Critical discussion of Mary Ann Warren on The Ethics of Sex Preselection

In the article, The Ethics of Sex Preselection Mary Ann Warren argues for the position that sex preselection is not always a sexist act and thus a complete ban on sex preselection should not be put into place. I believe, however, all that Warren manages to show is that sex pre-selection is not irrational in certain situations, and in this response to her article I will show why her example of sex pre-selection for economic reasons in a sexist society, is, in fact, a form of sexism.

One of Warren’s cases of when sex preselection is not an instance of sexism is when it is done for economic reasons within a sexist society. She presents the case in which a poor mother living in places such as rural Punjab, decides to have a son rather than a daughter. The reason for the mother’s decision is because the society is a sexist one and women traditionally make less money than men and are a greater drain on the family economically since they would have to provide a dowry for her to get married. If the family is too poor to provide a dowry then she would remain living with the family and be a further drain on resources that way. So the mother decides to have a son so that as a family they can increase their economic standing and he will be better able to support the mother in old age. Warren believes that in such a case the preselection by the mother to have a son is not an instance of sexism. Her rationale for this is because the woman is personally blameless, she is merely acting upon the sexism of the society in which she lives in, in an attempt to better their economic status, a rational desire.

Warren defines sexism as “wrongful discrimination on the basis of sex.”[1] Wrongful discrimination according to Warren is discrimination based on false or invidious beliefs about one sex or the other.[2] Even under the very definition, Warren provides of sexism, she fails to adequately show that her example of sex preselection to have a son based on economic reasons is not an act of sexism.

The idea that the woman is using sex preselection merely in response to the sexism of her society to improve her economic status and thus it is not an act of sexism itself, is ridiculous. If you are forced into making a choice which is sexist, the factors behind that choice do not change the fact that it is a sexist choice. There is nothing in the definition of sexism provided by Warren which states that the false or invidious beliefs must be that of the person making the decision. Part of the decision of the mother to have a son is based on the false beliefs of the society which believe that women cannot perform equally in the workforce with men and so the discrimination will still be based on false beliefs which according to Warren’s definition of sexism, indicates sexism. It is not difficult to imagine an analogous example of a situation in which society is pressuring someone into making a clearly sexist choice and yet we do not consider it excusable or non-sexist because of the role in which the society had in pressuring the person. We can imagine a situation in which a man looking to hire a doctor is approached by a woman for the position. He personally believes that women can do just as good a job as men can, but because society has told him women cannot become doctors, he is forced to turn her down. Even though he personally thinks the women could have done as good a job as a man could, her wrongful discrimination based on sex is still at the very base, based on false and invidious beliefs even if they were not the beliefs of the man doing the hiring. The fact that the doctor does not share the same beliefs as the rest of society is irrelevant if the decision is being made within that society, and according to that society false beliefs. This gains support from the fact that when we look at events and attitudes in the past we still assert that many of their actions were sexist. The fact that it was socially acceptable may excuse them at best, but it certainly does not change the fact that what was being done was sexist, just as it does not with the case of a woman preselecting a son in a society in which it is deemed acceptable. Social acceptability is not an indicator at all, of what is and is not sexist.

In response to this Warren could do two things. She could add an ad hoc clause to her definition stating that any wrongful discrimination against someone based on sex due to social pressure does not count as sexism. The problem with such thinking is that it would help to further perpetuate sexism within a sexist society. Warren is taking away individual responsibility. Any sexist act could seemingly be excused on the defense that it has done because of social pressures, and it would be very difficult to ever hold anyone accountable for what is clearly an instance of sexism.

A second response might be an attempt to show that the beliefs in which the decision is based on are true. This is the defense Warren actually uses when citing evidence that men statistically make more money than women. The problem with Warren’s argument here, however, is that showing that something is true and rational, is not enough to show that it is not a case of sexism. She would still have to show that the beliefs are not invidious which would be even harder to show. It seems clear from the fact that there is a large debate on this issue that if someone were to preselect the sex of their child it would cause at least a few people to get angry. Not only does she fail to successfully overcome the invidious part of her definition, but more importantly I believe she also fails to adequately show that the beliefs are true. Providing evidence that men on average make more money than women does not in anyway show that the belief that a daughter would make less money than a son is true. Only time can determine that. It is difficult to not get into epistemological questions about what a true belief is, but it seems reasonable to assume that someone who believes that daughters make less money than sons, could have a daughter which ends up in the small percentage of women who make more than men, thus making the belief, false.

[1] Warren, Mary Ann, The Ethics of Sex Preselection (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pg. 232

[2] ibid pg. 232,233