How Much Do Biological Sex Differences Explain?

Whether sex differences are social constructions or biological facts is an old and contentious question. It has mostly been feminists (but by no means all feminists) who have pushed the former idea and “conservatives” who have pushed the second. If you believe that sex differences when it comes to, for instance, choice of career or lifestyle are the result of social construction then you might believe that children should not be brought up so as to be socialized into traditional gender roles; if you believe the opposite then, perhaps, you see no harm in reinforcing what is “natural” anyway.

Now how can we know which view is correct? Many people probably go by experience, observing that men and women seem to make different kinds of choices and to think and act differently. It is not easy, however, to know whether these observed differences are the result of “innate” sex differences if most people have been brought up in a way that encourages gender differentiation from the earliest childhood. One would have to make new observations on people who have been deliberately brought up in a non-traditional way (when it comes to gender differences), and this might be hard to do in a systematic way, since very few children can be brought up in this “sheltered” way. After all, gendering processes are so pervasive that it is hard to avoid its influences.

But there are some who believe scientific studies have proven that there are biological sex differences. There is, for instance, one study – “Sex differences in human neonatal social perception” by Connellan et al (Infant Behavior & Development, vol. 23) – which has been mentioned quite often. The study tested whether there was a sex difference when it comes to interest in looking at a face and a mobile among neonates – i.e., persons “who by definition have not yet been influenced by social and cultural factors”. The study showed that male infants had a higher preference for looking at the mobile, while female infants preferred more to look at the face. The exact figures for males were 25% preference for looking at the face, 43.2% for the mobile and 31.8% with no particular preference. For females the figures were 36.2% for the face, 17.2% for the mobile, and 46.6% for no preference.

It seems clear that the study proves something, namely that “[m]ale infants show a stronger interest in mechanical objects, while female infants show a stronger interest in the face”; but it is hard to see that this proves something very significant. I think one must concede that there are some innate differences between the sexes that may determine the shapes of lives of men and women, but it is hard to see how studies like these can prove that the extent and pervasiveness of differentiation we observe today is innate. After all, the study showed that 31.8% of the males and 46.6% of the females showed no preference for either of the objects in the study. If these numbers were extrapolated to adults and, for instance, career choice, we should be able to see far less sexual segregation in work places than we see today (although a 50/50 distribution for all occupations may never materialize because of the biological differences that actually exist).

Another study (which unfortunately had a rather small sample size) looked at children’s interest in different toys – specifically a doll and a toy truck – during the first year of life. The authors found that the infant girls showed a large spontaneous preference for a doll, whereas infant boys showed no significant visual preference for either the doll or the truck. But the female interest in the doll cannot be described as overwhelming, since they seem to have been interested in the truck about 35% of the time (Alexander et al, “Sex Differences in Infants’ Visual interest in Toys”, Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 38). Yet another study found that both girls and boys aged 12 months chose to look at a doll approximately 57% more than at a toy car, although when the boys get older (24 months) the interest in the car is raised to about 51 to 55%, while the girls’ interest in the doll drops to about 51 to 55%. In addition they found that there were no significant sex differences regarding the color of the toys. This, again, seems to point to relatively minor sex differences (Jadva et al, “Infants’ Preferences for Toys, Colors, and Shapes: Sex Differences and Similarities”, Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 40).

The truth is probably that there are some biological differences that may affect life choices among women and men, but that these rather limited differences are reinforced (by parents, kindergarten teachers, other children etc.) when the children are brought up. So if one wants to look to each individual’s potential and let them develop in their own way, the least one can do is not to force children into certain categories early on. If a boy does not show any clear preference for playing with cars or building blocks or a girl does not show a clear preference for playing with dolls, then don’t buy these things for them anyway.

An Attempt to Define Feminism

Feminism is rarely defined precisely. Even introductory works on feminism are usually reluctant to provide any definition that one can immediately assess in terms of assent or dissent. This is a shame, since so many people nowadays seem eager to reject feminism without saying exactly what they are rejecting. And there are also those who claim to be feminists (often “liberal” feminists) themselves, but who reject other kinds of wrongheaded feminism. However, some within the latter group should perhaps not call themselves feminists at all if the term feminism is to have a relevant meaning.

The definition I would like to propose is the following: A feminist believes that women are currently unequal to men in one or more normatively relevant ways (and this inequality should be remedied). The assertion put in parenthesis can probably be removed in most cases, since it can be tacitly assumed that if one believes a normatively relevant inequality (as opposed to normatively irrelevant inequalities) exists, then it should, by virtue of moral “logic”, be remedied (at least if it is practically possible).

So, the definition talks about women being currently unequal to men. This would perhaps exclude people who believe that feminism is (only) about granting women and men equal political and civil rights. At least in many countries, this struggle seems to have been fought and won som time ago (but in some countries, this fight still goes on). In a “Western” setting this kind of feminism – if we are to call it feminism it all – seems rather irrelevant, and when feminists of this kind call themselves feminists they should be careful to always label themselves liberal feminists, as well as to acknowledge that there are other legitimate forms of feminism.

Even if “liberal feminism” does not necessarily have to be excluded from being a kind of feminism, there are other kinds of merely “hypothetical” feminisms that should be excluded from this label. One could, for instance, imagine a sort of “libertarian feminist”, who believes that if a society were to exist where men’s rights of self-ownership are respected, while women’s rights are not, then one should be a feminist to remedy this inequality in rights. If we allow for these kinds of hypothetical inequalities, then feminism as a concept would loose all interesting meaning (since almost anyone could be a feminist under some circumstances).

In any case, I believe the proviso about current inequalities adds something important to a meaningful definition of feminism, since it is usually perceived as an “ideology” that wants to rectify injustices that actually exist right now. In the same way, we would hardly call someone who is against slavery an “egalitarian” in any meaningful sense, even though he or she is definitely against the kind of inequality that slavery entails.

The other part of the definition discusses normatively relevant inequalities. This captures the fact that we all believe that there are inequalities that we do not believe are relevant when it comes to moral evaluation, or to assess, for instance, economic outcomes. But there are, of course, different ideas about exactly what should be regarded as normatively relevant. This is where distinctions between different sorts of feminisms come in.

The distinction between normatively relevant and irrelevant inequalities also makes it easy to pinpoint exactly why some people end up on one side of the debate rather than the other. The debate about the gender wage gap, for instance, seems to be all about relevant and irrelevant inequalities. Both sides can agree on the fact that women’s life earnings are on average significantly lower than men’s life earnings; but the non-feminist would maybe claim that this inequality is morally irrelevant, since this reflects women’s life choices (i.e., inequalities based on choices which were not physically forced upon you are not morally, or politically, problematic), whereas the feminist would perhaps claim that this is not only a result of choices, but also of discrimination, or that all choices are to some degree a result of different forms of indoctrination, which might be normatively relevant when assessing outcomes.

The definition proposed here facilitates the categorization of different kinds of feminism, since most moral and political philosophies can be distinguished in terms of (in)equalities. As mentioned above, a liberal feminist would only see inequalities in political and civil rights as normatively relevant. A socialist feminist would perhaps see inequalities in possibilities to lead an unalienated life free from economic exploitation as normatively relevant. A utilitarian feminist would see inequalities in consideration when calculating levels of happiness and unhappiness as normatively relevant. A virtue feminist would see inequalities in possibilities to exercise moral  virtues as normatively relevant (and these virtues might be different for men and women). An existentialist feminist would see inequalities in possibilities to lead an authentic life as normatively relevant. (Needless to say, these were just a few examples and not an exhaustive list.)

Again, the definition is that a feminist believes that women are currently unequal to men in one or more normatively relevant ways (and this inequality should be remedied). An advantage with this definition is that it dispenses with controversial concepts like “patriarchy” and “oppression”. Instead it moves the discussion to a more basic normative level, where the differences between viewpoints become clearer and easier to understand. The definition also clearly separates questions about facts, which we can (hopefully) agree on, and values (i.e., whether the facts in question are normatively relevant or not). It is better that people fight about whether some existing inequality is good or bad, rather than fighting about whether the inequality in fact exists or not. (And it is better that they fight about the goodness or badness of currently existing inequalities, rather than those that have already been remedied.)

The definition also has the advantage that it separates the question of methods from the normative (foundational) question. One might, for example, be a “socialist” feminist, because one believes a socialist system will equalize the possibilities to lead authentic lives. In this case, it is more helpful to classify this person as an existentialist feminist, rather than a socialist feminist, since socialism is just a method (and whether this is the best method or not to reach the existentialist utopia is something that can be discussed regardless of agreement or disagreement to either socialism or existentialist feminism). In the same way one could be a utilitarian feminist who believes that liberalism will lead to an equal consideration of women of men in the felicific calculus – but one would not become a liberal feminist because of this.

The Lack of Women in Philosophy: A Modest Contribution Towards a Remedy

It is often perceived as a problem that rather few women pursue philosophy. It appears that female enrollment in introductory courses is at least as high as male enrollment, but many more men than women end up with a major in philosophy. Thus, a lot of female students disappear along the way. Many reasons have been proposed for this. One reason that has been brought forward is that female students encounter few texts written by women in their philosophy courses.

I cannot say how big a factor this really is; perhaps there are other factors that are more important. But the least I can do is to give you a list of good articles on philosophical subjects written by women, some of which might be of use in philosophy courses, at least in courses focused on political philosophy and/or ethics (the list may also be used for courses in political theory). Note that in this context one does not have to agree with the arguments of an article in order for it to be a “good” article.

Since it is a fact that an overwhelming majority of papers published in most philosophy journals are written by men, it may appear as a valid “excuse” that it would simply be too exhausting to seek out interesting papers by women, simply for the purpose of making philosophy courses more enticing for female students. This list should remove at least some of the validity of that excuse.

  • Anscombe, G E M: “On Frustration of the Majority by Fulfilment of the Majority’s Will” (Analysis, vol. 36).
  • Cassidy, Lisa: “That Many of Us Should Not Parent” (Hypatia, vol. 21).
  • Denis, Lara: “Kant on the Wrongness of ‘Unnatural’ Sex” (History of Philosophy Quarterly, vol. 16).
  • Dimova-Cookson, Maria: “A New Scheme of Positive and Negative Freedom: Reconstructing T. H. Green on Freedom” (Political Theory, vol. 31).
  • Feagin, Susan L: “Mill and Edwards on the Higher Pleasures” (Philosophy, vol. 58).
  • Ferguson, Susan: “The Radical Ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft” (Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 32).
  • Foot, Philippa: “Moral Arguments” (Mind, vol. 67).
  • Fried, Barbara: “‘If You Don’t Like It, Leave It’: The Problem of Exit in Social Contractarian Arguments” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 31).
  • Fried, Barbara: “Wilt Chamberlain Revisited: Nozick’s ‘Justice in Transfer’ and the Problem of Market-Based Distribution” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 24).
  • Gardner, Catherine: “The Remnants of the Family: The Role of Women and Eugenics in Republic V” (History of Philosophy Quarterly, vol. 17).
  • Gibson, Mary: “Rationality” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 6).
  • Gill, Emily R: “MacIntyre, Rationality, & the Liberal Tradition” (Polity, vol. 24).
  • Hekman, Susan: “John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women: The Foundations of Liberal Feminism” (History of European Ideas, vol. 15).
  • Heller, Agnes: “The Legacy of Marxian Ethics Today” (PRAXIS International, no. 4, 1981).
  • Holmgren, Margaret: “Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Objective Moral Truth” (Metaphilosophy, vol. 18).
  • Jarvis, Judith: “In Defense of Moral Absolutes” (The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 55).
  • Jeske, Diane: “Persons, Compensation, and Utilitarianism” (The Philosophical Review, vol. 102).
  • Lichtenberg, Judith: “Negative Duties, Positive Duties, and the ‘New Harms'” (Ethics, vol. 120).
  • Lovibond, Sabina: “‘Gendering’ as an Ethical Concept” (Feminist Theory, vol. 2).
  • McIntyre, Alison: “Guilty Bystanders? On the Legitimacy of Duty to Rescue Statutes” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 23).
  • Mitchell, Dorothy, “Are Moral Principles Really Necessary?” (Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 41).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C: “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism” (Political Theory, vol. 20).
  • Okin, Susan Moller: “Feminism and Multiculturalism: Some Tensions” (Ethics, vol. 108).
  • Philips, Anne: “Defending Equality of Outcome” (The Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 12).
  • Schwartz, Adina: “Moral Neutrality and Primary Goods” (Ethics, vol. 83).
  • Schwartz, Adina: “Meaningful Work” (Ethics, vol. 92).
  • Smith, Tara: “On Deriving Rights to Goods from Rights to Freedom” (Law and Philosophy, vol. 11).
  • Stark, Susan: “Emotions and the Ontology of Moral Value” (The Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 38).
  • Swanton, Christine: “The Concept of Interests” (Political Theory, vol. 8).
  • Whiting, Jennifer: “Eudaimonia, External Results, and Choosing Virtuous Actions for Themselves” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 65).
  • Wilson, Catherine: “Prospects for Non-cognitivism” (Inquiry, vol. 44).
  • Worley, Sara: “Feminism, Objectivity, and Analytic Philosophy” (Hypatia, vol. 10).

Hedonism, Feminism, and Identity Minimalism

Must the decision to become a feminist be dependent on one’s moral outlook, and if so, should a hedonist also be a feminist? It is, of course, hard to say exactly what “feminism” means these days, but in some obvious senses the hedonist position seems to entail feminism. One could not, for instance, claim that men’s happiness would be more important than women’s happiness. And it would be hard to argue that men and women shouldn’t have the same political and social rights.

But this kind of “first wave” definition of feminism is usually not what is meant these days. There are some modern feminist theories that, I believe, should be rejected because they are built on moral theories that differ from hedonism (i.e., ethics of care) or because they are built on other kinds of dubious claims (i.e., “postmodern” feminism). But there are other kinds of “radical” feminism that are worth taking seriously.

The most interesting view, albeit controversial (even among self-proclaimed feminists), is that we should strive to abolish strict gender roles. This is a claim that goes beyond liberal (equal rights) feminism, and it is an open question whether hedonists should endorse it or not, since it is an empirical question whether a strict difference of gender roles increases or decreases happiness. But we have to keep in mind that your own acceptance of the gender role you have been assigned does not necessarily affect only yourself. To be, for instance, a woman who does not accept her traditional gender role can be difficult in a world where most other women do accept and live in accordance with it. It could, for instance, increase the risk that you become the victim of discrimination in your work life (since the employer may just accept the prejudice that you will behave like all other women).

So the question is how much both men and women would benefit themselves from having less strict gender roles and what effects they would have on other people if they continue with their strict gender roles. Personally I believe (and this is a provisional empirical conclusion) that, on the whole, we would benefit from less strict gender roles than what is common today, and if you share this conclusion then I believe you should strive less to be a “real man”, if you’re a man biologically, or a “real woman”, if you’re a woman biologically (incidentally, this does not mean that I think it’s a good idea to strive to be more of a “real woman” if you were born a biological man, and vice versa).

For me, this is actually a part of a bigger idea, which I have called identity minimalism. I believe we should all (or at least many of us) strive less to acquire “identities”, including gender identities. The labels that we give ourselves and each other mostly contribute to shut  people out from our own group, which results in unnecessary conflicts. And many people struggle in vain to find their “true” identity instead of focusing on doing more productive things (in terms of pleasure) in their lives. I believe that we should think harder about what we should do, rather than what we should be. People fight wars over ethnic labels, which have no basis in anything except the will to conform to and to perpetuate the traditions themselves.

Clearcut identities makes us predictable, which for some people feels safe and good. But the upshot of predictability is that it makes discrimination easier. It also makes the world a less interesting place, since you have fewer opportunities to be surprised about people.