In a recent piece for Quillette, Bo Winegard talks about what he calls “cosmic egalitarianism,” a thoroughgoing sort of egalitarianism that reacts strongly to arguments that some groups of people are different from others. For Winegard, this belief, held by many progressives, is what lay behind the backlash to James Damore’s Google Memo, which took as one of its starting assumptions the idea that “men and women biologically differ in many ways.” Winegard’s intuition is that progressives find this assumption intolerable because progressives hold egalitarianism sacred, and they fear that the idea that people are naturally different will lead to discrimination.
I think Winegard is pretty much right. When I posted a review of studies on sex differences on Facebook a few weeks ago, a friend of mine openly expressed the fear that this would be used to justify discrimination against women. I have no idea how widespread this fear is, but I would guess that it does explain a considerable amount of the resistance that progressives have to the scientific study of sex differences. That’s perfectly understandable: the idea of natural sex differences has, in fact, been used to justify oppression in the past, and may be used to justify oppression again.
If I can add anything to this debate, it’s to point out that the acceptance that men and women differ biologically in some ways doesn’t necessarily mean that we should treat them differently. There are, of course, many ways in which women might be (and have been) oppressed, but I’ll focus here on politics. The idea that a distinctive female nature should disqualify women from politics was used to try to deny women the vote, so the fear that it might used in the same way again is anything but crazy.
In my view, though, the argument that people should be excluded from politics because they’re different constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy. Democracy demands that we treat people as political equals, but it doesn’t require everyone to be equal in every possible way. And all that treating people as equals in the political sphere commits us to is the idea that people have a rough equality when it comes to normative decision-making, that is, decisions about what we ought to do as a society.
I think this intuition is, in fact, foundational to our democratic practices, but it’s so rarely articulated that it’s started to seem unfamiliar. So maybe it’s time to revisit this central democratic idea as it was first formulated, around two and a half thousand years ago, in ancient Greece.
By the time Plato was writing his dialogues, Athens had been a democracy for over a hundred years. It may have been precisely the dominance of democratic ideals that motivated aristocrats like Thucydides, Xenophon, and the author known as “The Old Oligarch” to develop systematic criticisms of popular rule. In any case, it was Plato who’d prove the dissidents’ most formidable representative.
For Plato, the problem with democracy was that it put ignorant people in charge. To be more precise, politics is a form of expertise; and democracy puts non-experts where the experts should be (in power). Letting the inexpert masses govern, for Plato, is about as wise as a ship’s passengers getting rid of a skilled navigator and trying to pilot the ship themselves.
Aristocratic dissidents never reconciled themselves to the democrats’ practice of treating all free adult males as political equals — even the poorest ones. One of their obsessions was finding reasons for excluding people from the set of political decision-makers. Plato’s utopias effectively barred everybody from politics except for a cast of highly-trained philosophers.
Plato’s student Aristotle would have preferred to exclude anyone who had to work for a living, on the grounds that having to work for a living makes it impossible to develop virtue. Aristotle also argued (against his teacher) that women should be excluded, since though they had a deliberative faculty (unlike slaves), it wasn’t active. (The great biologist doesn’t have a great record on sex differences; he also claimed that women have fewer teeth than men, even though that’s something he probably could have checked).
Greek democrats, of course, agreed with Aristotle that women should be kept away from politics, though it’s unlikely that many of them shared that view for the philosopher’s biological reasons. They also excluded slaves and foreigners from their political institutions. When it came to free males, though, democrats apparently rejected Plato’s idea that political experts should be the only ones having a say on political matters. We know that from their institutions, which routinely saw participation from Athenian citizens from many different backgrounds, levels of wealth, and walks of life.
That this was the Athenians’ regular practice is borne out in a passage near the beginning of Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, in which Plato’s teacher Socrates is depicted in conversation with the democratically-inclined philosopher from Abdera. Socrates tells Protagoras he’s noticed something funny about the Athenian Assembly. When the Athenians have to make a decision about putting up a new building, they ask an architect to speak; when they think they might need new ships, they consult a shipwright; and so on. But when it comes to decisions which concern the state as a whole, anyone can stand up and speak: “the carpenter as much as the metal-worker and shoe-maker; the merchant as much as the ship-owner; the poor as much as the rich; the common man as much as the aristocratic type.” Why is this?
Socrates’ question is, unsurprisingly, a thoroughly Platonic one. It also cuts right to the heart of ancient democratic practice. Why have non-experts advise about the state, when you wouldn’t let them advise on architecture or ship-building? Protagoras responds to Socrates’ question with a story (a muthos).
The story goes something like this. Once upon a time, two titans were tasked with handing out attributes to all the recently-created living things. So they handed out great size to some animals, and speed, an underground habitat, or the ability to fly to others. But when they came to humans, they realized that they’d run out of attributes! One of the titans, Prometheus, stole fire and practical expertise from the gods, and that helped humans to some extent, but they still weren’t able to form viable communities. So Zeus told Hermes to give them the two key ingredients of political expertise, a sense of justice (dikē) and a conscience (aidōs).
Crucially, according to Protagoras, Zeus explicitly instructed Hermes to distribute a sense of justice and a conscience to everyone. Hermes was to make sure that the distribution of political expertise was not like the distribution of medical expertise, with a few people having a lot of it and a lot of people not having any of it. This is because political expertise is the kind of thing that, unless everyone has it, won’t do any of us any good.
What is Protagoras getting at? The basic idea behind his story is pretty simple: we’re all endowed with roughly the same amount of political expertise. That seems like a bold claim: clearly, we’re not all professors of political science. If you look at what he thinks political expertise involves, though — a conscience and a sense of justice — it’s clear that he’s not talking about a grasp of Arrow’s impossibility theorem, but about the kind of moral intelligence that we use every day. We might re-state Protagoras’ claim as follows: we all have roughly similar moral capacities (and, as a consequence, obligations).
Who cares if we all have roughly the same kind of moral capacities (psychopaths excepted, who, in Protagoras’ view, are to be summarily executed)? What does this have to do with politics? One of Protagoras’ key intuitions is that politics and ethics are not as distinct as we sometimes take them to be. Decisions facing the community are decisions about what we ought to do, and as such they’re different in kind to questions of how best to build a house or a ship. They’re not even really like the question of how to steer a ship; they’re like the decision about where we want the ship to be headed.
Now, at this point you may be thinking, “This is all very well, but what has it got to do with the Google Memo?” Let’s trace Protagoras’ argument back to its roots. Political decisions are normative (ethical) ones, and they thus engage our capacities as moral beings. As moral beings, we’re all more or less equal, because the gods endowed us with a conscience and a sense of justice in roughly equal degrees. Of course, that’s to put the point in the terms of an ancient Greek myth, but we don’t need to put it that way; we might prefer to say that there’s less natural variance in moral capacities than there is in other measures, such as IQ or aggression.
My purpose here, though, isn’t to defend that claim empirically. It’s to point out how much more modest it is than the more ambitious claim that we’re all equal in every way, which seems to be at the root of the current intolerance for open discussions about natural sex differences. Protagoras’ theory reminds us that we don’t need to believe that people are equal in every way to treat them as political equals; in fact, we may treat them as political equals while recognizing that there are many ways in which people do have different capacities.
It’s hard to say to what extent the type of reasons given by Protagoras for Athenian democratic practices actually motivated ancient Greek democrats. And it’s a pretty safe bet that not many democrats around today have ever even read Plato’s dialogue in translation, let alone in Plato’s wonderful Greek prose. But I think many of our democratic practices rely on similar intuitions, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
We could, for example, easily disenfranchise a group of people who have demonstrably lower IQs than average. Who are they? Well, simply the set of people who score less than average in IQ tests. This group of people would be pretty easy to identify: we’d just need to administer mandatory IQ tests to the whole population. Poor performers could be excluded from voting forthwith.
Actually, something not too far away from this has recently been suggested. The reason that we won’t take up the suggestion, or haven’t yet, is because we’ve come to understand that there’s more to politics than solving puzzles — empirical or logical ones, at least. Most democrats, I think, now share a sense that the reason that we all get a vote isn’t because we’re all equally intelligent or knowledgeable, but because we’re all more or less equal when it comes to deciding what choices we should make as a society.
Now, James Damore never claimed that men are more intelligent than women on average. He was right not to, because (as Jordan Peterson said to Cathy Newman before they started talking about lobsters) there’s no evidence for that claim. But there is good evidence that there are some natural differences between men and women, such as men being more interested in abstractions and women being more interested in people. That’s a claim that Damore did make, and I think he was right to, because it seems to me to be true.
At this point, though, the friend who was kind enough to comment on my Facebook post is sure to object. “Even if it’s true, is it wise to say it? Women have been oppressed on such grounds in the past, and may be again.” There are many different types of oppression that people talk about these days, and I can’t deal with them all in this piece. But if the fear is that women’s presence in our political life is dependent on our believing that they are no different to men in any way, that fear is unfounded.
At least, it should be unfounded. We shouldn’t underestimate the power that a sexist ideology can have — the ancient Greeks are, in fact, a case in point. Even though Protagoras talks in his speech of “humans” (anthrōpoi) being equally endowed with the political virtues, not just “men” (andres), there’s no sign that he followed the implications of his own theory to the end and argued that women should be able to speak in the Assembly next to the metal-workers and shoe-makers.
But we’ve come a long way since the ancient Greeks, and in this rare case it’s been in entirely the right direction. Though history makes my friend’s fears understandable, the rights of women to vote, run for office, and to participate in politics in other ways are now so deeply entrenched in our law and culture that I don’t think that an honest discussion of natural sex differences would seriously threaten them. If what I’ve said here is right, though, it may be that the conversation about sex differences is being hindered by a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of democracy.
Democracy doesn’t require a commitment to “cosmic egalitarianism,” but only to a more modest egalitarianism that treats us equally on the political plane. Touching base with a point Protagoras made two and a half millennia ago would do us a lot of good, and not only because it would allow us to discuss the scientific evidence for sex differences in a more reasonable way. It would also free democracy from dependence on the proposition that all humans were created equal in every way — a proposition that’s likely to turn out to be as mythical as Protagoras’ story, and not in a good way.