The moral problem at the heart of James Damore’s diversity argument

Aug 10, 2017 · 6 min read

I was a bit on the fence about the saga of James Damore’s memo and subsequent firing that has been lighting up social media. On the one hand, on certain issues I am politically to the right of the west coast techie consensus, and at first glance this looked like yet another instance of the recreational pearl clutching that certain liberals love to engage in. He’s right that there’s a political monoculture in certain tech companies that does not tolerate dissent. I remember the day after the election, the CEO of my company sent an email to all employees condemning Trump and assuring us that we, the company family, would come together and help each other through this dark time. It was apparently inconceivable that among those employees might be someone who voted for Trump. I did not vote for him, but put yourself in the shoes of someone who did and consider how personally hostile that email would sound. That day half the company stayed home, too distraught to work, and the office ground to a stand still. So when James Damore says there is an “ideological echo chamber” at Google, if Google is anything like my company he is 100% right.

But then he starts talking about biology. This part is frustrating because he is using science to make a moral/political argument, but he fails to engage with the moral conundrum that is central to the uproar that has resulted: How do you talk about “biological differences” between sexes without being sexist?

As James says, “males love to systematize”. Why not systematize humans based on sex and race? Can’t we talk about the scientific differences between the mental makeup of the sexes without it being sexist?

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell the answer is you pretty much can’t. You can talk about differences in genitalia, hormones, and height and weight, but it is really hard to see how one can talk about differences in mental traits between races and sexes without dipping your toes into some racism or sexism. Why is that? Because racism and sexism are, at their core, the systematizing of races and sexes based on supposed biological facts about personal character:

“Women are temperamental, frivolous, and dumb”.

“Blacks are less intelligent and more prone to violence and sex.”

“Croats are extroverted and inquisitive.”

(Made that one up, but the number of racial gradations and the various qualities that Victorian era scientists assigned to them was truly impressive.)

These were really popular ideas for a long time, and it was all backed by science. Some of it was bad science that has since been discredited: Scientists went around the world measuring the skull shapes of various races to determine their mental qualities, or lack thereof. However, some of it was based on good science that has stood the test of time: For example, one conclusion drawn from Darwin’s theory of natural selection was that guiding the selection of humans via eugenics is a good idea. We can breed horses and dogs for favorable personalities, why not humans? The idea makes perfect sense if you don’t consider the moral implications of doing it.

Science or racism? A: Both

This led to a lot of very bad things for society that you probably have heard about, and eventually most of us decided it was a bad way of thinking that should be discarded because it was unjust to individuals. Note that we did not discard it for scientific reasons, but for moral ones.

Ah, but you might say,

“That was old crap science! Their methods were bad, and their conclusions were wrong. My science is correct. Here are links to 74 peer reviewed studies.”

Well sorry, it doesn’t make any difference from a moral perspective, because the end result is the same. It makes no difference to a woman or and African American or anyone else who experiences bigotry whether or not that bigotry is backed up by a peer reviewed study. When you argue that biological differences make women inferior as engineers (yes angry commenter, he did argue this), intentionally or not you are making the exact same argument that has been used for hundred of years to keep women out of jobs like engineering. The people who made the argument before you were equally convinced that their science was correct, and equally sincere in their belief that they were just being morally neutral investigators of the truth. Like it or not, it hurts your female coworkers. If you insist that Google should fearlessly investigate the biological basis for engineering ability, then why shouldn’t the conclusions of that investigation be used for company decisions, including hiring, promotions, and team assignments? Either by official or unofficial means, that is what would likely happen were Google to embrace your ideas. History shows us that.

So how do you solve this moral conundrum? I have yet to see a convincing answer from either side. The left skirts it by self-assuredly declaring that any potentially harmful science must be wrong, ignoring the very real possibility that science can be both correct and harmful. The right skirts it by ignoring the ethical implications entirely, scoffing at the very idea of asking moral questions about science (Read what Oppenheimer said about that). I deal with it by trying to be extraordinarily careful about how my words will affect people. James was not careful, and he did not consider the moral implications of his argument and the effect releasing such a document might have on his female coworkers and all women in the tech industry.

The silly part is that James didn’t have to talk about biology to make his point. He could have pointed out that many fewer women enroll in CS courses than men, that the applicant pool of women is far smaller than that of men, and that the only conceivable way to bridge that gap in the short to medium term is to lower the hiring bar for women.

Fewer women choose to do computer science. This is true. Is it biology? Is it culture? Who knows. I know I’ve worked with a lot of female engineers who were a hell of a lot smarter than me. I know that, despite what many engineers will tell you, you don’t have to be a genius to do the majority of programming jobs. You mostly just have to be willing to do tedious computer work for 50 hours per week. If women can excel in medicine and law, then they can write code if they want to.

As usual, Silicon Valley is imbuing itself with undue self-importance. “Everyone should learn to code” we’re told. “Girls should learn to code”. Well no, how about only people who want to code should learn to code? No one “should” learn to code anymore than anyone should learn to play the French horn. If you believe, as I do, that women are equally as capable as men of being engineers, then perhaps we should respect the decision that many of them make to not choose engineering. Maybe its a little patronizing to suggest that the reason a woman doesn’t become a software engineer is because she was given Barbies to play with as a little girl. Women face very real sexism in tech, as they do in all corporate work places, but are we to believe that engineering is vastly more sexist than the other traditionally male dominated fields, such as medicine and law, that are now quite popular with women?

Any traditionally male dominated culture will be sexist and hostile towards women to some degree. That should change, but it should not change because we want to attract more women to engineering, it should change because it is the morally correct thing to do.

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