Simone de Beauvoir: The second sex – the social construction of women and implications for wellbeing.

Simone de Beauvoir: The second sex – the social construction of women and implications for wellbeing.


In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir published ‘The Second Sex’, a book that was put on a ‘prohibited list’ by the Vatican. In 2015, the ideas within should also make the non-religious think again about what makes for femininity and why. Women suffering from eating disorders, or spending a great deal of money on cosmetic surgery, might wish to consider why they are doing so and who profits from it. Nurses as women, and a nurse education interested in the personal growth of its students, might profit from this analysis as they experience, almost daily, images of what the ideal body type should be. This experience is implicated in negative evaluations of body shape (e,g, anti-fat bias); evaluations that even health professionals engage in (Teachman and Brownhill 2001), and the prevalence of eating disorders (Garner and Garfinkel 2009).


Biology is not destiny. To begin with, the fact of female biology is an ‘is’ but should not be automatically linked to the ‘ought’ of social roles around, for example, child rearing and the plethora of social and domestic roles women have played for centuries. In 1740, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, in his ‘Treatise on Human Nature’, pointed out that human reasoning can so easily jump the gap between what ‘is’ and then declare that it also ‘ought’ to be. This gap between the ‘is’ of fact and the ‘ought’ of value requires examining rather than uncritical acceptance. Just because we eat meat, ought we to eat meet? For women, examining the gap between fact and values means realising that reproductive biology (an ‘is’) is not their destiny linked to a subordinate domestic role (an ‘ought’). In part 1 of the book ‘Destiny’, Beauvoir argues that the facts of biology must be viewed in the light of the ontological, economic, social, and physiological contexts in which they exist.


Beauvoir goes further into the nature of female sexuality and their feminine forms to suggest that notions of female beauty are socially constructed, and most often by men. In addition, women learn how to be women often in relation to male ideals. Beauvoir argued: “one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman” (book 1, part 2 ch 1). This feels counterintuitive and goes against natural thinking at the birth of a child in which the sex of the child is established by biological factors but almost immediately gender constructions begin. Sex and gender are intertwined and erroneously conceptualised as being the same thing. In western societies, the bestowal of the pink and the blue begins that process of the social construction of gender which then overlays the biological sex of the baby. Howard Garfinkel (1967) in ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’, later described the continuous process of the social production of gender roles, whereby ‘Agnes’, born with a penis, passed as a woman.


In part two ‘History’ Beauvoir describes the historical subjugation of women by men for example quoting Proudhon who valued a woman at 8/27th the value of a man. The almost total subjugation of women, and their subsequent invisibility in history, results from patriarchy often underpinned by religion. Biology (the ‘is’) is invoked to put and keep them in their subordinate place (the ‘ought’). However, in the modern era, two key factors were involved in the evolution of the female role in society: 1. participation in production and 2. freedom from reproductive slavery. ‘Modern’ women, such as Rosa Luxembourg and Marie Curie, who were able to exploit these factors:


brilliantly demonstrate that it is not women’s inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority” (p131).


Industrial, and now postindustrial capitalism as a dynamic system, has both freed women and created new forms of subjugation. Factory work, especially during war, gave opportunities for women to, en masse, demonstrate their strength and provide alternatives to lives of domestic labour. Nursing arguably began its professionalisation following these factors, and nurses themselves enjoy almost total freedom from obligatory reproductive labour secured by the contraceptive pill. Yet, new forms of subjugation have been created. Advances in cosmetic technologies and medical practices have now given women new tools to construct themselves as befitting whatever cultural artefact is now considered as beauty. We now have labiaplasty offered, not to correct genital ‘malfunction’ but as an aspect of new norms of beauty possibly in response to exposure to pornography (Davis 2011). Beauvoir pointed to the male gaze, but it now seems that women themselves are complicit in this reconstruction of the feminine.


In part three ‘Myths’, Beauvoir discusses such as issues as men’s ‘disappointment’ in women revolving round issues such as menstruation, virginity, copulation and motherhood. Myths about the female role abound in literature written by men, especially the ‘mystery’ of woman to man, perhaps foreshadowing Betty Friedan’s later work, ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (Friedan 1963). Friedan argued that male editorial decisions in women’s magazines, insisted on articles that showed women as either happy housewives or unhappy careerists. This was the “feminine mystique” the idea that women were naturally fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers. In both books there is this suggestion that men misunderstand, or perhaps even fear women, and engage in creating a simulacrum (Baudrillard n.d.) of femininity to best fit their own gendered and sexual needs. It might be that male fear of women, their lack of control of female reproduction, is at the root of ‘femicide’ – the killing of females by males because they are females (Russell and Harmes 2001).


Volume two of the work is also divided into 4 parts; ‘Formative years’, ‘Situation’, Justifications’ and ‘Towards Liberation’. Beauvoir describes the learning of appropriate femininity and subsequent domestic roles. Her critique of marriage and acceptance of lesbianism no doubt helped the Vatican in its decision.


Beauvoir assembles an historical account using examples from literature, politics and philosophy to argue that to fully understand what it is to be a women requires moving beyond biology as destiny to examining the myths of femininity, myths often created by and for men, and then towards constructing emancipatory practices.


Women should come to see that they are under a ‘male gaze’ which constructs who they are and that beauty itself is a social construct. It is through other people’s assumptions and expectations that a woman (sex) becomes ‘feminine’ (gender). Part of that feminization is the requirement of women to strive after beauty, defined by mens’ view of what they would like women to be. A view that denies women the capacity for action and thought, to be passive objects of the male gaze, and to use artifice in order to be ornamental, to disguise the more animal aspects of their bodies, e.g. the removal of body hair in western aesthetics. The pressure on women to become an object, to be conventionally beautiful, to diet, is intense.


Of course, the male gaze can be internalized by women, and it is the case that women’s magazines produced and edited by women perpetuate beauty myths (Wolf 1991). Aesthetic technologies, such as dermal fillers and botox, are often advertised by women, performed by women, performed on women. Beauvoir focused on patriarchal values and concepts as drivers for these processes, whereas and especially since the development of liquid modernity (Baumann 2000) characterized by individualism, consumerism and atomization, and by the increasing marketisation of society (Sandel 2012, Marquand 2014), consumer capitalism has also targeted men as consumers of beauty products. We have now the construction of the male body type with the ‘six pack’ as its apotheosis.


The creation of dissatisfaction with one’s body, be it male or female, is now a marketing tool to sell product. This process may have become a dominant ethic in contemporary society. Booth (2014) refers to a contemporary concerns with ‘mammon worship’ defined as ‘seeking satisfaction through the superficial’ while Skidelsky and Skidelsky (2012) focus on the dominance of the values of acquisition and ‘insatiability’ while societies have lost the sense of what the good life might be. If this is the case, then Beauvoir’s focus on patriarchal values and the male gaze, allied with more and more of a concern with financialisation and the creating of new markets for profit,  come together as dominant social ethics to create who we are at both emotional and physical levels.

There is resistance of course. Since Beauvoir’s publication, some have suggested that ‘second wave’ feminism (Gamble 2001) and ‘third wave’ feminism (Tong 2009) arose to address the rights of women. Resistance to the male gaze can be seen in Susie Orbach’s work (1978). For Orbach, gender inequality makes women fat; compulsive eating and being fat is one way to avoid being marketed at or being seen as the ideal woman. Orbach suggested it was some womens’ way of rebelling against powerlessness in society. More recently, the ‘Everyday Sexism’ project exists to address instances of sexism experienced by women on a daily basis. Within a health context, Hagell (1989) discussed the conceptualization of nursing work as women’s work while Aston (2011) have used feminist post structuralism (FPS) as a way of understanding obesity. Sundin-Huard (2001) used subject positions theory to illustrate how nurses in a gendered profession can be positioned into subordinate roles within hierarchical medical and managerial structures.


The value of returning to Beauvoir’s work is in reminding us that what seems normal and natural for women’s place in society and what seems normal in their ‘natural’ attributes as carers and nurterers, may not be normal or natural. We need to remember the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. The pressures women experience, and the tools they use to provide an acceptably pleasing face to themselves as well as to men, are cultural artefacts bound up within systems of power. Powerlessness in the face of the social construction of feminities that lead to abject and subordinate subject positions can lead to reaction which might even be self harming. Feminist theory may not find a home in nurse education, perhaps it should?







Aston M, Price S, Kirk S, and Penney T. (2011) More than meets the eye. Feminist poststructuralism as a lens towards understanding Obesity. Journal of Advanced Nursing.

Baudrillard, J. “XI. Holograms.” Simulacra and Simulations. transl. Sheila Faria Glaser. retrieved 20 February 2015

Baumann Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Polity. Cambridge.

Beauvoir, Simone de (1949 (translated 2009)). The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Random House: Alfred A. Knopf.

Booth, P. (2014) Straw Mammon: An essay on Mammon’s Kingdom by David Marquand. Institute of Economic Affairs. July 2014.’s-kingdom-by-david-marquand

Davis, R. (2011) Labiaplasty surgery increased as a result of pornography. Women. The Observer 27th February

Garfinkel, H. 1967 Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Gamble, s. (2001) ed. The Routledge companion to feminism and postfeminism . Routledge London.

Garner, David M.; Garfinkel, Paul E. (2009). Socio-cultural factors in the development of anorexia nervosa. Psychological Medicine 10 (4): 647–56

Hagell, E (1989) Nursing knowledge: Women’s knowledge. A sociological perspective. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 14: 226–33

Hume, D. (1739-1740) Treatise on Human Nature. Section 3.1.1. Moral Distinctions Not deriv’d from Reason.

Marquand, D. (2014) Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain Now. Allen lane. London.

Orbach, S (1978) Fat is a feminist issue. Arrow. London.

Russell, D and Harmes, R. (eds) Femicide in Global Perspective. Ch 2 p 13-14. Teachers College Press, New York.

Sandel, M. (2012) What money can’t buy. The moral limits of markets. Allen lane. London.

Skidelsky, R and Skidelsky E, (2012) How much is enough? Money and the Good Life. Other Press. New York.

Teachman, B.A.; Brownell, K.D. (2001). “Implicit anti-fat bias among health professionals: Is anyone immune?”. International Journal of Obesity 25 (10): 1525–1531

Tong, R. (2009). Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (Third ed.). Boulder: Westview Press. pp. 284–285, 289

Wolf, N. (1990) The Beauty Myth. How Images of beauty are used against women. Vintage. London.

Why do nurses behave as they do?

Subject Positions Theory.   Why do individual nurses behave as they do?

SPT tries to explain how ‘subjects’ will behave in certain situations. It can be used to explore what ‘positions’ we take up and what identities we either assume or refuse within a social context that is characterised by power relationships. It allows the question about how powerful ‘others’ (i.e. Health Secretaries, CEOs, Consultants, Managers) position the relatively powerless ‘subject’ (staff nurse, patient) into certain subject positions (e.g. handmaiden, passive recipient) simply through an unconscious, uncriticised and shared language, discourse and power. Objective formal power involving clear boundaries, sanctions and authority also operate in social relationships. Objective formal power needs to be called out, and its foundation clearly described as operating often on an unspoken ideology. In the current context of health care delivery, that ideology is founded upon the twin pillars of neoliberalism and managerialism. These are macro level positions, whereas SPT allows exploration of informal power at the micro level that might go otherwise unanalysed.


The ‘subject’ within this theory refers to the individual human being who engages in creating an identity and does so partly by being the ‘subject’ of language, discourses and power relationships. The subject position, or identity, one takes is created by language, discourse and power and in doing so also creates that identity. This operates within a set of social relationships that are characterised by differences such as ethnicity, sexuality, gender and class. These relationships are also relationships of power. They operate through and within language. Our subject positions are partly defined by others unless we recognise the process of positioning and resist it. However, a good deal of positioning by others can be successful because we take subject positions often unconsciously. We have already accepted the language, discourse and power of others. Within any social interaction, powerful ‘others’ may engage in ‘interpellation’ (Althusser 1989). They ‘call’ us into a subject position by our intersubjective acceptance of the language, discourse and power of the other.


When a doctor, or manager, calls upon a nurse to do something, they are often ‘interpellating’ the nurse into a subject position of obedience to a medical or hierarchical regime. This can only work if the nurse recognises and accepts the subject position of junior partner. This process of identification creates an identity. The doctor identifies the nurse and the ‘subject’ within the nurse becomes a nurse. The subjective ‘I’, which in other social situations is not identified as a nurse, now becomes one. This is not to be confused with the formal title that the qualification RN bestows upon someone. Merely having been registered with the Nursing and Midwifery council does not identify a subject as a ‘nurse’, it is merely a formal recognition of one’s status on a register. One becomes and assumes the identity of nurse through social interaction and the ‘interpellation’ of others. A nurse is a nurse only when others say so within a social context. Upon leaving the clinical setting, the subjective ‘I’ is now free to assume other identities such as mother, friend, runner or dancer.


When a nurse is called in this manner, it may well be the case that the nurse recognises this calling, and that the subjective ‘I’ is now the subject position of ‘me’ as nurse. This operates through the unconscious acceptance of that subject position. Through such mechanisms as ‘occupational socialisation’ the calling out of ‘me as nurse’ feels natural and in that acceptance further cements this identity. The nurse has been ‘recruited’ into that subject position and over time bonds with that identity and its underlying ideological sets of discourses and power relationships that go with it.


Within the occupation of nursing there may be a number of subject positions open to individual nurses. Some of those positions are overt and openly discussed, others operate within the covert, intersubjective, lifeworld of nursing. Thus, nurses assume certain subject positions, such as ‘nurse advocate’, and attempt to assume this identity to further patient care. In doing so, do other ‘powerful subjects’ may position the ‘nurse advocate’ identity into one of ‘whistleblower’ or ‘uppity nurse’, ‘non-medical care worker’ or ‘junior partner’.


Potential Subject Positions that might be open to nurses: they operate as binaries – one position is assumed other is an ‘abject’ position.


·       Advocate/Non advocate

·       Carer/patient

·       Empathiser/task completer

·       Doer/Organiser

·       Whistleblower/Compliant worker

·       Educator/Student

·       Trainer/Trainee

·       Supervisor/worker

·       Female/male

·       Good nurse/uppity nurse

·       Coper/Whinger

·       Emotional supporter/distant professional

·       Responder/avoider



‘Subjects’ have the ability to occupy and move between a variety of identities, or ‘subject positions’, within an interaction in the clinical setting but this depends on the power dynamics and context of that exchange. We can therefore try to analyse in any given interaction what those power dynamics are and what the context consists of. So, how do nurses either comply with or resist positioning for example as a ‘doer’ within a power struggle?


Lacan (1977) suggests we assume identities, or positions, in response to punishments or threats of punishment. In the clinical context that might include bullying, intimidation, snubbing, patronising language or lack of promotion. The fear of punishment arises out of ‘knowing’ the rules of interaction and being aware of power and the rules of hierarchy.


Once an identity has been assumed it is associated with a particular discourse, i.e. a stock of words, phrases, concepts, theories, that support and explain the position taken. The subject position of nurse, according, to society, should display feminine attributes based in an ethic of care. The discourse associated with this is about being a ‘good nurse’ emphasising nurturance, obedience, support, listening and helping. This recently has been given even more support through emphasising the 6 Cs. This sits in opposition to critical advocacy especially in relation to the medical profession and NHS management. The discourse available to critical advocacy emphasises challenge, assertiveness, rights, and standards. The subject position of whistleblower is similarly contradictory, at once being that of advocate and patient champion while the reality is also one of irritant, turncoat and rebel to the hierarchies of power. SPT requires a critical theory of power to move beyond analysis at the micro level to critique of power structures (be they gendered, class, managerial) at the macro.


Clinical decision making, such as advocating a certain course of action such as moving an older person within the hospital at night, or changing the operating list to avoid delays, or getting analgesia prescribed, operates within this matrix of subject positions involving negotiating the social order of hierarchy and power. Sundin-Huard (2001) argues the subject position of advocate is countered by the subject position of ‘good nurse’ in that in exercising advocacy the nurse threatens the identity of ‘good nurse’ and becomes the ‘uppity nurse’. A vignette illustrating this positioning is used as an exemplar. In the vignette, a neonatal nurse advocates, unsuccessfully, for analgesia as she is positioned and assumes the position of advocate and uppity nurse. In the training film ‘just a routine operation’, two nurses are similarly positioned as ‘junior without formal decision making power’ within a critical airway emergency in theatre. The resulting death of the patient in that scenario clearly demonstrates that this analysis is no mere sociological abstraction.




Nursing does not operate in a neutral power context. Nurses work in a gendered occupation underpinned by a range of discourses using certain languages that often position them into subordination. Those in formal power positions also understand these discourses and through language use can ‘call’ nurses into subordinate and contradictory subject positions. Hierarchies of gender, class and occupation provide the context for these positionings to take place. In order to minimise moral distress and the burden of emotional labour, nurses require an emancipatory understanding of these taken for granted power plays to enable practical resistance to develop. In this they can be aided by the discourse of humanism recognising the requirement for patient safety, comfort and cleanliness in the provision of quality care. The nurse who feels emotional and moral distress as a result of the actions and omissions of other power actors in the workplace, requires an analysis of the basis of this power relationship so that rather than turning in on oneself in defeat, a resistance can be mounted by creating alternative languages, discourses and power bases. Resilience in the face of threat in this context is not enough. Nurses need to find a language to speak truth to power and then forge political alliances with other actors, e.g. patient advocacy groups, to create alternative visions and structures to that which is advocated by neoliberals and the dead hand of managerialism.








Althusser, L. (1989). ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays: pp 170-186. London. New Left Books.


Lacan, J. (1977). Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton


Sundin-Huard D. Subject Positions Theory. Understanding conflict and collaboration in critical care. (2001). Journal of Advanced Nursing 34 (3) pp 376-382

NEETS, Nitwits and the nasty party.

(Above: The Unemployed get dressed up before going on the piss)


The latest PR wheeze by Cameron and his cronies in the ‘nasty party’ is to focus on feckless teenagers who cant be arsed to get out of bed to work for a living. Just in case we forget, the great recession and the rise in our debt was caused by hordes of behooded ‘yoof’, no doubt high on drugs but low on ambition, hanging about in shopping malls terrorising respectable hard working families, when they are not masturbating in their bedrooms until midday, with their music, hairstyles and Harry Stiles. Why should I struggle to get out of bed and sell my labour to the lowest bidder while those not in education, employment or training (NEET) waste their golden years moaning about low pay, the price of fags and spots? 

The GBP (Great British Public) are revolting. Not in the way that oiks incur revulsion to the upper classes, rather revolting as in “we are seriously dismayed by the actions of our betters in their tax affairs and we might just think about this for a while, well when we say ‘a while’ we mean until some no talent celebrity steals the headlines by being caught shagging, snorting coke or getting their tits out“. Just in case some of this dismay metamorphosises into something more ‘radical’, such as voting UKIP, the GBP needs new meat.


So in response, and to head off criticism of cheeky boy George Osborne going on telly to suggest tax avoidance schemes, Lynton Crosby (PR Guru to the clueless toffs) may well have prompted Cameron to go after teens. Especially those who live in the North and Midlands where ‘tory’ is a term of abuse. It turns out that the councils with most ‘neets’ are those in the north and midlands, with very very few in Tory held areas. I wonder if there is a connection between post industrial collapse and unemployment? I wonder if there is a connection between pissing off voters in areas where you have no hope of winning, stoking the fears and prejudices of natural supporters and wavering ‘hard working families’ in marginals and areas where you have strong support, and a longer term election strategy?

Is there any evidence that workfare schemes for young people of this nature…sorry, low pay/slave labour schemes…actually work? Evidence? Apologies, if I seem to suggest that public policy is based on evidence rather than PR and ideology. According to Jonathan Portes of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, compulsory community work for the unemployed do not work.

But I digress. the real story is the diversionary nature of this chav baiting story. Get the oiks talking about the undeserving underclass, rather than a continued forensic examination of the unequal distribution of power, wealth, income and opportunities.

Please remember that Cameron is not just a PM he is a PRM, a ‘Public Relations Minister’.

The 1%, Social Class and precarious positions

“Relatively few UK citizens, I maintain, can anticipate their futures with sanguinity. So my employment of ‘precariat’ acknowledges this insecurity without making the ‘error’ of discovering a new class”.


Graham Scambler outlines a revised class structure for the UK that brings new light to the 1% that the NS SEC class structure is not able to describe. The quote refers to the ‘precariat’, not as a new social class separate from the middle and working class, but as a term to describe many in working and middle class positions whose lives and jobs can be described as being precarious, i.e. could be described as only a few pay slips away from penury and food banks. Given the level of personal debt faced by people, including mortgage debt which low interest rates are protecting us from, and given that the jobs themselves can be outsourced to another country, restructured into redundancy or overtaken by technology, or become too hard through ill health, then many might come to see  precarity as a feature of life regardless of being in the middle class. Nurses, who were once a solid feature of the working landscape, might also be in this precarious position. To nurse requires good physical and mental health. Any challenge to this, or to the health of a family member, might put the job in peril. Many nurses right now are enjoying low interest rates on their mortgages and will also have loans and credit card debt. For now that is safe, but this historic situation will not last. NHS Trusts could in the future replace nurses with assistant practioners or a higher HCA to RN ratio. We have yet to see how technology will deskill and replace professional nursing, however we would be foolish to think nursing is immune from this process. Scambler has done us a service by reminding us that our life course is linked to the decisions made by the capitalist executive and their political supporters. The NS SEC classification may give a false sense of security of class position that may not be merited. Are nurses middle class and thus safe from precarity? I don’t think so.

Perhaps this test might show this? Its from the BBC called ‘the squeezed middle’. 

How do we develop our political views?

How do we develop our political views? 

The first answer is that we are rational creatures that seek out information and educate ourselves about the world, and then we base our political convictions using reasoning, evidence and facts. However this may not in fact be true. Jonathan Haidt puts forward an alternative theory that reverses this theorising.

Using a novel online tool called ‘The Political Compass’ (you can find it here:, I find that I fall into the anarcho-leftie corner. This means I am socially and libertarian left. A Green Marxist. It is also true that my siblings, although born around the same time, into the same family, are different in their political views. How did this state of affairs pertain?

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and has studied moral psychology. His answer is that genes play a part in forming our moral intuitions. We then respond to social triggers and then develop ‘post hoc’ rationalisations to explain our positions.  One of his key principles is that ‘intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second’. We do not come to political positions through reason, we come to them via our moral intuitions. Our moral intuition is an elephant, our reasoning is merely a rider. When the the elephant moves, the rider follows.

How do we get to be riding a particular elephant?

Haidt argues that:

‘genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities’ (p323).

Genetics explains about a third to a half of the variability among people on their political views. Thus the foundation for our later political positions is ‘innate’, defined as ‘organised ahead of experience’. This innate ‘first draft’ then gets revised by childhood experiences. Therefore our political views have a basis in biology and childhood experience rather than forming 100% through adult reasoning. The story you use to understand the world is partly a post hoc reasoning process, driven by earlier intuitions.

There are three stages to this process:

  1. Genes make brains.
  2. Traits guide children along different paths.
  3. People construct life narratives.

Genes make brains: The brains of conservatives and progressives are different. This relates to neurotransmitters such as glutamate, serotonin (threat and fear responses) and dopamine (pleasure responses). Conservatives react more strongly to signs of danger than progressives do (glutamate and serotonin), while progressives are more open to sensation seeking and openness to experience (dopamine). Genes give some people brains that are more or less reactive to threat or give more or less pleasure in response to new experiences, novelty and change. This is the first draft of your life story, and later behaviour, based on innate genetic structures.

This feels intuitively right. All of my life I respond well to, and seek out, new experiences and novelty. I am a sensation seeker: travelling, rock climbing, motorcycling and playing music and other experiences that should not be discussed in public!  If I was born with a ‘progressives brain’ then this was my innate ‘organised ahead of experience’ frame of mind, just waiting for childhood experiences to damp down or fire up this innate orientation to the world.

Traits guide children along different paths. Now this is more complicated to analyse as there is so much to our childhood experiences. However we may reflect on the paths we take during certain experiences such as schooling and think about whether the innate traits we have, guide us in certain directions. I passed my 11 plus and so gained entry to a Grammar School. From the very first I was like a fish out of water. Consciously at the time, it was because none of my friends passed and so they would go to a different school. However, the feeling of not fitting in carried on for 5 years. I also later thought that being working class did not equip me well for a middle class education. I did not have the social, financial and cultural capital of many of my fellow pupils for whom the path to University would be straightforward. Could it also be that being born with a progressive brain that responds to sensation seeking and novelty, I found that that the ethos of the school, emphasising authority, loyalty and sanctity, ran counter to this? According to Haidt my genetic traits guided me more easily along the path of passive rebellion involving rejection of the school ethos while I dreamed of joining the royal navy with its promise of exotica overseas. Compared to this, doing my duty as a scholar to prepare for professional training for law and medicine seemed out of reach and quite dull.

Haidt quotes Dan McAdams, who provides a three stage theory of personality development which might affect the sort of life choices we make and the ways we react to circumstances.

The first stage is the setting down of ‘dispositional traits’ that are long standing from childhood to old age. They operate in various situations and contexts. They include threat sensitivity, novelty seeking, extraversion and conscientiousness. Perhaps my brain was constructed by genes that makes it lower than average on threat sensitivity and higher than average for pleasure from new experiences. The Grammar School, being an old fashioned institution based on tradition, God and Country did not provide enough novelty to produce pleasure but to someone averse to threat, would provide a perfect home. Perhaps I was also low on the disposition to conscientiousness and so I would not, and did not, put any effort into my studies. Therefore my dispositional traits guided me some might say adversely through Grammar school with the result of me leaving at the earliest opportunity without taking A levels.  Others, with higher aversions to threat, and disposed to conscientiousness, would find a ready home in a school long on tradition, safe hierarchy and suspicious of novelty.

The second stage is ‘characteristic adaptations‘ these are traits that emerge as we grow, and adapt to particular life circumstances. At the Grammar school I learned to bide my time waiting for the moment to run off to sea. I could not see any positives in stuffy tradition and so I developed a rejection of authority symbols such as the school tie or singing hymns at assembly. Perhaps I developed the trait of passive resistance as an adaptation to my schooling. Later symbols of traditional authority would be viewed with suspicion and strategies were adopted to circumvent their impact on my life. It is now somewhat ironic that I joined an organisation which shared with the grammar school an ethos of tradition, loyalty and authority. Yet, I did so knowing that the Royal Navy would also provide sensations and new experiences. All the ‘Queen and Country’ paraphernalia was taken with a lorry load of salt, as the pay off was sailing to foreign climes. The passive resistance trait stood me in good stead as it allowed me to take the Navy’s bullshit and see it as merely a path to pleasure and novelty. The military suits the conservative mind and those with conservative traits would have them reinforced. If I had responded positively to the grammar school ethos of tradition, loyalty as manifest in physical sports, I might have adaptive traits such as ‘rule following’. I don’t.

People construct life narratives. Thirdly, McAdams discusses ‘Life Narratives‘ as a stage in personality development. We are story processors not logic processors and we engage in telling, hearing and constructing our own life narratives that give meaning and explanations to experience.  These narrative are saturated with moral intuitions, ideas about authority, sanctity, care, fairness loyalty and freedom. My life narrative is infused with moral intuitions about care and fairness. Allegiance to authority or stories about purity of the self are absent. When I did find myself as a teenager responding to a Christian message it was one based on Jesus’ teachings about the poor. The social justice and oppression of the weak angles were the draw. Later Church teachings that focused on tradition, authority and sanctity left me cold, to the extent I renounced my religion and studied sociology – a perfect home for my traits of sensation seeking, novelty and passive resistance. I found the critiques of conservative societies within sociology literally thrilling. I revelled in contrarian positions that sociology taught. For example the critiques of the nuclear family illustrating the sham that it may be in many cases, and the critiques of religion as stultifying force whose main aim was conformity and a power grab were exhilirating. My life narrative embraced progressive understandings of society and politics. Upon reflection, it is no mere accident that I came to read sociology at degree level.

I was not predestined to become progressive, and perhaps a different childhood which supplied social and cultural capital might have seen me working my way through into the professions such as law and voting conservative? As it is, the socialism inherent in the Gospels (as I saw it) but also clearly in the Acts of the Apostles allied to my liking for Marxist theory (passive resistance?) came together to reinforce my genetic tendency for novelty seeking. Both seeing the gospels as anti traditional church and marxist theory were experiences that went beyond, loyalty, tradition and old fashioned ideas of sanctity. I positively revelled in rebellious thinking. Later on, when introduced to sustainability concepts, my righteous mind found another home and so I come to construct a narrative about green marxism which nods to the socialism found in the bible.


According to Haidt, this life narrative is a post hoc rationalisation based on my innate moral intuitions that emphasises care/harm, Liberty as freedom from oppression and Fairness (these make up my elephant). Authority, Loyalty/Tradition and Sanctity/Purity rank very low in my moral universe. Starting with a brain wired for novelty, sensation seeking and new experiences while being below average on threat and hence no need for protection using authority, through to childhood experiences that reinforced this and allowed adaptive traits to evolve, and onto the construction of life narratives that give meaning to experiences and reinforce those traits I end up voting Green and loathing neoliberalism.

Thats the story Haidt allows me to construct.  To more fully understand this theory it is necessary to address Haidt’s “Moral Foundations Theory” which outlines 6 moral foundations underpinning political thinking. Haidt is clear on this, the moral intuitions based on these foundations come first, our political and strategic thinking comes second. They are post hoc rationalisations for what we already feel.  Once we have constructed our moral matrix, it binds us together as groups and blinds us to the positions taken by others.  This is why conservatives attack lefties for their anti monarchy, anti family, anti religious, anti business positions (lack of authority, loyalty and sanctity) while progressives attack conservatives for their anti welfare, pro military, pro corporate stance (lack of care and fairness). Once you have staked out your moral positions then you engage in rationalisations to defend them. These then are presented as objective, reasoned arguments.

Is there room then for reason to return as an arbiter for political truth? Does this mean there is no basis in these post hoc rationalisations that enable us to transcend moral intuitions? Are some post hoc rationalisations, based on the moral foundations of authority, loyalty and sanctity merely ideology which are then are used to cover up power positions? In putting this forward am I merely engaging in another post hoc rationalisation based upon my own moral foundations of care/harm and fairness? In identifying the elephant of moral intuition, are we then able to shoot it,  allowing the reasoning rider to walk a path of his own choosing based on evidence and facts rather tha moral intuitions?

Haidt seems to set up the position that politics can be reduced to understanding moral intuitions and then finding a way to work together to reduce political conflict.  However, while there is strong explanatory power to this thesis in terms of how we debelop our own views, what is missing is an analysis of power. There are groups in society who can enforce ideas about the moral foundations of authority, loyalty and sanctity as well as enforcing their interpretation of what care and fairness means. I also doubt the degree to which many people turn moral intuitions into carefully thought through post hoc rationalisations using reason and evidence. The political culture war he describes in the US results as he says from unthinking and uncritical moral intuitions and rarely get beyond that. The post hoc rationalisations look more like excuses rather than thoroughly thought through reasons for holding a position. Perhaps this is only to be expected for populations who have better things to do than to examine in detail the basis for political positions rooted on moral intuitions.

However, for the activist academic (Antonio Gramsci) or the Liberal Educator (C Wright Mills) there is a responsibility to blow away ideological positions based on moral intuitions to reveal power structures complicit in oppression. Of course I acknowledge this is based on the care/harm and freedom/oppression moral foundation, but that is the point here and of course might be the left critique of conservative academia. A critique that suggests it is founded too much on authority, loyalty and sanctity that, as Haidt suggests, blinds them to analyses of power.

See: Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind. 2012. Penguin. London