sexism and the equality of persons

This post at Overcoming Bias caught my eye the other day: I Am Sexist

Basically, Robin Hanson points out that a common definition and usage of “sexism” – having a “belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than the other” is flawed. It makes scientific observation of the differences between genders “sexist” and therefore politically incorrect even where such study is legitimate. It also isn’t naturally applied to instances of claiming that one gender is superior to another in some way. This leads to the possibly objectionable result that women’s superior qualities may be reported and celebrated, while the reporting of  men’s superior qualities tends to be criticized as “sexist.”

But it’s easy to see where this flawed definition of sexism came from – the widely shared intuition that there is some respect in which all persons are equal. The definition goes astray in suggesting that something like “competence” is how we are all equal. Clearly some humans are incompetent. And no other capacity or ability can or should ground our equality. After all, we may always find new evidence that men and women are not alike in various capacities and abilities. And suggesting that intelligence (or athletic ability, or typing speed, etc.) is the most morally important trait would – dangerously – suggest that society should be ordered in an inegalitarian fashion, along that dimension only.

To make a long story very short, the best explanation of sexism actually comes from people like Peter Singer who are interested in speciesism. Speciesism holds that moral beings do not have any greater or lesser moral value simply on account of their species, and that the interests of all sentient beings must be given equal moral consideration. Yet, speciesism does not hold that we must treat all sentient beings in the same way because any given being’s interests may be outweighed by another’s, depending on the circumstances. The interests of humans will often outweigh the interests of non-human animals because humans typically have other capacities (memory, life planning, close relationships, language) that make their interests in certain outcomes stronger or weightier than those of the non-human animals.

Sexism can and should be explained in much the same way. Humans do not have any greater or lesser moral value simply on account of their gender, and the interests of all genders must be given moral consideration. But there is nothing incompatible between this and recognizing the possible or actual differences between genders.

Here’s an example that the professor I TA for often uses: imagine you are in charge of hiring firefighters, and both men and women have applied. Men are, in general, are stronger than women, and this gives you a reason to weight their interest in being firefighters more heavily than that of the female applicants. However, it is possible that some of the women are stronger than some of the men. To use gender as a proxy for strength is sexist, because it favors the interests of men when there is no relevant difference between a weak man and a strong woman. On the common definition, though, even admitting the difference in strength is sexist!

So, I agree that the definition is bad. Sexism is not about inferiority in terms of any ability or capacity. Rather, it’s supposed to describe a kind of violation against the equality of persons. But persons are only equal in a moral sense, and it’s rather difficult to pinpoint and explain. As such, I’m not hopeful that the dictionary is going to fix this anytime soon. Until then, let’s not let political correctness stand in the way of legitimate scientific inquiry into gender differences, or of giving credit where credit is due – whether that is to men, or to women.

2 Comments

  • That definition certainly outdated, but I don’t see how it is “political[ly] correct.” Really, the issue is about treatment, not belief, although your beliefs could certainly affect how you treat others. Women and men should be treated equally—given equal opportunity, equal pay for equal work, equal freedoms to and freedoms from.

    Acknowledges general aggregate differences, but there is a danger people often fall into of prescribing behavior or expectations based on a general aggregate difference. If a larger percentage of boys have upper body strength that’s greater than the percentage of girls who have upper body strength, some people assume that means if they need help moving chairs, they should ask only boys to help. The weak boys and the strong girls get the shaft here.

    And that happens all too often. People who cite research about the way “girls” (implying all girls) and “boys” (implying all boys) learn in support of single-sex education ignore completely that a significant minority of girls and boys are not typical for their gender and would benefit greatly from not being taught in ways that are supposedly better for their gender at large.

    If you are a girl who doesn’t like make-up or skirts or long hair, you will not be treated as well as other girls who do. If you are a boy who doesn’t like sports or cars or action movies, you will not be treated as well as other boys who do.

  • I agree with this point – “”The weak boys and the strong girls get the shaft here” – and was trying to make it myself: “To use gender as a proxy for strength is sexist, because it favors the interests of men when there is no relevant difference between a weak man and a strong woman.”

    But I don’t know this follows from a plausible understanding of sexism: “Women and men should be treated equally—given equal opportunity, equal pay for equal work, equal freedoms to and freedoms from.”

    Lumping together opportunity/rights and outcomes is not appropriate. They are of dramatically different kind. There is some moral reason to pay women the same as men. But ensuring equality of pay outcomes as a matter of legal right is not the way to go – it may infringe on employers’ rights, and even if you don’t think it does, such policies often have the unintended consequence of discouraging the employment of women at all. But this is a post for another time.

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