This is a difficult subject to write about in the current climate. Partly because gender relations are always fraught with tensions, but especially because there is a good deal of disagreement and general confusion about what sex and gender are, how they are related, and what follows.
So first things first – an understanding of the terms. Then, an overview of the main intellectual trends behind the change in meaning, best seen in the development of the feminist movement, through its four waves.
Along with basic facts and common sense, and in contrast to contemporary ways of thinking, I’ll argue that there are male and female natures, sex and gender are intimately related, and the tendencies of each deserve the utmost respect of the other. I’ll then consider potential implications for social relations and the relevant domains of public policy.
What is Sex and what is Gender?
Sex: “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions (emphasis added).”
Gender: “either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. The term is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female.”
The standard way of thinking about it is that males (sex) are men (gender), and females (sex) are women (gender).
The recent move has been both a) to redefine and broaden the definitions of sex and gender and b) to decouple the link between the two.
It is now argued by some that sex is not a simple category as there are very small, but numerous variations in the specific mix of hormones and chromosomes among individual members of any particular sex. If we pay especial attention to micro variations in the physiological component parts that are key elements in the standard definition of sex, then the category can be expanded while simultaneously made less precise.
The same is true with spectrums of colour, types of plants and animals – any classificatory system in fact. Depending on what you choose to pick out as relevant criteria upon which to base a distinction, more or less vague boundaries can be established.
Another claim is that gender is defined primarily by the socially constructed roles that members of either sex (or members who ‘identify’ as either sex) exhibit in a particular society. It is also claimed that gender is more weakly linked to sex than previously thought, and that a person may choose his or her gender for any number of reasons. Furthermore, the behaviours and ‘social roles’ that members of either sex or gender ‘perform’ are said to be very fluid, and can – and often should – be changed to something new and better.
Intellectually, the roots of these distinctions are found in Feminist theory (of which there are many sub-fields) and Gender studies, though this way of thinking is now also widespread among psychologists and social scientists, as well as the general public.
Waves of Feminism
It is common to reference feminism in terms of waves. Oversimplifying, first-wave feminism has its roots in the 19th century, and was preoccupied primarily with suffrage and the attainment of basic primary rights, including property and equal treatment under the rule of law. Second-wave feminism focused on problems in the areas of sexuality and family and the workplace. Activists advocated for new divorce rights, reproductive rights, and called attention to violence in the home, and discrimination and unfair hiring practices in the workplace.
Third and fourth-wave feminism originated primarily in the United States and have since migrated elsewhere. Third-wave feminists challenge the idea that there is such a thing as a feminine nature, and look to include different cultural perspectives on femininity. Fourth-wave feminism is decidedly post-structural and postmodern, challenging even further the notions that there are such clear boundaries around sex and gender, and focusing on sexual violence and harassment in the workplace and on social media. The many hashtag movements that have sprung up in recent years – most famously #MeToo – are fourth wave movements.
The first and second-wave movements affirm the reality of sex and gender, and were aimed at equalizing very specific treatments between the sexes and removing pathological problems. Albeit, problems that could only be thought of as pathological in light of changing technological and economic circumstances that enabled mobility and choice, and thus the opportunity for more people to engage in a wider variety of pursuits.
The third and fourth wave movements are more opposed to sex/gender differences per se, as they see these as the source of sex- and gender-specific problems that exist everywhere in varying form and degree. The move is to try to avoid those problems by equalizing and levelling down difference and distinction, and bringing masculinity and femininity closer together by feminizing men, masculinizing women, or some altogether new and alternative reconceptualization.
Like most progressive movements, there is much that is laudable in the motivations, and far less in the logic and proposals. The intellectual underpinnings of these trends – many of which are found in philosophy – are thus a good place to look to understand the positions that many people hold unconsciously as part of their worldview – both personal and political.
What makes a Feminist from a Theoretical perspective?
Philosophy often deals with ‘meta-level’, or reflective questions about its subject matter. For example, if we think about carpentry, there is a carpenter, a set of tools, materials, and an end product. Doing philosophy involves asking reflective questions about the different elements in this equation.
On the other hand, science and practical activity towards a certain end bracket reflective questions; scientists work from within a set of assumptions to further understand phenomena in the particular object domain in question, and anyone engaged in a practical activity is focused on the specific task at hand.
A carpenter makes a good cabinet when she uses her tools to create something that is judged to be good according to the appropriate standards – aesthetic and functional depending on the circumstances.
In the case of intellectual understanding and theorizing, we need to examine the tools, the user, and the material in order to find out whether or not the end product is good. In our case, the material is information about sex and gender, and the tools are the methods of inference and reasoning that we use to understand them. The end product is the theory.
People ‘know’ in different ways
Feminist epistemology (the study of knowledge) is concerned with the ways in which the user impacts the use of the tools (who does the thinking and how) and thus the end product (the knowledge produced). Or in other words – the ways in which sex and gender characteristics impact the creation of knowledge.
The principle epistemological claim common to all feminist theorizing is that ‘knowledge is situated’ – the perspective of the knower is a significant variable in determining what the end product of any intellectual inquiry, or practical activity turns out to be.
The central idea here is that observation and consequently knowledge development is impacted by natural and social factors. Observation is biased by the ‘theoretical apparatus’ (or just habits of thinking and perceiving) that the knower brings to bear on the world – this apparatus is informed by natural and socially caused differences in male/female interest, cognitive structure, hormones, social roles, and so on and so forth.
Since the acquisition of theoretical knowledge in many fields, and practical knowledge in different walks of life has been marked by a gendered divide, feminists question theories in the natural and social sciences, ethics, everyday social norms and customs on the basis that they reflect a perniciously biased perspective. In order to get clear about the validity of our theories, social practices and norms, we ought to incorporate the feminine/ist perspective.
There is obvious truth to the claim that there are differences in interest, styles and methods of inquiry, as well as theories about a whole range of issues, and that these are informed by sex and gender. It is quite another to say that because of this, different perspectives have logical or empirical validity in general, or aesthetic or moral value in themselves.
This is the problem with pointing out bias – nothing follows from recognizing that it exists. In fact, ‘bias’ is simply a necessary feature of our cognitive and perceptual apparatus – we must think according to certain principles, and perceive selectively. In order to act, we have to structure our behaviour in accordance with certain principles, and towards specific ends. To experience the world with our five senses, we must ignore a great deal of our peripheral sensory experience, and focus on details. This is true of all five senses – visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and somatosensory perception. I may approach the world from a different angle, be interested in different things, and pose different types of questions. This does not render any of the outcomes invalid or invaluable, nor does it preclude understanding among people of different personality types, sexes, gender, or cultures. Not in the slightest.
Yet, the discourse today seems to assume that the truth of a perspective, or the value of a norm or cultural product is contingent on its having been produced by a group with members that are representative of whatever the salient categories of the moment happen to be.
First and second-wave feminisms were concerned with balanced representation along the male/female group divide, but third and fourth wave movements incorporate many other social categories into the equation, sometimes called an ‘intersectional’ approach.
Neither of these approaches recognize the naturalness or goodness associated with an approach that sees difference as complimentary, but the particular configuration is more vehemently opposed to it.
Thus, the cultural preoccupation with associating judgment and the value of any number of things with a ‘diversity’ of group representation.
It would seem that progressivism naturally tends in this direction, concerned as it is by default with valuing and defending anything that is outside of a norm, or lacks a certain kind of power or standing in a hierarchical order – ‘marginal’, ‘minority’, and non-mainstream views must be defended in the name of inclusion, and material and status equality.
However, it is really the difference in starting assumptions that is the product of an evolution in thought that prefers the subjective over the objective, expressiveness over consideration, and feelings over common sense reason. It is to this point that we must turn.
Today in practice, the project to validate anything and everything ‘authentically’ expressed is made theoretically tenable by a project that has had as its sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious goal – a change in the meaning of words.
A feat that has been accomplished by rendering words and terms more vague, so that more things may be included under the umbrella of the concept in question, and thus be assigned an equal value.
The Meaning of words – precision vs. vagueness
To summarize, the feminist starting point is that knowledge is situated, our theories have been informed by bias, this has been to the exclusion of valid perspectives, and therefore more diversity or equality of representation in a whole host of domains is desirable. Seems pretty fair.
Something went awry when the emphasis on the relativity of truth to one’s perspective – defined increasingly as whatever you want it to be – began to take precedence and even supplant other considerations. The understanding of what is true in all its manifestations – logic, science, morality, aesthetics – is now the major premise that divides belligerents on either side of the debate about the differences between sex and gender.
There is a basic distinction between those defending a binary view of sex and/or gender, and those emphasizing plurality, social construction and weaker ties between the two – it is the understanding of the definition of concepts.
Sex and gender can be seen as concepts that are ‘sets’ containing ‘members’, based on the characteristics that define the set and therefore the individual entities classified within.
On the one hand, there are those who take a view of concepts as defined by either ‘necessary and sufficient conditions‘, or ‘prototypes‘. The former says that a concept is defined by a set of properties, the collection of which are necessary and sufficient for some particular thing to count as an example of the concept in question.
For instance, if we are dealing with sex, it is necessary that in order to be male, you must have one X and one Y chromosome. If a male has a phallus, then on the traditional and common sense view this is both necessary and sufficient for his belonging to the category ‘male’ because a) no one can be male without the possession of a phallus, and b) having one is enough (sufficient) to be considered a male.
Of course, this changes considerably when the definition is altered, and people can add and remove body parts as they choose. But IF the term is defined clearly with conditions that specify membership, then we can speak of necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging.
Prototype theory has its origins in psychology and was influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ theory of definitions in language. It is also popular in cognitive science and in the development of models of artificial intelligence.
On the prototype account, the definition of some concept is simply the most frequently cited properties of examples of particular things that could be said to fall under the category. It is thus mostly descriptive. You might be interested in learning how the term sex or gender has changed over time. You could conduct a search to see how and where a term is used to chart its evolution over time, and the core elements could then be used to create the prototypical definition of the concept.
The prototype theory has the benefit of being able to deal with tricky cases that the necessary and sufficient condition approach has more trouble with. This is mostly because practically speaking, the meaning of words simply is how they are used in our everyday lives.
Examples include artworks or music ‘created’ by Artificial intelligence – are they really beautiful if there is no intention, or creative act behind it? On the other hand, if it looks like art though, then why isn’t it art?
Is the definition of an organism that refers to the possession of physical attributes ‘correct’ in light of the ability to surgically amputate and reconstruct ligaments? On the other hand, isn’t it still the same thing in some way?
We would still likely want to call such ‘border’ cases examples of the concept or category that they naturally belong to, even though they do not if we adhere to the necessary and sufficient condition approach, strictly speaking.
Insofar as one adopts a prototype definition of concepts, or ties the definition of a term to criteria that are subjectively defined, then the specificity of the concept diminishes, and it can include more things under its domain.
Anne Fausto-Sterling became famous for thinking of sex as a concept that can be defined along a continuum, not in a binary fashion, and for arguing that gender roles and the behaviours associated with them are more strongly influenced by environmental factors.
Thus, the battle lines are drawn. The concepts we use to think about the entities in our world, and the relationships between them are motivated by radically different conceptions of, well, concepts.
Truth and value are intimately related to the ‘bias’ of the person, or they are independent of this. The difference in approach makes a difference for how we understand the concepts we use to describe things in our world.
Concepts are either definable according to a set of criteria that are identifiable and relatively clear, or they are the descriptive average of how the terms are used in practice, and these can be changed depending on how people feel about them.
These starting premises produce very different understandings of sex and gender, and the relationship between them.
Sex and Gender can be defined in many ways, but what follows?
As we saw at the outset, the contemporary secular and progressive mindset and movements associated with it – though certainly not monoliths – are in large part set on eliminating boundaries in the conceptualization of sex and gender and the relationship between them. This runs the gamut from simple definitions of sex, to gender expression, norms of behaviour, you name it.
My claim is that the issue of the definition of sex and gender has both descriptive and normative components. That is to say, it includes factual criteria pertaining to physiology and genetics, as well as evaluative criteria, meaning something that refers to a judgment about value.
In no way is this a novel thing to do. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not controversial and is something true of all scientific theories, even though many scientists will claim that their theories are ‘value neutral’.
We are free to define things however we please because of this, but that doesn’t mean that the definitions we create, or what follows from them make much sense in light of other considerations.
In terms of the relationship between a person’s sex and the physiological factors associated with it and its phenotypic expression, it is clear that ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ are both at work – there is considerable genetic influence on phenotypic expression, both directly through impact on physiology, and psychological development, as well as indirectly through genetic influence on environmental selection. In other words, one’s genetic makeup influences the environment that a person exposes him or herself to, and thus indirectly affects the ‘environmental’ causal variable in the determination of behaviour. There is also clearly a great many of non-genetic factors that influence behaviour and personality.
It is also plain that there is considerable variation in the way in which humans express themselves, the makeup of their beliefs, and the practices that they engage in. This changes over time, and across cultures. The fact of variability has some, but not too much of an implication for answering the question of which behaviours and beliefs have value, that is another matter.
Here is where things get tricky because we are no longer in the realm of what many take to be ‘purely’ descriptive science to the realm of the evaluation of behaviour.
We might rightly ask – if sex and gender definitions, roles, behaviours and the values ascribed to them are socially constructed, then what kind of status do they have?
It is descriptively true that arguments associated with naturalism, atheism, and progressive politics assume that behaviours associated with a persons’s sex and/or gender ‘identity’ have value insofar as they are the undistorted free expression of the individual in question. Though, if you ask someone why they think that expression or choice has this value, they will likely give different responses.
Why is Authentic Expression Good?
An affirmative response to the aforementioned question is supported by either naturalistic arguments suggesting the biological determination of behaviour, or by an emphasis on environmental causal factors.
In the case of the former, it is argued that since the behaviours are naturally caused and are therefore valid due to their inevitability, then it is normal, or good to pursue them. It is sometimes also claimed that due to the strength of these natural causes, it would be harmful to repress them.
Nature is not destiny
The naturalistic case does not do much to support the idea that behaviours have value simply because there are genetic influences and correlations underlying a given pattern of action. Even behaviours with the highest level of correlational genetic influence, do not cause or compel individuals to act in such ways. It is just the case that ceteris paribus, those behaviours will tend to manifest themselves in people with a particular makeup. In short, they are simply more likely. The relationship between genetics and behaviour is probabilistic, not deterministic.
The takeaway here is that if there isn’t full determinism, then behaviours are not inevitable.
A second, and unrelated point is that naturalness does not equal value. There are all sorts of behaviours that are ‘natural’ in that they seem to have always been practiced by some group of people throughout history, and we can certainly describe and detail the genetic correlations that underlie them. Yet, this has nothing to do with their value.
The whole host of constants in human societies in the past could be called ‘natural’ and we could tell a story about how such and such physiological properties make them so. This does not imply that any of them are inevitable, that the extent to which they are or aren’t practiced a foregone conclusion.
Take violent behaviour, for example. From the fact that there have always been violent people, we do not conclude that such individuals are compelled from birth to act in this way (though there are many intellectuals who do wish to defend such a view and reform the penal system accordingly – some sort of ‘no fault’ system). We rightly assess whether or not a person could have acted otherwise in particular circumstances, or whether they have passed a point of no return, so to speak, in that their habits have formed to such an extent that it is practically impossible to overcome and reform certain tendencies.
Though I don’t believe this to be completely true, it is at least the case that considerable time, effort and resources would need to be marshalled to effect such a change.
Authentic Expression is not the good, but a component thereof
If, on the other hand, the emphasis is placed on environmental factors, the argument cannot point to the genetic and psychological makeup of a person as a justification for the value of a behaviour. This is why it is sometimes argued that though gender expression, behaviour, and erotic interest are not purely or mostly naturally caused, they are still valid and have inherent value because when they are freely chosen by individuals (undistorted by pressures such as traumas or repressive/oppressive cultural norms), they are thus the authentic expression of something deep within.
There may be a greater variety of what from a traditional perspective would be considered alternative expressions of gender and erotic preference due to a cultural insistence on expression as the ultimate source of value, and to major changes in the male/female dynamic of interaction. This, coupled with the fact that authentic expression has come to dominate the cultural landscape in the West, a plethora of niche interests, identities, and lifestyles, and even niches within niches have sprung up. Indeed, it has even become normative that one take up such a ‘unique’ approach to one’s life, as this is seen as an embodiment of the value of authenticity and self-determination.
In spite of its seductiveness, the justification of such a view cannot get off the ground from a logical perspective, nor does the expressivist view constitute a richer quality of life.
If expression is the source of value, then we must ask what it is about it that is good. We can only say that free expression, like freedom writ large, is the precondition of right, or even good, fulfilling action. If actions are coerced, or if they are done from too much ignorance, then they cannot attain a higher or fuller level of goodness. This is because one of the ingredients in all that is valuable is that the intention of the agent is involved, and is so in the right way. This is not the whole story by any stretch of the imagination, but a key element – as I say, a precondition.
On the expressivist view, the highest source of value ends up being the pursuit of ever more refined individuation because the more one cultivates unique and personalized lifestyle choices, the more one is in line with the ultimate source of value – the expression of the ‘inner’. Thus, the pursuit of uniqueness and difference for the sake of itself – a goal that is empty because it is not self-sufficient.
The pursuit of that which is unique and novel, and the cultivation of self-expression and a lifestyle in keeping with this is laudable and commendable when done well, but for entirely other reasons. Those reasons are that to stand out takes a great deal of courage, perseverance, ingenuity and wit, attentiveness to one’s self and those around you.
But the goals in which these personal attributes are cultivated is what gives a practice its value – not in a black and white, yes or no kind of way, but in a way that is characterized along a spectrum of narrowness and fulness. One may exhibit personal virtues in the pursuit of an unworthy goal. This is better than badly pursued unworthy goals, but not the pursuit of a worthy goal via right means.
To give an illustration, we all know that musicians and artists sometimes lead sad and degenerate lives, but nonetheless create beautiful works of art. The artworks are still great, but the lives are not. We may take a kind of vicarious pleasure in witnessing their rebelliousness, but I do not think we would wish to live it.
This is because we implicitly recognize a hierarchy of value in the world, though we may explicitly reject it in today’s day and age. Those musicians are pursuing the wrong thing in the grander scheme of things, and they have clung to their art form as the sole thing into which they pour their talents and efforts, in order to create something beautiful in a life that is otherwise sad and empty.
The problem is one characteristic of modern and postmodern philosophy, worldviews and lifestyles – that of reducing the landscape of knowledge, reality and value to a simple formula. In this case, the modern expressivist – in pursuit of the self-determined ‘unique’ lifestyle that answers the call of the hidden depths of the psyche – ignores the content of action, and the goals that they are in service of. The formula here is that whatever is different, new, unique and expressive is good, irrespective of other considerations.
‘You just do you’, as they say.
Sex is Biological and Binary, and Sex and Gender are intimately aligned
Although I have framed the difference between types of definition as a choice, there is much more truth and usefulness in the one over the other.
Prototypes don’t capture reality, only descriptive slices of it
‘Prototype’ definitions that suggest that there is a continuum of variation among members of a particular sex fail to recognize that particular differences in individual persons – manifested in gender expression – are not essential differences, but contingent ones. Variations in gender expression or identity are differences in individuals that are developed and borne out over time within the higher order class of a person as male or female. In no way do these differences suggest that there is any real decoupling between sex and gender.
Just as we may speak of a person who uses their hands for fighting, their intellect for calculation and manipulation, their sensitive appetites for greed, lust or excessive indulgence in food and drink, so too do we speak of a person’s sex and the way they represent it in normative terms, in light of that sexual nature. If we are talking about what sex is essentially, and how gender expression is intimately related to it – rather than how people might feel about these things, act upon, or attempt to modify them through surgical amputations and drug use – then there is no loose relation and separation, but a deep intimacy.
Definitions comprise actuality, range of potential, and normativity
There is an understanding of necessity and sufficiency that applies it only empirically to a description of the existing members in a set at a given time as the basis of its definitions. But this method fails to account for what is latently contained as potential in all possible members of a set, as defined by those essential common features that mark out the class of objects as being what they are, and distinct from others – as a whole.
Necessary and sufficient definitions of essence: definitions that refer to the potential (descriptive and normative) development of a particular class of thing accurately grasp what is essential to that class of beings.
We ought to understand sex as an inseparable accidental feature of human nature – that is to say it is a contingent feature of every person that they are male or female, but essential to human nature that every person is either male or female. Sex is defined by reproductive capacity, which is determined at fertilization and denoted by the presence of chromosomes.
When it comes to gender expression and behaviour, it is obvious that in a sexually reproductive species, the sexes are complimentary in their difference as it pertains to sexuality, and in the many other forms of interaction impacted by sex. We ought to understand the relationship of gender expression to sex as one informed by complementarity.
The question of whether there is a ‘natural’ form of behaviour that is particular to each sex is answered as follows. There is an in-built potential to exhibit behaviour that is in accord with the differences in sexual nature, but this is not manifest in every male or female person in the same way, in actuality. However, the range of behaviour that is conducive to the flourishing of a member of either sex is constrained by that nature, something which is made up of both the particular features of a person, and the range of potential into which they can develop.
A person may be raised outside of the ambit of civilization, under circumstances of material, maternal and paternal, or social deprivation. They may not think that they are a human, male or female, or understand certain behaviours and beliefs to be good and true, but in no way does this undermine the idea that there is a human nature that can be grasped and ought to be pursued. That nature is the range of potential that a person has to work within, in order to develop character, and live in a way that that is conducive to their own flourishing, and that of humanity writ large.
Contradiction at the heart of Contemporary Feminism and ‘Identity’ movements
How does this all tie back into feminism? Well, like the expressivist tendency described above, the contemporary feminist is in denial of human nature, of her own nature, as well as that of men. All the more, she denies that there are good things about either of those natures, and that the pursuit of such normative male or female natures is a key part in the attainment of human flourishing, and therefore happiness.
The movement is self-contradictory because it is based on the idea that there are differences that warrant special consideration, yet it now denies that there are in fact such differences, or if there are, they should be eliminated or compensated for – something that cannot be done without penalizing others. Ironically, these ‘others’ (men, or non-conforming women) are in the same boat – they too are people without natures, whose behaviour should be shaped and moulded into something new and utopian.
What about Variation and Change?
One might argue that there is in fact a strong link between natural characteristics associated with sex and gender expression and identity, but just much more variation than traditionally conceived.
Ok, if so, then why all the fuss about equal representation and changing behaviours to fit alternative standards? This view would necessarily preclude that kind of goal, because it implicitly recognizes that variation in behaviour is conditioned by physical and psychological differences.
If men and women’s differences need special attention and recognition under the rule of law, in the workplace, and in public and private lives, then the variations exist as either mostly naturally or socially caused. If they are mostly socially caused, then the policies that result must be aimed at some new goal, presumably wherein differences in behaviour are levelled down, or fused into some new type of androgynous, amorphous human subject.
Yet, this is not what feminists advocate for. Instead, they fight so desperately for the right to behave like men. Sometimes this is for the ‘good’ traits that men exhibit, but more often it is not. Women should be free and are encouraged to engage in disinterested sex, to be dominant and assertive, and don’t forget lewd and crude.
These are things that have always been viewed as male vices by reasonable, mature people in spite of the revisionist feminist history set to undermine it. These are things that the various ideals of masculinity have always disavowed, and are still things that men ought to struggle to overcome.
Since feminist and gender theorist approaches to sex and gender deny the validity of typically male and female behaviour, they are repeatedly engaged in denouncing perfectly normal activity that both sexes frequently engage in.
Mothering, caring, modesty, hopefulness, faith, warmth, kindness, and gentleness are all routinely denounced among women, and, well, as we all know, most male behaviour is simply ‘toxic’.
To be fair, a starting premise that the feminists begin with is that it is difference itself that causes most bad things – discrimination, racism, sexism, etc.
Though not an unwarranted hypothesis, this is really mistaking a correlation for causation. Yes, differences are associated with harmful treatment of different groups of people, but this is a) a tautology – of course difference will in some cases constitute a reason for mistreatment, but b) it is not the actual cause of the harmful treatment. The latter are multiform and various. It is never the case that someone is considered lesser because of the fact that they tick off a box in a category, but because of the assumed/real behaviours and beliefs associated with that category of person, rightly or wrongly.
It is sometimes argued that natural differences should be eliminated via genetic modification, or pharmaceutical supplements. We might rightly ask what goal these modifications are in service of. Is it assumed that life will be better if people are made to possess more of some hormone, or chemical balance in their bodies?
Obviously, there is an extent to which developments aimed at remedying some natural problem contribute to higher levels of well-being. Yet, just as measures of human well-being have increased in some ways with the rise of economic growth, advances in technology and medicine institutional and ideological developments, there is a real sense in which these things only enable better outcomes, but do not in themselves constitute them.
A mutant, a biologically enhanced superhuman, a Nietzschean ubermensch, or one of the ideals of the increasingly popular tech and futurist enthusiasts – the ‘transhuman’ – would represent a mere increase in a certain kind of potential. Yet, this potential would remain unactualized until such a person (or we might worry, ‘thing’) made something of itself. Only then would we be able to speak in evaluative terms.
This is simply because almost all value in human affairs is the result of action – not of the possession of certain things, features, or status.
Policy Implications of Feminist and Gender Theoretical Thinking
Where does that leave us? It is unclear at the moment.
It seems that attempts to ‘increase representation’ of women in certain fields backfires for the above-mentioned reasons. There is both logic that I have been trying to spell out, and evidence of failed attempts to equalize the gendered distribution in different professions. These have been replicated time and again, lending empirical evidence to what should be just common sense.
In high-income Western countries with the longest history of gender equality laws, egalitarian social movements, and proportional ratios of male:female representation in jobs, the greater the gender disparity in particular professions. Insofar as the country is more culturally gender egalitarian – as well as in its policies – the gender disparity in job and lifestyle choice increases.
Researchers hypothesize that this is due to the fact that the equalization of certain things means that individuals have more freedom to act on the basis of their well-informed preference.
Since sex differences are real, this manifests itself in different choices. No surprise.
People move into various social situations, professions, and develop interests in circumstances wherein they can express their personality traits without too much restraint – hence, more men moving away from university and certain fields of study because of political correctness and number of women in the field. Just as women never ventured into the workforce and certain professions until the 19th century – a development made possible by changes in technological capacity and increases in wealth.
The move to ‘increase representation’ in a host of fields will have the same effects that concentration of males or whatever group in question has at present – there is a majority/minority dynamic that makes minorities less likely to apply and stay in occupations with certain types of people, and groups. This is not ‘discrimination’, but a basic dynamic at play in all kinds of settings where norms and averages discourage most of those who do not possess those average traits from entering into the domain in question. There isn’t a remedy for this, nor should we think of it as something that needs remedying.
Unfortunately, all of this has to play itself out. People are already becoming dissatisfied with many of the progressive ideals of today, just as they did after the loosening of mores in the 60s and 70s – it will take time for this generation to grow out of its infantile infatuation with trends: non-committal relationships are deeply unsatisfying both personally and morally. Neither is being especially mediocre in all that you do – nothing is more boring and dehumanizing than levelling down your preferences and behaviours in order to accommodate all differences.
It is a great irony that if you look at those fields of study, organizations and professions with a dominant female majority, you find many of the traditionally feminine virtues – cooperativeness, empathy, care for the most vulnerable members of the group, the expression of joy and positivity, the cultivation of relationships, as well as the ‘vices’ – excessive emotionality, hysteria, cattiness, gossip, and an aversion to abstraction, and thinking of things as systems and mechanisms with component parts. Don’t forget the love of tools!
What I would argue is that a) there are differences in the way people think, b) these will track broadly naturally and socially defined ‘groups’, c) these differences in approach are suited to particular domains of inquiry and human practices, and d) people should be left to pursue the things that suit them in the ways that suit them, regardless of ‘group’ balance.
I recognize that it is a great irony to give a detailed theoretical explanation and intellectual defence of what should be ‘Captain Obvious’ statements. But we live in an upside down world where common sense and plain facts are hidden beneath a thick cloud of subjectivism and sentimentality in which the only thing that we can be certain of is that if someone is upset by something it will be defended, and if they are pleased by it in some superficial way, it will be considered ‘good’.
The policy approach I hope will get some traction in the coming years is a bi-partisan marriage between the values of liberality and those of restraint. Because of this combination, such an approach may be able to garner support across the aisle.
The idea (likely not novel) is to legalize all kinds of behaviours that have been socially taboo – from personal relationships to drug consumption. Indeed, both right and left already have their own versions of liberality and constraint – the left is moving to decriminalize and legalize more drugs, and the right thinks people should be able to buy whatever they like, and say whatever they like.
This liberality is to be combined with a significant reduction in support through government funding via subsidies, welfare and support programs, tax credits, and the like.
In this way, people may do as they please, but receive no support for the harmful consequences that their behaviours produce. Nor shall they force others to pay for their problems through taxation.
Ideally – as it has before – civil society will strengthen because of this. Families and communities will step in where the ministries that aimed at increasing – but ended up decreasing – independence once did.