Gender Essentialism and Moral Desert

The GDL has historically been justified - and indeed continues to be justified today - by the idea that women and men have different natures and those natures are such that women are well-suited for the domestic sphere (where care work, among other tasks, takes place) and men for the public sphere of government, commerce, manufacturing, and the military (Cashdan 1998, 214; White 2003, 109; Browne 2006, 148-150; Croson and Gneezy 2009 467; Colarelli, Spranger, and Hechanova 2006, 167; Hakim 2007; Baron-Cohen 2007). These different natures also signal a sex hierarchy (Aristotle 1977, 20-30; Rousseau 1977, 42-47; Goldberg 1977, 196-204). Women are viewed as inferior to men insofar as their capabilities are confined to family support and nurturing. Moreover, historically, this sex hierarchy has been malleable in the sense that it has adapted to other social hierarchies. So, for instance, although enslaved women in the United States often did domestic work in the slaveowner’s home, they also worked the fields alongside enslaved men. Likewise, during the Industrial Revolution, immigrant women worked long hours doing arduous mill work. What women were largely excluded from - formally until the 1970s in the United States - were relatively high-status, high-paying jobs outside of the home, including such things as the trades, the professions, and academia (Crompton 2007, 229).

The natural differences argument for the GDL goes like this: because women are naturally better at domestic tasks - in particular care work - and men naturally better at business, politics, war, and the like, women should do, and should be encouraged, indeed, coerced, to do, domestic work (Mill 1977, 57).11 Men should do, and be encouraged to do, public work. In some cases, the “should” in this argument is understood pru- dentially: work is done more efficiently when people do what they are good at (Trebilcot 1977, 127-128). This argument makes little sense, however, because it generalizes to an argument against freedom of occupational choice. Few who support the GDL on efficiency grounds are disturbed by men choosing occupations that are poorly aligned with their native abilities.

Typically, the “should” in this argument is understood morally: women (and men) ought morally, and hence should be encouraged, to confine themselves to what they are naturally inclined to do. Many have observed that this line of reasoning contains flaws in its internal logic: it is quite mysterious as to why people morally ought to do, and need to be encouraged to do, what they will do anyway, given that it is in their natures to do it (Mill 1977, 57; Antony 1988, 65). Surely such oughts and encouragements are superfluous. If the mystery is solved by claiming that natures are not completely deterministic - that people can act against their natures - then the appeal to natures is superfluous: the view reduces to the claim that women should do domestic work, and indeed should be coerced to do so by institutional design, whether driven by their natures to do it or not (Trebilcot 1977, 126; Antony 1988, 65).

What might justify such coercion? One possibility is the alleged fact that women (and men) who act against their natures are committing a moral wrong (Antony 1988, 65). The idea that people morally should do what it is in their natures to do turns out, then, to be a prescription to refrain from acting against their natures (Antony 1988, 65).12 Our sex-specific natures, then, are simultaneously descriptive and (morally) prescriptive (Pierce 1977, 131-136; Rousseau 1977, 43, 45). This idea may be what explains the fact that aspects of people’s alleged sex-specific natures are often referred to as virtues (Antony 1988, 66). Courage, competitiveness, and acumen - the allegedly natural traits of men that enable them to perform well in the public domain - are conceived of as masculine virtues. Men who fail to display these traits are judged morally deficient. Likewise, the allegedly natural traits that enable women to perform well in the domestic sphere - empathy, nurturance, responsiveness - are thought of as feminine virtues. Women who fail to display these traits are likewise considered morally deficient. Society should be organized, the reasoning goes, so that people are channeled into occupations and activities that correspond to their sex-specific virtues.

As we saw earlier, Rawls argues that no precepts of moral desert would arise within a basic structure governed by his two principles. It follows from this, I claim, that an enforced division of labor based on the doctrine of natural sex differences described earlier would not likely arise within that basic structure. This is because to assign education and work on the basis of people’s sex-specific virtues is to invoke an ideal of moral desert: it is to reward people with opportunities for particular types of work for displaying and for cultivating their particular, sex-specific virtues. The idea is that men have a moral desert claim to opportunities for paid work in the public realm due to possessing the competitive virtues necessary to perform well in that domain and women have a moral desert claim to opportunities for caring work in the domestic realm due to possessing the caring virtues necessary to perform well in that domain. Moreover, women lack a moral desert claim to public work. To claim a priori that women are “unfit,” due to their natures, for public work is to say that they do not deserve such work given their feminine natures/ virtues, which they are under a moral obligation to cultivate. Indeed, the justification for withholding opportunities, by means of social design, for women (and men) to do work judged contrary to their natures is that it encourages them to fulfill their moral obligation to refrain from acting against their natures. This justificatory story is ruled out by justice as fairness because that system precludes any institutions or practices within the basic structure from rewarding moral virtue: people may not be given opportunities based upon their moral virtue, nor can they be encouraged by social institutions to cultivate moral virtue.

My argument just discussed assumes that Rawls’s principle of fair equality of opportunity is compatible with a fairly extensive GDL. That principle demands that those with the same talents and willingness to use them have the same chance at various offices and positions (Rawls 1971, 73). It therefore demands that similarly talented and/or motivated people have the same access to education to develop their talents and requires that employers hire people on the basis of qualifications alone. The principle of fair equality of opportunity governs the basic structure as a whole and does not govern particular practices within the basic structure or particular ideologies circulating within the background culture of society. It is these practices and ideologies, however, that primarily influence people’s ideas about the following sorts of things: which types of work are prestigious or lowly; which types of people deserve which types of work; what attitudes toward laboring are morally worthy; what attitudes toward motherhood or fatherhood on the part of workers are morally worthy; what makes someone a good worker, boss, employer, mother, or father; which types of people are capable of being good workers, bosses, employers, or parents; and how different types of people should interpret their own talents and make choices about cultivating and using them (MacDonald 2009).

So, although the principle of fair equality of opportunity demands that men and women have the same educational opportunities, it does not prevent them from, for instance, judging domestic work less valuable than paid work or from seeing mothers, but not fathers, with careers as neglecting their children. Hence, that principle cannot by itself prevent the GDL from taking hold within a society. The presence or absence of particular “common sense precepts of justice,” however, can do this, because those precepts govern more local practices and institutions and therefore influence people’s ideas about, for example, the nature and value of work, motherhood, domesticity, and so on.

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