point of view: a modern nihilism

Presents the author's evolving views of the best current positions on certain core philosophical and psychological problems. These positions together suggest a skeptical or nihilist perspective modified by evolutionary psychology and contemporary philosophy that embraces our desire to live as best we can and the relative and psychological reality of values, free will and other phenomena while recognizing limitations on their foundations and our understanding. The below makes no claims to originality for most of the ideas expressed, drawing on a range of mostly unreferenced texts (which will be familiar to philosophers and psychologists working in this area). Readers may want to start at the bottom with the first entry. - Marc Krellenstein (personal info here)

January 8, 2006

7.3 The significance of sex differences

It’s known that the physiology and brains of men and women are different, and there’s little doubt that there are some differences between men’s and women’s average characteristics and behaviors that are primarily the result of these underlying biological differences. There are also differences due mostly to the effects of culture, as well as presumed differences that empirical testing does or might indicate are not really true differences at all. Such differences as have been established are relatively small and of a usually unknown mix of biological and cultural factors. These differences do not seem to determine or limit the characteristics of a given individual, e.g., although men are stronger than women on average (probably partly because of cultural differences but also because men tend to be larger), any given woman may be as strong or stronger than any given man. As a result, these average differences between the sexes are of very limited use in determining what any given individual might or might not be capable of, excel at or find pleasure in. And while characteristics of mostly biological origin may sometimes be more difficult to change, average differences of usually unknown (or even of known) origin don’t help much in determining just how hard or easy changing a particular characteristic will be for a given individual.

However, this does not mean that understanding such differences is of no use at all. It’s possible to consider stereotypes as primarily empirical claims about the average characteristics of a group. The negative connotation of stereotyping applies mostly to situations where the claims are false or erroneously assumed to apply to all individuals in the group and/or are used in place of (and sometimes despite even knowing) the actual characteristics of the individual. It may also be a problem when stereotyped differences are wrongly assumed to be unchangeable (which is more often attributed to stereotypes believed to be biological in origin). But an accurate stereotype may provide at least some information when more specific or useful information is not available or possible. Forced to choose randomly from a group of men or women for a task requiring great strength one would be better off choosing from the group of men.

A much harder question is to what extent a true stereotype — of people in general and in all cultures (i.e., a so-called fact or at least statistical claim about mostly biologically determined human nature) or of men or women in particular — should be used in combination with other available information. Even if the individual in question is oneself or someone else known first-hand there is often insufficient information for making important judgments. If a stereotype is valid and of sufficient magnitude it could be reasonable to consider it as a clue or best guess about the existence or strength of an uncertain characteristic or behavior, though giving it its proper due (and no more) may be difficult. In reality there are few stereotypes of usefulness that are certain or of clearly known strength compared to individual factors we may know directly…the greater parenting drive or capability of women? the greater promiscuity of men? And any such established statistical difference, can, again, make no automatic claim to be being unchangeable (whether mostly biological or cultural), productive of our happiness or of intrinsic value. But it may sometimes be reasonable to assess the evidence for and strength of these purported average differences and see what if any role they might play in the decisions we make.

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