The Limitations of Standpoint and the Secular Humanist Fix

That some areas may be gray doesn’t mean that all areas are gray. There is situational and emergent morality and there is fundamental universal morality. Both must ultimately be reckoned beyond standpoint. I cannot conceive of a situation in which compelling a person to continue a pregnancy is just. My inability to conceive of such a situation is not due to standpoint (I am a man) but rather on recognition—a recognition available to anybody who is prepared to think beyond their cultural, ideological, religious, social position—of universal human rights, specifically the right of persons to own their body and their mind. 

We know slavery is wrong not because some people don’t want to be slaves but because no rational and free person would be if given a choice—but even more than that, because slavery makes bodies sick. There is no standpoint that makes slavery good, only ideologies that justify and rationalize it. Compelling a woman to have a baby is a manifestation of slavery. That the target of this practice is the human female should not change our reckoning of that. Victims don’t determine right and wrong; they are victims because they have been wronged.

So, while I insist that understanding the patriarchy is necessary for understanding why we must continue to fight for women’s rights (which are of course human rights), I cannot agree that the fight should be limited by standpoint, which I am defining here as claims of epistemic privilege by virtue of identity. Indeed, it cannot be without violating other rights, such as the right to think and speak freely and critically. 

This is why I don’t like the rhetoric of “allyship.” I am not an ally in the struggle against racism. I don’t take a backseat in the struggle on account of my skin color or my ancestry. I have no less moral authority on account of these impositions. I am an individual who opposes racism because of its effects on my brothers and sisters across our species, effects that limit them—and that includes me, as well. Just consider the role racism plays in weakening the class solidarity necessary for a mass movement against capitalist exploitation.

Typical disempowering messaging from allyship advocates

When a black person objects to being asked what black people think, that person is articulating a very important standard: demographic categories do not manifest as human agency. To treat a person’s identity as the prime signifier of truth, correctness, or justice is to reduce persons to, to reify abstractions. When a white person purports to tell people what white people think, the person is assuming authority he does not actually have. He is also assuming an impossible task: conjuring thought from a demographic category. What white person can speak for me? Identity politics is a terrific example of why we tell students in statistics classes that averages and aggregates aren’t people. How did this fallacy become operational in our political and moral struggles? What is real are unjust social relations and oppressive social structures. The truth of those lie outside our points of view. In fact, we need to get on the same page about them if we want to effectively deal with the problem they pose to human freedom. 

To claim that power, culture, or standpoint determines truth and justice reduces ontology to epistemology. This is an error. Denying the facts of reality, this claim falsely reduces reality to subjective impressions of it. So while power, culture, and standpoint can make falsehoods and injustices appear true and just, that does not make them so, and part of the truth of this is the relativity of power, culture, and standpoint. If a black person knows things a white person can’t because segmented experience, then that means a white person know things a black person can’t, yet both of blacks and white people exist in the same system of social relations and have access to the same means of ascertaining the truth of that system. Both are members of the human family with limiting racial identities imposed upon them without their consent. Standpoint doesn’t validate one’s view, it limits it. Making a fetish of subjectivism and relativism doubles down on the self-limiting nature of group identities, impoverishing knowledge of the truth of our collective situation. Secular humanism and materialist science provide an objective view of human relations that transcend the limitations of standpoint (which is why I suspect they are marginalized in discussions of morality).

The truth of morality is easy to see in studying nonhuman animals; other animals are not deceived by ideology (since they don’t have any), and, as long as we’re not also so deceived in observing them, they tell us a lot about the truth of our world. Wolves and bears don’t do well in cages. They are stressed and prone to illness. They want to leap and bound about with their wolf and bear brothers and sisters where the neurotransmitter mix is right so they can feel joy and love. That’s where their coats and noses are shiny. For humans, unjust social arrangements are our cages. They limit us. Unjust social arrangements are the sources of our alienation, stresses, and illnesses. 

To compel a person to be part of a tribe by permanently marking his sexual organ limits him. It denies him the full experience of natural history by blunting sexual pleasure (the full extent of joy he could otherwise experience in his one and only life). Justice demands we stop the practice. Religion is not a valid excuse for violating the individual’s right to consent to such a thing. This is what makes religion so poisonous and why multicultural demands to tolerate it are so odious. Such things cannot be culturally negotiable. The person did not choose to be born into an sexually repressive culture. 

Telling a woman she has to bear a child puts her in a cage. To be sure, because of our big and complex brains we can suffer from the illusion that our cages are freedom. After all, without these brains there could be no gods or devils or divine prescription (because these don’t actually exist). But the truth of this unfreedom does not depend on the illusions these unjust systems weave to oppress us. It depends on objective reality of situations and their effects, and the truth of these exist independent of subjectivity created by power, culture, or standpoint. The critical thinker must go beyond his situation, his culture, and all the rest of it in order to access moral truth. Socially constructed morality must always be checked against what we can know trans-culturally/ historically, and we must always strive to know more. Science is the universal system that makes this knowledge possible. And while science may be misused, its practice is progressive, in contrast to religion which, when faithfully followed, is regressive.

Our species-ties are the product of natural history. Just as they are for any other living system, the conditions for self-actualization and well-being are objectively ascertainable. This is why postmodernist and standpoint epistemologies, as well as deep multiculturalism or cultural pluralism, are so troubling to human rights. Either human rights are universal, objectively determinable, and inhering in each individual, or the very possibility of human rights is negated by a multiplicity of power, cultural, and standpoint-dependent clusters making demands on those who have been or whom they designate as existing under their authority.

We won’t get very far arguing about which identities have rights to make claims. We all have a right to make claims as individuals. To illustrate this with a recent example of progress (rather than dwell on the many examples of paralysis), marriage equality didn’t happen because people were prepared to let a group determine the law for themselves. It happened because the principle that no individual should be denied equal access to a social institution on account of their sexual orientation prevailed. It was the appeal to the universality of a right that won the day. The claim that heterosexual couples were entitled to a special right on the basis of their identity folded. Identity politics lost and individual liberty triumphed. We have to defend abortion on the grounds that it violates the universal right of all individuals to control their bodies. The patriarchy in this case is like heterosexism: it is a barrier to individual liberty. That’s something we must together tear down.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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