In the second of her Uehiro lectures on the topic of feminism in the 21st century (which you can listen to here), Professor Janet Radcliffe Richards addresses the question of how the sexes may be said to differ in the light of a shift in our metaphysical understanding of the world.
Radcliffe Richards frames her investigation by returning to the 19th century debate between J. S. Mill and James Fitz-James Stephen, and positing that the underlying disagreement between these two thinkers (discussed in the first lecture) can be traced to a fundamental difference in their metaphysics. Radcliffe Richards argues that Fitz-James Stephen’s position (that women are obviously mentally and physically inferior to men in a manner which should preclude them from various political, legal economic tasks) was based an understanding of the world as a harmonious whole with a pre-existing moral order, a view which draws on both Judaic and Aristotelian traditions.
Drawing on work in evolutionary psychology which suggests that the difference between the sexes can be explained by the fact that each sex faced different selective pressures in their evolutionary development, Radcliffe Richards responds to Fitz-James Stephen by aligning herself with Mill in advocating a mechanistic metaphysical world-view, in which no pre-existing moral order exists, and in which humans must be active in both structuring the moral order, and changing the world to fit it. She concludes by suggesting that the metaphysical view she opposes is nonetheless a deeply held conviction in our psychologies, and that many feminists have thus far failed to escape its hold.
As she points out at the end of her stimulating talk, Radcliffe Richard’s argument here is sure to provoke controversy, not least amongst feminists, but also amongst those interested in normative theory and metaphysics. Having provided this somewhat controversial diagnosis of the problems facing feminism in the 21st century, Radcliffe Richards will, in her final lecture of the series next week, provide some normative claims about how to redress these problems.