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one side the inherent implausibility of a suggestion that the present practice
of sex discrimination could be brought to an end by simply inverting it, so as
to change the identity of its victims from women to men, the attempt to treat
women™s qualities as good by de¬nition rather than by virtue of their objective

10 This is not to say that value cannot embody a contradiction, for clearly it can. Many features of
the world are understood in terms of a contrast that makes it impossible to realize both aspects
of them at once, yet they are no less valuable for that reason. Femaleness and maleness are
both capable of being valued despite the fact that the different values they may give rise to are
incompatible. However, while both ways of being are valuable, it is not possible to realize them
both at once. In any setting where both forms of value are realizable, a choice must be made as
to which value to realize. In some settings and for some purposes, it is better to be a woman; in
others, a man. Practice does not guide value, as not only objectivists but any critic of the present
social order must agree.
II. Discrimination and Difference 9

value is no recipe for a valuable life for women, or for true respect for and pride
in one™s identity as a woman.
To take sexual identity, as we now understand it,11 as the premise of value
is to place that identity beyond the capacity of value to criticize. And yet,
as many have pointed out, such criticism is surely crucial to the ending of sex
discrimination. It is possible, of course, to believe that the present social practice
of sex discrimination is in no way re¬‚ected in the present social understanding of
sexual identity, but it is not terribly plausible to do so. On the contrary, it seems
almost certain that the present practice of sex discrimination is broadly re¬‚ected
in the present understanding of sexual identity, so that the picture we as a society
now have of what it means to be a woman both includes qualities that women
do not possess and neglects qualities that women do possess, in each case to
women™s disadvantage. If that is so, then to take women™s present identity as the
premise for understanding value, and hence for understanding discrimination,
is to honour as women™s and as valuable qualities that are not women™s and
may not be valuable, and correspondingly, to fail to honour qualities that are
women™s and are valuable, or that are capable of being used valuably. In other
words, and in its own terms, to treat value as relative to women™s present identity
as women is to make it impossible to regard that identity as anything but good.
If that is implausible, then it is implausible, even if intelligible, to regard human
value as relative to sexual identity.
These are points about the nature of value, but as my last comments make
clear, they also place in question the status of the present understanding of
sexual identity, of what it means to be a woman or a man. Value relativism
aside, whether the qualities that we take to describe and de¬ne sexual difference
are real or mythical is a crucial question for any account of sex discrimination.
Whatever human value is or is taken to be, it can be engaged in only by those
who genuinely possess the qualities, and the corresponding achievements,
that human value registers and responds to. To put it another way, even value
relativists can only know what values they should endorse by knowing, and
knowing accurately, the context to which those values are to be related. To relate
value to a difference that is wholly or partially mythical would be to succumb
to the very error that value relativists themselves seek to remedy, here the (sup-
posed) error of failing to relate value to sexual difference as it actually is, that
is, to what it genuinely means to be a woman or a man. If that is so, it is doubly


11 The account could be premised on sexual identity as it really is rather than as we now understand
it. This would not be easy, however, for such an account would typically incorporate an account
of what is valuable, so as to distinguish what is material from what is immaterial in the potentially
vast description of what anything is. An account of what we are that makes no reference to value
risks lapsing into incoherence, counting the number of hairs on our heads, or freckles on our
forearms. Even if this problem could be overcome, an account of value that took the qualities
of women as they really are as the premise of value would still suffer from the implausibility of
de¬ning men as bad and from the more general objections to relativism sketched in note 19.
10 the issues

implausible to treat sexual identity, as we now understand it, as the premise for
value.
The question remains, then, as it stood at the end of the previous section:
whether it is possible to arrive at an account of sex discrimination that respects
both sexual identity and human value while allowing for mistakes in our per-
ception of each. The approaches considered so far have all been comparative in
character, in that they have attempted to frame sexual identity and human value
by reference to equality and difference. Yet it must be possible to understand
women other than in terms of the ways in which they are and are not different
from men, just as it is possible to understand men without reference to women.
At some point comparisons between the sexes must end, and we must simply
ask, and then answer, what it means to be a woman or a man. Whatever answer
we arrive at must then be related to value. As I have said, it is not only possible
but necessary to understand value other than in terms of a comparison between
women and men. This suggests that a proper understanding of the disadvan-
tage that ¬‚ows from sex discrimination, a disadvantage that involves a denial to
women, as they really are, of the ingredients necessary to a genuinely valuable
life, must proceed other than by a comparison to the lives of men.


III. Discrimination Without Comparison
To return to the story with which I began, an alternative explanation of a woman™s
entitlement to appear in public naked to the waist (in hot weather at least) is that
the conventional understanding of a woman™s nakedness, and in particular of the
signi¬cance of bare breasts on a public street, is profoundly mistaken. Indeed,
it is only one instance of the manifold errors that we as a society have made, and
continue to make, about what it means to be a woman, errors that have prevented
women from leading successful lives. On that explanation, nondiscrimination
would be a matter of removing the prevailing misconceptions of what it means
to be a woman12 and of the valuable activities to which a woman™s life might be
directed, in any case where the effect of those misconceptions is to disadvantage
women, by impairing their prospect of leading a successful life.
It is a familiar fact, one not con¬ned to this explanation of sex discrimination,
that discrimination typically proceeds from a misconception (to put it gently) of
what it means to be a woman. Time and again women are said to lack abilities that
they in fact possess, or to possess disabilities that they in fact do not. The options
available to them are then tailored accordingly, so as to deny women, on one

12 In referring to what it means to be a woman, as I do throughout this section, I mean simply to
refer to what it is to be a woman, whatever that may be. For a discussion of the many issues
surrounding that idea, see section VII, below. I believe that it is impossible to know which values
to pursue, or the extent to which one has been denied access to those values, and so has been
discriminated against, without an adequate degree of self-understanding, which, in the case of
women, means an adequate understanding of what it means to be a woman.
III. Discrimination Without Comparison 11

basis or the other, access to those that they in fact possess the ability to ¬‚ourish
in. This denial of access is typically to women™s disadvantage, for women tend
to be excluded by it from options that are critical to the success of their lives,
although it is not inevitably so, as the life stories of the many women who have
¬‚ourished despite the obstacles placed before them make clear. Sometimes,
having been excluded from one valuable option or another, women are able to
discover further valuable options in life that correspond to qualities they both
possess and are acknowledged to possess, whose correspondence with women™s
qualities is typically overlooked, or whose value is typically downplayed.
Such enterprising and fortunate women are moral survivors. More often, the
denial to women of access to valuable options, as a result of prevailing mis-
conceptions of what it means to be a woman and of the activities to which a
woman™s life might be directed, prevents them from leading successful lives.
According to the alternative explanation of discrimination under consideration
here, the precise extent to which misconceptions about women have this effect
is the precise extent of sex discrimination in any given society, for sex discrim-
ination is a matter of so misunderstanding women as to deny them access to
options that are critical to the success of their lives. Less profound failures of
understanding are not to be dismissed, for ignorance unchallenged often begets
greater and more dangerous ignorance, but they do not amount to a wrong, and
so do not amount to the wrong of sex discrimination, unless they damage some
person™s, in this case some woman™s, prospects in life.
So women are said (inaccurately) to be unaggressive or unscienti¬c, and are
consequently excluded from options whose value is a function of aggression
or of a scienti¬c approach. Or they are said (accurately, let us assume) to be
unusually caring, but are then steered towards, and often con¬ned to, options in
life where the value of care is bound up with other nonvaluable aspects of those
options, so as to make the options either unworthy in themselves (where serving
others, for example, degenerates into servitude) or less than the whole story of
a successful life (where being a good parent to one™s children, for example,
becomes one™s only role in life). A nondiscriminatory reappraisal of what it
means to be a woman, in terms both of a woman™s qualities and of the valuable
activities to which a woman™s life might be directed, would enable women to
gain access to the many valuable options in life that have long been and still
remain closed to them, and correspondingly, would enable women to escape
the con¬nes of options that either are not valuable or, if valuable, are too limited
a basis on which to build a successful life.13

13 I speak here of value, and the extent to which discrimination denies access to value, so preventing
women™s lives from being successful. Some may ¬nd the language of justice more familiar and
more apt. They may feel that the idea of justice captures not only the instances of discrimination
I draw attention to, which involve misconceptions, but other instances of what we recognize
as discrimination that do not appear to involve misconceptions. Suppose, to take a familiar
example, a society refuses to provide adequate child care for working women. This could be
12 the issues

Nothing in this story of discrimination and nondiscrimination depends upon
a comparison of women to men, one that would describe women as equal to
men, or as different from them. Nor would anything in the story be assisted by
such a comparison. On the contrary, sexual equality and sexual difference are

said to be unjust, on the basis that it denies women a fair share of social resources. It is less
obvious that it involves a misconception of working women and what it takes for them (or at
least some of them) to lead a successful life. Yet appearances are deceptive.
One possibility is that the refusal to provide adequate child care is indeed based on a
misconception. Some people probably do believe that women should stick to raising children,
or at least that if women choose to have children, they should then make their family the focus of
their lives, not compromise their domestic role with work outside the home. Set that possibility
aside. The other, more relevant, possibility is that the refusal to provide adequate child care
is seen by those responsible (and their critics) as an issue of justice. Some may believe that
existing levels of child care represent working women™s fair share of social resources; others
believe that it does not. Either way the disagreement between them is on its face a disagreement
about justice.
There are two ways to understand such arguments about justice, both captured in the idea
that the right is prior to the good. On the one hand, arguments about justice are arguments
about the proper role of the state. Antiperfectionists believe that the obligations of the state are
con¬ned to the right, namely, that which can be performed and enforced without reference to
particular conceptions of the good life. I do not share that belief, but in any event my project
brackets the question of its soundness. I am concerned to explore the nature of the problem of
sex discrimination, not decide whose job it is to solve which aspects of that problem. As I see
it, the obligation to end the practice of sex discrimination falls on all of us, individually and
collectively. Those who believe that the role of the state is limited to securing the right will want
to temper that claim. But that is no reason for them to disagree with my account of the nature
of discrimination, which is practised by people everywhere, not merely by the state, and whose
remedy is everyone™s responsibility, not merely the state™s.
On the other hand, the belief that the right is prior to the good transcends the question of the
proper role of the state, and distinguishes obligations that are justi¬ed on the basis of the value
of having them from those that are justi¬ed independently of that value. Yet as I see it, value
underpins reasons and duties, so that the answer to the question of our duty not to discriminate
depends ultimately upon the badness of discrimination, which in turn is a function of its tendency
to impair the success of someone™s life, here the life of a woman. In this sense my account is
teleological rather than deontological, as those terms are explained by Rawls in A Theory of
Justice (Oxford, 1973) at 24ff.
If a successful life is what ultimately matters, so that references to justice are best understood
as references to certain aspects of our duty to support one another in the pursuit and achievement
of a successful life, then any refusal to provide adequate child care to working women, if not
simply a matter of bad faith or weakness of will, must be based on a misconception, even if
that misconception is no more than an after-the-fact rationalization and so the product of self-
deception. No argument of justice could warrant the denial of a successful life to women if, as
I believe, arguments of justice are ultimately directed to making each person™s life successful.
As a society, we owe women resources such as child care because and to the extent that those
resources are necessary to a successful life, and so can withhold them only where they are in that
sense unnecessary. The account I give thus reaches some, perhaps many, of the same conclusions
as more familiar arguments from justice, not because it is derivable from the idea of justice, but
because the idea of justice is derived from the understanding of value on which I rely.
For further discussion of the idea of a successful life, see section VI of this chapter; for
consideration of the relationship between misconceptions and disadvantage, see Chapter 6,
section II, part C; for further exploration of some of the practical implications of the account I
give for issues such as child care, see the ¬nal chapter. On reasons and values, see Gardner and
Macklem, “Reasons”, in The Oxford Handbook of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law, ed.
Jules Coleman and Scott Shapiro (Oxford, 2002), 440, at 450ff.
III. Discrimination Without Comparison 13

themselves conceptions of what it means to be a woman, which, given their
sweeping character, may be as heavily distorted as those they are invoked to
replace. It is of course clearly the case that, contrary to what was once widely
assumed, women are in very many ways no different from men, and to that
extent are, strictly speaking, not distinguishable in terms of their sex. That is
to say, an accurate picture of sexual difference, of the qualities that distinguish
women and men, would not include the qualities that men and women have
in common, in like kind and degree, in terms of which they are equal to one
another. It is as clearly the case that in other respects women are different from
men, although not necessarily in the same respects that they have been widely
taken to be, so that an accurate picture of sexual difference would be one that
captured that difference accurately, rather than some other difference, or none
at all.
And yet, just as clearly, it is not possible to arrive at an accurate picture of
what it means to be a woman, and of the valuable activities to which a woman™s
life might be directed, by pursuing the idea that women are equal to men, or
are different from men, or some combination of the two. Rather, we know that
women are equal to men only when we know what women and men are, and
then notice that whatever may once have been pretended, there is no difference
between them, and similarly, know that women are different from men when
we know what each is and see that they are to be distinguished, and how they
are to be distinguished. Indeed, it is not possible to identify either equality or
difference other than by identifying the genuine qualities of the objects under
comparison, whether the purpose is to show that people are equal, or that they
are unequal as the ¬rst step in an argument that they should not be so, an
argument of the kind considered and rejected in the previous sections.
There is also nothing in this story of discrimination and nondiscrimination
about the qualities of men, or about any necessary reciprocity in policies of
nondiscrimination. It is possible, of course, to misunderstand both women and
men, and to misunderstand them both so badly as to deny them both access
to options that are critical to the success of their lives. But it is not necessary
to misunderstand men in order to misunderstand women, and in fact there is
little evidence that we as a society misunderstand men to an extent that would
damage men™s lives. On the contrary, it is not only possible in principle, but
seems to be the case in practice, that a society can understand men well, or at
least well enough, and yet understand women little, or at least too little to enable
them to lead successful lives. If it is indeed the case that sex discrimination is
one-sided in this way, then the remedy must be similarly one-sided, so as to
focus on the true problem, namely, the effect on women, and the success of
their lives, of prevailing misconceptions of what it means to be a woman and
of the valuable activities to which a woman™s life might be directed.
It might be objected that this is to contradict what I have earlier contended,
namely, that sexual identity is a bivalent distinction, in which the qualities of
14 the issues

one sex are correlative to those of the other. If that is the character of sexual
identity, then it follows that to know what it means to be a woman is, ipso facto,
to know what it means to be a man. Does it not also follow that it is not possible
to know what it means to be a woman other than by knowing what it means to
be a man? And does it not then follow that the misconceptions of what it means
to be a woman that underlie sex discrimination are necessarily reciprocal, so
that their understanding and their remedy must also be reciprocal?
There is some truth in this line of thought, but it is a truth that is easy
to overstate. To grasp its real implications it is necessary to distinguish two
different understandings of what it means to be a woman or a man. On
the one hand, to speak of men and women is to speak of people who can,
in some respects and for some purposes, be distinguished in terms of their sex.
On the other hand, and more precisely, to speak of men and women is to speak

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