Reasoning, social movments, and the law


We know from an analysis of reasoning that the contexts within which reasoning occurs make a difference in its application. This is especially easy to see in analyzing views of what was considered rational throughout history. Just imagine the year 1917. In this year, in the United States, women did not yet have the national right to vote. The women’s suffrage movement, however, was in full-swing. Though an attempt to secure the vote in New York had lost in the popular vote in 1915, it finally won in New York in 1917. At its height Westchester county, NY alone had about 102 suffragette clubs and 20,000 members (See Melvin). Nationwide data is difficult to get, but we were witnessing the shift on the question of women’s right to vote as it moved from a minority position to a majority one. But it was still a very contested issue. Of fundamental importance in bringing about a shift in consciousness was a social movement, strongly organized and disciplined, that was pushing also for changes in the law. More and more people saw the unfairness of prohibiting women from voting. However, once the law was changed, social sentiment and along with it views of what law was rational more quickly changed

If we fast forward to today, we of course see no contestation on this issue. No one doubts that women should be allowed to vote. An argument like we see in Kant or Hegel for some separate but equal function of women seems absurd. Anyone arguing that it aligns with judgments of “universal reason” would be rightly maligned. We of course have witnessed similar shifts in sentiments and understandings about race issues and many other things.

In Hegel’s writing we already saw the view expressed that changes in the legal structure could have a dramatic impact on what people in fact view as right and wrong and in how they feel about issues. Hegel, in contrast to Kant, does not separate reasoning and feeling in a radical way. He sees them as interlinked, as do many since him.

History seems to have vindicated Hegel: we do reason on the basis of background assumptions that change in reference to feeling. The shift in consciousness after the legalizaiton of the right to vote is an important case in point. After generations have witnessed their mothers and grandmothers voting, and doing fine, the old “rational” arguments that this shouldn’t be permitted because of women’s incapacity have lost all their emotional and “logical” power. Changes in the legal system made it possible for women to pursue different options than they could pursue in the past. Women’s success since such legal changes show the vapid character of the earlier discussions about women’s natural unsuitability for roles in the public sphere, whether in politics or education. To take education as one example: In the United States today, more women than men are enrolled in higher education, and on aggregate they are doing better at university than are men.

The example outlined here should drive home that cultural change (apparent in the shifting views of the suffragettes) contributed eventually to structural change — here the change in the legal structure —  which for its part again reinforced the cultural shift: Both the sentiment and understanding about the role women should have in society radically shifted along with shifts in the real world in laws and opportunities.

The issues just discussed still need to be related to a more general line of inquiry: Are some of these political structures more rational than others? Similarly, can we take lessons about political structures and apply them more generally to other social institutions? What are some general ways of organizing our political and other institutions that will positively affect our use of reason?

See the posting on Discourse Ethics

Works cited

Melvin, Tessa. “1917: When Women Got the Right to Vote.” New York Times, Nov. 1, 1987. Accessed 1/26/2018.

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