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.

6/20/14

Knowing Your Gender

I just raced through John Colapinto's fascinating book As Nature Made Him and now I'm reading Anne Fausto-Sterling's Sexing the Body, so my head is filled with intersex states and genital accidents. But also with some curious questions about how we know our own gender.  Colapinto's book is about David Reimer, a man who started life as one of identical twin boys and then lost his penis in a botched circumcision.  John Money, the famed sexologist at Johns Hopkins University, convinced Reimer's parents to have him reassigned as a female.  His testicles were removed, and over the next 12 years Reimer's parents dressed him like a girl and demanded feminine behavior.  Throughout her childhood "Brenda" was unhappy and rebellious, constantly insisting "she" was a boy, not a girl.   When Money tells her it's time for vaginoplasty when she's about 12, she won't submit.  When she's 14 her history is finally revealed to her and Brenda reverts to her natal gender (with many surgeries required), becoming David Reimer. 

One way to read this history is to say David Reimer "knew he was a boy" all along.  It's a little odd to put it that way, because for him to know it, it's got to be a fact (assuming we can only know what is true).   Is there really a fact of the matter about what gender a person is, independent of their choices and perceptions? But setting that aside, what I find intriguing is how we know our own gender.  How does it work? What is it like? One possibility is that we know it introspectively.  We peer inward and there it is--we sense boyness or girlness directly. So "Brenda" knew she was really a boy by finding boyness within her consciousness. 

Another possibility is that we know our own traits, both physical and mental, more or less directly, and then we draw conclusions about our gender using a learned "theory" of gender.  Brenda observed that she was feisty and aggressive, loved all the same activities her twin brother did, felt attracted to girls, but on the other hand, lacked a penis.  Reasoning from that set of facts, plus her understanding of gender, she was confused, yet often inferred that she was really a boy. 

Do we apprehend gender itself, or just traits from which we infer our gender, using learned premises like"boys have penises" and "girls like to play with dolls" and "boys like to fight"?   If you know about your own gender in the second way, then you can be wrong about it.  Can you be?  No answers today...just some interesting questions.

6/17/14

Had to take down a post

I had to take down the recent post "Campus Rape Statistics" because certain links in it were creating strange problems in other posts--a sentence linking to another website kept floating on top of other posts.  After an hour of trying to fix the problem I gave up!  Sorry, especially to those who left comments.