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Second, the claim that all human beings are entitled to equal opportunities
might be understood as a claim that all human beings are entitled to opportunities
of the same value as one another. Once again, however, what human beings are
in fact entitled to is not opportunities of the same value but opportunities of a
value that is as distinctive or nondistinctive as the projects of their particular
lives. In other words, we can know that the apparently different opportunities
assigned to different human beings should be of the same value only if and
when we know that the different lives to which those opportunities are assigned
are directed to the same ends. We can know that apparently different lives are
directed to the same ends only if we genuinely understand, in the sense that I
have outlined, the character of those lives and the activities that that character
makes it both possible and necessary to pursue. To maintain that different human
beings are entitled to opportunities of equal value is thus to assume what must
be established, namely, a genuine understanding of the particular character of
those apparently different human beings.
Of course, some believe that all human lives are directed to the pursuit of
the same value, such as, perhaps, a uniform conception of happiness.2 On that
view, it is unnecessary to know the character of particular human beings, for the
differences that distinguish human beings, including that of gender, are no more
than arbitrary incidents in the human condition that affect the form but not the
substance of human life. Just as one™s race has no impact upon one™s need for
sustenance or one™s capacity for suffering, so other forms of human difference
have no impact upon one™s desire for happiness, or upon the character of the
happiness that one desires. This is a view that I do not share, as I have already
made clear. On the contrary, it is my contention that the values toward which
genuinely different human lives are directed are ultimately incommensurable.
I return in a moment to a brief review of that contention and its implications.
Finally, however, the claim that all human beings are entitled to equal op-
portunities might be understood as a claim that all human beings are equally
entitled to the opportunity to make a success of the projects of their lives. That
claim is true enough but sensible only when understood in such a way as to
take account of the role played by a particular conception of what it means to
be a human being in the construction of a successful life. To assert without
going further that human beings are equally entitled to the opportunity to make
a success of the projects of their lives is to overlook the role played in the
application of that entitlement, quite correctly said to be enjoyed by all human
beings, by particular conceptions of what it means to be a human being and to
pursue a successful life.


2 These include, for example, those who are committed to securing the greatest happiness of the
greatest number, who believe both that all human lives are directed to the pursuit of happiness
and that the apparently different forms of happiness pursued by different people are in the end
commensurable, and so can be assessed in the same coin.
I. The Importance of Being Understood 195

In other words, any commitment to equality is contingent upon the fact of
equality and upon the need for access to that fact in order to lead a successful
life. As far as the welfare of human beings is concerned, equality is not a
principle in its own right but a fact about human beings that is made salient
by the application of the principle that every human being is entitled to the
ingredients of a successful life, that is, to the opportunities and resources that
are necessary to make a success of his or her particular life. If and to the
extent that human beings are equal to and so no different from one another, and
furthermore require access to their equality in these respects in order to make a
success of their lives, then that equality must be re¬‚ected and embodied in the
prevailing conception of who and what they are and in the opportunities and
resources that are assigned on the basis of it, although it is not equality that we
respond to in so acting, but the separate characters of the people in question and
the separate content of what those characters make both possible and necessary
for those de¬ned by them. In other words, even the fact of equality forms no part
of the premise for our conduct here, but is simply a feature of our conclusion
that is as coincidental as the similarity of apparently different lives.
Conversely, however, if and to the extent that human beings differ from one
another, and furthermore require access to their difference in order to make a
success of their lives, then that difference must be re¬‚ected and embodied in
the prevailing conception of who and what they are and in the opportunities and
resources assigned on the basis of it. In short, a society™s obligation to recognize
the equality and difference of its members is dependent upon the truth of that
equality or difference and on its members™ need for access to that truth in order
to lead successful lives.
This is not to suggest that our society™s pursuit of sexual equality has been
entirely misguided, for there is every evidence that men and women are in fact
no different from one another in many respects in which they have long been
thought to be different from one another, respects in which a demonstration
of women™s equality with men, and hence a demonstration of their capacity to
engage in certain activities on a like basis with men, has been critical to the
success of women™s lives. Rather, it is simply to contend that this is not the
whole story of what it means for women to lead successful lives; to think that
it is the whole story is to misunderstand gravely the character of a successful
life and the disadvantage that is experienced by those who are denied it. The
reason that it has been taken to be the whole story, it seems to me, lies in a
faulty but widely, although not always consistently, held understanding of the
character of a successful life, which has only recently begun to be displaced by
an acknowledgment of value pluralism.3

3 Even a value monist must recognize that each person has a different way of arriving at the good
of a successful life, however arbitrary and without ultimate value that difference is, and so must
understand what it means to be a woman in order to ensure that women™s lives are successful.
196 equality, difference, and the law

It is simply a fact about the intellectual and social history of Western cul-
ture, albeit a very signi¬cant fact, that we have tended to take a monistic,
one-dimensional, although evolving view of the character of a successful life,
and so have denied the enjoyment of such a life to all those for whom a life of
that character was inaccessible, either because they were genuinely different
from the norm and dependent upon access to that difference for the success of
their lives or because they were falsely perceived to be so. To ¬‚ourish in such
a culture, people have been forced to demonstrate their capacity to conform
to the prevailing view of what constitutes a successful life, by demonstrating
their possession of the qualities necessary to sustain a life of the kind that is
recognized as successful there. The result has been to make salient the many
false assumptions of human difference that exist in our culture and to high-
light the disadvantage that they have generated for many people, including
women. To remedy that disadvantage, a broadly based and very successful
enterprise of exposing the falsity or irrelevance of a great many of the ac-
cepted differences between men and women has been undertaken, largely if
not entirely at the instigation of women. In the long run, however, the suc-
cess of that strategy in remedying sexual and other forms of disadvantage
depends upon the extent to which women and other disadvantaged groups ei-
ther do not differ from other human beings in any way that is relevant to our
culture or do not need access to their difference in order to lead successful
lives.
If, on the contrary, women are different from men in ways that matter to
the success of their lives, or to put it from the opposite perspective, if what it
means to lead a successful life is in fact plural rather than one-dimensional in
character, and if in addition the difference between women and men is one facet
of a plural understanding of the meaning of a successful life, then a successful
life is denied to all those women for whom such a life, if it is of the same character
as a successful life for men, is inaccessible because they are genuinely different
in character from men and require access to their difference to make a success
of their lives. If this is so, if what it means to lead a successful life is plural in
character and if sexual difference is one facet of that plural character, then the
result is to make salient the many misconceptions of sexual identity that exist in
our culture, misconceptions that either assimilate the condition of women to that
of men or misrepresent the character of sexual difference, and to highlight the
disadvantage that those misconceptions have generated for women. To remedy
that disadvantage, it is necessary to expose the falsity of certain of women™s
supposed equalities to men as well as certain of their supposed differences from
men, so as to establish the true content of what it means to be a woman in all
its dimensions, different and equal.

My argument is not dependent upon acceptance of the truth of value pluralism, therefore, although
I myself accept it and have elaborated my argument in terms of it.
II. Where Difference Matters 197

In the context of a plural understanding of value, therefore, sexual equality
continues to have importance as a fact that is made salient by the application of
the principle that all human beings are entitled to the ingredients of a successful
life, that is, to whatever opportunities and resources are needed for them to make
a success of their particular lives, which are in many respects no different from
one another, contrary to what we have often assumed, and thus whose equality
needs to be af¬rmed. But in the context of a plural understanding of value, the
fact of sexual difference is as likely to be important to the success of a life as
the fact of sexual equality “ more likely perhaps, given its relative neglect.
In conclusion, the equality of men and women is a condition that we are
obliged to recognize and respond to as a consequence of the application of a
particular moral principle to particular facts, namely, as the consequence of the
application of the principle that all human beings are entitled to the ingredients
of a successful life to the fact that in certain respects men and women subscribe to
the same conception of a successful life and have the same capacity to sustain it.
Similarly, however, the difference between men and women is made signi¬cant
by the same principle, that all human beings are entitled to the ingredients of a
successful life, applied to a different set of facts, namely, that in certain respects
at least men and women subscribe to different conceptions of a successful life,
simply because their different capacities make different goals both possible and
necessary for them. It follows that there is no real inconsistency involved in the
claim that what is rhetorically called sexual equality, by which is meant the
ending of the disadvantage now experienced by women, at once requires that
women be treated as equal to men and that they be treated as different from men,
not so that we as a society may ensure the relative advantage of women, but so
that we may ensure all women the opportunity to lead successful lives. As far
as the capacity of human beings to make a success of the project of their lives
is concerned, this is the importance of being equal, and also of being different,
for it is the importance of being understood.4


II. Where Difference Matters
Where a culture takes a one-dimensional view of the character of a successful
life, difference from the norm necessarily becomes a source of exclusion and
oppression. In such a culture, the demonstration of one™s capacity to conform
to the prevailing conception of what constitutes a successful life, through en-
dorsement of that conception and proof of one™s possession of the qualities
necessary to sustain it, is the only way to make a success of one™s life, while

4 As I have noted, this imposes a condition not only upon any doctrine of equality but also upon
any description of 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 sat-
isfaction of needs, or as anything else that is sensitive to the condition of those to whom it is
addressed: see Chapter 4, at note 11.
198 equality, difference, and the law

acknowledgment of one™s difference, through endorsement of a rival conception
of a successful life or through recognition that one™s qualities are other than
those that serve the prevailing conception, is tantamount to acknowledgment
of one™s inability to make a success of one™s life. In such circumstances, dif-
ference is to be avoided as much as equality is to be sought, for where access
to a successful life is dependent upon showing that one has the same qualities
as the paradigmatically successful person, and so is equal to that person in all
the signi¬cant respects that govern success in life, showing one™s difference is
inevitably a source of disadvantage.
For that reason, and as I have noted, the misconceptions that feminism has
worked to remove have for the most part been those that have concealed the
fact of women™s equality with men, misconceptions that have falsely portrayed
women as different from men in ways that have prevented women from making
a success of their lives.5 Once it was thought that women should be wives and
mothers because they lacked the capacity to make a success of the kind of tasks
that men perform in the job market and of the lives in which such tasks play
a de¬ning role. Feminists have shown that women are as capable as men of
participating in the job market and as interested in doing so, and conversely,
that women are often denied successful lives by their inability to participate
in the job market on the same basis as men. More broadly, where once it was
thought that women were un¬t for a wide range of tasks, because they were
passive, or vulnerable, or irrational, or incompetent, feminists have shown that
women are as enterprising, as hardy, as rational, and as competent as men, and
that for many women success in life depends upon recognition of this. The list
of such misconceptions of what it means to be a woman, and of their correction
through proof of women™s equality with men, is long and likely to get longer,
for in many respects, those that we have yet to acknowledge as well as those
that we have already recognized, there is simply no difference between men
and women. We share ambitions, we share capacities, and we share certain
conceptions of what constitutes a successful life, the kind of life that men now
lead and that a comprehensive misconception of what it means to be a woman
has until recently denied to women.
Ironically, however, endorsement of the very conception of a successful
life that men subscribe to, either that now dominant in our culture or some
replacement for it, and proof of women™s capacity to conform to that conception,
where comprehensively engaged in by women as the exclusive strategy of
feminism, necessarily reduces the number of conceptions of a successful life
available in our culture. It makes capacity to conform to the surviving, sex-
neutral conception of a successful life critical to the success of any life in that
culture, be it a woman™s or a man™s. As I have said, for some women, and
perhaps for a great many, who share men™s conception of what constitutes a

5 See Chapter 7, at notes 7 and 8 and the accompanying text.
II. Where Difference Matters 199

successful life and who possess the capacity to conform to it, this reduction in
options is no disadvantage. On the contrary, proof that they are as capable as
men of conforming to the dominant conception of a successful life is essential
to ending their disadvantage. For such women, recognition of their equality
with men is the key to a successful life, for the simple reason that a successful
life for them is no different from a successful life for men.
For other women, however, the reduction in the number of conceptions of
a successful life that would follow from the endorsement of the same con-
ception that men subscribe to, and more profoundly, that would follow from
the conception of sexual identity that would explain and justify that reduction,
would actually con¬rm if not compound the disadvantage they now experience
as women. When and if a culture overlooks the existence of genuine differ-
ences between men and women, which are not only relevant to that culture but
critical to the success of at least some women™s lives, it necessarily disadvan-
tages women. Insistence upon the equality of women™s experience with that of
men is justi¬ed in many respects, as I have said, but not in all respects, or for
all women. In short, and as a genuinely pluralistic society should acknowledge,
the recognition of sexual difference and its re¬‚ection in our social forms and
practices is almost certainly necessary to the success of some women™s lives.
If that is true of at least some women in some respects, then equality in those
respects is to be avoided as much as difference is to be sought, for where access
to a successful life depends upon recognition of capacities that are sex-speci¬c,
insistence upon equality will produce rather than remove sexual disadvantage.
The list of sex-speci¬c differences in capacity, and of the misconceptions that
conceal them, be they conceptions of equality or conceptions of difference that
mistake its character, is likely to be as long as the list of unrecognized sexual
equalities, for in many respects, those we have yet to acknowledge as well as
those we have already recognized, there are signi¬cant differences between
men and women, which make the fact of their sex matter to women. It is neither
my place nor my purpose to attempt to draw up a list of the real and relevant dif-
ferences between men and women. I have no special insight into such matters
and it would be presumptuous of me to dwell on them. Nevertheless, I pro-
pose to examine brie¬‚y two popular and recurring candidates for any such list,
one biologically created and the other culturally created, in order to suggest
some of the practical implications of my argument.
To start with a biologically created difference: the capacity to bear children
is, ¬rst, unique to women; second, valuable; third, relevant to this and indeed
any other culture; and, ¬nally, critical to the success of many women™s lives.
It is valuable not simply because it ensures the survival of the human race,
although it does that, but because the act of bearing children and the acts of
fostering that go with it, only some of which can be shared by men, is in itself
a valuable activity, one that expresses valuable feelings and sustains valuable

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