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of that distinction itself. To take the most obvious example of the difference
between the two usages, on the former way of speaking, women and men are
often equal to one another, indeed, are equal to one another in all respects in
which they cannot be distinguished from one another. On the latter way of
speaking, women and men cannot be equal, for to the extent that they are equal
they cannot be distinguished as women and men. In principle the two usages,
while distinct, might be coextensive in practice. However, that would be so only
if the sexes were entirely different and so never equal, an idea that is as im-
plausible as the idea, considered and rejected earlier, that the sexes are entirely
equal and so indistinguishable.
Two related consequences follow from these two understandings of what it
means to be a woman or a man. First, only women and men in the ¬rst sense are
people and thus can succeed or fail in life. Distinctions do not have lives, except
when spoken of metaphorically, and so are not subject to disadvantage in life.
Given that the inquiry into sex discrimination is an inquiry into the predicament
of people who are disadvantaged in life as the result of the way they have been
treated on the basis of their sex, it is an inquiry into the predicament of women
and men in the ¬rst sense (the sense in which they are people who are equal
in some respects, different in others), as the result of their treatment as women
and men in the second sense (the sense in which the sexes are different by
de¬nition). Second, and consequently, it is perfectly possible to understand
people correctly as people (and thus as women and men in the ¬rst sense) while
misunderstanding them as women or men (in the second, more precise sense).
This happens whenever we correctly attribute certain qualities to certain people
but then incorrectly attribute those qualities to the status of those people as
women or men. Whenever that is the case, one sex may be discriminated against
and the other not, depending on the damage that ¬‚ows from the misattribution.
Suppose, for example, that men are correctly understood to possess a certain
quality that women are incorrectly thought to lack. Such a misconception is
reciprocally mistaken, since maleness is mistakenly thought to include, and
III. Discrimination Without Comparison 15

femaleness to lack, a quality that does not in fact distinguish the sexes. But it is
not reciprocally damaging, and so is not reciprocally discriminatory, because
men (in the ¬rst sense, as people) have full access to the quality in question,
albeit under the wrong description, while women (again in the ¬rst sense) have
no access at all to that quality, not merely no access to it under their description
as women.14 As I suggested above, then, it follows that it is perfectly possible,
and indeed seems to be the case, 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 sex discrimination is one-sided in this
way, the remedy must be similarly one-sided, not reciprocal.
This is not to suggest that it is in any sense an easy matter to establish
the meaning of sexual identity or the nature of value, or to decide whether a
mistake about either amounts to discrimination. On the contrary, it is extremely
dif¬cult, as can be readily appreciated by attempting to consider, from this point
of view, the question of whether it would be discriminatory for the law to treat
as indecent the fact that a woman has appeared in public naked to the waist.
To answer that question one would have to know something about the meaning
of a woman™s nakedness, enough to know, perhaps, the extent to which bare
breasts are sexually freighted, whether as the result of their physical nature or
of cultural convention, and further, one would have to know the value (if any)
of public decency, and the extent to which (if at all) decency is undermined by
heavily sexually freighted conduct in public. Having determined (let us suppose)
that bare breasts are not sexually freighted, or that public decency is either not
valuable or not undermined by the exposure of bare breasts, one would then
have to determine whether the inability to appear in public naked to the waist,
as the result of a prevailing misconception of what it means to be a woman and
of the valuable activities to which a woman™s life might be directed, genuinely
disadvantages women. This would involve determining whether appearing in
public naked to the waist is not merely a valuable option, but one that is critical to
the success of at least some women™s lives.15 It would not be enough to establish,

14 I set to one side here the special and relatively rare cases in which it is possible to have access
to a quality only by acting under that description, as it may, for example, be possible to be gay
only by acting under the description of oneself as gay. It is a mistake to think that, if the damage
to women™s lives produced by sex discrimination is the consequence of women™s having been
forced to act under a false description of what it means to be a woman, then the success of
women™s lives must be dependent upon their acting under a true description of what it means to
be a woman. If women and men are to have successful lives, they must draw upon an accurate
understanding of themselves as the people they are, but in doing so they need not act under
the description of themselves as women and men, or indeed, and special cases aside, under any
description at all.
15 These conditions are widely thought to be met with regard to breast-feeding in public. Such
exposure of a bare breast is not sexually freighted and so should not offend public decency,
assuming that public decency is offended by heavily sexually freighted conduct in public. A
sense of public decency that was offended by breast-feeding in public, on the ground that bare
breasts are heavily sexually freighted, would be discriminatory, for such a sense of decency
16 the issues

as the court did in fact, the content of the community standard of tolerance, for it
is entirely possible that the community standard of tolerance is discriminatory,
although it happened not to be so in this case (or so we may assume).


IV. Comparison and Noncomparison
As I have said, all these are dif¬cult questions. And yet the alternatives, if less
dif¬cult, are less persuasive, for the reasons sketched in the ¬rst two sections.
One of the great attractions of an egalitarian approach to sex discrimination, for
example, is that it is straightforward and easy to apply. Women are entitled to
do whatever men are entitled to do. It is not necessary to know anything about
women, or about what is good for women, or about the nature of a successful
life and when it may be undermined, in order to pursue the equality of the
sexes. Straightforward though the egalitarian approach may be, however, it has
the unfortunate consequences outlined above. To commit ourselves to it would
be to commit ourselves to the destruction either of sexual difference or of all
that makes that difference matter.
However, to say that the questions raised by this alternative approach to sex
discrimination are dif¬cult, while true, is also somewhat misleading, for it is
to neglect the fact that in many respects they are extremely familiar questions.
It has long been a central function of antidiscrimination initiatives, and of the
feminist movements that have inspired and sustained them, to challenge the
prevailing picture of what women are and what they ought to do with their
lives. Admittedly, their analysis has almost invariably been couched in terms of
equality (and less commonly difference), and so has almost invariably been
comparative in character. But the impetus for those initiatives, with which
the analysis sits uncomfortably, has been noncomparative, for it has been to
challenge, and seek to dispel, a certain conception of what it means to be a
woman, in order to bring to an end the disadvantage that conception causes to
women. It is this need to ensure that women are able to lead successful lives that
determines whether ending discrimination is to be pursued through a strategy of
equality or a strategy of difference, and so explains the apparent opportunism
of sometimes pursuing one, sometimes the other strategy. What the apparent
opportunism reveals is that it is not in fact equality or difference themselves,
but an underlying, unarticulated sense of what it means for a woman to lead a
successful life, that establishes the particular conception of a woman™s life that
is to be pursued, which is then compared with the prevailing conception of a
man™s life and so determined to be equal or different.


not only involves a misconception of what it means to be a woman, but that misconception is
damaging to women, for the ability to breast-feed a child in public is critical to all those women
whose success in life depends upon the ability to reconcile parenthood and employment (or any
other life) outside the home.
IV. Comparison and Noncomparison 17

Still, to analyze sex discrimination in noncomparative terms seems not
merely unfamiliar but puzzling. Doesn™t discrimination always proceed by way
of a comparison? And isn™t that more than a coincidence of ends and means?
Isn™t comparison central to the idea of discrimination? Even when we move
from the idea of discrimination as wrongful and think of it in nonpejorative
terms, do we not discriminate when we compare one painting, or one movie,
or one form of cuisine, for example, to another and declare it better, whatever
the undiscriminating might think? The point goes beyond the earlier rejection
of equality and difference. Even if those comparisons are misguided ways of
understanding discrimination, isn™t discrimination dependent upon some kind
of comparison?
The short answer to these questions is that no form of discrimination is depen-
dent upon a comparison, although each can always be described in comparative
terms. Valuable forms of discrimination are those that enable the discriminat-
ing among us (or the discerning, as they are sometimes called) to perceive the
valuable qualities in certain options before them, such as goods, activities, or
even people. Such forms of discrimination involve the accurate perception of
the value latent in those options, which may be too obscure, or too recherch´ , e
for the undiscriminating to recognize. Perception of that value does not require
the discriminating to compare the worthy with the unworthy. On the contrary, it
is possible to know everything there is to know about the value of an option by
focusing entirely on its qualities. Comparison may provide the occasion for the
exercise of such discernment, but it is no part of it. Comparison merely makes
it possible to relate the valuable qualities already discerned in one option to the
valuable qualities in some other option, so as to bring out the contrast between
them. Value is the premise of such a contrast, not its product.
The same is true in reverse, when the issue is not valuable, but nonvaluable,
forms of discrimination. Nonvaluable forms of discrimination are those that
enable the discriminatory among us to neglect or suppress the valuable qualities
in certain options by presenting in their place an inaccurate, misconceived
picture of those options and of the value (and lack of value) latent in them. The
discriminatory (or the prejudiced, as they are sometimes called) reject high art
as elitist, or foreign ¬lms as pretentious, or vegetarian cuisine as rabbit food,
and so fail to recognize the value in those goods and their related activities,
typically perhaps because it appears to threaten the rather different values to
which they have committed their lives. In neglecting or suppressing the value
in these options the discriminatory need never compare the paintings, or the
¬lms, or the cuisine that they disdain with those that they admire. Here, too,
comparison may provide the occasion for lack of discernment, but it forms no
part of it.
Nonvaluable forms of discrimination are not merely nonvaluable but wrong-
ful if their effect is to deprive people of the ability to lead successful lives.
To neglect the value in a particular good or activity, in the manner described
18 the issues

in the previous paragraph, is by de¬nition nonvaluable, but it is not wrongful
unless the neglect undermines some person™s ability to lead a successful life,
for wrongfulness can be understood only in relation to human possibilities.
Goods and activities are not people, do not have lives to lead, and so cannot
be wronged. It is true that neglect may lead to a loss of value in the world, for
it may cause high art, or foreign ¬lms, or vegetarian cuisine to wither or even
disappear in a particular culture. Any such loss of value is unquestionably to be
regretted, but it is not in itself wrongful. It becomes wrongful when the effect
of the loss is to damage some person™s life. If the success of some person™s life
depends upon access to a valuable option that discrimination (or prejudice) has
rendered unavailable, then that discrimination is not merely nonvaluable but
wrongful.
The same is more clearly true where discrimination is applied to people
directly, rather than indirectly through the valuable options upon which those
people™s lives may depend for their success. If the discriminatory among us
(sometimes few of us, sometimes many, sometimes nearly all) do not merely
overlook the value in options that are critical to the success of at least some
women™s lives, but maintain an image of women themselves, say, as unaggres-
sive or unscienti¬c (to return to two misconceptions referred to earlier), and
then rely on that image as the basis for assigning goods and opportunities to
women, their discriminatory outlook and consequent discriminatory actions
are not only nonvaluable but wrongful, to the extent that they undermine some
women™s ability to pursue a successful life, as they almost certainly will.
The conclusion must be that if wrongful discrimination is nonvaluable dis-
crimination that has a critical impact on some person™s life (as is proposed),
and if nonvaluable discrimination is noncomparative in character (as I have
suggested it is), then wrongful discrimination is also noncomparative in char-
acter. Even were it the case, however, that any form of discrimination, valu-
able or nonvaluable, must proceed by way of comparison, it would not follow
that sex discrimination is comparative. Sex discrimination is wrongful, and its
wrongfulness is not comparative, but depends, as I have said, on the impact
of discrimination, and the misconception it embodies, on the success of some
person™s life, in this case the life of a woman. In other words, if wrongfulness
is noncomparative, then sex discrimination must also be noncomparative, for it
is the wrongfulness of sex discrimination that concerns us.
The wrong done to women in denying them successful lives is free-standing,
not derivative; it is absolute, not relative. Women should be able to lead suc-
cessful lives, not because men do, but because every person should. They would
be no less entitled to lead successful lives, no less entitled to protest at the mis-
conceptions that deny them such lives, if men™s lives were as unsuccessful and
as limited by misconceptions as theirs, so that no discrimination (in the com-
parative sense) was involved. The wrong done to women in such a case would
be the very wrong now done to them, merely extended to men as well. The fact
V. Equality, Difference, and the Ending of Roles 19

that the wrong of sex discrimination is one that is (and always has been) applied
selectively, to women, makes it tempting to think it is the selectivity that makes
it wrong, that it is wrong to deny women the good of a successful life because
that good is one that men enjoy. In fact, it is wrong to deny women the good of
a successful life whatever may happen to men.


V. Equality, Difference, and the Ending of Roles
It must be emphasized that it does not follow from the fact that comparative
approaches to discrimination mistake the nature of discrimination that they are
mistaken in their objects. I have already suggested that the impetus for such
approaches has been to challenge a certain conception of what it means to be a
woman. That challenge, as I have acknowledged, while not rooted in a compar-
ison, can always be expressed in comparative terms. It follows that to pursue a
policy of equality, for example, is to remedy sex discrimination whenever the
prevailing misconception of what it means to be a woman describes women
as different from men (explicitly or implicitly, directly or indirectly), when in
fact they are not. If and to the extent that women really are the same as men,
the pursuit of equality will also be the pursuit of a correct conception of what
it means to be a woman. What this reveals is that while it is true that a policy
of nondiscrimination is not a matter of equality or difference, it is also true
that such a policy may be well served by certain local and limited strategies of
equality and difference, provided that it does not mistake such means for its
ends.16
Strategic considerations aside, the other reason for comparative approaches
to discrimination, and of equality in particular, is historical and to some extent
speculative. We live in an age of autonomy, in which people are by and large
the authors of their own lives. This does not mean, of course, that people are
independent of one another, that they can conduct their lives without the in-
volvement and support of others. On the contrary, nearly all the valuable options
that we can pursue in life are entrenched in social forms that are created and
maintained by social practices, upon which we must draw, and to which we
must contribute, in order to lead successful lives. It does mean, however, that
the farmer™s child is free to pursue some life other than farming, if that suits
him or her, that the carpenter™s child is free not to be a carpenter, the tailor™s

16 It may make sense to legislate for equality, not because discrimination is a matter of inequality,
but because equality may be a good way of ending a species of discrimination that is not a matter
of inequality. For example, we may decide to prohibit sexual distinctions in certain settings, and
insist that men and women be treated alike, just because the distinction between men and women
is so often abused. We need only be careful that the equality that is thereby achieved does not
prevent recognition of genuine sexual differences that women need access to in order to lead
successful lives. Or at least, if it does so, that this is a price worth paying for the ending of
discrimination in the lives of other women.
20 the issues

child not to be a tailor, and so on. Or at least we believe that they should be free
in this sense, and seek to make them so, by developing our social forms and
practices in ways that embody such freedom of choice. As a consequence, our
sense of roles in life is weak, and our sense that certain people are and should
be committed to certain roles, by virtue of their birth, social station, or other
feature of their lives, is virtually nonexistent.
This was not always so, of course. Until quite recently, people for the most
part lived the lives that they were expected to live rather than the lives they

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