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[ETA clarification: This is “liberal” in the sense of “Enlightenment classical”, not in the sense of “the left.” MacKinnon is not a liberal but she is more to the left than I am.]

My favorite summary of my political views was written by Catherine MacKinnon in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State to describe the political views she opposed. Say what you will about Ms. MacKinnon’s… everything… but the woman could certainly pass an Intellectual Turing Test.

If you would like to read MacKinnon’s explanation of my political viewpoint, it is on pages 44-47 of the linked PDF. However, I am with Susie Bright that:

Aside from the fantastic pornographic passages (“penises ramming vaginas,” etc.), MacKinnon disdains the use of subject-verb in a common sentence. Andrea Dworkin, MacKinnon’s collaborator and mutual inspiration, can write up a storm–I ate up Intercourse like a box of chocolates. MacKinnon, on the other hand, is the typical academic who must publish but can’t write.

So I am going to write my own explanation and save you the tedium.

According to MacKinnon, liberalism consists of five interrelated dimensions: individualism; naturalism; voluntarism; idealism; and moralism.

Individualism is the idea that the fundamental unit of society is the individual who stands alone, apart from any groups of which she or he is a member. (This is sometimes called the “liberal subject.”) It is opposed to collectivism, in which the fundamental unit of the society is the group.

Voluntarism is the idea that those individuals are autonomous. We make our own choices for our own reasons, not being shaped by manipulative or distorting external forces. It is opposed to the idea that our desires are shaped by the society we’re part of: a woman may genuinely desire to wear lipstick, but the reason she genuinely desires to wear lipstick is that she was told since infancy that it was what she should want.

Naturalism is the idea that the world is ultimately knowable and understandable; there is an objective truth that you can communicate to other people, even outside of a social context. If everyone works really hard to overcome their biases, then we will manage to come to the truth. It is opposed to the idea that people are just biased; if there is an objective truth, we’ll certainly never be able to reach it. Rationalists and leftists actually have broadly similar claims here: both of us have noticed that human brains are fallible and the Descartian model of finding truth by sitting down and thinking about it very hard doesn’t work very well. However, rationalists tend to be most interested in fallibilities that all humans share, such as the sunk cost fallacy and the conjunction fallacy. Leftists tend to be more interested in the social context of thinking– either in specific, like “how does Ozy being white affect their opinions about linguistic diversity?” or in general, like “how does the concept of ‘productivity’ taught to Ozy as a small child affect their opinions about capitalism?”

Idealism is the idea that thought is a prime mover of social life. This one is perhaps easiest to understand by contrasting it with its opposite, materialism. Materialism is the idea that society is fundamentally shaped by vast formless things. Materialism claims that if you’re in a society with a lot of unhappy poor people next to a lot of showoff rich people, something a lot like Communism will naturally appear; if Marx died in infancy, someone else would have catalyzed the anger of the poor into an ideology about how the rich people’s money should be given to them. Idealism claims that Communism happened because Marx sat down and thought about it and came up with some pretty interesting ideas, and if he had died as a baby there might not have been any USSR at all. (In practice, I’m a lot leerier about idealism than I am about the other four– I’m inclined towards a moderate, “both ideas and vast formless things are important” position.)

Moralism is the idea that one must conform one’s behavior to abstract rules. It might be a single rule, like “do what causes the greatest good for the greatest number”, or a lot of different rules, like “don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t interfere with people’s freedom of speech…” Moralism is opposed to suspicion about the whole “abstract rule” project, often because the abstract rules are made up by people in power and have a strange tendency to conclude that powerful people should stay powerful.

I think MacKinnon’s list serves as a useful explanation of the difference between liberal feminism and other feminisms. Liberal feminism is feminism that agrees with individualism, naturalism, voluntarism, idealism, and moralism. Radical feminism, cultural feminism, and socialist feminism is feminism that doesn’t agree with one or more of those claims.

(This is not a very useful heuristic for identifying feminists in the wild. If you wish to classify feminists you encounter, I would use the following guidelines: socialist feminists are the only ones who give a shit about class; radical feminists are extremely angry about sex work, BDSM, and/or trans people; cultural feminists leave you with the feeling of “I have no idea what you’re talking about but I’m pretty sure you’re a misogynist”; and everyone else is a liberal feminist, except Christina Hoff Sommers, whose brand of feminism begins with “anti-“.)

However, I think it goes beyond that: this is a succinct statement of my political commitments in general. I believe that people should be understood as individuals, not as part of groups; that these individuals are capable of free choices which should be respected; that as difficult as it is, we can know objective truth; that it matters what we believe, not just what social conditions are; and that you should follow abstract principles.