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Janet Radcliffe Richards on the past, present and future of sex: Part 3

On Wednesday last week, Professor Janet Radcliffe Richards gave the last of her three Uehiro lectures on ‘Sex in a Shifting Landscape’. (Here you can find recordings of all three lectures: 1st audio, 1st video, 2nd audio, 2nd video, 3rd audio, 3rd video.)

She emphasised the goal she pursued with these lectures, namely, to demonstrate methods of philosophical reasoning in practice and to show how they can help in coming to useful conclusions. Recapitulating aspects of her first and second lecture, Radcliffe Richards illustrated the methodological approach John Steward Mill used in the dispute about women’s rights in the 19th century to show the weakness of his opponents’ arguments by proving their incoherence.

Nowadays, as Radcliffe Richards continued, feminists tend to infer that women must have been treated unjustly from the observation that they are not coming out equal (e.g., regarding the number of women vs. men working in a certain profession). However, drawing on Mill, Radcliffe Richards emphasised that we cannot deduce from the fact that there are differences in outcome that there must have been arbitrary (and, hence, discriminating) disadvantages for women on the basis of their sex. Rather, it might be plausible that the physical differences between men and women go along with mental differences which developed over the course of evolution and resulted in different abilities and desires.

Radcliffe Richards pointed out that whether or not there are these differences in men and women is an empirical question. Findings from evolutionary psychology can give us valuable hints on how different selection pressures on men and women might have shaped their minds in different ways. However, this discipline is caricatured by its opponents as aiming for certain value-laden conclusions with normative force. It seems that even formulating certain hypotheses to be tested empirically is seen as highly politically incorrect, as Radcliffe Richards observed.

She argued that we have to realise that the answer to an empirical question is not to be mistaken for an answer to a moral question. The potential finding that there are systematic differences between groups of people (like men vs. women) does not necessarily mean that we must not give them equal rights and opportunities.

We thank Professor Janet Radcliffe Richards for her three thought-provoking and – in the best sense – entertaining lectures. They not only were, as Professor Julian Savulescu put it, ‘dealing with many real life problems of great significance’ but also provided a ‘wonderfully explicit example of how analytic philosophy can make progress.’

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