Two Concepts of Individualism

I began this chapter by invoking a narrative that has captured the Western imaginary about how development programs are supposed to empower women. The details vary: a woman may make artisanal jewelry or raise a goat she was gifted by a Northern NGO, and she may become the head of her own household or become a fierce advocate of girls’ education. But the key elements of the narrative remain the same: being able to earn an income allows women to reject sexist gender roles. Individualist commitments color the narrative in a couple of ways. First, the quotations from the women that make it into Western popular media emphasize the idea that earning an income gives women a sense of self and self-value. Second, rejecting patriarchal gender roles is cast as separation from a grouping, usually a family or a “culture.”5 In addition to arguing that this narrative is appealing because of colonial epistemic habits, critics argue that this narrative is harmful and based on distortions of the facts. Though this is not the place to discuss the empirical literature at length, it is worth noting that the ability of these interventions to produce empowerment is mixed at best.6 Arguments that the interventions are harmful with a more philosophical bent suggest that individualist commitments are a vehicle for justifying harm. According to critics, the emphasis on income, and on loosening attachments to family and culture, ignores the costs so-called “empowerment” interventions impose. For example, women’s entrepreneurship may erode the communal relationships on which the poor are known to depend for survival, as Lamia Karim (2008) has documented in the case of microcredit.7 Or women can see little change in their household status, or even see their status within households decline as a result of increased income, because men reduce their household contributions and expect women to act in ways that confirm men’s rights to superior status (see Adato et al. 2000; Chant 2008; Mayoux and Lacoste 2005; Molvneux 2009; Vaessen, Rivas et al. 2014). Cloaking such interventions in individualist rhetoric encourages Westerners to see the interventions as good. As Saba Mahmood famously put the worry that liberal values desensitize Westerners to the costs of interventions in Southern contexts: will we “ever run up against the responsibility [we] incur for the destruction of life forms so that ‘unenlightened’ women could be taught to live more freely” (Mahmood 2005, 198)?

The conflict between the conventional empowerment narrative and the critiques may seem to leave feminists in a bind. The critics appear to be claiming that there is something wrong with weakening group affiliations and relationships. But feminists know that sexist oppression is frequently enacted through relationships and justified by appeals to familial love, cultural preservation, and religious adherence. We also know that individual women’s interests are routinely subordinated to the interests of groups. The only genuine feminist response may thus seem to be to bite the imperialist bullet and accept that affiliations are the collateral damage of feminist change. After all, how is it possible to criticize sexist practices perpetrated in the name of affiliation and relationship without resorting to claims about the value of the individual?

But this defense of a connection between feminism and the form of individualism embraced in the conventional development narrative moves too fast.

It is of course true that feminists cannot approve practices like relationship violence or harmful cultural practices that are sexist. However, it is unclear that the reason that feminists must oppose these practices is that they fail to treat the individual appropriately. One of Martha Nussbaum’s early works on the capability approach offers an argument that opposing sexist practices that prioritize groups requires individualist commitments. She argues that women in the global South who criticize practices like intimate partner violence are engaged in using the “terms of the liberal Enlightenment” (1999, 56). “Individualism seems to be a good view for feminists to embrace” because it allows us to object to the fact that “women have rarely been treated as ends in themselves” (1999, 63). If her point is merely that liberals should oppose forms of gender-based violence defended in the name of group cohesion, she is obviously correct. But her point seems to be more than this - namely that feminists have to be, or should be, liberals because opposing such practices requires individualism.

But it is possible to oppose oppressive practices that subordinate women to groups without defending individualism. To see how, it will be useful to have an explicit definition of feminism in hand, bell hooks (2000) defines feminism as opposition to sexist oppression.8 Oppression, on Marilyn Frye’s classic definition, involves experiencing systematic disadvantage because of one’s social group membership (Frye 1983). I take both of these definitions to be relatively uncontroversial. An important upshot of them is that feminism opposes a certain relationship between gender groups. Because of this, feminism does not imply commitment to individualism in the way Nussbaum supposes. The feminist reason to oppose violence against women and cultural practices that treat women as vehicles for group cohesion is how these practices position women relative to other gender groups. The specific wrong of gender-based violence is that it targets women, girls, and members of other marginalized gender groupings and exerts and reinforces power against them. Indeed, commitment to the idea that individual persons have worth often fails to motivate the judgment that something is wrong with oppression, per se. As Lisa Schwartzman puts it, “focusing on individuals as individuals may prevent one from noticing that individuals are not regarded by society as mere individuals, and that various sorts of injustice, power, and privilege stem from group-based identities” (2006, 181).

This is not to deny that individual women are harmed by gender-based violence or even to deny that one can be an individualist of some kind and a feminist but rather to emphasize (1) that the role of feminism is not to explain all possible wrongs and (2) that feminism is compatible with a variety of moral worldviews. Feminism hones its focus on a certain type of intragroup wrong (sexist oppression) and does not on its own provide a view of what the other possible wrongs are or why they are wrong. So, it may be the case that violence against women is also wrong because it treats the individual persons it harms as means. But it may also turn out to be the case that violence against women is wrong for reasons that are nonderivative of individualism, such as that it fails to acknowledge the fundamental interrelatedness of all human beings or violates a divine command. To put my point in terms that will be familiar to liberals, neither is feminism what Rawls (1993) would call “a comprehensive doctrine” nor is feminism required to be an outgrowth of the comprehensive doctrine that is feminism.9

Commitment to individualism on its own neither generates opposition to sexist oppression nor is required for it. Widely held beliefs in the contemporary United States, for example, say that everyone has an individual interest in living as they choose, cast women’s situation as a result of their choices, and thus deny that the social relations constitutive of sexist oppression are a problem.10 Moreover, it is theoretically possible to imagine societies where counting as an individual, or leading an individualistic form of life, does nor confer advantage on persons. Feminism on its own does not provide a reason to object to societies that do not value individual status or fail to permit people the capacities associated with living an individualistic form of life. I hasten to add that counting as an individual does seem to be a currency of advantage in most actual societies, even in ones that are often taken to be communitarian.11 But this does not undermine the fact that feminism does not logically entail any views about the normative status of individuals; feminism is a view about the relative status of groups.

The upshot of this very theoretical discussion for whether feminists need to embrace the form of individualism that undergirds the conventional development narrative is that there is no conceptual reason they must. I just showed that there is no conceptual reason for feminists to be any type of normative individualist. But might there be a practical reason for feminists to embrace some form of normative individualism? I have admitted that counting as an individual in the way that liberal feminists are concerned with is a currency of advantage in most actual societies. I also concede that this status is systematically denied to women. So, is there a practical reason for feminists to embrace individualism? To answer the question about a practical relationship between feminism and individualism, it is worth stating outright what many readers will have already noticed: I have been using the term “individualism” vaguely up to this point. There is a reason for this, and it is that I am echoing the usage in the conventional development narrative - a narrative that I see as deriving much of its appeal from equivocating about what individualism is. The narrative ties together three different values that are all plausibly described as individualism: economic self-sufficiency, devaluation of inherited relationships, and counting as a distinct and separate inviolable person. It is part of liberal and Western self-understandings that the last (distinct, separate personhood) is sacrosanct. If earning an income and leaving one’s family and culture are just what it means to count as a separate person, it is hard to object to the interventions the conventional development narrative supports. If, on the other hand, these forms of individualism do not cause one to count as a separate person, the conventional development narrative can be severed even from liberal feminism and other feminisms that place women’s distinct, separate personhood at the center.

For an example of the conflation of various forms of individualism at work, we can consider the way the work of modernization theorists in development influenced the Women in Development (WID) paradigm, which continues to motivate many development interventions.12 Modernization theory was an early development paradigm, according to which industrialization would allow countries in the global South to reduce poverty and achieve other social markers associated with modernity, such as greater levels of education. In her (1994) assessment of the WID paradigm, Naila Kabeer (1994) argues that ostensibly feminist theorists uncritically adopted the view that improvements in women’s status would be a by-product of capitalist change. For example, the early development theorist William Arthur Lewis argued that women earning incomes would allow women to cease to be third-world men’s “beasts of burden” and be acknowledged in their “full personhood” (see Kabeer 1994, 19).

Here we see the assumption that one form of individualism (not being someone’s “beast of burden”) is supposed to come about as a result of another (achieving economic self-sufficiency and loosening one’s attachments to men). To draw a clearer philosophical distinction between the two forms of individualism in play, let us define each. The first form, which I call “personhood individualism,” consists in the view that people have interests of their own that are not reducible to the interests of others. I call the second form of individualism “independence individualism.” Independence individualism is the view that individuals should meet their own economic needs and that only chosen relationships are of value. This last idea that only chosen relationships are of value may seem to entail value commitments that no one would embrace. After all, finding oneself in unchosen relationships with family and culture is just part of human life. What seems to animate the conventional development narrative is a racialization of the notion of choice, whereby the relationships Westerners find themselves in count as chosen. Western marriages are typically thought of as the products of individual freedom and contrasted with arranged ones.13 Furthermore, as many postcolonial and decolonial thinkers have noted,14 Westerners tend to think of themselves as lacking a culture, whereas Southern individuals are seen as victims of cultures that constrain.15

Is either of these forms of individualism practically necessary for feminists to embrace? I affirmed earlier that counting as a separate person was a currency of advantage in most societies, one that is gender-differentially distributed. This suggests not that feminists must embrace personhood individualism but that there are indeed feminist reasons to promote it in many practical contexts. Independence individualism is another story. Once we distinguish it from personhood individualism, it is far less clear why promoting it would serve feminist ends at all. The conventional development narrative presents a woman who earns an income and leaves relationships of custom as one who is empowered. Why economic self- sufficiency and relationships of choice go together, and why they would promote feminist change in the first place, needs to be explained, but the conventional development narrative presents them as intertwined.

In my view, the most plausible explanation of why these ideas flow together so seamlessly in the Western imaginary is an idealization of the modern period.16 The idea that the practical upshot of economic independence for women in the global South will be a reduction in relationships of custom that produces feminist change stems from the assumption that the moral progress that capitalism ostensibly brought to the West will occur through similar means elsewhere. The popular Western understanding of history emphasizes the idea that modern societies freed people from the bonds of tradition and family. Naila Kabeer offers a clue to how Western ideas about modernization link economic independence to freedom to choose one’s relationships, as well as how the combination of these becomes linked to feminism: “pre-modern societies” needed to be transformed so that a variety of differentiated roles were available and statuses associated with them should be “achieved as a consequence of purposeful individual effort rather than ascribed by custom” (Kabeer 1994, 16).

In other words, in the popular Western self-narration, the modern period was one where moral progress and capitalism drove one another. Shifts from agrarian to industrial societies, and to transnational global economies, require mobile workforces - ones where people are less attached to roles dictated by tradition. The notion that economic independence is possible offers a narrative about how it is possible for individuals to meet their needs under capitalism and deflects responsibility for ensuring people’s survival from communities, kin, and the state. As Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon (1994) note, the valorization of independence was historically linked to industrialization in the West; independence only became a property of individuals in the eighteenth century and was only valued positively when used to describe the condition of the wage laborer in the nineteenth. Those who see independence individualist change as delivering feminist change seem to hold that the cause of women’s oppression is relationships characterized by custom and a high degree of consideration for the needs of others. If this is what the cause of women’s oppression is, then economic self-sufficiency looks like the required escape. Sexist oppression is an artifact of premodernity and will ostensibly disappear once the trappings of modern capitalism allow people to move from “traditional” to market-dictated roles.

A potential alternative explanation of the ascent of independence individualism is the familiar one from Western feminist philosophers in the care and dependency traditions. These philosophers argue that independence is an androcentric ideal that obscures the value of dependency in human life (see Baier 1995; Kittay 1999; Friedman 2013; Fineman 2005). I am sympathetic to this view, and in the last section of the chapter, I will adopt one of their key insights: that the ideal of economically independent citizens impedes feminist change by refusing to offer a vision for gender-just allocation of dependency work. However, androcentrism on its own cannot explain either (1) why economic self-sufficiency and opposition to relationships of custom become fused together in a single ideal (this fusion seems to require background commitments about the value of choice and specific empirical assumptions about the context in which the ideal is to be pursued) or (2) why independence individualism seems not merely morally desirable but also capable of causing feminist change. The idea that economic independence is supposed to erode the hold of “backward,” traditional practices, and not merely increase women’s ease of exit from bad relationships - and the idea that this in turn will constitute women’s liberation - draws on the colonial idealizations about modernity I described earlier. To put the point differently, the idealizations that make independence individualism seem required for feminist change are imperialist, and not merely androcentric.

But perhaps it seems that feminists should promote independence individualism because personhood individualism is genuinely important in most contexts, and it seems that independence individualism is the best way to operationalize personhood individualism. Recall that independence individualism is the view that individuals should be economically self-sufficient and that all relationships should be chosen; personhood individualism is the view that persons have separate and inviolable worth. To begin to question the idea promoting the former is the best way to promote the latter; we can note that the fact that personhood individualism is gender-differentially distributed in many real-world contexts does not make it the case that increasing respect for it is the most urgent form of feminist change in those contexts.

More importantly, the idea that promoting independence individualism promotes personhood individualism misses the fact that what promotes personhood individualism is likely context-variant. Note that the idea entails an empirical claim about means-end effectiveness. The effectiveness of means for achieving desired ends varies from context to context. Just as a boat is a better means for achieving the end of mobility in a society built around waterways than one built around roads, means to increasing respect for women’s personhood individualism vary to some extent from context to context. In a defense of something like independence individualism, Marilyn Friedman argues that much of the value of economic independence for women is prudential-, its importance derives from how it allows specific goods to be pursued within specific contexts (2013, 118).17 The most plausible way of linking economic self-sufficiency and decreases in relationships of custom with respect for women’s personhood individualism is the familiar story about how economic independence can allow women to exit abusive relationships - that is, relationships where their status as persons in their own right is denied by their abusers. But it is unclear that economic self-sufficiency is the only or best way to provide exit from relationship violence. In some contexts, access to income seems to increase women’s vulnerability to abuse and control, as in cases where men manipulate women to be able to gain access to microcredit from organizations that only give loans to women (see Ahmed 2008).18 In others, the way to reduce women’s subjection to abuse seems to be to strengthen their ties to certain relationships of custom besides the relationship with the abuser. For example, family violence interventions with some Aboriginal Australian women focus on strengthening their ties to the cultural community (Karahasan 2014), given that the idea of striking out on one’s own is seen as lacking moral value and given that it means “striking out” into a violent-settler society (Blagg2008, 149).

Perhaps it seems unfortunate that relationships of custom are such important routes to respect for women’s personhood in these contexts. This may sometimes be so, but valuing inherited forms of relationship is not tantamount to oppression. The fact that people rely on one another is not itself obviously unfortunate; the problem for feminists is that some societies, communal and not, expect women to sacrifice more than men or be subordinate to them in other ways. Moreover, even if independence individualism has allowed women to increase recognition of their personhood individualism by leaving oppressive relationships, it is not as though independence individualism has been a recipe for ending sexist oppression in the societies that value it. I will discuss this at more length in a moment, but, as a number of feminist thinkers have argued, economic self-sufficiency does little about, or exacerbates, the gender division of labor. Women in the United States, for example, find themselves working the famed “second shift” after they engage in paid labor and seem to find themselves engaging in more household labor the more economically successful they are (Bertrand, Pan et al. 2013).19

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