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Is Capitalism Good for Women?

Abstract

This paper investigates an aspect of the question of whether capitalism can be defended as a morally legitimate economic system by asking whether capitalism serves progressive, feminist ends of freedom and gender equality. I argue that although capitalism is subject to critique for increasing economic inequality, it can be seen to decrease gender inequality, particularly in traditional societies. Capitalism brings technological and social innovations that are good for women, and disrupts traditions that subordinate women in materially beneficial and socially progressive ways. Capitalism upholds the ideology of individual rights and the ideal of mutual advantage. By institutionalizing mutual advantage through the logic of voluntary exchange, progressive capitalism promotes the idea that no one is to be expected to sacrifice their interests with no expectation of benefit. Thus capitalism opposes the traditional, sexist ideal of womanly self-sacrifice.

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Notes

  1. Anderson argues that capitalism has become less and less laissez-faire, changing over time because of its own internal dynamic, which tends to increase everyone’s preferences and expectations for rights and freedoms.

  2. I have in mind here primarily the progress in overcoming oppression of gender and race that has happened in the West since the eighteenth century. However, I argue below that as capitalism and global trade spread, this lessening of oppression takes place throughout the world.

  3. This is a radically egalitarian principle, which goes beyond what is required by the difference principle, which only requires that the worst off be made better off by tolerating the inequality. Rawls includes in his list of primary goods mainly goods that are not rival, with the possible exception of wealth and income (when overall wealth is falling).

  4. I am not referring here to perfectly competitive markets, where profits are driven to zero by competition, and where there are no monopolies. In actual capitalist markets there are often goods that are much more highly valued than any substitute, such as exceptionally talented individuals, like Wilt Chamberlain, whose services effectively constitute a monopoly and therefore command a very high price. I thank Tom Donaldson for helping me to clarify my point here, even if he does not agree with the claim.

  5. I do not wish to get into a debate about whether some local understanding of a religion is a “true” or authentic interpretation of a religion. Since religions are all artifacts, there is no reason to think of some interpretations as made up while others are real or true. Religions differ greatly on how women are treated, and some progressive religions have developed to eliminate sexism from their origins in some more fundamentalist type.

  6. As of 1983 one estimate suggest that about 500,000 women died each year in childbirth, 494,000 in developing countries. The highest rates occurred in Africa (70 per 10,000 births in Western Africa) and Southern Asia (65 per 10,000). Continued high fertility, with its age and parity hazards, the low status of women in some developing countries, and the continuing use of untrained or poorly trained birth attendants seem to be the leading factors behind these levels. See Riley 2001, p. 115.

  7. The Gender-related Development Index (GDI) takes account of statistics that measure length and health of life, education, and standard of living, and discounts the scores according to the gender inequalities in the statistics. On this index, the North American and European countries do much better than wealthy oil exporting but traditionalist countries like Oman or Saudi Arabia. (United Nations Development Program 2007/2008b).

  8. This is true of traditions within non-traditional cultures as well. Consider fan rituals among sports fans worldwide.

  9. Longino (1989) shows how science can achieve objectivity procedurally through openness to criticism. Because capitalism essentially involves a similar kind of openness to competition, it is a similar constant evaluation and sifting of ideas. Although not in the service of truth, it seems to me that true beliefs may be a happy by-product of the competition of ideas.

  10. I defend this definition at length in Cudd and Holmstrom (2011).

  11. Progressive capitalism may turn out to be similar to what Rawls called “Property-owning democracy”, but this is not to be confused with liberal socialism or economic democracy. A property-owning democracy seeks to level the playing field for individuals by getting rid of the advantages provided by inheritance, biases in the political system when wealth can buy influence, and unequal educational opportunities, but then allows capitalism to determine the distribution of wealth, and individuals to control the firms they own. See O’Neill (2009).

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Acknowledgments

Portions of this essay have been excerpted from Ann E. Cudd and Nancy Holmstrom, Capitalism, For and Against: A feminist debate, Cambridge University Press, 2011. Copyright Ann E. Cudd and Nancy Holmstrom. Reprinted with permission.

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Correspondence to Ann E. Cudd.

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Cudd, A.E. Is Capitalism Good for Women?. J Bus Ethics 127, 761–770 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-014-2185-9

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Keywords

  • Capitalism
  • Feminism
  • Ethics of capitalism
  • Inequality
  • Tradition
  • Innovation