Philosophy & Ideas

The Blind Spot in Feminist Political Theory

Salus populi suprema lex: the safety of the people is the supreme law. This famous maxim may not be the last word on the tasks of politics, but it is undoubtedly the first. It means that, whatever else a political leader, or a political order, may aim at, it must first address the problem of the security of its subjects or citizens. Individual human beings may legitimately choose to endanger themselves for the sake of ideals they cannot deny or abandon, but it cannot convincingly be argued that a community can do the same, since the attempt to do so will coerce many of its number. So the most plausible understanding of the task of politics and of social policy is that they operate within the bounds of at least one constraint: that public safety be protected and preserved, now and into the future.

When this concern is kept in view, many of the aspects of political orders and social mores, past and present, that have caused such anger amongst feminists, and shame on the part of men, fall into place. When we remember the obvious fact that human communities, including their ruling elites, do not control their destinies, and so do not simply legislate for social order according to a set of ideal values, much that is otherwise inexplicable and even ugly in human social orders becomes clear. Human social orders are functional devices which aim at group survival, and so these orders are more restrictive the more demanding the problems to be solved. Of course, they are not simply functional—societies are strongly inertial, and preserve in their traditions many features the purpose of which have long been lost—but much headway can be gained in understanding social structures by keeping in mind the necessity, for any society, of solving this basic problem of survival.

Thus desert and mountain societies can be expected to be more ready to accept strict disciplinary codes than will successful agrarian communities in fertile river valleys. This difference will be greater where there are significant natural defences against outside threats, such as mountain ranges or wide seas, since, without such defences, prosperity will itself be a cause of vulnerability—an incentive to potential invaders—and therefore of domestic discipline and restraint. Island nations, therefore, can be more relaxed on this score than can societies in continental heartlands, surrounded by neighbours whose good will cannot be presumed.

This fact goes a long way towards explaining the solidity of liberal values in the Anglophone world. A quick look at the map will show how few are the land borders produced by the British maritime empires. Moreover, since a maritime empire depends, both for communication and for self-defence, on its navy rather than its army, its means of defending itself does not generate the threat to internal liberty that a large standing army poses. The maritime origins of the various British colonies thus provided both external and internal sources of a liberal social order.[1] The general point is that the facts of circumstance make all the difference: human societies develop and maintain strict social codes when those codes are seen to be necessary for survival and for flourishing; where they are not so necessary, more liberal orders prevail.

It is against this background that we need to see some of the effects of social change. When strict codes cease to be understood as necessary for social welfare, they will fall into decay, and even into active disrespect. So advances in social security, whether external or internal, will lead to shifts in social mores and institutions. Depending on the cause, and on the visibility of the effects, such shifts can be gradual or quite rapid; and they can have further knock-on effects as well—including unintended and unwanted effects. In such circumstances, one can further expect that the society’s reaction to such a complex of changes will be divided. Some divisions will reflect differences of interest. To take an obvious example: the standing of the military, and the degree of regard for military values, will decline in times of peace and revive in times of danger, so members of the military will lose in standing as dangers recede, and so will respond to peace with mixed feelings. In general, one should expect that the old will be less willing to embrace the changes, even if they see their point; the young may simply take them for granted as they grow up in the new environment, and respond to the criticisms of the old with bemusement and, indeed, disregard.

For the next generation, of course, the past social structure will be a foreign country: a world of inexplicably different ways of acting and being. If the shift has been from poverty to affluence, or from danger to security, it will be a shift from a more restrictive to a less restrictive order, and the new generation will look back with a sense of horror, or perhaps of relief at being later-born. This is important for our purposes: it explains much of the feminist conviction that the past was a world hostile to women, because so much of women’s past role now seems just arbitrarily restrictive. If no adequate explanation is ready to hand, it is a natural tendency to search for someone to blame: and if blame must be apportioned, to whom else but men? They occupied the positions of political power, so it must be supposed their fault.

We have here, I suggest, the source of the almost unbudgeable conviction, shared by women and men alike, that women have been victims of millennia of oppression. The steady improvement in forms of political order has seen a shift of responsibilities for safety from the male members of the family or clan to the male-constructed agencies of the state; and the more dramatic improvement in forms of technology has seen the taming of the most pressing of economic needs. In other words, the very success of Western society has produced, in its later-born beneficiaries, the complacent assumption that such conditions of life are the norm around which human life naturally revolves, and thus also the norm by which other societies are properly judged.[2] In such circumstances, it should not then be surprising if less successful societies, whether from our own past or from foreign cultures, seem to modern Westerners to be cruel, authoritarian and oppressive—in a word, barbaric. It is not to deny, but to affirm, the real advances of the modern West to point out that such perceptions tell us more about the modern West than about those past and foreign societies. Historic oppression seems an incontrovertible fact to the modern Western man and woman—and thus also to the feminist theorist—because the beneficiaries of a very successful social order are blind to the circumstances that have brought that order into being.

The complacent acceptance that safety is part of the natural condition of human life has had wider effects as well. For our purposes, the important matter is the extent to which it has been eclipsed as a central concern of political theory. In practical politics, questions of security always loom large—but in most recent political thought it has caused hardly a ripple. The Cold War is partly responsible for this effect, since it turned the question of security into an international struggle against a superpower foe, and thereby turned it into an ideological question about individual liberty. The chief threat to security came from behind the Iron Curtain, a world understood to be composed either of enemies of freedom—and thus of the “free world”—or of believers in a dangerously wrong kind of freedom.[3] A second powerful effect on political thought, especially in the USA, was postwar prosperity, which shifted attention to questions of fair distribution of the social surplus. Thus the great themes of recent political thought have been social justice, equality and liberty.[4] Where safety has been in the frame, the driving impulse has been to show where such concern should end, given that it constitutes a limitation on individual freedoms.[5]

These foci and emphases are unsurprising, given the circumstances of the modern West. The cost, however, has been that the fundamental importance of securing the safety of the people, and the political implications that flow from recognising the fact, have slipped from view. The most obvious casualty has been the historical justifications of political authority.[6] The most vivid illustration of the problem is feminism’s much-vaunted critique of traditional arguments for patriarchal order. But that critique presupposes opposition between men and women, which is, after all, what needs to be proven. Moreover, it is a guiding presupposition of those feminist arguments that the allocation of political offices is the allocation of a privilege. If this is not presupposed, the complaint of women’s “exclusion” will carry no weight: no one complains of being excluded from onerous tasks. Why then is political office thought of simply in such terms? I believe it is because, although the benefits of political office—status, power, wealth—are plain, the burdens that justify those benefits are invisible to the feminist theorist. They are invisible because those burdens are the burdens of securing the safety of the people; and feminists fail to see them because they are children of the modern West, and so, like their contemporaries in political theory, also fail to see how crucial concerns for safety are in assessing alternative political orders. If anything, they have made the problem worse, because the politically expedient course of equating violence with maleness has discouraged cool-headed examination of the issue. 

Things were not always so. If we turn briefly to some famous historical thinkers we can see how questions about human safety, and how pressed it is by threats, form the very bases of the theories. Thomas Hobbes is famous for claiming, in Leviathan (written in 1651, in the wake of the English Civil War), that, without a government to enforce peaceful co-existence, human life is a condition of permanent mutual danger which is therefore “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.[7] He argued that the only effective solution to this miserable state of affairs is to institute government which is strong and undivided, and in which human liberties are kept firmly under control. The title of the work reflects this theme. The leviathan is a dangerous animal referred to in the Book of Job—in modern Hebrew it is the word for a whale, but in Job it seems to be based on the crocodile—which, because of its powerful jaws and tough hide, is unconquerable by its enemies: it is “king over all the sons of pride”, that is, over those who believe in their own strength, and so are prepared to challenge political authority.[8] Hobbes’s point is that, to be effective, government must be stronger than any who attempt to oppose it. And, given the miseries of the ungoverned condition, it must be effective. Hobbes thus fashions a defence of authoritarian government; in fact, given his further arguments that the government must control what the people think about religious and political matters, Leviathan can even be described as a defence of totalitarianism.

Hobbes is well aware that he is arguing for conclusions that most would find “obnoxious”. His response is simplicity itself: the political solution may be very unattractive, but it is the only secure alternative to the ungoverned condition, which is far worse. Soft-pedalling on questions of authority and control just creates opportunities for dangerous political ambitions to flourish, and the result is anarchy and its life of constant danger.[9] He has no doubt that, faced with the stark choice between freedom and chaos, on the one hand, and protection and obedience, on the other, everyone will, however grudgingly, choose the latter: to see “the mutual relation between protection and obedience” is to see that one has no other realistic choice.[10] Hobbes’s whole argument is thus based on the recognition that the first task of politics is to secure the safety of the people; and that, if the threats to safety are sufficiently stark and pressing, this will justify even draconian solutions. Politics is not a parlour game in which one invents ideal worlds, but the practical and often pressing task of solving real problems. The challenge Hobbes thus presents his potential critic is to show that the choices with which we are confronted are not so stark: otherwise political freedom is just a pipedream.

The challenge was taken up by John Locke. In the second of his Two Treatises of Government, written some thirty years later, Locke accepts that Hobbes is right to hold that threats to safety justify restrictions, even extreme restrictions, on liberty. He does not, however, accept Hobbes’s account of the alternatives. He argues that we are not confronted with a stark choice between constant danger and authoritarian security, because human nature is not as wild and unruly as Hobbes had believed. Human beings, left without government, would not find themselves caught in a downward spiral ending in civil war: the ungoverned state would not be endless danger and misery, but a reasonably peaceful condition.[11] True, such a condition would have disadvantages, such that, where conflicts do break out, they will be difficult to control; and, because there would be no explicit public rules by which human relations would be regulated, it is also more likely that conflicts would break out. For these reasons, it is true that government is preferable to its absence. But, because the problems to be solved are not so dire, there is also no need for such draconian solutions. All that is needed is to identify the specific “inconveniences” of the ungoverned condition—such as those just mentioned—and then to shape government to overcome them, by establishing the rule of law and impartial courts to judge cases fairly. Anything further is unnecessary, and therefore an unjustifiable interference with individual liberty.12]

Locke thus accepts Hobbes’s principle, that protection and obedience are mutually related; but, by arguing that the degree of protection government must provide is much less than Hobbes claims, Locke is thereby able to limit the extent to which liberty must be surrendered. He thus forges a conception of government and its limits which came in time to exert significant influence on subsequent political thought, including the Constitution put together by the American Founding Fathers, and so came to shape our own everyday understanding of what governments should and should not do.

Hobbes’s principle thus does not prove that government must be authoritarian. It does show, however, that the extent to which authority is justifiable—and perhaps even necessary—will vary according to the dangers to be met. So, if the same people at different times confront different levels of danger, different degrees of authority can justifiably be exercised over them. (This is the basis for imposing martial law or states of emergency.) Similarly, if different people at the same time face different levels of danger, different degrees of authority are also justifiably exercised over them. The different treatment of these people in such circumstances does not mean that they are being treated unequally. They are, in fact, being treated equally—with equal regard for their vital interests. So to treat women differently from men—to subject them to greater levels of control than are imposed on men—is not to treat them unequally as long as those differences in treatment are traceable to different levels of vulnerability.

Obviously a principle of this kind is open to abuse, and it is no part of my argument to deny that such abuses occur. There is, however, nothing special about the situation of women in this regard. Abuses of power are abuses of power, whether over men, women, children, indigenous peoples, migrant minorities, or whoever. The specific form such abuses take will vary according to the nature of the relationship between authority and subject, and this will vary according to the identities of the authority and the subject. So the specific ways in which men in positions of authority will abuse their power will differ according to whether it is men, women or children over whom the power is exercised. The problem posed by male abuse of power over women will therefore have to be addressed by attending to the specific loci of that power, and by working out ways in which such power—in so far as it is necessary—can be controlled through public legal processes rather than the arbitrary will of the powerful. For this reason, although the details differ, the general shape of the problem is that of abuse of power in general, and so it is reasonable to offer here—as I have done—a variant on Locke’s solution to that general problem. The solution to necessary power is that it not be arbitrary but a form of the rule of law; the solution to unnecessary power is its abolition. Political wisdom, of course, is to be able to tell the difference.

To remind political theory of the central importance of the safety of the people is to rediscover the importance of Hobbes’s principle that there is a mutual relation between protection and obedience, and therefore that the justifiability of authority is a function of circumstances. To see this, and in particular to see that men, women and children are differently affected by the same circumstances, is to see that rules can differ for these groups without equality being compromised. Because children’s higher level of vulnerability is a function of their lesser rationality, it has not been uncommon for political theorists to appeal to the same standard in order to justify what seemed to them unavoidable—that women not be exposed to the same treatment as men. This is a blind alley. It is vulnerability, not rationality, that is the issue.

To see this is also to see that, when circumstances change, levels of vulnerability also change. And the fact is that, in modern Western society, beginning with the Industrial Revolution but accelerating since the Second World War, circumstances have changed. The result is that, for a wide range of reasons, but revolving in particular around the rise of the information economy and the modern controls on fertility, the vulnerabilities of women relative to men have dramatically declined. The success of feminism as a movement reflects the fact that it recognises that women no longer need be so dependent on men—hence all the macho rhetoric about women being strong and independent—and so has rightly pressed for changes to social mores. At the same time feminism has completely failed to understand the reasons for its success—the social changes just mentioned—and so has wasted its energies denouncing the non-existent villain of patriarchal oppression and its offspring, sexism and misogyny. It needs to get over all this, and come to a more considered view of men and women, and of the social structures in which they find themselves.

But it is not all their fault. Modern political theory must bear part of the responsibility for this state of affairs, because, by forgetting how central securing safety is to the political task, and the difference it makes, it has rendered obscure precisely the answers to the questions the feminists have asked. The feminists fell into the trap such theorising had (unintentionally) laid for them, and thereby compounded the problem. The way ahead is to recognise the basic task that any society must solve, and to build social theory and political principles on that insight. The safety of the people is the supreme law. It is by attending to this principle that we can come to judge what equality implies—and so which forms of authority to tolerate, and which to reject.

Dr Stephen Buckle is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University.


[1]David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) nicely brings out the connections between the British Isles and conceptions of British liberty, and how the maritime character of the first and second empires was understood as a protection of that liberty. He does not, however, notice how that maritime origin, by limiting land borders, thereby limited reasons for restricting the liberty thus gained. For a thoughtful assessment of the differences between maritime and heartland Europe along this dimension, see Ian Buruma, Voltaire’s Coconuts, or Anglomania in Europe (London: Phoenix, 2000).

[2]One indicator of just how marked the western world’s confidence in its everyday security has been is provided by the psychological shockwave in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Centre. The western world has become unaccustomed to external physical threats, and their re-emergence has caused an observable shift in values.

[3]See Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in his Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

[4]The obvious examples are John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971), Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), and Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). Perhaps the most striking exception to this tendency is Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996)—a work rooted in the conflicts of the contemporary Middle East.

[5]This framework is evident in the very title of Joel Feinberg’s massive study, The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, in particular, Vol. 1, Harm to Others (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

[6]The authority structures in past forms of the family have similarly become incomprehensible, and thus offensive, to the modern world—leading even to the view that affectionate family relations is a modern creation. For an antidote to these tendencies, see Steven Ozment, Ancestors: The Loving Family in Old Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[7]Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), Ch. XIII, 89.

[8]Job 41: 34.

[9]Leviathan, Ch. XIX, 128-9.

[10]Leviathan, A Review and Conclusion, 491.

[11]John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), II. §§4-15.

[12]Ibid., II. §§123-42.

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