Ethics: 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.)

I know this is one of my pet peeves, but it's a good pet peeve to have, since far too many people misrepresent the abortion debate as being about when life begins. When life begins is a scientific matter, and anyone who recognizes that should have a hard time seeing the plain meaning of Joe Biden's statement as follows as outright endorsement of relativism about science:

MR. BROKAW: If Senator Obama comes to you and says, "When does life begin? Help me out here, Joe," as a Roman Catholic, what would you say to him

SEN. BIDEN: I'd say, "Look, I know when it begins for me." It's a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I'm prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths--Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others--who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They're intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life--I'm prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society. And I know you get the push back, "Well, what about fascism?" Everybody, you know, you going to say fascism's all right? Fascism isn't a matter of faith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea.

I'm very sure that Biden didn't mean what he said. He surely doesn't think scientific truth is all a matter of what you happen to believe any more than Nancy Pelosi thinks life doesn't really begin at conception when she quotes church fathers against the current Roman Catholic view (thus in effect quoting religion against science, ironic as that is from the highest-ranked (in one measure, anyway) Democrat in the United States. Both of them mean to be talking about moral status and perhaps personhood. But it's not at all clear what exactly he intended to say about it. He obviously couldn't have meant some kind of thoroughgoing moral relativism because of his last statement. What generates the relativist-sounding move is not that it's about moral views, where a moral relativism of some sort then kicks in once you enter moral territory. He both has some notion of what a decent religious person is (which sounds objective, even though it uses a value-laden term 'decent') and some notion that a view has to be held by a decent religious person to count as appropriate in a pluralistic society, which he takes to rule out Hitler's fascism.

What I'm least sure of is what he really thinks about all those religiously held beliefs. When he says he knows when it begins for him, does he want to say that any deeply-held religious belief is true for the person who holds it, in which case there's really no religious truth, just religious feelings? Or does "I know when it begins for me" function as an equivalent expression to "I know when I think it begins". It's a bit awkward to take it that way, but it would be something like "As for me, I know when it begins, but I'm not going to expect others to understand that because it involves faith, and I respect their conflicting religious traditions.

Is that overly charitable? Keep in mind that this is Joe Biden.


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