Stop Calling Subjects Ethically Fraught

It's An Excuse Not An Argument

Listening to the Last Week Tonight on Gene Editing (it’s pretty good) and seeing this debate about paying organ donors I’m compelled to call out the practice of simply asserting that something is ethically fraught or troublesome.

Both with respect to not compensating organ donors (something which could save huge numbers of lives) and with (mostly prospective) limits on eliminating genetic disease or even barring improvement I think we let people who are simply uncomfortable with change off the hook by constantly repeating the supposed truism that the issue is ethically fraught or there are serious ethical concerns. It’s basically a free pass that excuses the fact that they are putting their discomfort ahead of people’s welfare.

Under all the scenarios/conditions seriously being considered No, there aren’t ethical concerns. Fears like letting a bank reposes your kidney are no more relevant to the proposals on the table than the fear that debtors will enslave people is to wages. Similarly, concerns about racially motivated eugenics programs have no plausible relationship to any kind of gene therapy even being prospectively considered.

Of course, we should hear potential concerns about such policies just like we would for any other policy/technology. However, opponents should be on the spot to either shut up or come up with compelling arguments suggesting harms. Based on the fact that the opponent in the WSJ to paying for organ donation is reduced to arguments like “The introduction of money for a precious good comes at the cost of the ability for one to aspire to virtue” makes me doubt they can come up with such arguments.

I’d add that I think philosophers are partially to blame on this point. As a matter of philosophical interest we correctly find clever new arguments seeking to show that paid organ donation is actually somehow problematically coercive or otherwise wrong more interesting than the obvious argument that it saves lives. However, just as physicists need to convey to the public that the very thing which makes theories which deviate from the standard model interesting also makes them less likely I think philosophers need to do this as well.

How to Provide Better Incentives to Organ Donors

Three experts discuss strategies to address the shortage of organs available for people who need transplants.

Sleeping Beauty and Philosophy of Language

Why The Debate Over The Sleeping Beauty Paradox Is Confused

The Sleeping Beauty Problem is a famous philosophical problem in the philosophy of probability which has seeped into debates in the rationalist community. Apart from it’s independent philosophical interest it raises issues of practical significance via it’s close connection to the Doomsday argument. However, I will argue below that sleeping beauty is only an apparent problem that arises only because framing the talk in terms of probability hides an unjustified assumption that our notion of (epistemically justified) credence refers and we have a good grip on what it refers to. An assumption which this very paradox shows to be false. As a result all attempts to directly argue for any particular position on the sleeping beauty problem is deeply confused.

In particular, if we take our word credence to (like water) refer to something like the most scientifically/philosophically useful term in the area then it should be obvious that the only answer we can give is “we don’t know.” If not then our natural language term simply doesn’t uniquely refer so it doesn’t make sense to expect a right answer to the sleeping beauty problem (though each particular preciseification would yield one).

In a latter post I’ll argue that debates about interpretations of probability are making a similar error in assuming there are the sort of facts behind the meaning of ascriptions of probability that are at issue between the interpretations.

The Sleeping Beauty Problem

The Sleeping Beauty Problem is defined thusly on wikipedia

Sleeping Beauty volunteers to undergo the following experiment and is told all of the following details: On Sunday she will be put to sleep. Once or twice, during the experiment, Beauty will be awakened, interviewed, and put back to sleep with an amnesia-inducing drug that makes her forget that awakening. A fair coin will be tossed to determine which experimental procedure to undertake:

1. If the coin comes up heads, Beauty will be awakened and interviewed on Monday only.
2. If the coin comes up tails, she will be awakened and interviewed on Monday and Tuesday.

In either case, she will be awakened on Wednesday without interview and the experiment ends. Any time Sleeping Beauty is awakened and interviewed she will not be able to tell which day it is or whether she has been awakened before.

During the interview Beauty is asked: “What is your probability now for the proposition that the coin landed heads?”.

The apparent paradox arises because there are compelling seeming arguments (described in more detail on wikipedia) that sleeping beauty should answer 1/2 and a 1/3. Roughly the argument for 1/2 is that on waking up sleeping beauty doesn’t receive any information that might justify updating her probability. An argument for 1/3 is that when woken up she should assign equal probability to it being Monday or Tuesday conditional on the coin landing tails while conditional on the day being Monday she should assign equal probability to the coin being heads or tails. As there are twice as many equally probable outcomes involving tails the probability the coin landed heads is 1/3 (this is also the probability that sleeping beauty should use to bet with if offered a bet each time she is woken).

While phrased in this manner the sleeping beauty problem seems like a pretty irrelevant paradox the same reasoning applies in much more interesting settings. For instance, suppose you assign some non-zero prior to the possibility that instead of one single universe there are infinitely many universes containing an exact duplicate of you1. If you accept the arguments for the 1/3 position in the sleeping beauty paradox the mere fact that you are having an experience should cause you to update your probability for there being infinitely many universes to 1.

Similarly, what arguments you find compelling in the sleeping beauty case affect how you should evaluate the Doomsday argument. For instance, taking the 1/3 position in sleeping beauty might lead one to argue against the doomsday argument on the grounds that there are more total individuals having experiences if there is no imminent doomsday and this should weight our probabilities.

What Does A Credence Mean?

While the sleeping beauty paradox may pose a challenge to our philosophical idea of (subjective) probability it doesn’t raise any problems for the mathematics of probability. But if the problem isn’t mathematical what is it about? At first blush it appears to be a question about the notion of (epistemically appropriate) credence. In other words sleeping beauty is a question about epistemology dressed up as a problem about probability.

But once we realize this we should be immediately be drive to ask: what does it mean to have an (epistemically appropriate) credence of 1/3 (or half)?

The sleeping beauty paradox itself demonstrates immediately that there are multiple plausible ways we could understand such a statement. For instance, one way of understanding the notion of epistemically appropriate credence might build from the intuition that the percent of times you believe something to be true with credence p and it is true should be p. If you allow the fanciful device of imagining restarting the universe one might think that a credence p in a claim C is appropriate relative to a given experience E if we ran reality a bunch of times and the ratio of the number of times C is true when E is experienced approaches p. In other words a credence is like a bet with reality you take each time you form it (though one would need to flesh out the notion of forming a credence if one wanted to pursue this). This concept supports the 1/3 answer to the sleeping beauty problem since, if the experiment is repeated many times, 1/3 of the times sleeping beauty has the experience of waking up the coin will be heads.

On the other hand, another way of understanding the notion of epistemically appropriate credence might build from the idea that you only care about whether or not a claim is true not how often it is true relative to the number of times you form a credence about it. In other words, credence p in a claim C is appropriate relative to a given experience E is appropriate if the number of times the universe is restarted where both claim C is true and you (or someone?) has experience E divided by the number of times the universe is restarted and you have experience E approaches p. This concept supports the 1/2 answer to the sleeping beauty problem since if the experiment is repeated many times 1/2 of those times will result in the coin landing heads.

Now, of course, all the problems with defining interpretations of probability and limiting frequency approaches mean I didn’t fully define a precise concept in either case. However, I don’t need to fully define any concept merely demonstrate that there is more than one way one could want to define the notion of epistemically appropriate credence.

Which notion one is interested in will depend on the particular situation at hand. For instance, if sleeping beauty’s concern is about making a bet with one of the researchers (who promises to accept bets either day) she should use the concept which considers the number of times she’s had the experience. If one of the researchers is a serial killer who tells her right before she goes under that he’s going to kill her spouse if the coin lands heads then a notion of credence which doesn’t concern herself with how many times she has the experience. Note that this nicely resolves the more applied versions of sleeping beauty once we make clear just what we are interested in.

Given that there are more than one notion of epistemically appropriate credence one could care about the most informative to the sleeping beauty problem should simply be that it is under-specified. Indeed, the fact that for any practical purpose we know which value to use should have been a red flag from the beginning that this was merely a verbal dispute not a genuine puzzle about epistemology.

Philosophy of Language Discussion

While I expect that I could stop at this point and satisfy non-philosophers there is a tendency among philosophers to insist that even if we don’t know exactly what properties epistemically appropriate credence (or ‘probability’) has one might nevertheless be justified in believing it uniquely asserts. While I’m skeptical of such claims in this case it certainly can happen. For instance, ‘water’ referred to H2O when Avogadro determined water’s chemical formula rather than changing it’s meaning2. However, that was only because (and to the extent) that past dispositions about the use of the word water would have lead (at least hypothetically philosophically informed3) people to hesitate to call something water despite it’s appearances if given sufficient reason to suspect it might differ in underlying nature, e.g., if flown in a spaceship to visit a stream on another world people would have expressed uncertainty as to whether the refreshing clear liquid was water.

But if our term ‘probability’ (or ‘epistemically appropriate credences’) is to, like ‘water’, refer to whatever natural kind fits sufficiently well with our usage then the only sane position for philosophers to take on questions like sleeping beauty is to admit that they don’t know, and indeed can’t know, until we figure out what natural kinds are in the neighborhood of our use of the term. After all, there is no doubt that problems like the sleeping beauty paradox differ from our usual applications of epistemically appropriate credences in ways that might or might not affect how some, yet undiscovered, natural kind in the neighborhood might apply. This wouldn’t reveal any kind of deep puzzle about the nature of the world, merely uncertainty as to the true reference of ‘epistemically appropriate credences’ as a result of our lack of knowledge about natural kinds in the neighborhood.

So sure, we can take ‘epistemically appropriate credences’ to refer to whatever concept turns out to be most elegantly useful in our theorizing about uncertainty in the world. However, if we do then the answer to all these paradoxes about probability becomes a simple “I don’t know” for the boring reason that we don’t know if there is an elegantly useful concept in the neighborhood yet. Thus, bald insistence that our notion of epistemically appropriate credences or probability has an implicit forward reference to the best concept in the neighborhood can’t save the arguments between the 1/2 and 1/3 camps from being appropriately regarded as confused.

1. To make the case fully analogous, one may assume that you have a soul which occupies each duplicate of you in turn, so you can’t escape the conclusion merely by appeal to the fact the same individual isn’t having the experiences.
2. While this makes for a nice philosophical parable I’m not totally convinced the claim holds up as a matter of linguistic history. The latin word aqua seems to be closely linked in meaning to the stuff in rivers and streams so I wouldn’t take it for granted that the average English speaker didn’t just mean whatever flows in the rivers and streams by ‘water’ back in 1811.
3. It might not be necessary for this to be the usual reaction but surely we must imagine that hypothetical philosophers who were somehow well versed Kripke’s arguments in Naming and Necessity back in 1800 would have such doubts if they didn’t understand ‘water’ to mean (as it is surely possible for a word to mean) any wet, clear, refreshing stuff that flows in a river or stream. If you deny this then you aren’t really studying the observable phenomena of language anymore but positing some kind of inaccessible platonic realm of truths regarding true meanings completely beyond the grasp of those using the language.

Legalizing Baby Sales

Don't We Want More Happy Parents, Healthier Pregnancies and Genetically Advantaged Children?

Julia Galef has more from her wonderful unpopular ideas series. This one covers unpopular ideas about children and reproduction. There’s a lot of interesting ideas in there but the one I found most appealing, though unfortunately pretty unlikely to be adopted, was the suggestion that we should allow parents to ‘sell’ their newborns.

There are some obvious problems with allowing people to do this in the third world. In traditional subsistence farming contexts children may offer a net economic gain to a family particularly if given only minimal accommodations. No one wants to return to the halcyon days when we hired children out as indentured servants where unsympathetic farmers would raise’ them in Dickensian conditions. However, in the developed world even the most neglected child is still a net economic cost so we can safely assume no one will be buying children to have someone they can extract work from without the guilt of mistreating their own offspring.

Such a policy would help many loving couples find children to adopt and I even believe there is a real benefit to removing children from the care of anyone so uninterested in them (or convinced they are unfit) that they are willing to make such a sale1.

But won’t this just result in drug addicts and other unfit parents popping out babies left and right for a bit of cash? Well maybe some college profs with oxy addictions might but babies to fund their habit but those babies would be in demand from parents who will offer them a good home (and unlike alcohol there is no analogous fetal opiate, meth or even crack syndrome). However, I suspect (but haven’t been able to find statistics on this) that the children born to street addicts already have plenty of problems finding adoptive parents. Moreover, pregnancy is a long, difficult process that its safe to assume anyone who finds it worthwhile to grow babies for sale is offering a high-value baby (good genes and health) who will be placed in a comfortable living situation.

What about the idea that it would incentivize women to choose the couple willing to pay the most for the child rather than the best family? First, I’m skeptical of the ability of birth mothers, given the lack of truly extensive interactions and their limited control over the process have any particular ability to pick good parents. Indeed, I suspect that the ability and willingness of the adopting family to pay would actually be a better indicator of the child’s future welfare than any gut level instinct. Second, when a birth mother decides between two potential families wanting to adopt the families who weren’t selected presumably still go on to adopt someone making this whole matter a wash from a social welfare perspective.

Basically, selling babies isn’t really any different than the surrogacy arrangements we are already comfortable allowing except that it no longer incentivizes people to only pretend to be willing to give the child up or to squeeze more money from the deal with a last minute change of heart. Where surrogacy arrangements incentivize the pregnant woman to divert money intended to increase the child’s health to their own pockets baby sales incentivize offering documented high quality care to maximize sale value.

Really, the only downside I can really see is just how obvious it will make our racial preferences in children. White babies will be worth way more than black ones.

1. In developed countries there is little reason to fear that more people would be extorted to sell their children if the practiced was legalized. One might imagine that in war torn parts of the world a market in children would give warlords the bright idea of forcing women to sell their children and give them the money. In the first world the only pressure on a woman to sell is the crappy circumstances she would be in whether or not baby sales were legal and if that induces her to make a sale I suspect everyone will be better off as a result, particularly the child.

What Does It Mean To Assign Babies A Gender?

More Philosophical Difficulties With The Concept Of Gender

I’m posting this because I think it raises some interesting philosophical issues about what it even means to assign a child a gender at birth as opposed to merely assigning them a sex. I mean surely the article isn’t advocating that we stop observing which genitalia a child has at birth or even that we stop using those facts to make decisions1. So then what even does it consist of to assign a child a gender at birth?

It seems to have something to do with assuming they will fill a certain kind of societal role, i.e., will comply with the societal expectations we have for men or women. So, for example, merely having a doctor note the genitalia expressed by the child or passing that information on to others wouldn’t count but having a “It’s a boy” party, and thereby encouraging guests to give boy appropriate presents, would.

However, this raises interesting questions about whether it is meaningful to claim to have a certain gender (say one different than the usual one for your sex) but be non-conformist to the usual social stereotypes. Or, indeed, what it would even mean to claim a given gender identity in the absence of such gender stereotypes and whether one can coherently support the idea of someone being transgender (as opposed to simply gender non-conforming) while opposing the idea of expectations of gendered behavior, i.e., in order to support the idea of someone claiming a different gender must one in some sense assent to the idea that it is appropriate to have certain gender specific expectations of behavior?

Interestingly, if on accepts the analysis I offer below, on which gender identity is ultimately about a preference between various gendered societal roles it may be that the suggestion in this article is in a sense conceptually self-defeating since if society ever got close to the point of adopting this solution the very concept of gender as distinct from sex would dissolve.

Why we should stop giving babies a gender when they are born

Trans rights have burst into the spotlight in the past few years thanks to high-profile figures like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, with the former’s 2014 Time cover seen as a watershed moment for the movement. Now, the debate has turned to children and gender.

Before I go one I’d like to impress the importance of distinguishing theoretical considerations from more practical ones. For instance, one could believe that gender identity doesn’t really make sense because it rests on the inappropriate idea that we should have different expectations and social roles for men and women while believing that since, in the near term there is no practical means of eliminating those expectations/roles the best thing to do is to support people’s ability to change which set of expectations/roles apply to them (or make the effort of opting out). This isn’t quite the position I hold but I would like to stress that however the theoretical discussion turns out I firmly believe that, as a matter of simple human compassion and empathy, we should respect people’s requests to be referred to and treated as the gender they identify with. Regardless of whether the notion of gender is philosophically suspect or not it causes people real pain to be misgendered and doing so benefits no one. Even if you believe transgender identification is a mental disorder2 which doctors should try to cure rather than accede to refusing to gender colleagues as they request or let them use the restroom of their choice, like screaming at someone whose religious beliefs you disagree with, accomplishes nothing but making more people miserable.

Tentative Thoughts

These kind of questions push me towards the view that the only sense in which one can claim to have a certain gender (as distinct from sex) is insofar as one is announcing an intention to comply more with the social expectations of and fulfill the social role of your chosen gender and requesting others apply those expectations to you. Obviously, one need not intend to comply with all the stereotypes and expectations society has of your chosen gender or request they all be applied to you but by announcing a particular gender identity one is suggesting that in the main you intend to comply with or wish to be treated according to the stereotypes for your chosen gender more so than the other gender. Or in the case of a declaration of a non-binary gender identity that one doesn’t intend to fill either social role and doesn’t wish to be treated as if one belongs in either.

Ultimately, this means that there is a certain sense in which I don’t think it makes sense to ‘really’ be intrinsically male (female) despite being biologically female (male). There is no societally independent objective notion of gender relative to which one is really male or female. There are only certain societal roles, expectations and stereotypes about men and women and attitudes people have about how they wish to relate to those roles, expectations and stereotypes. Thus, its simply incoherent to claim that one’s gender is really female but that one doesn’t intend to play more of the stereotypical female role in social interactions nor does one want others to treat you more according to the usual social expectations we have of women. In other words, the only real concept of gender (as distinct from sex) which we have recourse to is the operational concept defined by way of society’s gendered expectations. As such, the common implicit assumption in discussions of gender identity that gender is some kind of intrinsic property of the individual must be rejected.

To be clear I’m not suggesting that talk of gender identity is misguided or can’t be made sense of. The operational definition (or a precisification thereof) I gave above works perfectly well and makes sense of what is going on when someone makes a male or female gender identity claim. However, it does suggest a certain skepticism about claims of gender identities other than male, female and none of the above (if gender is understood as a desire to be treated as if you belong/don’t belong to certain societal categories it doesn’t really make sense to call categories that society doesn’t have gender identities) and suggests a certain degree of skepticism regarding the implicit assumption of intrinsicness often made about gender. Accepting this view, however, does limit one’s ability to simultaneously claim to have a male/female gender identity while resisting the idea that gender specific social norms and stereotypes should be applied to you.

Gender As Personal Identification

I suspect a common response to my suggestion above is that I’m ignoring the very real sense in which some individuals strongly identify as a given gender. I fully accept the fact that some people simply feel male or female and are more comfortable thinking of themselves in that way. For those of us, like myself, who are cis by default such feelings certainly seem puzzling but I’m very much convinced they are real. But if I’m convinced these feelings are real why not just accept that the concept of gender merely refers to the sense of personal identification as male or female?

For one thing, the discussion of personal identification (driven by a noble desire to be inclusive) elides the fact that this can mean very different things to different people. I found the answers to this question I asked on quora about the experience of gender dysphoria quite illuminating. In particularly, it suggests that while some people’s experience of gender dysphoria is best described as a desire to be socially treated as a member of the other gender other individuals feelings were directly related to a feeling of discomfort with the genitalia they were born with. However, the focus on social role seems both more common and more faithful to the idea that gender is something distinct from biological sex (or even desired biological sex) and the operational definition above seems to capture the primary ways people want to use the term.

But why not go further and simply accept the claims of strong personal identification with a gender as defining the concept of gender? This, after all, seems to be what most transactivists seem to favor and would allow one to make sense of both the variety of non-binary gender identification and those individuals who want to both claim a given male/female gender identity while rejecting the operational aspects, i.e., the request to be treated according to gendered societal expectations or desire to fit into gendered roles.

Unfortunately, this approach has several serious flaws. First, it seems unable to cope with the phenomena of cis by default as such individuals lack any particular feeling of personal identification but we don’t want to deny they have the default cis gender. One could offer a disjunctive definition of gender but such unwieldy theoretical constructs should generally be avoided. Even more problematic is that such an approach fails to pick out a clear concept as what feelings count as identifying as a particular gender will vary from person to person. Of course, one might try and offer some kind of objective yardstick of male/female identifying against which various feelings can be measured but that just pushes the problem of choosing a conception of gender back a level. More broadly, it still leaves us in want of any sense in which we should regard a particular kind of feeling of identification to be a feeling of gender identification rather than some other kind of psycho-sexual identification.

Besides, as a purely practical matter it might be best if the transrights movement, at least temporarily, disassociated themselves from the idea that one can simply choose a word that describes how you feel about your gender’ and call that a gender-identity. Even if you don’t share my conceptual concerns about calling such identifications, no matter how sincerely felt, gender identities it may be a necessary tactical move just as it was tactically necessary for gays to disassociate themselves from other non-traditional relationships like polyamory in the pursuit of gay rights.

Philosophical Work

Yes, I’m aware that there is some philosophical work on this subject. Unfortunately, while there are a few interesting papers in the analytic tradition far too many are nothing but ideologically driven continentalesque concept association. Of the papers that are worth reading the only one that I’ve found which directly tackles these hard conceptual issues is “Science Fiction Double Feature: Trans Liberation on Twin Earth” but even this paper doesn’t, to my mind, give enough weight to how these terms are actually used and (perhaps motivated by understandable3 concerns about harmful effects on the trans rights movement or perhaps the authors simply don’t share these intuitions) avoids bullet biting when such bullets would conflict with transpositive ideology. However, It’s quite likely I’m unaware of some good work on this subject and would appreciate being pointed in the direction of other good analytic philosophy papers dealing with this subject.

1. For example, parents who are perfectly balanced between choosing to relocate to an area with far more boys than girls or an area with far more girls than boys could presumably consider the fact that the balance of probabilities favors their child being attracted to individuals with the other kind of genitals when they grow up.
2. Personally, I think even phrasing it this way is to miss the point. Of course transgender individuals are suffering from a mental disorder as is anyone experiencing mental anguish. The only relevant question is whether things like gender reassignment surgery or claiming a different gender identity are effective means to reduce that suffering and I believe the evidence suggests they are.
3. Understandable and well-intentioned perhaps but still, in my opinion, a mistake. It’s my view that people can sense when certain conclusions or arguments are being avoided out of concern for their harmful impact and this works to push many readers towards a generalized skepticism of such work. At least in the context of an academic philosophy paper where there is little risk of being quoted out of context in the mainstream media, far better to defang the best arguments that can be raised against a position (or at least the public rhetoric associated with a position) and bite any required bullets while showing that need not force one to take an unsupportive or uncompassionate position regarding the vulnerable group in question.

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.