what is relevant is not what the preference actually is for, but how it was formed. ‘Unatural preferences’ might be read as meaning that there are some things that are by nature preferable and others not. This is not what I am talking about here.

10 Sugden, R., ‘What we desire, what we have reason to desire, whatever we might desire: Mill and Sen on the value of opportunity’, Utilitas 18 (2006), pp. 33–5, 34.

11 Sugden, ‘What we desire’, p. 34.

12 Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, p. 41.

13 Although it is not the case that all the phenomena described by Sen fall under the category of sour grapes. At best, sour grapes is a subcategory of adaptive preferences. Preferences can also adapt themselves to a bad situation without the subject of those preferences rejecting any actual grapes. So I can believe that my situation is fine as it is, without thinking of any particular, objectively preferable situation that would not in fact be preferable. But I find it helpful, for the sake of this discussion, to focus on instances of sour grapes.

14 Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, p. 43.

15 Rousseau, J.-J., The Basic Political Writings (Indianapolis, 1987), p. 72.

16 Morley, John (trans.), ‘Condorcet's Plea for the Citizenship of Women’, The Subjection of Women: Contemporary Responses to John Stuart Mill, ed. Pyle, Andrew (Bristol, 1995), pp. 236–43, at p. 236. Strangely, Condorcet does not relate the phenomenon he describes directly to women, he only deduces from it that men must have simply not noticed that women were oppressed.

17 Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (Oxford, 1993), p. 48.

18 Sapiro, Virginia, A Vindication of Political Virtue (Chicago, 1992), p. 227.

19 Wollstonecraft Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 148.

20 Kant, I., ‘An answer to the Question what is Enlightenment’, Kant's Political Writings, ed. Reiss, H. (Cambridge, 1991), p. 55.

21 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 125.

22 Sen Inequality, p. 55.

23 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 124.

24 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 140. See also pp. 132, 134, 135.

25 See Tomalin, Claire, The Life and Death of Marie Wollstonecraft (Littlehampton, 1974).

26 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 68.

27 Wollstonecraft, Mary, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (Oxford, 1994), pp. 93–4.

28 Wollstonecraft, Thoughts, p. 69 and Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 229. Brace, ‘Not Empire but Equality’, p. 435, claims that Wollstonecraft bases duties on men and women on natural division of labour, and that therefore motherhood holds an important place in virtuous womanhood. This seems less persuasive in the light of the passages I quoted in which Wollstonecraft describes what a woman might and should do.

29 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 123, n. 4.

30 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 176.

31 Morley, ‘Condorcet's Plea’, p. 239.

32 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 148.

33 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 112.

34 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 133.

35 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 176.

36 J. S. Mill, The Subjection of Women in On Liberty and Other Writings (Cambridge, 1989), p. 139.

37 The ‘hot-bed’ Wollstonecraft refers to (Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 140) was the eighteenth-century equivalent of the hot-house, a pit filled with horse manure and covered with glass.

38 For an insightful discussion of these gardening analogies in the eighteenth century, see George, Sam, ‘The cultivation of the female mind: enlightened growth, luxuriant decay, and botanical analogy in eighteenth century texts’, History of European Ideas 31 (2005), pp. 209–23.

39 Mill, Subjection of Women, p. 132.

40 Frances Power Cobbe, ‘The Subjection of Women’, in Pyle, The Subjection of Women, pp. 54–74.

41 Cobbe, ‘The Subjection of Women’, p. 60.

42 Cobbe, ‘The Subjection of Women’, p. 61.

43 Wollstonecraft, Thoughts, p. 54. Although Wollstonecraft would agree with Elster's rejection of the view that sour grapes can be the result of indoctrination, she would do so for different reasons. Elster (Sour Grapes, p. 117) thinks that indoctrination is only successful when the indoctrinator sincerely believes what he is preaching. But Wollstonecraft's claim is more radical as she seems to believe that the mind cannot be manipulated but ultimately must create itself.

44 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 88.

45 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 241.

46 Wollstonecraft, Thoughts, p. 5.

47 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 109.

48 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 146.

49 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 148.

50 Wollstonecraft, Thoughts, pp. 93–4.

51 Wollstonecraft, Thoughts, p. 100.

52 Sen, ‘Reason’, p. 88.

53 Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 124.

54 Thanks to Anca Gheaus, Lena Halldenius, Lars Vinx, Simon Wigley, Bill Wringe for their feedback, and to the audiences at the 2009 Philosophy in Assos conference and at the SWIP session of the 2009 Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association conference.

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Utilitas
  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
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