By Edward Feser, December 27, 2018:
In two recent posts, we looked at philosopher Alex Byrne’s criticisms of claims made by some transgender activists to the effect that sex is not binary and that it is socially constructed. Byrne is by no means the only philosopher alarmed at the increasingly bizarre claims being made by such activists – and the shrillness with which they are making them. Kathleen Stock worries that such ideas will cause harm to women. Daniel A. Kaufman warns that they threaten nothing less than the end of civil rights. Nor are these philosophers conservatives who are hostile to the sexual revolution. They are progressives concerned about extremism and anti-intellectualism in their own ranks. And as if to prove the critics’ point, some of the activists have in response tried to get the critics fired and otherwise to silence them.
[Correction: Dan Kaufman kindly responds to this post in the combox below, and offers the following clarification: “I do believe in both the rightness and the viability of the modern liberal project, a la Locke and Mill [but] I do not consider myself a progressive of any sort.”]
The identificationist extreme
Kaufman gives the label “identificationism” to the thesis that a person is whatever he takes himself to be, which underlies claims like the ones criticized by Byrne. To understand the absurd implications Kaufman takes this thesis to have, consider the following example. (The details of the example are mine, not Kaufman’s.) Suppose Pat is biologically male, having male chromosomes, male sex organs, and so forth. The traditional or commonsense view of sex would be that Pat is a man, full stop. Suppose that Chris, meanwhile, is biologically female, having female chromosomes and female sex organs. The traditional or commonsense view would be that Chris is a woman, full stop. And suppose also that Chris is sexually attracted only to other women. Then common sense would say that Chris is a lesbian – since, as Kaufman writes, “until about five minutes ago, everyone knew what a lesbian is, namely a homosexual woman.”
But now suppose that Pat “self-identifies” as a woman, but also as a woman who is sexually attracted only to other women. Then Pat too, despite being what common sense would regard as a man, is also a lesbian! Suppose also that Chris is in no way sexually attracted to “lesbians” like Pat, and indeed finds distasteful the idea of being romantically or sexually involved with them (given that they have male sexual organs, etc.). Then, according to the identificationist transgender activists criticized by Kaufman, Chris is guilty of “bigotry” against Pat. On the activists’ view, for Chris to refuse to treat people like Pat the way she would treat any other lesbian is a kind of unjust discrimination.
In effect, these activists are claiming that it is wrong for Chris (who, common sense says, is a woman) not to be sexually and romantically attracted to people like Pat (who, common sense says, is a man). But this sort of claim, Kaufman points out, “used to be the exclusive province of religious fundamentalists and other assorted social conservatives and reactionaries”! In short, the identificationist transgender activists are in Kaufman’s view undermining the whole point of the gay liberation movement, which was to validate preferences like Chris’s.
Moreover, Kaufman says, identificationists never explain why there is something “bigoted” about Chris’s set of preferences but not about Pat’s set of preferences. They simply arbitrarily insist that Pat’s are unobjectionable and must be affirmed and that Chris’s are bad and must be condemned.
Stock worries that identificationism threatens to strip concepts like “woman” and “female” of any clear meaning, and that this will undermine efforts to deal with the unique problems faced by women. She writes:
[Women] face… a heightened vulnerability to rape, sexual assault, voyeurism and exhibitionism; to sexual harassment; to domestic violence; to certain cancers; to anorexia and self-harm; and so on. If self-declared trans women are included in statistics, understanding will be hampered. A male’s self-identification into the category of “female” or “women” doesn’t automatically bring on susceptibility to these harms; nor does a female’s self-identification out of those categories lessen it. In a sexist world which often disadvantages females, as such, we need good data.
Furthermore, Stock argues, allowing anyone who self-identifies as a woman into areas traditionally reserved for women (changing rooms, women’s prisons, etc.) is bound to increase the incidence of violence against women. Like Kaufman, Stock is also concerned that identificationism makes the concept “lesbian” so fluid that the self-understanding of those traditionally classified as lesbians, as well as their “special protections as a discriminated-against minority” and their “access to special sources of charity funding,” will be threatened.
In short, just as Kaufman worries that identificationism threatens the gay rights movement, Stock worries that it threatens feminism. Kaufman argues that it also threatens racial equality. For racial and ethnic differences are, he argues, no less plausibly socially constructed than sex differences. Hence if identificationism entails that a person can make himself a man or a woman simply by self-identifying as such, then it no less plausibly entails that he can make himself a member of a certain race or ethnic group simply by self-identifying as such.
Philosopher Rebecca Tuvel made a similar claim last year – and faced a storm of outrage from some of her fellow left-wingers – and, of course, Rachel Dolezal famously faced similar outrage for claiming to be a black woman. But Kaufman argues that if one grants the identificationist premises, there can be no rational justification for the outrage. He writes:
Dolezal’s efforts to “self-identify” as black may have backfired, but I would suggest that this is only because she came to the identificationist party a bit too early. Another such effort, five or ten years from now, done offensively, rather than defensively, in the manner of contemporary gender activism (i.e. by way of accusing critics of bigotry and “violence” and demanding their silencing and worse), might very well succeed.
If it does, he says, this will be “the last nail in the coffin of the traditional conception of civil rights,” because the notions of race and ethnicity, like the notion of sex, will have been evacuated of any clear meaning.
The liberal middle ground
Like Byrne, Kaufman and Stock do not challenge the claim that gender (as opposed to sex) is socially constructed, and thus do not object to a more moderate transgender position. Again, they also want to uphold the standard liberal positions on feminism, gay liberation, and the sexual revolution in general. The difference between their moderate liberal position and the identificationist extremism they reject, Kaufman says, is that identificationism rests on a “hubristic deformation of the modern conception of the self.” He writes:
The reasonable version of this conception entails a rejection of the pre-modern idea that a person is defined entirely in terms of his or her position in a social framework that is governed by a normatively thick conception of natural law, in favor of the notion that (to a substantial degree) who we are is a matter of our internal consciousness and thus, is determined by us. It was an idea whose ultimate aim was to ground the moral and political autonomy of the individual necessary for life in a modern, democratic polis.
But identificationism goes beyond this to:
a complete rejection of material or social reality… maintaining that the individual is entirely self-made; that who and what I am is a matter of my own consciousness and will alone, irrespective of nature or social consensus.The result is an incoherent, unstable ground.
Kaufman sees in this extreme position an echo of Descartes’ substance dualism, Locke’s “continuity of consciousness” account of personhood, and Kant’s “noumenal self” – all of which essentially make the body, and materiality in general, something external to the self. If you take yourself to be only contingently related to your body and to materiality in general, then it can seem plausible to hold that your genitalia, chromosomes, etc. are irrelevant to making you what you are, and that you can define yourself entirely independently of them.
The moderate position Kaufman favors, by contrast, “[does] not deny that the relevant material realities exist, but rather, that they have any legitimate moral or political valence in a modern, democratic society.” Kaufman, Stock, and other critics of identificationism want to affirm that biology is partially constitutive of a person in a way that rules out the extreme thesis that you can make yourself male or female simply by self-identifying as such, but without abandoning gay liberation, feminism, moderate transgender activism, and the sexual revolution in general.
Now, the 64 dollar question is whether this middle ground liberal position between identificationism on the one hand, and “a normatively thick conception of natural law” on the other, is stable. And the fuzziness in Kaufman’s characterization of it does not lend confidence. Kaufman says that a person should not be “defined entirely” in terms of his position within a social framework governed by natural law, that what we are is determined by our consciousness of ourselves only “to a substantial degree,” that we should be wary of a “complete rejection” of our material nature, and that we are therefore not “entirely self-made.”
That indicates that what a person is is at least partially determined by what Kaufman calls “material realities” – by biological facts of the kind the natural law tradition puts heavy emphasis on and the identificationist position ignores entirely. Kaufman wants to let in enough biology to rule out the latter position but not enough to let in the former. But exactly where do we draw the line, and why there? Kaufman does not tell us.
Of course, no one can do everything in one article. But the question is not some quibble over details. It is a challenge to the very possibility of a middle ground liberal position. If there is no principled or non-arbitrary way to draw the line, then either we have to go the whole hog for identificationism or we have to reconsider the possibility that the natural law position was right all along.
Can the center hold?
Here’s one way to see the problem. It is notoriously difficult to characterize biological features except in functional terms. You cannot adequately characterize the eye without making reference to the function of seeing, or the heart without making reference to the function of pumping blood. This is as true of sexual features as of any others. For example, male genitalia serve the function of getting male gametes together with female gametes. It is also true of some psychological features no less than of physiological ones. For example, hunger and thirst have the function of getting us to eat and drink, so that we will have the nutrients and hydration needed to sustain ourselves.
Claims about biological function are not undermined by examples of organisms that fail to perform the function well or at all. The existence of blind people doesn’t undermine the claim that the function of eyes is to allow us to see. Nor does it show that the eyes of blind people have a different function than those of people with sight. The eyes of blind people and of people with sight have exactly the same function. It’s just that blind people can’t perform that function, for whatever reason (e.g. damage to the eye or to the optic nerve). Similarly, the existence of people who suffer from pica – the compulsion to eat things that have no nutritional value (dirt, stones, metal, etc.) – does not cast any doubt on the claim that hunger has the function of getting us to take in nutrients by eating. Nor does it show that hunger has a different function in people who suffer from pica than it does in other people. Hunger has exactly the same biological function in everyone. It’s just that, because of a psychological abnormality, people who suffer from pica do not perform that function as well.
Now, according to the natural law tradition associated with thinkers like Aquinas (and which Kaufman rejects as the opposite extreme from identificationism), intersexuality, homosexuality, and the like are analogous to blindness, pica, and other dysfunctions. For example, on the natural law view, having physiological sex characteristics that are not unambiguously male or female is like having eyes or optic nerves that are damaged. It in no way shows that sexual organs do not have the biological function of getting the gametes of the opposite sexes together, and neither does it show that the sexual organs of intersex people have a different function from those of other people. Rather, their sexual organs have exactly the same function as that of everyone else. It’s just that, due to genetic defect, physiological abnormality, etc., they are not capable of performing that function well or at all.
Similarly, on the natural law view, sexual desire has the biological function of getting us to mate with people of the opposite sex, and the existence of people with sexual desires that are partly or wholly homosexual does not show otherwise. Nor does it show that the function of sexual desire in people with same-sex attraction is different from the function it has in other people. Rather, the function of sexual desire is the same in everyone. It’s just that in people with desires that are partly or wholly homosexual, that function is not performed as well. According to the natural law view, same-sex attraction is comparable to pica.
Thus does Aristotle explicitly draw this comparison in his discussion of disordered pleasures in the Nicomachean Ethics (at 1148b 15 – 19a 20). Thus does Plato – his own homosexual inclinations notwithstanding – argue in The Laws that sexual relations are natural only when procreation is possible (at 839a), so that sexual pleasure is natural when indulged between men and women but unnatural in the context of same-sex sexual activity (636c). Despite the prevalence of homosexuality in Greek culture, the Greeks didn’t see homosexuality as a kind of identity or basic orientation, any more than blindness or pica entails a kind of identity or orientation. They saw it merely as the having of certain desires, the goodness or badness of which needed to be evaluated the way any other desire is evaluated. Some of them judged such desires acceptable, whereas others (like Aristotle and the later Plato) did not. The medieval natural law tradition that built on Plato and Aristotle inherited both this approach to understanding same-sex desire, and the negative evaluation of it. Like the Greeks, they didn’t see the question of homosexuality as a matter of either affirming or condemning a class of people, but merely of affirming or condemning a certain kind of desire.
The implication of this view is that no one is really homosexual if being homosexual is interpreted as a kind of natural state or basic orientation. According to the natural law analysis, being attracted to people of the same sex is not like being sighted or having a natural inclination to eat and drink, but more like being blind or suffering from pica. The blind person no less than everyone else is naturallyoriented toward seeing, the person suffering from pica no less than everyone else is naturally oriented toward eating what will provide nutrition, and people with homosexual desires no less than everyone else are naturally oriented toward having sexual relations with people of the opposite sex. It’s just that physiological dysfunction frustrates the realization of the natural end in the case of blind people, and psychological dysfunction frustrates the realization of the natural end in the case of people exhibiting pica and in people with homosexual desires. On the natural law analysis, everyone is naturally oriented toward sight, eating nutritional food, and heterosexual sexual relations.
Now, the point of this exposition is to make concrete the difficulty facing the middle ground liberal position of Kaufman, Stock, et al. They would, of course, disagree with the natural law analysis of homosexuality. The problem is that it is hard to see how they can do so in a principled way given their rejection of identificationism. Again, Kaufman rejects identificationism on the grounds that it entirely divorces our “material” or biological attributes from the self. In Kaufman’s view, one’s biological features can make it the case that one simply is, as a matter of objective fact, a male, and that’s that. The fact that one might not feel like a male is in Kaufman’s view irrelevant to the biological facts. Hence he rejects talk of “’girl-penises,’ sex not being bimodal and the like.”
But in that case, why should we not also say that every person is naturally heterosexual, whether all people feel that way or not? Why does biology trump one’s self-conception in the case of a male who thinks of himself as really being female, but not in the case of a male who thinks of himself as really being homosexual? If we say that the former is as a matter of fact male, even if he thinks of himself as female, why shouldn’t we say that the latter is as a matter of factmade for sex with females, even if he thinks of himself as made for sex with males? Or, if we say that the latter is correct to take his natural orientation to be toward sex with other males, biology notwithstanding, then why shouldn’t we say that the former is correct to hold that he is really a female, biology notwithstanding?
It seems, then, that the identificationist is on to something. The movement for gay rights effectively severed a person’s self-identified sexual orientation from biology, and the identificationist is pointing out that if we are going to do that, then to be consistent we will have to sever one’s self-identified sex from biology. If appeals to biological function cut no ice in the one case, neither do they cut any ice in the other.
There are three ways that Kaufman, Stock, et al. might try to respond to this, though none seems very promising. The first would be to dismiss talk of biological function as a mere teleological façon de parler that has no deep philosophical implications. Now, just on general philosophy of biology grounds, I don’t think this sort of move can work. I would argue that the notion of biological function is both ineliminable and irreducible. That is to say, we can’t make sense of the biological facts without it, and we can’t analyze it in non-teleological terms.
But put that to one side for present purposes. The trouble for defenders of the liberal middle ground position is that to make this strategy work, they not only need to get rid of the notion of biological function, but to do so in a way that doesn’t give the game away to identificationism. And I don’t think that is possible. As I noted in my posts on Byrne, it is very difficult to spell out the biological difference between male and female in non-teleological terms. Hence, if Kaufman, Stock, et al. were to chuck out function talk altogether so as to avoid having to accept the natural law view that homosexual desire is dysfunctional, then they would also undermine the case for saying that there is an objective biological difference between male and female.
A second strategy would be to accept the notion of biological function but deny that consistency requires treating claims about sex and sexual orientation as on a par. On this strategy, we could say that there is an objective matter of biological fact about whether someone is male or female, but no objective matter of fact about whether sexual desire has the function of getting us to mate with people of the opposite sex. The trouble with this move is that it seems both ad hoc and biologically implausible. What criteria for biological function could one draw up that would make it plausible to say that eyes are for seeing and hunger for getting us to eat, but that sexual desire is not for getting us to mate with the opposite sex? Why would one even try to look for such gerrymandered criteria if it weren’t for the ad hoc purpose of trying to avoid both identificationism and natural law theory?
A third strategy for the middle ground liberal position would be to argue that sexual orientation is more like gender than it is like sex. Again, Kaufman, Stock, et al. have no beef with the transgender activist who says that gender is self-made. Like Byrne, they object only to the claim that sex is self-made. With sex, biology determines that you are either male or female, but with gender things are more fluid. Someone who is biologically male might well identify as a woman. Now, Kaufman, Stock, et al. might argue that a similar distinction might be made where sexual orientation is concerned. They might allow that as a matter of biological fact sexual desire is naturally heterosexual, but then argue that sexual orientation is like gender in being fluid and socially constructed.
But this strategy won’t work either, because to allow that sexual desire has, as a matter of biological fact, a heterosexual function, would be to imply that homosexual desire is biologically dysfunctional. And if you are going to say that, then it is hard to see why you wouldn’t also have to say that for a biological male to think of himself as a woman is also dysfunctional. But once you do that, then it is hard to see how you can maintain a sharp distinction between the biology of sex on the one hand, and gender and sexual orientation on the other, without lapsing into the precisely the radical Cartesian/Lockean/Kantian divide between persons and their biology that Kaufman wants to avoid.
As I suggested in my posts on Byrne, the reason that identificationists take the extreme position they do is that they perceive that the distinction between sex and gender is not in fact a sharp one. The more robust the biological distinction between the sexes is, the less plausibly fluid gender is. The more fluid the distinction between the genders is, the less plausibly robust the biological distinction between the sexes. Hence if you are going to insist on fluid gender differences, you are going to have to deny robust biological sex differences. The identificationist transgender activists can plausibly say to Kaufman: “We are not the ones positing a radical Cartesian divide between persons and their biology; you are! It is precisely because we see persons and their biology as continuous that we conclude that, since gender is socially constructed, so too must the biology of sex be socially constructed.”
If this is right, then the identificationist is not, after all, committed to a kind of Cartesian divide in human nature, but rather to a kind of biological anti-realism or social constructivism. The natural law tradition, meanwhile, is committed to a robust realism about human biology. So, who are the ones positing a radical Cartesian/Lockean/Kantian divide in human nature, then? Defenders of the middle ground liberal position like Kaufman, Stock, and Byrne, that’s who!
The natural law diagnosis
So, again, it is hard to see how to find a principled or non-arbitrarymiddle ground between identificationism on the one hand and the natural law position on the other. If one rejects the identificationist position as incoherent or biologically unsound, then it seems that one will have to reconsider the possibility that the natural law tradition was correct after all. Or, if in the name of the sexual revolution one rejects the natural law position, then it seems that one will have to go the whole hog for identificationism. If this is correct, then in one respect the identificationists are being perfectly logical.
In another respect, of course, they are not – namely, insofar as they present their position in a shrill and ad hominem way that is destructive of fruitful philosophical debate and free speech. Kaufman is right to complain and worry about that, and to his credit he has repeatedly insisted that tactics like flinging epithets and shouting down opposition have no place in philosophy.
What is the explanation of the shrillness and illiberalism of many identificationists? The natural law tradition suggests an answer.
In Books VIII and IX of The Republic, Plato was famously critical of democracy, which he took to be the worst form of polity next to tyranny. Indeed, he thought it had a tendency to degenerate into tyranny. What he objected to in democracy was not primarily its procedural elements, but rather the egalitarian character type that it fostered. On Plato’s account, the egalitarian tendency is to give every desire and way of life equal respect, and this entails a leveling down of standards. The egalitarian becomes increasingly unwilling even to consider the possibility that some desires or ways of life are worse than others. The very idea becomes intolerable to him. Since he is unwilling to subject his appetites to the evaluation of dispassionate reason, he gradually comes to be ruled by them. And sexual desire, because it is uniquely unruly and concerns the most intense of pleasures, tends especially to dominate him.
As each citizen becomes less and less willing to allow social norms or legal restraints to limit the indulgence of his desires, an egalitarian society tends to degenerate into a war of competing subjectivities. What happens eventually is that the more ruthless and cunning of these appetitive personalities figure out ways to impose their wills on the others, and that is when democracy starts to give way to tyranny. The tyrannical character type is, on Plato’s account, essentially an extreme version of the lawless and appetite-driven character type produced by egalitarian societies, and he is especially prone to be dominated by lust.
Plato’s analysis suggests, then, that the more someone of an egalitarian personality type is dominated by his sexual desires, the less capable he is going to be of a dispassionate and objective evaluation of those desires, and the more ruthlessly willful he is likely to be in pursuing them. An egalitarian society given to the indulgence of ever more exotic sexual tastes is, if Plato is right, also bound to be a society in which those tastes are championed in an increasingly intolerant way.
Aquinas makes some complementary points in his account of what he calls the “daughters of lust” in Summa TheologiaeII-II.153.5 (of which I offered an exposition in an earlier post). Sexual indulgence that is excessive or involves acts that are unnatural or that is disordered in some other way has a tendency in Aquinas’s view to lead to what he calls “blindness of mind.” The intensity of sexual pleasure can make it difficult to think logically and dispassionately about matters of sex even in the best circumstances. And when repeated indulgence has habituated a person to sexual activity that is disordered, he is likely not to want to think dispassionately about it, and to be increasingly incapable of doing so. The very idea of there being an objective standard by reference to which his indulgence is disordered becomes intolerable to him, and he becomes increasingly willful in his indulgence and hostile to anything that might block it.
Aquinas’s account, like Plato’s, would thus lead us to expect that the more indiscriminate people become about matters of sex, the less willing they will be to discuss such matters in a calm and rational way, and the less capable they will be of doing so.
No doubt some would be inclined to respond by simply shouting “Bigot!” at Plato and Aquinas and ignoring their arguments. Which, of course, only confirms their diagnosis.