<<

. 21
( 37 .)



>>

never measured according to the same standard. As I noted in Chapter 2, the dominance of men
and subordination of women is a problem born of a world in common and its resolution must
lie there.
10 I should emphasize that despite my singular description of it, what it means to be a woman is not
singular but plural in form. There is an enormous variety in the content of what it means to be a
woman, a variety that is expressed in the lives of different women and the different experiences
III. The Role of Sexual Identity in a Successful Life 115

that we have reason to reject certain conceptions of what it means to be a woman
on the basis that they are false or irrelevant to our culture, without entering
into the question of their value. Again, this is not to suggest that the question
of value is not part of feminism. On the contrary, I believe the question of the
value of the qualities that genuinely describe women, or more accurately, the
value of the activities that those qualities make possible, is an essential aspect of
feminism. That being the case, value will constitute a further basis for rejecting
one conception of what it means to be a woman and af¬rming another in its
place. What is signi¬cant here is that there is reason to reject a conception of
what it means to be a woman before any consideration of the value it gives
access to, that reason being that the conception in question is either false or
irrelevant to the culture in which it is invoked.
Second, feminism does not acquire its moral dimension, the dimension that
imposes an obligation on society to correct the misconceptions it holds con-
cerning sexual identity, from the mere existence of a misconception of sexual
identity, for misconceptions are not in themselves morally signi¬cant. Nor is
this moral dimension derived from the mere presence of instances of limitation
and disadvantage in the lives of women, for limitation and disadvantage attend
all forms of difference, including those that de¬ne men as well as women. Nor
is it even derived from the presence of what is conceded to be illegitimate dis-
advantage in the lives of women generally, disadvantage that is experienced in
common with men, for such disadvantage is not discriminatory where it does
not involve a conception of what it means to be a woman. Feminism derives its
moral dimension from the particular forms of limitation and disadvantage that
may follow from the widespread promulgation of a false or irrelevant concep-
tion of what it means to be a woman. Such a conception, if comprehensively
endorsed, renders it impossible or virtually impossible for those de¬ned by it to
gain access to the goods to which all human beings are entitled, whether those
goods are understood as opportunities, as resources, as an adequate range of
valuable options, as the satisfaction of needs, or as anything else that is sensi-
tive to the condition of those to whom it is addressed. Any such good depends
for its realization on a genuine understanding of those to whom it is allocated.
No such good is genuinely accessible therefore to those who are known either
exclusively or very largely in terms of an image that is false or irrelevant to
their existence, and that as a result misrepresents the options and resources they
¬nd valuable, and the needs they seek to ful¬l. Indeed, for those who believe
that all human beings are entitled to an adequate range of valuable options,11

and aspirations to which those lives refer, a variety that those lives interpret and renew as a
consequence of the different courses they take. When I speak of what it means to be a woman,
therefore, I do so simply for ease of expression, not because I take a ¬xed or limited view of the
content of that way of being.
11 I have in mind here, of course, the views of Joseph Raz, particularly as they are expressed in
The Morality of Freedom (Oxford, 1986) and Ethics in the Public Domain (Oxford, 1994). As
116 reasons for feminism

a misconception of human difference may be illegitimate even though neither
profound in its error nor broadly endorsed in social practices, as long as that
misconception plays a critical role in denying those who are subject to it an
adequate range of valuable options, as it may if those people are dependent
for their well-being on access to certain options that the misconception of their
difference renders inaccessible to them.
It follows that the existence of a widespread and comprehensive misconcep-
tion as to the nature of sexual identity does not simply give one sex more goods
than the other, be they opportunities, resources, or the satisfaction of needs, or
give one sex the goods that it deserves while denying them to the other, although
it may well do just that. If and to the extent that the truth of sexual identity re-
veals that the sexual differences we now subscribe to either do not exist or exist
only in a form that has no relevance to our culture, so that men and women
are in fact equal in all respects that may concern us, it is entirely possible and,
indeed, seems to have been very largely the case that one sex, namely, men, has
been justly accorded what ought to have been accorded to both sexes, and so
has obtained not only the goods it deserves but more of them than the other sex,
namely, women. In this situation, only women are denied what they deserve,
and it is accordingly the task of feminism to expose the inauthenticity of these
aspects of sexual difference as a distinction that is relevant to our society, and
to establish the truth of sexual equality in its place. In the execution of this
task, both sexes have an obligation to correct the misconceptions on which the
presence of sexual difference in our culture has been founded, although only
women will have a direct interest in doing so.
However, to the extent that the truth of sexual identity reveals that sexual
difference is real and relevant but other than we have taken it to be, the pre-
vailing misconception of the character of sexual difference will have ensured
that neither sex has received the goods it is capable of enjoying. As I have said,
goods whose allocation is based on a false understanding of the people to whom
they are directed offer opportunities that those people cannot use and purport


I have already suggested and argue more fully below, an adequate conception of what it means
to be a woman, one that is not false, or irrelevant, or incapable of valuable application, plays an
essential role in the implementation of any account of the goods to which all human beings are
entitled. This means, however, that those accounts of the goods necessary to a successful life
that lack the capacity to register the differences between people, such as accounts of equality,
which by their very nature lack the capacity to register the differences between people in the
dimension that they seek to equalize, are to that extent ¬‚awed, and profoundly so, for they
necessarily assign to people goods that they cannot value and so are empty in their hands, and
thus impose upon people the futile task of attempting to live up to the conception of themselves
that would make possession of those goods valuable. Conversely, a description of the goods
necessary to a successful life that has the capacity to take into account the critical impact that a
failure to understand even a limited portion of the difference between one person and another
may have upon both those persons™ lives, such as that provided by Raz as I understand him,
is to that extent vindicated. It follows that although what I have to say is not dependent upon
acceptance of Raz™s views, it is undoubtedly more congenial to those views than to some others.
III. The Role of Sexual Identity in a Successful Life 117

to satisfy needs that they do not have. At best they are empty in the hands of
those to whom they are assigned; at worst they impose upon those people a
futile task, that of attempting to live up to the misconception of themselves that
would make possession of those goods valuable. In this situation, neither sex is
offered the goods that it deserves, and it is accordingly the task of feminism to
expose the false character of our present conception of sexual identity and to
give effect to the true meaning of sexual difference. In this task both sexes have
not only an obligation to rectify our present conception of sex, but a common
interest in doing so.
In conclusion, therefore, I believe that sex discrimination arises when we
mistake the meaning of sexual identity, so that the conceptions we hold of men
and women are either false or irrelevant to our culture, and then invoke that
mistaken picture either comprehensively or in realms of activity that are critical
to the success of women™s lives. When this happens, the misconception we hold
of what it means to be a woman, for example,12 comes to dominate the lives of
women, forcing them to live in terms of an image of themselves that is either
false or irrelevant, and which, governing as it does their access to options in life,
and the resources with which to pursue them, denies women access to those
options in terms that they can genuinely value. It thus denies them what all
human beings are entitled to, thereby exposing them to a form of disadvantage
that is morally illegitimate. Discrimination so understood depends upon the
presence of a causal connection between two sets of social circumstances: ¬rst,
a profound misconception of the character of a form of human difference, and
second, the inability of certain people, namely, those understood in terms of
that misconception, to lead successful lives. A misconception about the meaning
of sexual identity is not discriminatory unless it has a critical bearing on the
success of the lives of those who are subject to it. Conversely, the presence
of disadvantage in women™s lives is not discriminatory, even if it has a critical
bearing on the success of those lives, unless that disadvantage is caused by a
misconception of the meaning of sexual identity. This analysis and explanation
of discrimination offers an important reason why certain lives are unsuccessful
in our culture, important because that reason is entrenched in the very fabric
of the culture and the conception it holds, in the case of women, of half its
members, and at the same time suggests how and why that reason might be
removed and those lives might be made successful.
It remains to be established, at least partially and provisionally, what mis-
conceptions of sexual identity we now hold and what impact they have on the

12 We can misconceive what it means to be a woman without misconceiving what it means to be a
man if we correctly perceive the character of men™s experience but falsely believe that women™s
experience is different; that is, if we perceive a sexual difference where in truth there is none and
in addition correctly perceive the attributes of one component of that supposed difference. In
short, if women are in truth equal to what men are correctly taken to be, a mistaken perception
of sexual difference misconceives the existence of women only.
118 reasons for feminism

capacity of women to lead successful lives in our culture. Once that is estab-
lished, it remains further to establish what role the law has to play in correcting
such misconceptions and whether the present laws against discrimination le-
gitimately ful¬l that role. That, in turn, will depend upon whether the societies
in which antidiscrimination laws have been enacted now hold conceptions of
sexual identity that are both so profoundly misconceived as to be morally ob-
jectionable (and hence discriminatory on the test of discrimination that I have
just outlined), and so entrenched, in certain domains at least, as to require the
intervention of the law to correct them.
If there is, indeed, entrenched sex discrimination in those societies, as few
would deny, the legitimacy of the laws that have been enacted to correct it in
domains such as employment, accommodation, and the provision of services
will depend upon whether the revised conception of sexual identity that those
laws implement, that of sexual equality, is true to the meaning of sexual identity
for those societies. It clearly will be if none of the differences that genuinely dis-
tinguish the sexes has any possible relevance to employment, accommodation,
or the provision of services in those societies. If, however, any of the differences
that genuinely distinguish the sexes is relevant in any of those domains, then
the legitimacy of antidiscrimination law will ultimately depend upon whether
the conception of sexual equality that it promotes is so deeply misconceived
as to be morally objectionable and hence itself discriminatory, as it will be if
at least some women or some men need to call upon the differences between
them that the law declares to be irrelevant if they are to lead successful lives in
those domains.
To establish that antidiscrimination law™s imposition of sexual equality is
legitimate and not itself discriminatory, therefore, it is necessary to show either
that sexual difference has no relevance in any of the domains to which the law
applies or that any sexual difference that is relevant in those domains may be
denied without denying women and men that to which they are entitled, namely,
the ability to lead successful lives, and so may be denied without discriminat-
ing against them. To establish the latter, it is necessary to consider more fully
the question of value, for access to a conception of sexual identity is morally
required only if that conception is necessary to the capacity of women to pursue
valuable goals that are critical to the success of their lives. To put it from the
opposite perspective, it is only if equality (or absence of sexual difference) is
the truth of sexual identity in domains such as employment, accommodation,
and the provision of services, as antidiscrimination law maintains, that antidis-
crimination law can be justi¬ed simply on the basis that the existing conception
of sexual difference is false. If, on the contrary, sexual difference is not only true
but relevant to our culture, albeit other than we have taken it to be, then antidis-
crimination law is mistaken and potentially illegitimate. Whether it is actually
illegitimate depends upon the value of sexual difference and the critical role it
may play in the construction of a successful life, a role that would be a ground
III. The Role of Sexual Identity in a Successful Life 119

for af¬rming a particular conception of sexual difference, and for concluding
that the law™s present imposition of equality is morally objectionable.
Before it is possible to consider antidiscrimination law and the question
of its success or shortcomings, however, it is necessary to actually make the
arguments for the theory of discrimination whose outline I have sketched in
this chapter, or at least to provide a fuller account of those arguments. I do so
under three headings, the import of which should be clear from the outline: the
value of diversity, the character of disadvantage, and the role of sexual identity
in a successful life.
5
The Value of Diversity




Those who would af¬rm women™s existence as a facet of human difference rely
on the suggestion, as I have said, that human beings are complex creatures,1
who are inevitably betrayed by any attempt to comprehend them in simple
terms.2 I believe there is an element of truth in this suggestion, or perhaps
I should say in the intuitions that underlie it, since I have already expressed
my belief that the propositions it rests on are false. What truth there is in
the suggestion lies in the perception that in some measure at least a failure
to acknowledge the distinctive features of women™s existence, and the pos-
sibility that certain of those features are relevant to our culture, despite the
fact that they have been suppressed and concealed by the present social order,
may well be a crucial element in the problem of sex discrimination and its
remedy. However, when framed in such a manner as to suggest that the sup-
pression of women™s existence is but an instance of the suppression of human
diversity, so that its remedy is merely a matter of af¬rming that diversity,
the appeal to human complexity and diversity is highly misleading, in three
ways. It is misleading, ¬rst, because it treats diversity as if it were simply
a fact about human existence; second, because it assumes that human differ-
ences can be detached from the purposes that make those differences matter
to certain people and not to others; and third, because it takes the af¬rma-
tion of all differences to be a rational and desirable goal when in fact it is
neither.


1 A concept is sometimes called complex if some people have dif¬culty in mastering it; so under-
stood, its description as complex expresses a comment on the character and capacities of certain
people rather than on the concept itself. What is I have in mind here is a concept that is complex
because its structure is complex, so that it has different implications when considered for different
purposes. See the discussion below.
2 I do not wish to overstate the degree to which this argument has been endorsed by feminist
scholars. In particular, I should note that it is speci¬cally rejected by Drucilla Cornell, The
Philosophy of the Limit (New York, 1992), 105.
I. The Nature of Diversity 121

I. The Nature of Diversity
The appeal to complexity3 is misleading, ¬rst, because human beings are not
complex or simple, any more than are trees or rocks or anything else. They
merely are what they are; what we take to be their complexity or simplicity is
not a quality inherent in them, but a product of the concepts that we from time
to time bring to bear upon them, and the purposes that those concepts serve.
Those concepts may treat the same set of human qualities as either complex
or simple, depending upon the purpose or purposes for which the qualities in
question are invoked.
This is not, as might at ¬rst appear, to make a skeptical point about the
nature of reality; it is not to say that human beings are complex as we perceive
them yet nevertheless not “really” complex. It is, ¬rst, to say something about
concepts in general, and second, to say something about the particular concepts
of complexity and simplicity and the relation between them. Human beings
really are intelligent, two-legged creatures who can laugh, among a host of
other things. They are also, it follows, complex creatures, in the sense that they
are susceptible to complex understanding, as perhaps an amoeba is not. But
complexity, unlike intelligence or the capacity for laughter, for example, is a
concept that implies rather than excludes the existence of its correlative, so
that what can be understood in complex terms can also be understood, just as
accurately if less completely, in simple terms. Human beings, in short, are both
complex and simple creatures, and that is no more than a fuller account of what
it means to say that they are complex.
It is necessarily the case that a determination of complexity for one purpose
precludes a determination of simplicity for the same purpose. Yet it is also the
case that a determination of complexity for one purpose does nothing to preclude
a determination of simplicity for some other purpose. Those who regard human
beings as complex in terms of the purposes that contrast them to amoebae, there-

<<

. 21
( 37 .)



>>