Social and Political Philosophy: Contemporary Perspectives

By James P. Sterba | Go to book overview

15

JUSTICE FOR GLENN AND STACY

On gender, morality, and gay rights

John Corvino

During a recent commencement ceremony at the university where I teach, an award was presented to “the outstanding man and the outstanding woman” in the graduating class. This award, which is given annually, struck me as rather odd. There is nothing odd, of course, about recognizing outstanding students—indeed, the award, as well as the exuberant speeches given by the respective recipients, reminded me of the familiar high school tradition of selecting a class valedictorian. But unless the recipients were expected to make a baby after the ceremony, I could not fathom why it was important to select one man and one woman. We would not think to grant an award to the outstanding white student and outstanding non-white student in the class—even though, given current social conditions where I teach, race is likely to affect the educational experience at least as much as gender. Nor would we consider granting an award to the outstanding student over 5’8” and the outstanding student under 5’8”, or the outstanding student who had suffered through Corvino’s Intro to Philosophy class and the outstanding student who had not. Yet the audience—a majority of whom were college graduates, at least by the end of the ceremony—showed no signs of puzzlement at the gender division.

We live in a gendered society—not merely in the obvious sense that people have genders, but in the less obvious sense that we act as if a great deal more hinges on this fact than actually does. I am not suggesting that gender is an unimportant or irrelevant feature of human beings. Rather, I am asking where and why it is relevant. Plato illustrates this point about relevance nicely in the Republic, when he argues that although women and men have opposite natures, that difference is irrelevant to the question of whether women should be rulers:

We might therefore just as well, it seems, ask ourselves whether the nature of bald men and long-haired men is the same and not opposite, and then, agreeing that they are opposite, if we allow bald men

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