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fore, may also legitimately regard human beings as simple for other purposes,
such as the ascription of basic human rights, and may indeed regard human be-
ings as no more complex than amoebae for still other purposes. It follows that a
determination of our complexity as human beings implies rather than precludes
the existence of dimensions of understanding in which we may be seen in simple
terms. The same is true, of course, for those contexts in which we are seen as
simple creatures, for a determination of our simplicity there does nothing to pre-
clude a determination of our complexity in other contexts and for other purposes.
This is a rather compressed way of describing a very complicated state of
affairs, one that raises issues about the character of human existence, about the

3 For the sake of clarity, I consider the complexity of human beings ¬rst and then return to the
question of their diversity. I take the two to be closely connected in that human complexity is under-
stood to be the source of the human diversity that those who would af¬rm diversity have in mind.
122 the value of diversity

nature of concepts and their role in representing that existence, and about the
nature and role of the particular concepts of complexity and diversity. Those
issues will have to be untangled if I am to explain the basis for my claim that
the appeal to both complexity and diversity is highly misleading. My purpose
in this section, therefore, is to offer an overview of the relevant aspects of what
I take to be the relationship between reality and our conceptions of it, and more
particularly, of what I take to be the relationship between what it really means
to be a woman and our conceptions of that reality. In the course of this overview
I address four issues: ¬rst, the variety in the world; second, the dependence of
any concept of the world upon the purposes that make that concept, rather than
some other, matter to us; third, the role played in human lives by concepts and
conceptions; and ¬nally, the complexity and diversity of human beings, in terms
of the reality of their lives, the concepts in and through which those lives are
understood, and the dependence of those concepts upon the different purposes
that make them relevant.

A. Nature, Nurture, and Variety in the World
We live in a world that is in part the product of natural forces and in part
the product of human action.4 As far as we know, much if not all of that
world is in a state of continuous evolution in which we play a prominent and,
perhaps for the time being at least, a leading role. The shape of our lives, the
culture within which those lives are pursued, and the physical world that is the
theatre for both, all bear the heavy imprint of human behaviour. It follows that
the different course of human affairs in different cultures, in different times and
in different parts of the world, has both compounded and created signi¬cant
variations in the content of universally recognized differences between human
beings, including signi¬cant variations in the content of the difference between
men and women. What it means to be a man and to be a woman is not the
same the world over, therefore, any more than it is now what it always was,
and part of the reason for that variation is that different cultures have over time
made different contributions to the meaning of sexual identity, so that sexual
identity is not simply conceived and expressed differently in different cultures,
but as often as not is experienced differently there. Both nature and nurture have
shaped sexual identity as we know it. One important reason, then, for us to be
concerned about the content of what it means to be a woman is that that content
may not be the same for some of us as it is for others, precisely because we and
they have helped to make it different.
Just because we have made the world does not mean that we can change it.
On the contrary, we are constrained by the limits of our knowledge and by the

4 I do not mean to suggest that human action is other than natural. Rather, I want to distinguish
human and nonhuman forces, and it is to that end that I have called the latter natural.
I. The Nature of Diversity 123

limits set by the various contexts in which we ¬nd ourselves, limits that shape
what is rational and possible for us to pursue. For those who doubt this, there
is ample evidence of the constraints upon us, and of the effects of ignoring
them, in the mixed fortunes of our attempts to predict and control the natural
world and to direct the course of human affairs, attempts that demonstrate all
too clearly the limits of our understanding, our authority, and our grasp of what
is rational for us to desire and pursue.
Unfortunately, the lessons in modesty this experience ought to have taught us
are not lessons that human beings have ever quite appreciated or taken to heart.
As the familiar debate over the roles of nature and nurture in the construction of
sexual identity makes plain, we are prepared to accept our inability to alter the
facts of nature, despite the overwhelming record of our impact on the natural
environment, yet are oddly con¬dent of our ability to alter the facts of culture
and society, despite the just as overwhelming record of our inability to remedy
the most signi¬cant of our social ills, and the disastrous effects of many of our
attempts to do so, particularly when they have been based on assumptions about
the plasticity of a society and its citizens. In this regard, both MacKinnon™s and
Cornell™s accounts of feminism not only urge the desirability of changing the
meaning of sexual identity, but assume, wrongly in my view, that if that identity
has been socially constructed it can be reconstructed simply through social
decision.5 We cannot, simply by decision, make women something they are
not, and more profoundly, we cannot even want to do so, although we can and
must understand far better than we do what women are and what that makes

B. Objectionable Concepts, Objectionable Purposes
Variety exists not only in the world but in the concepts that we apply to the world,
the concepts we use to understand and come to terms with the world. Concepts
are ways of dividing up the world, of organizing, editing, and focusing the
myriad features of the world and so linking them to a set of purposes that arise
from the particular circumstances in which we ¬nd ourselves, the ambitions and
concerns that those circumstances give rise to, and what in the features of the
world those ambitions and concerns make signi¬cant. In other words, concepts
function as ways of mediating between ourselves and the world of which we
are a part, ways that are so fundamental to our thought that it is impossible to

5 Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodi¬ed: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge, Mass.,
1987), 23: “. . . what it means to be a woman or a man is a social process and, as such, is subject
to change”; Drucilla Cornell, Beyond Accommodation: Ethical Feminism, Deconstruction and
the Law (New York, 1991), 13: “. . . the slippage inherent in the so-called achievement of sexual
identity “ because this identity takes place within mythical fantasy projection and is not given
in biology “ is what makes possible rewriting from the position of the feminine that denies its
current de¬nition as the whole truth.”
124 the value of diversity

contemplate the world without calling upon them. That being the case, how-
ever, the various circumstances in which human beings ¬nd themselves and
the various purposes they endorse mean that there is as much diversity in the
concepts that can be applied to the world as in the world itself, so that any
af¬rmation of diversity is as liable to be conceptual as it is to be real.
Conceptual diversity has two dimensions, scope and purpose, each of which
is a product and re¬‚ection of the different contexts in which a particular concept
may be invoked. First, the same concept, invoked for the same purpose, may pick
out different features of the world in different cultural settings, either because
different conventions govern the use of the concept in those settings or because
different circumstances exist there. For example, the socioeconomic concept
of the family may pick out different people in different cultures. If grand-
parents form part of the socioeconomic concept of the family in a particular
culture, it may be because the convention as to what constitutes a family in that
culture deems them to, or it may be because grandparents in that culture actually
support children in ways that a cross-cultural convention takes to confer family
status. Either way, the socioeconomic concept of the family in that culture
is related to but also different from the socioeconomic concept of the family
in those other cultures in which grandparents are not family members. This
dimension of conceptual diversity by and large simply re¬‚ects the variety in the
Second, however, and more relevant to women, the same concept with the
same scope may be invoked for different purposes. The concept of the family,
now understood to embrace grandparents, parents, and children, may be used
for legal purposes as well as for socioeconomic purposes. When that is the
case, the same people are picked out by the same concept, but for different
purposes. We often have different reasons to be interested in the relationships
that the concept of the family describes, and so employ different versions of
the concept to describe the different aspects of the family that those reasons
pick out.
What this shows is that the use of concepts is dependent upon the purposes
that make them matter to us. This dependence upon purposes does more than
increase the variety in the world, though it does that too. Given that our concepts
of the world are as various as our purposes, no concept, such as the concept of a
woman, can ever be thought to have exclusive access to the features of the world
that it describes, so as to bind those features to the particular purpose that the
concept embodies, for those features and, indeed, the concept itself can always
be invoked for a different purpose. It follows that while there are a number of
reasons to reject particular concepts, they cannot, contrary to what is claimed
by Cornell and others, include the notion that those concepts determine and so
limit our access to the world, so as to invest the features that they describe with
their particular purposes, and thereby exclude rival concepts and the rival forms
of access that those rival concepts would offer.
I. The Nature of Diversity 125

Concepts may be objectionable, if they re¬‚ect purposes that are objection-
able, or be without instantiation, if they re¬‚ect purposes that do not pick out
anything in the world, or be irrelevant, if they re¬‚ect purposes that have no
signi¬cance for a culture such as ours, purposes that are based upon a set of
beliefs or a way of life that we do not subscribe to. We may object to the
concept of virginity, therefore, or to the concept of purdah; we may believe
that the concept of the unicorn and of the philosopher™s stone are without in-
stantiation, or that the concepts that de¬ned feudal societies, such as that of
knight service, are without instantiation in a culture such as ours; we may
take it that the religious concept of pollution, which some cultures attach to
menstruation, has no relevance in secular cultures. We may reject concepts
for any of these reasons, but we do so because we regard those concepts as
inapplicable to us, not because we regard them as exclusive of their rivals, or
It further follows that features of the world that have come into being to serve
certain purposes are in no sense bound to re¬‚ect the purposes that brought them
into being, for they may be conceived of and exploited in any number of dif-
ferent ways. In particular, human qualities that were acquired in circumstances
of degradation, such as a heightened capacity to show concern for others if
acquired as the product of a prolonged commitment to the service of one™s
superiors in a hierarchical social structure, are as apt to serve valuable pur-
poses as degrading purposes, contrary to what Catharine MacKinnon assumes.
To seek to reject such qualities on the ground that they are necessarily de-
grading, therefore, is simply mistaken. What we need to do instead, as I argue
below, is to discover and pursue the valuable purposes to which such qualities
can be put.
However “ and this is of critical importance to the understanding of sex
discrimination “ confusion can arise from the fact that concepts are typically
the setting for beliefs about the world, which we call conceptions of the world.
These beliefs are sometimes isolated but more often come in packages, the
content of which we tend to associate, wrongly, with the content of the con-
cepts within which those packages are set. For example, the concept of sexual
identity is typically the setting for a package of beliefs that constitute a partic-
ular culture™s conception of the content of sexual identity. Unlike the concept
of sexual identity itself, those beliefs may well be false, and any reference
to them that assumes their truth may, in certain circumstances, have crippling
consequences for the people they misrepresent. I have already suggested that
it is the falsity of our present conception of sexual identity that is responsi-
ble for women™s disadvantage. I wish to make clear here that the falsity of
our present conception of sexual identity, if false it is, should not be equated
with the falsity of our concept of sexual identity, which is not and cannot be
false, and correspondingly, to make clear that my reference to a true conception
of what it means to be a woman is not to be equated with a reference to a
126 the value of diversity

true concept of sexual identity, or essence of what it means to be a woman or
a man.

C. Enabling Concepts, Disabling Misconceptions
A great many aspects of human life are accessible without any reference to
concepts. We do not need to refer to the concept of hunger in order to be
hungry. We do not need to refer to the concept of the family in order to be part
of one. This is because in neither situation do we need to see ourselves as having
the feeling in order to feel it, as engaging in the relationship in order to engage
in it. Certain aspects of human life, however, have the special feature that they
are inaccessible to us other than by reference to the concepts that de¬ne them.
So, for example, it is impossible to make promises other than by referring to
the concept of a promise; it may be impossible to fall in love without referring
to the concept of love; many argue that it is impossible to be a homosexual
without referring to the concept of homosexuality, here understood as a way of
life and not merely as a tendency to engage in certain sexual practices. The same
may be true of certain aspects of being a woman, which may be inaccessible
except by reference to the concept of a woman. In these situations we need
to see ourselves as having the feeling in order to feel it, as engaging in the
relationship in order to engage in it, as gendered in a certain respect in order to
be gendered in that respect. Access to these aspects of life requires reference
to the relevant concept because they are ways of being that can be engaged in
only self-consciously, by reference to the idea of themselves that the concept
de¬nes. If these aspects of life are valuable, as they often are, then concepts of
this enabling kind do more than increase the variety in the world; they increase
the scope of what it is possible for us to value.
Concepts of this kind can constrain as well as enable, however, if the aspects
of human life that they de¬ne (such as the condition of slavery) are without
value, and if the endorsement of those concepts in any particular culture is so
profound that the concepts come to govern certain people™s sense of who they
are and what their lives should look like. If women are raised to see themselves
as women, and moreover, to see women™s role in life as nothing more than
one of supporting men, their lives will undoubtedly be diminished. But the
constraint upon women™s lives in such a case, and the disadvantage that it
would give rise to, is not the product of the fact that a concept of a woman™s
role de¬nes a nonvaluable way of life, but of the belief that the qualities of
character that women possess do not enable them to live a life other than that
de¬ned by that concept. In short, in such a case it is a misconception of the
capacities that women possess, and of the lives that they might wish to lead,
and not the limited concept of a woman™s role, that con¬nes the lives of women
to the nonvaluable activity that the concept describes. The tendency to hold the
concept responsible for the disadvantage that the invocation of it gives rise to
I. The Nature of Diversity 127

is a product of the fact that the limited concept of a woman™s role is the setting
for a conception of women™s character and capacities that not only sustains the
concept, by establishing its aptness for women, but con¬nes women™s lives to
the role that the concept de¬nes, by inculcating in both men and women the
belief that women are incapable of any other role. How we are to recognize and
correct such misconceptions, and how far they themselves can be self-ful¬lling,
are issues that I consider below. What matters here is to note that while concepts
can enlarge the palette of possibilities the world offers us, only misconceptions
can restrict that palette.

D. Af¬rming Complexity and Diversity
It is against this background that we speak of human complexity and diver-
sity. The content of reality and the role of concepts in portraying that reality
give rise to three sources of human diversity, and thus to three realms of differ-
ence that the af¬rmation of diversity might be thought to be directed at. As I
have already suggested, however, we can af¬rm human difference only where
we have reason to do so, and we have reason to do so only where a difference
is relevant to the practices of a particular culture, and its recognition in that
culture would contribute to the realization of certain valuable goals there, and
thus to the success of certain human lives. Let me explain brie¬‚y, before going
on to consider the details.
The ¬rst source of diversity is the varying reality upon which concepts such as
sexual identity are based. As I have already indicated, life is not only understood
differently in different parts of the world, but often really is different there. Being
a woman may actually mean something different in India and Japan, Canada
and Kiribati. Yet even assuming that this is the case, it is a difference that it is
only possible for a woman to live, not to af¬rm, for it is impossible to af¬rm a


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