For whom?

Another point about James Fitzjames Stephen on gender equality.

He’s claiming that Mill is being insufficiently utilitarian (echoes of Bentham and “nonsense upon stilts” here).

First, as to the proposition that justice requires that all people should live in society as equals. I have already shown that this is equivalent to the proposition that it is expedient that all people should live in society as equals. Can this be proved? for it is certainly not a self-evident proposition.

Expedient – but expedient for whom?

Stephen doesn’t say, and what he does go on to say has what ought to be a very obvious problem, but he apparently never noticed it. The problem is that he’s not going to be one of the people who are declared not equal. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past century or so it’s that people who are in no danger of being declared unequal have a conflict of interest when they declare other people unequal.

The shorthand for this issue is “privilege,” but that word causes some people to go into frothing rages, so maybe it’s better to avoid it. But it’s a terrible idea to avoid the issue, because the issue is important. If gentiles are declaring Jews unequal, there’s an issue. If white people are declaring brown people unequal, there’s an issue. If men are declaring women unequal, there’s an issue. Straight/gay; native/foreign; Brahmin/dalit; European/aboriginal; theist/atheist; Protestant/Catholic or vice versa; you get the idea. That’s why the Original Position is needed.

The main distinguishing feature of the original position is “the veil of ignorance”: to insure impartiality of judgment, the parties are deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances.

And without that – the judgment isn’t impartial.


  1. says

    Are you suggesting that this veil of ignorance must be worn by boys in school?

    In order for it to be effective, it would have to be a blindfold, yes? And then the boys would be forced to rely on the kindness of others in order to get around without bashing their heads on something. It would force them to learn empathy and how to relate to others in a cooperative manner.

    Yes, excellent idea!

    I don’t think it was Ophelia’s though.

  2. says

    Instead, and maybe even more effective would be a TMS† device that obscures the distinction between self and other, to be activated when judging people.

    As an interesting aside, it appears that religious people process their god neurologically as part-of-self, rather than as an other. Which explains why they happen to share so many of their god’s values.


  3. Didaktylos says

    Or perhaps you should say, Ophelia, “on the unfavourable side of the inequality boundary” rather than “declared unequal”. Inequality only becomes iniquitous when the advantage/disadvantage ratio is skewed so that one side of the line is more favourable to be on than the other.

  4. sailor1031 says

    “If gentiles are declaring Jews unequal, there’s an issue. If white people are declaring brown people unequal, there’s an issue. If men……”

    And if catholics (such as the Archbish of Westminster and the pope have both done) are declaring atheists ‘not fully human’, there’s an issue. Unfortunately all these attitudes are so deeply embedded in the minds of many people. It’ll take generations to eradicate. I’m becoming more and more pessimistic about this whole ‘human progress’ thing!

  5. says

    sailor – right – I included that item in my list – theist/atheist.

    Mind you, in some ways that one can still work if you reverse it. As Harriet Baber likes to remind us, in some settings atheists are in the “privilege” slot.

    This is one reason some people detest gnu atheism.

  6. M Groesbeck says

    601 @ 3 —

    As an interesting aside, it appears that religious people process their god neurologically as part-of-self, rather than as an other.

    …and now I’m going to have to go journal-diving in a field I’m only tangentially related to. Should be worthwhile, though…

  7. says

    Oddly, I won an essay contest in NYC when I was a kid, based on my 9 year old conception of a “veil of ignorance” where we all lived covered from head to toe and had to deal with each other based on how we treated each other rather than how we looked.

  8. Fin says

    I think we can accept that the proposition is empirical – which would transform it into the second version he gives – but we can also quickly point to all the evidence that does make it expedient for all people to live in societies as equals.

    There’s definitely a wealth of data that supports that claim, probably the most obvious one to point to is that the more equal a society is economically and politically, the lower crime rates tend to be. If we define crimes broadly as an infringement upon another (I know this doesn’t cover all kinds of crime), then we can see that less crime would involve less infringements upon others, which we could argue to be more just.

    Sure, this isn’t really strong evidence FOR equality, but it’s only one point among an array of data that we could employ, which is not to mention the negative argument (which the Original Position tends to cover).

    So, on that count, I have no problem with the value of equality not resting on analytic grounds. However, I do have a problem with his understanding of what equality means in general (from the other post). He seems to conclude that physical inequalities should translate to political or social inequalities, which is simply not the case. I am cleverer than the idiot (or, at least I hope), but its only on the metric of intelligence that we are unequal, as agents in a social situation neither of us is more valuable than the other (except with respect to specific tasks that do require a certain level of intelligence). So even if it were the case that women (or Jews, or homosexuals, or whoever) were less intelligent, or weaker, or whatever, that does not necessarily translate into them being less equal socially.

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