I don’t know how free Amish women are

Bryan Caplan writes:

Ques­tion: How free are Amish women com­pared to other Amer­i­can women?  I say they’re just as free.  I also say, against Will Wilkin­son, that their “for­mal free­dom” is morally sig­nif­i­cant. If the Amish used threats of vio­lence to keep their women in, it would be a ter­ri­ble crime.  As mat­ters stand, though, the plight of Amish women strikes me as objec­tion­able, but far from awful.  I vaca­tion in Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch coun­try with­out los­ing sleep over it.  When an Amish girl mar­ries an Amish boy, she knows what she’s get­ting into — and her vol­un­tary con­sent is mean­ing­ful despite her Amish upbringing.

[I don’t think Will denied that their for­mal free­dom has moral sig­nif­i­cance?]

My opin­ion? I don’t know how free Amish women are. Their level of free­dom, and that of other Amer­i­can women, is deter­mined by coun­ter­fac­tu­als hav­ing to do with whether or not sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent alter­nate ways of life were, in fact, open to them. The moral value of a person’s con­sent will come in degrees, in accor­dance with what the near­est alter­nate pos­si­ble worlds to them are like. So there are epis­te­mo­log­i­cal prob­lems here.

But, for­tu­nately, there are some indi­ca­tors of one’s level of free­dom. These might include whether a woman has con­sid­ered alter­nate ways of life, whether they are even con­ceiv­able to her, what con­se­quences (legal or social) she forsees in the case that she doesn’t com­ply with the dom­i­nant way of life, and so on. These will be con­tro­ver­sial, of course.

It seems to me that these indi­ca­tors pro­vide rea­son to think that non-Amish Amer­i­can women are freer than their Amish coun­ter­parts. But I could totally be wrong if, for instance, Cos­mopoli­tan mag­a­zine and the rest of the media have ado­les­cent girls so thor­oughly con­sumed with main­tain­ing their appear­ances that alter­nate ways of life are pre­cluded, and the con­se­quences of not liv­ing that way seem extremely dire to those girls.

How­ever, I think we owe a cer­tain amount of prima facie respect for women’s first-hand accounts of what their lives are like (so as to avoid pater­nal­ism, pro­ject­ing, etc). Being an urban athe­ist, I am tempted to assume that the lives of Amish women are extremely restricted. But when I see inter­views with them, and hear what they have to say about their lifestyles, my doubts regard­ing their free­dom are reduced.

But even if Amish women do not enjoy much free­dom due to cul­tural (not legal) fac­tors, you may or may not care about that. Bryan is appar­ently an equity fem­i­nist — he cares about legal free­doms much more than social free­doms. I am a cul­tural lib­er­tar­ian fem­i­nist — I think that threats to both types of free­doms are morally impor­tant (peo­ple like Kerry How­ley and Megan McAr­dle also seem to be in this camp). Impor­tantly, it does not fol­low from cul­tural lib­er­tar­ian fem­i­nism that the gov­ern­ment ought to intrude into social insti­tu­tions in order to make them more freedom-friendly.

A dis­cus­sion of this fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in fem­i­nisms is beyond the scope of this quick reply to Bryan — maybe some other time.



  • I don’t think this is a rushed post at all, I think it’s very concise.

    I think the bot­tom of this dis­cus­sion is that there comes a cer­tain point where con­cepts like “free­dom” and “coer­cion” become ambigu­ous and divi­sions among pro­po­nents of dif­fer­ent con­cepts arise.

    So I think most of us would agree that if I point a gun at someone’s head and say “pick that rock up off the ground or I will kill you”, I am coerc­ing that per­son and that per­son is not tak­ing a free action. There’s a lot of easy stuff like that which we don’t need to talk about particularly.

    But then there’s J. S. Mill, who con­sid­ers social dis­ap­proval a kind of coer­cion against non­con­formist indi­vid­u­als, on the one hand, and Hayek, who con­sid­ers social dis­ap­proval an impor­tant part of what enters into people’s freely made deci­sions when doing some­thing would require going against it. Hayek also argued that a rock climber who only has one option to escape a par­tic­u­lar predica­ment is still free because, even though he doesn’t have many options avail­able to him, he isn’t being denied any options that are avail­able by force wielded by another human being.

    Of course, free­dom and coer­cion are just words, but the moral intu­ition under them is impor­tant. And I think that’s what this whole debate is really about. Right?

  • Yes, it’s def­i­nitely about what free­dom and coerion do — or should — mean.

    In the recent Cato Unbound about lib­er­tar­ian pater­nal­ism, there was a good dis­tinc­tion made: monism, nihilism and plu­ral­ism about lib­erty. Monists (includ­ing alot of law-focused lib­er­tar­i­ans) pick one under­stand­ing and reject the oth­ers. Nihilists observe the vari­ety of usages and admit defeat — there must be no uni­fy­ing under­ly­ing con­cept. Plu­ral­ists, includ­ing cul­tural lib­er­tar­ian fem­i­nists, accept that there are dif­fer­ent types of lib­erty, with sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences, and their own significances.

    On my phone, but I’ll come back and post a link if I think of it.

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