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Sunday, January 8, 2012


Some time ago I said I was going to start doing a grab bag stint on my blog, never staying on one topic for too long.  Then I went off and made a series on discrimination.  Oops.  Sorry if it bored anybody, but this is going to be the second-to-last post on discrimination for at least a while.  After this post, I’ll make one more post on discrimination, and then I’ll talk about something else (probably the idea that religion serves as a source of morality).
Anyway, I’m going to criticize a belief so infuriatingly common that I expect to get an incredible amount of flack.  So I am going to try to be as clear as I can in what I am promoting and what I am not promoting.  But to start things off, I’m going to open up with a question.  And like one of the very first questions I asked on this blog, this one is a question of falsifiability.

What observation or set of observations would indicate that women and men are not equal?

Now from my past experience, I anticipate that many of you will read that and at some level, consciously or subconsciously, interpret it as a sneaky way to lead into a “women are inferior” argument.  Please note that I am not saying anything about which sex might be inferior.  In fact, in the way you are probably interpreting “inferior” and “equal,’ I do not believe that men and women are equal, nor do I believe that men are inferior to women, and nor do I believe that women are inferior to men.  My point is that some of the ways “equality” is often used is unfalsifiable, and is therefore a silly use of the term, independent of what “truth value” we may try to ascribe to the statement.

So again, what observation or set of observations would indicate that women and men are not equal?

As far as I can tell, the concept of equality is typically used in one of three distinct ways.  The first use is the idea of equal moral worth.  This is when “all people are equal” is used to say that they have equal moral value.  This means that a harmful act against someone is equally morally wrong regardless of that person’s sex or race or whatever.  This, I think, could serve as a respectable axiom in a theory of ethics, but it has rather little to do with my views of discrimination.  I agree with the idea that enslaving black people is every bit as morally wrong as enslaving white people.  That is not what I’m criticizing here.

The second use of equality is what I’ll call the piecewise definition.  This is when “all people are equal” is used to mean “all people have equal capacities in all regards,” or, more likely, “all types of people have equivalent statistical trends in capacities in all regards.”  This usage is very rare in cases of physical capabilities, but still seems to occur quite frequently in the “mental” realm.  For example, very few people insist that the fact that the men’s long jump world record is more than ten percent longer than the women’s long jump world record is caused by social pressure.  Most people instead recognize that men, being on average taller and thus longer-legged, tend to have a biological advantage in jumping really far.  And yet at the same time, people will get angry at the idea of even considering that underrepresentation of African American NFL coaches has its source in biology.

Instead of looking at the racial discrepancy in NFL coaching and thinking, “Well, one potential hypothesis is that the discrepancy is biological,” people will adamantly insist that it’s social conditioning or some inherent racism in the league or the hiring process or pretty much anything to get out of even thinking about the potential for a biological cause.  America is filled with people who will readily say that differences in performance in intellectual or social matters are caused by social conditioning while berating anyone who even suggests a biological source.  And yet these same people rarely pause to consider what it would take to scientifically disentangle social pressure from biological predisposition.  They aren’t claiming that the evidence points towards social pressure.  Instead, they’re rejecting the biological source hypothesis before even looking at the evidence.

(Again, I am not claiming that there’s a biological cause for the underrepresentation of African American NFL coaches.  I’m saying that we shouldn’t simply assume that there’s no such cause before we even look at the data).

So think about it critically.  What kind of studies should we do to disentangle biology from social pressure?  Which results would indicate that the racial discrepancy in NFL coaching is entirely due to non-biological factors?  Which results would indicate that the predominant factor is biological?  If you don’t address these questions, then you aren’t justified in asserting that there’s no significant biological factor.  You don’t have evidence for your conviction if you can’t even identify what counts as evidence!

The third way in which equality is used is to refer to some sort of “sum total” or “average.”  Faced with overwhelming evidence of some biological differences (such as in the case of the long jump), many people will insist that while different people and maybe even different groups have different strengths, somehow these differences all sum up or average out to equality.  That is, women (or a particular woman) may be biologically advantaged in some areas and biologically disadvantaged in others (in comparison to men or a particular man), but these advantages and disadvantages “cancel out” in a way that makes these people “overall” equal.

I’m going to be as clear as I can be here.  This notion of equality is just plain bullshit.

People will insist in this sort of equality, and yet they will resist trying to pin down the advantages and disadvantages in a quantitative manner.  They may agree that women tend to be disadvantaged in long jumping yet advantaged in communication skills, yet they seem keen to avoid any discussion about how much of an advantage the women need in communication skills in order to precisely cancel their long jump disadvantage and maintain a level of equality.  Moreover, people who claim this sort of averaged group equality don’t seem ready to admit that if some quirk of evolution suddenly increased the average male IQ by 10% while leaving all other things the same, men would become superior to women.  Even though any attempt to objectively quantify this “sum total” or “average” value which is supposed to be equal for men and women and which counts high IQ as a positive quality would yield exactly that conclusion.

In other words, these people aren’t presenting their claim in a falsifiable manner.  If some quirk of evolution suddenly increased the average male IQ by 10% while leaving all other things the same, they would still insist that men and women are “overall” equal, even though any quantification scheme that gives a nonzero weight to IQ would result in some change to the relative values for men and women in this scenario.  This means that the claim “men and women are different, but overall equal” doesn’t actually tell us anything.  We can’t use it to narrow down the relative sizes of the various advantages and disadvantages for the two groups, because every possible set of relative sizes is seen as conforming to the “equality” assertion.

But don’t fret, because there is one more thing I want to point out here.  I suspect that the reason people are so adamant about protecting second and third form of the “all people are equal” belief is that they’ve gotten it into their heads that one of the latter two forms of equality is a prerequisite for the first.  Now, nobody goes around saying this of course.  It’s not like people say “Everyone has equal moral worth because their capabilities are in some sense equal.”  And yet, people always seem to assume that an assertion of unequal capabilities is automatically a prelude to an argument for unequal moral value.  Now I admit that this could be due to the number of times such arguments have been made in the past.  But this cause doesn’t change the fact that it’s still an unfounded jump to go from “inequality of capability” to “inequality of moral worth.”

So the next time someone uses the idea of capability inequality to try and justify the mistreatment of a group of people, don’t just reject the premise without bothering to look at the evidence.  Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that the only way to reject the conclusion is to reject the premise.  Instead, try challenging the unfounded leap from statements about capabilities to statements about moral worth.  That way, you’re refutation won’t be so vulnerable to future research.

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