All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1992

Sex, Lies, and History

Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.

For the last couple of decades, feminism has been a major force in American politics. This, in itself, is lamentable: Why should every movement become a matter of politics?

But we should not dismiss feminism. After all, John Stuart Mill, one of the intellectual heroes of classical liberalism, was a feminist. He argued forcefully against the subjugation of women, for universal suffrage and other sound feminist objectives. And there have been plenty of injustices against women; when feminists call this to our attention, they should be congratulated. Women are human beings, first; and whatever a human being has a right to, women have a right to as well. Any system of law that denies this—and there are many such around the world—needs improvement.

However, we also should consider some of the feminists’ more extreme positions. These tend to center around the theme that males have waged a deliberate vendetta against women throughout human history. In several academic disciplines—English, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and economics—we find the forceful development of this thesis.

In my own field, philosophy, there are feminists claiming that the prominent role of men has involved deliberate distortions in established doctrines. Even in the philosophy of scientific method there are feminists who claim that men have put forth a lopsided view of how science should be conducted. Feminist ethics, in turn, often amounts to the thesis that since most of the moral philosophers have been men, the ethical theories we have offered for consideration have favored male domination. Great composers, playwrights, and novelists have come under similar indictment—that they put men first and distorted the worth of women.

No doubt there is something to the claim that men have been the focus of much of our cultural activity. Yet, if men and women are basically equal, this should not have amounted to a major distortion. Except for issues relating specifically to sexuality, whatever matters or is true should be as easy to reveal through our understanding of males as it is from our understanding of females.

But the worst claim by extreme feminists is not that there has been a bias in favor of men but that it has been perpetrated deliberately, so as to deprive women. Keeping women down is supposed to be a major objective behind the bias.

There are several things wrong with this position. First, if it were true, we would have to believe that males are indeed very different from women, for better or for worse. In that case there is no justice in the call for equal treatment of the sexes.

Second, this implies that men have been much better off than women in how they lived their lives. Is that credible? Men went hunting, to war, to the office, to government, to business—women were left in the home, in the nurturing professions, and so on. Is that such a break for men?

Third, if the extreme feminist thesis is correct, there is no hope for anything but an ongoing battle of the sexes. We can look forward to continued strife, hostility, misunderstanding, and power struggles. What is the point of seeking solutions when, supposedly, the nature of the human animal makes it impossible to find any? If men are bent on hurting women and if women cannot escape this, where is the point to any proposed remedy? Any gesture of goodwill from males to females would have to be dismissed as subterfuge.

However, there is a more reasonable view of how things have turned out between men and women. Briefly, certain job specializations that made sense in the past have been extended beyond their usefulness, and we are struggling to catch up with new possibilities and, thus, with the need for new sensibilities. Human beings generally don’t change rapidly. We shouldn’t be appalled when outmoded traditions aren’t immediately rejected as soon as we see they are pointless. Just think how tough it is for someone to follow up on the realization that smoking, lack of exercise, or a fatty diet may be harmful. Clearly, our unwillingness to change, including in our relationships between the sexes, is not usually a matter of deliberate misconduct. More often it is inertia, negligence, or fear of novelty.

I am not arguing that these are innocent practices. Negligence can be destructive. But just as in the law, there is much difference between misconduct stemming from negligence as opposed to premeditation. Feminists who claim that our problems stem from the latter are misjudging the situation to the detriment of us all. And they fail to acknowledge that the negligence involved in keeping up with new developments that would warrant changes in attitudes and conduct is something of which both men and women are guilty. There would be no need for sexual scapegoating if such an acknowledgment were made up front and were to moderate the rhetoric of feminism.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.