The false dichotomy of nature-nurture, with notes on feminism, transgenderism, and the construction of races

Caitlyn Jennerby Massimo Pigliucci

This is my third essay on what has become an informal series on socially relevant false dichotomies (the first one was on “trigger warnings” [1], the second one on Islamophobia [2]). On this occasion I’m going to focus again on nature-nurture [3], perhaps the motherlode of false dichotomies (as well as my area of technical expertise as a practicing biologist [4]).

The occasion is provided by recent controversies concerning the delicate concepts of gender and race, where once again — as in both the cases of trigger warnings and of Islamophobia — I see well intentioned progressives needlessly (in my mind) and harshly attacking fellow progressives, or at the least, people who ought to be their natural political allies. (As in the other two cases, I will ignore contributions from the right and from libertarians, on the ground that I find them both less constructive and less surprising than those from the sources I will be discussing here.)

Let me start with gender. I read with fascination a New York Times op-ed piece by feminist Elinor Burkett entitled “What makes a woman?” [5] explaining why a number of feminists have issues with certain aspects of the transgender movement, and in particular why Burkett had mixed feelings about the very public coming out of Caitlyn Jenner [6].

First, Jenner: Burkett says that of course she supports a member of an often vilified gender minority when that person makes the sort of courageous statement that Jenner did by appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. But, asks Burkett, did Jenner really have to embrace what from a feminist point of view (and yes, I’m perfectly aware that there are different types of feminists, with different points of view) is the stereotype of the babe with big breasts, revealing cleavage, and an unhealthy degree of concern with getting her nails done?

I sympathize with both here. On the one hand, feminists have fought hard to distance themselves from the babe stereotype of women which has characterized (and, frankly, still characterizes) much of popular culture in the US and elsewhere. Then again, plenty of women do enjoy the sort of “persona” that Jenner chose to come out as, so it’s not exactly surprising she did too.

Which brings us to the broader, and far more interesting, point raised by Burkett: she is uncomfortable with the common transgender talk of being “trapped in the wrong body.” Why? Because it hints at some kind of strong biological component to being transgender. (For the purposes of this essay I will not further distinguish “biological” into genetic and developmental / epigenetic components: it is both difficult to do empirically and irrelevant to the point being made.)

Admitting the possibility of a significant role of biology in gender identity (and sexual orientation, while we’re at it) goes contra to the “nurture only” narrative of much feminist literature, so you can see why Burkett isn’t happy. But what other way is there to make sense of the self-reported psychological experiences of so many transgender and gay people? It’s not easy to conjure scenarios where they felt “in the wrong body” (or in the case of gays, attracted to the culturally “wrong” type of sexual partner) because society pushed them in that direction. On the contrary, still today most societies, including Western ones, very much push against such choices.

Burkett further says that she feels more than a bit of discomfort hearing claims by transgender individuals who have recently undergone physical changes, like Jenner, about being full fledged “women.” Here, interestingly, she has a point from a straightforward cultural perspective: being a woman isn’t, I think we will all agree, just a matter of having a certain biology, or a particular type of physical appearance. It is very much also the result of lifelong experiences of discrimination, put downs, harassment, and sometimes aggression. Burkett argues that Jenner may feel and look like a woman, but that she hasn’t had any of those experiences. On the contrary, for much of her life she has been treated as a white male, with all the privilege that this entails in American society.

There is an obvious way of making sense of all this, which however is inaccessible to Burkett qua feminist committed to a strong nurturist position: if gender (and perhaps sexual orientation) is the result of a complex interaction of nature (genes and epigenes) and nurture (mostly, one’s social and cultural environment), then it is perfectly possible for Jenner to feel strongly that she was previously trapped in the wrong body, wanting to be a woman, and yet at the same time finding herself only at the beginning of that process, once her appearance started to expose her to a new set of reactions and treatment by others.

A second recent case pertinent to this discussion of nature-nurture involved the very public resignation of Rachel Dolezal [7] as President of the Spokane (WA) chapter of the NAACP. That, of course, was about the arguably even more sensitive issue of race [8], and made a number of my fellow progressives very uncomfortable indeed.

The issue they faced is this: if race is entirely a social construction, then in what sense should we criticize Dolezal for “deciding” that she is black, ancestry and genetics be damned? But if we allow that sort of facile self-membership, where do we stop: could I suddenly decide that I “am” black too? Conversely, could a black person declare that she is really white?

One elegant way out of the dilemma was offered by my CUNY colleague and former President of the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division) Linda Alcoff. In a Democracy Now! interview [9] she put forth the eminently reasonable suggestion that race is a social, not an individual, construction. So whether people belong or don’t belong to a particular “race” is not really up to the individuals themselves.

I greatly sympathize with Linda’s take, but I don’t think it goes far enough. It doesn’t acknowledge the “ancestry” component, which of course is biological. I hope it is clear from my other writings on this subject that I don’t think there is any deep genetic identity to races. Rather, in a paper co-authored with Jonathan Kaplan [10] we put forth the suggestion that races tend to be superficially, and inconsistently, identified in popular parlance on the basis of biological markers that have very low relevance, chiefly skin color. These markers tell us nothing about any other characteristic of the alleged races, especially behavioral or cognitive ones. And moreover, “black” populations of humans, for instance, have evolved multiple times in different places on the planet. Nonetheless, when we say that someone is black it is because that person looks black (at the least by comparison with other ethnic groups), which means that biology does play a (again, extremely superficial, literally skin deep) role when people talk about races.

(Here is a trivial example: I’m writing this on a plane. I’m sitting in a row of three people. The guy next to me is black, the other one Hispanic. How can I tell, since they have both been largely asleep since boarding time and I’ve had no interactions with them? Because they look, respectively, black and Hispanic, just like I look Caucasian. Any further inference on our respective characters, behaviors, or cognitive abilities, however, would be wholly unwarranted, and will have to await until such time as they wake up.)

That role, however, is overwhelmed by the effects of social construction, which explains why someone like Dolezal could legitimately “feel” black despite not having the ancestry to back it up. If only we were able to get past the unnecessary false dichotomy of nature-nurture we would be able to make much more sense of these cases, rejecting someone’s self-selected label while at the same time managing to be sympathetic toward their motives.

Let me now zoom out from these two cases and consider the big picture. From my standpoint as a biologist it is hard to conceive of any major aspect of being human that is not the result of nature-nurture interactions (as opposed to straight influences of either nature or nurture), even though these are hopelessly complex to disentangle empirically. We know this to be the case for pretty much every other species on the planet that we have been able to properly study, so why should it be different for Homo sapiens?

The problem with the extreme naturist position, then, is twofold: on the one hand, it is based on often shaky science — consider for instance neuroscientist Cordelia Fine’s masterful debunking of what she calls neurobiological “delusions of gender” [11]. On the other hand, far too many naturists, while claiming the (alleged) objective mantle of science, reveal themselves to be sympathetic to sexist or racist, and certainly politically regressive positions (for instance Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of the infamous The Bell Curve). Even when this is not the case, their research provides easy cover for the most vicious sexist and racist sub-cultures of our society.

Then again, the problem with the extreme nurturist position is that, while its exponents are typically politically well intentioned, it just flies in the face of everything else we know about biology: yes, culture is a potent molder of human affairs, but we are not ethereal creatures entirely detached from our mundane animal nature, and to pretend otherwise is bending reality in the service of an ideology.

Moreover, all of this, it seems to me, is entirely unnecessary: from a philosophical, and particularly an ethical, perspective, the biological bases of human behaviors are irrelevant to how we ought to treat other human beings. Whether women, or gays, or transgenders, statistically adopt certain behaviors because of culture, genes, epigenes or — again, more likely — an inextricably complex interaction among those factors, who cares? As far as I can tell this has no logical pertinence whatsoever on issues like gay marriage or gender equality. Indeed, it is dangerous for some of my fellow progressives to link the debate to (alleged) empirical facts: what if science will eventually show, for instance, that Burkett’s take on what shapes gender identities is incorrect? Should we therefore abrogate laws on, say, equal pay? Similarly, gays say that their sexual orientation is not a choice (thereby, again, implying a strong biological component), but what if it was a choice? Should we thereby forget about marriage equality? I don’t see why, since these laws are about treating our fellow humans equally regardless of their differences, just as, in theory at least, the law treats poor and rich, or sick and healthy, in the same way. Culture (whether one inherited one’s parents wealth or debts) and biology (whether one is genetically predisposed to contract a certain disease or not) simply don’t enter into the equation. Nor should they.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Scientia Salon, and his latest books are Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press, co-edited with Maarten Boudry) and Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (Basic Books).

[1] The false dichotomy of trigger warnings, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 May 2015.

[2] The false dichotomy of Islamophobia, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 27 July 2015.

[3] Human nature, a Humean take, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 14 April 2014.

[4] Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture, by M. Pigliucci, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

[5] What Makes a Woman?, by E. Burkett, The New York Times, 6 June 2015.

[6] Caitlyn Jenner, Wiki entry.

[7] Rachel Dolezal Leaves N.A.A.C.P. Post as Past Discrimination Suit Is Revealed, by R. Perez-Pena, The New York Times, 15 June 2015.

[8] On the biology of race, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 29 May 2014.

[9] Linda Martín Alcoff on Rachel Dolezal: Race Not an Individual Construct, Democracy Now!, 17 June 2015.

[10] On the concept of biological race and its applicability to humans, by J. Kaplan and M. Pigliucci, Philosophy of Science 69 (3):S294-S304, 2003.

[11] Cordelia Fine on Delusions of Gender, Rationally Speaking podcast, 13 March 2011.

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64 thoughts on “The false dichotomy of nature-nurture, with notes on feminism, transgenderism, and the construction of races

  1. I am not sure I understood correctly what Burkett meant when she claimed that Jenner, having been a white male for most of her life, did not experience the discrimination and harassments women usually experience, and _therefore_ Jenner might feel and look as a woman but ultimately she isn’t, at least for the cultural part of being a woman. Does this mean that a woman who, for any reason, did not experience discrimination and harassment is not a full fledged woman? Or that women who, in a hopefully near future, will not experience discrimination and harassments will not be true women?

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  2. I saw a video lecture of Simone de Beauvoir using Sartre’s idea that “existence precedes essence” to argue that there is no male and female and we choose to be one or the other. I guess it means that since there is no nature, there can only be nurture.

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  3. Hi Massimo

    Thanks for the exposition on this topic. I’d been wondering why certain parts of the atheistic blogosphere had been freaking out over the question: “is a trans woman a woman, yes or no?”.

    There aren’t really people who think that gender is entirely a social construct to the extent that biological factors have zero relevance to being trans-gender, are there? If so, it’s amazing where ideology will drive people.

    A standard theme for me is arguing against over-compartmentalisation, the seeing of different areas of concern as distinct and independent. The idea that gender or race could ever be independent of underlying biology is a good example.

    Side issue: I see you’re using hyperlinks, which I thought you didn’t like on SS. Just interested in your thoughts on that.

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  4. Nice article! After reading it almost seems strange that this even needs to be said…

    What about the historical context one finds ourselves in? We are born into our family history, so there is nature, and we learn about said history while growing up, which is nurture. This I find strange in the Dolezal case when people argue that she can self-identify as black. Can one self-identify as coming from a historical context of slavery and discrimination? A context of being working and lower class, harassed by authorities etc. etc. which is part of the black experience in America? I am guessing (only) that a lot of blindness to such aspects is that class is not talked about in the US, which may make people blind to this entanglement of nature/nurture, (it goes against the America dream where anyone can become anything).

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  5. Agreed in general.

    Plus, there’s sociological and political issues.

    Sociologically, Christine Jorgensen was 60 years ago and Renee Richards nearly 40. Why is such a big deal being made out of Caitlyn Jenner?

    Sociologically, part 2, the fact that Jenner was part of the Kardashian family circus for more than a decade makes this seem in part just one more part of the circus.

    Politically, the idea that Jenner seems to think she can convert the Republican Party to new levels of tolerance and enlightenment seems laughable on the surface, and below that, seems a spinoff of the Kardashian family circus mindset.

    ==

    As for the issues at hand?

    I think Dolezal does have partial parallels.

    However, biological sex (WITHOUT agreeing with more hardcore Ev Psychers) does seem to have more ‘”naturist” influences on sociological gender than any ethnos markers have on an ethnos like black. (“Ethnos” is my substitute for the “r-word,” which I try to avoid using.)

    So, the Dolezal parallel to Jenner is probably at best 50 percent.

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  6. Massimo,
    Oh man I really like this piece. The way you link issues is really interesting and I am particularly interested in how this opens up to your more general views on human nature re: Prinz et al.

    “But what other way is there to make sense of the self-reported psychological experiences of so many transgender and gay people? It’s not easy to conjure scenarios where they felt “in the wrong body” (or in the case of gays, attracted to the culturally “wrong” type of sexual partner) because society pushed them in that direction. On the contrary, still today most societies, including Western ones, very much push against such choices.”

    If I have you right the basic inference seems to be that if social factors are largely against being transgendered and people experience their transgendered identities as fairly fixed and immobile, then this identity is very likely strongly determined by biology. This can, I think, be doubted. What is really striking about the detail of both the Jenner and Dolezal cases is the way they bear witness to a profound need for some kind of social identity and the distress felt when such an identity is absent (but I won’t get into details). It seems to me like as not that if at some point in a child’s development they attach to themselves an identity (“I m black”, “I am a woman”) and then key into those aspects of their environment which would socialize them in that way, they might genuinely become it for all intents and purposes. As Nietzsche put it, you can wear a disguise for so long that it no longer a disguise. Their “blackness” “womanhood” etc might just be determined by quirks of their personality, environment or personality. (It might seem I’m struggling to get out of biology but I don’t see it that way. More below).

    “From my standpoint as a biologist it is hard to conceive of any major aspect of being human that is not the result of nature-nurture interactions (as opposed to straight influences of either nature or nurture), even though these are hopelessly complex to disentangle empirically. We know this to be the case for pretty much every other species on the planet that we have been able to properly study, so why should it be different for Homo sapiens?”
    Because Homo sapiens are the only animals with culture (comparisons to monkeys in hot springs make my point,they don’t undermine it, that is nothing comparable to human culture). Because homo sapiens, uniquely among animals, have mythology, customs and histories. Because homo sapiens see their lives in biographical sense. Because homo sapiens are humans. They have those aspects we study and explore in the humanities. No other animal has humanities.
    (cont. below)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo (cont.),
    “Then again, the problem with the extreme nurturist position is that, while its exponents are typically politically well intentioned, it just flies in the face of everything else we know about biology”
    Now is this true? I cannot think of a single example of a fact of biology explaining any important aspect of any culture except the most brutally basic. If you can give a biological (or even partially biological) explanation of why Romans were tolerant of other religions or why Spartans had a more military culture than Athenians, I will be proven wrong. Absent that what is left for biology to determine? In the same way the more one learns about how varying and changeable gender roles have been and are across time and space, the more one ceases to expects that biology determines an essentially fixed substratum or baseline. (Of course in all such matters, the facts must be left to determine themselves.) In fact there are some aspects of your language that seem to leave the point somewhat unresolved. You seem to speak in favor of a “strong biological component” or “a significant role of biology” and yet at least in the case of race these facts are “overwhelmed by the effects of social construction”.

    More generally you have expressed skepticism toward the skepticism of human nature. You have generally argued that there exists a “human nature” in the sense that while human nature is plastic in regards to society and culture, that plasticity is bounded. I was struck in an old rationally speaking episode when you wrote that your retort to the anti-human nature stance was “When was the last time you asked a chimp out on a date?” You have me there I haven’t, recently, but I like to think that doesn’t say very much about who I am and what I’m about. It strikes me as quite sensible to think of human nature as the bounds set, by biology presumably, on cultural plasticity. But if the bounds are that wide and that broad, it might be just as sensible to deny that there is human nature. Crucially if that’s all human nature amounts to, very wide limits on cultural influence, it does not seem that it can play the kind of norm guiding role that it does in philosophies like that of Aristotle or Hume. (Not taking sides here, but the debate seems interesting carried out in this way.)

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  8. The problem is that we/society functions in a top down mode of binary options, but nature is uncooperatively bottom up subjective. We are attracted to ideals, but they only exist as constructs, although societies necessarily need to offer communal ideals, in order to function as larger units. With nature, not only is it mostly grey, but all the other colors exist on that spectrum between black and white.
    So someone has a body of one sex and the psychology of the opposite sex. Naturally a conservative social order will wish them to conform to their outward manifestation, while personal preference will tend toward their emotional desires. There is no ideal solution, because it is a conflict between opposing ideals. The problem would seem to lay with our unexamined belief in the ideal as anything more than a subjective expression of preference.
    Our ideals are not absolutes. Necessarily the universal state of the absolute would be a neutral equilibrium, not any particular framing device, so those who insist their, or their particular cultural ideals, are somehow absolutes, only create much grief for themselves and for those around them. They are what are referred to as extremists.

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  9. Interesting essay on a difficult topic; possibly two interesting topics and their possible intersection.

    Before commenting directly, I remark that I was reminded of two books – almost forgotten today, but each in its way important at the time of publication.

    The first is The Dialectic of Sex, by Shulamith Firestone, described briefly by the Wiki article on Firestone:

    “In The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone synthesized the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Simone de Beauvoir into a radical feminist theory of politics.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shulamith_Firestone (paraphrasing Jennifer Rich)

    But it was actually more radical than the listed influences suggest, because Firestone had what we would now call a ‘transhumanist’ faith in the capacity ofour new technologies to literally alter human evolution. The ‘cybernetic’ future Firestone sees for us will eliminate the necessity for work, the problems of poverty, the desire for national identities, etc., etc. Finally, technology will eliminate the need for sexual reproduction.

    “The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would be born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general (…).”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dialectic_of_Sex

    It is going little further along these lines of thought to envisioning a world where we can choose our own sexual identity, not through surgery and hormonal suplements, but through manipulation of our genes; we are already on the borders of choosing the sex of our children, according to some.

    The point being that, one side or another, there seems to be an urge toward utopia or perhaps perhaps a return to Eden. Sorting through these matters requires us to be wary of such urges.

    The other book coming to mind was John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Like_Me ), the report of a white journalist who traveled the South after having his skin treated medically to assume the color of black man. The important lesson his book revealed is that color alone has such profound cultural effect on social responses, that the biological issues are strictly irrelevant to them – which suggests that efforts to define ‘race’ biologically may be merely efforts to find some inherent reality to differences that don’t exist. (But this doesn’t bode well for someone who ‘feels’ they were ‘born black.’)

    ‘Everywhere he went, “the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. [Whites] judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival.”‘
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031602173.html

    Very murky waters, frankly….

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  10. Massimo,

    As a fellow biologist (retired) I have a hard time accepting the notion that the very real dichotomy of nature and nurture is false. As we climb down the phylogenetic tree, the role of nature becomes larger. At the bottom, nurture has almost no role – it is either do or die, literally.

    When it comes to the effective role of nurture, humans are at the very top. This may actually be another useful way of looking at the essential difference between humankind and the other animals. We adapt and learn more from our experiences than any other creature. Even though we are at the top, we are still 100% biological. All of our experiences are entirely managed by our bodies; the effect of nurture is simply modifying the template. In humans this effect can be very large, e.g. the size and shape of parts of the brain are modulated by our psychological experiences.

    Developing a mature sexual identity is almost certainly a very complex multistep process that has to be successfully negotiated before the final product is achieved. As everywhere else in biology, there are always variations on the theme and frequent failures. But, we are an indulgent species and will consider anything. Without medicine and science, Caitlyn Jenner wouldn’t exist. There might even be something worthwhile to be learned observing his evolution.

    The dichotomy of race is superficial while that of gender is deep and fundamental. While it is possible to identify and to trace ancestry from a single drop of blood with an exquisite degree of accuracy, it is as of now impossible to make predictions of that person’s intelligence, no matter what ‘race’ they are.

    Race is not informative when it comes to the nature of an individual. Cultural, ethnic and behavioral differences amongst groups most likely are due to nurture. There is, unfortunately, some biological basis for groupthink and groupspeak.

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  11. jbonnicerenoreg,

    “Simone de Beauvoir using Sartre’s idea that “existence precedes essence” to argue that there is no male and female and we choose to be one or the other”

    Yeah, that’s one of several reasons I never got into existentialism of that stripe.

    Coel,

    “There aren’t really people who think that gender is entirely a social construct to the extent that biological factors have zero relevance to being trans-gender, are there?”

    Well, it certainly sounds that way, especially when you pay attention to some of those areas of the atheist (and radical liberal) blogosphere you mention…

    “I see you’re using hyperlinks, which I thought you didn’t like on SS. Just interested in your thoughts on that.”

    That was a mistake of first draft, now corrected!

    Socratic,

    “biological sex (WITHOUT agreeing with more hardcore Ev Psychers) does seem to have more ‘”naturist” influences on sociological gender than any ethnos markers have on an ethnos like black. (“Ethnos” is my substitute for the “r-word,” which I try to avoid using.)”

    Agreed, sex, gender, sexual preferences and ethnicity are not the same level, but in all cases there are mixes of nature and nurture.

    David,

    “I am particularly interested in how this opens up to your more general views on human nature re: Prinz et al.”

    I’ve had occasional conversations with Jesse (and with our mutual colleague, Peter Godfrey-Smith) on this, and I’m constantly baffled by their denial of human nature in any meaningful respect.

    “It seems to me like as not that if at some point in a child’s development they attach to themselves an identity (“I m black”, “I am a woman”) and then key into those aspects of their environment which would socialize them in that way, they might genuinely become it for all intents and purposes.”

    Interesting point, but I find it unconvincing (and so, per my article’s references, do a number of feminists!). First off, one would want to know why a person would seek an identity that is strongly disadvantageous within one’s social group. Second, this sort of explanation really doesn’t seem to do justice to the self report of so many transgender people, and I see no independent reason to deny the validity of such reports.

    “Their “blackness” “womanhood” etc might just be determined by quirks of their personality, environment or personality”

    Maybe so, but without a stronger account this risks coming down to a bit of handwaving to deny a biological component.

    “Because Homo sapiens are the only animals with culture”

    Sure, which is why Homo sapiens is much more behaviorally plastic than any other species on the planet. But do we have to assume that such plasticity is thereby infinite?

    “I cannot think of a single example of a fact of biology explaining any important aspect of any culture except the most brutally basic”

    Ah, but it depends on what one means by “brutally basic.” Sex and sexual preferences seem pretty darn basic to me, and given that gender (which is, to a point, a social construct) is closely related to the other two…

    “If you can give a biological (or even partially biological) explanation of why Romans were tolerant of other religions or why Spartans had a more military culture than Athenians, I will be proven wrong”

    Those truly are good examples of cultural variation, and pretty far from what I would consider “brutally basic.” A good starting point for the latter are behaviors that are truly universal within H. sapiens, or close to (though universality by itself doesn’t prove a biological basis).

    “In the same way the more one learns about how varying and changeable gender roles have been and are across time and space”

    Have they been really? Or is it just our reactions as a culture to them that has changed? I don’t think the evidence is so obviously on the (extreme) nurturist side.

    “there are some aspects of your language that seem to leave the point somewhat unresolved”

    On purpose. Recall that I talk of the issue as a false dichotomy.

    “”When was the last time you asked a chimp out on a date?” You have me there I haven’t, recently, but I like to think that doesn’t say very much about who I am and what I’m about”

    Why not, exactly?

    “But if the bounds are that wide and that broad, it might be just as sensible to deny that there is human nature”

    I don’t see why. That was obviously an exaggerated quip, but there are all sorts of other things humans do with very few exceptions, other than not going out on dates with chimps.

    ej,

    “Everywhere he went, “the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. [Whites] judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival”

    Precisely, unfortunately.

    Liam,

    “All of our experiences are entirely managed by our bodies; the effect of nurture is simply modifying the template. In humans this effect can be very large, e.g. the size and shape of parts of the brain are modulated by our psychological experiences”

    I agree, except I would drop the “simply” in your sentence. There seems to be nothing simple about nature-nurture interactions.

    “The dichotomy of race is superficial while that of gender is deep and fundamental. While it is possible to identify and to trace ancestry from a single drop of blood with an exquisite degree of accuracy, it is as of now impossible to make predictions of that person’s intelligence, no matter what ‘race’ they are.”

    Again, agreed. I hope that was clear from my essay.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Hi Massimo, nice essay though you have now opened the door to dialogue on human nature and I’m about to go on holiday with no way of replying… argh.

    Let me start by agreeing with your conclusion, nature or nurture does not get us to answers regarding ethical questions (except perhaps meta-ethical ones but I won’t go there). But that distinction is useful to explore/know once you have a desire and want to implement a course of action.

    Burkett appears an example of the style of feminism I can’t stand. To claim that being a woman, or knowing what it is to be a woman requires the experience of discrimination is mindblowing. That means womanhood is defined by the nature of oppression experienced from others rather than the basic or positive aspects of the gender itself. So to her if a woman (biological from birth) grew up in some culture that did not harass or demean women, the person would not be a woman? Indeed, if feminist goals of equality are attained there would be no more women?

    While I’m sympathetic to the idea identities are social constructs, I think there is a limit to how useful that is to promote as well. That would seem to support the painful racial divisions that occurred within black communities themselves (viewing gradations of color as having real value/meaning).

    I’ll be honest and admit I haven’t made my mind up about Jenner or Dolezai, though the former is clearly transgender and the other does not seem transracial (particularly when she sued a black school for discrimination because she was white).

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  13. Hi Massimo, looks like David will be representing some of my questions while I am gone, unless Jesse Prinz shows up. On your responses to him…

    1) While I understand the idea that biology might be the more common influence to take an identity that would be disadvantageous, there are plenty who take them for nonbiological reasons. Being an anarchist, communist, religious minority, free thinker, gang member etc have all had negative repercussions at one time or another as an identity but they are likely not driven by biology. Regarding sexual identity, sure that has a strong biological component, except of course that our biology is very context dependent in that realm. Get isolated with a lot of the same gender and one’s hetero-ness can slide.

    2) “But do we have to assume that such plasticity is thereby infinite?” No individual will be “infinitely plastic” about all possible behaviors, but probably can be quite malleable over many. That means when considering humans as a whole (so a “human nature”), then yes it would seem as if we are infinitely plastic regarding behavior (remember I am not talking about drives or interests).

    3) “A good starting point for the latter are behaviors that are truly universal within H. sapiens, or close to (though universality by itself doesn’t prove a biological basis).”

    I’m still a skeptic on human universals, but then you bring up the other problem even if they existed.

    4) “but there are all sorts of other things humans do with very few exceptions, other than not going out on dates with chimps.”

    I think it is more or less the inability of chimps to understand and so react in ways that allow a “date” to function that prevents such things, not human nature. People have had emotional relationships and sexual encounters with nonhuman primates (and non-primates for that matter), so they’d probably have dates if they could. I mean the Planet of the Apes franchise kind of contains that idea as a grand possibility, right? That our range of behaviors is greater than that of other species, preventing certain activities in practice, does not mean we are limited and a “nature” defined. Obviously your point is you have other things we do (or not do), but I wonder how many fall to this same sort of problem (if not cultural/historical pressures).

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  14. Thank you for this well written and important essay.
    You conclude:
    … the biological bases of human behaviors are irrelevant to how we ought to treat other human beings.
    … laws are about treating our fellow humans equally regardless of their differences
    Culture … and biology … simply don’t enter into the equation. Nor should they.

    I agree, wholeheartedly. Race, gender, creed, culture, orientation and age should never determine how we treat we treat the other.

    That raises a most important question, why should we treat all equally, regardless? This is a conclusion, but what gives that conclusion compelling force? Why is it an ‘ought’? What is the ethical imperative behind this conclusion?

    As a theist, I know the answer to that question. It is because God shares the experience of every person and in this way God experiences the world through us. Thus God looks at me through the eyes of every person I encounter. Every act of love to another person is also an act of love towards and felt by God. Every act of unkindness to another person is felt by God as an act of unkindness. My cruelty to another person is cruelty towards and felt by God. God looks at me through the eyes of every desperate beggar that looks at me appealingly. Thus, every person, no matter what, is deserving of my compassionate, respectful love, because in them I see the face of God, looking back at me, and because God has infinite understanding of the other person’s position.

    Note the force of this motivation. I am not only required to treat all equally, I am further required to treat them with the greatest compassion, respect and love. This is an awesome and frightening responsibility.

    My motivation, while I experience it as deeply compelling, would, understandably, make no sense to an atheist. Can an atheist feel the compelling force of Massimo’s conclusions in the same way I do?

    I am sure atheists would answer ‘yes’ and I would love to hear their reasoning, in the friendly sense of hearing and understanding each other’s points of view. This is not an invitation to attack each other’s points of view, but to understand them.

    I have recently been introduced to the work of the Lithuanian-French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. In his work I see the possibility for a secular ethics that will support Massimo’s conclusions. It is an ethics of responsibility towards others:

    ‘We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others . ‘ This remark, spoken by Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, is one Levinas is fond of quoting. It is a neat indication of the nature of a thought that, in the words of Jacques Derrida, ‘can make us tremble’ . Its challenge is an excessive one: a mode of being and saying where I am endlessly obligated to the Other, a multiplicity in being which refuses totalization and takes form instead as fraternity and discourse, an ethical relation which forever precedes and exceeds the egoism and tyranny of ontology.

    A Levinas Reader

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  15. The human mind loves a good dichotomy; sometimes the more meaningless, the better — think of all the sports arch-rivalries, some of which have lead to lethal riots. Liberal and Conservative tend to lose their meanings except as they mean something like what was, in a real sense, liberal or conservative at one frozen moment in time. America has mostly stuck to its two party system that sprung up spontaneously despite the founders’ best intentions, with often obsessive loyalty for ones own party and contempt for the other, even as the two parties have virtually switched roles a feat somewhat like a performer who manages to move his vest to the outside of his suit jacket without removing either (I think this image may come from Lincoln who definitely definitely compared his debating partner’s point to a homeopathic soup made from the shadow of a chicken that was starved to death).

    Our beliefs become badges, or uniforms that we wear with great pride. High School is the optimum time for sorting people out on the basis of slight differences in temperament. One reason may be that ad hoc goal based group formation and cooperation is contrary to the longtime model of the classroom, and we yearn for some kind of group.

    No, I wouldn’t date a chimp. They definitely don’t know how to behave in a restaurant or movie theatre, and have been know to bite a person’s face off (performing chimps are always very young). But then the ladies who insert giant disks in holes above and below their mouths, giving a duck-like appearance wouldn’t appeal to me either, but oops, that is an example for the 100% pro-nurture folks to cite.

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  16. Back in the days before BTI was part of LGBTI, the problem that lesbians had with trans women was not that they called themselves women, but those who called themselves lesbians.

    I friend of mine was told “You’re not a lesbian, you are a straight man in denial”. I used to josh her about that quite a bit too.(Her partner did not consider herself a lesbian)

    I used to wonder if she was not being caught up in society’s stereotypes about gender roles – after all I have no idea that what I feel like is “what it feels like to be a man”. I don’t know what it feels like to be a woman either, so how can anyone feel that they are a woman?

    Maybe what I feel like is really what it feels like to be a woman and I have never realised it, but just assumed that this is what it feels like to be a man, or at least this man in particular.

    She tried to explain it to me, but I never really got it.

    I am a man by an obvious anatomical definition, but I don’t know anything else about me that would represent biological or psychological maleness (my wife would say my inability to multi task or the fact that I never stop to ask directions).

    So, to say that gender is entirely a social construct is not to say that there can be anything distinct or independent of biology, it is to say that there is no fact of the matter about the gender of physical stuff, rather gender is the categories we put on it.

    Could someone scan my body and find some configuration in my brain, say, and tell me ‘that is not a male configuration, that is a female configuration’? I could say, ‘Isn’t it, by definition, a male configuration since it is occurring in the brain of a male?’.

    Could I be transgender and not know it?

    Is there anything at all in our bodies, other than the apparatus of reproduction, about which there could be said to be any fact of the matter about its gender?

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  17. Massimo: “Moreover, all of this, it seems to me, is entirely unnecessary: from a philosophical, and particularly an ethical, perspective, the biological bases of human behaviors are irrelevant to how we ought to treat other human beings.” (now where do I learn to do those indentation-quotes?)

    I totally agree and think that’s very worthwhile to say. Suppose there is some statistical difference between certain races. It could very well not be, yet appear to be, as we know from experiments that show people to be much better test takers when they think they will do well, or even when, if they belong to a group often judged inferior, if their dread of failing is assuaged by the assurance that it’s “just for fun” or otherwise not important.

    If it is a good thing for hunter-gatherers to live in relatively stable bands, and also to stick within one tribe which roughly approximates one culture, so as to have optimal mastery of that culture, then it could be adaptive to be good at rationalizing that the band you’re in is better than the others, and the tribe/culture is even more-better — and what are the cues that they’re inferior in some way? Well, they do their hair a little differently and they lisp a certain word (like “shibolleth”, say), and there’s just something about their attitude, and in fashion sense (like what pattern of scars to wear on ones cheeks), they just don’t get it. If we’re wired to think that way, and then run across somebody whose hair *can’t* even be done in the same way as ours, and their skin isn’t skin-color (as we’d think in our parochial ways), there must be something *really* wrong with them. It isn’t automatic, and many transient/historical/cultural things can mitigate the tendency to think that way, or exaggerate it for that matter.

    This certainly isn’t rigorously convincing. For what I think is a pretty masterful use of ev psych reasoning, I’d suggest Michael Tomasello’s Origins of Human Communication. Ev psych folk can be pretty annoying with their harping on low-hanging fruit, usually forbidden (sexual and hence titillating) fruit — because sexual tendencies are the easiest thing to tell a reasonable evolutionary story about. With time though, I do think it will produce some important and ultimately demonstrable theories, and maybe Tomasello’s will be one of these.

    For a deep dive into this sort of thing and surrounding issues, I’d highly recommend H. Clark Barrett and Robert Kurzban’s Modularity in Cognition: Framing the Debate (Psychological Review 2006, Vol. 113, No. 3). It’s a long review article that lays out all of the positions, more or less extreme, and many of the challenges and the challenges to the challenges, esp. w.r.t. “nativism” and brain modularity.

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  18. Hi labnut,

    Race, gender, creed, culture, orientation and age should never determine how we treat we treat the other. […] Why is it an ‘ought’? What is the ethical imperative behind this conclusion?

    It’s a collective agreement among humans as to the sort of society we want to live in, based on human empathy.

    I am not only required to treat all equally, I am further required to treat them with the greatest compassion, respect and love. […] Can an atheist feel the compelling force … in the same way I do? I am sure atheists would answer ‘yes’ and I would love to hear their reasoning, …

    This atheist would answer “no”, we don’t feel the compelling force that you’ve just described. Indeed, most atheists, and indeed most people, care far more about themselves, their family, and their local circle, than they do about distant and unrelated strangers. (That’s just human nature, sorry.)

    I would suggest that most theists also do not feel the compelling force that you describe. After all, if we look around the world today, it is not how things are, even in countries dominated by theists. Further, the least theistic societies, such as Scandinavia, do not seem any worse than highly theistic nations on matters of treating people equally and with respect, regardless of race, gender, etc; if anything, it’s the reverse. Further, as the West has got less theistic over the decades, our respect for such things has only increased.

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  19. It is an interesting paradox that so many atheists, who ought to consider morality optional, act as though it were a duty, and so many theists, who ought to consider morality as a duty, act as though it were optional.

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  20. db,

    “To claim that being a woman, or knowing what it is to be a woman requires the experience of discrimination is mindblowing”

    Actually, as much as I am not too sympathetic to the brand of feminism that Burkett represents, I think she has a point: a large part of what it means to be a woman (or a man, or a black, or a Muslim, or whatever) in a given society at a given time is precisely having had the day-to-day experience of being perceived as a woman (or a man, etc.).

    “So to her if a woman (biological from birth) grew up in some culture that did not harass or demean women, the person would not be a woman?”

    No, I don’t think she would say that. And I certainly wouldn’t.

    “I haven’t made my mind up about Jenner or Dolezai, though the former is clearly transgender and the other does not seem transracial”

    Agreed.

    “While I understand the idea that biology might be the more common influence to take an identity that would be disadvantageous, there are plenty who take them for nonbiological reasons. Being an anarchist, communist, religious minority, free thinker, gang member etc have all had negative repercussions at one time or another”

    True, but I’ve never heard of an anarchist, communist etc. say that s/he was “trapped” in the mind of her/his particular political identity. Moreover, I think in many places in the world gays and transgenders still find orders of magnitude less social support than even people who espouse unpalatable political opinions.

    “Regarding sexual identity, sure that has a strong biological component, except of course that our biology is very context dependent in that realm.”

    But remember, that’s my point: not nature or nurture, but nature-by-nurture.

    “when considering humans as a whole (so a “human nature”), then yes it would seem as if we are infinitely plastic regarding behavior (remember I am not talking about drives or interests).”

    No, we are not, and your qualification about drives or interests is in fact crucial.

    “I’m still a skeptic on human universals”

    In what sense? There is ample empirical evidence that they exist. And if they don’t qualify as at the least giving us an outline of human nature I don’t know what would.

    “I think it is more or less the inability of chimps to understand and so react in ways that allow a “date” to function that prevents such things, not human nature”

    People seem to take my quip on chimps a bit too seriously. How about the fact that human beings have goals, an ability to project themselves into the future, pursuit projects that are not related to their survival or reproduction (and which, sometimes, can indeed hinder them), and so many other things that only humans do?

    Labnut,

    “That raises a most important question, why should we treat all equally, regardless? This is a conclusion, but what gives that conclusion compelling force?”

    Well, that’s really beside the point of the essay, but you know my answer: we are social, rational beings, and we get our sense of morality from a combination of instincts (that we share with other primates) and our ability to reflect on our situation. Come to thin of it, morality is another perfect example of nature-by-nurture!

    “As a theist, I know the answer to that question.”

    Two words: Euthyphro’s dilemma…

    Hal,

    “They definitely don’t know how to behave in a restaurant or movie theatre”

    Unfortunately it seems that these days neither do a lot of humans. They keep flashing their fraking cell phones in the dark…

    Robin,

    “to say that gender is entirely a social construct is not to say that there can be anything distinct or independent of biology, it is to say that there is no fact of the matter about the gender of physical stuff”

    While I agree with much of what you say, to me “gender” isn’t just an arbitrary category, it is a reflection of certain behaviors. It follows that if individuals of sex XX or XY tend, statistically, with a large distribution, plenty of exceptions, etc., to behave in one way or another, then there is a physical/biological component to gender. Which, of course, is highly modulated by culture, personal choices, etc. Again: nature-by-nurture.

    “Could I be transgender and not know it?”

    My answer to that would be no, but I could be wrong.

    “Is there anything at all in our bodies, other than the apparatus of reproduction, about which there could be said to be any fact of the matter about its gender?”

    Yes, our genetic makeup doesn’t influence only the shape of our genitals. It also alters our development, produces certain hormones at certain times, and so forth. All of that is bound to have *some* effect on behavior.

    Hal,

    “Ev psych folk can be pretty annoying with their harping on low-hanging fruit, usually forbidden (sexual and hence titillating) fruit — because sexual tendencies are the easiest thing to tell a reasonable evolutionary story about. With time though, I do think it will produce some important and ultimately demonstrable theories”

    As you probably know I’m quite critical of evolutionary psychology. But that’s not because I reject the possibility of human behavior being partly rooted in biology and the result of evolutionary processes. It is because too often evopsych goes for blatant claims that have hardly any empirical support and are exceedingly hard to test.

    Censore,

    “Does this mean that a woman who, for any reason, did not experience discrimination and harassment is not a full fledged woman?”

    See my reply to dbholmes above.

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  21. Labnut and Massimo are in very substantial agreement on some important issues:

    “… the biological bases of human behaviors are irrelevant to how we ought to treat other human beings. ”
    “… laws are about treating our fellow humans equally regardless of their differences”
    “Culture … and biology … simply don’t enter into the equation. Nor should they.”

    A theist and an atheist in substantial agreement on a basic question of morality suggests that belief in a god is secondary. That would make sense since “we are still 100% biological”. Agreement could be coincidental to the many shared values inherent in the culture: implicit common values that are subliminal. Emotions (feelings, attitudes, etc.) and their substrates would be perfect candidates to explain this.

    Theism and atheism may be a further example of a false dichotomy. I predict that neither camp will ever have the satisfaction of knowing that they were right. In stead we will vacillate forever between these two apocalyptic visions. False dichotomies arise when we posit or need certainty when there is none because they help us to think through the problem.

    I like Labnut’s inspired fugue on the Mind of God. I must admit I have had similar fantasies. However, thinking about it more rigorously, it should be obvious that since none of us have a basis from which to speculate, it probably is only an happy delusion. Here is my little riff on the MoG:

    Absolute truth would require total access to all information and flawless data processing, a situation that could be possible only in the Mind of a God. Such a mind presumably would instantly understand everything that has been, is and will be. A MoG knows ultimate Reality as it is, as it was, and as it will be, without limit of time, place, space or number – no need for counters or clocks. It does not need to think, ponder or plan because that would indicate a degree of uncertainty. A MoG is not dependent on any senses because that would limit the information streaming in, it would also imply that God needs to learn when everything is already known. A MoG is not defined by any human category, distinction or requirement. Is a MoG jealous and wrathful as stated in the Bible? Does it care about human interests but not those of bacteria? We ask these questions because we can, while knowing that any answers would be human answers, miserly anthropocentric efforts, limited by our very impressive but still very finite processing capabilities.

    However, a belief in a god is almost universal and it probably comes from the same biological place where Massimo finds the feeling that we ought this and not that. Human history, however, is replete with oughts that became shall nots. The diversity of these ethics and morals are still mind-blowing. It goes without saying that ‘my system is better than yours’. 🙂

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  22. Massimo,
    Well, that’s really beside the point of the essay

    No, not really. Moral motivation is an important matter and without moral motivation your conclusions have no force. You were arguing in effect that, whatever the observable differences, we should not let that affect the way we treat each other. I agreed, and I think that is an important statement. Implicit in your reasoning is that it is a matter of duty, rights and justice. I also agree with that. But I was asking if there was a stronger ethical reason that might give your practical reasoning greater effect. I gave such a reason, based on my religious beliefs. You replied to my motivation with your favourite buzzword, Euthyphro, which was not at all a useful rejoinder.

    Two words: Euthyphro’s dilemma

    Now there I really do fail to see the point of your reply. This is not a discussion of the truth or falsity of theism. That is besides the point in the context of this discussion(You have your beliefs and I have my beliefs, live and let live). As it happens, I think the Euthyphro argument is particularly weak(and you disagree), but we are once more descending into a pointless spiral of argument by contradiction, so I’m going to leave it at that.

    My intent was to show how a thoughtful theist might see this ethical issue and I asked for an atheist point of view in reply. I was hoping for a productive dialogue free from the usual atheist attacks on religion(which is why I am not going to reply to Coel). I believed I had an interesting contribution that others might find to be novel and intriguing. At the very least you might learn how a theist sees the matter. I also thought that a strong secular argument could be made along the lines of Levinas’ thought, which I found to be truly novel. I was hoping that someone might take me up on this and expand on it or produce a compelling alternative.

    What is so interesting is that my theist arguments and Levinas’ secular arguments have the same outcome:

    We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others

    To go back to that earlier essay, this is what I believe a true humanism is all about. Levinas thinks so as well and he expressed this belief in his book – Humanism of the Other, see https://books.google.co.za/books?id=djb819IkJH0C

    ”Argues that it is not only possible but of the highest exigency to understand one’s humanity through the humanity of others. This book also argues that the humanity of the human is found in the recognition that the other person comes first, that the suffering and mortality of others are the obligations and morality of the self ”

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  23. Hi Massimo,

    …a large part of what it means to be a woman… in a given society at a given time is precisely having had the day-to-day experience of being perceived as a woman (or a man, etc.).

    Was Jenner claiming to be a woman, or a woman in a given society at a given time? If she just became one then my guess is the claim was limited to the former. I might point out that this would relieve feminists from claiming any knowledge of being a woman anywhere outside their own society/time.

    Perhaps this just makes Jenner the woman of the future 🙂

    No, I don’t think she would say that. And I certainly wouldn’t.

    Neither would I but I don’t see how she can avoid it given the criteria set up for denying Jenner’s claim. It would seem to have to deny the claims of women that did not experience “(fill in the blank)”. This is reinforced by the added criteria you set out (I bolded) above.

    I’ve never heard of an anarchist, communist etc. say that s/he was “trapped” in the mind of her/his particular political identity…

    I agree that the more a person feels that a physical characteristic is not “right” and needs to change to something else, that is more likely a biological driven issue. I think that is less an issue for general sexual orientation where most people know what they want and aren’t trapped in some biological sense from doing/being it. On your other point, soon western societies may be very open to gays and transgenders and find other things worse, including political beliefs (like being anti-gay marriage).

    There is ample empirical evidence that they exist.

    It’s not that I haven’t seen lists of what are called “human universals”, I just haven’t seen any that have actual evidence supporting the claims that are undisputed/able. If you have some I would actually be interested.

    …qualify as at the least giving us an outline of human nature

    OK, I agree that we can find commonalities or regularities, sort of the large middle of the bell curve, of things humans do. That can suggest a nice rule of thumb predictor which we could call general “human nature”. But that does not reduce our actual plasticity as a species and how wide the tails of the curve go. And it does seem odd to suggest anything a human chooses to do, particularly against so-called universals, is not “human nature”.

    How about the fact that human beings have goals… and so many other things that only humans do?

    I agree we (in the general sense) have advanced capabilities that distinguish us from other species. But it involves a vast increase in plasticity of behavior.

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  24. Hi Massimo, some last thoughts on “human nature” and “human universals”. How do these get established/defined? Outside of some basic physical limitations (and maybe that’s just a matter of time) what can possibly fall outside these categories, if we can find a human doing or wanting to do something? Some examples…

    I would like to say that homosexuality and even transgenders are part of the human condition (nature) and that we will find them everywhere (universal). But they are admittedly a small to vanishing minority. There is also physical revulsion to such people and their activities, and that is currently more prevalent than homosexuals/transgenders, so are these both our nature and universal?

    There are (and I still can’t get my head around it) people who want to be killed, dismembered, and even eaten and people that want to fulfill their desires. And of course there are many more people who are repulsed by such people and their activities. Which decides nature or universality? Or are they both?

    If we start going through this eventually we find that for any commonality there is some remote extremity, and vice versa. This to me is what makes “human nature” and “universals” very weak intellectual concepts, which mainly seem used to prop up political arguments between communities with conflicting behaviors/desires (i.e. that is against/part of human nature).

    Just setting this out there.

    (Note: Unfortunately I am going on vacation and may not be able to respond… but will read later!)

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  25. Who is ‘black’? I thought it ludicrous to say Obama was since he was just as white as he was black, however, he is literally black-hued. The Dolezal case, she was savaged for the supposed facile statement that we’re all Africans after all. But maybe one should consider the ‘One drop’ rule, enshrined in law in many states. I don’t know how to translate that into some ancestral implication, like 1/4 meaning 1 of 4 grandparents was black. How many ‘whites’ can be sure they aren’t really black by those standards? Blacks who can ‘pass’ are often beset from both sides. Are they black because of one-drop, or white like Obama is black? The tragedy of race made so much more by the silliness of it.

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  26. I suppose a pragmatist (speaking for myself, of course) would say that our code for classification (how we refer to people) and conduct (how we treat people) is not bound by either biology (nature) or culture (nurture), but is written by us to be the most useful for attaining particular results. This seems to be consistent with the sense of this article.

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  27. labnut,

    “Moral motivation is an important matter and without moral motivation your conclusions have no force”

    But I thought we agreed that one doesn’t have to “go meta” every single time we discuss moral issues. It gets tiresome. We have explored plenty of times the differences among readers on moral realism, naturalism, and so forth. Are you saying we have to do it again every time we discuss ethics? Because that may be a deterrent for me to write about this stuff again… (Kidding, it would simply result in ratcheting up the comments’ filter!)

    “Now there I really do fail to see the point of your reply. This is not a discussion of the truth or falsity of theism”

    You continue to misunderstand the Euthyphro, my friend. It has nothing at all to do with the truth of theism. Socrates believed in god. His argument was simply that gods are irrelevant to morality, i.e., that one doesn’t get moral realism — as we would put it today — our of gods, even if they exist.

    “I think the Euthyphro argument is particularly weak”

    I know, and I think it’s pretty much conclusive. I’ve read modern theologians, Swinburne and Plantinga included, about it, and either they don’t get it (unlikely, since they’re pretty smart) or their ideological blinders lead them to purposefully miss its point (it happens to the best of us).

    “I was hoping for a productive dialogue free from the usual atheist attacks on religion”

    But why on earth is atheism relevant to a discussion on nature-nurture, or even to the rights of transgendered, women, minorities, etc.?

    “At the very least you might learn how a theist sees the matter.”

    I know exactly how they do it. I was a theist myself, when I was younger. (A Catholic, to be precise.) And I have engaged plenty of theist friends and not-so-friends over the decades.

    “What is so interesting is that my theist arguments and Levinas’ secular arguments have the same outcome”

    Agreed, I just didn’t see the point within the specific context of this discussion, since we are not engaging with meta-ethics or metaphysics.

    db,

    “Was Jenner claiming to be a woman, or a woman in a given society at a given time? If she just became one then my guess is the claim was limited to the former.”

    According to a feminist there is no such thing as “being a woman” irrespective of society and time. And I have to agree, even though I give much more weight to biology than feminists typically do.

    “It would seem to have to deny the claims of women that did not experience “(fill in the blank)”.”

    I don’t see why. Again, for feminists society and culture always matter, regardless, even if you are not an oppressed minority.

    “It’s not that I haven’t seen lists of what are called “human universals”, I just haven’t seen any that have actual evidence supporting the claims that are undisputed/able”

    Depends on what you mean by “disputable,” but the anthropological literature has a number of these lists, with accompanying evidence. For instance: http://www.amazon.com/Human-Universals-Donald-Brown/dp/007008209X.

    “it does seem odd to suggest anything a human chooses to do, particularly against so-called universals, is not “human nature”.”

    You seem to be taking the concept of human nature as one identified by sharp necessary and sufficient conditions. I never intended that. It is a statistical, fuzzy concept. And yes, individuals do all sorts of things that are exceptional or go against the grain. I don’t see why that would deny a statistical, cluster-concept of human nature, though.

    “I agree we (in the general sense) have advanced capabilities that distinguish us from other species. But it involves a vast increase in plasticity of behavior.”

    Indeed, I studied plasticity for decades as a biologist, I’m aware of its power to shape behavior (indeed, behaviors are often the quintessential example of a plastic trait). But, again, it ain’t infinite. There are all sorts of things I might like to do and I can’t because of my biological nature. Like free, self-powered flight, for instance.

    “How do these get established/defined? Outside of some basic physical limitations (and maybe that’s just a matter of time) what can possibly fall outside these categories, if we can find a human doing or wanting to do something? Some examples…”

    See link above. Take religion: I think it counts as a human universal, meaning that it seems present in all cultures (though, obviously, not in all individuals!). It is also highly shaped by culture, as I don’t think there are genes for Catholicism vs Buddhism, say. But it is likely based also on certain characteristics of the human brain that are, in turn, biologically rooted — like a propensity to project agency, and so forth. Oh, language is another one, similar in structure: which language one speaks is entirely cultural; the fact that we are capable of language is a biological attribute.

    “There are (and I still can’t get my head around it) people who want to be killed, dismembered, and even eaten and people that want to fulfill their desires”

    I don’t think I’ve ever argued that all human behaviors are universal. But an instinct of self-preservation truly is part of human (and, indeed, organismal) nature. Yes, there are exceptions, which can be explained by cultural forces, and sometimes by defective biology (like psychopaths).

    “This to me is what makes “human nature” and “universals” very weak intellectual concepts”

    I find this sort of attitude — common as it is among my own colleagues — highly puzzling, like denying the obvious. And at the least among some of my colleagues I think the reason is in fact ideological/political. So even a denial of human nature, not just its affirmation, can be used in the latter fashion.

    mech,

    “The Dolezal case, she was savaged for the supposed facile statement that we’re all Africans after all. But maybe one should consider the ‘One drop’ rule, enshrined in law in many states”

    Well, yes, we are all from Africa, but that would mean that the very concept of race is meaningless, if literally all humanity belongs to the same race, no? (I have no problem with that, but I think it was disingenuous of Dolezal to put it that way.)

    As for one-drop rules, those are legal (and absurd, in my mind) definitions. The simple empirical fact is that we go around attributing “race” on the basis of superficial appearance. Obama looks sufficiently black to most people, so he *is* black. There isn’t any deeper meaning to blackness, really.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Massimo,

    Thanks very much for the involved reply, I appreciate it. Some points.

    “this sort of explanation really doesn’t seem to do justice to the self report of so many transgender people”
    This is a very fair rejoinder and at some point I have to punt because I have not read enough of the available evidence. Yet I think what people say about their own experience is often filtered through the very false dichotomy you are writing against. In today’s political world saying “I was born this way!” is a way of saying “This is not a choice! This is who I really *am*!” John Corvino was refreshingly heretical on this:

    “But do we have to assume that such plasticity is thereby infinite?”
    I hope it’s clear that I am not *assuming* but arguing on the basis of my engagement with history and the social and psychological evidence (obviously can’t shoulder the full burden here though).

    “Ah, but it depends on what one means by “brutally basic.” Sex and sexual preferences seem pretty darn basic to me, and given that gender (which is, to a point, a social construct) is closely related to the other two…”
    There are ellipses and then there are ellipses. I don’t know that sex and sexual preference really do that much to determine our gender. How much does being attracted to women have to do with being masculine? When I think of an injunction to “be a man” in our current (American) society I think of being (in a familiar sense) stoic, being a provider, not being emotional in public, being willing to fight over or at least stand up to insult, not being concerned with appearance (and other “gay” or “faggy” things), being resilient. How much of that has to do with sex or sexual preference? (And no having sex with men was not always and everywhere “gay”.)
    (cont. below)

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  29. Massimo (cont.),
    ““[Me] In the same way the more one learns about how varying and changeable gender roles have been and are across time and space”
    “[Massimo] Have they been really? Or is it just our reactions as a culture to them that has changed? I don’t think the evidence is so obviously on the (extreme) nurturist side.”
    Ok. Aristotle denied women have theoretical reason and Plato dismissed heterosexual love, in the Symposium, on the grounds that women can not reflect back intellectual love. Compare to Shakespeare’s women (or Webster’s, even Middleton’s) who are often wittier and wiser than the men around them. In the renaissance, generally, women were considered to be licentious and not in command of their lust unless curbed by men. By the Victorian era that Freud so shocked women were taken to be demure and if anything less sexual than men. For Achilles and for many men in the Middle East there is no shame in public crying. On these shores today people often say men are “less emotional” or at least “less expressive”. Women were generally taken to be subservient and domestic and men dominant and public but these are usually accounted for by the fact that women must give birth and breast feed children and men have slightly more upper body strength, such that men became socially dominant. It would be hard to justify these without engaging in really unsavory politics and questionable philosophy for the reasons you stress. Yet I don’t see much more that is historically constant.

    ” People seem to take my quip on chimps a bit too seriously. How about the fact that human beings have goals, an ability to project themselves into the future, pursuit projects that are not related to their survival or reproduction (and which, sometimes, can indeed hinder them), and so many other things that only humans do?”
    I hope my bring up the chimp comment doesn’t cause too much mischief. Obviously you can you can close the bounds from there, the question is only whether you can close them enough to make it interesting. I want to stress, though it may dissappoint db , that I am not playing for either side here just seeing how the game is played. As to “the fact that human beings have goals…projects”, etc well yes. But surely human nature is used in moral philosophy not to determine *that* we have projects but to establish *which* projects are worth pursuing. That is how I understand how human nature is used in, for instance, Hume and Aristotle. Hume argued for certain kinds of virtues over and against other “monkish virtues”. Aristotle contrasted his favored virtues and conception of the good life against those of other schools. Both appealed to human nature in choosing which to favor and dis-favor. Accordingly if your conception of human nature is too broad to due that kind of work, you may not have a meaningful conception of human nature at all. After all no one is choosing whether or not to have projects but only which projects to pursue.

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  30. Euthyphro is very strong against any “double-omni” deity. We’ve been down this road before. Thirty years ago, in a college informal logic class, I ran into a person who simply refused to accept arguments as being valid if they clashed with his worldview.

    Per Massimo, if not filtered out, I have no problem repeating this in the future.

    The one drop of blood? Ugh. Obama ‘self-selected’ as African-American after coming back from Indonesia, and especially from college on.

    Like

  31. Just a clarification: What is making Elinor Burkett angry? Because the undertone (not far from the surface of her text) is anger bordering on outrage; why?

    Burkett has a specific anger that triggers a generalized anger. She tries to sublimate the specific into the general, because (I suspect) she doesn’t want to come out and say that Jenner should not have the opportunity for self-determination. But it’s apparent that Burkett is angry with Jenner; Jenner has had an opportunity granted exactly because, as male, Jenner enjoyed privilege most women are denied. Jenner’s opportunity to appear female on the cover of Vanity Fair, in a stereotypical pose media has constructed for starlets and models, arises from Jenner’s history as having been male.

    A side issue worth noting here: surgical construction of vaginas in trans-males has proven very successful and relatively routine. Phalloplasty, on the other hand, requires extensive re-surgery addressing almost inevitable complications, and prosthetic implants to mimic erection; 25% result in long-term serious complications. It’s almost as if the physiology has been arranged to permit greater opportunity to trans-males than trans-females. Even the surgical effort to provide such opportunity seems weighted in favor of men. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phalloplasty )

    I mention that, because although this happens by chance through evolution of the species interacting with an imperfect surgical technology, it does – seemingly – shade the issue in favor of Burkett’s argument.

    Moving back to that argument, let’s supplement it by rephrasing Jenner’s feelings: Suppose Jenner had never expressed an interest in ‘being a woman’? Suppose he simply said, “well, I really want to look like that model on the cover of Cosmo; I feel I was really born to have big breasts, painted nails and dolls to play with; oh, and throw in a vagina for good measure, I just hate standing up to pee.” Would we be as sympathetic with such expressions?

    But consider those dolls; feminists have long insisted that the gender differences in child’s play are largely, if not wholly, the effect of nurture – why shouldn’t girls play with toy fire-trucks? (because their parents buy them dolls). So if a boy expresses the desire to play with dolls, could this really be an expression of having been born ‘female in a male body’? Or it’s just wanting to play with dolls, and then the child grows up being convinced by the surrounding culture that this means he needs to be female?

    That’s why I remarked the murkiness of the waters on such issues. For the sake of compassion and political ethics, we want the matter to be clean and decisive; but it’s not. And Burkett is quite right to raise the issue, whether the trans community, by re-affirming stereotypes, may be setting back the cause of justice for women.

    Finally, it must be admitted: There is *no* united front in the efforts to achieve sexual and gender rights and identities. What we do with that is another question.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. I’m going to take a moment to side-step the primary content of this article, and instead discuss some of the side commentary. It seems to me that the past 5 or so years has seen an insurgence of what I guess I’ll call a “naïve feminism” (Perhaps it’s too pejorative to call it this, but for want of a better term, I will call it this) that’s gained a large online presence. It doesn’t really come as a surprise to me that the naïve feminists are not happy with transgendered people (and often turn a blind eye to other minority groups), because I don’t think that the “naïve feminist” position comes purely from a place of egalitarianism and equality. It’s impossible to characterize accurately or robustly the positions that I’ve seen, but I would guess that some people here probably have some inkling of what I’m describing. They tend to be rather brash and hold generally confused and extremist positions on nature-v-nurture, are a vocal critic of media or art, and so on-on. Feminism and gender relations are a very complicated issue, and it just rubs me the wrong way when I hear people spout a position that in general I agree with, but defended in a very unthoughtful manner or phrased in such an exclusionary manner that prohibits me from voicing my own thoughts. I find it impossible to interact with the naïve feminists people because their arguments are often hamfisted. Whenever I’ve had the displeasure of “discussing” gender issues with these individuals (who are often otherwise nice people and on other topics, pleasant conversationalists), it seems to my like these “conversations” are actually emotional monologues wherein I am required to agree identically with their positions, or else I am a sexist pig. That’s not an underhanded way to debate, it’s literally just preventing any and all discourse. They aren’t changing the minds of people who disagree with them, they’re just refusing them the opportunity to offer a retort.

    Just to be clear, I view feminism as a (still very important) movement that is about breaking down the requirement of conforming to gender stereotypes for women and men, it’s about giving people the ability to behave, dress, and socialize in the manner that they want (so long as they aren’t impeding or harming other people), it’s about trying to stop sexual violence and misconduct, it’s about trying to get laws to help equalize pay for women, and so on. Additionally, and crucially, most feminists don’t comport themselves this way, but as stated, there does seem to be a growing trend towards accepting this, which I think isn’t a good thing for feminism.

    Anyways, I digress from the primary point, but that’s my thoughts/concerns regarding that side issue. This is an interesting and thought-provoking article, Massimo.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. I noticed a lot of “liking” comments in the last conversation, and very little in this one — I wonder what that should tell us.

    Well, I like, at any rate, labnut’s quoting Levinas quoting Dostoevsky: ‘We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others.‘

    I’m very much with Hume on not making an ought out of an is, and so I think what is being expressed is an attitude or stance rather than a fact. But if you can pull it off, it is the most enlivening stance to take towards the universe. The “I am more responsible than all the others” sounds like perhaps a bit of insane self-importance if interpreted as a fact, and it sounds a bit like the difficulties generated by trying to express a stance or attitude in a world that only seems to understand facticity.

    A better expression of the reality of Alyosha’s idea of responsibility is, IMO to say that “I am responsible” can convey something (power, enlivenment), while “You are responsible” or “He/she/it is responsible” conveys none. Only the *declaration* of responsibility, which only the speaker can make, conveys Alyosha’s sense of responsibility.

    Now this is just a thing than anybody (theist, atheist, or mystical agnostic) can get, but nobody can be argued into. Really you have to be coaxed or tricked into experiencing it, whereupon you may just get “this is for me”.

    Alyosha has been called one of the few good (as in virtuous) fictional characters who manages to also be very interesting.

    ** I’m one of the latter two depending on what day you ask me

    Liked by 3 people

  34. Very interesting discussion.

    Here on a blog we are discussing a NY Times article which was triggered by a reality tv star’s new identity which was celebrated by an ESPY Award which some said was connected to a highly rated TV interview by top TV journalist Diane Sawyer. Of course Jenner first became famous during the televised 76 Olympics as the Gold Medalist male Decathlon Champion which was also emulated by the Greeks as the greatest male athlete on earth. Jenner was also celebrated by American Industry when his image appeared on the Wheaties Cereal Box.

    Before the advent of the media age, you could say people ignored their sexual feelings and sexual identity and found their rightful place in the social groups as directed by family and religious community. Needless to say many families had unmarried members for all type of reasons.

    Perhaps the perceived dichotomy comes about because of the conflation of male and female with man and woman respectively when in fact half of the genetic material in our bodies come from our opposite gender parent. The Biblical story even states that Adam was male and female and that Eve was created out of his side or metaphorically woman was a manifestation of Adam’s female nature. Hollywood epic motion pictures from the ancient era of course even show the peasant women as very fuckable and attractive but in fact female beauty was cultivated later on by wealth and royal society. The movie Ann Of A Thousand Days was realistic about how Ann Boleyn learned the enjoyment of women’s sexuality by being a maid in the French Court, so she imported it into the English Court of King Henry.

    Watching American TV from the 60’s i.e. Leave It To Beaver show dad sitting at the table in shirt and tie while mom serves him in a dress. The Beaver is always inquisitive about everything and Wally his older brother explains ‘This Is How It Is’. The series Madmen is of course based in the entire American Stereotypes which also play with roles created by the industrialized society.

    Not surprising that Jenner who comes out of the Kardashians Hollywood sexual industrial media complex is promoting the traditional female role along with the traditional Republican values.

    Case in point it seems like the over protestantization of American society in the 20th century oversexualized the society to the point that evangelical ministers like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart are seen going to their knees confessing forgiveness to God for their homosexual acts or breaking of the perceived stereotype. Friends who grew up in Russia tell me the state had all kinds of ways for getting people to behave but here in America we leave it to the private sector, free media and free practice of religion.

    I know somebody else previously noted http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/04/corporate-america-invented-religious-right-conservative-roosevelt-princeton-117030.html#.VcXx3ZVRFjo
    (along with all of our sexual typing and neurosis)

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  35. Again with the Euthyphro. OK, if we are talking about the Plato argument, I would make the following points:

    Firstly, it is one of those dialogues where one of the participants is an idiot. One should always be wary of those.

    Secondly, Plato’s arguments and conclusions are not what everyone says they are, the modern version is a completely different argument based on one question from the original.

    Thirdly, Plato’s argument, although ingenious, does not work. I have parsed it rather closely. (I can show my working if anyone is interested). This is Plato we are talking about. There is a reason he is not considered the father of logic.

    In case anyone has their hopes up, his argument in Phaedo that there is life after death does not work either. I checked that too.

    Fourthly, even if all of the above was not the case, you can’t just substitute a term in an argument for another with a different definition and blithely expect the argument to work just the same, that’s called equivocation.

    There are a few modern versions of the argument, this I take to be the standard:

    Definitions
    A means “something is good because God loves it”
    B means “God loves something because it is good”
    C means “morality is arbitrary”
    D means “standard for morality is independent of God”
    Argument

    P1. A implies C
    P2. B implies D
    P3. A or B
    __________
    Conclusion C or D

    If I have this right, then I would ask a supporter of the argument to provide support for P2.

    You have to do so without making the assumption that God’s nature and attributes are arbitrary, since then you will have trivially proved it for a God that hardly anyone believes in

    Theists can quite reasonably reply, “Well of course an arbitrary God can’t be the basis of morality, whoever suggested that it could?”

    If you can’t support this premise for the kind of God that most monotheistic believe in then the case has not been made. The burden of proof is very much on those who promote this argument.

    The way this usually ends is that any objections to God being the basis for moral facts end up applying to any basis for moral facts, whether you call it God or Standard X.

    But if the very concept of a basis for morality is incoherent then the above argument still fails, for a different reason.

    Massimo Wrote

    I’ve read modern theologians, Swinburne and Plantinga included, about it, and either they don’t get it (unlikely, since they’re pretty smart) or their ideological blinders lead them to purposefully miss its point (it happens to the best of us).

    Yes it does, which suggests your comment cuts both ways. 🙂

    Like

  36. Hi Massimo, got time before leaving and couldn’t help myself 🙂

    On Jenner, I don’t think all feminists define womanhood by society and time, and especially not by the nature of oppression. But assuming they did, I must repeat, doesn’t this criteria make Jenner a woman in this society and time if indeed society accepts her at this time. Not all women have faced the things Burkett may have, so why does that stand against Jenner? Indeed Jenner may have had experiences as a type of woman in this day and age that Burkett lacks coming from another.

    On “human nature” and “universals”, David largely expresses my take on the general use of “human nature” with…

    But surely human nature is used in moral philosophy not to determine *that* we have projects but to establish *which* projects are worth pursuing.

    I take your point that rejecting human nature and universals (from now on N&U) can be political. But from a skeptical standpoint N&U is not the default position for a trait, they require evidence. And currently robust bodies of evidence that are held in a general consensus by the relevant field are lacking. The book you cited states itself that this idea was in dispute and has this changed since his book?

    But to be clear I agree there are some specific human capacities and traits (language and projecting agency two good examples). And to be fair to me I said plasticity “seems” not “is” infinite. I also agree with your concept that we can find statistical clusters related to human activity.

    The problem is how that gets transformed into the language of N&U. This was perfectly exampled by this statement…

    But an instinct of self-preservation truly is part of human… nature. Yes, there are exceptions, which can be explained by cultural forces, and sometimes by defective biology (like psychopaths).

    Wouldn’t it be our capacity to override that “instinct” that would then be the defining human trait, whether we choose to do so or not? Someone once made a point about mouse models: you can make them angry and depressed, but you can’t make them commit suicide.

    More importantly you called going against that instinct an “exception” to our nature, rather than the “extent” of our nature. While it may be a statistical exception, and so not common or fitting a rule of thumb, it seems counter-intuitive to use language cutting it off from our nature.

    And most important, what draws the line of exception? Statistical clustering would certainly throw LGBTs into an “exception” category (Ts by their own claims have “defective biology”), and homophobia would be the rule! If we decide to widen standards of deviation to allow LGBT into N&U, what merits that versus other groups?

    N&U seem like anachronistic terminology, which sociology and anthropology were undercutting as useful. Why not regularities, commonalities?

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  37. David,

    “I hope it’s clear that I am not *assuming* but arguing on the basis of my engagement with history and the social and psychological evidence”

    I was using the word plasticity in the technical biological term: a property of the genotypic reaction norm of an organism. As such, we know that plasticity cannot be infinite, because a) it has never been observed empirically; and b) it is impossible in principle (it would give rise to so-called “Darwinian monsters,” which are not known to occur in the biological world).

    “How much does being attracted to women have to do with being masculine?”

    I think there has been a misunderstanding lurking here. I’m not talking about superficial characteristics, like degrees of “masculinity.” Plenty of women are “masculine” (and plenty of men are not), but they still very clearly self-identify as women and men, respectively. The sense of “gender” that matters here is the one that led Jenner to say that she felt trapped in the wrong body.

    “Aristotle denied women have theoretical reason and Plato dismissed heterosexual love, in the Symposium, on the grounds that women can not reflect back intellectual love. Compare to Shakespeare’s women”

    Again, I think we have been talking at cross purposes. You seem to refer to “gender roles” in the sense of how men have historically seen and treated women. I was talking, again, about the sort of thing that made Jenner and other transgenders want to change gender.

    “surely human nature is used in moral philosophy not to determine *that* we have projects but to establish *which* projects are worth pursuing.”

    Yes, but only in part. Aristotle, Hume (and the Stoics, and a bunch of others) talked about the fact that certain projects are not worth pursuing (e.g., becoming a mass murderer) and others are. But even Aristotle didn’t say that there is only one such project (yes, he preferred being a philosopher, big surprise), and other eudaimonicists allow for a suitably large range of projects for a meaningful life. In keeping, I would add, with the high degree of human behavioral plasticity.

    Robin,

    “it is one of those dialogues where one of the participants is an idiot. One should always be wary of those.”

    Yes, but the central argument remains a strong one, regardless.

    “Plato’s arguments and conclusions are not what everyone says they are, the modern version is a completely different argument”

    That comes as a complete surprise to this professional philosopher who has read the Euthyphro a number of times, has taught it, and has talked to a number of colleagues about it.

    “Plato’s argument, although ingenious, does not work. I have parsed it rather closely”

    I’m sure you have. But so have a large number of professional philosophers, and except for a scatter of theologians, they have all found it both solid and still very much relevant.

    “you can’t just substitute a term in an argument for another with a different definition and blithely expect the argument to work just the same, that’s called equivocation”

    Not if the substitution is perfectly congruent with the compared cultural contexts, as is the case with the Euthyphro.

    db,

    “I don’t think all feminists define womanhood by society and time, and especially not by the nature of oppression”

    If they don’t, then they subscribe to a naturist position, which is very rare in feminism.

    “I must repeat, doesn’t this criteria make Jenner a woman in this society and time if indeed society accepts her at this time”

    No, it doesn’t. She is *declaring* herself a woman, and society is accepting her as a transgender. There is a valuable discussion to be had about the extent to which it makes sense to consider her a woman, given the feminist objection about past experiences. Another way to put it is that “being a woman” is a developmental process with huge cultural influences, and Jenner has skipped much of it for most of her life.

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  38. Robin Herbert,

    “If I have this right, then I would ask a supporter of the argument to provide support for P2.”

    If D is not true, then B makes no sense; it reveals itself as naive, and in analysis, either circular or incoherent.

    It’s worth noting that the once noble pursuit of philosophy in Islamic cultures crashed to a halt in the 12th century or so, because religious leaders began to realize the implications of such thinking inherited from the Greeks, and put an end to it by fiat. To this day, most Islamic sects accept that C ) A is the final explanation of morality. Morality is as it is simply because god has determined it so; end of story. D ) B is therefore heretical.

    I mention this because denying the Euthyphro problem can prove a risky business. One doesn’t need to think about ethics or develop a moral stance, if we have a trusty Imam deciding it for us.

    By the same token, if one can determine the Good for one’s self, one doesn’t need any Imam.

    Incidentally, this raises an issue concerning why believers and non-believers often find themselves talking past one another. For me, one implication of Euthyphro is that god is simply not necessary. If the Good is superior to god (so as establishing a standard even god must admit), then of course we should be able to find or define the Good without reference to god, and organize our behaviors accordingly.

    I am a non-believer because I have found this to be true, not only for ethics, but in every field requiring thought or emotional response to experience. It is not necessary to argue the coherence of the god-concept, or to debate the existence of such a being. Those pursuits can prove entertaining, and help to clarify thought for believer and non-believer alike. But, bottom-line: I have found no need for god – for ethics, for explanation, for comfort, for reassurance concerning this life or its cessation. ‘But your life would be richer -‘ Maybe in some ways, but impoverished in others; but this really matters not. My life is as it is, and I try to do the best with it I can, and I see no reason for extravagant leaps of faith at this point in my life.

    This sort of attitude is something I think believers have a difficult time getting their minds around, just as I now admit I have no feeling for how believers see the universe and their place in it anymore. I once thought I did; and the matter is worthy of study, I suppose; but I’ve no time for it just now.

    Finally, I largely agree with Hall Morris’ discussion of labnut’s interjection of the Levinas quote. I think that such a sense of responsibility can have many sources, theistic or non-theistic, and has more to do with how we behave ethically than anything we could say about such matters, anyway.

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  39. Massimo: An interesting and, no doubt, welcome article on the topic – at least in some quarters.

    However, and not to put too fine a point on it, I wonder what sex you would describe Jenner now as: at least by the common definitions that are based on sine qua non and largely mutually exclusive attributes, he can’t be described as male since he, presumably, is no longer able to produce sperm. And he can’t be described as female [1] since, unless gene replacement therapy has made a quantum leap while I wasn’t looking, I rather doubt he is able to produce ova.

    Which I think highlights the apparent fact that far too many seem to be badly conflating gender and sex. So while I quite agree with your emphasis of the nature-nurture dichotomy, and its many shadings, it seems you’re rather too quick to abandon those fundamental defining attributes, specifically here for “woman” (“female human”). Which seems more than a little problematic in that the word can then be used to describe both gender and sex which may be the proximate cause of that conflation – and the source of no end of confusion and that animosity.

    For instance, you may have run across the “discussions” which have been roiling the waters of the FreethoughtBlog network which was precipitated by, more or less, a question [2] that had been put to one of the bloggers there, Ophelia Benson: “do you believe that trans women are women, yes or no?” A rather obscure, if stark, question which seems tantamount to insisting that a gender is a sex – makes very little sense otherwise. And a discussion whose waters have been much muddied by the (mis)perception that “trans” is merely an adjective rather than being an indication of a compound: “do you believe cuttlefish are fish?” “Do you believe a molecule of water [H2O] is a molecule of oxygen [O2]?”

    And my take has largely been predicated on the assertion, in Wikipedia [3], that “gender is the range of characteristics … [which] may include biological sex …, sex-based social structures (including gender roles and other social roles), or gender identity”. And since that definition clearly argues that “biological sex” is merely an element or a component of gender – the same way that a transmission is a component of a car – I think it is incoherent, and “most illogical”, to argue that a particular gender is identically equal to a particular sex: a car is not a transmission. Ex falso quodlibet, “from a falsehood, anything follows”.

    —-
    1) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female”;
    2) “_http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2015/08/divorce-status/comment-page-1/#comment-5231889”;
    3) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender”;

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  40. Massimo: She is *declaring* herself a woman, and society is accepting her as a transgender. There is a valuable discussion to be had about the extent to which it makes sense to consider her a woman, given the feminist objection about past experiences. Another way to put it is that “being a woman” is a developmental process with huge cultural influences, and Jenner has skipped much of it for most of her life.

    Valuable, perhaps, in the same way gay marriage discussions were useful, but I don’t see much in the way of credible evidence or reasoning that would lead me to conclude that we shouldn’t consider Jenner a woman because she wasn’t born as a biological woman and enculturated as woman in the manner traditional for her society. I can’t really see that being a credible argument, given that there are people who aren’t enculturated into anything at all (e.g. the rare cases of people not being taught language or growing up outside of a society). It seems like if we took any argument along those lines seriously, one would be lead to the conclusion that this person didn’t have this developmental process (save possibly for menstrual cycles or development of female anatomy), she couldn’t really be considered a woman. Supposing that one tried to argue that, in fact, the development of female anatomy was the lynch pin argument for this unenculturated woman being considered a woman, I think it’s worth asking if “Having boobs, having a period, and so on” is really what we want to pigeonhole their “womanhood” to.

    Some women never develop periods, some people with Y-chromosomes are hermaphrodites but were raised male, some women don’t have breasts or ovaries, and so on. What if the woman has surgery that removed her breast tissue and ovaries before she reaches puberty due to say cancer, would her lack of experience in developing the usual sexual dimorphism lead us to consider her as something other than female?

    Honestly, although the conversation may be worth having just to emphasize these points to people, it seems like there’s a very resplendent “here be dragons” sign over this conversation. Being biologically female (in the sense of a Y-chromosome) is a definite, clear cut thing; being raised as a woman is a largely clear cut thing (independent of biology), but gender identity is not. Trying to propose an absolute criterion for your “correct” or “valid” gender identity seems to be about as useful as trying to propose an absolute criterion regarding the “valid sexuality” for women and the one, true “valid sexuality” for men.

    Liked by 1 person

  41. Steersman,

    Jenner is biologically male, since her genetic constitution has not been altered. You are absolutely right that too many people confuse gender and sex, which is why I use the words “woman” and “man” for the first, and “female” and “male” for the second. She has changed gender, not sex. And this is true even if her external genitalia have been altered surgically, although that does mean that she is functionally somewhere in between male and female.

    (Notice that surgical operation, as well as, say, different exposure to hormones very early on during development — which can alter both an individual’s morphology and behavior — mean that even sex is a result of nature-by-nurture, despite the obvious and strong genetic basis of that distinction. Oh, and of course there are individuals with abnormal combinations of X and Y too.)

    I have heard of the mess at FTB, but frankly, I absolutely don’t care about what is going on there, I’d rather have more nuanced and constructive discussions, like the one that has unfolded here on this topic.

    field,

    “I don’t see much in the way of credible evidence or reasoning that would lead me to conclude that we shouldn’t consider Jenner a woman because she wasn’t born as a biological woman and enculturated as woman in the manner traditional for her society”

    I am uncertain about this, I merely pointed out that *from a prevalent feminist perspective were cultural construction is fundamental to identity* I can see why some people would say that Jenner isn’t a woman. Or that she has just started the process.

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  42. Massimo,

    Not to belabour the point (much), but it seems clear that many sources, Wikipedia [1] for instance, define “woman” to mean a “female human”, i.e., a person with some specific, exclusive, and largely immutable physiological and genetic features. Although I’ll concede that it too accepts, more or less, the term as referring to a gender. But while some argue that that is merely a case of polysemous words, that still seems remarkably problematic: rather “Humpty-Dumpty-ish” [2] if “woman”, as a gender, is allowed to encompass both those with X-X and X-Y karyotypes as well as all other variations; why not just say “human”?

    As for FTB, largely agree: seems too many over there are little more than “intemperate teenager(s) in the midst of a hormonal rage” [3] – to coin a phrase. 🙂 But while they may be an increasingly marginalized backwater, a minor “theatre of operations”, it seems important to discuss if not challenge various “false dichotomies” wherever they manifest themselves. Ounce of prevention and all that.

    In any case, somewhat in passing and relative to your discussions on race, I think it is also more than a little problematic that many are too quick to deny any biological underpinnings or value to the concept. Largely due, I think, to a misunderstanding of the concept of social construction. Just finished reading Matt Ridley’s Genome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters in which he discussed a number of diseases that are more prevalent in some “racial” populations than in others – for instance, sickle-cell anemia affects blacks predominately and has an incidence as high as 40% in some African countries. Don’t really understand fully the statistics behind the phenomenon, but it seems that many different alleles happen to cluster together [4], a fact that might reasonably underwrite the concept of race, as well as providing significant diagnostic capabilities.

    —-
    1) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woman”;
    2) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humpty_Dumpty#In_Through_the_Looking-Glass”;
    3) “_http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.ca/2010/04/pz-myers-is-witless-wanker-who-peddles.html”;
    4) “_https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principal_component_analysis#/media/File:PCA_of_Haplogroup_J_using_37_STRs.png”;

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  43. Hi Massimo,

    I’m sure you have. But so have a large number of professional philosophers, and except for a scatter of theologians, they have all found it both solid and still very much relevant.

    I would be interested if you could cite any work where this has been done, I.have never seen a technical analysis of the argument structure for any of the Plato dialogues, just informal discussions of them.

    It is very difficult to see how any modern logician could cash out Socrates “gotcha” moment as anything other than a semantic trick.

    As I said, most modern discussions under the term “Euthyphro” seem to ignore the original argument structure and conclusions altogether.

    Not if the substitution is perfectly congruent with the compared cultural contexts, as is the case with the Euthyphro.

    I don’t understand that at all. It seems to be tantamount to telling theists that they don’t believe what they think they believe.

    In any case I don’t accept that “perfect cultural congruence” warrants a substitution of a term in an argument with another of a different definition in any case.

    If this argument is supposed to be some sort of devastating knock down of the idea that God can be the basis of morality (a conclusion never drawn in Plato’s dialogue) , then I would have thought that this could be shown explicitly and with a modicum of rigour and using a definition of God that most theists would agree with, or at least recognise.

    I have made an honest effort to find this and have so far come up blank.

    As I said, the burden of evidence is clearly on those who make such a claim about Euthyphro.

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  44. Hi ejwinner,

    If D is not true, then B makes no sense; it reveals itself as naive, and in analysis, either circular or incoherent.

    That analysis is exactly what I am looking for. I am not having much luck finding it. It is not in the original Euthyphro, as I said.

    As I also said, such analysis ends up calling into question the whole concept of an objective standard of.morality

    That may be a good point but if the concept of an objective basis for morality is incoherent then the modern Euthyphro fails in any case, since it implicitly assumes such a basis.

    If the concept is coherent then there is no reason at all that God could not be that basis, indeed there are some good reasons why such a basis, if there was one, would have to have at least some of the attributes God is supposed to have.

    Which suggests that Euthyphro type arguments simply miss the point.

    I mention this because denying the Euthyphro problem can prove a risky business

    Right now I would be happy for someone to be just tell me what there is to be denied, as I said above

    If you want theists to.deny something then state explicitly what is supposed to be denied for a definition of God with which they would agree.

    If I said I had a devastating critique, which I am currently unable to properly state, against a version of atheism to which no one subscribes – just think for a moment how worried atheists would be about that.

    That’s how worried theists need be about Euthyphro on any current statement of the alleged problem.

    That is, I think, my fifth and final comment, but I am sure this will come up again in the future :):.

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  45. I’m really trying to comprehend the cognitive thread going through this discussion, of how various media sensations are examples of nature versus nurture as a false dichotomy, when I would assume they represent a very clear example. So I wikied it and came up with this page;

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_development.

    And this paragraph,

    “A major controversy in cognitive development has been “nature and nurture”, that is, the question if cognitive development is mainly determined by an individual’s innate qualities (“nature”), or by their personal experiences (“nurture”). However, it is now recognized by most experts that this is a false dichotomy: there is overwhelming evidence from biological and behavioral sciences that from the earliest points in development, gene activity interacts with events and experiences in the environment.[3]”

    Am I missing something here? Isn’t a dichotomy where two sides make up a larger whole?
    Isn’t this, ” from the earliest points in development, gene activity interacts with events and experiences in the environment.” A very clear example of how our genetic inheritance interacts with our environment to create us as a person? That would seem to me to be a dichotomy. It’s not one or the other, but the integrated interaction of both.
    It would seem to be a false choice, not a false dichotomy.

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  46. Ok, my own stupidity. I just looked up dichotomy, which I’d always assumed was an expression of a yin/yang form of duality, not an either/or proposition.

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  47. “It follows that if individuals of sex XX or XY tend, statistically, with a large distribution, plenty of exceptions, etc., to behave in one way or another, then there is a physical/biological component to gender”

    So if “individual of sex XX” tends, “statistically, with a large distribution” to wear high heels “there is a physical/biological component” to wearing high heels?

    Like

  48. “The guy next to me is black, the other one Hispanic.”
    Well… no…
    You only assume that they are – your leap in logic is no more supported than
    the other anecdotes presented.

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  49. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is one day discovered that transexuals are genetic chimeras. Their bodies may be genetically of one gender and their brains (or even just the part of the brain in charge of sexual orientation) may be genetically of the opposite gender.
    Has anyone ever studied this?

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  50. Steersman,

    “it seems clear that many sources, Wikipedia [1] for instance, define “woman” to mean a “female human””

    Well, that’s the problem with going to Wikipedia and ignoring a more technical meaning. I have consistently being making a distinction between the biology (male/female) and the culture (man/woman), which for the purposes of this discussion is crucial.Otherwise, as others have noted, one confuses sex and gender.

    Robin,

    “I would be interested if you could cite any work where this has been done, I.have never seen a technical analysis of the argument structure for any of the Plato dialogues, just informal discussions of them.”

    I go by what my colleagues in ancient philosophy tell me. There are plenty of technical analyses of all of the Platonic dialogues, but I stick with the basic intro philosophy textbooks. You may want to inquire with a specialist in the field. I’ll ask my colleague Nick Pappas and report on his suggestions.

    “It is very difficult to see how any modern logician could cash out Socrates “gotcha” moment as anything other than a semantic trick”

    Again, I obviously have a very different take on this: Socrates’ argument was clearly logically compelling, not just a semantic trick. The very fact that theologians from Aquinas to Plantinga and Swinburne keep trying to explaining away is a good indication of that. They wouldn’t concern themselves with a mere semantic trick.

    “I don’t understand that at all. It seems to be tantamount to telling theists that they don’t believe what they think they believe.”

    Uhm, no. It is tantamount to elucidating the logical consequences of what they do believe (i.e., that morality is grounded in god).

    “using a definition of God that most theists would agree with”

    I made this point before: the definition of god is entirely irrelevant to the Euthyphro, so long as one thinks that objective morality is rooted in divine command. Nothing else is necessary. That’s why the argument is so general and powerful.

    “the burden of evidence is clearly on those who make such a claim about Euthyphro”

    Not when pretty much nobody in the relevant epistemic community (among which I do *not* count theologians) agrees that the argument is valid and compelling.

    Donatien,

    “So if “individual of sex XX” tends, “statistically, with a large distribution” to wear high heels “there is a physical/biological component” to wearing high heels?”

    You must have missed the “plenty of exceptions” qualifier in my sentence.

    James,

    “You only assume that they are – your leap in logic is no more supported than
    the other anecdotes presented”

    That was my point: attribution of “race” (which, once more, I think it is only a skin deep category, in biological terms) is made by most people on the simple basis of superficial appearance. Of course the huge baggage that comes with it is pretty much entirely culturally constructed.

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