Philosophy: September 2008 Archives

Tests for Sexism

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With all the claims (some probably true and some probably not) of sexism in people's responses to Sarah Palin, I've been thinking about a common sort-of-intuitive quick test for sexism that I've been seeing a lot lately.

One kind of evidence for a claim that sexism is taking place involves asking whether the same question or comment would be said if it were a man. The idea is that it's sexism if no one would say the same thing of a man in the same position, which means the treatment is purely based on her being a woman. There's one obvious problem with this kind of test. I would be very unlikely to say that my friend John is in the women's room when he goes into a public restroom, but I might easily say it of my wife. That's clearly not sexism, though. So the proper test needs to distinguish between things that would be appropriate to say of a woman that you wouldn't say of a man. The issue then becomes which ways are appropriate to treat women differently from how you treat men. That, of course, is a matter of disagreement between various people, and thus this test is hardly independent of moral views. So measuring sexism this way depends on what your larger moral picture is.

For example, there are those who thinks mothers and fathers generally bring different things to parenting, and thus (other things being equal) they would prefer that if one parent stays home with the kids that it be the mom. Some takes this to the more extreme view that the mom just ought to stay home without the "other things being equal" qualifier. Then there are those who think there's no moral reason to prefer either parent (and I've never met anyone claiming that we should prefer it be men, but that view is logically possible and might well be held by some feminists who seek to equalize men and women in every way).

These views would say very different things about a claim that a woman ought to do what she can to be the stay-home parent. Some will find it sexist, based on their background moral picture. Others will not. I think this is why some people have a hard time recognizing sexism that others see. It's very difficult to find a morally inappropriate expectation when your own moral view actually requires that expectation or at least sees it as worth trying for if other things are equal. (I should say, though, that it's hard to see a typical liberal using this response appropriately against typical conservatives, because typical liberals have a much larger set of things that they consider sexist than the typical conservative does, not the smaller set that this response assumes.)

This is the seventh and, as it turned out, last post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation that I've been re-posting here due to the demise of Right Reason. At the end I write about the next intended post in the series, but I never wrote it. When I sat down to think about what I'd say, I didn't think I had a lot to say that was very interesting. It's possible that I'll continue this now, but I don't have any strong intentions to do this.

So far in my Christianity and Politics series, I've discussed some principles I find in Augustine's socio-political thought that I generally agree with and explained why, based on those principles, I think Christians have a moral obligation to participate in political matters in a setting something like the one I find myself in in the contemporary U.S. context. Because of the moral requirement to love one's neighbor, the privileges and responsibilities assigned to a citizen of my nation require me to use those privileges and meet those political responsibilities in a way that best seeks the interests of my neighbor, i.e. everyone else in this nation. This is so even, as I believe, if my primary citizenship is in heaven.

But that just explains why a Christian would be motivated to seek the good and why Christian views about what is good will be at least part of that motivation. It doesn't provide a motivation for why secular citizens, citizens of other religions, or other Christians who have different views of what is good to go along with the particular policy proposals that I would support. It's fairly common nowadays to hear someone complaining that it's wrong to enforce religious convictions by means of law when other people who don't agree with them shouldn't have to follow them. Several questions arise. First, is it morally ok to have religious justification for one's political views? Is it morally ok for a society to allow people to use such justifications? Then there are also the legal questions about whether this sort of thing is currently legal under a particular system of law, in my case under the U.S. Constitution, which includes the First Amendment's famous Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. I'm tackling the moral issues in this post, and the legal issues will follow in a separate post.

The main argument I've heard against religious motivations amounts to fear at how such a practice could be abused. If we allow people to use religious reasons to support laws and policies, then they may use religion to support really bad laws and policies. That's true. But people can also use really bad secular arguments to support really bad laws and policies, so it doesn't prevent that sort of thing to require people to use secular arguments. So I don't find that argument very convincing. Perhaps we could require really good reasoning for any argument supporting a law or policy, but how do you require that by law, and who is going to enforce it? If we're going to do that, we'll need some experts on good arguments who are making the call, and that would take something like Plato's ideal government as presented in the Republic, which even he admitted was impossible (partly because no one who isn't an expert could ever identify who the experts are, because they aren't the experts and can't make such distinctions).

Eugene Volokh uses scare quotes to refer to The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy and The Jewish Conspiracy, both of which he then goes on to admit to being a member of (along with most of the contributors to his blog). Scare quotes usually indicate that you believe there's no such thing, and I'm sure that's actually his view. But then he says he's a member of both. This is an interesting set of views.

He must think these terms refer to the groups that Hillary Clinton and anti-semitists (respectively) call by those names, and those groups really exist (because a group is just a group of people), but the groups don't have the features believed to be true of them (among other things, being a conspiracy). If that's right, then he's taking the names as proper names (and not definite descriptions, which wouldn't refer to anything) and taking them refer to exactly the groups the people whose false beliefs generated the existence of those groups (or at least generated their social relevance if the group exists simply because the members exist).

It struck me that this is almost exactly what the majority view in philosophy of race says about races. Races are social kinds whose existence (or at least social relevance if the group exists merely because its members exist) was caused by false beliefs by those doing the classifying. But the difference is that everyone uses race-terms, even those who pretend there aren't any races. Most people, on the other hand, don't believe in either of these so-called conspiracies. That's why his speaking this way sounded funny to me in this case, almost as if it requires saying it tongue-in-cheek.

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