14 April 2005

Sexism in taxes and Harvard presidential remarks

I would like to direct your attention to two recent writings by other people on gender and sexism.

(1) In an editorial in The Register-Guard, Sandra Morgen and Linda Basch argue that Bush's tax cuts are specifically unfair to women.

(2) Like most e-mail lists, that of my house at school had a flury of e-mails when Harvard President Summers made his inflamatory comments about women in math and science. That flury died down, but a recent e-mail from a housemate asking for comments for a Women-in-Science-conference preview article prompted the following response from another housemate:
While I agree with [one resident, who suggested that we should investigate the possibility of innate differences rather than ruling them out due to a worry that they are un-PC] that ignorance should be avoided rather than sought, I think that it's high time for nativism to give up the ghost. Darwinian process-oriented thought should long ago have driven nature-vs.-nurture debates into obsolescence. There is no such dichotomy. What traits individuals possess are conditioned by the constraints of genetics as well as by social/environmental influences, and differences in either can significantly affect the results, especially in the case of such things as high-level cognitive processes. There is no benchmark, no zero state of social conditioning against which to measure the effect of genetics; if it weren't for our intensive social conditioning, we would all be pre-symbolic wild beasts. Nature selects for pathways that lead to certain ultimate phenotypic results, and it makes no difference whether these pathways rely more or less on genetic determinism rather than on given environmental circumstances to constrain their trajectories to the selected-for result.

It also seems clear that the variables in question are (in our current set of historically determined genetic-environmental circumstances) particularly sensitive to minor changes in social conditions, well beyond the range of what is considered significant, as evidenced by such facts as that presently much higher proportions of Eastern European women are very successful in hard sciences than are women from other areas. Innateness is a useless category, an illusion. It seems to me that the fire behind every nature-vs.-nurture debate arises entirely from the desire to avoid responsibility for the trait in question (or, reciprocally, to assume (or at least pin) such responsibility). But whether something is natural does not determine whether it is ethical. Besides, in the near future genetics themselves are likely to increasingly become a matter of conscious choice, as we gain the ability to manipulate them (assuming we avoid major apocalyptic catastrophe), which will further destabilize the effectiveness of nature-based arguments at eliminating responsibility. The only relevant aspect of reality plausibly affected by such a classification of attributes is how difficult they are to change, not whether we should try to change them.

In summary, (i) NOTHING is immutable; (ii) the fact that something may be very difficult to change does not in any case morally justify it; (iii) the only ethical action is to choose desired states of the world (locally & globally), & use whatever abilities we possess to try to achieve these goals. The question, in the final analysis, cannot be whether a dream is "natural", but only whether it is good; & if so, how it may be attained.
Well said.

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