Thursday, December 17, 2020

Why, of All The Things Philosophers Dispute, Is Trans Identity Sacred?

There was another recent brouhaha in. philosophy. Radical feminist theorist Kathleen Stock was disinvited from a conference for holding and defending verboten views on trans-identity. 

In this blog post, I will neither endorse nor critique her position. Here, I'm not really interested in the substance of the debate or even the quality of the arguments. Instead, what I find perplexing is why this, of all the high stakes issues philosophers debate, is treated as a sacred topic from which deviance generates so much ire and hate.

Consider what philosophers do. Philosophers routinely debate and question the deepest issues and assumptions in moral thinking. What makes a person a patient? What makes them an agent? Where do we draw the line and why? When should we trust people's testimony and when not? What rights do people have, how strong are those rights, and what factors can override or silence them? How valuable is a life, and is everyone's life of equal value? Can some people deserve to die? What values if any can trump saving a life? What counts as consent in business, sex, medicine, academia, and elsewhere? When is consent not needed? What do people owe one another? What is the metaphysics of race, gender, and sex? What is the metaphysics of personal identity?

These are sensitive questions. Not surprisingly, when philosophers get to investigating these things, they end questioning and challenging views which most people take for granted. They even also inevitably end up advocating the wrong answers, which means they often defend de re things that are in fact unjust. As Chris Freiman and I thus argued, moral philosophy has built-in moral risk.  

Here is a list of some things various philosophers have defended in print, in high-level outlets:

1. People don't really have rights, and the belief that they do is nonsense.

2. You are never obligated to help starving children because feeding them won't eradicate capitalism.

3. It's okay for governments to trample your rights or destroy your welfare because a bunch of badly informed, highly irrational, ideologically innocent people voted for a person who plans to do so.

4. It's ok to cut world product in half and immiserate the world's poor by forcing them to stay in the countries of their birth.

5. Polyamory should be illegal because lots of men will be left without wives, and that will cause social problems. 

6. Morality is bullshit and a myth. Talking about morality is like talking about witches.

7. It's fine for there to be massive amounts of inequality so long as the poor people are all in one country and the rich are in another. However, that same degree of inequality inside one country is horrible.

8. Property rights are a myth.

9. The state should be able to forcibly take one of your eyes and kidneys and give them to someone else. 

10. We should forbid kidney sales, even though they would save tens of thousands of lives per year, because selling kidneys is yucky. We should also forbid genetic engineering, even if it works and makes people much healthier, because it's yucky. 

11. An economic system that has resulted in mass murder and poverty every time it's been tried is nevertheless the only just system. The economic system that works every time is deeply unjust. 

12. It is just for an all-merciful, perfectly good God to do nothing at all to alleviate human suffering; God owes us absolutely nothing because He is perfect. While finite beings are bound by morality, morally perfect beings are...not.

13. Being oppressed makes you magically able to infer social scientific causation and generalization from anecdotal experience.

14. If a cop in a democratic country is having a bad day and decides to kill you, you aren't allowed to defend yourself. At best, your loved ones may sue the state after the fact for damages or demand a criminal trial. 

15. It's okay to throw people in jail and ruin their lives because they smoked a plant that makes them happy. 

Philosophers actually say stuff like this, and more, in print, in legit journals and with top academic presses. Can you believe it?

But the odd thing is that philosophers are rarely subject to social censure, disinvitation, ostracism, bullying, or harassment for holding controversial or seemingly evil beliefs like these. People offer papers defending these theses, and then others politely respond. Sure, philosophers can be jerks, too, and many say mean things behind others' backs. But we don't see, for instance, the "My body, my choice" people protesting when the theorists who advocate forcible organ redistribution give talks.

Of all the various things philosopher debate, why then is trans identity one of the few things that is beyond the pale? Why does defending the (let's say) wrong answer to trans identity questions license bullying, ostracism, and reprisal, while defending the wrong answer to most other questions does not? 

(I'll note that people also protest Peter Singer for advocating infanticide. But note, here, a related puzzle. The protesters generally don't oppose his defense of infanticide in general; they are mad because he advocates infanticide specifically for disabled infants who require extraordinarily expensive medical care.)

A good answer to my question must explain why trans identity issues are special compared to the other sensitive issues philosophers routinely debate.

Here are some possible answers I've seen others offer, along with quick explanations about why they seem unsatisfactory.

1. Defending the wrong view about trans identity causes harm. Response: First, it's not clear it does. People today are quick to throw terms like "harm," "violence," and "erasing" around in loaded and inaccurate ways. It doesn't fool anyone. 

Now, if it turns out that when Stock publishes her papers, this literally causes (through some bizarre laws of physics) thousands of people to die, then I agree she should stop, but you need to show your work here, folks. 

You might say, well, sure her papers don't literally kill people, but bad people could read her papers and then hurt trans people afterward. But this sort of argument applies to other papers. For instance, statist theories of legitimacy are used to license cops abusing citizens and used to license human rights violations.

Second: When I read arguments purporting to show that Stock's views are "harmful" or "violent," these same arguments seem to work mutatis mutandis against, say, Stephen Macedo for advocating closed borders. The standards are not applied consistently. 

2. It offends people. Response: Lots of topics are equally or more offensive. For instance, some people think no one has any rights, at all. 

3. To hold that position that trans-women are not real women and should not be treated as such is to advocate, de re, a very severe injustice  Response: The harm and injustice of closed borders dwarfs this by many orders of magnitude. It's not even close. If you could wave a magic wand which will either fix the injustice of closed borders or fix everyone on earth's attitudes towards trans-people, you should pick the former option. It's not even a hard choice because the first is so much more significant. But then it's not as though pro-ostracism trans activists think I should therefore refuse to platform anyone who advocates closed borders. Note the issue isn't merely that many of these trans activists disagree with me about open borders. Rather, they would say that even if I turn out to be right, I should still be nice to Macedo.  

4. This issue is settled and so no one may legitimately dispute it. Response: It's hard to see this position as compatible with normal philosophical methodology. It's pretty common for us to start by saying, "Well, everyone believes it's wrong to kick babies in the face for fun, but is it really? What if we're mistaken and this widespread belief is an illusion?" Settled is almost never out of bounds in philosophy. Part of the job description is to challenge settled beliefs, to see if they really stand up to scrutiny.

Further, the claim that is settled is implausible in light of the actual sociology of people's beliefs about trans identity. When it comes to this issue, most of you think things today you didn't think five years ago, and five years from now you will reject what you now think.

Third, why does denying what it is "settled" open one to censure and abuse? There are people out there who deny that 2 + 2 = 4. That's settled. All of the objections to the claim that 2 + 2 = 4 are confused; they are best based on confusing symbols and propositions. Nevertheless, the people who mistakenly deny that 2 + 2 = 4 don't merit censure and abuse even though the issue is settled.

5. The objections have already been answered. Response: It's pretty common for people to think certain objections to certain theories to have been answered, but that doesn't authorized to be nasty to everyone who continues to press those same objections. For instance, we open borders folks have decisively refuted all of Macedo's objections to open borders, but we see no reason to deplatform him.

6. Freedom of association includes a right to exclude Stock and refuse to be on panels with her. Response: This doesn't seem to justify their actual behavior, though. We do not simply see trans activists refusing to hang out with Stock, much as I might refuse to hang out with people who annoy me. Rather, they tend to say that people ought not invite her and ought to ostracize her. Further, if it were merely a freedom of association issue, then they'd have to explain why it would be wrong to, say, only invite white men to a conference.

My guess is that the actual reasons are sociological rather than philosophical. For instance, many people writing about trans identity are trans, and so they have a personal stake in the theory coming out the way they want. However, even this seems unsatisfactory, because it is not clear to me that most trans people would advocate deplatforming Stock; rather, these attitudes seems confined to certain activists and to certain people in academia.

Again, I remind you I have not taken Stock's side on trans identity. I am instead asking why taking her position should open her to abuse, ostracism, and the like.