Normative Judgements and Dividing Experiential from Propositional Knowledge: ‘No Uterus, No Opinion’ Re-Visited

The following is a very commonly used phrase (in outline):

(1) If you yourself have not experienced E (some event), then you are not entitled to give your opinion O.

I have always had an intuition that (1) is designed either as a derogatory comment, or a conversation stopper. It seems that there is a suppressed premise—to use Simon Blackburn’s term—lingering in (1). Let’s try to add it in:

(1*) If you yourself have not experienced E, then you are not entitled to give your opinion O since experiential knowledge of E cannot be had in any other way.

This is rather abstract. Let me give an example (inspired by recent events). If a pro-choice advocate (man or woman) says that a man ought not to hold any opinion about the pro-life/choice debate because one is a man, there is at least three (fatal) problems with this, philosophically speaking. Let me identify them. First, it is not clear that experiential knowledge excludes propositional knowledge. Suppose that you meet someone, your mother, for instance. And suppose that you meet her through meeting her; that is, you have experienced what it is like to meet your own mother. This is one way of knowing something, namely, one’s mother. But, suppose that I have not met my mother (for whatever reason i.e., private or closed adoption). If I am in this predicament, I can be told that I have a mother. For instance, I could learn that ‘your biological mother is not the mother who raised you.’ This would be sufficient for knowing your mother propositionally. Sure, they’re not the same thing, but they are two ways of knowing the same thing nonetheless—one through a proposition, the other through experience. So, when the pro-choicer suggests that a man should not make any claims about what a woman ought to do with their unborn child, if we have propositional knowledge of the situation they are in, that seems to be good enough a reason for having an opinion. But suppose I am wrong: What if there is a knowledge peculiar to the woman, which cannot be had even propositionally by the man? While I am very skeptical of this type of knowledge (what would it consist in?), let me suppose that this is true, and that there is a ‘special knowledge.’ There is an even more fatal problem with (1*). There is a difference between the argument, and the person giving the argument (as philosopher W.L. Craig nicely notes in many places). The person I am is independent of any argument I give; if I am a Catholic, my argument holds whether myself, the Pope, the local convenience store owner or the librarian nearest to me holds it. There is no truth-indicative relationship between the person who gives an argument, and the argument itself (I suppose this does not apply to God, though i.e., if He gives an argument, in virtue of being God, He will be correct). Back to the example, though: If I say for instance:

(2) Science tells us with great plausibility and precision that human life begins at conception

this has nothing to do with me—rather, it has to do with the deliverances of science. The attempt to conflate together the person and the argument is not only antithetical to truth, but actually commits—and this is the third reason why (1*) does not work—the fallacy of an ad hominem. Why would it do this? This is so inasmuch as one tries to falsify the claim of a person by attacking their character i.e., not possessing certain body parts (a uterus, for example), one is merely attacking a person and not the argument. So we have here three reasons why we should reject (1*): (i) there are many ways of knowing not limited to experiential knowledge, (ii) even if (i) is false, we still face the problem of conflating the person with an argument and they are, in fact, separate and (iii) we have good grounds for thinking that the conflation of the person with an argument commits the fallacy of ad hominem. But, let me (for the sake of argument), suggest that I am wrong about all of this, and that I have mis-interpreted the claim altogether. Consider it once more:

(1*) If you yourself have not experienced E, then you are not entitled to give your opinion O since experiential knowledge of E cannot be had in any other way.

Maybe instead of treating this as a logical proposition, I have instead missed that it was a normative moral judgment. For perhaps (1*) prescribes an action which ought to be taken i.e., not giving an opinion on E (some event) iff (if and only if) one has not experienced it. There are still manifold problems. Let me list two. First, we should think of normative moral judgements as prescribing a form of action towards another person or oneself. So, when we say ‘rape is a moral wrong’, we mean that (i) rape is wrong and (ii) we have a duty not to do it (or even let it happen socio-culturally). Why is this relevant? (1*) suggests that we should limit what we judge to what we have ourselves experienced; however, if I have not experienced E, why is it not morally permissible to give an opinion O? Loaded within (1*) is a technical presumption which I want to make explicit. The technical presumption is that we have an opinion to share, and not a claim about reality. In effect, (1*) can become a sort of mask for subjectivism in many cases: “Truth is relative to persons and so your opinion should not be given since I have my opinions, and you have yours.” (Of course, this is a self contradiction i.e., it is absolutely true that you should not give your subjective opinions). Interestingly though (1*) I think is often a statement of a self-contradictory subjectivism. But let me (again) suppose I am wrong.

(1*) suffers an even more devastating problem, namely, we can run counter-examples. There are many people who have not smoked crack cocaine before, but who think that human beings should not do it. There are people who are not effected by rape (directly or indirectly) but who advocate for a culture where rape is unthinkable. There are even people who advocate for religious freedom, even if they themselves are not religious. These are examples where a person has not experienced the thing in question, but where we think one should not have their opinion restricted. So, a philosophical question is looming: Why is the cases in which we say ‘if you are not P, then you cannot say O’ selective, in that we say them in some contexts but not in others? I have two answers. First, it seems likely that it is because we already agree in many cases of the wrongness of the action. For instance, we are all agreed (minus some apathetic persons) that smoking crack cocaine is bad i.e., it ruins the body, relationships, right conduct towards one’s own body, et cetera. So, when one advocates for not using them, we do not (as a sociological fact) say ‘you shouldn’t give your opinion unless you yourself have experienced it.’ Secondly, and more importantly, the desire to not allow people to give their opinions because of qualities which they may or may not have is just a projection of emotion. It is not ‘nice’ (whatever that means) at times to have someone give their opinion on something they themselves have not experienced. This I think is an important point. Let me make it relevant to the pro-life/choice debate.

Men will not experience pregnancy. They will not experience rape. They will not even experience delivering a rapists’ child. These things are correct; however, does this mean we should ignore questions of right and wrong, good and bad, because one will not experience the thing in question? While I think men ought to have the sincerest sympathy and love for all women who are in any of the aforementioned situations, I think we should rightfully separate the person from the argument, the goodness or badness from the action from the person who speaks of it. So the claim that ‘no uterus, no opinion’, ‘men should not have any say over what a woman does with her body’ or even ‘you will not have to experience motherhood, pregnancy, or in the worst case rape, so you aren’t allowed to give an opinion’, is in the long run not merely logically fallacious, but is just an emotional rejection of the truth, namely, the truth that all human beings are entitled to give their insights, despite what qualities or features they may or may not have. (1*) might have an even more awful consequence: If we accept (1*), men should not give their opinion on the badness of rape itself since the man will not experience it (as a woman)—this conclusion is not merely morally problematic and shows how the use of (1*) is often inconsistently used, it is a reductio ad absurdum!


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