What Sam Harris Said

Lately I've been working on the gender chapter of my book about parenthood. Because I've been knee deep in the literature about gender differences, I've been intrigued by the recent Sam Harris dust up in the blogosphere.  Michelle Boorstein, a Washington Post reporter, gives this account of an interview she did with Harris at a Center for Inquiry event in DC:
I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists — and many of those who buy his books — are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community. Harris’ answer was both silly and then provocative.
It can only be attributed to my “overwhelming lack of sex appeal,” he said to huge laughter.
“I think it may have to do with my person slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
So, angry criticism of bad ideas: intrinsically male.  Nurturing and coherence-building: intrinsically female.  Plus, a tentative explanatory claim: the gender difference "may be" the cause of Harris having more male readers and atheism having more male adherents.

Many feminists in the atheist community think what Harris said was sexist and contemptible. If you look around, you'll see people accusing him of "gender essentialism,"  seeing women as "biologically inferior," and all manner of other screw ups.  One person's response is a simple "fuck you."  The demonizing of Harris says a lot about why feminism has become such a divisive topic among atheists, skeptics, and such. A certain kind of feminist does regard any assertion of intrinsic gender differences as anathema, taboo, sexist, and grounds for dismissal.  But that kind of feminism just isn't compatible with reasoned, science-based inquiry.  The scientific literature does not, just does not, support the idea that all assertions of intrinsic gender differences are beyond the pale, signs of sexism, or taboo.

To see this, you might want to start with the book Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves, by the philosopher Patricia Churchland.  A whole chapter of the book is devoted to arguing that males are more aggressive than females, because of brain differences.  She sums up at the end:
To a first approximation, human males and females display differences in aggressive behavior that are linked to male and female hormones, though these behavioral dispositions can be modulated by the cultural matrix.

Churchland relies heavily on Man and Woman: An Inside Story, by Donald Pfaff, for her account of how hormones create innate differences.  This is a rather technical book that covers a vast amount of research about hormones and fetal development.  Aside from being tough going, it's also quite focused on rat and mouse models.  A more digestible and people-centered book is Brain Gender, by Melissa Hines.  Hines strikes me as a model of restraint, yet she does assert that there are innate brain differences. Again, the claim is that hormones make the difference, causing boys to be (among other things) more inclined to rough and tumble play than girls.  She says the research backing up her picture of brain gender amounts to over a thousand studies.

All that at least shows one respectable position is to assert innate differences, but if you're still not convinced, there's Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot, who argues that there are very small but real innate differences between boys and girls.  Note: she's not at all a Louann Brizendine,  one of these "vive la difference" authors who seize upon and exaggerate every difference they can get their hands on. This is cautious, restrained science that finds small differences and only small differences.  Another author of the same character is Janet Hyde, who's very critical of authors like Brizendine, but still does find small differences--as she explains in this talk.  Even an outright feminist and gender social constructionist like Anne Fausto-Sterling acknowledges small innate differences and cites Hyde with approval.  See, for example, her book Sex/Gender.

No discussion of this literature would be complete without a mention of critics like Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of GenderThe subtitle sums up her attitude:  "How our minds, society, and neurosexism create differences."  She does appear to take the ultimate social constructionist position--that all apparent gender differences are created, not found.  By all means, she does an effective job of dismantling "vive la difference" authors like Brizendine and Simon Baron-Cohen (author of The Essential Difference).  Her book includes a very illuminating chapter on how non-innate factors like stereotype threat can create significant differences.  This is definitely a book worth reading, but for my money, it does not undermine all of the research on innate gender differences.  And neither does a second book of the same sort--Brain Storm, by Rebecca Jordan-Young, which does have some compelling chapters and sections.  Both Fine and Jordan-Young are worth reading, but effectively criticized in this review.

All in all, I think people could read the gender differences literature and come away with different conclusions, which is why the science of gender is lively and interesting.  What is really clear, though, is that there's nothing taboo or shocking or offensive or sexist about thinking there are some innate gender differences.  And that brings us back to Sam Harris. As a neuroscience PhD, I imagine he's familiar with some of this literature.  He's right to protest (here) against being accused of sexism for thinking (along with the likes of Patricia Churchland!) that there are some innate differences between men and women.

But let's cut to the chase. Do I entirely agree with what Sam Harris said?  I agree that men are innately a bit more aggressive (on average) and women innately a bit more affiliative (on average).  I'm less sure about Harris's tentative explanatory hypothesis.  It's tricky to say how a set of inborn differences must manifest themselves in the real world.  Supposing women are less aggressive, are we really to believe that they're aggressive enough to be half of law school students, but not aggressive enough to be half of Sam Harris's readers?  That's not all that plausible.  To me it seems as if something else is going on here, something more complicated.  Women can be aggressive enough for doing philosophy and debating religion, but have less room on their "mattering maps" for those activities (to use Rebecca Goldstein's phrase).   But why?  Is it for innate reasons or because culture steers them in certain directions and not others?  I really don't think we know.


Taboo Questions

I've been working forever on one chapter of my manuscript/book on parenthood--the chapter on gender.  I think I know part of the reason why it's been so hard and time consuming to get this done.  In other chapters I've felt free to philosophically explore, even if the issues are controversial, but there are a lot more constraints here.  Certain views, and even certain questions, are politically incorrect, taboo, probably genuinely hurtful to some audiences.  And so I can't get into "figuring it out" mode and stay there. I keep feeling hemmed in by what I'm supposed to think, as a feminist, or what I'm supposed to say, as a respecter of LGBT people. And so I read some more, think some more, read some more.  Well, maybe the end result will be a better chapter!

As evidence of how political correctness can distort inquiry, take this New Yorker article about clashes between so-called radical feminists and transgender activists.  It does sound to me like the radical feminist side has some daft views about transgender people and cares too much about safeguarding born-women's spaces, but they do ask some good questions.  It really is puzzling how it could be that a biologically female woman and a trans woman are both women in exactly the same sense.  What is it that makes them both women?  I believe that's a hard question worth thinking about.  The radical feminists asking the question may approach these things with inappropriate animus, but at least they're asking the questions. I get the impression from the article that one is no longer allowed to in some academic settings.

There is some philosophical literature on the hard question but I honestly find most of what I've read not in a purely philosophical mode.  Politics is in the driver's seat a great deal, not the usual philosophical methods--analysis, thought experiments, testing claims with counterexamples, etc.  So people say things that would not withstand philosophical scrutiny, if the topic were something politically neutral like causation, or intentionality, or reference, or whatnot.

What does gender, or transgender, have to do with parenting?  The question I'm trying to tackle is whether parents should care about or cultivate gender differences at all.  But as a preliminary, I tackle the metaphysics of gender.  Are girls/women and boys/men two naturally distinct groups?  Interesting, difficult question. I'd really like to approach it as a philosophy question, not as a matter of politics.

Against empathy?

When I have time to read this I think I'm going to enjoy it!


"Socially constructed"

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.


Ethics in Gaza

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.