8/16/14

"Socially constructed"

http://www.theplasticbrickmuseum.com
I've been thinking and reading about the idea that sex and/or gender are "socially constructed."  This is often asserted by feminists who have a debunking and liberatory agenda.  The idea is that sex and gender "binaries" are not written into the nature of things, but results of choices, perceptions, customs, cultural assumptions, etc. You couldn't abandon the cat vs. dog distinction (it's real), but you could abandon the man vs. woman distinction (it's constructed). 

I don't quite get this, because "socially constructed" categories can earn their keep, even if they're not written into the natural world.  In fact they're quite diverse, coming to be in many different ways.  Some examples:

Doctors and lawyers.  Nobody's by nature a doctor or a lawyer.  As a society we created the institutions of medicine and law and established procedures that make one qualify, or not qualify, as a doctor (or lawyer). 

Teenagers, seniors. We have lots of age categories that are socially constructed.  To be a teenager, you have to have an age ending with "teen" but we draw a circle around people with those ages because of various facts about them, and also because of various decisions, perceptions, norms, etc.    Likewise, seniors have to be at the elderly end of the age spectrum, but there are further facts about them, and decisions and perceptions, involved in marking them out.  Seniors are not just old, but assumed to be leisured, retired, slowed down, etc. Other age categories are worth thinking about here too: baby, toddler, tween, middle aged, etc.

Blonds, brunettes, redheads.  If you listen to people talk about "blonds" you'll realize that a blond isn't just someone with blond hair.  Being "a blond" involves a certain amount of ditziness, extra attractiveness, and so on.  You can have blond hair but not be "a blond" and you can have brown hair and make yourself a "blond"--by dyeing your hair and taking on the necessary ditziness and sex appeal. Likewise for brunette and redhead--hair color is involved, but also character traits.  The whole thing's  bound up with culturally perpetuated perceptions.

These three examples reveal various things about "social construction":
  1. The doctor/lawyer example makes it especially obvious that a category isn't disposable just because it's socially constructed.
  2. A socially constructed category can have natural prerequisites. You cannot be a teenager without having an age in the teens.  So it's possible to agree that male/female is a socially constructed distinction but still think there are natural prerequisites for being one or the other.
  3. The examples show that socially constructed categories vary in their superficiality and connection with mere perceptions. "Blond" is like that, but teenager much less so and doctor/lawyer not at all,
My sense (backed with no defense at the moment) is that biological sex really is natural, not socially constructed, but gender in a broader sense is socially constructed.  The closest analogy, of the three above, is the age categories.  Doctor/lawyer is much more bound up with institutions than gender, and blond/brunette/redhead is more superficial and bound up with (stupid!) perceptions.  There's a "constructed" aspect to being a teenager, as well as a basis in reality, and I'd say the same thing about being a man or being a woman. Which is not to say gender categories are just like age categories--just as useful, just as relevant in all the same contexts.  It's the type and degree of constructedness that seems roughly the same.

What I'm really interested in at the moment is the idea of social construction. It doesn't seem as if lawyers is a socially constructed category in anything like the way blonds is, and blonds seems very different from teenagers.  So assertions about the socially constructed nature of gender need to come with clarification:  in what sense?  The idea is more or less radical depending on the answer.



8/6/14

Ethics in Gaza

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/07/15/world/middleeast/toll-israel-gaza-conflict.html
Philosophers have been writing a lot lately about Israel's military campaign in Gaza.  Francis Kamm writes on proportionality in the Boston Review; Peter Singer is critical of Israel in this essay; and Jeff McMahan also discusses proportionality in Prospect magazine.   I find Singer's essay illuminating, Jeff McMahan's not so much, and Kamm...well I haven't finish it yet. 

McMahan's main claim is that too few deaths of Israeli civilians will be prevented by Israel's campaign, considering the cost in Palestinian civilian deaths; this is largely because Israel's anti-missile system is already preventing Palestinian missiles from killing civilians.  There's therefore a problem of disproportionality.

As plausible as that conclusion is, it's strikingly unpersuasive how McMahan gets there. He proposes to start with ordinary, personal self defense:
Suppose your life is threatened by a culpable aggressor but your only effective means of defence will kill an innocent bystander as a side effect. Most philosophers believe that it would be impermissible to save yourself at the cost of killing this innocent person.
Is that what "most philosophers" believe?  I'm not sure, but I think McMahan is surely wrong about why they believe it, if they do.  Here's his proposed explanation:
This is mainly because the moral reason not to kill a person is stronger than the reason to save a person. It is therefore generally impermissible to kill one person to save another, even if the killing would be unintended.
This can't be the whole story about bystander deaths, because this story also implies that it's wrong to kill an attacker in self defense.  Suppose someone is aiming a missile at my house and I (an innocent civilian) can't escape.   All I can do to save myself is fire back, killing the attacker.  This would be a case of saving a person (namely me) by killing another.  Should I stop and think "the moral reason not to kill a person is stronger than the reason to save a person"?   No, so the ''better not to kill than to save" principle, so simply stated, isn't tenable and probably also isn't what most philosophers believe.

McMahan actually aims to discuss proportionality as it pertains to unintentionally killing bystanders, not attackers, in a self defense situation, but it's interesting first to notice how little we care about proportionality when it comes to attackers.  Suppose it takes 10 people to operate my attackers' rocket launcher, while mine is a solo model.  I don't have any reluctance to say I can fire back and kill 10 to save just one (me). If it takes 100 to operate their rocket launcher, I may kill 100 to save myself.  People trying to kill me can't undermine my right to fight back simply by piling on!

McMahan asks how many bystanders you may unintentionally kill, if you're killing an attacker in self defense.   His answer is simple:  not even one innocent bystander may be killed to save yourself.  That follows from the "better not to kill than to save" principle.   Sticking with that analysis, his objection to Israel's campaign will be that there are more bystanders being killed than civilian deaths being prevented.   But McMahan takes on board what most people think: that there is some special prerogative to preserve yourself, permitting one bystander to be sacrificed to save yourself from an attacker.  How about two?  Maybe, he says, but not three!  From that standpoint, McMahan judges that Israelis should be killing at most 2 Palestinian civilians to save 1 Israeli civilian.  And then the problem is that the actual ratio is far from that:  there have been over 1800 mostly civilian deaths in Gaza so far and perhaps only a handful of Israeli civilian deaths have been prevented, considering that Israel does have an anti-missile defense system already protecting civilians.  
 
These numbers--1 or 2 bystanders may be unintentionally killed to save yourself, but not 3--have nothing but intuitiveness going for them, but do they have even that?   Again, 10 guys are operating a rocket launcher and I'm on the verge of firing back with my solo launcher to save myself.   Let's suppose (contrary to the simple "better not to kill than to save" principle) that I'm entitled to kill the 10 guys.  So the issue is only about bystanders.  It's part of the 10 guys' strategy that they will keep some children close by while firing at me, knowing I'll be  reluctant to fire back under those circumstances. McMahan gives me, at the outer limit, the right to cause two bystanders deaths, but not three.  If I happen to have my own child in my house with me, then to save the two of us, I get, at the very most, four bystander deaths. If there are five or more kids in the attacker compound, morality requires me to succumb to the attack, along with my two kids.  Obviously, we're being offered just an illusion of precision here. There really isn't an answer to how many bystander deaths are tolerable. The real intuition most of us have is that there shouldn't be gross disproportionality!

But perhaps we have other thoughts about this as well.  It seems different that the attackers are deliberately using the children as innocent shields, compared to a situation in which, by sheer accident, there happen to be children nearby.  We might be inclined to say, in the first case, that if I exercise my right to preserve myself, the deaths of the children will on my attackers' conscience, so to speak.  In the second case, they've got to be on my conscience.  We care not just who causes which deaths, but who is to blame for which deaths.  Assessing causality is just part of assessing blame.


McMahan highlights something I do find morally perplexing:  Israel does have an anti-missile defense system already in place, so the number of Israeli civilians saved by the Gaza campaign cannot be great.  That does make the number of Palestinian civilians killed seem troubling. But you can say why without even mentioning proportionality. It's a truism that if you can kill fewer rather than more to achieve the very same goal, you should.  Killing the larger number makes you guilty of gratuitous killing.  Granted, we do have some moral intuitions about proportionality too, but they're very imprecise (contrary to McMahan's pretend moral math).  There's nothing imprecise about the prohibition against gratuitous killing.

7/10/14

Leiter and Pollitt on Hobby Lobby

I've been busy with this and that, so haven't had time to read the Hobby Lobby decision myself.  For those trying to get a grip, Brian Leiter's interview on Point of Inquiry is illuminating and so is Katha Pollitt in The Nation. They both do a good, careful job of articulating why, despite the good of religious freedom, we should be bothered by this decision, especially as women, or on behalf of women.  The heart of the matter, from Pollitt:
Where will it all end? “It is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial,” Justice Alito writes. There is no limit to religious requirements and restrictions in our land of a thousand “faiths.” Several companies have already filed cases that object to all forms of contraception, not just the four singled out by Hobby Lobby, and the day after the decision the Court clarified that its ruling applied to all methods. And why draw the line on legal exemptions at religion anyway? Plenty of foolish parents now risk their children’s lives and the public’s health because they reject vaccines on “philosophical” grounds. What happens when Aristotle, the CEO, claims that birth control—or psychotherapy or organ transplants—goes against his “philosophy”?
Justice Alito’s opinion is canny. Slippery slope? No problem: “our decision in these cases is concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate. Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs.” He specifically mentions vaccines, blood transfusions and protection from racial discrimination as being in no danger, but he gives no argument about why Hobby Lobby’s logic would never apply. In other words, birth control is just different. Of course, it’s about women. Anyone could need a blood transfusion, after all, even Alito himself. And it’s about powerful Christian denominations, too, to which this Court slavishly defers—for example, in the recent decision finding no discrimination in the Christian prayers that routinely open town council meetings in Greece, New York.

One little quibble about a point Brian Leiter makes toward the end of the interview.  He says the US doesn't protect freedom of secular conscience in the way it protects freedom of religious conscience, except with respect to wartime conscientious objectors.  But in fact, at Pollitt notes, many states are now allowing "personal belief" exemptions for parents who don't want to vaccinate, in addition to religious exemptions.  On the one hand, hurray, equal rights for the secular conscience! On the other:  this is just more of a really bad thing.  Perhaps the right thing to say here is that in cases where freedom of religious conscience should be limited, because it's trumped by collective interests, there's nothing good about also allowing freedom of secular conscience.

7/7/14

Gender Gaps

There's a lot of worry in philosophy about the gender gap: Why does it exist? What should we do about it?  I sometimes wonder why this is thought to be so vexing and urgent, compared to other gender gaps.  The person who fixes our air conditioning is always a man. The people who mow our lawn are 100% male.  The folks who service our car are all male.  The people who try to sell you a car are almost always male.  The termite inspector is male.  Food for thought: is the gender gap equally problematic in all these areas, or especially problematic in philosophy?   Should we care about all gender gaps equally?

6/24/14

Borderline Cases


Anne Fausto-Sterling's books are informative and fascinating.  She writes in an exploratory, non-dogmatic way that I really appreciate.  She is hard to pin down and I (often) like authors who are hard to pin down. But one argument she seems to make in her books does not convince me much -- the argument that sex must be socially constructed, based on there being intersex individuals who wind up "assigned" to a sex in a social fashion.

About 1.7% of people are born with some sort of an intersex condition, she says.   In these cases, decisions have to be made about whether the child will be brought up male, female, both, or neither.  These decisions are typically made in light of cultural understandings of what is important in males and females.  Therefore...what?  Therefore, all sex categorizations are "socially constructed"?   

Surely that doesn't follow.  Why shouldn't we simply construe intersex individuals as borderline cases?  There are clear male babies and clear female babies, and there are also individuals who fall in between.  This is so in all sorts of other domains.  There are clear chairs and clear couches, but also pieces of furniture that fall in between.  There are clear trees and clear bushes, but plants that fall in between.  Borderline cases can just remain borderline, unless there's some particular reason to categorize them.  Maybe the furniture store has a chair room and a couch room, so we simply must put a chair/couch in one or the other.  If we do that on some basis, such as which room has more space available, we don't have to think that has any general relevance to what makes chairs chairs or couches couches. Likewise, even if the sexes of intersex people are "socially constructed," if doesn't follow the sexes of clear cases are socially constructed. 

And then, should we even embrace the social construction of sex in the intermediate cases? If you take "social construction" very literally, it seems to suggest we leave it up to society--the community, the state, the doctors, the family.  If the community says it takes a penis to be classed with males, then so be it. If the community says it takes two X chromosomes to be classed with females, then so be it.  But that's a terrible way to "assign" sexes to intersex babies.   Fausto-Sterling actually advocates intersex children being tentatively (and non-surgically) assigned to a sex but later making their own choices based on how they see themselves.  These kids will come to see themselves as male or female in a cultural context, so there is a social element there, but the child's self-perceptions have an internal component too, as I think she recognizes.  If the child's eventual self-perceptions are given lots of weight, the sex classification of intersex children is at most partly "socially constructed."

As the chair/couch example shows, self-perception could be relevant to categorizing intersex people, but not relevant to clear-case males being male and clear-case females being female.  The way borderline cases are dealt with does not necessarily have anything to do with how clear cases are classified.  But perhaps that's merely a logical point:  in principle, self-perception doesn't have to be relevant to clear males being male or clear females being female.  But you might think it is relevant, even if it doesn't have to be.  Clear males can come to have a sense of being female and clear females a sense of being male.  If we do respect these self-perceptions for intersex individuals, then maybe self-perceptions should also take precedence when sorting supposedly clear cases into male and female categories. All maleness and femaleness would be defined in terms of self-perceptions, as opposed to self-perception entering the picture when other criteria aren't decisive.

That would be a win for the psychological nature of sex, not the social construction of sex.  And it certainly would be a hard thing to embrace. It makes sense to think a truly intersex child has no sex until self-perceptions emerge, but some kids are born with a definite sex.  Coming to see yourself as having a sex different from your natal sex is difficult for transgender kids precisely because there is (usually) a natal sex.

In any event, I really don't see at all how intersex children provide much support for the claim that all sex classifications are socially constructed.  That seems to be the idea in Fausto-Sterling's work (again, she is hard to pin down), and she's had a lot of influence.  But I don't see how this reasoning is supposed to work.