What I have said so far implies that responsibility is relational. Why? Because we’re all implicated in joint rational projects (except for total social isolates), and rationality deficits in one social group tend to precipitate correlative, but asymmetrical, rationality deficits in other social groups. For example, implicit bias in privileged group members tends to induce stereotype threat in the least-well-off, as well as undermining the social roles realistically available to members of these groups.
To illustrate this in more concrete terms, we can look at how traditional gender roles impaired responsible agency in men and women (and trans folks, who were virtually erased from public discourse), by restricting the range of social roles available to each group. (I’m simplifying by talking as if there were three genders, though I believe that gender lies on a spectrum; however, since it’s not feasible to discuss every possible gender intersection). The traditional division of labour along binary gendered lines prevented each gender from achieving robust responsibility, but it also arguably gave rise, in certain cases, to group-specific cognitive deficits that impaired moral cognition in the affected group. For example, men’s almost total exclusion from care-taking roles may have negatively affected their emotional and social cognition, impairing an important component of responsible agency.
As Sharyl Sandberg has famously pronounced (2013), women are to this day expected to ‘lean in’ and work harder for the same credit and compensation as men for comparable work, because women also typically (still) do a majority of the domestic labour. Women also face such hurdles as workplace discrimination.
Naomi Wolf raised similar considerations in ‘The Beauty Myth,’ published in 1990 (republished in 2002). There, Wolf argues that (salaried) working women are responsible for ‘three shifts’: (1) paid labour, (2) domestic labour, and (3) beauty labour. Wolf continues that if women were emancipated from their secondary and tertiary ‘extra’ responsibilities, they would quickly outpace men in their academic and professional achievements, since women have been acculturated into working harder for less recognition and compensation. Now we’re (finally) starting to see Wolf’s prediction come to fruition, with women completing college at higher rates than men (Conger & Long 2010)—though they still earn less on the dollar due to resilient patriarchal norms. The reason for women’s higher academic achievement in the last 2.5 decades is largely, as Wolf predicted, because men are doing more domestic labour, creating a more equitable split of domestic duties. This allows women to focus more on their salaried careers. (One would also hope that women would be under less pressure to conform to Western beauty standards, but instead it appears that men are under more pressure to conform to a constructed masculine aesthetic. Nonetheless, this has had an equalizing effect on the paid workforce, levelling the playing field, regardless of whether it has been ultimately emancipatory).
Wolf’s example of women’s extra shifts helps to illustrate how responsibility is relational, in the sense that it depends upon everyone doing their fair share. When women are confined to the domestic sphere by artificially-imposed social structures and social expectations, they are not able to take on social roles that confer role responsibilities—responsibilities that women might want to cultivate, and that are valued by society (as evidenced by the higher remuneration typically attached to historically male positions). Until fairly recently in our history, women were only allowed to cultivate responsibilities related to the domestic sphere, providing a relatively ‘thin’ swathe of responsibility-constitutive capacities available to them.
Furthermore, women’s systematic exclusion from public life sustained false and mythical ideologies about such things as gender (binary), sex (equivalent to gender), the self (atomistic), and many other topics that have been criticized by contemporary feminist scholars. Women’s exclusion from public life thus impoverished the public discourse, and propped up oppressive falsehoods.
Men, of course, were also harmed by patriarchy in many ways, including in their responsible agency (though of course they were socially privileged). Yet men were limited in the range of viable social positions and corresponding role responsibilities available to them under the binary gender paradigm and its associated social possibilities. By being barred (or exempting themselves) from the domestic sphere, men were also harmed in their capacity for care-taking, and perhaps in their ability to develop robust social and emotional capacities. It seems that these capacities are implicated in moral responsibility, since deficits in emotional empathy, for example, result in psychopathic traits, which are taken to be responsibility-impairing by many (see, e.g., Nelkin 2011). If so, then complete lack of acquaintance with care-taking may have negative affects on responsible agency.
In addition to being largely exempt from care-taking roles, most men grew up in a culture of toxic masculinity—a climate that normalized (even glamorized) rape, sexual assault, and other misogynistic aggressions and microaggressions. (Don’t forget that spousal rape was not a recognized legal category in all 50 states until 1992, and a vast majority of rapes still go unreported). It’s a reasonable conjecture that the lack of exposure to caretaking roles for the average mid-20th-century cisgendered man, combined with saturation in a climate of toxic masculinity, may have had responsibility-impairing effects on many members of this social group—particularly those who were never exposed to alternate discourses.
While things are improving in many respects, Donald Trump’s recent boast about sexually harassing women perfectly exemplifies how this attitude is a salient part of American culture. And Trump won the Presidency, notwithstanding his attitude towards women. One can only hope that this is the calm before the (feminist) storm.
I haven’t said anything about trans people, but it should go without saying that they have been disproportionately disadvantaged in many ways by the classic gender binary, including being practically erased from public discourse. Trans folks were thus very limited in the range of viable social roles that they could perform as their authentic selves; and they are still limited by negative attitudes and institutional discrimination to this day. When people consistently play an artificial role, this can cause significant psychological distress. Researchers recently found that when employees pretend to be happy at work, they suffer from increased insomnia, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, and family conflict (Wagner et al. 2013). Imagine wearing a social mask all the time! Psychological distress is one of the paradigm factors identified by philosophers as impairing responsibility. So, the psychological cost of the gender binary on trans people has been (and still is) enormous, and the collateral effect on responsible agency can be very negative. (Though recall that responsible agency can be enhanced by privileged insight!)
Moreover, since trans people are still marginalized within mainstream discourse, society is losing out on valuable sources of enlightenment and objective knowledge—knowledge that could enhance our collective responsibility. The recent Women’s March—also colloquially called the ‘pussy march’ in response to Trump’s sexist remarks—was highly commendable (I was there); but some trans women pointed out that symbolically associating women’s rights with a part of cisgender female anatomy is both marginalizing to some trans women (non-binary, pre-operative, etc.), and reminiscent of the reductionist/biological view of gender that poststructural feminists have rightly militated against. Although the pussy rhetoric was clever and possibly galvanizing, it’s worth listening to these voices from the margins, and ensuring that we don’t lapse back into an essentialist sex-gender conflation. If we exclude trans voices, in other words, we (to that extent) impoverish feminist discourse and exclude valuable allies, limiting the movement’s social efficacy and justificatory backing. Only by including every valid perspective can we achieve the robust rationality that supports relational responsibility as I understand it.
(I am indebted to Rachel Williams at Washington University in St. Louis for brining some of these considerations to my attention. You can read her blog, transphilosopher, here).