Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Debate talk on “Diversity”

Transcript of talk given on Thursday 26th November at Senate House, University of London. Other speakers were Baroness Onora O’Neill, Professor Tommy Curry. The chair was Ritula Shah. A filmed version should be available soon.

It seems to me that the primary goal of “diversity and inclusion” initiatives in institutions — workplaces, organisations, societies, and so on — is anti-discrimination. As such, diversity and inclusion initiatives are reasonable and valuable projects for institutions to undertake, though obviously they need to be carried out in a way which is more than cosmetic.

What I want to focus on directly here, is not institutions, but two other domains in which diversity and inclusion as now actively pursued as goals. These are:

· first, the domain of sexual desire: idea that people have a responsibility to make their sexual desires diverse and inclusive.


· second, the domain of concept application: the idea that the application of certain concepts should be more diverse and inclusive.

Now, versions of both these claims are often made in relation to a substantive and vexed question — which I’m not going to address directly today — the question of whether transwomen are literally women. So, for instance, philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes in the London Review of Books that “Trans women often face sexual exclusion from lesbian cis women …” (‘Does anyone have the right to sex?‘). And as we’ll see in a moment, several philosopher argue for expanding the application of the concept of woman, on the grounds of diversity and inclusion.

However, as I say, I am not taking on that substantive matter directly here. I want to look at a different, more general question: whether it’s a good idea to try to make our sexual desires, or application of concepts, diverse and inclusive. (In discussion of concept-application, I will however follow others in focusing on the concept of woman as an example, as that’s the concept most frequently described as having a problem of diversity that I’m aware of).

So, to give just a few examples of what I’m talking about: with respect to sexual desire, Anne Cahill writes that; “Economic status, degree of physical ..ability, ethnic identity .. such [sexual] preferences can be deeply implicated in structures of inequality.” (Body Aesthetics, eds. Lintott and Irvin, p.284). Sheila Lintott and Sherri Irvin write that: “We must genuinely do the work of reshaping our desires by .. engaging in practices of appreciation of sexual subjects embodied in diverse bodies” (Sheila Lintott and Sherri Irvin, Body Aesthetics, p.310)

Meanwhile with respect to the application of the concepts, Katharine Jenkins writes: “The task is to develop a suitably inclusive concept of woman: one that avoids what we can call the inclusion problem”. (Jenkins, ‘Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman’, p.394). Sally Haslanger says retrospectively of her own account: “by appropriating the terms ‘woman’ and ‘man,’ I problematically excluded some women from being counted as women.” (Haslanger, ‘Going on, not in the same way’).

How best to assess these claims: that both sexual desires, and application of concepts, should be, like institutions, “diverse and inclusive”?

I think that to answer this, we need to go back to institutions, and look at some features of diversity and inclusion (D&I) as values there, in relation to that paradigmatic context.

So: here are some basic presuppositions of D&I initiatives in institutions:

· Diversity and inclusion are sought in the name of anti-discrimination. They may have other values as by-products — cultural diversity, political diversity, intellectual diversity, and so on — and those are all good things too, but they aren’t the main reason institutions pursue D&I initiatives these days.

· D&I initiatives aim to achieve, not just any sort of diversity and inclusion, but specifically, of people in structurally marginalised social groups; that is, discriminated against on the basis of race, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender presentation, and so on. Following Andrew Altman, I will understand discrimination generally as “acts, practices, or policies that wrongfully impose a relative disadvantage on persons based on their membership in a salient social group.”

· As is well known, philosophers (and lawyers) distinguish between two kinds of discrimination — direct and indirect.

· Direct discrimination occurs when membership of the social group in question directly enters into the reasons or motivation for the disadvantage explicitly (e.g. “I didn’t hire her because she’s gay”; “I didn’t serve him because he was black”).

· Indirect discrimination occurs where a disproportionate disadvantage is imposed by an action of an institution, upon members of a particular marginalised social group, regardless of motivation or reasons in that institution. (For instance: banning hairstyles correlated with a particular marginalised ethnicity; or attire disproportionately associated with a particular religious faith).

· However: mere disproportionate disadvantage is not enough to establish indirect discrimination in a particular case. It also has to be shown that the disproportionate disadvantage isn’t justified in virtue of some other valuable aim. For instance: the UK Equality Act allow that sometimes men can be excluded from a space or resource — and so prima facie “discriminated against” — if there is some other valuable aim involved, e.g. under-representation of women in some sphere; or privacy, or dignity, depending on the case.

So, against that background, starting with sexual desire: can we treat sexual desire as discriminatory because it is directed towards a narrow range of people or person-types?

I think should be cautious in a few respects.

Clearly there is nothing like direct discrimination going on. Normally, if you aren’t sexually attracted to members of a particular social group, it’s not because you intend to disadvantage them as such.

Perhaps it is true that some sexual preferences — e.g. to do with ethnicity, or body shape — are non-coincidentally related to wider structural patterns of prejudice, at least indirectly; and, so perhaps, taken across a population, do confer disproportionate disadvantage on particular groups.

But equally — sexual desires are nothing like acts. It is legitimate to criticise an institution for acts that impose disproportionate disadvantage on one group, partly because there is a genuine sense in which the institution could easily choose to act differently.

In contrast, I assume, the direction of sexual desires (leaving aside their enactment) cannot be changed for an individual, past a certain stage in their development. There is little point in trying to exhort individuals to change who or what they are attracted to (in fact, there’s a name for that — conversion therapy).

(What we can perhaps more fruitfully do is try to alter the conditions under which sexual desire patterns get formed developmentally in the first place — e.g. by changing the way we objectify women in the media, for a start).

Turning now to the case of concepts, and the claim that their application should be diverse and inclusive - can concept-application be a form of discrimination and so criticisable ethically?

Sometimes, I think so, yes. Individual discriminatory attitudes, either direct or indirect, can cause people to misapply a social kind concept. This is what Sojourner Truth draws attention to in her famous 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” when she points out that the idea that — I quote — “women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere” doesn’t apply to her, as a former slave; yet she is still a woman.

So: this is a sense in which applications of the concept of woman should be diverse and inclusionary: in the sense that the concept should be applied to everyone who satisfies whatever conditions properly underpin it. It seems true that structural patterns of prejudice can interfere with this process of application.

We can also concede that, sometimes, the application of a concept to some people and not others, conveys some advantages to those to whom the concept is applied, that are not applied to others. (Arguably in the case of the concept woman these advantages are limited but I won’t get into that). So let’s just assume for sake of argument that, in being counted as a woman, I get a range of benefits; and If you aren’t counted as a woman, you won’t get them.

However — that is not yet discrimination, because we also need to note that — just as with institutions — there may be legitimate aims of people, in applying the concept woman to some people and not others, which means that any resultant disadvantage is not properly counted as discrimination, or wrongful.

One such aim surely has to be — to pick out a distinctive group, relative to recognisably important interests; to distinguish that group from other groups which partly but not wholly resemble it, so we can name it and use it in further explanations of aspects of the world. (The point of the concept “woman” is various, but at least includes tracking womanhood as a distinctive causal and explanatory factor in various kinds of social treatment and mistreatment.)

In other words: a main point of concepts is to pick out distinctive kinds of thing in the world. So sometimes, the fact that our concept-application might indirectly convey disadvantage towards some social groups is not in itself a reason to criticise the concept use, because the concept use has a further valuable point.

Furthermore — if we ignore this, and try to make a concept more diverse and inclusive, while ignoring the important work the concept does in classifying a distinctive kind of thing, then the concept use is likely to lose specificity; and so, perversely, work against the original aim of making institutions more diverse and inclusive. For how are institutions going to eliminate discrimination against marginalised groups successfully, if they don’t have the words or concepts to recognise those groups, in their specificity, and what makes them distinct from other groups? We need a vocabulary that recognises differences.

A final point is this. It seems to me that the social pressure currently being exerted on particular social groups, but not others, to make their sexual desires, or their concept applications* diverse and inclusive is itself a form of indirect discrimination. That is: this pressure imposes a disproportionate disadvantage on one particular social group but not others: they are expected to monitor their sexual desires, or to monitor their language, and to remove the capacity to refer to themselves. True diversity in this domain would be to allow a rich vocabulary to refer to important differences– material, social, political; and to allow all marginalised social groups to have words that refer to them and them alone, exclusively.

*both in the sense of a) their own usage and b) the concepts that refer to them.

Professor of Philosophy, University of Sussex.

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