Sunday, July 3, 2011

Feminism, Richard Dawkins, and moral progress

It’s funny that some people of late have assumed that I read books and simply buy their arguments uncritically. My books – including those I agree with in a general way and cite – are riddled with critical (admittedly, often snotty) comments, “X”s, and “!”s.

This includes The God Delusion, which, as it happens, I was just flipping through the other morning. Coincidentally, as it happens, I was reading the section about the changing “moral Zeitgeist” and how it isn’t driven by religion. As I was reading, several recent stupid comments about women and feminism by Dawkins came to mind, and I was planning to post about this section as a sort of general consciousness-raising effort. Dawkins’ latest remarks have made this particularly relevant, so I’m moving the post up in the queue.

In the chapter on “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist,” Dawkins argues:
Some of us lag behind the advancing wave of the changing moral Zeitgeist and some of us are slightly ahead. But most of us in the twenty-first century are bunched together and way ahead of our counterparts in the Middle Ages, or in the time of Abraham, or even as recently as the 1920s. The whole wave keeps moving, and even the vanguard of an earlier century (T. H. Huxley is the obvious example) [!:)] would find itself way behind the laggers of a later century. Of course, the advance is not a smooth incline but a meandering sawtooth. There are local and temporary setbacks such as the United States is suffering from its government in the early 2000s. but over the longer timescale, the progressive trend is unmistakable and it will continue. (307)
Some of this section is odd. He calls Huxley, “by the standards of his times,…an enlightened and liberal progressive” (302). But regardless of what “the average Victorian” (303) may have thought, Huxley was hardly progressive on social issues when seen against, oh, say, Elisée Reclus or Peter Kropotkin (who were arguably in many ways not only ahead of their time but of ours), not to mention many rebels who were women, nonwhite, and non-European. Dawkins suggests that moral progress “moves in parallel, on a broad front, throughout the educated world” (306), driven by leaders and role models (he lists only men). It’s kind of a “great men” model of social change. When he refers to his limited “amateur psychology and sociology” (308), I can’t help but concur.

The notion of moral progress is complex, but in broad terms I agree. When he speculates about Peter Singer’s call (which didn’t really begin with Singer) to move to a “post-speciesist condition” (308) being a likely direction for the moral consensus, I also agree. However, as his recent comments have shown, Dawkins fails to consider himself in light of his own thesis when it comes to women. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that, like Huxley, he’s not as progressive as he thinks – that despite (or not) his being part of “the educated world,” his views and remarks about women and feminists resemble little so much as those of “the average Victorian.” Those who recognize that in any given era many who consider themselves forward and enlightened thinkers hold ideas that the Zeitgeist of a later time will regard as morally repugnant should appreciate that they may not be – and to the extent that they’re members of privileged classes (white, male, straight, well off, not disabled, religious, Northern), are less likely to be – among the moral vanguard, and act appropriately and conscientiously.

*Oh, shoot. I was going to write more about this series on Kropotkin and Huxley, but forgot. Oops. Even if I don’t, though, I’m happy to recommend it again. I have few criticisms, though the title is strange - Kropotkin was a scientist, too!


  1. thanks. I'm too burned out to have anything more substantive to say on the topic...

  2. This was a great post! Thanks much for the "The Scientist and the Anarchist" - that was very fine. I've been thinking a lot on the question of moral progress recently,inspired by quite a disappointing debate on the topic on a radio show I listen to frequently.

    Your point regarding our responsibility to look beyond our current moral "zeitgeist", and the difficulty those in positions of privilege (like myself) have in doing so - I addressed this issue briefly after my talk at the recent CfI conference.

    Do you have any suggestions as to how we might do that better? I'm thinking of writing a post on the topic at my website, but given your deep thinking on the topic already I was wondering if you might like to think together about it.