Gender issues and the animistic fallacy

This is post number 10 in a series of posts on sex and gender. Some argue that the very existence of disparities between men and women automatically implies the existence of discrimination. This argument commits the animistic fallacy.

The animistic fallacy is the general presumption that all events are the result of purposeful activity. Primitive peoples attributed the movement of leaves on trees to purposeful animistic force such as a spirit or god. The development of atmospheric sciences has shown this explanation to be inaccurate. Leaves do not move because some spirit or god had the power to make it move and wanted it to move, but because wind currents caused by non-purposeful changes in air pressure caused it to move.

No doubt some events are the result of purposeful activity toward specific goals, but to presume that any event must be attributed to purposeful activity is fallacious.

Modern people are just as likely to commit the animistic fallacy as primitive peoples, only in different situations. Here are a few examples:

  • Presuming that the observed design in the universe must be the result of a purposeful designer. Darwin showed that it was possible for order to occur spontaneously given a sufficient amount of time. Adam Smith likewise showed that economic order arises over time even though people pursue their own self-interests. (One may regard the creation process as a whole as Providential without committing the animistic fallacy as long as they do not assert that the observed order could only be the  result of deliberate design.)
  • Presuming that superior deliberate foresight is the cause of wealth without considering the non-purposeful factors over time that lead to success.
  • Presuming that social good in an economy must have been created through top-down government policies.
  • Presuming that the differences among ethnic groups must be caused by racism.

One can avoid the animistic fallacy by recognizing that processes over time can produce results that no one intended. As Thomas Sowell wrote,

“Once it is clear that results observable at a given point in time may be part of a process that stretches far back in time, it is no longer automatically necessary that their current situations be a result of either meritorious or unworthy/actions by contemporaries—either group members or others. Differences in cultural values, for example, have deep roots in centuries past and profound impact on current behavior.”

Claiming that gender disparities must be caused by discrimination is fallacious. Discrimination cannot be shown to be an ex ante condition by simply observing ex post results. Discrimination can only be proven by hard evidence. And even then, we must distinguish between adverse discrimination and benign discrimination which will be the topic of a future post.