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opposite sex. Finally, in using the term “sexual identity” in relation to a particular sex, I have in
mind both the qualities that men and women share and the qualities that distinguish them, unless
stated otherwise.
I. Discrimination and Equality 3

the practice of sex discrimination by eliminating either sexual difference or the
capacity to distinguish value in terms of that difference, just as it is possible
to eliminate any form of wrongdoing by eliminating the occasion for it, for
example, eliminating theft by eliminating property. Clearly, women could not
be discriminated against if women did not exist or, more precisely and fairly,
if women could not be distinguished as women in any way that mattered. The
question is what would justify us in bringing about such a state of affairs, if
bring it about we could.
Eliminating a distinction and its signi¬cance is only consistent with the
recognition of value and the human qualities and achievements that value re-
sponds to where, and to the extent that, the distinction in question is in fact either
not real or not relevant to the consideration of value. This is a possible claim
about property, perhaps, but a highly implausible claim about sexual difference
as a whole. It is not really credible to suggest that men and women, properly
understood, are indistinguishable from one another in any way that is relevant
to value. Yet to eliminate a distinction that is admittedly relevant to value simply
because it is often, even typically, invoked improperly is to misunderstand the
nature of wrongdoing, which consists not in (wrongly) including among human
options, such as the option to engage in the sorts of activities that make sexual
difference relevant to the evaluation and pursuit of a successful life, options
that can be exercised wrongly, but in exercising wrongly options that should be
exercised rightly.
Given that sexual difference is not entirely ¬ctional (although some supposed
aspects of it certainly are), and that the values that register sexual difference
are not entirely bogus, it must be the case that sex discrimination arises not
because sexual difference does not exist or does not matter, but because sexual
difference does exist and does matter, although not in the ways that we have
taken it to. Is it possible, then, to build upon this thought so as to arrive at
an account of sex discrimination that respects both sexual identity and human
value, while allowing for mistakes in our perception of each?
I begin by giving, in the next two sections of this chapter, an overview of
the nature of the problem and what I take to be its proper solution. These two
sections are not intended as a pr´ cis of the argument in the balance of the book, or
e
even as a necessary premise to that argument. They can be read now or returned
to later. Their purpose is to sketch for the reader certain issues that the book
pursues in depth. The four subsequent sections similarly seek to expand upon,
without fully defending, certain aspects of the solution I propose that may strike
a reader as unfamiliar and even puzzling: rejection of the idea that discrimination
depends upon comparison, a consequent reinterpretation of the signi¬cance of
sexual equality, and reliance upon ideas of what it means to lead a successful life
and what it means to be a woman. The ¬nal section seeks to say something brief
about my choice of which arguments for equality and difference to respond to.
As a whole, the chapter approaches the question of sex discrimination from the
4 the issues

positive perspective of its remedy, rather than from the negative perspective of
the disadvantage women now experience. It asks what might make women™s
lives go well rather than what has made them go badly. It thus offers a different,
briefer way of thinking about the ideas developed and explored in the chapters
that follow. That said, however, I should warn that because these issues are
complex, their compressed treatment in the rest of this chapter is likely to
become fully intelligible only in light of the argument of the book as a whole.


II. Discrimination and Difference
I have developed the narrative so far by referring to the pursuit of equality in
the face of physical difference, and it might be reasonably objected that the
conclusions I have drawn from this example are not applicable to the pursuit
of equality in the face of intellectual or emotional differences between the
sexes, or are not applicable to the recognition of sexual difference rather than
the pursuit of sexual equality.4 The short answer is that the only distinction
between physical and other forms of sexual difference that could be thought to
have a bearing on the argument is that physical differences between the sexes
may be less amenable to alteration than intellectual or emotional differences.
Yet the possibility of alteration is a question that I deliberately bracketed in the
previous discussion in order to focus on the prior question of its desirability. It
does not matter whether sexual difference can be changed or not, and so does
not matter, for example, whether that difference is the product of nurture (and
so allegedly amenable to change) or of nature (and so allegedly not amenable
to change) if there is no reason, or at least no reason founded on a commitment
to ending discrimination, to make that change.5

4 I take it that objects that are equal are the same in some respects (the respects in which they
are equal), and different in others (the respects in which they are unequal). In what follows,
I treat equality as meaning sameness in this sense. In fact, I do not know of any claim to equality
that is not a claim to sameness in the relevant respect. Equal pay, for example, means either the
same pay or pay that bears the same relation to the value of the work done as does the pay of
the comparator. Equality is often said to be compatible with the recognition of difference, and
this is plainly true, provided that the difference to be recognized exists in a respect other than
that in which equality is sought. For illuminating considerations of the idea of equality, see Peter
Westen, Speaking of Equality (Princeton, N.J., 1990), and Derek Par¬t, “Equality and Priority”,
in Ideals of Equality, ed. Andrew Miller (Oxford, 1998). For a full consideration of the relation
between equality and sex discrimination, see sections V and VI below and the next chapter.
5 In fact, as Joseph Raz once reminded me, the evidence seems to be that we are capable of changing
nature, usually for the worse, and relatively incapable of changing society.
I suggested in the text that there might be no reason to change the present character of sexual
difference. Strictly speaking, there is always reason to make a change to anything that is good,
that reason being the good that lies in the outcome of the change, such as the distinctive good
that can be achieved through the condition of being a man. The suggestion in the text remains
valid, however, for two reasons. First, the reason to belong to a particular sex cuts both ways, for
there is as good reason to be a woman as to be a man. In itself, therefore, it is no reason to change
the qualities of one sex to those of the other. Second, if the reason to be a man is thought to be
II. Discrimination and Difference 5

The latter objection to the narrative so far deserves a fuller response, for
it raises considerably more dif¬cult issues. An approach to understanding and
remedying sex discrimination that focuses on sexual difference rather than
sexual equality by de¬nition places no pressure on sexual identity. It takes sexual
identity as a given and uses it to place pressure on human value. Presumably,
that is part of its appeal, for the approach seems to permit reconciliation of
sexual justice with respect for and pride in sexual identity. It insists that we
should not include among the values to which our society responds those that
are insensitive to what women (or men) have to offer, or that are more sensitive
to what men have to offer than to what women have to offer (or vice versa). And
yet, in spite of its attempt to show respect for sexual identity, concerns about
this approach remain, which, like those expressed in the previous section, stem
from its comparative character.
It will be clear from the sketch just offered that there are two possible readings
of this difference-based approach to understanding and remedying sex discrim-
ination. The ¬rst treats the approach as no more than a distinctively framed
form of the sexual egalitarianism considered above, one that places its egali-
tarian pressure on human values rather than on sexual identity. An egalitarian
condition is to be achieved not by eliminating the difference between the sexes
but by eliminating the human values that register that difference. This reading,
then, like its egalitarian sibling considered above, insists that genuine differ-
ences between the sexes should not be allowed to make a difference to men™s and
women™s options in life, that is, to men™s and women™s access to the valuable pur-
suits that make it possible to ¬‚ourish in life. It achieves its ends, however, not by
changing men and women, but by denying recognition to all values that are more
sensitive to the qualities and achievements of one sex than those of the other.
In doing so, unfortunately, it denies recognition in the pantheon of our values
to all the aspects of sexual identity that make it meaningful and rewarding to
belong to a particular sex, that is, to be a woman or a man. A world in which one
cannot be disvalued on the ground of one™s sex is a world in which one cannot
be so valued either, in which nothing either bad or good could ¬‚ow from being
a woman or a man. If realizable, such a world would diminish, perhaps to a
critical degree, the prospects of the women and men who require access to their
sexual identity, and thus to the valuable options that it makes possible, in order
to ¬‚ourish in life. In that sense and to that extent, the approach would be self-
defeating. More generally and more profoundly, in asking society to eliminate
all values that register sexual difference, the approach assumes not merely that

strengthened by the fact that the qualities of men are culturally preeminent in most societies today
and so are more easy to realize value from than the qualities of women, it must be remembered
that any change, even if possible and desirable, carries the cost of change, here both short-term
trauma and long-term rootlessness and alienation. This means that to make such a change, there
must be not only reason but strong reason. The arguments in the text deny that there is any such
strong reason.
6 the issues

value is amenable to social decision, but that value is answerable to some feature
of society for its very condition as value, which in this context means being
answerable to the feature of sexual identity. Values would be genuinely valuable
only if they failed to register sexual identity. Unlike the project of eliminating
sexual difference considered above, the implausibility here is that of regarding
human value as being relative to sexual identity. This implausibility is perhaps
brought out more directly and fully in the second reading of the difference-
based approach to understanding and ending the practice of sex discrimination,
which is concerned to register sexual identity rather than fail to register it.
This reading is one that asks society to tailor its understanding of human
value to the character of women, to ensure not that women are equal to men, but
that women™s known qualities are honoured and respected; or in some versions,
to ensure that women™s heretofore suppressed qualities are recovered and given
voice. Whether by endorsing as good women™s qualities as they are presently
understood, or by endorsing as women™s and as good those human qualities that
are said to have been neglected or suppressed in our society™s present picture
of human existence, the approach asks no questions about what it means to be
a woman (or a man). Just as in the earlier reading, it takes sexual identity as a
given and uses that identity to place pressure upon human value. Women are
either just as we have always known them to be (but have failed to value) or are
everything that we have refused to imagine (and so have refused to recognize in
our account of value). In both cases, value is said to be relative to sexual identity,
although different theories offer different ideas of what sexual identity is.
Assume ¬rst the more dif¬cult and less common proposition that value is to
be related to sexual identity as a whole, in order to ensure the valuing of women™s
qualities as well as those of men. As I have suggested, this proposition is a
particular form of value relativism, the doctrine that value is a function of some
other feature of the world.6 Relativists have different views of what it is that
value is properly related to. Cultural relativists believe that value is a function of
particular cultures, and so regard as valuable (for particular cultures) whatever
is treated as valuable by those cultures. Subjectivists believe that value is a
function of personal attitudes, and so regard as valuable (for particular people)
whatever is treated as valuable by those people. The particular relativists that I
have in mind believe that value is a function of sexual identity, and so regard
as valuable (for men and for women) whatever is a re¬‚ection of that identity.7


6 Relativists typically believe that value is relative to such features because it is a product of them,
so that for relativists value becomes the name of a cultural attitude, or a personal attitude, or the
male or female outlook: see the discussion in Section VI. Thus, to believe that value is relative to
sexual identity is (typically) to believe that value is the product of whatever attitude or outlook
de¬nes men and women as sexual beings. This, however, raises the problem of differences in
sexual outlook, with the rami¬cations for value discussed in the text.
7 So some feminists claim that women are subject to a special, female form of rationality, not
because rationality has dimensions we have historically neglected or dismissed that women are
II. Discrimination and Difference 7

By treating men and women, and the qualities that de¬ne them, as valuable just
as they are, without criticism or quali¬cation, these relativists hope never to
reach the conclusion that it is better to be one than the other, better to be a man
than a woman, or a woman than a man, in any setting, for any purpose.
It is not possible to make a general case against relativism and for the objec-
tivity of value in the space of this chapter.8 It is possible to point out, however,
that even if value relativism were a coherent doctrine (as I believe it is not),
value could not plausibly be regarded as relative to sexual identity, given the
particular conceptual structure of sexual identity.9 One of the consequences of
relativism, of the claim that value is a function of some feature of the world as
it is, is that all valuable things become compatible with one another, for other-
wise they could not coexist in features of the world as it is. That being the case,
relativism implies that we need never be forced, for reasons of incompatibility,
to prefer one value to another, in our beliefs or actions. This may explain in
part the appeal of relativism, at least for those who are troubled by con¬‚icts of
values. It removes the possibility of any confrontation between incompatible
values, for values that coexist in the world are necessarily compatible with one
another. It certainly explains the attraction of relativism to those who seek a
world in which it never would be preferable to belong to one sex rather than
the other. Yet the very compatibility of values that makes relativism attractive
sets a limit to the kinds of things to which value can be related.
This gives rise to fundamental dif¬culties for those who would relate value
to sexual identity as a whole. On the one hand, to treat value as a function of
sexual identity as that identity is understood and valued in a particular culture
would only end sex discrimination if the culture in question had no practice
of sex discrimination. Otherwise the reference would simply have the effect of
af¬rming that culture™s particular form of sex discrimination. Since no culture
is free from sex discrimination, it would be a recipe for maintaining rather than
ending existing forms of sex discrimination to treat value as a function of sexual
identity as it is understood and valued in any existing culture.
On the other hand, given the conceptual structure of sexual identity, to treat
value as a function of sexual identity as it is understood (but not valued) in any
particular culture, in an attempt to ensure that the existing qualities of both sexes
are regarded as valuable, does nothing to free that culture from the burden of
deciding whether it is better, in any given setting, to think or act like a woman or
like a man. Sexual identity depends for its existence on a contrast between the
qualities that de¬ne a woman as a woman and those that de¬ne a man as a man.

particularly ¬‚uent in, but because how women think is how they should think. This is one way,
although not in my view the correct way, to understand the central claim of Carol Gilligan™s In
a Different Voice (Cambridge, Mass., 1982).
8 For a sketch of that case, see note 19 and the discussion there.
9 This is to set aside for the moment any questions about the content of sexual identity as it is
presently understood. The argument here applies however sexual identity is understood.
8 the issues

If it is true that women are caring, for example, then it is true that men are not
caring, or at least are less so, or less often so; otherwise the sexes could not be
distinguished by their capacity for concern. This contrast makes it impossible
to give effect to both aspects of sexual identity at once, so as not to prefer in
any given setting the thoughts or actions of a man to those of a woman, or
vice versa. It is impossible, for example, to be simultaneously concerned and
unconcerned in one™s thoughts or actions, or to put it another way, to implement
the value of each, in the same setting and for the same purpose. One quality,
be it concern or lack of concern, and the sex that exhibits or tends to exhibit
that quality, must be preferred to the other. This makes it impossible to regard
value as relative to sexual identity as a whole, so as never to prefer one sex to
the other. The qualities that de¬ne and distinguish the sexes must each have
their place, a place that is determined by an account of value that is not relative
to sexual identity. That being the case, a relativist who seeks to relate value to
sexual identity would have to regard value as residing, in any particular setting,
in one aspect or the other of that identity (in which case value would no longer
be relative to sexual identity, strictly speaking, but to maleness or femaleness,
as the case might be) or in neither.10
In fact, few, if any, critics of the present social order maintain that value is
relative to sexual identity in just the way I have described, though that may be
a necessary implication of their arguments. Rather, they emphasize the need
to relate value to the qualities of women, so as to ensure that those qualities
are at last recognized as good, as the qualities of men presumably already are
and long have been. This contention, however, to the extent that it differs from
the contention that value is relative to sexual identity as a whole, only exposes
a more familiar weakness in value relativism, namely, its inability to criticize
the particular social order, or particular feature of that social order, to which
value is related. If value were relative to the qualities of one sex, here to the
qualities of women, so that the qualities of women were recognized as good
by de¬nition, then the qualities of men, if not also said to be valuable in the
manner considered above, would have to be correspondingly bad. Setting to

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