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This book is the third and most recent addition to Oxford University Press's Point/Counterpoint series, of which James Sterba is the general editor. It is unlike the earlier volumes in the series in two ways. The earlier books in the series were on well-worn topics. The first was on affirmative action and racial preference, while the second was on Christianity versus atheism. In contrast to those, the book under review focuses on a topic that has received relatively little philosophical attention. It is thus an especially important addition to the series.
The second way in which this volume differs from the earlier books is the format. Each book is billed (in the subtitle) as a "debate”. The first two books lived up to that description more fully than the current one does. In the book debating affirmative action, each of the opposing authors wrote an essay and then each responded to the other's contribution. In the volume debating (a)theism, each author wrote a paper to which the other author replied, after which the author of the original paper responded to his critic. Thus, in these books readers get a sense of dialogue between the authors. This is important because it is only via the to-and-fro of a debate that a person's views are really tested.
The current volume has only an attenuated debate. It containts two essays. The first, by Warren Farrell (with help from Steven Svoboda), argues for an affirmative answer to the book's title question. The second essay is James Sterba's reply. In rejecting each of Dr Farrell's arguments, Professor Sterba reaches the conclusion that feminism does not discriminate against men. Thus, while Dr Farrell's position is subjected to Professor Sterba's critique, readers regrettably are not given the opportunity to see how Dr Farrell would respond to Professor Sterba's arguments.
Warren Farrell is not opposed to all aspects of feminism. He supports "those portions of feminism that strive to create new options for women” (p. 1). However, he is concerned that whereas feminism opens up for women the options that men have traditionally enjoyed, it never closes any of those options that men have not enjoyed. For example, feminism has succeded in enabling women (in many countries) to volunteer for the military, but it has (in most places) not led to women's being drafted even where men are subject to a draft. He also thinks that feminism often ignores male vulnerability and unswervingly blames males when things go wrong.
He argues that the traditional male role places men in harm's way and that feminism has done nothing to reduce the dangers of being male. According to their traditional role, men are expected to assume risks, both physical and psychological. Moreover, Dr Farrell argues that there is less research into the leading causes of male death than into the leading causes of female death. As a consequence of this, he argues, male life expectancy is lower than that of females, and this cannot be attributed (merely) to biological differences. Dr Farrell also discusses a number of other ways in which males are disadvantaged. For example, he argues that the criminal justice system, at least in the United States, discriminates against men. Men, he says, are more likely to receive longer sentences and more likely to be executed than are women who have committed equivalent crimes. Males are also disadvantaged, he argues, in divorce and child custody arrangements, where women are more likely to gain custody of the children while men pay the bills.
Professor Sterba denies that men (as men, rather than as members of disadvantaged racial, class or other such groups) suffer any systematic discrimination. For example, he disputes Warren Farrell's reading of the data about how men fare under the criminal justice system, claiming that Dr Farrell leaves out relevant considerations. Professor Sterba is occasionally willing to concede that individual men suffer discrimination, but he claims that feminism is opposed to such discrimination. He also concedes that in some areas men are worse off than women, but in all such cases he denies that this is discrimination.
Warren Farrell's chapter is written in a more popular style. The tone is chatty, key sentences are printed in bold type, anecdotes abound and there are illustrations, including some cartoons. Nevertheless, important academic conventions, such as citing sources for one's claims, are not sacrificed. Although James Sterba's paper also has some tendency to a popular format, its style is more conventionally academic even though also accessible.
Warren Farrell, given the view he defends, is more likely to receive a hostile reading by those caught up in current academic orthodoxies. He should be read fairly because he makes important points. Unfortunately, he also makes some very strange claims. For example, he says that because "half of the children's genes are their dads' genes, as men's studies helps students understand their dads, it also helps them to understand the half of themselves that is their dads” (p. 10). But carrying half the genes of a male is not the same as being half male, and thus females do not stand to learn about half of themselves when they learn about men.
James Sterba, in defending an orthodoxy, is more likely to receive a charitable reading. The danger is that he will not be read critically and that his selective reasoning will not be noticed. For example, he says that the "attempt to show that the wage gap [between men and women] is the result of women's choices fails to recognize how women's choices in the workplace are socially constrained in ways that men's are not” (p. 209). Yet, in rejecting the claim that men are unfairly treated by women's disproportionate post-divorce custody of children, he dismisses any suggestion of unfairness, claiming that it is a product of male choice. He does not consider the possibility that men's choices may be socially constrained in this area.
This is a readable book on an important topic. Although the authors disagree with one another, they disagree respectfully. This is a rare virtue in an area that all too often descends into ad hominem (or ad feminem) attacks.
© 2007 David Benatar
David Benatar is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
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