<<

. 25
( 37 .)



>>


II. Understanding Disadvantage
It is important to emphasize the skepticism10 that underpins any attempt to
change sexual identity in order to end the disadvantage experienced by women,
for ironically, the effect of that skepticism is to undermine the ability to com-
prehend women™s disadvantage. The reason for this is primarily conceptual.
Skepticism about sexual identity has a debilitating effect on any feminist project
for the simple reason that it is necessary to understand the reality of a woman™s
life in order to understand what it means for that life to be disadvantaged. It
follows that if we are to know what is a disadvantage to women, we need to
know ¬rst what it means and does not mean to be a woman. We cannot pretend
that there is no truth to the matter, for if we do, we will be unable to comprehend,
let alone to remedy, women™s present predicament.
As I see it, there are three elements to the relationship between women™s
disadvantage and what it means to be a woman, each of which I address in turn.
The ¬rst and most important of these is the general conceptual point to which I
have just drawn attention, namely, the claim that any assertion of disadvantage
necessarily implies the existence and, indeed, the speci¬c character of what is
said to be disadvantaged.


A. The Meaning of Disadvantage
Let me begin with a contrast. For those who believe in the fact of sexual
difference, the disadvantage women now experience as a result of sex dis-
crimination might be thought to be the product of a betrayal of their difference
as women. Such people might believe that women really are different from men
in ways other than we take them to be, and that our misapprehension of that
difference causes women disadvantage because it imposes on them the burden
of living according to terms that are not true to them, thereby frustrating their
ability to construct successful lives from the resources available to them and
meaningful for them, that is, on the basis of their true character and ambitions.
Similarly, for those who believe in the fact of sexual equality, the disadvantage
that women now experience as a result of sex discrimination might be thought
to be the product of a betrayal of their equality with men. Such people might
believe that women really are no different from men, and that our blindness

10 In speaking of skepticism about sexual identity, I am referring to skepticism about the existence
of a genuine sexual identity in terms of which women could be said to be disadvantaged. At one
level, those who seek to change what women are now believe that women™s present condition
is real enough, and that women are disadvantaged because of it. At a more fundamental level,
however, such people do not believe that there is any genuine sexual identity that women are
bound to attend to in order to understand and remedy their disadvantage. Rather, they believe that
the present content of sexual identity is susceptible to unlimited revision to ensure that it serves
women™s interests, and further, that women™s interests can be understood without reference to
sexual identity, or more speci¬cally, without reference to what it means to be a woman.
II. Understanding Disadvantage 141

to the equality of the sexes forces women to live in terms of a false image of
difference, with the same deleterious consequences for their capacity to con-
struct successful lives. It is also possible to hold some combination of these two
views: to believe that women are in some respects different from men in ways
other than we have taken them to be, and in other respects no different from
men, despite what we have pretended. For those who believe in none of these
things, however, and so are skeptical about the existence of all facts of this kind,
there is simply nothing to betray. In that case, it is dif¬cult to understand what
they can mean when they speak of discrimination on the basis of sex.
As a conceptual matter it is impossible to say that a person is disadvantaged,
at least in any meaningful sense, without an idea of what it means to be that
person and who he or she is to be contrasted with. Disadvantage is a concept
that expresses a relationship between people11 who have been compared in
a given plane and for a given purpose, in light of a proper understanding of
their different qualities and capacities. Any assertion of disadvantage is thus
dependent upon a claim as to the character of what is said to be disadvantaged,
a claim implicit in the character of the alleged disadvantage.
If women are said to be disadvantaged by a denial to them of access to
a particular option, for example, the character of the option whose denial is
said to disadvantage them expresses a conception of what it means to be a
woman, without which the denial could not be said to be disadvantageous. It is
disadvantageous to be denied what one would seek and value, given the kind of
person that one is. It is not disadvantageous to be denied that which one cannot
truly seek, given that it would not be valuable in one™s hands. It follows that if
promulgation of a false picture of the qualities and capacities of certain people
causes them disadvantage, as it clearly often does, it is because it suppresses
the true character of the valuable options that might be sought by those whom
the picture falsely describes, the pursuit of which is necessary to the success of
their lives, and the denial of which is, as a result, a genuine disadvantage.
Two points need to be distinguished, for there are two implications to any
given allegation of disadvantage. The ¬rst relates to the question of the character
of an alleged disadvantage, while the second relates to the question of its
threshold. Where the character of certain people and hence the character of
what may disadvantage them is not in dispute, the correctness of any allega-
tion of disadvantage that is made on their behalf will turn on the threshold of


11 However, the relationship that disadvantage expresses is only super¬cially one between different
people, for it is ultimately a relationship between a life as it is led and as it should be led. Indeed,
as I argue below, the disadvantaging of a life can be understood only in this second, internal
sense, for the good of a successful life is something that can be understood only with reference
to the character of the person who is to live it, not with that of some other. It follows that the
signi¬cance of a person™s disadvantage relative to some other person in any given endeavour is
proportionate to the role that the endeavour, and success or failure in it, plays in the success or
failure of that person™s life.
142 the character of disadvantage

disadvantage in their lives and the tendency of any allegedly disadvantageous
act or omission to cross that threshold. In other words, in circumstances where
we are agreed on the character of what it is that might disadvantage certain
people, and where we are also con¬dent that an allegedly disadvantageous act
or omission is of that character, and hence are con¬dent that it has the capacity
to disadvantage them in life, the only question is whether it in fact does so. The
answer will depend upon its impact on their capacity to develop and pursue
successful lives.12
In contrast to questions of the threshold of disadvantage, however, are those
regarding the character of disadvantage, which arise when one or the other
of the above presuppositions does not apply. On the one hand, where we are
agreed on the character of what it is that might disadvantage certain people,
yet are also agreed that an allegedly disadvantageous act or omission is not in
fact of that character, there can be no question of disadvantage, for if an act is
not of a kind that could disadvantage the people in question, it is meaningless
to ask whether it does so. The character of the act is simply such that it could
not possibly have an impact on their capacity to develop and pursue successful
lives. On the other hand, less obviously perhaps but more fundamentally, if
we are not in agreement as to the character of certain people, and so are not
in agreement as to the character of what may disadvantage them, we cannot
begin to entertain the question of their disadvantage. In such a case our ¬rst
task must be to establish what kind of people they are and how they might
be disadvantaged. Only when we have done that, and have further determined
that an allegedly disadvantageous act or omission has the character required
to disadvantage them as we have come to understand them, can we consider
whether it in fact has done so.
It follows, in my view, that it is the character of disadvantage, and the char-
acter of sexual identity that it implies, with which feminism is primarily con-
cerned. The question of whether the threshold of disadvantage has been crossed
in the lives of women can arise only if the character of women™s lives, and what
may disadvantage them, is already agreed upon, which does not appear to be
the case at present. To see why this is so, it is necessary to explore the distinc-
tion between the character of a disadvantage and the question of its threshold.
That distinction is the second of the three elements in the relationship between
disadvantage and what it means to be a woman, to which I referred above.

12 This distinction is re¬‚ected in the ways in which we use the term “disadvantage” in ordinary
speech. We typically distinguish between the disadvantage that a person experiences with respect
to certain activities and the disadvantage that that person experiences in the project of his or
her life. In the ¬rst case, the use of the term “disadvantage” corresponds to the question of
the character of disadvantage, while in the second case the use of the term corresponds to the
question of its threshold. In other words, the question of character distinguishes genuine and
putative forms of disadvantage, while the question of threshold distinguishes morally signi¬cant
and morally insigni¬cant forms of disadvantage, disadvantage that has been found to be genuine
in character.
II. Understanding Disadvantage 143

B. The Character and Threshold of Disadvantage
i. contested characteristics. It may be helpful to begin with an il-
lustration. If a society is charged with failing to provide some of its members
with such basic goods as food and shelter, the question of whether that society
disadvantages those people is simply one of whether it has failed to meet their
need for food and shelter, a need that all human beings experience purely by
reason of their existence as human beings, more or less without distinction, and
more importantly, whose character we all understand and agree upon. It is only
if their need has not been met that a denial of food and shelter will constitute a
disadvantage to them. Actions are only disadvantageous to people if they deny
what is necessary to their pursuit of a successful life. It is not a disadvantage
to be denied what is surplus to one™s requirements, whether those requirements
be for food and shelter or for a suf¬cient range of valuable options from which
to make a successful life.
What holds true for basic goods such as food and shelter, the need for which
is universal and uniform, is also true for more specialized goods, such as partic-
ipation in a culture. The need for these goods may be universal among human
beings, but particular goods are valuable only in the hands of the particular
human beings for whom they are appropriate.13 Participation in a particular
culture, or in the practice of a particular religion, or in a particular way of life,
such as a life in the theatre or a life as a social or environmental activist, is valu-
able only in the hands of those who are or might be committed to those ways of
life.14 Yet, to take cultural participation as an example, as long as the require-
ments of participation in a particular culture are agreed upon and understood,
a culture that I will for the sake of argument assume to be a worthy one (so that
participation in its particular forms and practices is a genuine good), and more
to the point for feminists, as long as the character of those who might wish to
participate in that culture is also agreed upon and understood (so as to establish
the appropriateness of the forms and practices of that culture to the project of
those lives), the debate over whether a restriction on participation in that culture
is a disadvantage to those people must be a debate as to whether their need for
such participation is otherwise met. A restriction on cultural participation is a
disadvantage to people only if their need for participation generally, and in that
culture in particular, is not otherwise met.15 It follows that whether a way of

13 See below for a discussion of the distinction between goods that are both owed to all human
beings and have uniform application to them, and goods that are owed to all human beings but
have particular application to particular people.
14 For the time being, I leave to one side the question of value, and note here only that many ways
of life are in fact not valuable.
15 The two problems referred to here “ of understanding a culture and understanding the character
of those who would participate in it “ are interconnected, for to know what characteristics the
forms and practices of a culture are potentially sensitive to is to know something about the
kind of people who might successfully participate in those forms and practices. For feminists,
144 the character of disadvantage

life and its needs is universal or is con¬ned to certain people, as long as that
way of life is properly understood, so that agreement exists as to its character
and its claims, and as long as the need of certain people for participation in that
way of life is also understood and agreed upon, the debate over any alleged
disadvantage to that way of life is a debate over the threshold of disadvantage
for the people who pursue or might pursue it, and whether a particular form of
denial crosses that threshold.
The distinction here is not between uniform and specialized goods, therefore,
or between biologically and culturally determined goods, but between goods
whose appropriateness for certain human beings is agreed upon or contested. If
it is the former, the question of disadvantage can be only a question of threshold;
if it is the latter, the question of disadvantage must, at least in the ¬rst instance,
be a question of character. If it could be said, therefore, that women were
properly understood in our culture, so that agreement now existed as to their
character and hence as to their needs and capacities, the debate would be about
the threshold of disadvantage in their lives, and whether particular forms of
denial cross that threshold. In that case women could be disadvantaged by the
denial to them of certain options, acknowledged to be true to their character,
only if their capacity to lead successful lives in terms of who they are were
otherwise not met.
However, to return to the example of cultural participation, if the character of
a particular culture and the need of certain people for participation in the forms
and practices of that culture are not agreed upon and understood, the debate
over whether a restriction on participation is a disadvantage must necessarily
be a debate, ¬rst, over the character of the culture, and second and more im-
portantly, over the character of the people who might wish to participate in it.
It is impossible to debate the threshold of disadvantage in any person™s life as
long as the character of that life remains uncertain. We cannot begin to discuss
whether certain people have been disadvantaged by lack of access to certain
options in life as long as we are uncertain about what kind of people they are and
what kind of options in life they might value. It follows that we cannot begin to
discuss the threshold of disadvantage for women and whether that threshold has
been crossed by certain forms of denial while the content of what it means to
be a woman, and hence the character of what may disadvantage them, remains
uncertain. Without some form of agreement as to that content, we cannot know
whether what is denied are goods in life that women could possibly value.

ii. disadvantage and the character of women. It is the character
of disadvantage that is critical here, therefore, because the question of the

however, the primary issue must be the character of what it means to be a woman, for it may be
necessary to reform the forms and practices of the culture in order to respond to women™s needs
and capacities.
II. Understanding Disadvantage 145

threshold of disadvantage is necessarily consequent on general agreement as to
its character. In the case of women, no such general agreement as to character
exists. Few contemporary feminists believe that the predicament women now
¬nd themselves in is simply a matter of a failure on the part of our society to
address a condition that it correctly understands. On the contrary, most believe
that our society gravely misunderstands what it means to be a woman, and in
particular misunderstands the content of women™s needs and capacities. It is
because most feminists believe that women are so misunderstood in our society
that they have committed themselves to the enterprise of convincing the world
at large that women are both more and less like men than we have taken them
to be. Properly understood, women neither exhibit the distinctive incapacities
that we have attributed to them nor share without distinction the needs of men,
as we have often assumed. In other words, most feminists agree upon the need
to reject the prevailing picture of what it means to be a woman, and hence are
implicitly agreed that the debate over the character of sexual identity must be
the primary issue in the enterprise of enabling women to escape their present
predicament.16
Unfortunately, feminists disagree among themselves as to what it means to be
a woman, and hence what might be said to disadvantage women in a particular
setting. For some feminists, the refusal to subscribe to any conception of what
it genuinely means to be a woman is based on a belief that the redemption
of women depends upon remaining agnostic about that issue. For others, such
as those who debate whether there is any truth to the difference between men
and women, there is simply profound disagreement over the content of what it
means to be a woman. Some of the latter are uncertain as to the character of the
misconception of which they believe our society is guilty; others are uncertain


16 Feminists such as Catherine MacKinnon take a special view of this misunderstanding. They
believe that our society correctly understands the content of women™s needs and capacities as
they now exist, for the simple reason that it has de¬ned those needs and capacities to suit its own
purposes, chief among them being that of subordinating women. They further believe, however,
that this socially constructed content of gender, while true as a description of women™s present
predicament, is not true in any fundamental natural or biological sense, and thus can and must
be changed if we are ever to end women™s subordination. It is in this sense, I am suggesting,
that feminists such as MacKinnon believe our society gravely misunderstands the content of
women™s character, although they would certainly regard the use of the word “misunderstands”
as unnecessarily charitable and potentially misleading. In their view, our society has not so much

<<

. 25
( 37 .)



>>