How Different is Different?

Teleological thinking can get you into some terrible knots.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about and consuming a number of books, articles, podcasts etc about gender essentialism.  Roughly put, it is the idea that the sexes are naturally different and that difference has salient social implications.  Boys are better at math, girls like dolls, boys like guns, girls are empathetic…  Usually when I get such gross generalizations from my students I dismiss it with a note that they ought to avoid sexism and move on.  After all, I still largely stand by the argument put forward by John Stuart Mill in the middle of the nineteenth century that even if there are sexual differences that erupt into the realm of the social, there is no way that we could possibly determine what those differences are or what force they have given the fact that we are so socially overdetermined as to render it impossible to disentangle the gender roles from the biological, sexual differences.  (OK, those are my words, not Mill’s, but you get the idea.)

And he was fun at parties too!

In this sense, I am a liberal.  The only way we can discover what the actual effects that biological differences have on us is to make a society that is totally equitable and then, perhaps, we can see what we can see.  What is most just is to ensure that people are not being unfairly oppressed and in our present society there is no way that we can discern whether or not women are being oppressed or if they simply are taking a social role dictated by nature.  Thus, let’s ensure that women have equal pay, equal access to education, equal rights as men… then, when that is achieved, we might be able to start to think about what role sexual differentiation has in personality, social organization, etc.  Only once we have equity can we begin to think about the fundamental justice behind sexual difference.

A further issue? Gender isn’t a polarity, but a spectrum

The thing is that we can’t refute that there are biological differences between males and females.  There is a growing body of more or less flawed evolutionary psychology that shows that the two sexes interact with and understand the world in different ways.  The real worry with most of these studies (for liberals like myself) is that whenever someone seems to discover a sexually based difference, it seems to reinforce a gendered vision of the world.  For instance, the much cited Baron Cohen study basically argues (or has been made to argue) that – from birth – boys are more interested in THINGS and girls are more interested in PEOPLE.

This man is Borat’s cousin.  Seriously.  Look it up… I’ll wait.

The problems with that particular study aside, the difficulty remains for a liberal like me, who takes Mill as his starting point; that is,  neuropyschology offers to do an end run around the arguments for equity.  It seems like if you can prove that sexual differences exist in the very neurons that make up the brain, then you don’t need to work for social equity in order to discover what is most just.

If women are by nature more interested in “people” then that explains long noted social phenomena (which are often, if not always, unique to a given society) like women being more verbose than men on a daily basis, but more importantly you can bar women from certain social roles – like the military – because they are “naturally” not inclined to it.

The thought is that if there is a natural difference, a natural aptitude for one thing and a disinclination for another, then social organization ought to be structured so as to encourage that one behaviour and discourage that other.  After all, that would be just.  We don’t try to make horses hunt, nor do we attach cats to pull ploughs.

In theory, this argument seems just – or at least to be a necessary modulation of Mill’s original argument.  Mill argues that we are working in ignorance regarding the actual differences of the sexes and there is no way to discern what those differences are until genuine equity is achieved.  Neuroscientists claim that we aren’t as ignorant anymore as we were, so we can start making some conclusions now.

In both cases there is, however, an appeal to telos that is uniquely unsettling: Mill doesn’t deny that there might be differences; Neuroscientists actually claim to have discovered sexual differences in apprehension and interaction with the world.  For both, what would be just to model our social system on what is naturally available to each sex – the natural tendencies and inclinations.  The neuroscientists claim that there should be an overhaul of the education system to accommodate these differences.

  • Boys should learn in competitive environments
  • Girls should be made to sit in classrooms
  • Boys should seek to physically interact with things
  • Girls should seek to understand their emotional relationship with concepts

What this quickly begins to look like is Aristotlean ethics.  To say a thing has a telos is to say that it has a goal or an end…. That it tends towards that goal or end.  The political system and social world of the state is a structure that allows for things to move towards that goal, if the political system is just.  If it is the case that, perhaps, neuroscientists discover that there is, for instance, an inherent violence within women, then that violence could be put to use in the state by pressing women into the military.  In that sense, the state would be helping women to develop their natural tendencies.  If, on the other hand, neuroscientists discover that women are naturally better at being mothers and nurturers, then…?

Then this becomes enforced by act of Parliament

Clearly the argument from telos falls apart upon close examination.  Even if most boys are more physically active than most girls, and even if that difference is “in the genes,” it is neither just nor right to prevent girls from exercising to keep them from achieving their telos or natural goal.  I’m not willing to go so far as to say that we should adopt a Kantian perspective and value each person for their own ends.  Kant brings in a raft of problems that I can’t abide either.

Now, I don’t hate Aristotle.  Indeed, when I was younger, I really relished Aristotle’s clarity and concision as a philosopher (Still do), and I thought the Nicomachean Ethics was and is one of the greatest books ever written.  Still, it does imply a radically sexist vision of the world.  Teleological ethics as a whole tends to be sexist… unless you change the terms of the argument.

What do I mean by that?

In Buddhist thought, our existence is an opportunity to achieve awakening (however you define “awakening” is another matter entirely).  The goal, whether you are male or female, is to achieve awakening.  Any goal that is dependent on the aggregates (in this case the tendencies enabled through sexual difference) is a distraction, really.

In this world view, sexual difference and gender difference are immaterial to the real goal of awakening.  A just society is a society that allows for individuals to seek awakening as free and independent beings.  That is why, I guess, as much as I am a liberal in the spirit of Mill, I am very much a Buddhist.  Even if there are differences between the sexes and the way they interact with the world… it doesn’t matter.  The only thing that matters is that the world should be organized equitably, such that free beings can choose to seek to know.

Right, that was a ramble.  Here are some links.  Have a good night all!


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