A philosopher untangles the insidious ways male entitlement shapes our lives

A philosopher untangles the insidious ways male entitlement shapes our lives
Image by Orna Wachman from Pixabay

In her debut book "Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny," philosopher Kate Manne unpacked a compelling and pertinent understanding of misogyny, which she views as a form of social policing of women's behavior to enforce compliance with patriarchal expectations. Now, in her new book "Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women," available Aug. 11, Manne tackles the complex ways in which misogynistic norms pervade various aspects of our lives, including sex, medicine, home life, criminal justice, and politics.

Readers of "Down Girl" will find themselves facing a different experience when diving into "Entitled." While both focused on real world events to draw out philosophical ideas, "Entitled" intentionally employs a significantly more conversational and accessible style of prose. Manne has almost completely eschewed the usual trappings of academic philosophy in the new book — including an academic publisher — opening up the possibility for an even broader audience.

And it has a lot to offer the average reader. "Entitled" opens with a gripping reflection on the confirmation hearings of then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh for his appointment to become a Supreme Court justice. Faced with accusations that he had sexually abused Christine Blasey Ford in high school, in addition to other allegations, the nation endured a grueling fight over his selection. At the center of the fight was often an implicit assumption that is the subject of Manne's book: Kavanaugh, many believed, was entitled to the powerful position he sought.

Manne untangles various forms of male entitlement in more mundane domains, as well, drawing on other news events, criminal cases, survey data, literary examples, and accounts from memoirs. In perhaps the most compelling chapter for me, Manne focused on the uneven division of domestic labor in many homes; it's a pernicious and wide-ranging problem that seems relatively straightforward, yet seems to defy obvious attempts at redress even by seemingly well-meaning people.

I spoke to Manne to discuss how she conceived of the project in her new book and some of the philosophical ideas she is still sorting out. What follows is our discussion, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Cody Fenwick: Do you think there’s anything lost in the translation from more academic writing to the public style?

Kate Manne: In general, I tend to think there isn’t. A lot of the time when you pare down the jargon and write less technically — it takes a lot of effort, at least for me, given my academic background. But yeah, I tend to think often, at least when it’s a bold, simple idea, it can be put simply with enough thought about how to take out the scaffolding and take away that technical machinery.

So how do you broadly conceive of the project in "Entitled"? Do you see yourself as defining male entitlement?

I thought of this book as less definitional and more answering a question that was raised by my first book. So my first book defines misogyny and says that it is a matter of policing and punishing women who paradigmatically don’t conform to patriarchal norms and expectations. And then, there’s a question about what those patriarchal norms and expectations are, especially in supposedly egalitarian and supposedly post-patriarchal contexts like the U.S. today. And I think the answer to that is the second book, which is that there’s a potent sense of male entitlement, particularly on the part of privileged men, to certain goods. Things like sex, most obviously, but problematically and more insidiously to things like affection, admiration, care labor, and reproductive labor, and authority and power.

So the first book is saying what misogyny is. The second is saying what it does, which is put pressure on women to provide the goods that are held to be obligated to men and that men are deemed entitled to.

In "Down Girl," you described misogyny as a kind of policing of women’s behavior. And so is entitlement more like the laws given? This is what’s trying to be enforced? 

Yes, exactly. The first book was more definition, and this is more of a substantive account of what is expected, what’s policed, what’s enforced, what’s underlying this desire to be patrolling women.

This may seem like a basic question, but what is “entitlement” at a conceptual level? It’s not an emotion. Is there a broader conceptual category that entitlement fits into?

I think of it as a moral notion that we have some kind of semi-synonymous ways of speaking about. We can talk about what someone is owed, or what someone has a right to. So what’s at issue in entitlement is a moral sense that can pervade a society of what someone is owed, what someone has a right to, and the corollary of that, what someone obligated to provide them with or give to them.

So it’s pretty directly tied into the philosophical concept of moral desert?


That’s interesting. You don’t really refer to any other philosophical accounts of desert in the book. Do you think it could be tied into other work on the subject, or do you think entitlement stands out on its own?

My thought when I didn’t choose to get into that is everyone needs and account of — or a deflationary account, if you’re not a believer in the notion of desert — but everyone needs an account of what either desert, or rights, or obligations are, or at least purport to be.

And my thought, roughly, in this book was: Hook any of those theories up to this, and you still have this problem of a false sense of male entitlement that, no matter what your thought of what the nature of entitlement is, when you pick out the asymmetrical structure of a lot of this, it’s still going to look unfair. No matter what your theory is.

Plug in your favorite theory or desert, or you favorite theory of rights, and we can all agree that nobody is owed sex, for example. 

Does your theory implicitly assume something of a moral realist bent? You clearly say it’s an unfair or unjust form of entitlement. But everybody might not agree with your point. Some people would say men and women are fundamentally different, so having an asymmetrical nature of moral entitlement for each — maybe that’s just the way the universe is, some people might say.

That’s an interesting question. I tend to think you just need an anti-skeptical framework to get the project off the ground. So you need to be able agree that some things are more fair than others, some things are more just than others, and that’s compatible with a number of metaethics, some of which are broadly anti-realist in flavor, or at least quasi-realist, as it’s sometimes called. So if you’re an expressivist [an anti-realist metaethical theory], you should be able to buy everything I say in this book.

But then there’s a question of whether or not you will. And a lot of what that will turn on is not misogyny but sexism. So there’s also a theory that most, if not all, metaethicists subscribe to which is known as supervenience. It’s this idea that there’s no moral difference without an empirical difference. There’s no prescriptive difference without a descriptive difference. So if you just change something morally, you’re going to need to change some kind of underlying moral reality.

So you might think that there’s a sense in which the misogynistic beliefs about men being entitled to something different have to be, in order to be fully coherent, they have to be met with a set of descriptive beliefs, like you said, that men and women are fundamentally different. And that I characterize as sexism in my first book. 

A lot of books that describe problems in society often present or bring to mind many common policy solutions. But I think a lot of the problems you discuss do not have a lot of obvious policy solutions, such as men’s entitlement to domestic and emotional labor. Do you think there are solutions to these problems, policy or otherwise?

I think there are solutions, but they’ll often have to be quite piecemeal. I think you’re quite right to point out that we both can’t and don’t want to regulate what happens in homes around domestic labor. There are all sorts of reasons not to legislate that, just as we don’t regulate whether or not people cheat on their partners. But there are still moral reasons not to cheat on one’s partner — and by that I mean go behind their backs, not when there’s some kind of understanding — and similarly there are good reasons to be an egalitarian partner and also not to claim one’s tacit social entitlement to things like sex and reproductive labor and all the rest of it.

But yeah, relying on individuals to be more moral is a tough road to hoe. So it’s not that there are no possibilities for progress in that direction, but it’s always going to be kind of slow going. Because in a way, what it relies on is people being able to give stuff up on the part of men. That’s something I think about, and might eventually write about: It’s the art of losing privilege, in that way — entitlement being one form of privilege, among others. And also I think it relies on women as well as non-binary people to be hyper-aware of the ways in which we’re sometimes asked to give too much in the wrong direction and to redirect our energies while resisting the guilt and shame that’s sometimes heaped on us for directing our attention in ways that are counter-hierarchical.

So that’s a lot to hope for, morally speaking. And if it happens, it will happen slowly. 

Do you think it’s already happened to some degree, and that might give us confidence that it will continue to happen?

Oh, yeah. What we’ve seen are areas of patchy, rapid, and really impressive progress, together with really severe and nasty and sometimes violent backlash. So again, it’s kind of a complicated picture, the progress we expect is slow, not because no individuals are changing rapidly. I think some have changed the material and social structures of their lives radically in the last century or so following the advent of feminist social movements. But we also see a lot of resistance to that. So it’s not going to be linear progress.

The case of Brock Turner always stands out to me, which you discussed in "Down Girl" as well as "Entitled." There’s a very plausible case that he got this really odd treatment from the judge, and other people in the case. It was clear evidence of himpathy, [a term you coined to refer to undue sympathy directed toward men], and white male entitlement specifically. But this complaint about himpathy in the case almost seems to run against discussions and pushes for criminal justice reform that see the criminal justice system, especially in the United States, as overly punitive, which is a phenomenon that disproportionately affects men in the United States. So how do you balance those kinds of considerations, if you do agree that there’s a tension there, in fighting himpathy but also fighting a system that imposes extreme burdens disproportionately on men?

Well, I would say I think it disproportionately affects African-American men in the first instance. So I would want to distinguish the impact a little bit there. But that being said, I’m certainly no fan of the criminal justice system generally, and particularly America’s current horror show.

I think there’s no real tension between wanting fairness, which is what the call to end himpathy demands: to be fair. And I think that’s compatible with thinking that we should be a lot more lenient generally in sentencing. 

So what’s disturbing about the Brock Turner case is not so much the length of the sentence, as the fact that it was lenient compared to what an African-American man would face for the same crimes.

I think being thoroughgoing in being for reform, or even [prison] abolition, is compatible with not wanting himpathy to go on. To think that whatever penalties there are, they should be meted out in a way that doesn’t privilege white men over others.

I do want to push on that a bit. Because, obviously, I agree there’s a severe racial disparity, but another thing you talk about in the book is the extreme amount of rape cases that go uninvestigated and unpunished. So I feel myself going back and forth on these fronts some times, because I follow a lot of criminal justice reformers’ work. And I’m generally supportive of it. But then, you do often come across these instances in which crimes are severely underinvestigated. I don’t want to say under-punished, because that assumes the answer. If you abstract from the racial element, there’s a clear gender element there. And men are clearly entitled, but in many cases their crimes against women do go unpunished.

It’s a good question. I will say that I myself am open to the arguments of prison abolitionists. But at the moment, I still feel agnostic as to what the best overall solution would be. I just simply don’t know at this point. And when I do speak to people who are in favor of thoroughgoing abolition, in favor of, say, restorative justice models, one of the sticky cases that activists themselves will often refer to is rape. 

It looks difficult to envisage what an alternative system of punishment would be when it comes to a crime like rape. So yeah, I do think we will have, as a society, really difficult questions to answer as a society about what the ideal system of, let’s say, justice will be when it comes to crimes like rape. The one thing I do know is that sweeping these crimes under the rug when they’re crimes on the books, but not actually addressed by prosecutors and police departments, that to me is radically unjust. It does a radical injustice to the women, and disproportionately black women, who are attacked in these fundamentally demoralizing ways.

So that can’t continue, but what the ideal model would be when it comes to addressing these crimes, I think, is a really good question that, for me, is still open.

That makes sense. So would you like to see more philosophy written for a broader audience, as you’ve done in "Entitled"?

Yeah. I think it depends on one’s own goals and the kinds of audience one wants to reach. So I think I’m in a somewhat unusual position as having a message that I do want to reach people well beyond the academy. I certainly wouldn’t want to criticize, say, a philosopher of mathematics who’s doing groundbreaking work and who really needs the technical notions in order to do their work. 

I do think there is a broad case for moral philosophy that is rendered as accessible as possible, with the thought that for a lot fo these issues, there’s benefits for having them discussed as widely as possible. And when that’s the case when it comes to moral philosophy that bears on social justice, I think it’s good to have at least some people in the business of translating philosophical — as well as, in this case, sociological — ideas to a broader audience.

I think there are benefits to working in this mode, but they may not work for everyone in the discipline.

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