<<

. 27
( 37 .)



>>

26 Martha Nussbaum has drawn attention to the number of missing women in sexually discrimi-
natory parts of the developing world: see Sex and Social Justice (New York, 1999). As I read
Nussbaum, in certain societies that are poor and sexually discriminatory, women die earlier than
they do in poor and nondiscriminatory societies, because customs and politics describe women
as un¬t to engage in the activities that would make them respected, valued, and so worthy of
nourishment and medical treatment, activities that women are fully capable of engaging in, and
which their survival depends upon. As an account of discrimination, this appears to match my
own, for it identi¬es a misconception that gives rise to the disadvantage and ultimately death of
women. Yet it is not clear to me that the wrong Nussbaum describes is one of sex discrimination.
Discrimination as she describes it and as I understand it occurs when a discriminator treats a
woman in ways that would be proper if she was as he takes her to be, but that are improper
given the person she is. Yet the wrong Nussbaum describes is a wrong to any person, however
understood, for those who are incapable of doing what women are thought to be incapable of
doing in such discriminatory societies are as entitled to survival as anyone else. It does not take
an accurate perception of women™s capacities, and the respect that would give rise to, to know
that women, as human beings, are entitled to food, shelter, and medical treatment.
What is more, if it is assumed that some are bound to starve to death, an egalitarian policy
of nondiscrimination would simply ensure that as many men died as women, and that cannot
be what Nussbaum has in mind. And if it is assumed that nobody should starve to death, as
152 the character of disadvantage

As I have described them above, there are two kinds of universal human
goods. The ¬rst of these are such basic human goods as adequate food and shel-
ter, that is, adequate for survival, the need for which is not only universal but
largely uniform in character. Clearly, it does not require a particular understand-
ing of what it means to be a woman to know that women may be disadvantaged
by the denial to them of goods such as these, for no one believes that women
have distinctive requirements with regard to adequate food and shelter, which
would make it necessary to understand the particular character of what it means
to be a woman to know whether what is agreed to be an instance of those goods
for men is also an instance of those goods for women.
Yet this is to claim too little, for in fact one can know that a good is universal
only by knowing that the need for it is universal and uniform in character; and
that is something one can know only by knowing people well enough to under-
stand the character of their needs. Take the example of adequate food and shelter.
This good may or may not be sex-speci¬c, depending upon how it is described.
As I have said, it seems implausible that men and women have distinctive re-
quirements with regard to adequate food and shelter where adequate food and
shelter is understood as bare sustenance. Beyond bare sustenance, however, it
is possible that men and women have somewhat different dietary requirements.
To take the most obvious example, pregnant women need to eat for two, in
the colloquial phrase, so that an account of their needs must incorporate the
needs of their foetus: much calcium, say, and little or no alcohol. There may be
other differences in women™s dietary requirements that have been suppressed
in the conventional understanding of a proper diet. But we can know whether
women™s needs are universal or sex-speci¬c, and to what extent, and so can
know whether the goods that meet those needs are universal or sex-speci¬c,
only by knowing what women are (including here the fact that at any given
moment many of them will be pregnant), so as to know whether they are the
same as men or different.
On the other hand, the second kind of human good that might be thought
of as universal is differentiated rather than uniform in character, so that its
application to a particular person requires an understanding of that person and
the appropriateness of any particular instance of the good to his or her life. Goods
such as access to the ingredients of a successful life, be they opportunities or
resources or the satisfaction of needs, are goods to which entitlement is universal
but whose application depends upon the character of those to whom they are
applied and what that character makes appropriate. Such goods may well be
denied to women in particular, but one can know this, and know that that denial


Nussbaum plainly believes, it is that assumption we should act upon, for it is that which will
save the lives of all those women who would otherwise go missing, not an egalitarian policy
of nondiscrimination, which is indifferent to women™s starvation, provided its burden is equally
shared.
III. Sexual Disadvantage 153

constitutes a disadvantage to women, only if one already knows what it means to
be a woman. In short, one cannot even know that sex is the locus of disadvantage
without understanding the meaning of sex and what may disadvantage it. The
reason for this lies in the particular character of a successful life, the ingredients
of which are owed to all human beings.


III. Sexual Disadvantage
The truth upon which entitlement to the requirements of a successful life is
grounded is at once universal, governing that entitlement in the abstract, and
particular, governing it at the level of its application. In the abstract, people
may be disadvantaged by a denial to them of certain goods, such as resources
or opportunities, to which all human beings are entitled. At that level any
alleged disadvantage is a matter of being deprived of a universal entitlement,
and it is quite correct to say, therefore, that the only truth such an allegation of
disadvantage implies about those who are said to be disadvantaged is that they
are human beings. At the level of application, however, which tells us what a
universal entitlement means in certain hands, people may be disadvantaged by
the denial to them only of the resources and opportunities to which they are
particularly entitled, because universal entitlements are sensitive to the character
of the people to whom they are addressed so as to be resources and opportunities
for those people and not for some other. At that level, therefore, an assertion
of disadvantage is an assertion about the particular character of those who are
said to be disadvantaged. The truth that it implies is a particular truth about the
character of the people in question. Indeed, it is only through an understanding
of the particular character of those who are alleged to be disadvantaged, and
the character of what may disadvantage them, that it is possible for us to know
that the universal entitlement has been denied.
It follows that different people are entitled to goods of the same character as
one another, be they opportunities or resources, only in the respects in which
they are not truly different from one another. In all those respects in which
they are indeed truly different from one another, people are entitled to different
goods, which re¬‚ect who they genuinely are, so as to be genuinely valuable in
their hands, be they the opportunities they can genuinely seek or the resources
they can genuinely use. In short, at the level at which these universal moral
entitlements are applied, an assertion of disadvantage is an assertion as to the
character of those who are said to be disadvantaged, because what one is entitled
to, and hence what one can be disadvantaged by the denial of, depends upon
who one is.
It further follows, it will be clear, that a uniform conception of disadvantage,
one that regards people as being necessarily disadvantaged by the denial to
them of that to which others have access, implies a uniform conception of what
it means for human beings to lead successful lives. A pluralistic conception
154 the character of disadvantage

of what it means to lead a successful life requires a pluralistic conception of
disadvantage, one that regards people as being disadvantaged only by the denial
to them of the opportunities and resources they need to make a success of their
particular lives. These are issues that I explore more fully in the next chapter,
where I address the meaning of disadvantage generally and in particular the
implication of a pluralistic conception of what it means to lead a successful
life, where there can be universal and uniform disadvantage only if and to the
extent that people are not different in the facts of their lives to which universal
entitlements relate.
At this point, I want to emphasize the conclusions that follow from the
preceding examination of what I have taken to be the three elements in the
relationship between disadvantage and what it means to be a woman. Any
allegation of disadvantage that is founded on a denial to certain human beings of
the ingredients of a successful life, as allegations of sexual disadvantage clearly
are, depends for its intelligibility upon a genuine understanding of the particular
character of the people who are alleged to be so disadvantaged. Where that
character is in dispute, because the prevailing image of it has been subjected to
fundamental challenge, as in the case of women, any allegation of disadvantage
must be read initially as an allegation as to the proper understanding of the
particular character of those who are said to be disadvantaged, the content of
which is implicit in the character of the denials that are said to constitute a
disadvantage to those people. It follows, as far as feminism is concerned, that
the question of sexual disadvantage must ¬rst and foremost be a question of
what it means to be a woman, and further, that any allegation as to the particular
character of the disadvantage that women now experience must be read as an
allegation as to the particular character of what it means to be a woman.
The signi¬cance of this conclusion is not merely to make the question of
what it means to be a woman the ¬rst question in considering the disadvantage
that women now experience, but to make it the crucial question. I have argued
so far that we must agree on the content of what it means to be a woman in
order even to contemplate the question of sexual disadvantage. If we ¬nd we
cannot agree on that content, as I have also contended is the case at present,
we discover that the disadvantage women now experience is in fact the product
of a failure to understand what it means to be a woman. Since it is clear that
as a society we do not deliver goods to people randomly, but rationally, on
the basis of some conception of who those people are, our inability to reach
agreement on the content of what it means to be a woman must be predicated
on a basic disagreement with the prevailing conception of that content rather
than on general ignorance about it, and so must be predicated on the belief that
the conception of what it means to be a woman generally held in our society
is profoundly mistaken and not simply underdetermined, for ignorance as to
the true meaning of womanhood makes it necessary for a society to invoke
an arbitrary, and therefore almost certainly false, conception of what it means
IV. Disadvantage, Limitation, and Inferiority 155

in order to deliver goods to women. That being the case, the disadvantage
that women now experience in our society can only be the product of our
misconception of what it means to be a woman.
Without agreement as to the content of sexual identity there is no threshold
of disadvantage for us to consider. If we reject the prevailing conception of
what it means to be a woman, we necessarily reject the possibility that the
opportunities and resources assigned to them on the basis of it are ones that
women can value. If we mistake who women genuinely are, we cannot believe
that we are now providing them, except by the purest chance, with the goods
to which they are entitled. That being so, the question of sexual disadvantage
must be a question of the inability of women to obtain goods that they can value
as women, as a result of the failure of the societies that allegedly disadvantage
them to understand who they are and what they can value.27


IV. Disadvantage, Limitation, and Inferiority
What does this leave of the view that women must change if they are to escape
their present disadvantage? Any allegation of disadvantage is intelligible only
in light of an understanding of what is said to be disadvantaged, the particular
character of which is implicit in the particular character of the disadvantage that
is alleged. The disadvantage that this approach alleges women now experience,
namely, to be limited and ranked as inferior in their existence in comparison to
men, is intelligible only on the basis that what it means to be a woman is not to
be in any way limited or inferior in one™s existence in comparison to men. Yet
women cannot be thought to be in truth not in any way limited or inferior in
their existence in comparison to men if they are thought to be in truth in any way
different from men, that is to say, if there is thought to be any true meaning to
sexual difference. Any picture of human difference is necessarily as limited as it
is speci¬c, and any forms of human difference that are commensurable, as some
forms of sexual difference must be thought to be if men and women inhabit
a world in common, will reveal superiority and inferiority in the dimensions
and respects in which they are commensurable. These types of limitation and
inferiority are inescapable features of what it means to lead different lives in and
through a setting of common social practices. As I argue below, they are no more
than another way of describing what it means for people to be different from


27 In this respect, disadvantage faced by victims of sex discrimination differs from that faced by
the poor. The poor do not have enough of what they need (a threshold issue); victims of sex
discrimination have what might well be enough (if they needed it) of what they do not need
(a character issue). The disadvantage of the poor proceeds from a failure to meet a recognized
need; the disadvantage of women proceeds from a failure to meet a need that is not recognized.
This is why it is perfectly possible to suffer from sex discrimination in circumstances of apparent
privilege.
156 the character of disadvantage

one another yet inhabit a world in common.28 That being the case, they govern
the lives of all human beings, and so are inherently incapable of serving to
distinguish the disadvantaged from the advantaged. It follows that these types
of limitation and inferiority cannot be understood as genuine disadvantages.
Indeed, it is vital that they not be confused with genuine disadvantage, which
may be confronted by human beings in attempting to make a success of the
project of their lives, for to do so is to obscure altogether the distinctive and
morally signi¬cant character of the experience of disadvantage as it is now
suffered by women.
In other words, if the disadvantage that women now experience is the product
of a misconception of the content rather than the existence of sexual difference,
so that women are in truth not equal to but different from men in ways other
than we have taken them to be, then to maintain that women are disadvantaged
by any limitation or inferiority they may experience in any plane, whether it
be as the result of a comparison with men in general or with some men only,
or as the result of frustration in the achievement of goals that they have set
themselves, is to say that what de¬nes women as women means everything and
nothing at once. It is to say that women are disadvantaged by their inability to
be anything and everything that they are not. In effect this is to assert the truth
of a deconstructed picture of sexual identity, which I have already argued is not
only false but incompatible with the very existence of sex. It is to contemplate
a world without the experience of limitation or inferiority, one that in any
speci¬c setting would yield the consequences that we now know as advantages
without understanding them as advantages and so entailing the existence of
disadvantages.
As I argue, that world is inconceivable. Indeed, the very quest for it derives
from a confusion between disadvantage in terms of one™s access to the ingredi-
ents of well-being and those forms of limitation and ranking of existence that
produce advantages and disadvantages in particular settings but in doing so do
not in themselves make a particular life advantaged or disadvantaged. To see
why this is so it is necessary to explore the meaning of disadvantage further,
so as to eliminate from the consideration of women™s predicament those fea-
tures of women™s experience that cannot be regarded as genuine disadvantages,
whatever their appearance.

28 In the respects in which a difference is commensurable, there can be no equality, but only
inferiority and superiority, for equality in those respects would preclude the existence of the
difference. On the other hand, in the respects in which a difference exists without the parties
to it being superior or inferior to one another, there can only be incommensurability, for the
existence of difference in those respects precludes the existence of equality there.
7
The Role of Sexual Identity in a
Successful Life




I. The Signi¬cance of Limitations and Inferiority
If there is any kind of difference between men and women that matters to us,
as there must be if we are to subscribe to the very existence of the distinction
in our culture, we need to know what that difference is and what it makes
possible for women and what it makes impossible. Once we know what sexual
identity genuinely means, we can begin to understand the disadvantage that is
now illegitimately imposed upon women, denying them access to what is both
possible for them as women and necessary to the success of their lives. As I have
argued above and argue further below, it is only denial of access to such goods
that can constitute genuine and hence illegitimate disadvantage, or what I from
here on call deep disadvantage. Those limitations of experience and capacity
that are simply part of the meaning of sexual difference, the product of what it
means to belong to one sex rather than the other, may give rise to inferiority in
certain settings, so as to be disadvantages to women in those settings, but they
are not in themselves disadvantages to the project of a woman™s life, despite
the fact that they may appear to deny women access to many valuable forms
of experience, including most obviously the experiences of men. They are no
more than another way of describing the existence of sexual difference and the
speci¬city of womanhood, this time in terms of what being a woman makes
impossible rather than in terms of what it makes possible. It is the distinction

<<

. 27
( 37 .)



>>