Sunday, April 30, 2006

Where's the outcry?


American Prospect Online - Fighting for Fair Treatment

In Memphis in 1997, Burlington Northern hired Sheila White to operate a forklift in its rail yard. The other employees, all men, were furious -- even though none of them had the qualifications to run the forklift -- because forklift driver was considered the plum job. White’s foreman and co-workers told her insistently that they didn’t think a woman should be working there in a rail yard.

Is it really possible that in 1997 people were still talking about “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs”? Yes, it’s illegal. But forklift operator, a coveted blue-collar job that often pays more than ordinary factory or day laborer work, is widely considered a man’s job, and women are often told they can’t do it...

Employers are getting away with blatant sex discrimination because there’s no public outcry -- indeed, almost no public scrutiny at all. Think how easy it was for me to grab a good seat to hear Burlington Northern v. White, with two long empty rows of press seats behind me. Yes, it’s important that women have the right to decide what happens inside their uteruses. But it’s just as important that we be able to support ourselves. When will we start to care passionately about whether women are treated fairly on the job?


Those who talk don't know and those who know don't talk. To rehearse the obvious, we the talkers--academics, journalists and political activists--don't know any forklift drivers and have never considered forklift driving as a career option. We've had abortions or know people who have or can imagine being in a circumstances where access to safe, legal abortion would be important for us, our daughters or people we know.

Of course it's important that women have the right to decide what happens inside their uteruses. But from the plain, crude utilitarian perspective it is, if anything more important to eliminate sex segregation in employment. Last time I looked, the index of sex segregation in the labor force was 60%, that is, to eliminate sex segregation in employment, 60% of working women would have to have to change jobs. I don't have disaggregated figures but it's a safe bet that jobs that don't take a college degree--the majority of jobs, and the ones that we, the talkers, don't notice--account for most of that figure. In any case, far more people suffer from the effects of sex segregation and the male-female wage gap, and including not only women but children living in poverty as a consequence, than will ever be directly effected by policies on abortion or, as noted in the article, the other liberal signature issue--gay rights. This isn't to say that progressives should drop these issues--but that they should pay more attention to bread-and-butter issues that aren't of immediate concern to their "base": the talkers.

I've just gotten back from a conference on discrimination at which participants addressed the question of what constituted (wrongful) discrimination. Most thought that this was a vexed question. I don't understand this skepticism: if a woman can't get a job driving a forklift, or having gotten one against the odds can't keep it because her forman and mates object to a woman doing a "man's job," that is discrimination. A slim majority argued that even if there was wrongful discrimination in employment, it would be wrong for the state to intervene. There were subtle reasons for this involving "rights."

It was actually one of the best conferences I've attended--and I'm a conference junkie. The discussion was terrific. But sometimes I felt that I was from a different moral universe. To me, as a consequentialist, the problem is obvious, even if the fix is difficult and complicated: lots of people are badly off because women can't get "men's jobs" and, to a lesser but not negligible extent, because men can't get some fairly desirable "women's jobs." The costs to people whose choices are restricted by this system is much greater than the benefits to clients, customers and co-workers who want people who do various jobs to look the part. The market isn't working so it needs to be fixed. The hard part is figuring out the most efficient way to do it or, realistically, to make some headway in that direction. Things will never be perfect, but they can be better. Why is this so hard to see?

The sense I got was, oh sure, if you're a Utilitarian its easy but let's see what we can make of the discrimination issue operating within a framework involving "rights," "autonomy" and that sort of thing. But why not turn this on its head: we know what discrimination is in central cases--we know the meaning even if we don't know the analysis--and we know it's wrong. Now let's come up with an ethical theory to explain why, and figure out how to fix it. Consequentialism does a really good job.

Next weekend I'll go to the local SWIP (Society for Women in Philosophy) conference where I will do another number, this time on multiculturalism, arguing again on consequentialist grounds that what Sen calls "plural monoculturalism," the "salad bowl" model, is a bad thing for the same reasons that Sen does: it restricts individual choice. Whereas I had fun at the discrimination conference, and get a fair hearing from rights-obsessed libertarians and deontologists, I have the sense that many members of SWIP don't want me there--when I arrive it's like "Oh, shit, here comes H. the Utilitarian." I go because I am very, very interested in feminist issues and related questions, like the multiculturalism question, because I want comments on papers I write on these issues, preferably hostile since those are in many respects the most helpful, and because this is the most accessible venue for discussing these issues. But I get panned for not being a real feminist--not only at SWIP meetings but in print: I discovered ex post facto that I'd been cited in a book on "backlash" as part of the backlash to feminist philosophy.

Well, why, dammit? From the practical point of view I am on board with the agenda. I argue for the elimination of sex roles. I argue for affirmative action, including hard quotas. I'm pro-choice and support equal treatment for gays, though these just aren't the burning issues for me. Increasingly, academic feminists--particularly in philosophy, have latched onto crazy theories to defend programs for promoting women's equality and this just plays into the hands of the opposition. I have data, I have arguments and I have a fairly respectable, if controversial, ethical framework to support feminist claims. Where's the beef?

12 comments:

Sanpete said...

I can see some of your reasoning that sex segregation in employment is of more consequence than freedom to have abortions, but I wonder why you're so confident about this. The issues in such a balancing do seem very complex to me. While this wouldn't settle things by itself, I'd be interested in knowing whether women who aren't in the talker class would prefer no sex segregation in employment over the freedom to have an abortion. I think I would choose the latter (but I'm not a woman, and am a talker).

Maybe the issues related to women in employment are less compelling for talkers in part because those problems aren't the object of such a concerted effort to (as liberals see it) worsen them. What organized groups are working as hard as they can to keep women out of certain jobs? With abortion, on the other hand, there is constant organized pressure and provocation that calls for responses from talkers.

Whatever the truth about which matters more, the legal battles in regard to employment have mostly been won already, but unlike with abortion, that has less of an immediate effect than the needed cultural change, which will naturally take longer. If the case now in court leads to a significant blow against legal protections for women in the workplace, there will be more interest.

I'm not easily moved by arguments that the state shouldn't intercede in this kind of case. That was hashed out to my satisfaction in regard to racial discrimination.

I believe a primary motive behind Mill's utilitarianism was the rejection of morality by intuition. You're skeptical of such intuitions when they underlie assertions of rights and other nonconsequentialist ethical ideas, but you still seem to believe that our moral intuitions must be right somehow and that we just need to discover the best theory to explain how they're right. My own view is that the best evidence we have relating to moral intuition supports the conclusion that it's not an adequate basis for moral theory, however well refined the intuitions are. Mill was right that conscience (and intuition) can be turned to just about any belief. Just what are these intuitions of? Some mysterious moral reality we clearly or dimly perceive? Or are they the product of evolutionary and cultural forces that induce us to have misleading feelings and ideas as though there were such a reality (which indeed is how it feels)? What are they intuitions of?

I assume the real issue in regard to "plural monoculturalism" (who favors this?) isn't whether it restricts choice but whether, on the whole, it restricts good options more than it provides them, or something more like that. There are some choices we surely want to restrict, no matter how many options they open up to the agent.

Part of your thinking is a backlash against what you regard as the excesses and mistakes of feminism. Those who happen to hold to the ideas you criticize and think them essential to the movement will brand you as part of a backlash against feminism. A cost of a somewhat skeptical (and provocative) personality. More thoughtful feminists will still see what's what and be happy to hear from you.

H. E. said...

I wonder why you're so confident about this. The issues in such a balancing do seem very complex to me. While this wouldn't settle things by itself, I'd be interested in knowing whether women who aren't in the talker class would prefer no sex segregation in employment over the freedom to have an abortion.

(1) Because there are many, many more working class women locked into pink-collar jobs than there are who would be in circumstances where they would want to terminate pregnancies;

(2) Because, assuming the likely scenerio if Roe v. Wade were overturned, there would be relatively easy work-arounds: abortion would remain readily available in many states and it would be very feasible for women to go there to get abortions. As for the poor women who can't afford transportation, if feminists were as serious about helping poor women as right-to-life people were about rescuing fetuses they could counsel these women and provide funds and transportation to get them out of state. There are no work-arounds for women locked into pink-collar jobs--you are just not got to get, or keep, that forklift driving job or get any relief short of taking your case to the Supreme Court if you don't like it.

(3) Because even on the worst case scenario, in normal cases pregnancy and childbirth are not that big a deal (I've got 3 kids) and giving a baby up for adoption may be tough but lots of women have done it and gotten on with their lives. Moreover the worst case scenario these days isn't as bad as it was when Roe v. Wade was decided: pregnancy out of wedlock isn't a scandal anymore, girls aren't automatically kicked out of school, and open adoptions are available. Sex segregation and wage gaps mean lousy jobs, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for years, and substantial loss of money. Pro-choice advocates, for rhetorical purposes, had to make the case that that having an unwanted baby was a terrible thing, that giving up a baby for adoption was unthinkable so that women would be saddled with these kids and have their lives and plans ruined, that they would be so desperate that they would resort to back street butchers with coat hangers, etc. That's politics. But on any reasonable assessment, having a baby and giving it up, going though this short episode in your life, just isn't as bad as working behind the checkout in Walmart for 20 years. Now we can argue about this, and it's an empirical question, but there's no evidence that the majority of women who had babies and gave them up for adoption had their lives ruined or were psychologically damaged.

Whatever the truth about which matters more, the legal battles in regard to employment have mostly been won already, but unlike with abortion, that has less

But they're aren't enforced and, given the current mechanism for enforcement, can't for all practical purposes be enforced. These mechanisms need to be fixed and there's been little interest in doing that. For that matter, forgetting about state action, activists have shown little interest in private efforts to discourage discrimination. When class action suits against large retailers, like Sears were on I didn't hear a peep from these activists who might have suggested that women who shopped there use their clout as consumers to make a statement, say by cutting up their Sears credit cards and mailing them back.

I believe a primary motive behind Mill's utilitarianism was the rejection of morality by intuition. You're skeptical of such intuitions when they underlie assertions of rights and other nonconsequentialist ethical ideas, but you still seem to believe that our moral intuitions must be right somehow and that we just need to discover the best theory to explain how they're right.

I don't have any understanding of metaethical matters. I probably should but I'm just doing something else. I'm skeptical about whether most people do have these intuitions about "rights" that philosophers and lawyers whose intuitions have been corrupted have. And there's ample basis for that: you know (if you teach--I don't know who you are) and I know that the overwhelming majority of undergraduates think they're ethical relativists--but that when you press them it's pretty clear that they're basically utilitarians. They're inconsistent, they don't know what to make of some of the hard cases, but this is what I get year after year when I do a very short number on "cultural relativism" for Critical Reasoning where I don't even talk about utilitarianism. In courses where I do, one fascinating response I get from many is that utilitarianism isn't morality at all: there's Morality, the Rules about not lying, not stealing and, above all, not screwing around, about which they're skeptical and then there's the practical business of weighing costs and benefits for themselves and others by which they conduct their lives. All I have to do is get it across that this is morality on the proposed account--like pointing out that they're been speaking prose all their lives--and recommend ways in which they can be more reflective and consistent in the moral reasoning they've been doing.

Why not bank on these intuitions and actual practices in the way that you bank on the intuitive motivation for SC rules of inference--yes, you've been doing Modus Ponens all your life! Of course, you've also been affirming the consequent sometimes, but you've always felt a little guilty about it, haven't you? Let's see why...Now I don't know what the deep story about logic, or math, is. A friend of mine who's a very deep logician/philosopher of math thinks Mill was right about math--which seems mad--but not about ethics. However, at the surface at least, you can do the same number about both. Most people get it right most of the time in the easy cases in both logic and ethics--we go from there.

are they the product of evolutionary and cultural forces that induce us to have misleading feelings and ideas as though there were such a reality (which indeed is how it feels)?

Sure, but why misleading?

Part of your thinking is a backlash against what you regard as the excesses and mistakes of feminism. Those who happen to hold to the ideas you criticize and think them essential to the movement will brand you as part of a backlash against feminism. A cost of a somewhat skeptical (and provocative) personality. More thoughtful feminists will still see what's what and be happy to hear from you.

Thanks! You flatter me--which, of course I like. As well as your comments which are pushing me.

Sanpete said...

You seem to have your thumb on the scale here. Some of your comments seem more like a response to the collective feminist thumb on the scale, which you're giving some needed balance to, but these "opposing" thumbs don't necessarily lead to a true balance. To me what you say shows more that the balance isn't clearly what it has often been taken to be than that it's clearly one way or the other.

(1) Because there are many, many more working class women locked into pink-collar jobs than there are who would be in circumstances where they would want to terminate pregnancies;

I'll grant you that when it comes to actual use of abortion vs use of work, there's a big margin in numbers, and that does matter. But as you've explained elsewhere, it isn't just the options you choose to actualize that matter. I think it has been of great value to women to know that if needed they and their daughters can have a safe, legal abortion. Likewise it is of great value to know (for those who do) they and their daughters can get good work, even if they never have to. How many women have been in a situation where they could need an abortion if things don't go as expected, or at least have had to worry about being in such a situation? If you compare those for whom the options regarding abortion and work are important, the numbers are closer.

(2) Because, assuming the likely scenerio if Roe v. Wade were overturned, there would be relatively easy work-arounds: abortion would remain readily available in many states and it would be very feasible for women to go there to get abortions. As for the poor women who can't afford transportation, if feminists were as serious about helping poor women as right-to-life people were about rescuing fetuses they could counsel these women and provide funds and transportation to get them out of state. There are no work-arounds for women locked into pink-collar jobs--you are just not got to get, or keep, that forklift driving job or get any relief short of taking your case to the Supreme Court if you don't like it.

I think you're overplaying the ease of the workarounds on one side and underplaying those on the other. Even now, with legal abortion and very active efforts of the kind you advocate to help poor women in need of abortion, there are places where poor women feel they don't have that option because of the cost, distance and regulations involved. (There was a Frontline program about this a couple months ago.) That could get much worse.

I think the work-arounds for women in work are at least as open as those regarding abortion would be if Roe were overturned. Women rarely have to sue to get a decent job, but they can. They may also go to school, or do other things that may be difficult, but they can be done in most cases where a woman is unhappy. Those who find themselves in the position of the woman forklift driver have an option, in addition to suing, similar to the one you advocate for women who would find themselves in states where abortion is illegal. They can try to find another job. This isn't my preferred way of dealing with this, but it's more on a par with what would be the case with abortion if Roe were overturned.

(3) Because even on the worst case scenario, in normal cases pregnancy and childbirth are not that big a deal (I've got 3 kids) and giving a baby up for adoption may be tough but lots of women have done it and gotten on with their lives. Moreover the worst case scenario these days isn't as bad as it was when Roe v. Wade was decided: pregnancy out of wedlock isn't a scandal anymore, girls aren't automatically kicked out of school, and open adoptions are available. Sex segregation and wage gaps mean lousy jobs, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for years, and substantial loss of money. Pro-choice advocates, for rhetorical purposes, had to make the case that that having an unwanted baby was a terrible thing, that giving up a baby for adoption was unthinkable so that women would be saddled with these kids and have their lives and plans ruined, that they would be so desperate that they would resort to back street butchers with coat hangers, etc. That's politics. But on any reasonable assessment, having a baby and giving it up, going though this short episode in your life, just isn't as bad as working behind the checkout in Walmart for 20 years. Now we can argue about this, and it's an empirical question, but there's no evidence that the majority of women who had babies and gave them up for adoption had their lives ruined or were psychologically damaged.

These are the more central issues, I think. You raise good points here, but again (I think) minimize the problems on one side while exaggerating those on the other. I'm sure it's true that most women who have given up babies for adoption haven't had their lives ruined by it. I'm not at all sure there's no evidence that the majority have been psychologically damaged. I'd expect that most have been damaged, to varying degrees, enough to consider, and that there is evidence of this. Are you sure there isn't? It's not ideal for the children either.

I disagree that by any reasonable assessment it's clear how this sorts out. Pregnancy and adoption may only take several months, but the effects can last much longer. I agree that it's an empirical matter, and I'd like to know more about the actual effects. I'm confident that many women who work at WalMart for twenty years don't have their lives ruined by that either, by ordinary standards of happiness.

One problem here is the different kinds of effects involved. It's hard to weigh 20 years of lower salary and less fulfilling work against the sometimes hard to understand pains and twistings that can result from trauma. Having known women affected by traumas of various personal kinds, it seems there is a wide range of outcomes, some very sad. It's very hard for me to compare the latter to the effects I've seen from limited work opportunities. I'm more inclined to weigh the traumatic injuries as worse than the WalMart injuries. (The issue of abortion is further complicated by the harmful effects abortion itself might have, in that it too can be traumatic, but seems generally less so.)

You may see the worst WalMart cases as rather like foot-binding, whereas I see the worst possibilities of trauma as more like foot-crushing.

There is also the fact that many women don't feel capable of giving up their child once it's born, or choose not to beforehand because there is no abortion available, and that changes their life and that of the child in good and bad ways for the duration, at least as much as employment does.

I noticed in your article on rape, which I've only read the first few pages of, that you considered the idea that we might make trauma worse by treating it as so traumatic. This is important but it's such a tricky thing I don't know what to make of it. The idea could apply to child abuse as well. What would be the practical effects of downplaying the significance of abuse of various kinds? Would there be more abuse that mattered less? That may have been the case with physical abuse in the 50s and earlier. Or not. You may think it possible to oppose abuse just as clearly while reacting to it less alarmingly. Maybe. There's obviously a connection between how seriously we take the abuse and how many resources we'll be willing to use to oppose it in practice.

But they're aren't enforced and, given the current mechanism for enforcement, can't for all practical purposes be enforced. These mechanisms need to be fixed and there's been little interest in doing that. For that matter, forgetting about state action, activists have shown little interest in private efforts to discourage discrimination. When class action suits against large retailers, like Sears were on I didn't hear a peep from these activists who might have suggested that women who shopped there use their clout as consumers to make a statement, say by cutting up their Sears credit cards and mailing them back.

I'm sure there are improvements needed. Do you have any particular improvements in mind?

I think one reason there haven't been boycotts (in some corners I suppose they'd be called girlcotts) is it hasn't been necessary. All of these class actions I can recall have been settled to the advantage of the women, though the practical outcomes still lag in some cases.

On the metaethical aspects. In practice it's necessary to rely on people's intuitions in doing ethics because that's the way they operate, and, as Mill pointed out about rules of thumb, the intuitions are generally useful and more handy than figuring things out from scratch, as it were. But it's not the best way to get at the truth, if more time is available.

I'm actually ambivalent about metaethics because I think the truth in this matter may not be the best thing to believe in. (I have similar mixed feelings about religion.)

I think the deep truth about math and logic (whatever it is) is different than the deep truth about morality. We can make sense of our moral experience in terms that ultimately go back to subjective preferences, desires, beliefs, and so on. We can't do that in the same way with math and logic. That is, we can't get away from the objectivity of 2 + 2 = 4 in the same way. There are many moral philosophers who disagree with my view on this difference, but it seems to me that they've mostly tortured the idea of objectivity to make it fit ethics. (I've toyed with the idea that the 20th century was marked most of all by efforts to remove the distance between how objectivity works in morality/aesthetics/"meaning" (of life and such) and in other matters. Some did this by trying to make ethics and such seem more objective, others by trying to make everything else seem less so.) Obviously there are objective correlates to moral claims: it really is wrong to kill for fun relative to whatever feelings or facts we take up as the root of ethics.

To put this in perspective, utilitarianism as usually understood is objectivist in the sense I think is mistaken in that it asserts that pleasure and pain have moral value apart from whatever moral value we happen to attach to them. I'm not sure Mill understood it that way, but that has been the standard interpretation. That view grounds the claim that the similar happiness of all agents is equally morally valuable, whether anyone sees it that way or not, and that we are morally obligated to respect that whether anyone recognizes it or anything implying it or not.

Besides other ways they can be wrong, our moral intuitions can be misleading to the extent they seem to represent objective moral realities that don't exist. Kant got at a similar point in his treatment of the sublime. We often have the sense that beauty is in the object in a way that it actually isn't, that the object radiates a force of beauty of which we are the passive recipients, for example. To that extent, our sense of beauty is misleading. (Kant followed Hume here, as he did elsewhere.) Despite how it often seems when we look at something beautiful, the most useful analyses of beauty reduce most closely to feelings that could attach to anything, though there are some objective correlates that are more typical than others.

I've taught a little, and did see that students usually regard themselves as relativists. I've seen this as a cultural thing, due to easy misinterpretations of morality and tolerance, or the ways it makes morality and tolerance seem easy. Students (and most people these days) also have strong intuitions about rights, which is another modern phenomenon, partly influenced by the American system of rights, partly by Humanism and such. I once worked for a teacher who started each contemporary moral problems course with a section on relativism, which I thought was a useful thing (even though I was a subjectivist and thought some of the arguments he used naive and incorrect). I think there are some texts out there that also start that way.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

Sex segregation in the workplace isn't primarily a utilitarian-feminist issue. If feminists were to tackle sex segregation without addressing the underlying issue of workplace exploitation, they'd just be rearranging the deck chairs.

The central utilitarian problem is that our economy depends heavily on miserable jobs that ruin people's lives without even paying them a living wage or treating them with dignity. The second-order problem is that because we live in a sexist society, a disproportionate share of that scut work falls to women.

Obviously, feminists should speak out more about gender discrimination in the workplace. I'm not comfortable with construing this as a zero-sum game vs. abortion rights. Feminists could displace porn or some other popular topic, if we really need to make room on the marquee.

However, even if feminists managed to end said segregation, we'd just end up swapping less-qualified men into those old, bad jobs and giving more-quallified women the marginally better jobs formerly occupied by their male counterparts. Utility wouldn't change much.

Granted, we're all better off when every position is filled by the most qualified person available. Still, I doubt that this effect would be a huge utilitarian boon. It would, however, be a huge deontological victory to eliminate sex segregation in the workplace because it's NOT FAIR that women should bear the brunt of the brave new service sector economy.

My solution is for the entire American left to talk more about class and opportunity in general.

H. E. said...

Remember I'm not arguing access to abortion isn't important but that it's not as important as fixing the job market. I'm also arguing that compromises would be acceptable. Pro-choice activists note that the pro-life strategy has been to "chip away" by imposing various restrictions on abortion, so the strategy has been to block the chipping away by fighting against all and any restrictions.

Now it's an empirical question whether allowing restrictions would facilitate chipping away or stop it (or have no effect). But my educated guess, given data about American's views on the matter, is that pro-choice people could win more hears and minds if they accepted restrictions on late term abortions and parental notification rules for minors--because this is basically what most Americans want.

I think the work-arounds for women in work are at least as open as those regarding abortion would be if Roe were overturned. Women rarely have to sue to get a decent job, but they can. They may also go to school, or do other things that may be difficult, but they can be done in most cases where a woman is unhappy.

Again, an empirical question--and this time you have your finger on the scale. The cost of substantially lowering the risk of working at a bad job is much higher than the cost of substantially lowering the risk of getting pregnant and, moreover is a cost that most women can't pay: the cost is a college degree in a scientific or technical area or a post-graduate professional qualification. The cost of lowering the risk of pregnancy is much lower and one that virtually all women can pay: get effective contraception and use it.

Moreover, even if most women can pay the cost of a decent job, they still have far fewer options because a whole range of other decent jobs are for all practical purposes inaccessible. So (1) it's a make-or-break proposition for women in a way that it isn't for men who have decent fallback postions and (2) the costs of getting a decent job are substantially higher for women.

I'm not at all sure there's no evidence that the majority have been psychologically damaged. I'd expect that most have been damaged, to varying degrees, enough to consider, and that there is evidence of this. Are you sure there isn't? It's not ideal for the children either.

Why not? Again it's an empirical question. Everyone cites anecdotal evidence and freely conjectures. Pro-life people claim that having an abortion is psychologically damaging. What non-speculative reason is there to think that giving up a baby for adoption is more psychologically damaging than having an abortion or vice versa? Life is tough--relationships break up, friends and relatives die, your dog chews up furniture and your cat poops on the kitchen floor. People get hit with a lot of bad stuff that makes them angry or sad, and throws throws them off for a while but that doesn't amount to "trauma" or "psychological damage"--and I do not know of any evidence that most women who either have abortions or give up babies for adoption incur psychological damage which, in the long run, blocks them from living the lives they'd otherwise live.

I'm more inclined to weigh the traumatic injuries as worse than the WalMart injuries.

I think I argued in the rape paper and in another, "Chronic Harms" that what makes lousy work over a long period bad is that it violates what Feinberg calls a "welfare interest": because the harm of lousy work is chronic, lasts for a long time and blocks the agent from doing other things, it precludes the satisfaction of a wide range of interests. To make the case that giving up a baby for adoption or having an abortion is bad in the same way you would have to make the case that as a matter of empirical fact these bads typically create the sort of long-term trauma or damage that block women from effectively pursuing a wide range of other interests--and there is no empirical evidence for this.

There is also the fact that many women don't feel capable of giving up their child once it's born

Currently because abortion is pretty readily available, women who have their babies and then find they can't part with them are a self-selected sample. So you can't infer that if abortion weren't available most women would find it hard to give up their babies.

What would be the practical effects of downplaying the significance of abuse of various kinds? Would there be more abuse that mattered less? That may have been the case with physical abuse in the 50s and earlier.

Here's a really nice piece form the NYTimes mag on this: A Question of Resiliance. One reason I could never be a political activist is because activists have to work in sound bytes, rhetoric, hyperbole and melodrama. Abuse was always bad and needed to be fixed but to fix it it looks like someone had to start screaming that it invariably led to trama and damaged the lives of victims forever. It may be that for practical purposes you couldn't have gotten action by saying: "Look this is bad. It produces very serious long lasting effects for some victims but not for others. But it's bad anyway, needs to be taken seriously, and fixed." Ideally, you don't either downplay or upplay the badness of bads and respond accordingly. But that doesn't work politically.

I'm sure there are improvements needed. Do you have any particular improvements in mind?

Treat maintaining a non-discriminatory workplace in the way you treat compliance with safety standards--a matter for routine monitoring rather than litigation.

All of these class actions I can recall have been settled to the advantage of the women, though the practical outcomes still lag in some cases.

The Sears case was decided against the women who were complaining. Home Depot I think managed to block a suit against Home Depot in toto but a suit against stores in Colorado was settled in favor of those charging discrimination.

H. E. said...

I take your point, Lindsay, but it's not quite just moving the deckchairs: one reason why bad jobs are as bad and poorly paid as they are is because there's a large supply of applicants who have no other viable options. Overcrowding drives down wages.

If you have lots of unskilled, illegal immigrants crowding into unskilled jobs, that drives down wages and since, being illegal, they can't complain about substandard wages or perfectly awful working conditions there's no reason for employers to comply with mimimum wage or workplace safety regulations. If you have lots of women crowding into a narrow range of pink-collar jobs because they have no other options as a consequence of discrimination that has the same effect.

The Market isn't perfectly efficient but it kinda works so if you want to fix the lousy job problem there are two options. Option 1: reduce the supply of applicants for these jobs by sealing the border and making it possible for women to opt out of the labor force (by, e.g. providing generous, uncapped welfare payments, requiring employers to pay men a "family wage" or providing family allowances so that families can achieve a decent standard of living on one income). Option 2: see to it that potential applicants for these jobs have a wider range of options and more bargaining chips--by giving immigrants legal status and enforcing anti-discrimination regulations that would give women a wider range of job options.

I'm not claiming that if you adopt Option 2 for women you should adopt it for immigrants or vice versa--just suggesting that these are 2 different strategies that can be adopted for each of the cases.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

It's a utilitarian non-starter to split hairs about whether unwanted pregnancy and adoption are traumatic, as opposed to merely miserable and anxiety-provoking.

The real empirical question is how intense and prolonged the misery of unwanted pregnancy and adoption are.

The other important utilitarian question about work and abortion is always--as opposed to what? Often reproductive inequality aggravates socioeconomic inequality. As H.E. said, women always have to fight harder to get decent jobs. Anything that systematically makes women's lives more difficult, like having to be pregnant, give birth, and grieve for a child given up (if applicable) are additional strikes against women trying to get ahead.

If I had to choose between a being an executive vice president & the birth mother of an unwanted adopted child vs. being a Wal-Mart clerk who got an abortion, I'd certainly choose the VP's office. However, this scenario is sort of like the old Goon Show conundrum about whether you'd rather be a coal miner or a judge.

As H.E. pointed out, rich women with prospects are already going to be able to get abortions no matter what. It's poorer women with fewer prospects who are going to struggle to get abortions if we lose our reproductive rights.

I agree with H.E. that, on the whole, the right to abortion on demand is less important to overall happiness than the right to a decent job. However, I disagree with her criticism of feminists, as opposed to Democrats, liberals, and leftists in general. The problem is that a lot of people are trapped in exploitative work situations. Gender segregation is only a meta-symptom of a much deeper underlying problem.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

Thanks for the elaborations, H.E.

I x-posted before I saw your reply.

Sanpete said...

Lindsay makes a good point about the underlying problems. I don't think this is the Titanic, even with the underlying problems, so I do think it's important to rearrange the deck chairs as much as possible now, both by trying to address the broader problem of sexism and more directly by focussing on the workplace. Fairness is as important to utilitarians as anyone else.

And of course there should be continuing efforts to improve the workplace in general.

If I had to choose between a being an executive vice president & the birth mother of an unwanted adopted child vs. being a Wal-Mart clerk who got an abortion, I'd certainly choose the VP's office.

This interests me. I'm sure there are many others who would also make that choice, but also many who wouldn't. A more apt question in the context of HE's ideas (as I understand them) is whether you'd prefer to be a forklift driver or welder with the freedom to have an abortion or a maid or WalMart clerk without. HE is keen on giving women more blue-collar options, options that don't require college and such. As you say, those able to become VPs will be able to get abortions regardless.

HE, I still don't see the beef in the claim that legal abortion is clearly less important. It appears we're both talking from impressions based on limited research (apologies if that's not so in your case--if not, please share the data). My own experience and inclinations in these matters seems to be different than yours, but is probably not any less representative. What is most needed to settle this for both of us is good empirical data. A quick google search shows there is research out there on the effects of abortion, giving up a baby, work, and so on. It does appear from just a glance that in giving up a baby there are often costs to mother and child that last much longer than the term of the pregnancy. I don't think (and have been careful not to say) all women or even most are traumatized by giving up a baby. My sense is that many, a significant minority, are traumatized, and that most others suffer some significant pain or other costs that last for years. Whether they "live the lives they would otherwise live" is a hard standard to pin down. Some, may, but with more pain than otherwise (which is in a way a different life in itself), and some undoubtedly don't.

I think hardly any women are traumatized by their pink-collar jobs in a way that they wouldn't be by some other job. The harms are hard to compare.

Good article in the NYT Magazine--thanks for the link. I don't recall ever hearing that all abuse leads to trauma, so I didn't realize that was considered the standard view for a while. It's hard to see how such a view was possible among experts because it has always been known by clinicians who deal with abuse that some victims seem to do fine. (La'Tanya is a good example of a mixed case--doing well objectively, if you will, but with some heavy emotional baggage.) I don't think it's necessary or especially desirable to exaggerate the effects of abuse. A very compelling case can be made by sticking carefully to the facts, which include elements horrible or sad enough to move anyone when that kind of thing is called for.

The cost of substantially lowering the risk of working at a bad job is much higher than the cost of substantially lowering the risk of getting pregnant and, moreover is a cost that most women can't pay: the cost is a college degree in a scientific or technical area or a post-graduate professional qualification. The cost of lowering the risk of pregnancy is much lower and one that virtually all women can pay: get effective contraception and use it.

I'm sure this (or something like it) is true, but I'm hazy on how it relates to what I was getting at, which is that you exaggerated the lack of options for pink-collar workers ("no work-arounds"). I think you can (and in some ways do) make a reasonable case that we may focus disproportionately on abortion, without exaggerating either the lack of options for women in work or seeming to trivialize the problems that would result from lack of legal abortion.

You occasionally compare things that matter a great deal to some people to fairly trivial things, like a cat pooping on the floor. This is surely no better than overstating their importance, and is even less likely to get your point across effectively. (You sure you don't like hyperbole?)

So you can't infer that if abortion weren't available most women would find it hard to give up their babies.

I don't. I infer that with fewer legal abortions available more women would end up with unplanned families, which often has a huge effect on their lives.

Sanpete said...

Um, that more apt question should be whether you'd prefer to be a forklift driver or welder without the freedom to have an abortion, or a maid or WalMart clerk with that freedom. Sorry.

H. E. said...

This is really an impasse--the issue is an empirical one and getting non-anecdotal info about how much utility or disutility people get out of various states of affairs is problematic. That's why money is usually taken as a proxy. Here's a nice book: Getting Even: Why Women Don't Get Paid Like Men--And What to Do About It. Here's a nice site, with data, charts and other good stuff: Institute for Women's Policy Research

I didn't compare giving up a baby for adoption to the cat pooping on the floor: I noted that lots of bad things happen to people, from cat poop on the floor to the death of friends and relatives. It's an open question where giving up a baby for adoption or having an abortion fall on that scale of badness--and there will of course be wide, individual variations. I also suggested, though perhaps I didn't make this clear enough, that you can't equate badness and sadness to trauma and psychological damage. Most people lose friends and relatives; most married women end up widowed. People mourn--and sooner or later get on with their lives.

Speculatively, I think there's a tendency to assume that women (1) are more easily traumatized than men and more readily "psychologically damaged" and (2) have a much heavier investment in issues surrounding sexuality, and in particular have "maternal instinct," so that giving up a child, or having an abortion, has just gotta be a big, big, big deal--rather than just a big deal. And, by the same reasoning, to assume that obscene pictures and crude language are a big deal rather than a source of moderate to severe irritation. There's also a tendency that holds cross culturally (there data on this but can't access it now) to believe that women are more "patient" than men--better able to put up with repetitious work, boredom and drudgery (but less able to put up with dirt and danger). So, without any compelling empirical evidence, we just have that gut feeling that giving up a child for adoption has just gotta be worse for women than doing data entry 8 hours a day for 20 years. As a thought experiment, try imagining the same circumstances for a man: giving up a child for adoption or doing repetitious drudge work for 20 years--which is worse?

Here is a true story. A couple of my students had a baby. They weren't married but that's optional these days which is fine with me. They went to Lamaze classes together and he was there in the delivery room coaching and taking pictures. When the hospital records clerk came to get information for the records, she advised the father not to put his name on the birth certificate because if he did, she said, he'd have to "take responsibility" for the kid. The father said he wanted to take responsibility--this was his kid, there wasn't any doubt about that, and the mother was his partner. The clerk patiently explained that even if it was, if he put his name on the birth certificate he would be legally acknowledging paternity and that that could make him liable for child support.

The couple was black: the guy was livid when he told this story--and I'm sure race figured pretty significantly. But there was certainly an assumption that he wouldn't experience any trauma or incur psychological damage by abandoning his child--and, indeed, that unmarried fathers, particularly particularly black fathers, prefered to give up their children. This clerk thought she was doing the guy a favor. Assumptions like this not only color the way we interpret empirical evidence but affect behavior: people tend to do what's expected of them. I could spin this out further but, as they say, that is left as an exercise for the reader.

Sanpete said...

I think we agree then that this won't be settled without consulting the data. My overall point is that it's really not so clear on the basis of what has been presented here.

I noted that lots of bad things happen to people, from cat poop on the floor to the death of friends and relatives. It's an open question where giving up a baby for adoption or having an abortion fall on that scale of badness--and there will of course be wide, individual variations.

Yes, we agree about the wide variations too, but I don't think it's an open question whether any reasonable woman would equate several months of pregnancy and giving up a child with something as trivial as the cat pooping--that's not on the continuum of reasonable comparisons. One bout of morning sickness or just a prenatal exam is more of a pain than that. Maybe you didn't intend to suggest that it was part of the continuum in this case. Still worth being careful about ways sensitive people might react to such possible misunderstandings, in case you present these ideas at a meeting or something. (I realize a blog is more free-wheeling than a paper.)

As a thought experiment, try imagining the same circumstances for a man: giving up a child for adoption or doing repetitious drudge work for 20 years--which is worse?

The common (mis)conceptions about women that you mention haven't entered into my own thinking on this, partly because I'm very suspicious of them. I tried the thought experiment from the moment I started thinking about this. If I could be pregnant and carry a child to birth and then give it up I expect I would find that very difficult. I get very attached to things I've put far less of myself in and still mourn personal ties that have gone south. It's hard to say how I would be affected, and even harder to compare to 20 years of drudge work. I've done drudge work, and sometimes I think I'd prefer it to teaching, prefer to do something mindless and intellectually and emotionally undemanding. Seriously. I don't assume my personal feelings on this to be representative, however. I take into account the feelings of others I'm aware of personally, including victims of trauma, a friend with whom I've talked a great deal about this kind of thing who specializes in trauma as a therapist, and a fair number of people who seem to be happy being retail clerks and such (I live in a relatively poor rural county). And I take into account what I've read and heard in the media. It has been interesting and challenging to try to sort this out, but I can't reach any positive conclusion one way or the other.

I don't think monetary measures would be especially useful in this kind of case, not least because so much that is at issue isn't part of an effective market (probably a good thing).

I'm sure you're right to suspect that cultural expectations affect not only our intuitions about this kind of thing but also the experiences themselves, and that in particular (though you don't spell this out) women feel the experience of pregnancy and birth in large part in ways influenced by culture. This is also very true of romantic love, marriage, work, killing people, and any number of things. In considering controversial issues we sometimes run headlong into possibly embarrassing cultural differences, such as infanticide, ancient Greek pedophilia, all sorts of gender inequality, and so on. This, of course, doesn't make the consequences of our cultural experience any less important, and it may be that there are good reasons for the some of the cultural influences we have, that we would be worse off without them. But it does raise questions worth considering.