. 13
( 37 .)


equals, but only when those people exhibit capacities that are identical in terms
of the standard in question. People will be found to be equally swift, for example,
if they can cover a given distance in the same time, equally strong if they can
lift the same weight, equally bright if they receive the same test score. In other
words, people are determined to be equal under standards of comparison such
as these when their capacities are found to be indistinguishable in the relevant
Men and women are frequently found to be equal in this sense, but their
equality in this respect is established at the expense of their sex.111 That is to
say, equality of the sexes exists here if and when men and women are found
to be indistinguishable in terms of the capacity in question. If men and women
are either revealed or reconstructed so as to be as swift as one another, as the
standard de¬nes swiftness, they will no longer be gendered in that respect. The
more comprehensive the respects like this in which they are equal, the more
comprehensive will be their identity.
Occasionally, not only sexual equality but universal equality can be estab-
lished in this way. In some respects all human beings will be found to be
the same, whether they have been created so by nature or by society. A stan-
dard of this kind may be employed as a means of recognizing or establish-
ing that commonality. More often, however, a standard that may reveal men
and women, on average, to be as swift as one another reveals certain men
and women to be swifter than others. The equality that is asserted in one di-
mension, that of sex, is thereby denied in another, the dimension the standard

111 This is not to say that a ¬nding of equality in some respect erases sexual difference in that
respect, but that a ¬nding of equality in some respect is a ¬nding that there is no difference
between the sexes in that respect. However, a reconstruction of sexual identity in terms of
equality, such as MacKinnon contemplates, would indeed erase the existence of sex.
68 equality

From the perspective of one-dimensional standards, then, recognition entails
inequality, and equality entails nonrecognition. Swiftness is here de¬ned by
the differences that the standard of swiftness establishes between people. To
the extent that the standard establishes the swiftness of men, or of blacks,
it establishes hierarchies of sex, race, and speed. If the standard can ¬nd no
difference between men and women, or between blacks and whites, in terms of
swiftness as it understands it, then sex and race do not exist in that dimension. If,
further, the standard can ¬nd no difference between any two people, then it can
no longer distinguish the swift from the slow; and if that standard is exhaustive
of our understanding of speed, then the dimension of speed itself will cease to
exist for us.
At one level, then, a call for equality in this context is a call for identity of
capacity. If men and women are reconstructed so as to have identical capacities,
they will be equal in this sense, but not as men and women, because sex will no
longer exist in this setting. In the context of standards of this kind, sexual equality
as MacKinnon de¬nes it, namely, the circumstances in which the sexes are
different but not inferior to one another in any respect, is indeed a contradiction
in terms “ as she puts it, something of an oxymoron.112
At another level, a call for equality in this context can be interpreted as a call
for identity between the treatment of people and their performance according
to the standard in question. So understood, equality requires that people who
perform equally according to the standard be treated equally, and that people
who perform differently according to the standard be treated in proportion to
their difference. On this view, therefore, inequality arises not only when people
the standard determines to be similar are treated differently, but when people
the standard determines to be different are treated similarly. It follows that
this understanding of equality condemns the failure to recognize and enforce,
rather than the failure to suppress, any sexual hierarchy de¬ned by the standard
in question. This is the equality of the difference approach in its sameness
branch, not the equality that MacKinnon calls for.

112 Id. at 33. MacKinnon has attempted to eliminate hierarchy by rewriting the three-stage process
of sex construction so that it does not embody dominance in its design. She has attempted to
ensure that we do not assign what we see as virtues to men and treat as virtues those qualities
that we claim to have discovered in men. But even when dominance has been abolished as
a governing principle in the design of sex, the social standards in terms of which men and
women conduct their lives, understood in a one-dimensional sense, will still have the effect of
de¬ning one sex as inferior to the other in the dimensions they describe. If men and women
are to perform equally, they must possess the same capacities. This is not to say that women
must meet male standards, as MacKinnon alleges they are expected to do under the difference
approach. That would be the case only if dominance remained part of the design of sex. Rather,
it is to say that the sexes will perform equally only when the relevant standard is insensitive to
sex, so they can no longer be distinguished as men and women. One might attempt to establish
the equality of the sexes by comparing their performance in all dimensions. To do so, however,
it would be necessary to employ a complex standard of the kind considered below, one that
takes into account a range of incommensurable achievements.
III. Implications 69

Human beings can be evaluated in quite different terms from these, how-
ever. The standards according to which people are assessed and compared can be
complex and sensitive, rather than one-dimensional and authoritative. Indeed,
it is frequently the case that we seek to understand and appreciate, not simply
to measure and rank, the qualities and capacities that people possess. When we
recognize physical grace or expressiveness, when we appreciate wit or charm or
good humour or kindness, when we value intelligence, compassion, or under-
standing, we tend to employ complex standards of assessment in order to do so.
The signi¬cance of those standards, then, is that they enable us to comprehend
the character and capacities of other human beings in their own terms.113
We may seek to pursue this method of comprehending human beings further
by making comparisons among different people and the different qualities they
have to offer. Comparisons of this kind, however, are conducted in the same
qualitative terms as the assessments on which they are based. Accordingly, we
may compare different kinds of physical expressiveness so as to recognize them
all, different qualities of character so as to appreciate them all, different capaci-
ties of mind so as to value them all. When we compare the register of a woman™s
voice to that of a man™s, for example, we do so not to rank them but to recognize
something about sex and something about the human voice. In making compar-
isons like these we continue to employ complex standards because our purpose
is to develop an awareness of the complexity and range of human possibilities.
One-dimensional standards of evaluation notice variety in that dimension,
but they neither appreciate nor foster, for example, the qualities of those whom
they de¬ne as slow, or weak, or stupid; their purpose is to appreciate the qualities
of those whom they de¬ne as superior.114 For that reason, it is plausible to call
them male standards when they de¬ne as superior those qualities that are found
exclusively or predominantly in men.115 And because such standards do not
foster virtues other than those they de¬ne, it is plausible to regard them as
silencing those dimensions of experience that they fail to recognize.116

113 MacKinnon implicitly endorses such standards in her description of a woman™s understanding
of athletic activity. See note 109.
114 If and when they are multiplied, one-dimensional standards can give rise to a plurality of
virtues. Only a complex standard of evaluation, however, can foster that plurality, or appreciate
its consequences. See note 112.
115 This is not to say that such standards exist in any given society in order to serve the interests
of men. They are there because they de¬ne activities that are genuinely valuable, the pursuit of
which contributes to the success of the lives of certain human beings, women as well as men.
Nevertheless, it is plausible to regard them as male in the sense that the other one-dimensional
standards I have referred to are standards of swiftness or strength.
116 This is not to concede that MacKinnon can consistently describe our present standards of
evaluation as male, or claim that those standards have silenced the female voice. The premise
underlying her comments is that male and female have no meaning except as descriptions of the
location of dominance and subordination in men and women. The discussion here is premised
on the assumption that men and women are to be reconstructed so as to realize the possibilities
of sexual difference, and so will have identities that can be dominant, or that can be silenced.
70 equality

If we want to appreciate and value the full signi¬cance of different lives,
therefore, we must employ standards whose complexity and sensitivity mirror
the complexity and variety of the qualities we hope to discover or create. It
follows that if we hope to reconstruct sex in such a way as to establish what
it means to be a man or a woman in all its possible richness and variety, we
must employ complex standards of assessment that allow us to appreciate what
men and women have to offer. This is not a matter of employing separate
standards for men and women. It is a matter of employing a common standard
of suf¬cient complexity to be capable of recognizing and appreciating what
each sex is capable of becoming.
Viewed from this perspective, men and women who seek to explore and pur-
sue the meaning and consequences of their existence, including their existence
as men and women, have different and ultimately incommensurable fates. This
is no more than what it means for them to be different people, to belong to
different sexes, and to pursue the full implications of those facts. Insofar as
men and women differ from one another, therefore, the complex standards of
appraisal and comparison that we employ in order to appreciate the meaning
of sex yield assessments that are couched in terms of sex. They describe lives
that are not superior or inferior, but different, and the tenor of their assessments
re¬‚ects that difference. When men and women are assessed in terms of stan-
dards of this complexity, neither hierarchy nor equality, as MacKinnon de¬nes
them, is possible. All that can be revealed is the fact of sexual difference, un-
derstood on its own terms and in its full implications. To adopt any other, more
limited, standard for the evaluation of men and women would be to deny them
the possibilities and the signi¬cance of their sex.117
It might be thought, nevertheless, that the different fates of the two sexes
could themselves be weighed in such a way as to be found equal or unequal. It
might be thought that men and women could be reconstructed so that the sum
of the bene¬ts and burdens felt distinctively by men matches the sum of those
felt distinctively by women; then the lives of the two sexes would be evenly
balanced in the scales of equality.
This, however, is to assume that such scales exist or could be de¬ned; to
assume, in other words, that there is a common currency in terms of which men™s
and women™s distinctive lives could ultimately be assessed and compared.118
On the contrary, the implication of assessing sexually distinctive lives in their

117 I have presented my comments in terms of sex, but they apply to any quality or set of qualities
that is not only true of human beings but critical to the success of certain human lives. I am
not assuming here that sex has any particular content, therefore, let alone that it completely
de¬nes the existence of men and women. Complex standards reveal the complexity of human
existence in general as well as the complexity of sex, and thus reveal the extent to which the
success or failure of a given human life may depend upon the exploitation of a wide range of
qualities, be they sexually neutral, sexually distinctive, or both.
118 It is also to assume that individual lives could be assessed in this way, which a complex approach
to their evaluation would deny.
IV. Conclusion 71

own terms is that the scales on which they are assessed must be drawn from
those lives themselves. The nature and metric of value are thus part of what is
at issue, part of the territory that each sex seeks to describe for itself.119 The
de¬nition of sex is a de¬nition not only of the qualities that are to compose
our understanding of men and women, but also of the weight to be assigned to
those qualities. There is thus no common understanding of value that we can
appeal to in order to ascertain the equality or inequality of the sexes.
To the extent, then, that the implications of sexual difference are realized,
sexual dominance as MacKinnon de¬nes it “ as the inferiority of one sex to the
other in any respect “ does not arise. Lives understood in this way are neither
inferior nor equal to one another. A one-dimensional standard can be used to
de¬ne and assess individual qualities, but it cannot so de¬ne sex. A call for
the recognition of sex is a call for assessment in terms of a complex standard,
under which neither hierarchy nor equality, as MacKinnon de¬nes them, arise.
A resolution to the problem of dominance in sex, therefore, must lie elsewhere.

IV. Conclusion
For Catharine MacKinnon, sex discrimination is simply the unequal distribution
of power between men and women, “the systematic relegation of an entire group
of people to a condition of inferiority”.120 In her view, the only way to right
this wrong is to eliminate women™s inferiority by establishing sex equality:
If sex inequalities are approached as matters of imposed status, which are in need of
change if a legal mandate of equality means anything at all, the question whether women
should be treated unequally means simply whether women should be treated as less.121

On examination, this interpretation of sex discrimination reveals itself to be in-
capable of either identifying or redressing the problem of sex in our society. For
women who care about their existence as women, MacKinnon™s form of analysis
is not only inadequate but also self-destructive as a basis from which to pursue
well-being. The simple, one-dimensional standards of assessment that enable
some people, such as women, to be seen as inferior to others also dictate that in-
feriority can be ended and equality achieved only through eliminating the differ-
ence between those people and their so-called superiors. Under standards such
as these, recognition of difference entails inequality and equality entails non-
recognition of difference. The inferiority of one sex to another, once perceived in
this way, is avoidable only through the elimination of sex itself, the very category

119 This is not to endorse MacKinnon™s view that the content of value is relative to sex (see note
24). It is to suggest that each sex can give an account of its distinctive approach to life only in
terms of a set of standards that is sensitive to whatever values are genuinely realized by that
approach to life.
120 Id. at 41.
121 Id. at 43.
72 equality

that MacKinnon™s argument is intended to reclaim. Any hope of redeeming the
position of women, therefore, if it is not to involve the destruction of their ex-
istence as women, must rest on some other interpretation of their predicament.
For certain of MacKinnon™s critics, however, the weakness of her argu-
ment lies not in its commitment to equality but in what they see as its focus on
women in general, and its corresponding insensitivity to the differences between
women. According to those critics, MacKinnon™s analysis could be redeemed
by an acknowledgment of the many different settings in which inferiority arises,
and a consequent acknowledgment that equality necessarily means very differ-
ent things to different women. It is important to emphasize here, therefore, that
what MacKinnon™s analysis actually places at issue, as she herself makes clear,
is the nature of the predicament faced by women and other victims of discrim-
ination as a condition of inequality. It is not the subsequent determination of
which women or which people can properly be said to be unequal to which
others, and in what respects, and consequently can be said to be discriminated
against in our society in those respects.
As far as understanding discrimination as a matter of inequality is concerned,
MacKinnon™s egalitarian critics are, by de¬nition, not in disagreement with her.
Yet the equality that they, no less than she, are committed to calling for ends all
forms of difference to which it is applied, not just some of them. It follows that
as long as the problem that women face, collectively or separately, continues
to be seen as the inferiority of one group of people to another, with its remedy
their equality, no account of men and women, or of the social goods in dispute
between them, will have consequences different from MacKinnon™s own. The
consequences of equality are a function of the concept, and of the perspective
that makes that concept comprehensible. They are not a function of the identity
of the groups to be equated, be they men and women in general, or particular
men and women, or of the ground of the equation, be it those groups™ abilities
or their needs.
It is MacKinnon™s commitment to equality, therefore, and not her commit-
ment to women as a group, that makes her insensitive to human difference.
Indeed, her focus on the condition of women is at odds with her commitment
to equality, which treats the condition of women as equivalent to the condition
of blacks and, prospectively, to the condition of men. It follows that critics who
wish to be sensitive to the manifold differences between human beings, be they
differences between men and women or differences between women, and yet
wish to show women to be in all respects equal both to one another and to men,
are caught in a contradiction.
As indicated above, this follows from the fact that the inferiority of a group
to any other can be eliminated only by eliminating the difference between the
two, however that difference is de¬ned. The method of assessing people that
shows some to be inferior to others, whether it is because they are women,
or black women, or lesbians, or otherwise, also dictates that that inferiority
IV. Conclusion 73

can be eliminated only by eliminating the difference on which it turns. We
might eliminate difference by reconstructing the social world in terms that do
not re¬‚ect difference, or by reconstructing the description of people in such a
way as to ensure that there is no difference between them to re¬‚ect. We might,


. 13
( 37 .)