The Cancerous Concept of Cultural Appropriation

I’ve always been critical of the concept of cultural appropriation. The prima facia case for encouraging unfettered cultural remixing was so strong that I simply dismissed cultural appropriation as just another canard social justice extremists used to feel superior. The simple fact that each person in the borrowing culture now enjoys the benefits of that knowledge or other cultural practice (without taking that benefit away from the source culture) means that there is a huge utility upside to cultural sharing. Thus, not only must cultural appropriation be harmful to be a valid criticism it must cause more harm than the benefits borrowing provides. While those who condemn cultural appropriation would point out that not all borrowing is appropriation distinguishing acceptable and unacceptable borrowing (at least by the dominant culture) is sufficiently vexed that if people internalized a norm against cultural appropriation as desired it would deter them from borrowing even in many cases that wouldn’t qualify as appropriation. If people who want to build off something they see in another culture, e.g., incorporate aboriginal rhythms into their music, have to check with the source culture or a panel of experts before experimenting with it they won’t bother to do so.

Moreover, the fact that cultures don’t have sharp boundaries (or well-defined views on what is acceptable) makes the whole concept suspect. For example, a cultural practice could spread from India to England while every person in the chain of transmission only adopts practices from what they see as their own culture. However, the facts about the chain of transmission don’t seem to plausibly affect whether the practice is harmful as usually most people won’t even be aware of the chain of transmission.

However, when I saw an article claiming to explain why cultural appropriation is harmful I figured I should give the arguments against cultural appropriation a fair shake. Not only were they incredibly unconvincing they actually persuaded me that the concept/criticism of cultural appropriation actually works to exploit the very least privileged for the sake of the slightly more privileged. I tried to find other articles but they weren’t any more persuasive (at least unless you read the last article as redefining cultural appropriation to simply mean borrowing without citing that culture as an influence). I accept that the defenses of cultural appropriation I consider here may not be the best ones available so if you know of better arguments please inform me. However, given that these seem to be the best arguments generally available to the public I think it’s fair to say that, should they prove unconvincing, the public should repudiate the idea of cultural appropriation until a more convincing justification can be found.

The TL;DR version of this article is simply: feelings of frustration/resentment because the proceeds from borrowing aren’t distributed in the most fair way don’t actually identify any harm. You might think it would be better if we compensated cultures we borrowed from or if past injustices were rectified but, given that isn’t pragmatically possible, it doesn’t mean that we are better off not borrowing these practices at all. Moreover, many of these intuitions about compensation seem to flow from a pernicious modern attitude regarding intellectual property naively applied to cultures as if they were individuals. Ultimately, pursuing these feelings of aggrievement doesn’t actually right the wrongs of past oppression but does make things worse for those who are alive today, especially the least privileged members of the least privileged groups. For a more in depth refutation I will go through the arguments in the first (most complete) article point by point.

Definitions and Limitations

Helpfully, this article offers the following definition of cultural appropriation:

cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

There are several serious problems with this definition. First and foremost is that it describes an overall state of affairs that people would universally agree is bad (oppression is almost by definition morally bad) but it is invoked to criticize only one aspect of that behavior. To give an example of how this can be misleading consider the following definition:

Homicidal Familial Appropriation
Homicidal familial appropriation occurs when one man (or those acting on his behalf) murders another and then appropriates the dead man’s family (marrying the widow, raising the children as his own etc..).

I think we can all agree that Homicidal Familial Appropriation is a bad thing and ought not to occur. However, the moral harm stems from the murder and, while it might strike us as distasteful, its not clear that stepping into the dead man’s shoes is a further harm. Indeed, in times past where the widow and orphans might face serious hardship or even starvation in the absence of a male protector/provider it might even be morally unacceptable not to marry and care for the widow after the fact.

To make this point more clearly imagine that you and another man (sorry but if you identify as female you’ll have to come up with your own murderous hypothetical) are romantic rivals for the same woman but she marries him and bears his child. You’ve accepted your loss with dignity but when your rich, powerful father hears of the situation he has your rival assassinated without your consent. Now that would surely be a tragic situation but the harm has already been effected and it would simply compound the tragedy to refuse to marry the widow and raise your rivals child. Indeed, even your rival himself would (if he weren’t dead) no doubt prefer that outcome in such a situation. The point is that merely because the definition describes a situation in which one person/group unacceptably benefits from a wrong done to another person/group its not appropriate to infer that choosing not to eschew the benefit would have made the situation better.

However, apart from attempting to tie together the use of cultural material with past oppression it is noteworthy how little this definition does to either pin down what activity is objectionable or what makes it objectionable. Indeed, if anything it creates further confusion about why cultural appropriation might be wrong. After all, from an intuitive point of view, it is hard to imagine that somehow Americans adopting yoga is bad in a way that Japanese adoption of yoga in a similar fashion wouldn’t be despite the lack of any past Japanese oppression of the Indians. Indeed, this definition would seem to suggest that even if a false historical account had convinced every living person that the Japanese and not the British had been responsible for oppressing the Indian people it would still be wrong for British derived cultures to adopt yoga but not the Japanese despite the fact that the effects would be indistinguishable from those in a world in which it really had been the Japanese doing the oppression.

While it is not, in itself, an argument against the concept of cultural appropriation I think defining a concept to ensure it only applies to the group you feel warrants criticism is a red flag. If your goal in using the term cultural appropriation was to pick out some natural class of behaviors that are wrong in the same way such a restriction would be unnecessary and invite the kind of criticism I gave above applying the concept in counterfactual situations. It might turn out that cultural appropriation happened (almost) exclusively in such circumstances because that’s the only time all the preconditions for the supposed harms are present1. However, baking such a criteria into the definition itself suggests a recognition that the speaker will not be able to describe the practice they object to in a way that others will agree only applies to those practices they wish to condemn and is attempting to sneakily avoid tough questions about what morally distinguishes the apparently similar behavior of non-dominant cultures. Again, this isn’t an argument against the concept of cultural appropriation but it does suggest a degree of skepticism may be appropriate.

Allegations of Moral Harm

So setting aside the issue of a precise definition of cultural appropriation for the moment what arguments does this piece offer to show cultural appropriation is morally wrong?

  • “It Trivializes Violent Historical Oppression”

So here’s what’s at stake for the Native people: The term “redsk*n” comes from the time when the colonial and state governments and companies paid white people to kill Native Americans and used their scalps or even genitalia (to prove their sex), aka “red skins,” as proof of their “Indian kill.”

Yes, its wrong to offend native Americans by trivializing the long history of oppression and poor treatment at the hands of other (mostly white) Americans. But what this shows is only that its wrong to offensively trivialize violent historical oppression.

To the extent this is your concern it would be more effective to simply drop talk of ‘cultural appropriation’ entirely and simply tell people not to be dicks. Lots of people, like myself, who are strident opponents of the idea of cultural appropriation think that its offensive and unacceptable (morally not legally) to call an NFL team the redskins. The only reason to bring up the label ‘cultural appropriation’ in this context is to borrow the reprobation we rightly feel for offensive/insensitive behaviors and apply it to instances of cultural borrowing that we don’t feel are justifiably viewed as offensive nor think trivialize historical oppression. Thus we are still in search of any reason to view cultural appropriation in general as morally wrong.

  • “It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, I witness people taking what they like without wanting to associate with where it came from all the time. Here, recent transplants to the area write Yelp reviews in search of “authentic Mexican food” without the “sketchy neighborhoods” – which usually happen to be what they call neighborhoods with higher numbers of people of color.

This isn’t so much a moral argument as an expression of frustration/disgust. Of course seeing people openly enjoying the fruits of mexican culture while remaining prejudiced against Mexicans might be infuriating but that doesn’t show it is wrong. It’s not like those newcomers would be less prejudiced or Mexican-Americans any better off if white Americans didn’t eat burritos. Just the opposite in fact.

A major factor underlying many people’s fear/distrust of minorities is a lack of any positive setting in which they interact with minorities. If your only experience with mexicans is seeing videos of them running from the border patrol on fox news and seeing the mexicans lingering on the streets around 14th and mission to sell drugs2 of course you will be inclined to be scared of them. Indeed, a serious problem in policing is the fact that while on the job police tend to encounter people up to no good and if that is there only contact with minorities it can instill powerful biases. But every person who sits down at a mexican restaurant and has a pleasant interaction with a mexican waiter or owner of the restaurant is a little less likely to be racist and the owner and employees of that restaurant are a bit better off.

One might try and suggest this might justify enjoying mexican food purchased from mexican owned establishments but doesn’t defend the sale of burritos by non-mexican establishments. However, I need not prove that this actively benefits minority interests only note that it doesn’t contribute to racism or prejudice. Indeed, taken seriously, this complaint would be a reason to abandon language itself for that is the ultimate reason it is possible to express appreciation for a culture while being prejudiced against its people. However, I would argue that even eating burritos sold by whites makes some contribution to reducing racism (if nothing else it makes individuals who might never otherwise have considered going to a mexican owned restaurant do so).

More broadly, I would point out that if the public ever internalized the notion of cultural appropriation as the advocates desire it would eliminate many of these benefits. The mere uncertainty about whether something qualified as cultural appropriation would discourage them from eating at mexican restaurants regardless of who owned them. Even in the implausible case in which people aren’t too lazy to throughly check who owns the restaurant they plan to eat at insisting on mexican ownership of a restaurant serving burritos would substantially reduce the resale vale of mexican restaurants and make it that much harder for Mexicans to get loans to start them. In short, while the actual cultural appropriation doesn’t further any of the harms raised in the argument accepting cultural appropriation as a genuine harm does.

  • “It Makes Things ‘Cool’ for White People – But ‘Too Ethnic’ for People of Color”

For example, standards of professionalism hold back all kinds of people who aren’t white men. As a Black woman, there are many jobs that would bar me if I wore cornrows, dreadlocks, or an afro – some of the most natural ways to keep up my hair. So for me, wearing my hair naturally is a meaningful declaration that I believe in my natural beauty. It’s risky to make this declaration in a society that says I must aspire to whiteness have value.

Again we see the harm (behaviors/appearances identified with minority groups are viewed as unacceptable/unclassy) conflated with a behavior which merely makes that harm salient (white people borrowing it). Indeed, the most plausible way we will get to a society which accepts these minority behaviors/appearances as mainstream is by allowing whites to adopt them. That is unfortunate but what’s morally relevant is the results. Ultimately, which is the better world: one in which white people don’t adopt minority styles/behaviors and that difference continues to be used to oppress them or one in which white people borrow those styles/behaviors and they are no longer used to oppress? Furthermore, given the choice between sending the message to black girls that “the way you look is ugly and inappropriate” or that “the way you look is so good that white women are trying to adopt it” I’d choose the later.

Again, the choice isn’t between the world as it is and the magical world without discrimination where afros, dreadlocks etc.. on blacks are seen as appropriate professional dress but between the world as it is and the world where whites never borrowed these fashions and they never gained acceptability. While the message that mainstream acceptance depends on convincing whites to adopt your style isn’t great its a hell of a lot better than the message that mainstream acceptance is impossible. Indeed, given the social and professional roles occupied by whites insisting that they not adopt black derived fashions/behaviors would be to doom many important black cultural figures to niche influence not to mention impeding the slow steps toward less racial animosity.

  • “It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor”
  • “It Lets Some People Get Rewarded for Things the Creators Never Got Credit For”

I take this to be the core of the complaint. It feels wrong when you see some white woman benefiting from selling some crap based on native american spirituality while native americans languish in poverty and suffer from discrimination. However, this doesn’t in any way show that the cultural appropriation itself makes anyone worse off.

It is often the misfits and oddballs who come up with the most important ideas. History is littered with stories of misunderstood genuis and people who were treated abominably during their lives only for their great cultural contributions to be recognized latter. Surely we don’t believe that the world would be better if we eschewed their contributions because they were treated poorly. So why would the situation be any different when the creator is a member of a racial/ethnic group that is oppressed rather than someone who merely happens to socially marginalized? More generally, I would simply dispute the very idea that whoever comes up with new ideas somehow deserves or is owed the profit on those ideas. It is a good way to incentivize innovation but doesn’t seem to have much going for it as a morally mandate.

Of course, we can all agree that one should give appropriate credit, e.g., if you’ve borrowed your musical style from black performers say so. However, that doesn’t in any way imply that it would be better not to borrow that style at all.

Lets consider for a moment what the world would be like if white musicians had never borrowed from black music culture or if white studio executives refused to profit from distributing black music. It would be a world even more divided than our world today. The many black artists who profited and have been idolized by teens of all races would never have gotten their chance. Rock music would have been relegated to a racial ghetto and used as further justification for racism rather than bringing folks together.

Yet again while cultural appropriation may make the unfairness of past oppression and continuing injustices salient if anything it works to ameliorate these harms not enhance them.

  • “It Spreads Mass Lies About Marginalized Cultures”

For instance, if you think about the real story of Pocahontas, having your daughter pretend to be her on Halloween is pretty disturbing. The real Pocahontas, whose given name was Matoaka, was abducted as a teenager, forced to marry an Englishman (not John Smith, by the way), and used as propaganda for racist practices before she died at the age of 21.

Ok, don’t spread misinformation about marginalized cultures. Got it. Now what does this have to do with cultural appropriation. When it is/isn’t ok to sugarcoat history is an important issue but it isn’t cultural appropriation.

  • “It Perpetuates Racist Stereotypes”

As Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations puts it, “You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.”

Umm, no. In virtually all cases of so called cultural appropriation no one is pretending to be a different race. But yah, if you see someone perpetuating a racist stereotype call them out on it but this has nothing to do with the issue of cultural appropriation. Indeed, the example cited in the article of Katy Perry dressing up as a submissive asian woman in her performance isn’t even a case of cultural borrowing at all.

Having a half-asian wife I’m well aware of the issues surrounding the fetishization of oriental women. It’s a complex topic that I won’t address here because its not relevant to the issue of cultural appropriation.

  • “White People Can Freely Do What People of Color Were Actively Punished for Doing”

Again, this explains why members of marginalized groups might get upset about cultural appropriation but doesn’t explain what makes it bad. The whole hope of a less racist, less bigoted future rests on abandoning a race based us versus them attitude and this complain stinks of race based score keeping. We should all be glad that we live in a better time now and no one is punished for the practice anymore. Of course its easy for me to say that and I don’t begrudge those whose cultures were oppressed their feelings but it doesn’t make the argument against cultural appropriation any more valid.

Indeed, I think the article itself nicely illustrates why cultural appropriation is a net benefit.

A touching moment in this discussion with South Asian yoga teachers from South Asian Art & Perspectives on Yoga and America (SAAPYA) shows one woman’s tearful explanation of how the elders in her community don’t have access to the yoga studios dominating the industry of a practice so important to them. As Susanna Barkataki writes, dividing yoga from its true roots and purpose, and from the people who had to fought to keep it alive, means “eventually eradicating the true practice, as was accomplished in many places under Britain’s occupation of India.”

Step back and think rationally for a moment. In which scenario do you think there is more money, space and interest devoted to keeping traditional yogic practices alive: the one in which California is covered with yoga studios and the Beatles travel to India to consult spiritual gurus or the one in which yoga remains some weird stuff smelly Indian beggars do? I think the answer is obvious. Indeed, the widespread enthusiasm for yoga around the world is generally viewed as providing India with considerable soft power. Unsurprisingly, members of oppressed groups have discovered the same thing that Americans did when they exported American entertainment: having your cultural products consumed by people in other countries grants you considerable power and influence.

  • “It Prioritizes the Feelings of Privileged People Over Justice for Marginalized People”

claiming that the dominant culture has a right to take freely from disempowered groups sounds a lot like the lie of the “white man’s burden” from the past. Colonizers used this concept to claim they had a “duty” to take land, resources, and identity from Indigenous people – trying to justify everything from slavery to genocide.

No, that isn’t what emphasizing the importance of feeling free to make use of whatever ideas/concepts/fashions are available communicates to me. Indeed, I don’t think white people consuming/producing rap, doing yoga or engaging in bullshit native-american spirituality generally sends any of the soul-crushing messages that those arguing against cultural appropriation take them to send. However, to the extent such messages/impressions are harmful then it seems convincing others that this is the message being sent whenever whites engage in cultural borrowing would be manifesting the very harm which advocates claim to be trying to alleviate.

More generally, this point simply can’t provide initial justification for the moral harm of cultural appropriation. Absent an initial showing of harm to marginalized people one can’t claim that accepting cultural borrowing is prioritizing anything over justice for marginalized people.

Practical Pronouncements

Ultimately, what would the effect of taking claims of cultural appropriation seriously. I’ve argued above that if we literally followed out the logic of their complaints we would live in a world with a great deal more racial suspicion missing many of the things which make modern life so good. Moreover, its not merely members of the dominant racial/cultural group who would suffer. Blacks would equally well be denied the fitness benefits of yoga if there weren’t yoga studies all over the US (the fact blacks currently make less use of yoga than whites doesn’t change the fact that they still benefit) and native-american teens would be just as lacking in rock-n-roll as white teens. More generally, the overall increase in societal wealth as a result of the non-linear interplay of freely borrowed ideas benefits everyone, those at the bottom often the most.

However, thats not really the world which those who raise complaints about cultural appropriation would bring about. Practically speaking whats at issue isn’t really when its ok to borrow from another culture but who gets to decide. Looking at the behavior of those who take cultural appropriation seriously (and who haven’t defined the concept not to apply to them) its not that they borrow any less from other cultures but rather that they give veto power to eminent members of the culture who accept the notion of cultural appropriation.

This is problematic for a number of reasons but most ironically because it fails to consider the interests of the least powerful members of marginalized groups. Simply dividing the world into privileged and non-privileged cultures and ignoring the power structures within marginalized cultures is an exceptionally privileged and narcissistic way to understand the complexity of human culture. As a practical matter adopting the vocabulary of cultural appropriation hands power over the use of cultural inheritance to the members of that culture who have already gained a substantial degree of power/acceptance by mainstream society, e.g., the native-american academic or the black activist, while yanking it away from those who could benefit from it the most. The unrecognized black rapper who can’t support his music by selling CDs to white teens and the impoverished native-american who can’t send their daughter to college on money earned from cheap Indian trinkets sold to tourists are equally entitled to the fruits of their culture but the narrative of cultural appropriation denies this to them.


  1. For instance, one might imagine a definition of cultural appropriation that identified the harm as stemming from a sense of loss of cultural dignity or self-direction/control. On such a definition it would be very difficult for a dominant culture to ever be subject to such a harm (though one might imagine some sci-fi scenario in which it happens) but that fact would flow naturally from the definition rather than being baked into the definition. 
  2. No, I’m not making baseless assumptions here about what they were doing. Based on personal experience I can attest that the majority of people who you see lounging about in that area are involved in some way in the illegal drug trade and many of them are mexican. As a past customer I can hardly hold that against them but it is understandable why people would view drug dealing gangmembers as scary. 

Israel and the Pretense of International Law

So I frequently run into articles like this one which aim to criticize Israel’s behavior with respect to the occupied territories but, rather than laying out a clear policy argument (or direct moral considerations) instead fall back to invoking the supposed fact that Israel’s behavior with respect to the settlements and/or occupied territory is in violation of international law. While there are any number of grounds on which to criticize Israel’s polices invoking claims of international law short circuits important discussions while misleading readers.

One might wonder why people even bother to invoke international law regarding Israel’s occupied territories. The treaties most credibly cited as outlawing Israel’s behavior aren’t ones that Israel is a signatory to (though some arguments are based in such treaties) and the ICJ lacks any jurisdiction in Israel1. Thus, whatever the status of the occupied territories and settlements they don’t raise any practical issues of treaty compliance.

Rather, I think its fair to say that in most cases people raise international law regarding Israel’s settlements and occupied territories to either somehow suggest that international law reflects the settled opinion of the global community or leverage the reader’s presumption that illegal behavior is immoral/unacceptable. However, both cases invite the reader to inappropriately transfer assumptions we make about the internal laws of nation-states to the context of treaties and the international community. While we are used to the idea that laws are non-negotiable rules whose meaning is discerned by an independent judiciary and subject to enforcement by any one of many government agents virtually all these assumptions fail when we consider treaties.

Usually treaties do not specify any authoritative interpretive body leaving the interpretation ultimately in the hands of the signatories (some modern treaties do assign such power to the ICJ but I don’t believe any are at issue here). Moreover, international law is frequently openly violated without consequence (most famously during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia2). The fact that inconvenient international laws can simply be ignored, or at least bent, combined with the lack of any enforcement mechanism undermines one of the principle aspects of the law which justifies the moral significance we assign it: the assumption that, good or bad, it binds everyone equally. Moreover, in the absence of independent enforcement (and the ICJ is not independent) there is no pressure to ensure that international law truly reflects global norms (without any risk the rule will be enforced against you the incentives are to declare Israel’s actions legal/illegal based on whose favor you wish to curry). In short, it is misleading to use international law either as a proxy for global consensus or to imply is has the default moral warrant we give to standard laws. While many writers obviously fervently wish it were otherwise, if you want to hold forth on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations there simply isn’t any way to avoid diving into the contentious issue of the moral status of Israel’s actions regarding the occupied territories

Still, despite appearances to the contrary, maybe there is some genuine reason to raise the issue of international law in this context. Perhaps one sees Israel as a first step toward a more legalistic and predictable world order (though picking such a controversial and vexed issue as a kicking off point is dubious) or has some other reason to consider international law. However, to the extent one is genuinely concerned about the legal status of settlements and the occupied territories one has to treat the issues as serious legal questions. That means its not enough to observe that the 4th Geneva convention bans the occupying power from transferring parts of its population into occupied territory and claim case closed. One has to verify that, as a legal matter, the land Israel controls in the west bank is technically ‘occupied territory’ (some suggest that occupied territory refers to occupied land legitimately belonging to another country) and that ‘transfer’ encompasses merely enabling voluntary movement rather than merely forced migration. Indeed, at least one scholar (Eugene Kontorovich) has made extensive arguments claiming that most of the clauses which are purported to ban Israel’s activities in the occupied territories inapplicable and that this interpretation is supported by a variety of recent precedents.

Of course, Eugene Kontorovich is not only pretty obviously driven by ideological affinity3 and represents an extreme viewpoint in the international law community. Many of the arguments he presents as decisive have been considered and rejected by other scholars. Ultimately, I simply don’t know enough about international law to reach a conclusion on the matter. Is Kontorovich ignoring independently established interpretive norms when he makes his arguments? Is the very liberal makeup of legal academia in general and international law in particular biasing the mainstream position against Israel? Does this disagreement mask a fundamental divide over the appropriate level of precision and detail in international law? Or, as I tend to suspect, does it reveal that international law is still sufficiently subjective that supplementing a plausible argument about international law with the support of both most UN member states and the legal elites renders it valid.

In any case, I won’t try and adjudicate this controversy merely note that the issue is complex enough to warrant multiple books and that facially plausible concerns have been raised by both sides. As such, anyone genuinely considering the legality of Israeli occupation and settlements (rather than merely using this as a proxy for moral condemnation) owes readers at the very least a summary of how they take such arguments to play out. The fact that 99% of the places which raise the issue of international law with respect to Israel have absolutely no interest whatsoever in doing this is all the more reason to treat their use of international law as suspect.

The Moral Particulars

This post is not the place for a detailed analysis of the moral issues regarding the occupied territories. However, I would like to make some general remarks about the unfortunate failure modes of moral analysis regarding this issue. In particular, I think 50% of the vitriol on this issue could be avoided (or at least diminished) by giving explicit answers to the following three questions.

  1. Whose actions are being morally evaluated (or compared to alternatives)? Why them? What, if anything, do your claims imply about the morality of actors on the other side?

  2. What standard are you using when you condemn/praise Israeli/Palestinian actions? Are you calling people out merely for deviation from perfect saint-like willingness to turn the other check or suggesting they fall short of normal standards in western countries?

  3. Are you merely engaged in an intellectual/social exercise or are your criticisms intended to motivate actions.

For instance, with respect to 1 a great many people in the US (and possibly Europe) seem to simply tacitly assume that Israel is within the sphere of rational actors and subject to moral suasion based on shared moral norms but make no such assumption about the Palestinians. As such, and often without making a conscious judgement, many people behave in a way that suggests an anti-Israeli bias when, in fact, they are actually exhibiting anti-Palestinian bias by unconsciously viewing them as foreign and beyond the pale of our shared moral norms. By explicitly answering this question one can recognize such implicit biases and avoid creating the unintended impression that you are drawing a moral distinction. Note that a converse effect is also common in which people go out of their way to sympathize with individual (imagined/idealized) Palestinians (who, by stipulation, do not support violence against Israelis) but make no analogous effort to empathize with individual Israelis. This has the unfortunate effect of hiding the fact that individuals on both sides are powerless to make the major changes needed and, recognizing these limitations, act rationally and relatively morally within them. Again, explicitly considering the implications for actors on the other side resolves the potential confusion.

Point 3 is simply a variant of point 1 except it guards against falsely implicating differences as a result of policy oriented criticism/encouragement, e.g., criticism aimed at one party to encourage a change in behavior must be distinguished from criticism for the purpose of attributing relative moral blameworthiness. However, I think pure ascriptions of blame are probably best avoided in any event.

Point 2 is probably the most important. It is very common to hear strident criticism of Israel based on their treatment of Palestinians. While such criticisms often acknowledge the real threat of terrorism they hold Israel to task for taking measures that affect Palestinian’s collectively, e.g., the wall and extensive security checks required to move to and from Gaza and the West Bank. While I think we all acknowledge that ideally we would treat each and every person as an individual it’s absurd to suggest that any western democracy would behave differently in the same situation. Indeed, comparing Israel’s relative restraint in dealing with terrorism to Guantanamo Bay and our extreme and unjust indefinite detention of sex offenders is instructive. This doesn’t change the fact that many Palestinians face very unpleasant conditions, often through no fault of their own, but it is important to distinguish considerations of moral luck (if Americans found themselves in Israel’s position they would probably behave even worse) from questions of moral blameworthiness.

Ultimately, the one substantive position I will take here is to condemn the way the rest of the world shoves this problem off on the Israeli’s and Palestinians and then scolds them for not doing a better job. We should recognize that the Israelis (and probably the Palestinians as well) face an insoluble collective action problem (normal political differences make strong actions to resolve the problem very difficult to initiate much less maintain). The mere fact that we don’t live there and they do doesn’t make the rest of us any less responsible for the welfare of our fellow citizens so, rather than continuing to lay into Israel for not doing more to solve the problem, those of us in the west would be better served by convincing our own governments to help. Frankly, until we have at least managed the tiny step of passing a law which authorizes substantial payments to Palestinians in exchange for giving up various regions, e.g., certain parts of Jerusalem, it is a bit rich to criticize Israel for not taking much more drastic steps that could put its citizens at risk. While the situation between Israel and Palestine may be deadlocked I honestly believe that if the rest of the world (or even just NATO possibly with an assist from China) was sufficiently dedicate to solving the problem headway would be made.


  1. If one wants to get technical the issue is somewhat complicated but from a practical point of view Israel isn’t bound by any ICJ decision. 
  2. This isn’t grounds for dismissing his arguments but it justifies treating his work as pure advocacy and taking care to avoid assuming that neither the factual backdrop he presents nor the interpretive process he uses present the complete picture. 

Evaluating Gender Bias Claims In Academia Part 1

Does The Data Support The Interpretation

For a number of reasons I think it’s vital that we have a good empirical grip on the reasons why different genders are over/under represented in various disciplines and at various levels of acclaim in those disciplines. There is the obvious reason, namely that, it is only through such an understanding that we can usefully discuss claims of unfairness and evaluate schemes to address those claims. If we get the reasons for under/over representation in various areas wrong we not only risk failing to correct real instances of unfair based treatment but also undermining the credibility of attempts to address unfair treatment more generally. This isn’t only about avoiding gender based biases but, more broadly, identifying ways in which anyone might face unjust hardship in pursuing their chosen career and succeeding at it1.

Also, even putting questions of fairness and discrimination to the side there are important social and cultural reasons to care about these outcomes. For instance, the imbalance of men and women in STEM fields both imposes personal hardships on both genders in those fields but also creates an excuse for dismissing the style of thinking developed by STEM disciplines. As such, identifying simple changes that could substantially increase female participation in STEM subjects is desirable in and of itself and similar cultural considerations beyond mere fairness extend to other fields. However, I worry that incorrect interpretation of the empirical data could lead us to overlook such changes especially when they don’t fit nicely into the default cultural narrative2.

Point is that I genuinely want to accurately identify the causes of gender differences in educational attainment and academic outcomes. One could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve already nailed down these causes. After all every couple of months one sees a new study being touted in the mainstream media claiming to show sexism playing a role in some educational or professional evaluation. Unfortunately, closer examination of the actual studies conducted often reveals that they don’t actually support the interpretation provided and everyone suffers from a misleading interpretation of the empirical data.

So, in an attempt to get a better picture of what the evidence tells us, every time I see a new study claiming to document gender bias or otherwise explain gender differentials in outcomes I’m going to dive into the results and see if they support the claims made by the article. While I can’t claim that I’m choosing studies to examine in a representative fashion I do hope that comparing the stated claims to what the data supports will help uncover the truth.

Gender and Publishing in Political Science

I ran across this claim that there is gender bias against female authors in political science in the wall street journal blog monkey cage. For once, the mainstream media deserves credit because they accurately conveyed the claims made by the study.

The study claims to show gender bias in political science publication based on an analysis of published papers in political science. By coding the authors of published papers the study gives us the following information about the rate of female publication.

Line A represents the share of women in the ladder faculty at the largest 20 PhD-granting departments in the discipline (27%). Line B represents the share of women among all APSA members (31%). Line C represents the share of women among all newly minted PhDs as reported in the NSF’s survey of earned doctorates.

The paper deserves credit for recognizing that this may reflect some degree of sorting by subfield and recognizing that sorting into subfield might falsely create the impression of bias even when none was present. However, any credit granted should be immediately revoked on account of the following argument.

However, gendered sorting into subfields would not explain is the pattern we observe for the four “generalist” journals in our sample (AJPS, APSR, JOP and POP). These four journals—official journals either of the national association or one of its regional affiliates—are all “generalist” outlets, in that their websites indicate that they are open to submissions across all subfields. Yet, as figure 3 shows, women are underrepresented, against all three benchmarks, in three of those four “generalist” journals.

The mere fact that these are generalist journals in no way means that they are not more likely to publish some kinds of analysis rather than others. As the study goes on to observer women are substantially underrepresented in quantitative and statistical work while overrepresented (at least as compared to their representation at prestigious institutions) in qualitative work. Despite the suggestion by the study authors to the contrary choosing, for valid intellectual (or even invalid gender unrelated) reasons, to value quantitative work more highly and publish it more readily doesn’t constitute gender bias in journal publication in the sense that their conclusions and ethical interpretations assume.

Line A represents the share of women in the ladder faculty at the top 20 PhD-granting departments in the discipline (27%). Line B represents the share of women among all APSA members (31%). Line C represents the share of women among all newly minted PhDs, as reported in the NSF’s survey of earned doctorates (40%).

Ideally, the authors would have provided some more quantitative evaluation of what part of the observed effect was explained by choice of subfield and mode of analysis. However, I think it’s fair to say based on the graph above that women aren’t so overrepresented in publications in qualitative areas for subfield preferences to explain everything so lets put the concern about subfield/analysis type based sorting to one side and return to the primary issue

This paper also deserves praise for recognizing that merely comparing the percentage of women in the field with the percentage of prestigious female publications will merely reflect the fact that past discrimination means the oldest, and most influential, segment of the discipline is disproportionately male. In other words, even assuming that all discrimination and bias magically vanished in the year 2000 one would still expect to find men being published and cited at a greater rate than women for the simple reason that eliminating barriers to female participation biases female representation to the less experienced parts of the discipline. By breaking down authors by their professorial rank the study is able to minimize the extent to which this issue affects their conclusions.

Percentage female authorship by professorial rank

Importantly, in the discussion section (and throughout the paper) the study makes it clear that it takes this result to be evidence of bias. The WSJ post was quite right in understanding the paper to be alleging gender bias in publication. Yes, the study doesn’t claim to decide whether this bias is a result of female authors being rejected more frequently or female authors being less likely to publish in the most prestigious journals but in either case it assumes that the ultimate explanation is pernicious gender bias.

The paper also explores the issue of gender based coauthorship and the relative prevalence of papers with all male authors, mixed gender etc.. etc.. These patterns are used to motivate various speculations about the fears women may face in choosing to coauthor but the complete lack of any attempt to determine to what extent these patterns are simply the result of subfield and analysis type preferences, e.g., quantitative and statistical analysis might lend themselves more frequently to coauthorship, and the relevant percentages of women in those fields undermines any attempt to use this data to support such speculations. While I believe that female scholars do face real concerns about being insufficiently credited as co-authors the ways such concerns could play our are so varied that I don’t think we can use this data to draw the conclusion the study authors do: women aren’t benefiting equally from trends toward coauthorship. However, I’m going to set this issue aside.

Political Science Hiring Biased Toward Women?

At this point one might be inclined to think this paper should get pretty good marks. Sure, I’ve identified a few concerns that aren’t fully addressed but surely it makes a pretty good case for the claim of gender bias in political science? Unfortunately, that’s simply a mirage created by thinking about the data in exactly one way. Notice that one could equally well use the same data and analysis to draw the conclusion: Women Hired in Political Science Despite Fewer Publications. After all the way one gets professorial jobs is by publishing papers and this data suggest that women at the same professional level have less publications than their male colleagues.

Now I think there are multiple plausible ways of resisting the conclusion that this data shows a bias in favor of women in hiring. For one, if past discrimination means that men and women at the same professional level haven’t had the same amount of time to right papers (e.g. women are more likely to have just got the job) then the conclusion is suspect. For another, one might point out that not all the jobs given the same professorial rank in the study are really equivalent. There are further reasons to doubt these conclusions, but each and every reason equally well undermines any support this data provides for claims of gender bias.

Ultimately, I think it’s safe to say that while this study shows that women publish in influential journals at a rate lower than their representation in the political science profession would suggest it does little to identify a cause. If you came into this with the prior that said: the reason women are underrepresented in political science is because they face bias and other obstacles you’ll explain this effect in terms of bias and obstacles. In contrast, if you came in with the prior that said: the reason women are still underrepresented in political science is because of gender related differences in ability/interest (which need not be negative it could as well be a greater affinity for some rival career option) then the data are perfectly compatible with women gravitating towards more qualitative less rigorous aspects of the profession and putting greater focus on teaching and other aspects of the profession that don’t result in publications.

Frankly, I don’t know enough about political science to have much opinion on this point one way or another. However, I do think we can safely mark this study down as misleading at least insofar as it is cited as further evidence of gender bias against women. Don’t get me wrong, I think that is a very plausible interpretation of the data but I’m just sharing the bias I came in with rather than being persuaded by evidence.


  1. For instance, differences in male/female performance might justify studying ways in which standard pedagogy favors/disfavors particular learning styles. Accurate empirical data on this subject, regardless of what it shows about gender, lets us correct the ways in which the current system may be unfair to those with particular learning styles, e.g., consider the recent evidence about how mandated attendance can actually hurt performance by those who don’t find the lecture component of a course useful. 
  2. For instance, I worry that it is precisely women’s better performance in high school mathematics and generally greater willingness to approach subjects as desired by their high school (or early college) teachers rather than going their own way which is responsible for some of the observed disaffinity towards studying higher mathematics among women. Ideally, one would teach mathematics by merely communicating the underlying ideas and allowing students to use their conceptual understanding to solve problems. However, few students have the interest and ability to, say, use their conceptual understanding of the derivative to find the maximum value of a given function and the educational system is unwilling to abandon the idea that almost all college freshmen should be able to solve such problems. As a result lower level mathematics is forced to adopt a formulaic approach the favors rote memorization of algorithms meaning that gaining real insight and experiencing mathematics as an enjoyable puzzle often requires rejecting the approach seen in the classroom and working things out on one’s own. I worry that we lose many women who might otherwise be interested in mathematics simply because they are more devoted to working within the framework they are given but because this is largely seen as a positive value it gets neglected as a potential problem. If true, it might be that simple interventions like explicitly encouraging students to deviate from the rote rules being taught if they understand enough to do so could make a big difference. 

The Conceptual Penis Embarrassment

How an Idiotic Hoax Gave Skeptics A Bad Name and Reinforced A Dubious Discipline

Skeptic magazine recently published a piece describing a hoax article submitted to a gender studies journal (and published by one journal) in an attempt to debunk gender studies as deeply intellectually flawed. I’m not going to wade through the resulting controversy but suffice it to say that skeptic magazine didn’t put in sufficient due diligence to verify the results obtained really backed up the conclusions about both the field of gender studies, the status of academic publishing or pay to publish academic journal. I was embarrassed that a publication so associated with the skeptic community didn’t notice multiple major unjustified assumptions required to reach anything more interesting than a mild finger-wagging at the publisher and/or editor of NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies for passing along (what they claim was an automated message sent mistakenly) suggesting republication in what Cogent Social Sciences along with their rejection. Worse, this failed attempt to discredit gender studies functions to further the narrative that it is a cogent academic discipline engaged in a search for the truth.

Indeed, if the hoaxers really believed that gender studies had gone off the railings they should have known no hoax would work. The discipline of gender studies must continue to hire and fire professors, determine which papers to publish in top journals and generally make determinations of status and it’s not plausible that this is all accomplished by the toss of a coin. Rather, you would expect to see the same kinds of cultural signifiers of status you see in subgroups like hipsters of goths. Certain kind of language, references etc.. etc.. would all collude to let members of that subculture recognize each other and notice an interlooper immediately. This is even more true regarding choice of ideology. Just because Christian beliefs about Jesus have almost no basis in fact and to the non-believer sound like “Blah Blah Jesus nice…miracle…salvation…soul blah” doesn’t mean an unfamiliar non-believer can just toss something together that sounds similar to them and pass as a Catholic theologian. When ideology because the driving force rather than fact people don’t shrug and say ‘close enough’ they start killing each other over minor differences (at least Tuvel only had her paper withdrawn).

In other words the hoax was surely doomed to fail because, in a large part, gender studies is deeply flawed in something like the way they fear. But simple reflection should have made it clear this would mean they would have far more means of detecting belonging/status than a discipline with clear objective standards like mathematics.

Discrediting Gender Studies and Feminist Philosophy Myself

Rather than following the hoax strategy there is a much easier way to debunk gender studies (and it’s relative feminist philosophy). Simply take a look at what they themselves write. For example, to quote from a paper I found by browsing Hypatia (a top tier journal) to get a taste of their articles (no, not cheery picked)

When it comes to relations among specific human beings, I understand sexual agency as the ability to contribute meaningfully to the quality of the sexual interaction in question. To have sexual agency is to be recognized and effective as an active element in the creation of an intersubjective interaction; it is, in an Irigarayan sense, to be recognized as sexually distinct from the other, such that the interaction is marked by that difference.

If you read that quote without contrarian fussiness it feels like something meaningful was said but try and actually identify what it was and it fades away. For starters, what is the effect of qualifying this passage to `specific human beings’? Are there non-specific human beings? While mere unreasonable verboseness isn’t a mortal sin it is qualifiers like this which simultaneously create the sense that something deep and non-trivial is being said while leaving open the option to use ‘sexual agency’ in some completely different sense by setting up a metaphorical sense in which it is no longer about ‘relations among specific human beings.’ Coming to the definition of agency one finds oneself totally unenlightened. My grip on ‘sexual agency’ was stronger than my understanding of what is meant here by ‘contribute’, ‘meaningfully’ and ‘quality.’ For instance, does meaningfully operate as a synonym of significantly, indicate the phenomenological feeling of purpose/understanding or simply serve as a weasel word so that any time sexual agency needs to be denied one can simply say it isn’t meaningful?

Then we come to what appears to be a further elaboration of that definition but now we are told that it is “recognized and effective as an active element in the creation of an intersubjective interaction.” But this seems to be a completely different criteria than the one it elaborates. If your partner has a fetish for having sex with robots genuinely tricking them into believing you were a robot using your mad acting skills in a way you both find super hot should be off the charts on the first definition yet as you are literally not recognized nor is the interaction intersubjective the second definition says something completely different. Maybe the author is sneakily reading this sense of intersubjective recognition into the idea of quality which does violence to the plain meaning but that just highlights the tension between the robot example and our intuitive sense of sexual agency.

Note that none of these definitions makes any sense of the claim that in cases of where a woman’s partner only seeks their ‘consent’ and wouldn’t take any other reaction at face value their sexual agency is limited. Notice how the inattentive reader who is inclined to assume a cogent argument is being made is pulled along. It certainly feels like there is something limiting about having only one ‘real’ choice but even that is the result of a sleight of hand. Presumably there is nothing less real (only less desirable) about choices that require one to have unpleasant interactions. If we understood agency to diminish as the unpleasantness of the outcomes increases then we would have to say a disabled individual whose conditions imposes massive untreatable pain has much less agency because the outcomes of all his choices are deeply painful. Moreover, yet again the definitions above seem to give all the wrong answers and the situation continues downhill when we are later told that in an act of sexual violence the victims agency is ‘negated’ (whatever the hell that means) because what happens and how is unaffected by her desires, interests, etc.. etc… But surely some rapists are motivated by an active desire for cruelty and deliberately perform whatever acts they intuit their victim would most dislike so are we to conclude that in those cases the victims agency isn’t ‘negated’? Moreover, if agency is understood as the ability to contribute meaningfully then a victim whose rapist would deeply enjoy her consent (and if necessary suppose it would change the nature of the experience for her) is overflowing with sexual agency despite, intuitively, the fact that her agency is being denied by overriding her choice.

Note that I’m not engaging in unrepresentative cheery picking. The entire content of the paper (as well as the other papers I pulled) has this form. Worse, the author is not only apparently willing to let her concerns about what is desirable function as reasons for believing or rejecting specific claims she actually sees this as a huge positive.

What I aim to emphasize is that the very act of categorization needs to be recognized as a social and world-constituting act, one that ought not to be understood as an objective practice that either succeeds (by correctly aligning an experience with a definition) or fails (by mismatching an experience with a definition). To identify a particular experience as an instantiation of sexual violence (or not) doesn’t just reflect the world as it is (or reflect it inaccurately); it creates new possibilities, and forecloses others.

This passage pushes the paper into the realm of the openly absurd. There is no sense in which all the fancy words in the article are actually an attempt to describe the world. Of course, those inclined to defend postmodernism will offer long erudite sounding defenses of this sort of thing but as the above exploration showed the kind of explanations they will provide shouldn’t be assumed to have any factual content just because they sound smart. They will also surely explain that I simply don’t understand what is being said here and it is only in relation to (big name drops) that I can appreciate this but at some point when a subject simply continues not to make sense as you dig down layer after layer you’ve simply got to shrug and say you don’t believe there is anything there.

Transgender and Transracial Philosophical Shenanigans

Orthodox Conclusions For Unorthodox Reasons

For those who aren’t connected with the philosophical, social justice or anti social justice worlds let me start with a bit of background. A few weeks ago the feminist philosopher Rachel Tuvel wrote an article (pdf) suggesting that we should be sympathetic to hypothetical claims of transracialism (i.e. people like Rachel Dolezal who claim to feel like they are a member of a different race than society classifies them as) for the same reasons we are sympathetic to transgender individuals. In particular, Tuvel suggested that it might be appropriate to prioritize internal feelings when making group classifications.

Now I don’t find Tuvel’s paper particularly convincing as an argument for it’s stated thesis. However, I do find it much more compelling as a conditional argument: if our support for transgender individuals is justified then we should adopt the same attitude toward hypothetical claims of transracial identity1. In other words, you can’t both condemn the man on the street for failing to support the right2 of transgender individuals to be gendered as they request while simultaneously insisting that the straightforward appeals (people should be able to choose their own identity) must be thrown overboard and replaced with abstruse philosophical theories of gender and race in order to even consider a prima facia case for transracialism. Either the man on the street can correctly claim that none of the arguments/evidence in the cultural zeitgeist justify claims of transgender rights or those same arguments create at least a prima facia case for transracial rights.

There was an immediate, cacophonous backlash against Tuvel’s paper and over 500 philosophers signed an open letter demanding Hypatia (the journal the paper was published in) issue a retraction. Note that retractions are reserved almost exclusively for cases of research misconduct (even studies later discovered to have erroneous conclusions usually aren’t retracted) and journals have resisted retracting papers even when those papers (misleadingly) appear to be defending child abuse and congress is applying pressure. Now the reasons given in the open letter (impolite use of other gendered name, failure to consult trans or minority individuals about their experiences, lack of literature engagement) were pretty clearly pre-textual. Papers commonly don’t cite literature the author doesn’t believe will be helpful and the fact that no one could point to existing literature that countered Tuvel’s arguments is further evidence it was a smokescreen. This becomes even more apparent if you peruse some of the pieces written in protest.

Had Tuvel’s article been written in support of an orthodox position about transgender issues, e.g., our experience with racial identity shows how important it is to respect trans identity, no one would have done anything more than make polite suggestions. However, as it was, Tuvel’s article outlined a potential political reducto of trans rights advocacy (if you accept transgender next thing you know you’ll have to accept transracial people as well) and defended an idea that many minorities find offensive.

Rather than bang on about how awful it is that philosophers are putting ideological purity above intellectual principles I’ll let this excellent response do it for me and instead try to get to the bottom of the moral case for accepting (and accommodating) transgender and transracial identification as both a practical and theoretical matter. Ultimately, I do present what I believe to be straightforward considerations that distinguish the transracial and transgender cases but as they are ultimately mere consequentialist balancings of harms and benefits they do nothing to reduce the force of Tuvel’s reasoning against those who take transgender accommodation to be an obvious moral imperative whose justification doesn’t require marshaling (or even gesturing at) empirical evidence of costs and benefits.

Reactions Outside The Community

While the philosophical community was busy having a fit because someone (in good faith without animosity) dared to publish an article that didn’t genuflect in front of less privileged groups in precisely the correct way the reaction from the rest of the blogosphere was considerably different. Both esr and poppsych.org wrote pieces pointing out that categories belong to the society that makes them not the individual who is categorized and that people had no right to demand to be placed in a different category.

There is a great deal of truth in this. No matter how much you feel like a great baseball player we don’t let that internal feeling dictate how often you get sent out on the field. We do use both race and gender categories, to some extent, for this kind of practical assortment. As few individuals are bi we use the gender category to sort people into potential dates and potential rivals. We use race as a proxy for past (or potential future) discrimination and cultural background.

While the unwashed masses are more likely to simply insist “No a man is someone with a penis/Y chromosome” they are expressing a similar sentiment. Despite attempts by parts of the social justice community (not effective transgender advocates) to insist this is merely transphobia I think that (while transphobia surely plays some role3 for some segment of the public) this sentiment is best understood as a (poorly expressed) unwillingness to modify social categories merely because someone would prefer a different categorization. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction to have when someone requests you place them in a different category based on factors you don’t take to be relevant to membership in that category, e.g., pointing out you have a great batting average is relevant to being placed in the good baseball player category while `feeling like a winner’ is not.

Thus, if you are advocating for transgender acceptance you owe the public an argument why the fact that transgender individuals desire to be classified differently justifies doing so when such desires usually don’t. Unfortunately, this controversy seems to suggest that any an attempt to formulate such an argument (rather than taking it for granted or offering pure emotional appeals) runs a serious risk of being met with open hostility from other transgender advocates. But, for whatever the reason, the choice to abandon friendly persuasion and adopt the presumption that disagreement is proof of transphobia (if not literally nazihood) does a deep disservice to trans individuals by turning potential supporters into enemies4.

Social Categories And Moral Duties

While it may be generally true that wishing to be classified differently, e.g., as a good baseball player, isn’t usually something that obligates us to change those categories it sometimes does. For instance, consider gay marriage. Despite it’s legal and religious trappings marriage is ultimately a societal category (society recognizes a certain class of people as being in a kind of approved sexual partnership). Even if we had adopted civil unions that gave homosexual couples all the legal rights of married individuals the discomfort caused by categorizing committed gay couples as merely having a civil union rather than a marriage created an obligation to change our conception of marriage to include single sex couples.

Note that, that the moral obligation with respect to gay marriage was to stop making prominent use of (both culturally and legally) a relationship category that excluded gays. The choice to recognize gay marriages as ‘marriages’ was merely the easiest way to achieve this but it would have been morally acceptable to instead promote civil unions into the preeminent legal and social standard for committed relationship, i.e., we would ask both straight and gay couples if they were civil unioned, laws would be drafted in reference to civil union status etc… Conversely, we would not have meet our moral obligation if we had accepted homosexual marriages as marriages only to demote marriage to second class status while reserving the highest social regard only for `hetero marriage.’ Critically, while cases like gay marriage appear to be about changing the definition of words they are really about changing which concepts we give cultural and legal preeminence to.

Similarly, transgender advocates want us to give concepts that recognize voluntary identification/presentation the prominent social and legal role5 we currently give to male/female (whether or not we let the same word play that role). Whatever you think male/female mean you have to acknowledge that dividing people up by claimed (leaving aside non-binary) gender identity is a coherent way to categorize people and that we could use some term that refers to this categorization in the situations we now use male/female.

Categories and Moral Balancing

Ultimately, whether or not we have a moral obligation to change which categories we give legal/social importance is a matter of balancing harms and benefits. For instance, switching to a gay inclusive category of committed relationships imposed very little cost. All of the practical purposes we use the category of marriage for (distinguishing serious/non-serious romantic relationships, assigning legal rights/duties etc..) are equally well handled by a gay inclusive relationship category. Thus, there is little cost to promoting a gay inclusive notion of marriage into egal/social prominence. Conversely, eliminating the substantial practical burdens and emotional harms imposed by a hetero-only notion of marriage provides a great benefit to homosexuals as well as their friends/relatives. The minimal cost and large benefit are more than enough to overcome the presumption in favor of existing practice6.

In contrast, consider the proposal to give the category ‘good baseball player or self-identifies as a good baseball player’ the social role previously filled by the category ‘good baseball player.’ That would mean that merely identifying as a good baseball player would warrant being taken off the bench, draw praise from teammates and even (at the college or professional level) generate income. This would be a huge cost as it would totally gut the practical value of the category good baseball player. True, there is some unhappiness associated with being thought of as a bad baseball player but I think it’s fair to say that the benefits of having such a category outweigh the costs. Indeed, it is likely sociologically impossible to adopt such a proposal as people would inevitably resume using the category of actually being proficient at baseball under a different name and failing to enter that category would instill the same disappointment and frustration that exclusion from the category of good baseball players creates today.

This kind of analysis neatly explains why we shouldn’t recognize transracial/transethnic individuals at a legal level. While it is possible there are unrecognized individuals experiencing emotional suffering because they can’t legally change races there is no evidence such individuals exist at all (excepting, perhaps, Rachel Dolezal). Moreover, the harms involved in replacing the current notion of race with one that allowed self-identification would be significant7 as we use race/ethnicity as a proxy for a variety of obstacles individuals face on account of their skin color/culture. For instance transracial self-identification would allow people to obscure attempts to identify discriminatory treatment (hey guys we need a bunch of you to identify as black so we don’t get sued) or self-servingly take advantage of programs designed to offset/remedy these obstacles without having faced (or at least being statistically more likely to have faced) the obstacles themselves8. The situation is slightly more complicated when we consider the social role of racial identification but ultimately the analysis is the same9.

So what happens when we apply this kind of analysis to the demands of transgender advocates? I find the descriptions of gender dysphoria by transgendered individuals credible evidence of substantial suffering as a result of being classified10 as the ‘wrong’ gender (more pedantically as a result of society choosing to use a categorization they dislike in everyday social and legal interactions). Now what about the cost of changing our gender categories11? This depends greatly on the scope of the change being made. If all we seek to do is ensure that in workplaces, universities and other places of public accommodation that people can use the restroom, pronoun and gender classification they (attempt to) present as then the cost is extremely minimal. Coed restrooms may take some getting used to but present no dangers or substantial harms so I see no reason not to let people use restrooms of their choice. Correct honorifics are purely a matter of convention and the downsides of coming out trans outweigh any likely benefit from affirmative action style programs (and if it proves to be a problem they can be closed to trans individuals). Thus, I think the cost benefit analysis is pretty lopsided in favor of treating transgender individuals with the social pleasantries and restroom access they request. Indeed, I would argue that the cost is so low that simple good manners demands such treatment.

Of course, if you have a more expansive notion of what it means to accommodate transgender individuals which goes beyond mere terminology and politeness to require genuinely treating trans men/women indistinguishably from cis men/women the analysis changes. For instance, if you think lesbians are morally obliged to tear down the cotton ceiling by regarding all women (even including transgender women with cocks) as potential sexual partners the cost is substantial. Our sex drives don’t give a fuck about what facts are morally appropriate to consider in evaluating dates (race, wealth, obesity, and conformity with gender stereotypes are all huge determents of sexual interest) and trying to berate them into different behavior is a recipe for pain. Even the more modest demand that trans-women be welcome in (and supported by) all feminist organizations is dangerous. While trans-women may face more hardships than cis-women on average they don’t face the same hardships. For instance, a project examining hypothetical reluctance to introduce young girls to STEM fields and/or trying to offset this with later interventions should make distinctions on assigned gender as a youth12.

Tuvel, Transgender Activism and Non-Binary Identification

The analysis above is pretty obvious. When do you change the categories you regard as important: when the cost of doing so is less than the benefit reaped. This naturally begs the question why didn’t Tuvel (or any of her visible critics) avail themselves of it. I’m sure there are multiple reasons and I can only speculate here but my guess is that the practical, empirically oriented structure raises concerns that the feminist/trans philosophy orthodoxy would rather not confront.

For one, this structure puts the phenomenological particulars of the transgender experience front and center. The reason we should change our practices to accommodate transgender individuals (while resisting attempts by fuckers like me to insist on being called ‘God Emperor’) is that the former group experiences serious emotional distress and is making good faith requests while I’m just out for a lark. However, much of the social justice world has been very reluctant to try to characterize what constitutes a representative transgender experience lest they deny someone’s unique experience. Worse, this kind of analysis may not be quite so kind to non-binary identification13 not to mention treating transgender identity as fundamentally no different in kind from the desire to amputate a healthy limb (not a bad thing just a recognition that both are brute preferences for unusual things).

This is particular unfortunate because both from a practical and theoretical standpoint any attempt to advance transgender rights hinges on the nature of the transgender experience. The only reason for treating the requests of transgender individuals as legitimate and reasonable while denying trollish requests from people like me to be addressed as God Emperor (or the nutty transspecies individuals14) stems from our divergent experiences and resulting motivations. To ensure the support of the kind social justice critical intellectuals I linked above there needs to be a cogent intellectual defense of what makes the requests of transgender advocates reasonable in contrast to most requests to change behavior/language based on personal preference. While I find the utilitarian considerations here compelling most people need some kind of difference in kind and that must be rooted in the particular nature of transgender experience. Providing such an analysis is normally the role of philosophy but this controversy suggests it is unable to maintain even the fig leaf of dispassionate intellectual inquiry on this subject.

As a practical matter the transgender community also needs to provide an emotional narrative that average citizens can understand. Homosexual marriage won because everyday people understood the message: homosexuals have the same kind of feelings I do about sex and love only triggered by same gender individuals. If transgender individuals want to get their requests for social change accepted they need to tell a story about what it’s like to be transgender that makes the average citizen think: If I was in that situation I’d also want people to treat me like the gender I identified with.. That means backing away from the position that the individual uniqueness of transgender individuals prevents the identification of common experiences and conveying those experiences to the general public. Of course, this may require leaving some unusual allies behind just like the homosexuals had to leave the committed polyamorous triads behind to ensure the Obergefell decision but that’s how real progress happens.


  1. While there are analyses of transgender (if accepted) or possible psychological/empirical facts that could be used to construct arguments in favor of supporting claims of transgender but not of transrace even most of the philosophical community (and even the transgender community I suspect) is unaware of these details. Thus, to the extent society at large has good grounds for supporting/accepting claims of transgender they can’t rely on these obscure considerations. I think Tuvel does a decent job of arguing that, if we set aside those more obscure/empirical points, the same considerations arise for transracial identity. Ultimately, my inclination is to say that it probably will turn on psychological/empirical facts that may not yet be widely known … but that kind of admission would not be acceptable by the orthodoxy. 
  2. You could criticize them for not extending to transgender people the normal human kindness of complying with requests made of us so long as they aren’t too burdensome but most trans advocates (at least in philosophical circles) tend to view any skepticism of the idea that transgender individuals have a right to be gendered as they request as proof of some moral failing. 
  3. As with homophobia a great deal of animosity (as opposed to mere difference of opinion about social structure) towards trans individuals is based on an ick factor (hence why gay men faced so much more opposition than lesbians). I think it’s important that rather than tell people they are bad for even having the feeling we let them know that it’s a common human reaction to even the thought of different physiology. When I was young I responded similarly to some aspect (her skin?) of my grandmother’s old age/illness but it dissipated quickly once it became familiar and certainly didn’t stop me from loving and respecting her. But telling people that innate human reactions they can’t control makes them a bad person is a good way to turn potential allies into enemies and ensure they never gain enough familiarity to eliminate that reaction. 
  4. Importantly, even people who would fight any attempt to discriminate against transgender individuals in the workplace may have different views on when individual preferences can justly require society to change the categories it uses. Rather than being anti-trans many people just feel that society has much less of a duty to be responsive to even very heartfelt and intense preferences. 
  5. As we will see the precise range or roles for which transgender individuals want to substitute these new categories makes a substantial difference in whether we have any moral obligation to do so. 
  6. It takes a great deal of effort to make such changes and enforcing such changes inevitably requires some level of social coercion and there is always the possibility of error. Thus, the burden is properly on the party attempting to argue we should change the categories we assign social/legal importance to. 
  7. At least assuming the policy consensus that it is good and appropriate to sometimes consider disadvantaged racial background in awarding government contracts, school admittance, hiring, etc.. If you think this consensus is harmful this analysis changes. 
  8. Of course the government/employer could simply record whether or not you were cis-black or trans-black and use that to recreate the original data (though it would make it easier to raise spurious objections based on a desire not to stigmatize transracialism). However, it’s not at all obvious merely changing the name of the box ticked from ‘non-black’ to ‘trans-black’ would offer any benefit to transracial individuals. If their status as transracial is used to deny them entry into programs open to cis-black individuals its hard to imagine they would feel they were being regarded as racially black. 
  9. The argument that we should replace the current social role of racial identification with something which allows identification based transition is somewhat more plausible. However, this too is problematic as one can’t separate cultural behavior from skin color/ancestry, e.g., the mere fact that I don’t have black skin means I can’t use the n-word with the same meaning as someone with black skin. So again the balance doesn’t favoring adopting categories that give a greater role to the feeling of identification to fill the role played by racial categories. 
  10. Whether or not that suffering is literally the result of not using the desired pronouns and gender ascriptions or merely correlates with non-acceptance and harassment isn’t clear. Maybe if some database screwup prevented trans individuals from having access to their preferred bathrooms or records made of their preferred pronouns but everyone was perfectly accepting it would be just as good but in practice we can assume that using desired pronouns and gender terms goes hand in hand with reduced suffering. 
  11. More pedantically, changing the categories we use to select pronouns, assign restrooms and use in everyday descriptive talk, e.g., “Ask the woman in the white blouse.” 
  12. Of course, while it would be appropriate to exclude trans-women it wouldn’t be appropriate to exclude trans-men but logical consistency has never done well against the rhetoric of privelege. 
  13. There are too many people claiming non-binary gender identity for purely political/expressive reasons, less clarity that using preferred pronouns/gender descriptions alleviates suffering for non-binary individuals, and the many non-binary genders impose substantial IT/forms/mental overhead costs. The real nail in the coffin, however, is the lack of any brightline to exclude clear attempts to hijack the norms for amusement/politics. People (rightly for fear of incentivizing more mischief) aren’t going to tolerate people like me asking to be addressed as Galactic Gerdes whatever the social justice scene says about galactic gender identity but once one starts accepting some non-binary identities it becomes dangerous to exclude others. 
  14. Personally, I’m not convinced they are any different than transgender individuals. They feel a certain way and respecting those feelings might make them happy. However, the feminist/trans philosophy community is certainly not willing to classify transgender as no different in kind than any other crazy, but emotionally intense and long term, life choice like voluntary amputation. 

Defending Citizen’s United

I generally sympathize with the liberal contingent on the supreme court but I think this [defense](https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/05/26/citizens-united-media-corporations-and-other-corporations/ of Citizen’s United is right) on.

Now I’m open to arguments against Citizens United but if you are going to criticize the opinion the burden is on you to identify a good bright line rule (to prevent gradual erosion of rights) that provides newspapers and other journalism with the kind of protection we think they deserve without handing the government the ability to distinguish responsible journalists from mere non-profits/pacs/etc..

I’ve long supported Citizens United but what this post very helpfully pointed out is the extent to which every justification to restrict Citizens United style corporate speech has applied to restrictions on journalism/editorials. Cities with a single large newspaper surely had as much reason to worry about that newspaper using it’s power in a last minute attempt to sway the election than we have to worry about corporate money in politics.

Now, I agree that responsible journalists have a special role to play in the electoral process. I’m NOT worried about the New York Times doing something dastardly. However, I most certainly do not want Trump’s administration deciding who is a journalist as opposed to an advocate of some corporate interest, Yes, as the Citizens United dissent points out we sometimes adopt balancing tests for constitutional rights and we could adopt one here. But balancing tests tend to follow the political wind and if free speech is to serve as a bulwark against tyranny and patriotic group think that’s not good enough for core political speech.

Moreover, think about what would happen if Citizens United was overturned and one adopted some kind of test to distinguish media companies or genuine journalism from other corporate speech. I think the natural response to such incentives would be to further obscure whether or not you were engaged in journalism. In other words companies would cloak themselves in the trappings of a media company/genuine journalist to avail themselves of the greater free speech rights further worsening the problem of fake news. The courts would then have to either accept the trappings of media/journalism as valid on their face (encouraging such deception) or engage in a dangerous substantive investigation of whether a company counts as a `real’ journalism company.

Disclosing Vulnerabilities

Does Wcry show the NSA should disclose 0-days?

The recent (highly damaging) Wcry ransomware worm is derived from NSA code recently disclosed by hackers. This has lead Microsoft (and others) to call on the government to disclose security vulnerabilities so they can be fixed rather than stockpiling them for use in offensive hacking operations. However, I think the lesson we should learn from this incident is exactly the opposite.

This debate about how to balance the NSA‘s two responsibilities: protecting US computer systems from infiltration and gathering intelligence from foreign systems is hardly new (and Bruce Schneier’s take on it is worth reading). The US government is very much aware of this tension and has a special process, the vulnerabilities equities process (VEP), to decide whether or not to disclose a particular vulnerability. Microsoft is arguing that recent events illustrate just how much harm is caused by stockpiled vulnerabilities and, analogizing this incident to the use of stolen conventional weaponry, suggesting the government needs to take responsibility by always choosing to report vulnerabilities to vendors so they can be patched.

However, if anything, this incident illustrates the limitations of reporting vulnerabilities to vendors. Rather than being 0-days the vulnerabilities used by the Wcry worm were already patched a month before the publication of the NSA exploits and the circumstances of the patch suggest that the NSA, aware that it had been compromised, reported these vulnerabilities to Microsoft. Thus, rather than illustrating the dangers of stockpiling vulnerabilities, this incident reveals the limitations of reporting vulnerabilities. Even once vulnerabilities are disclosed the difficulty convincing users to update and the lack of support for older operating systems leave a vast many users at risk. In contrast, once a patch is released (or even upon disclosure to a vendor) the vulnerability can no longer be used to collect intelligence from security aware targets, e.g., classified systems belonging to foreign governments.

It is difficult not to interpret Microsoft’s comments on this issue as an attempt to divert blame. After all, it is their code which is vulnerable and it was their choice to cease support for windows XP. However, to be fair, this is not the first time they have taken such a position publicly. Back in February Microsoft called for a “Digital Geneva Convention” under which governments would forswear “cyber-attacks that target the private sector or critical infrastructure or the use of hacking to steal intellectual property” and commit to reporting vulnerabilities rather than stockpiling them.

While there may an important role for international agreement to play in this field Microsoft’s proposal here seems hopelessly naive. There are good reasons why there has never been an effective international agreement barring spying and they all apply to this case as well. There is every incentive for signatories to such a treaty to loudly affirm it and then secretly continue to stockpile vulnerabilities and engage in offensive hacking. While at first glance one might think that we could at least leave the private sector out of this that ignores the fact that many technologies are dual purpose1 and that frequently the best way to access government secrets will be to compromise email accounts hosted by private companies as well as the uses big data can be put to by government actors. Indeed, the second that a government thought such a treaty was being followed they would move all their top secret correspondence to (in country version of) something like gmail.

Successful international agreements forswearing certain weapons or behaviors need to be verifiable and not (too) contrary to the interests of the great powers. The continued push to ban land mines is unlikely to be successful as long as they are seen as important to many powerful countries’ (including a majority of permanent security council members) military strategies2 and it is hard to believe that genuinely giving up stockpiling vulnerabilities and offensive hacking would be in the interests of Russia or China. Moreover, if a treaty isn’t verifiable there is no reason for countries not to defect and secretly fail to comply. While Microsoft proposes some kind of international cooperative effort to assign responsibility for attacks it is hard to see how this wouldn’t merely encourage false flag operations to trigger condemnation and sanctions against rivals. It is telling that the one aspect of such a treaty that would be verifiable, the provision banning theft of IP (at least for use by private companies rather than for national security purposes), is the only aspect Microsoft points to as having been the subject of a treaty (a 2015 US-China agreement).

While it isn’t uncommon for idealistic individuals and non-profit NGOs to act as if treaties can magic away the realities of state interests and real world incentives I have trouble believing Microsoft is this naive about this issue. I could very well be wrong on this point but it’s hard for me not to think their position on this issue is more about shifting blame for computer security problems than a thoughtful consideration of the costs and benefits.

Of course, none of this is to say that there isn’t room for improvement in how the government handles computer security vulnerabilities. For instance, I’m inclined to agree with most of the reforms mentioned here. As far as the more broad question of whether we should tip the scales more toward reporting vulnerabilities instead of stockpiling them I think that depends heavily on how frequently the vulnerabilities we find are the same as those found by our rivals and how quickly our intelligence services are able to discover what vulnerabilities are known to our rivals. As such information is undoubtedly classified (and for good reasons) it seems the best we can do is make sure congress exercises substantial oversight and use the political process to encourage presidents to install leadership at the NSA who understands these issues.


  1. Facial recognition technology can be used to identify spies, code advertisers uses to surreptitiously identify and track customers is ideal for covert surveillance and the software the NSA uses to monitor it’s huge data streams was built by private sector companies using much of the same technology used to various kinds of search engines. 
  2. A less idealistic treaty that recognize the role for land mines in major military operations probably could have done more to safe guard civilians from harm by, instead, banning persistent mines. As such a ban would actually favor the interests of the great powers (persistent mines are easier to make by low tech actors) they would have helped enforce it rather than providing cover for irresponsible use of landmines. 

Rejecting Rationality

I felt I would use this first post to explain this blog’s title. It is not, despite appearances to the contrary, meant to suggest any animosity toward the rationality community nor sympathy with the idea that when evaluating claims we should ever favor emotions and intuition over argumentation and evidence. Rather, it is intended as a critique of the ambiguous overuse of the term `rationality’ by the rationality community in general (and Yudkowsky specifically).

I want to suggest that there are two different concepts we use the word rationality to describe and that the rationality community overuses the term in a way that invites confusion. Both conceptions of rationality are judgements of epistemic virtue but the nature of that virtue differs.

Rationality As Ideal Evaluation Of Evidence

The first conception of rationality reflects the classic idea that rationality is a matter of a priori theoretical insight. This makes intuitive sense as rationality, in telling us how we should respond to evidence, shouldn’t depend on the particular way the evidence turns out. On this conception rationality constrains how one reaches judgements from arbitrary data and something is rational just if we expect it to maximize true beliefs in the face of a completely unknown/unspecified fact pattern1. In other words this is the kind of rationality you want if you are suddenly flung into another universe where the natural laws, number of dimensions or even the correspondence between mental and physical states might differ radically from our own.

On this conception having logically coherent beliefs and obeying the axioms of probability can be said to be rationally required (as doing so never forces you to belief less truths) but it’s hard to make a case for much else. Carnap (among others) suggested at one point that there might be something like a rationally (in this sense) preferable way of assigning priors but the long history of failed attempts and conceptual arguments suggests this isn’t possible.

Note that on this conception of rationality it is perfectly appropriate to criticize a belief forming method for how it might perform if faced with some other set of circumstances. For instance, we could appropriately criticize the rule: never believe in ghosts/psychics on the grounds that it would have lead us to the wrong conclusions in a world where these things were real.

Rationality As Heuristic

The second conception of rationality is simpler. Rationality is what will lead human beings like us to true beliefs in this world. Thus, this notion of rationality can take into account things that happen to be true. For instance, consider the rule that when asked a question on a math test (written by humans in the usual circumstances) that calls for a numerical answer you should judge that 0 is the most probable answer. This rule is almost certainly truth-conducive but only because it happens to be true that human psychology tends to favor asking questions whose answer is 0.

Now a heuristic like this might, at first, seem pretty distant from the kind of things we usually mean by rationality but think about some of the rules that are frequently said to be rationally required/favored. For instance, one should steelman2 your opponents arguments, try to consider the issue in the most dispassionate way you can manage and you should break up complex/important events.

For instance, suppose that humans were psychologically disposed to be overly deferential so it was far more common to underestimate the strength of your argument than it was to underestimate your opponent’s argument. In this case steelmanning would make us even more likely to reach the wrong conclusions not less. Similarly, our emotions could have reflected useful information available to our subconscious minds but not our concuss minds in such a way that they provided a good guide to truth. In such a world trying to reach probability judgements via dispassionate consideration wouldn’t be truth conducive.

Thus, on this conception of rationality whether or not a belief forming method is rational depends only on how well it does in the actual world.

The Problematic Ambiguity

Unfortunately, when people in the rationality community talk about rationality they tend to blur these two concepts together. That is they advocate belief forming mechanisms that could only be said to be rational in the heuristic sense but assume that they can determine matters of rationality purely by contemplation without empirical evidence.

For instance, consider these remarks by Yudkowsky or this lesswrong post. Whether or not they come out and assert it they convey the impression that there is some higher discipline or lifestyle of rationality which goes far beyond simply not engaging in logical contradiction or violating probability axioms. Yet they seem to assume that we can determine what is/isn’t rational by pure conceptual analysis rather than empirical validation.

This issue is even more clear when we criticize others for the ways they form beliefs. For instance, we are inclined to say that people who adopt the rule ‘believe what my community tells me is true’ or ‘believe god exists/doesn’t exist regardless of evidence’ are being irrational since such rules would yield incorrect results if they had been born in a community with crazy beliefs or in a universe with/without deities. Yet, as I observed above the very rules we take to be core rational virtues have the very same property.

The upshot of this isn’t that we should give up on finding good heuristics for truth. Not at all. Rather, I’m merely suggesting we take more care, especially in criticizing other people’s belief forming methods, to ensure we are applying coherent standards.

A Third Way

One might hope that there was yet another concept of rationality that someone split the difference of the two I provided here. A notion that allows us to take into account things like our psychological makeup or seemingly basic (if contingent) properties our universe has, e.g., we experience it as predictable rather than being an orderless succession of experiential states, but doesn’t let us build in facts like Yeti’s don’t exist into supposedly rational belief forming mechanisms. Frankly, I’m skeptical that any such coherent notion can be articulated but don’t currently have a compelling argument for that claim.

Finally, I’d like to end by pointing out there is another issue we should be aware of regarding the term rationality (though hardly unique to it). That is rationality is ultimately a property of belief forming rules while in the actual world what we get is instances of belief formation and some vague intentions about how we will form beliefs in the future. Thus there is the constant temptation to simply find some belief forming rule that qualifies as sufficiently rational and use it to justify this instance of our belief. However, it’s not generally valid to infer that you are forming beliefs appropriately just because each belief you form agrees with some sufficiently rational (in the heuristic sense) belief forming mechanism.

For instance, suppose there are a 100 different decent heuristics for forming a certain kind of belief. We know that each one is imperfect and gets different cases wrong but any attempt to come up with a better rule doesn’t yield anything humans (with our limited brains) can usefully apply. It is entirely plausible that almost any particular belief of this kind matches up with 1 of these 100 different heuristics thus allowing you to always cite a justification for your belief even though you underperform every single one of these heuristics.



  1. I’m glossing over the question of whether there is a distinction between an arbitrary possible world and a `random’ possible world. For instance, suppose that some belief forming rule is true in all but finitely many possible worlds (out of some hugely uncountable set of possible worlds). That rule is not authorized in an arbitrary possible world (choose the counterexample world and it leads to falsehood) but intuitively it seems justified and any non-trivial probability measure (i.e. one that doesn’t concentrate on any finite set of worlds) on the space of possible worlds would assign probability 1 to the validity of the belief forming procedure. However, this won’t be an issue in this discussion. 
  2. The opposite of strawmannirg. Rendering your opponents argument in the strongest fashion possible.