An analgam of someone I knew, various remarks (held in various degrees of conviction), and many things I have read, holds a position on objective fact that I find peculiar, to say the least. A conversation might artifically run somewhat like this:
Petter: …As an example of a sex difference, men tend to be stronger than women.
Amalgam: I find that offensive. Many women are as strong as, or stronger than many men. Besides, sex isn’t binary, you’re over-simplifying.
Petter: Yes, that’s all true, but that doesn’t change the fact that on average, men are stronger than women. Look, I’m not arguing that men are better; I’m just observing that—
Amalgam: What’s a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’, anyway? Lots of people have ‘abnormal’ chromosomes, like XXY or XXYX, or have other intersex conditions.
Petter: So what? I’m not trying to say “A is a man, B is a woman, therefore A is stronger than B”. I’m just making an objective observation—that, as a matter of fact, without attaching any valuation to it, men (“XY individuals with motile sperm”) are on average physically stronger than women (“XX individuals with functional ovaries”). The existence of exceptions and of individuals who do not fit neatly into this scheme does nothing to contradict that generalisation.
Amalgam: But your binary division is artificial. Sex isn’t binary. Your distinction isn’t useful. What is it good for? So what if we “know” about this difference between “sexes”, or other differences—how does that make anything better? It just creates more grounds for people to discriminate on.
At this point, of course, I am invariably rather close to beating my head against a wall. I am a rationalist and naturalist, I am fond of objective truth, and I am rabidly obsessed with precision; but let’s try to calm down and look at this in a detached fashion.
It is of course true that lots of people don’t fit into any given definition of “male” and “female”. Your body may not match the typical representation of your chromosomal configuration, or you may not have a common chromosomal configuration at all, or you may even be a chimera, with different chromosomes in different tissues. But so what? I’ve never come across a sane argument that my casually proposed definition does not match a great majority people, and if it matches a great majority of people, then it suffices to make generalisations.
It’s also true—painfully, obviously true—that the generalisation does not apply in every case; but then, that’s inherent even in the definition of a generalisation. Physical strength (like most natural attributes) is distributed in a continuous distribution, probably something like a bell curve; the “men” curve will have a higher mean than the “women” curve (that’s exactly what my claim says), but there’s lots of overlap. Certainly there are many women stronger than the average man, and vastly more women stronger than weaker-than-average men. But, again, that in no way contradicts the claim that the mean strength of men is greater than the mean strength of women.
Objectively, then, it seems pretty obvious that I was factually correct (quibbling about what’s ‘normal’ aside). The final objection, however, was that my distinctions (and conclusions) aren’t useful. In fact, one particular person has gone further and indicated, in so many words, that it is therefore better not to hold a belief, even if it happens to be factually correct, because (e.g.) it may affect undesirable social trends, such as (in this case) perhaps a condescending attitude of men toward women in contexts of tasks that require physical strength.
I find this objection ludicrous on several grounds. First, I don’t necessarily care about the social impact of knowledge in the abstract: That is, I am interested in things without any regard to their social impact. I think it’s tremendously interesting that the reason why the sky is blue is Rayleigh scattering, but as far as I know this has no impact on any social phenomenon at all—the sky, after all, is blue regardless of whether we know why or not; it remains blue regardless even of whether we know it or not. I think that knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a very noble pursuit, and that if having knowledge leads people to make bad moral choices, then we need to focus not on limiting knowledge, but on improving moral education—or perhaps rather on combatting errors in thinking such as the naturalistic fallacy, the inveterate tendency to conflate “is” with “ought”.
Second, the latter part of that objection applies to pretty much anything. Even if we decide not to investigate sex differences, and don’t teach anyone that men are (on average) stronger than women, the facts remain facts. Reality is objective, and whether we believe it or not has no impact thereupon. Thus, even if we try our best to ignore the facts, it still remains true that when push comes to shove, men are better at it (pushing and shoving, that is). Biology doesn’t give a damn about political correctness. The facts, therefore, are there to be rediscovered. I fail to see how hushing them up does anyone much good—only ‘well-intentioned’ people will consent to it, and malicious people who would base their malice on unfortunate facts are always able to do the research for themselves, with the considerable advantage that they can objectively demonstrate that they are right. By avoiding the knowing of unfortunate facts, we have silenced the discussion that might have taught us to properly deal with them.
Third, denying that differences exist seems to me counterproductive even in social contexts. Men are physically stronger than women. There are many other differences. So what? That doesn’t make men morally superior to women, any more than the differences make women morally more valuable than men. Not only should we be smart enough to treat people with dignity regardless of such biological differences, but the refusal to seems to me to cast aspersions on other interactions. If we pretend, in the interest of “equality”, that men were no stronger than women, for instance, then we are implicitly saying that equality of strength is socially and politically important—which makes me wonder what we’re supposed to think of people with physical conditions that cause their strength to atrophy. At this point, I may have to pull out something more controversial and brain-related, and point out that men consistently score higher than women on 3-dimensional visualisation tasks: If we deny this, are we not implicitly saying that individuals with inferior skill in this narrow domain are somehow more generally inferior? This, it seems to me, follows logically; therefore I find the premise reprehensible.
Fourth, given that (as per #2) there do exist real differences, having a statistical notion of what they are is the only way we can intelligently formulate policies to deal with them. It’s very easy to say that we shouldn’t, that we should treat everyone as an individual and not “assume” that we know things about them based on narrow and superficial criteria like sex or race—but while that’s certainly true in personal interaction, sometimes we do have to deal with masses of people. If I were to allocate a health budget, for instance, then knowing that black people are more prone to sickle-cell anemia than white people, I would allocate more money to deal with this particular problem in areas with a greater proportion of black people in the population. If we wish to raise awareness of conditions that affect predominantly men, or women, or black people, or white people, or fat people, or skinny people…then simply knowing about the general correlation may help us focus our concern on the more vulnerable segment of the population. Certainly, this does sadly leave highly exceptional people in the less-targeted segments, but since no health budget exists that can deal with every problem, isn’t it our moral duty to address the problem as well and as specifically as we can? (It also happens that the needless testing we’d have to perform on the ‘normal’ majority of people in order to find the very few with undetected ‘abnormalities’ would probably create more problems than it solves, even apart from budgetary exhaustion—“more testing” does not equal “better health”, and may often lead to reduced quality of life. Sad, but true.)
I am not going to tie this together into a conclusion—I think that there are several, and they are fairly neatly listed in point form. And, to be perfectly honest, my strongest visceral reaction to conversations of this kind is “That’s just preposterous!”, because I cannot wrap my brain around the idea that knowing something is a bad thing. If your ethics object to reality, then adjust your ethics, or change reality to match them—but actually change things; don’t just try to change perception. If (and this is hypothetical and quite possibly counterfactual) we observe that women are less educated than men, then the correct response is not to smile and assure the girls that they are just as good as the boys—no, the answer is to find out why and to do something about it!
As for those things which biology forces upon us, whether we like it or not—such as my running example of physical strength—well, so what? We can choose to deal with it in various ways. In an awful lot of contexts, it only makes sense to evaluate people on individual merit, anyway. (We might regard the cost of evaluating people of the generally-less-suitable segment of the population as an acceptable cost for fairness.) In other situations, it actually seems to make sense to freely accept that our conditions differ: So, for instance, very few people object to sex divisions in sports—and ss a fan of combat sports, I am glad: The muscular differences between men and women would make it a rather brutal affair, and watching a man fight a woman would just be unpleasant, even apart from cultural baggage. (In such cases, though, it does become difficult to know what to do about people who constitute exceptions—I don’t know whether the woman in the story has any chromosomal abnormality, but the fact that it is an issue is enough to note that it’s a troubling area.)
Finally, I want to make it very clear that I am perfectly well aware that many of the differences between the sexes are not “biologically determined” even probabilistically, but are strictly the products of our cultures and social conditioning. There are many worthy causes there, and I won’t say much about them because I’m not really qualified to speak intelligently on the matter. However, anyone who seeks to gain me or people like me as allies there (and it shouldn’t be too difficult) had best be careful about steering away from the post-modern muddle-headedness that would alter reality just by changing our perceptions, because the more you refuse to acknowledge the reality of those differences which objectively do exist, the less I am likely to take you seriously when you speak about those imposed on us by a patriarchal cultural heritage¹.
¹ This very explicitly does not apply to certain regular readers…