Sally Haslanger on Decency, Critical Theory and Ideology

Prof. Dr. Sally Haslanger is the Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts. Her philosophical career led her through metaphysics and epistemology to critical theory and feminism. Her best-known book is Resisting Reality which was published by Oxford University Press in 2012. To find out more about Prof. Haslanger’s CV, engagements and publications visit her website :

Prof. Haslanger, what makes a decent human being?

Sally Haslanger: Wow. I didn’t expect that kind of question. Well, I’d say that a decent human being is someone who tries to promote virtue in themselves and others and who aims for justice. In order to do that we have to listen to people, take their words seriously, and care about the answers they give to us. We must also be critical though. Just because someone says that something is true doesn’t mean that it is true. We must question our own ideas. Test them out with other people who are very different from you. And strive to be in the world in a way that is meaningful. I don’t think it’s easy to be a decent human being. I think most of us fall short of this in lots of ways. That’s because we assume we know too much or because we think we already know what others think or need. There are times when being decent requires interacting with people who are very different from us to get their perspective on things. Often it is hard because we are very segregated and it takes courage to go into other communities and participate in their form of life. But being a philosopher doesn’t make me an expert on being decent.

Speaking of someone who could be considered to be the opposite of decent human being : Donald Trump. How come people vote for him?

Sally Haslanger: I think there are people who try to be decent human beings by taking care of themselves and their families. They think that that’s enough. And they imagine that Trump will govern in a way that makes things better for themselves and their family. There is a sense in which people who just take care of their families can be decent. But in a world as big as ours there are many needs that have to be satisfied. I think that just living for yourself and your family is not enough. Even those who are poor or struggling are usually in a position to make the effort to care about another, to recognize someone else as having needs too. The world is made up of many families with great needs and justice demands of us that we take the needs of others – including strangers, including people very different from us, including people very far away from us – seriously. I don’t see Trump as someone who sees himself as part of a broad humanity, as caring about the needs of others beyond himself and his family (and his political base). Many people who admire him seem have the same perspective.

I’ve suggested that to be just, we must get outside of ourselves and look beyond our immediate personal problems. Of course, in order to encounter people who are different from you – people who have different needs, different beliefs, different values – it sometimes takes money. You have to go to other neighborhoods, or to other towns, or at least read. But sometimes people don´t have time to go to the library or they don’t know where to find information online. It’s a challenge. There are a lot of people who only encounter what reinforces their existing attitudes. And so they come to think that people who are different from them are to be criticized or that they are a threat. And some people – in churches, in the media, in public life – encourage that thought. It is difficult to be a decent person by just listening to what’s on the news. In our world things are more complicated than what you can get from one perspective or one point of view. And there are many Trump supporters who are not thinking broadly and they are not listening broadly and they are just trying to protect themselves and their families. It is easy to understand how this happens. But I believe that with this perspective you fail to be just.

How can we tackle that problem? How do you get people to think “more broadly”?

Sally Haslanger: I think that we can expand our understanding through thinking, reading, reasoning. But the most important change comes through experience. We gain moral knowledge through experience. Take, for example, homeless people. We have many homeless people in the U.S., especially in the cities. And some people are afraid of them and think that they are criminal and dangerous. A lot of them use drugs so they count as “criminals”, but the crime they are committing is against themselves and not others. Some of them have mental illnesses. But also some of them are just poor people who have had a hard time. By meeting a homeless person and hearing their story, a person can learn that this other human being living on the street is not evil or dangerous.

And where does critical theory come in? Is that the theoretical background to the practical approach you just mentioned?

Sally Haslanger: So critical theory begins in a social movement. It begins with a discomfort with how things are and with people who are collectively dissatisfied. When people are dissatisfied they try to come up with an explanation. There is a tendency, initially, for people who are suffering to think that something is wrong with them. For example, a female philosophy student might say something like: “I don’t like this philosophy class. I must be stupid.” But we can observe a pattern: Women and people of color have that feeling in philosophy classes and blame themselves. And then the pattern needs to be explained. So a critical theory helps people who have started to notice a pattern to come up with a good explanation. And that happens by engaging in empirical social science or a social theory that takes seriously the perspective of the people embedded in that specific pattern. Critical theorists tell people who are feeling discomfort that their discomfort matters and they should collaborate in order to make sense of his experience. So critical theory is not “pure philosophy” in the sense that it´s not a priori. It doesn´t start from a neutral standpoint. It is very deeply embedded. It tries to come up with tools and resources for challenging our everyday-understanding of things. So we are shown that there are different ways of understanding reality that is emancipatory. And once you break through all those patterns – that women can’t do philosophy or black people can’t do philosophy – you realize that that’s a belief you have been encouraged to have because there is a structure maintaining itself that way. And this insight is emancipatory. Social theory is this mixture of experience, philosophical reason, and empirical research that helps us break through this illusion: we can see that there is a significant aspect of reality that everyday experience and thought misses. And then you’re like “Oh, this is bad. We need to change something!”. Critical theory can help us decide in which direction we should go to move forward.

How do you prevent yourself as a critical theorist from patronizing subordinate, underprivileged or oppressed communities or individuals?

Sally Haslanger: Critical theorists shouldn’t all be academic. A lot of us are academics. But the community in which we are embedded in is the community of the social movement not the philosophy department. We are often the people who are frustrated or feel dissatisfaction. We’re women, we’re workers, we’re people of color. There can also be writers or poets who are embedded in a struggle. Critical theory does not give suggestions to these “poor ignorant people” who have false consciousness about what you can do. It’s about what we, the ones that are struggling, can do together. There is going to be a division of labor. Different people can offer different talents and skills to the movement. There is theoretical work to be done about explaining the subordination or the suffering of the people. But I don’t think that the critical theorist’s opinions are “God’s gift”. They’re not obviously true. Theories have to be tested out by the people in the movement. The explanation is going to have to be responsive for a broader range of people than just the intellectuals. I’m not trying to tell another group of people what they should believe about themselves in their situation. I’m trying to think what I should believe about myself in my situation and the people which I am allied with in the movement. It’s about what we should think about ourselves and I´m responsive to others I’m allied with and not to some academic.

Do you need a moral theory in order to address critique? Aren’t we – at the end of the day – returning “home” to universal moral theories?

Sally Haslanger: That´s a really hard question. We start with the experience of suffering of frustration or complaint. I believe that there is a basic capacity that humans have to resist oppression and coercion and to recognize when wrong is being done to other members of the group with whom they most identify. But not every time that we feel frustration can we legitimately say “Well, this is an injustice.” I feel a lot of frustration, but is it all injustice? No. So the first step with the frustration is to figure if there is a pattern. Figure out what the explanation of the pattern is. We also need to consider whether we´re in circumstances that are likely to distort our opinions or whether we´re likely to be tracking some reality. So for example: when people are in the conditions of war, they have been trained to be sensitive to some things but not others. They´ve been disciplined to not care about the death of other people who aren’t on our side. We can´t really trust their moral judgments. Soldiers are not just acting as ordinary human agents because they have been trained to put aside their moral responses. Another example would be if we are under the influence of a charismatic leader. Our moral judgments are not good. Also, when people have power, their judgments are not so good. We have empirical evidence of this. Part of the explanation there is rather simple : we tend to avoid criticizing people who have power over us. So we need to figure out when someone is in a position to make good moral judgments. If we have reason to doubt their (or our) judgments, we ask how we can compensate for this distortion. One thing you can do is to test it against other people. Something like: “Does this seems like a reasonable thing to say, you who aren’t in power or you who aren’t in the army?” Then you may be able to correct your judgments and get closer to the truth.

Have people been developing their ability to make good moral judgments? Is there something like moral progress?

Sally Haslanger: I think that in order to have moral progress you have to have the social conditions for people to articulate their concerns and go through a progress of social critique and social explanation. And I don´t think that that´s always given. This process that I have just been describing requires institutions that support these “unmasking” explanations, that support some kind of process for testing our judgments. Not every moment in history makes these institutions available. There’s nothing like “moral progress to perfection”. I think we can – at moments – improve our situation. But it is always possible that the reliable people will be executed or silenced, and we just go back to some ideological hell. There’s not anything like steady progress. The only progress will be slow and incremental. It can be reversed at any moment. In fact I have the sinking feeling that we are in a moral decline.

And why is that?

Sally Haslanger: Fear is a big issue. There was progress in seeing the world as a place with many different and wonderful forms of life, and many different kinds of people. But some groups started to feel afraid that their way of life would be rejected or eliminated – they would no longer be able to hold onto their sense that their way of life was the true and the good. In the background is an ideology that their way of life was natural, “God given,” exceptional. So other forms of life must be unnatural, Satanic, inferior. Fear makes people less open to learning things. And when people with racial power, economic power, gender power, shut down to protect themselves, they build walls and try to destroy the competition. That’s where we are now. And it’s partly economic. People feel afraid that others could take away what they have. There’s probably fear about what will happen if white people loose political power. If people who have been subordinated are now treated with respect, how will they treat people who dominated them? Are some people going to be punished for their colonialism or racism? I think those with economic power are afraid at heart. They know there’s been a long history in which they have benefited from domination. They’re trying to erase that history. They’re afraid of retaliation.

If there is no such thing like steady moral progress and people are very well aware of their guilt towards other people : is there something innate in people that makes them unjust?

Sally Haslanger: I don’t think that injustice is innate. There are philosophers who think that and that everybody is just in for themselves. Mostly they are white men looking at other white men. They don’t think about human community or children or women. How could human communities have evolved if everybody was “in it for themselves”? If were a society of white fully abled men who were all “in it for themselves” we would have died out a long time ago. In order to survive as a species we have to raise young humans who are incredibly vulnerable and we have to sacrifice a tremendous amount in order to raise them. Of course the idea of a “state of nature” that philosophers like Hobbes suggest has no historical or biological reality to it, but it is also a bad starting point for political theory. The moral basis for human society is not fear; the “inevitable” alternative is not war of each man against another. We may have a deep impulse to take care of our small group, but we are not innately programmed to hate or fear those outside of our group. And even if we were, humans have culture – a process of social learning – that overrides and re-programs instinct. If we didn’t have culture, and if we weren’t highly malleable, we would never have survived.

How does ideology come in? And how did ideology develop in the first place?

Sally Haslanger: People have a desire to make sense of their lives. There are various kinds of pressure due to power structures to live life in a certain way. And what happens is a combination of things. We develop stories, narratives, about what is “natural” or “reasonable” and both people who benefit from it and people who are harmed by it buy the dominant story. We all contribute to it. So it´s not that the powerful make up ideology and feed it to the less powerful. We just start doing things in certain ways and shape the relationships we’re involved in for all kinds of reasons: Economic reasons, religious reasons. But sometimes the story has to change because the climate changes or some new kind of technology is invented. Suddenly we think “Oh. That´s how things are done now.” But social movements can also change the stories – they call on us to notice that the stories encourage us to harm each other, and offer different ones. They can point to facts or valuable things that aren’t included in the stories. To improve our relationships we can’t just make things up, but we can seek out good – empirically adequate – explanations and narratives to use as a basis for coordination.

Will we always need some kind of ideology or some set of values at hand that “shape the social” in some way or the other?

Sally Haslanger: Societies are organized around values. Some values promote just forms of coordination and others not. I think that the problem with certain forms of liberalism is that “anything goes” in the domain of values. The goal is to maximize the satisfaction of preferences. It’s like “Sure! Whatever you prefer!” But we should not accept that whatever you prefer is fine. Some preferences are damaging to other people. Some preferences are misguided because they’re based on false presuppositions. Some preferences need to be challenged because they are ideological. So we have to be more critical with preferences that play a role in structuring society. Some are leading us towards successful and flourishing communities and others are not. We have to give up a kind of liberal conceptions of values. When we look at social media (and broader public media) there’s a lack of critical perspective whether what we like or what we promote is actually good and reasonable and can provide a basis for a meaningful life. And a lot of the content on those platforms doesn’t promote successful coordination and cooperation as a community so we have to be more careful. But I don’t know how! Now that it exists people are going to use it in all kinds of ways. But we can promote critical perspectives that encourage us to ask whether our preferences are being manipulated by the institutions of global capitalism, White Supremacy, male domination, etc.

So would you say that the main purpose for philosophy in the coming times is to find out which presuppositions enable us to cooperate successfully with other people?

Sally Haslanger: I don’t like to say what philosophy is for or how people should do philosophy. I’m happy that there are people who love arcane topics, details of logic, or explorations of the history of philosophy, that have no immediate practical consequences. The products of thought can be exceptionally beautiful and inspiring. I am not in the business of saying what counts as “real” philosophy or what philosophers should be doing. I myself am very interdisciplinary and believe that the boundaries between disciplines are vague and fluid because they are they are created through the history and politics of universities. That said, I think there is an important task for critical theorists to think with social movements to consider how we might live together in justice. This will involve challenging existing narratives and forms of justification. It will involve seeking out alternative explanations of life as we know it. It will involve listening, caring, struggling. It will involve imagining new possibilities. These are things that philosophers can contribute to.

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