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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