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The Quality of Life$

Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen

Print publication date: 1993

Print ISBN-13: 9780198287971

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198287976.001.0001

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Julia Annas: Women and the Quality of Life: Two Norms or One?

Julia Annas: Women and the Quality of Life: Two Norms or One?

Chapter:
(p.297) Julia Annas: Women and the Quality of Life: Two Norms or One?
Source:
The Quality of Life
Author(s):

Margarita M. Valdés

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/0198287976.003.0022

Abstract and Keywords

Valdés agrees with Annas's argument in general, but raises two points of further inquiry: (1) the epistemological problem regarding how people come to detect injustice to women within their own society; and (2) the question of whether the notion of human nature, as Annas introduced in her paper to explain injustice to women, might provide one or two ideal norms for human lives. Valdés concludes that Annas is unnecessarily sceptical about the possibility of rational internal criticism and that she needs a thicker notion of human nature to explicate injustice to women in our present two‐norm system.

Keywords:   epistemology, human nature, justice, norms, rational internal criticism, sexual division of activity

First of all I would like to congratulate Julia Annas on her interesting paper. I must say that basically I agree with her analysis of injustice to women and the way it affects women's quality of life. I am also as convinced as she is that one has to appeal to some notion of human nature if one is going to explain why there is injustice in the sexual division of activity and in the way opportunities are distributed between men and women.

The paper touches upon many problems. I will concentrate mainly on two of them: first, the epistemological problem concerning how we come to detect injustice to women within our own society; second, the problem of whether the notion of human nature, as introduced by Annas in her paper in order to explain injustice to women, might provide us with one ideal norm or two for human lives.

All through the paper Annas emphasizes the fact that it is easy to detect injustice arising from the fact of having two separate norms for men and women when we look back at societies more traditional than ours. It seems, indeed, an empirical fact that when looking from the outside at a society where sexual division of activity is more strongly enforced than in our own society, we tend to perceive injustice in the ways in which the two norms impose different kinds of life on men and women. The explanation Annas gives of this fact is that when we perceive in another society a sexual division of activity, or an inequality in opportunities for men and women, which no longer exists in our own society, we have the best evidence for concluding that the two norms for men and women are unjust, given that they are not grounded in any relevant natural difference between the two sexes. In this way, any attempt to explain the sexual division of activity in the traditional society by appealing to some presumed natural difference between men and women can be exposed as mere rationalization or ideological justification. So far, so good. But in the case of injustice arising from a double standard in our own society, how do we discover that there is such a thing? How can we come to know that there is injustice to women in our own society arising from the two actual norms? A society twenty years from now will most probably realize that there were injustices to women in out present two‐norms system. But the fact that we can explain how they will know is of little help to the problem of explaining how we can know. Notice that it is important to explain how we can know that there is injustice to women within our own society, or from the inside of our own moral system, for if we cannot give an explanation of this we do not even allow for the possibility of a rational change from a traditional society to a more liberal one.

(p.298) In several passages in her paper Annas acknowledges the difficulty involved in criticizing injustice to women arising from the two norms when they form part of our own society's way of thinking, for, she says, ‘it requires us not only to reflect on, but to stand aside from some everyday habits of thought’ (n. 6). In other passages she suggests that despite the difficulty involved in such a task it is not an impossible thing to do, given that in judging a certain situation (for example, the present one) we could adopt a less traditional viewpoint than that of the situation being considered. So it would seem that injustice to women in our own social system can be detected, after all, in a way similar to that used when we come to recognize injustice to women in societies more traditional than ours. We just have to adopt a more liberal point of view than that of our own society. Apart from the difficulties concerning the possibility of adopting a less traditional viewpoint than that of the society in which we are immersed, I see some problem with Annas's suggested strategy, that is to say, with her attempt to explain how we can acquire knowledge of injustice to women in our own society by analogy with the way we acquire such knowledge when we consider more traditional societies. For we must keep in mind that it is essential to her explanation of our knowledge in the latter case that out judgement is made from a society where the sexual division of activity under criticism no longer exists. In other words, according to Annas, our ground for judging that a certain sexual division of activity in a society more traditional than ours is unjust refers precisely to the fact that that division of activities no longer exists in our own society, but that kind of ground is exactly what we cannot have when we consider the imposed sex roles in our own society to be unjust.

Annas not only holds that it is an empirical fact that our judgements concerning injustice to women are systematically backward‐looking, but also stresses the point that these judgements are themselves empirical in the sense that they are backed by the empirical evidence that the division of activities we are criticizing as unjust no longer exists in our own society. Now, if our judgements about injustice to women were always to be empirical in this way, then it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make such judgements with respect to our own society where the injustice still exists. And if that is so, then, as I mentioned above, it would be difficult to explain, within Annas's view, the possibility of a rational change from a traditional society to a more liberal one.

Judgements concerning injustice to women are not only presented as empirical in character, but also as contingent. In this vein, Annas writes the following: ‘there could be worlds in which enforced sexual division of activity did not produce injustice, but ours is not one of them’. This is tantamount to asserting that sexual division of activity by itself does not produce injustice and that the fact that it does in our actual world is no more than a contingent fact. I wonder whether that is really so. On the one hand, a world seems ‘conceivable’ in which, for example, women are naturally more gifted than men (or the other way round), and so sexual division of activity is not unjust. On the other hand, in order to conceive such a possible world we have to specify that in such a (p.299) world men and women are not equally gifted; so, even in a world where sexual division of activities is not in fact unjust, what justifies the division of activities is not the difference of sex but the difference in capabilities. In other words, given that the difference of sex does not entail any difference in relevant capabilities, and given that the only rational justification for enforced division of activities would be a difference in capabilities, it seems that any division of activities on the basis of sex alone would pick out the wrong kind of criterion to establish a fair division of activities, and so would tend to produce injustice. It would be a matter of chance or of luck if it did not. So, the connection between enforced division of activity on the basis of sex alone and injustice seems to be stronger than that suggested by Annas. It would be as irrational or unjust to impose a division of activities on a purely sexual basis as it would be to do it on the basis of race, colour, or any other inborn status or characteristic.1

Coming back to the question about the possibility of rational internal criticism concerning injustice to women, one gets the impression from Annas's paper that it is almost impossible to make such criticism. On page 295, for example, she asserts: ‘judgements about injustice where sex roles are concerned are systematically backward‐looking: we are often confused or uncertain about our own society’, and the reason for this, she says, is that ‘it is those who no longer have to live with a particular sex‐linked restriction who can rationally reject the claim that it was needed to answer to a natural difference’ (italics added). If the only people who can rationally reject as unjust a particular sex‐linked restriction are people living outside that restriction, then rational internal criticism on this matter seems impossible and, once more, it is the impossible for an autonomous, rational, liberal change to come from within an unjust society. All this seems very important, for if we believe that there is injustice to women in our own society and that that injustice affects women's quality of life, then we have to explain how we can rationally come to have such a belief. Otherwise any struggle tending to eliminate injustice to women in our own society would seem an irrational enterprise.

I think that we find this rather sceptical attitude towards rational change from a traditional society to a more liberal one in some other parts of the paper. For example, in discussing what it would be for oppressed women to have ‘informed desires’, Annas says: ‘The more facts the women acquire . . . about their situation, the explanation for it, . . . the patterns of need it generates, and so on, the less likely they are to develop the relevant desire. For in this situation, . . . the more you know about [it] . . . the more motivation you have to adjust to things the way they are to avoid frustration’.2 Annas seems to assume that a very strong motivation in the desire‐forming process in oppressed women is the avoidance of frustration through the suppression of the relevant desire: the more they learn about their oppression, the less likely they are to (p.300) form the desire to do what they know has unjustly been forbidden to them. Admittedly there must be cases of ‘adaptive desires’, but not all the desires of traditional or oppressed women have to be of this sort. I agree that the desire approach to the problem of injustice to women is not the best one, and Annas gives very good reasons for that in her paper, but the rejection of such an approach need not involve scepticism about the possibility of oppressed women forming the adequate desires once they realize how unjust their situation is. As Amartya Sen has pointed out, ‘the lack of perception of personal welfare . . . is neither immutable nor particularly resistant to social development’.3 Education and politicization may take the form of making women face the possibilities of an increase in their objective well‐being and consider the ways of achieving such an increase. If it were the case that oppressed women could only or mostly form adaptive desires, then education on the matter would seem pointless. And we would have to accept that only those who are not oppressed—to wit, men, or people from a more liberal society—could rationally change a traditional society into a more liberal one. So we would come to an unacceptable paternalistic view of the matter.

Returning to the problem of how we can know whether there is injustice to women arising from the two actual norms in our own society, I think that our knowledge of past situations in which we have seen that enforced sexual roles produced injustice to women gives us a strong reason to believe that all present or future cases of enforced sexual division of activity are highly likely to turn out to be the same. Our backward‐looking judgements about injustice to women provide us with a knowledge that can be used in judging present similar cases. For we must remember that in making our backward‐looking judgements we have appealed to the notion of human nature, and that same notion is perhaps just what is needed to explain our recognition of present injustice to women in our own social system. This takes us to the last topic I would like to touch upon: whether the notion of human nature introduced to explain injustice to women might lend support to one or two ideal forms of life.

As we have seen, Annas's argument to explain injustice to women turns on the idea that men and women share a common human nature, that is to say, the idea that they have similar capacities to live a flourishing human life. However, when she comes to discuss whether this notion provides the basis for one ideal natural form of life, with all sexual division of roles falling on the culturally imposed side, or whether biology pervades culture and produces two ineliminably different norms of life for men and women, she reaches the conclusion that there is no way of deciding this question now, that things may turn out one way or the other. So, even if we appeal to the notion of human nature we can end up having two different norms.

(p.301) I wonder whether this conclusion might not undermine her argument for explaining injustice to women. That is to say, if the explanation relies on the fact that men and women share a common human nature, while at the same time we have to admit the possibility that human nature might give a grounding, after all, to two ideal norms for the lives of men and women, then it is difficult to see how the alleged explanation could possibly work. This seems especially clear if we try to explain cases of injustice to women that we seem to perceive in our own society and which are different from other cases encountered in the past. Take the case of women who want to become priests in the Catholic Church and who are not allowed to on the ground that they do not have the same ‘spiritual capacities’ that men do. According to Annas, the notion of human nature to which we have to appeal to explain injustice in this new case is a notion built upon past experience. But this notion will tell us nothing about the new capacity which is in question, it will not be sufficient to answer the question of whether women have the same capacity as men to become spiritual or religious leaders. Perhaps this example does not strike us as very important, for, after all, it only affects a very small group of women within a religious community; but we must realize that the same kind of problem could arise, and in fact does arise, in more traditional societies where the question of whether women have certain very basic capabilities has to be answered. In other words, Annas's empirical notion of human nature is insufficient to explain why the sexual division of activity that we perceive in our own society is unjust: for it could always be the case that the particular aspect in which we seem to discover injustice to women could turn out to be precisely one of the aspects in which men and women happen to be naturally different.

I am afraid that if we want to have a notion of human nature that could serve to explain injustice to women in our own two‐norms system, we have to appeal to a much ‘thicker’ notion than that introduced by Annas. In rejecting the dichotomy between fact and value, or between descriptive and evaluative notions, we come to realize that our notion of human nature is loaded with moral meaning. Concepts such as ‘dignity’, ‘equality’, autonomy', and ‘freedom’ seem to be inseparable from our notion of human nature. This notion, of course, will not deliver any ‘fairly specific pattern for the course of a human life’, but it will be enough for the exhibition and explanation of injustice to women arising from enforced sexual division of activity. As we have heard repeatedly in this conference, a person's well‐being, and with this her quality of life, seems to increase with any increase in her functionings, in Amartya Sen's words, and in her capabilities or freedom to chose between different ways of living. A two‐norms system for the lives of men and women, far from increasing the functionings or widening the capabilities of both men and women, would seem to reduce them for all.

(p.302) Bibliography

Bibliography references:

Okin, Susan Moller (1987). ‘Justice and Gender’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 16, (Winter 1987), 42–72.

Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Sen, Amartya (1987). ‘Gender and Cooperative Conflicts’, WIDER Working Paper. Helsinki: World Institute for Development Economics Research.

Notes:

(1) Cf. John Rawls, 1971: 149.

(2) We find a similar view in Okin, 1987: 59.

(3) Sen, 1987: 7.