Are Men and Women Different by Nature? – Mill vs. Fitzjames Stephen

This article summarises a part of the Philosophy Bites podcast in which British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards discusses the 19th Century disagreement between John Stuart Mill and James Fitzjames Stephen over the respective natures of men and women and what this should mean, particularly for the latter, in society.


The Positions

Contemporary wisdom in the 19th Century was that women were naturally unsuited for intellectual pursuits and girls therefore ought to be educated differently. Moreover, laws were necessary to prevent women from trying to overstep the bounds of their nature. John Stuart Mill questioned this, in what seems to be an airtight argument, when he noted that if it were true that women were naturally incapable of working in government or becoming a scientist, for example, laws preventing them from pursuing such interests would be redundant, because they couldn’t succeed in them, and moreover, it being against their nature, they wouldn’t want to do such things in the first place.

Fitzjames Stephen countered by asserting that it was obvious men and women were different and they therefore ought to be educated differently, specifically in ways that reflected this difference. Laws to preserve this difference are necessary because you sometimes do get aberrations of nature (a woman wanting to enter politics, for example) which required correcting, but he saw this as being like correcting a bent leg with irons. The function of law, he said, was to keep society in the form it naturally assumes.

But this seems to directly succumb to Mill’s argument, because if society naturally assumes a certain form, we shouldn’t need laws to ensure it comes about that way. It seems as if the philosopher and the judge were essentially arguing past each other, so what was going on here?


The Natural – Aristotle and Christianity

The problem, as Radcliffe Richards identifies, is the different ways the two men are using the word, ‘natural’. Fitzjames Stephen uses the word ‘natural’ to mean ‘appropriate’, ‘proper’, or even ‘harmonious’. In order for society (and people) to function well, or properly, it (they) must conform to a certain kind of order which it is our job to maintain, or bring about. We know what this order is because people exhibit natural tendencies to it. Should someone have tendencies that deviate from this natural course, we are required to correct them, and the way we do this is through laws. Mill, on the other hand, was using the word ‘natural’ to mean something like ‘occurring a particular way in nature’, the way we might talk about how plants naturally grow towards the sun. We don’t need to pass laws, or manually interfere with them, in order to make plants grow like that.

The real stroke of genius here though was when Radcliffe Richards picked up on why Fitzjames Stephen was able to talk about ‘the natural’ like this. The reason is twofold; Aristotelianism and Christianity. Aristotle’s physics was explicitly teleological. Everything had a purpose and strived, or ought to strive, to realise that purpose. The proper function of a horse was to run fast, so all horses, by nature, wanted to run fast and a horse that could do so had accomplished what it meant to be a horse. The proper function of a human being (by which Aristotle basically meant male citizens of Greece) was to perform actions in accordance with reason, by the way. This teleological approach also extended to non-living things. Water flowed downhill because it naturally sought to be at the centre of the universe, planets naturally moved in circles because circular motion was divine, etc. So Aristotle’s universe (the dominant physical model for centuries, which had only recently been challenged by Galileo, Newton, and co.) was one in which beings were naturally imbued with purpose and function; in other words, the normative and the actual were inextricably intertwined.

Christianity, an institution and collection of dogmas that exerted an even greater stranglehold over public opinion and the cultural milieu at the time, postulated a creator God who along with creating everything, also issued explicit rules for how those things ought to cohabitate. Again, the actual and the normative were inseparable. To say that something was natural, automatically meant, not just that it was a certain way, but also that it ought to be a certain way.


The Natural – Darwin

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection offered us a way out of this conception of the natural though. After Darwin, ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ were no longer conjoined. For the first time, we had a mechanism which explained how the natural world came to be without inferring a designer or some kind of teleology. Without these artifices, nature itself had no meaning, no purpose, no design, and it was therefore no longer possible to claim that a natural order existed which we had to preserve or maintain. In short, ‘natural’ went from being the way Fitzjames Stephen saw it, to the way Mill did, meaning it couldn’t be used to justify treating women differently from men.

It wasn’t all blue skies and clear sailing for 20th Century feminists though, who began to insist that there were no intrinsic differences between men and women and that all differences were culturally or socially determined. It’s true that Darwin overturned the idea that there existed a ‘natural’ blueprint (whether in the Aristotelian or Christian mould) human society ought to strive to emulate, where say, men performed certain jobs and women others, but his theory didn’t stop there. Men and women are obviously physiologically and reproductively different. One crucial difference is that the number of babies a woman can have is limited, whereas a man can have, in theory, as many babies as he wants, as long as he can find willing partners and keep other men away. Over time, Darwin noted that this means men and women will develop different strategies for reproductive success and these strategies will be reflected in different psychological traits.

The worrying thing for the feminists was that many of these differences turned out to be not all that far removed from the points Fitzjames Stephen was making. One well-known example Radcliffe Richards gives of such a difference is that, on Darwin’s theory, we would expect to find that women, in general, prefer to find and keep one sexual partner, whereas men will always be more interested in opportunistic sex. Another prediction, which ties in more closely to Fitzjames Stephen’s arguments is that we might expect men will naturally strive to be higher in the social hierarchy (which in modern times often translates into the corporate ladder) because this will make them more attractive to females (think the peacock’s flashy tail).

Now of course, genes don’t absolutely determine human behaviour. We know that an individual’s actions, preferences, desires, etc., are all also influenced by culture and upbringing (nurture as well as nature), but there is no doubt that both play significant roles in shaping who we become.


So, who was Right?

In light of all this, if I were going to rule on the debate with which we started this article, I would definitely side with Mill, because his argument that we don’t need laws to prevent women doing anything on natural grounds was airtight no matter how we interpret the word ‘natural’. Laws to prevent women doing things they were supposedly naturally unsuited for, in the same way plants are naturally unsuited for growing back down into the soil instead of up towards the light, were redundant. And the normative-laden conception of natural that Aristotelianism and Christianity had promoted was just wrong.

Fitzjames Stephen was therefore completely wrong when he said we need laws to circumscribe women’s behaviour and ensure they conform to their ‘proper’ nature. However, as Darwin has shown, he was nevertheless right to insist that men and women are different and that this difference goes deeper than mere cultural conditioning.[1] He couldn’t have known how these differences arose but he could nevertheless infer them by observing the differing behaviour and tendencies of men and women, in general.


[1] Mill didn’t deny that men and women were different, by nature, either. However, he supposed (which was right at the time) that we could not know whether they were different or not because boys and girls were raised differently.


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