Category Archives: The Paper

Structural Inequality

My approach to working up this difficult and abstract concept is to specify a simple social context from which a structural inequality emerges.   Using this example, I will describe a general picture of structural inequality.

A woman that I know, let’s call her Mary, has a seat in the monthly executive-level strategy meetings at the company where she works. Fourteen people regularly attend these meetings, 10 men and four women. In the formal corporate hierarchy, she is on the third tier from the top, which is the lowest that participates in such meetings. She is one of two people and the only woman on her level.

Her male colleague, John, with whom she is in direct competition for promotion and other benefits, is younger than her and was hired after her. In the spirit of a team working for the interests of the company, all participants are expected to offer their thoughts and ideas and are tacitly evaluated by their superiors on their contributions to the discussion. Indeed, the opinions of each are explicitly solicited, and Mary is often asked what she thinks about the issue at hand.

Now for some reason, Mary is also tasked by the president of the company with taking meeting notes. There is no obvious reason for Mary to get this particular assignment, but on one occasion when Mary was not able to attend a meeting, the note-taking responsibility was given to her immediate supervisor, also a woman, rather than to the man at Mary’s level. These strategy meetings are fast-paced and require quick and creative thinking from participants.

The problem for Mary is that taking notes on such conversations makes it extremely difficult to contribute to them. Her bearing this responsibility thus puts her at a disadvantage with respect to the adequacy of her participation. She is negatively evaluated for what appears to be a lack of insightful and creative thought. If, however, she were to resist the note-taking assignment, she would be penalized for lacking team spirit. Were she to do the note-taking job poorly, she would be judged incompetent, so she diligently takes precise and comprehensive notes. This fact, of course, seems to offer some justification for the president’s decision to assign the task to her and ensures that it will remain hers.

Moreover, since she is taking the notes, everyone else in the meeting is free to concentrate fully on strategizing. So her good work serves to improve the performance and thus the evaluations of others. This has the effect, especially for John, of increasing their status in the eyes of their superiors relative to hers. Hence her considerable efforts work against her own interests.

Mary is encircled in what Marilyn Frye calls a “double bind,” a kind of trap that limits her options and opportunities and makes the avoidance of penalty impossible.1

Mary’s plight is not necessarily apparent to the casual observer, so there is no reason to think that the president intends to put her in this situation.  The evaluative criteria are the same for everyone in the meeting. All are expected to participate. Mary has a seat at the table, and her opinions are actively solicited. Note taking in itself isn’t a particularly odious or difficult task, and it arguably gives Mary an opportunity to demonstrate her commitment to the team. All might seem fair if each element of the situation in which Mary finds herself is considered in isolation from the others. But if all of these considerations are taken together, it is clear that Mary is at a disadvantage relative to her colleagues.

Borrowing Peter Blau’s spatial metaphor, Iris Marion Young provides a generalized account of this kind of inequality. According to Blau,

A social structure can be conceptualized as a multi-dimensional space of differentiated social positions among which a population is distributed. The social associations of people provide both the criterion for distinguishing social positions and the connections among them that make them elements of a single social structure. 2

Each meeting participant occupies a particular social position, the features of which condition the options and opportunities that are available to the occupant. Each of these positions is defined and thus differentiated from other positions by the relationships that exist between them. These relationships also connect each position to every other position, and it is by virtue of such connections that the various social positions together constitute a social structure or social space.

In Mary’s strategy meetings, such relationships include but are not limited to the patterns of authority and deference of the formal corporate hierarchy, social norms, role assignments and responsibilities, evaluative criteria, expectations, etc. An important correlate of this picture is that the positions and their features are relationally constituted. Each position in the structure is differentiated by its relationships to other positions, and the set of conditions that a position places on the options and opportunities of its occupant are a function of the relations in which it stands with other positions.3

As a specific example,  consider the position of note-taker in the social space of Mary’s strategy meetings. The features of this particular position are constituted in part by the fact that every other position does not carry with it the assigned responsibility of taking meeting notes. And reciprocally every other position is in part constituted by the fact that the note-taker position has note-taking responsibilities.  So conditions on the options and opportunities of the occupant of the note-taker position are partially a product of the fact that the other positions don’t have note-taking responsibility.

Consider that Mary’s difficulty comes in part as a result of the fact that though she is held to the same evaluation criteria as everyone else, she has an additional cognitive burden that no one else has. If either everyone or no one were to have this extra burden, then the disadvantage that Mary suffers as a result of her being the only note taker would not exist. Moreover, conditions on the options and opportunities of those who occupy positions that do not have note-taking responsibility also come in part as a result of the fact that the note-taker position has this responsibility. The advantage that everyone else enjoys because they are free of note-taking responsibility comes in part as a result of the fact that Mary is taking notes. And again, if everyone or no one were to be required to take notes, then this advantage would not exist. Mary is unequally positioned relative to her fellow participants in that her position carries with it a constraint on her options and opportunities that disadvantage her relative to the others in the meeting. Furthermore, her disadvantage is reciprocally related to their advantage.

Generalizing a bit more from my example, the reciprocal relation between the advantaged and the disadvantaged (and thus structural inequality itself) can be constructed in at least three overlapping but distinct ways. First, a social structure, in which some occupy positions of privilege, necessarily puts others in disadvantaged positions, so individuals in the privileged positions are granted a sort of positional good that is denied to those who are not. Next, it will often be the case that disadvantaged individuals are relegated to performing service work for those with privilege, e.g. wives caring for the emotional needs of husbands, housekeeping staffs and secretaries freeing up their employers’ time, etc. And lastly, the privileged often extract value from the disadvantaged. The benefits that advantaged persons receive enable them to improve their position relative to the disadvantaged. The energy that a disadvantaged person expends is thus used against her in a way that furthers her disadvantage.

From here, we can work up, in very general terms, the further notion of a social group. Such groups consist in people who occupy similar social positions. So we can say that the existence of a note-taker position in the social structure of Mary’s meetings creates at least two groups: note-takers, of which there is only one member, and non-note-takers, which has 13 members. There is a complex myriad of other overlapping social groups in even this simply social context as well: those who are on the same levels of the corporate hierarchy, those who are in various departments, men, women, etc.

Like the positions that constitute them, social groups have features that condition the options and opportunities of their members. We may also conceive these features and the groups that bear them as relationally constituted, so the existence of a group that consists of a set of similarly disadvantaged positions implies the existence of another group that consists of a set of positions which are advantaged with respect to those disadvantaged positions. The presence of structurally unequal groups in a social structure thus entails social stratification.

There is much more to be said, but this should begin to shed some light on the notions of social structure and structural inequality. Societies have a social structure. Individual persons occupy social positions in this space that are differentiated by the relations between positions. These relations determine the features of each position, and these features condition the options and opportunities of the occupant. Positions that exhibit relational similarities form the social groups which typify the divisions and hierarchies of race, class, sexual orientation, and, as Haslanger defines it, gender.4

An additional aspect of structural inequality is that inhabiting a particular position often involves significant and psychological effects The relations in which a particular position stands with other positions condition and constrain the options and opportunities of its occupant, and these constraints and conditions are often internalized by the occupant through socialization processes with the effect that the selves of some people are reduced, fragmented and alienated.

Focusing on the positions that constitute gender, the unequal and oppressive set of norms that characterize the genders may be understood as the ideals of masculinity and femininity, and when internalized these ideals become important elements of people’s identities. Sandra Bartky has argued that the internalization of femininity distorts the psychological development of women in a way that reduces and fragments their selves. For example, women who have internalized femininity may be significantly less inclined to question the roles that they are expected to play and norms that they are required to follow.  This is not a simple matter of women not being allowed to speak or not being heard.  It is not even that women may be afraid to openly question and criticize the way things are.  While all of these factors may also be in place, a deeper problem is that women may be psychologically conditioned such that they do not even feel a desire to speak. As Bartky suggests, a person, who has internalized the conditions, constraints and norms of the positions to which “woman” refers, is likely to feel quite at home in her femininity. She is also likely to see the subordinate relationships that she and other women have with men as entirely natural as well. So in addition to being an effect of the structural inequality of gender, the internalization of gender ideals should also be seen as a mechanism for the maintenance of gender itself.

While my focus is on gender,  it is very important to note that sexism is not the only such structure. Similar accounts could be given of inequalities based on class, sexual orientation, age, disability, ethnicity, religion, and so on.

1 See Frye, Marilyn. “Oppression” from The Politics of Reality (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1983).

2 Blau, Peter. Inequality and Heterogeneity (New York: Free Press, 1977), 4.

3 Young, Iris Marion.  Inclusion and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 92-99. See also Young, Iris Marion. Justice and Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 43-65.

4 Young 2000 93-94. Haslanger, Sally. “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Noûs, Vol. 34, No. 1, (2000): 31-55; Mills, Charles W. “But What Are You Really? The Metaphysics of Race” in Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 41-66.

5 Bartky, Sandra. Femininity and Domination (New York: Routledge , 1990), 23-32.

2 Comments

Filed under Cissexism, Classism, Feminism, Injustice, Racism, Sexism, The Paper

Sally Haslanger on Gender

How to understand gender is a complicated issue that has not been settled in any conclusive or definitive way. And it is not my goal here to enter this discussion. For now, I wish only to describe roughly how Sally Haslanger understands gender in order to make better sense of her analysis of objectification.

Along with Haslanger, I assume the sex-gender distinction that is common in the feminist literature. According to this picture, “sex” refers to those biologically determined facts about a person that relate to one’s role in sexual reproduction. There are at least two sexes, “male” and “female.” “Gender,” on the other hand, refers to a socially constructed position that a person occupies in society, and there are at least two genders, “man” and “woman,” i. e. those who are “masculine” and those who are “feminine.”  According to the standard way of thinking, these two ideas are connected in that an individual’s perceived sex plays some role in determining his or her gender. This is, for now, very vague, but a more precise account will be sketched later.

Assuming the viability of the sex-gender distinction, there are further questions about how many sexes and genders there actually are. Though my focus is on men and women, I am committed neither to the claim that there are only two genders (or only two sexes) nor the claim that there should only be two genders.

Serious questions do arise about “how far down” socially constructed gender goes and indeed about the stability of the sex-gender distinction itself. I doubt that a clear-cut way to demarcate gender from sex is forthcoming. But there are significant social, political and economic inequalities in our society that correlate with perceived roles in sexual reproduction.

Haslanger has developed a characterization of gender as a social construction.

S is a woman if and only

1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction;
2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact subordinate (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
3. the fact that S satisfies (i) and (ii) plays a role in S’s systematic subordination, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is oppressive, and S’s satisfying (i) and (ii) plays a role in that dimension of subordination.

S is a man if and only if

1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction;
2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact privileged (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
3. the fact that S satisfies (i) and (ii) plays a role in S’s systematic privilege, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is privileged, and S’s satisfying (i) and (ii) plays a role in that dimension of privilege.1

Haslanger’s definitions involve two notions that will need to be elucidated further, the ideas of social positions and structural inequality. I understand social position, as, I believe, does Haslanger, in terms of social structure. And the existence of some positions that are privileged or subordinated relative to others means that the social structure that contains these positions has a structural inequality.

1.Haslanger, Sally. “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Noûs, Vol. 34, No. 1, (2000): 31-55,  Page 42

1 Comment

Filed under Cissexism, Classism, Feminism, Injustice, Racism, Sexism, The Paper

“The Nature” (of Women)

I am not going to make claims about the nature of women (hence the strange punctuation in the title), and I will say a little about why not at the end of this post.  Instead, I am going to talk about what it means to have beliefs about “the nature” (of women or men or whatever).

There is an enormous body of philosophical literature, going back thousands of years, about the nature of entities.   My goal here is not to enter into this ancient debate.  Rather, I want to clarify the term as it is used in Catharine MacKinnon and Sally Haslanger’s definition of objectification, which I call enforced reconstruction.

Recall that Sally Haslanger interprets Catharine MacKinnon as holding that an objectifier represents and treats the objectified as

“having by nature properties [the objectifier] desires” and “has the power to force [the objectified] to have these properties (and sometimes exercises this power).”

So what meaning does the notion of “nature” add to these sentences?

  • Women are ____ by their nature.
  • It is in the nature of women to ____.

At root the conception of “nature” that Haslanger and MacKinnon have in mind is simple.

The nature of an entity is what is essential to it, and an entity’s “natural properties” are just those properties without which it would either not be what it is or would not be a well-formed or well-functioning individual of the type of entity that it is.

Our knowledge of the nature of an entity guides us in figuring out what we should do when we encounter it.   Such knowledge also informs our moral, aesthetic and functional evaluations of individuals.

That men’s beliefs about women are often beliefs about the nature of women is important, and here’s why.

Consider that there is commonly held belief that women are naturally submissive.

Full Stop.  This is only an example.  I do not believe that women are naturally submissive.

In fact, it is an undeniable fact that there are many, many women who do not act submissively.

This fact could be taken as a reason to change the beliefs that women are submissive.  If I just so happen to think that all women are submissive because all of the women that I have ever seen have acted submissively, then my reaction to meeting a women who does not act submissively should be to change my mind about the submissiveness of women.

A counterexample to the idea that women are submissive.

But if I think that it is in the nature of women to be submissive, then my reaction to meeting a women who does not exhibit this trait will be to attribute a defect to that individual woman.  I do not, in this latter case, revise my views about the nature of women; rather, I infer from my beliefs about the nature of women that this woman is not a good woman.  This, of course, is bullshit.

We must watch out for this sort of belief – in others, yes, but also – especially – in ourselves.  They are very common, and they may be held in good faith by people who do not intend to have sexist beliefs.

I don’t think it’s possible to really justify a belief about the nature of women or indeed people in general.  So I am an agnostic about the nature of people.  We can’t know what our nature is.   This is why I will not make any positive claims about the nature of women (or anyone else).  But what I will do is criticize claims made by others about the nature of women.

Work hard to avoid making beliefs that operate this way.  In one sense it is fairly easy to do this.  Just make sure that you hold your beliefs about people open to being revised.  When you encounter an individual who doesn’t fit your beliefs about what people are like, let that individual change your beliefs about what people are like.  Don’t let yourself think that an individual is defective, weird, or bad just because they don’t fit your preconceived notions about what people are like.

But in another sense, it is very difficult to do this.  It is very easy for us to let our beliefs about what people are like solidify into a beliefs about the nature of people.

Be vigilant!

1 Haslanger, Sally. “On Being Objective and Being Objectified,” A Mind of One’s Own, ed., L Antony and C. Witt. (Boulder: Westview, 1993) 85-125. Page 111; MacKinnon, Catharine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989). Page 122.

Leave a comment

Filed under Feminism, Injustice, Objectification, Reference, Sexism, The Paper

Objectification, Sexual and Eroticized

There are at least two distinct ways to understand how some objectification is “sexual.” These approaches are not mutually exclusive, and there is overlap and interconnection between them.

Sexual Objectification

The first notion is nicely expressed by Sandra Bartky, who offers the following description. “A person is sexually objectified when her sexual parts or sexual functions are separated out from the rest of her personality and reduced to the status of mere instruments or else regarded as if they were capable of representing her.”1

Precisely what counts as “sexual” is difficult to specify and further work will be required. Bartky suggests that there are cases of this kind of sexual objectification that are neither oppressive nor even morally wrong. It can, for instance, be morally permissible to objectify someone in this way during consensual sexual activity. The practice becomes oppressive when it is “habitually extended into every area of [a person’s] experience,” including those contexts in which perceiving that person as a sexual object is inappropriate or in which she has not consented to being so perceived.2

While this kind of sexual objectification may in different circumstances implicate all ten of the practices in the Nussbaum-Langton list, it’s key distinguishing feature is its focus on the instrumentalization of the sexual parts or sexual functioning of the objectified person. The objectifier regards and treats the objectified as a sexual object, and the objectifier’s erotic focus is on the sexual parts and functions of the objectified.

Eroticized Objectification

A second way to understand a specifically “sexual” sort of objectification follows Haslanger and MacKinnon’s view on the matter. As Haslanger puts it,

[O]ne objectifies something just in case one views it and treats it as an object that has by nature properties which one desires in it and, further, one has the power to make it have those properties. (Sexual objectification adds to each of these two further conditions: The desire in question is an erotic desire, and the desire is for dominance/submission).3

Here the emphasis lies on the eroticization of dominance/submission. As Haslanger elucidates, the sexual objectifier “desires subordination and finds force erotic.”4

In contrast to Bartky’s notion, the objectifier’s erotic focus lies on the perceived submissiveness of the objectified and on the exercise of power in enforcing this perception, rather than on the sexual parts or sexual functions of the objectified. To distinguish these two approaches, I will refer to Bartky’s conception as “sexual objectification” and to Haslanger and MacKinnon’s as “eroticized objectification.

Put simply, while sexual objectification involves the reduction of a person to a sexual object, eroticized objectification involves the eroticization of the objectification of a person. Though conceptually distinct, sexual and eroticized objectification are, in practice, interconnected. And since this fact is relevant to my overall question about the moral obligations of men, a more detailed examination of this relationship will be required.

1 Bartky, Sandra. Femininity and Domination (New York: Routledge , 1990), 26.

2 Ibid. 26

3 Haslanger, Sally. “On Being Objective and Being Objectified,” A Mind of One’s Own, ed., L Antony and C. Witt. (Boulder: Westview, 1993) 85-125. Page 109

4 Ibid. 111


Leave a comment

Filed under Feminism, Objectification, Sexism, The Paper

Objectification in General

The objectification of women is a set of practices that plays a central role in the sexism of our society. I distinguish between a general notion of objectification (the Nussbaum-Langton list), sexual objectification (treating a person as a sex object) and eroticized objectification (the eroticization of objectifying a person). I’ll describe objectification in general here and the other two in subsequent posts.

The basic idea seems simple enough. To objectify a person is to treat her as an object, so objectification at its simplest could be described as a set of practices that involves such treatment. Martha Nussbaum has done some work to specify this set by cataloging seven different ways to treat someone as an object. They are:

1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the objectified as a tool for his or her purposes.

2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the objectified as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.

3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the objectified as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.

4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the objectified as interchangeable (a) with others of the same type, and/or (b) with individuals of other types.

5. Violability: The objectifier treats the objectified as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.

6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the objectified as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.

7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the objectified as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.1

To this list, Rae Langton adds three additional practices.

8. Reduction to body: The objectifier treats the object as identified with its body, or body parts.

9. Reduction to appearance: The objectifier treats the object primarily in terms of how it looks, or how it appears to the senses.

10. Silencing: The objectifier treats the objectified as silent, lacking the capacity to speak.2

The above list is formulated in terms of ways in which the objectifier treats the objectified, but there is an important epistemic component to objectification as well.

According to Sally Haslanger, Catharine MacKinnon holds that an objectifier represents and treats the objectified as “having by nature properties [the objectifier] desires” and “has the power to force [the objectified] to have these properties (and sometimes exercises this power).”3 Since the practice involves a sort of coercive reconstruction of the objectified by the objectifier, I will refer to it as enforced reconstruction. With respect to treatment, this idea adds little that is not already on the list. Indeed, we can understand Haslanger and MacKinnon’s notion as a general description of objectifying treatment. But enforced reconstruction adds an important epistemic element as well. In addition to treating an object in the ways described, the objectifier represents the objectified as having certain properties by nature.

This point is significant because operating under such a belief can conceal the wrongness of these kinds of treatment. If, for example, John represents Mary as lacking autonomy, then it will not seem to John wrong to treat Mary as lacking autonomy. In fact, if Mary has formed this belief about herself, as is often the case when oppressive gender norms are internalized, it will not seem wrong to her either. This list gives also rise to a number of further questions, particularly about autonomy and agency, that will need to be addressed in more detail.

1 Nussbaum, Martha. “Objectification.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 249-291: Page 257. I have slightly altered Nussbaum’s wording.

2  I have slightly altered Langton’s wording.

3 Haslanger, Sally. “On Being Objective and Being Objectified,” A Mind of One’s Own, ed., L Antony and C. Witt. (Boulder: Westview, 1993) 85-125. Page 111 (Hereafter references with the abbreviation “Haslanger 1993.”); MacKinnon, Catharine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989). Page 122.

1 Comment

Filed under Feminism, Objectification, Sexism, The Paper