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Although Mill’s On Liberty and Plato’s The Republic both advocate the abolishment of gender roles, their respective justifications and resulting ideologies differ saliently. The inception of these differences arises from the basic moral premises from which these ideologies are derived; justice is of fundamental importance, but Plato argues that roles are just insofar as they are equal while Mill argues that they are just insofar as they are chosen. Whereas Plato fails to recognize males and females as fundamental equals, Mill’s ethic of choice not only establishes this fundamental equality, but also provides a context in which the elimination of gender roles contains the potential for progress. Granted that Mill’s argument lacks the formalism which consistently establishes equal roles, it is more compelling in its practicality and responsiveness towards actual human conditions as well as its respect for individuals and society alike.
Plato supports the elimination of gender roles insofar as it is consistent with social equality and conformity; only after individual differences are eradicated can members of a society uniformly strive for the common good. Plato’s argument for equal social roles therefore lies within the ultimate context of a perfectly just society. Males and females are only relegated to similar positions as means to this perfect society, rather than as ends in themselves. Thus, although he acknowledges the necessity of equal social roles for the end of justice, Plato hypocritically denies the fundamental equality of men and women; while he observes that “the natures are scattered alike among both animals; and woman participates according to nature in all practices, and man in all,” (Plato 294) he adds, “…in all of them woman is weaker than man” (Plato 294). This double standard is the very basis of gender roles. Failing to confront the cause of gender roles, Plato’s solution cannot truly eliminate inequality between the sexes.
In contrast, Mill rejects the assumption that men and women are inherently unequal. He argues that “what is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing – the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others” (Mill 138). The use of force contradicts freedom, and the freedom of women, from gender roles and otherwise, is essential not only to the end of “having the most universal and pervading of all human relations regulated by justice instead of injustice,” (Mill 196) but also for the ends of increased utility, progress, and well-being of individuals as well as society. In its direct opposition to these ends, “the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes… is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement” (Mill 119).
Mill perceives society as an entity constantly in a state of flux; in short, “any society which is not improving is deteriorating” (Mill 210). Within this context, the abolishment of gender roles is a means to both individual and social improvement. Unequal gender roles subjugate women in such a way that they are confined to a domestic sphere and restricted in their participation in other venues of life. To these domains of life women therefore cannot contribute equally – they can neither enrich themselves nor others in that which they have no exposure to – and “the loss of the world, by refusing to make use of one-half the whole quantity of talent it possesses, is extremely serious” (Mill 199). This “loss” refers not only to that of utility, but also to those of potential ideas and truths. Mill suggests that women, freed from gender roles, have potential contributions not only as individuals, but also as individual women, because women might perceive partial truths of which men are unaware.
At this point, one might argue that freedom of choice, in that it generates conflicting differences, is an impediment rather than an auxiliary to social improvement. After all, Plato supports the abolishment of gender roles for the very purpose of eliminating individual differences. As he questions, “Have we any greater evil for a city than that which splits it and makes it many instead of one?” (Plato 141). The indulgence of individual inclinations and preferences, as Plato would argue, is at odds with the advancement of society’s general good. However, although it must be conceded that free choice erodes uniformity, this erosion is not only beneficial but necessary; “the whole strength and value, then, of human judgement, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, [is that] reliance can be placed on it only when the means to setting it right are kept constantly at hand” (Mill 23). Only within a society where roles are freely chosen is there an environment conducive to individuals who challenge, evaluate, and modify standards of right and wrong.
Within Plato’s conception of an ideal society, the liberation of women from gender roles plays a diminished role. Plato envisions a society which is structurally perfect, and therefore, at best, static. Not only is this assumption unrealistic, it is also inimical to the idea of structural progress. Within this context, the abolishment of gender roles can merely improve society’s utility and not its infrastructure, which is based, completely and narrowly, upon the ideal of perfect justice. Complete justice, provided that it is attainable, seems to be an insufficient compensation for the sacrifice of families and other cherished institutions which contain gender roles.
Plato’s argument is additionally impractical in that it fails to realistically accommodate certain necessities and characteristics of human nature; perfect equality calls for the destruction of individual differences; “the city best governed is most like a single human being” (Plato 141). However, despite a uniform societal infrastructure, differences will inevitably arise from individuals of different natures; preferences, biases, and inclinations will develop regardless of nominally equal social roles. “Plato constructs a rationalist meritocracy that strips away all considerations of sex. . . People are fit into their appropriate social slots, performing only that function to which each is suited” (Elshtain 119); albeit equal, the roles are forced upon dissimilar individuals. Women are liberated from the confines of gender-based roles only to be confined to socially imposed merit-based roles. Where the individual will does not coincide with the assigned role, the self-abnegation required is an immense sacrifice. Plato’s alternative to gender roles is less attractive than Mill’s alternative.
Mill’s argument is not only more practical but also more sensitive towards individual inclinations in its realistic acknowledgement of different natures. The premise of freedom sanctions desired alternatives to gender roles; individuals can choose their roles, which will often, yet not always, coincide with their merits. Mill’s ideology constructively harnesses individual wills rather than destructively repressing them; “Who,” asks Mill, “can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters?” (Mill 35). Moreover, the abolishment of gender roles logically follows from free will, as women choose to occupy positions formerly reserved for men and vice versa. Mill’s argument is also more realistic in its moderation as compared to Plato’s argument. While both support the eradication of gender roles, Mill does not require the abolishment of established institutions which contain gender specific roles. Instead of trying to destroy cherished institutions, Mill instead harnesses them in a non-gender specific way, taking advantage of their positive characteristics. The family, for example, is proposed to serve as a sort of haven and schoolhouse, where parents inculcate children with such ideals as justice, loyalty, and freedom. In addition, these institutions remain available for those individuals who are disposed towards the roles that they contain; if a woman freely chooses to be a housewife, then so be it, Mill would argue.
Admittedly, the ethic of choice inherently lacks the capacity of Plato’s formalist position to dictate a consistent, absolute rendition of equality. It may therefore be argued that the very advantage of freedom may lend Mill’s position towards moral ambiguity, making it impossible to invariably define or enforce justice; it seems that if there is no absolute gauge of justice, then there lacks a standard for judging conflicts between the chosen roles of men and women, rendering it impossible to prevent the triumph of men’s choices over women’s choices, based on the law of force. However, Mill’s championship of freedom is not without restrictions; he argues that “the liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not. . . [harm] other people” (Mill 56). Harmful actions are defined as those which “attempt to deprive others of their [freedom], or impede their efforts to obtain it” (Mill 16). Indeed, when necessary, active interference such as legal restraints will be called upon to enforce such limits of choice. With this stipulation, freedom can thus be prevented from infringing on justice, preventing the resurrection of unjust gender roles.
One might next object that justice through freedom is appealing yet unattainable. Without the adamant management and enforced equality employed in Plato’s society, men, empowered initially through the law of force, would never relinquish their dominant roles. However, Mill offers compelling incentives for both men and women to strive towards the establishment of equal roles. Not only would there be a fuller attainment of justice and equality, but there would also be a fuller attainment of truth, since “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the. . . complete truth has any chance of being supplied” (Mill 52). In addition to the attainment of such abstract benefits, concrete benefits would also be achieved. Within such social institutions as family and marriage, the relations between men and women would become enriched, changing from destructive power struggles to constructive partnerships. Women would cease to be “drags upon every aspiration of her husband’s to be better than public opinion requires them to be” (205). Men would no longer be burdened with their wives’ ignorance and deficiencies, but would instead be encouraged to pursue more elevated sentiments.
Mill argues for the abolishment of gender roles in the spirit of progress. His ethic of choice emphasizes the fundamental equality of the sexes in granting that men and women possess an equal capacity for forming, acting, and reforming their own visions of life. Compellingly, he thus strikes at the root of gender roles; unlike Plato, whose conception of equality internally subordinates women to men, Mill attacks the very double standard upon which gender roles are founded.
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