Saturday, February 24, 2007

Naturalness Part 2: Gender and Biology

The mistake of muddling naturalness and goodness finds itself smack dab not only in the middle of debates over homosexuality or health products but in the study and description of gender as well. For purposes of this post, I'll make use of the last three notions of naturalness I talked about in my previous post. Reminder: natural (3) = statistically common; natural (4) = genetic or biological in origin; natural (5) = in accordance with a thing's telos

We all know that, statistically at least, women tend to have certain characteristics or patterns of behavior and men others. Or, in other words, certain things are natural (3) for women and other things are natural (3) for men. But why is that? According to many different scientists, at least some of these differences are based in biology - in other words, for certain "feminine" traits, they are natural (3) among women because they are natural (4) among women (or, more precisely, naturally (3) natural (4) - for everyone's sake, though, I'll just shorten that and say "natural (4)" when I mean the longer thing), and for certain "masculine" traits, they are natural (3) among men because they are natural (4) among men.

When such scientists present such views or research, not many people protest. Most people see it as an interesting diagnosis of apparent sex differences. But watch what happens when someone in a position of power says something similar: Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, (presumably) innocently said something like this - explaining the naturalness (3) of a characteristic among women by its naturalness (4). It created a national uproar and he was pretty much run out of his office. What explains this and why would people be mad about such a figure taking such a line?

As you might have already guessed, a large part of it has to do with confusing naturalness with goodness or thinking that naturalness (4) must automatically mean naturalness (5) and that that must automatically mean goodness. The idea is that if a woman has, say, a biological mothering instinct then she automatically ought to settle down as soon as possible and have as many kids as possible, forsaking anything outside the home. In other words, if that instinct is natural (4) it must be natural (5) and part of what the woman is supposed to do.

Take feminism, for instance. Now, there are tons of versions of feminism and I can honestly say I'm not sure what feminism in general is apart from the specific forms - probably something to do with liberation for women from sexism and sex-based injustice or something. In any case, we can describe one kind of feminism - call it equality feminism - which is in favor of political and domestic justice, equal rights, equal opportunity and consideration, equal respect, and consideration as of equal worth as men for all women. This kind of feminism is rather plausible. Now consider a more extreme version of feminism - call it gender feminism - which says that no "feminine" qualities are natural (4) but any of them are only natural (3) among women because they are ingrained by society and culture (often added to this is that we should stop such ingraining). A large part of what motivates people to go beyond equality feminism to gender feminism is precisely the idea mentioned in the previous paragraph - that, somehow, biology is destiny - that biology means purpose and centrality in one's identity. But of course, as we have already discussed, that just does not follow.

If anything, a new appreciation of natural (4) differences between men and women might actually help women to achieve justice and more equality with men in society. For instance, if certain natural (4) differences between men and women at least partially explain why men are common in certain high paying professions (say, because the profession is too demanding on one's time and women, say, are more naturally (4) desirous of family time) then taking that into account may force us to change the way such professions are structured to allow more of an equal opportunity for people of both sexes to get the high paying jobs.

In conclusion, even if people have erroneously used the idea that a particular trait is natural (4) as justification for treating such a trait as ideal and natural (5), that doesn't mean that it really does justify such a move. But treating "feminine" or "masculine" or any sorts of traits as natural (4) is perfectly compatible with equality feminism or all sorts of views. Nor does it mean that just because a trait is natural (4) for me that it is somehow central to who I am or that I have to cave into it. A natural (4) trait is just one of many traits, desires, emotions, values, habits, dreams, intentions, personality and so forth that goes into a person's psychological makeup. And as such it need not be any more important than any of the others - an acquired trait can take precedence, priority, and centrality over natural (4) traits in a person and even suppress them (and for most of us for at least some of our natural(4) traits this is actually the norm). So the scientists that advocate biological bases for natural (3) differences in the behavior of the sexes are not necessarily being sexist when they hold or advocate such views. After all, biology isn't destiny.

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