Desperately Seeking a Moralist

51 Pages Posted: 27 May 2011

See all articles by Robin L. West

Robin L. West

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: May 25, 2011


In a recent issue of “Unbound”, Janet Halley reviews my book “Caring for Justice”, criticizing it for exhibiting a broad range of the problems she sees in all forms of “identitarian” legal writing, and therefore worthy of detailed critique. Halley begins her review by listing the representative missteps she finds in both my book and in identitarian politics generally, including, although certainly not limited to, an identification of the site of the subordinated group’s injuries-for women, reproduction and sexuality with the site of its ethical lives and insights; a tendency to differentiate and present the interests of subordinate and dominant groups, such as women and men, as inevitably opposed, such that women’s injuries work to men’s advantage and vice versa; an inclination to substitute the language of harm, injury, and ethics for the language of subordination, exploitation, and the like; and both an unhealthy aversion to politics and an insistence that changing the hearts and minds of the dominant will somehow magically reduce the amount of suffering in the world. Whether or not the list accurately captures my views on these questions, or those of identitarian scholars for whom I did not purport to speak, it is misleading in a more fundamental sense: by the end of her review, it is clear that Halley finds much more troubling sins in “Caring for Justice”, sins that are assuredly much more particular to feminism, to my feminism, and maybe just to this book, than to identitarian politics across the board. Thus, in the bulk of the review, Halley suggests that “Caring for Justice” exhibits tendencies toward both “totalitarian[ism]” and a “slave morality,” asserts an ethical view that is “infantile,” conveys a sense of sexual injury that is “panick[ed]” (this latter is not just a sin; in Halley’s moral ordering, it has all the markings of original sin), shows frightful signs of “female- ... supremac[y],” is politically “paranoid,” and, in toto, amounts to something she calls derisively “mother feminism.” The punishing epithets and psychoanalytic diagnoses flow promiscuously. Whatever else one might say about these charges, I cannot imagine why anyone would regard them as shared characteristics of identitarian scholarship. In this response, graciously invited by the editors of “The Harvard Journal of Law & Gender”, I will address some of these charges, and I will respond in some detail to the thrust of Halley’s complaints about the “politics of injury.” However, what I want to focus on first, albeit briefly, is just one of Halley’s characterizations of my work that, on first blush, I found to be extraordinarily peculiar and on one “argument” of sorts that is built on top of this characterization. I believe that this argument is at the heart of much of Halley’s Freudian and Nietzschean lambasting of my work.

Keywords: sociological jurisprudence, feminist jurisprudence, sex and law, feminist theory, indentitarian politics, moralism, reproductive rights, Janet Halley

JEL Classification: K00, K19, K30

Suggested Citation

West, Robin L., Desperately Seeking a Moralist (May 25, 2011). Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Vol. 29, 2006, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-59, Available at SSRN:

Robin L. West (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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