Thursday, December 13, 2018

Byrne on why sex is not a social construct

Recently we looked at philosopher Alex Byrne’s defense of the commonsense view that there are only two sexes.  In a new article at Arc Digital, Byrne defends another aspect of sexual common sense – the thesis that the distinction between male and female is natural, and not a mere social construct.  Let’s take a look.

As is typically done these days by writers on this topic, Byrne begins by distinguishing between sex and gender.  Sex has to do with the biological distinction between male and female, whereas gender has to do with the way the difference between male and female is shaped by culture.  In the article in question, Byrne does not challenge the claim that gender is socially constructed.  He is concerned only to rebut the more radical claim that sex is socially constructed.  We’ll return to the gender question later, though, because the claim that sex differences are natural is relevant to it.

Byrne identifies three lines of argument for the claim that sex is socially constructed.  As he easily shows, they are all quite bad.

The first is what he calls the performative argument, which he attributes to Judith Butler.  The argument makes use of J. L. Austin’s notion of a “performative utterance,” i.e. an utterance the mere carrying out of which can make something the case.  For example, under the right circumstances, a judge’s utterance of “I sentence you to ten years in prison” can make it the case that an offender really has been sentenced to ten years in prison.  Now, there is an obvious sense in which such a sentence is socially constructed.  It is only as a matter of convention that a person acting as a judge can under certain circumstances make it the case that an offender receives such a sentence.

The performative argument claims that a doctor’s utterance of a statement like “It’s a boy” is like this.  The idea is that when the doctor says this, he essentially makes it the case that the baby he is talking about is a boy, just as the judge makes it the case by virtue of his utterance that an offender has received a sentence.

As Byrne points out, one problem with this argument is that performative utterances are not susceptible of error as long as the relevant conditions are met.  If the judge makes the utterance in question under the right circumstances, he necessarily really has sentenced the offender to ten years.  He may have made a mistake in the sense that he shouldn’t have issued that sentence, but the point is that he really did successfully issue it, whether or not he should have and even if he can later go on to revoke it.  By contrast, the doctor’s declaration is susceptible of error.  The doctor is reporting what he takes himself to have discovered, not trying to make something the case. 

To add to Byrne’s objection, we might note that to claim that the declaration “It’s a boy” makes it the case that a baby is a boy is as silly as claiming that a doctor’s declaring his diagnosis by saying “It’s cancer” makes it the case that a patient has cancer.  (Should such a patient sue the doctor for making him sick?  Could the doctor also make it the case that you don’t have cancer simply by saying “It’s not cancer”?)  Or you might as well say that a chicken sexer can increase the number of hens a farmer has simply by declaring that all the chicks he comes across today are female.

The second argument Byrne considers is one he calls the assignment argument.  The idea here is that in cases where a baby is born with certain deformities of the genitalia, the doctors will assign a certain sex to the baby, and considerations about what society considers paradigmatically male or female will in part determine how this is carried out.  Hence, the argument concludes, sex is really socially constructed. 

Byrne rightly points out that this argument fallaciously conflates being assigned to a certain class with actually belonging to that class.  That the doctors assign a certain sex to a baby simply does not by itself entail that the baby is really of that sex.  Again, for all the argument shows, a doctor could simply be making a mistake (even if in cases of the sort in question it is difficult to detect the mistake).

We should also note that it is simply a fallacy of hasty generalization to suppose that what is true of unusual cases like the ones the assignment argument cites is true of all cases.  That there are a few cases where doctors see a need to assign a sex to a baby doesn’t entail that the sex a baby belongs to is always a matter of being assigned a sex by the doctor. 

It is also a fallacy, here as in the context of other metaphysical questions, to suppose that the existence of borderline cases entails that there is no fact of the matter about whether something belongs to a certain class.  Hard cases make for bad law, and for bad metaphysics too.  The sound procedure is to start with the clear cases and evaluate the borderline cases in terms of those, rather than the other way around.  For all the assignment argument shows, the indeterminacy in question in the cases it cites is merely epistemological rather than metaphysical. 

The third argument Byrne discusses is one he calls the explanatory argument.  This argument rests on the premise that if a certain category functions primarily in the explanation of social facts rather than natural facts, then that category is probably socially constructed.  The argument then goes on to claim that the categories male and female function primarily to explain social facts, so that these categories can be judged to be socially constructed.

Byrne’s main objection here is to point out that there can be categories that feature primarily in explanations of social facts, yet are nevertheless clearly natural rather than socially constructed.  For example, it is plausible that we apply the category gold primarily in contexts that involve various social facts (such as facts about jewelry, or industrial uses of gold), but gold is still a natural kind rather than a socially constructed category.

There are also obvious natural rather than socially constructed facts that we explain by making use of the categories male and female.  For example, facts about pregnancy, childbirth, and the like are like this.  (Not to mention facts about non-human animals, as in the chicken sexer example.)  Byrne doesn’t pursue this point himself, noting that one defender of the explanatory argument claims that these reproductive facts can be accounted for in terms of physiological descriptions rather than in terms of categories like male and female. 

But this is not an impressive response.  For one thing, whether or not we could in theory try to come up with some way to explain the reproductive facts in question without making use of the categories male and female, the fact that in reality we do routinely make use of these categories to explain those facts is enough to cast serious doubt on the explanatory argument.  For another thing, the defender of the explanatory argument needs to tell us exactly how we can specify the relevant physiological processes without implicitly smuggling in the concepts of male and female.  And it is by no means obvious that this can be done.  For example, how are we to characterize the reproductive processes without making reference to their function of getting smaller gametes together with larger ones – where, as we saw Byrne argue in the earlier post, to make reference to this difference in gamete size is precisely to make reference to the distinction between male and female?

After noting the deficiencies of these arguments against the thesis that the distinction between the sexes is natural rather than socially constructed, Byrne presents a positive argument for that thesis.  The argument is that there would have been sexes (in plants and animals) even if there were no human societies and thus nothing that is socially constructed.  Nor, as Byrne notes, is it a good response to this to suggest that the human sexes are socially constructed, because the category human isn’t any more plausibly socially constructed than the categories male and female are.

All of this is, or should be, pretty obvious.  So why would anyone deny it?  Byrne suggests that the activists who hold that the distinction between the sexes is socially constructed are so preoccupied with changing certain human social institutions that they have lost sight of the natural world.

That is no doubt true, but I think the activists in question also see something that, perhaps, Byrne does not – namely, that the distinction between sex and gender is not as sharp as he and many others seem to think.  Consider a parallel distinction – between food and cuisine.  There is a clear sense in which food is a natural category (plants and animals need food no less than we do, after all) whereas cuisine is socially constructed.  For the differences between French cuisine, Thai cuisine, and so on obviously reflect various human conventions and culturally contingent circumstances, and these can vary significantly.

All the same, there are obvious limits to this variability, and certain features that are true of all cuisines.  For example, all cuisines are going to provide at least some significant nutritional value.  The reason is that even though a cuisine is always more than just food, it is also always at least that.  Vary the use of spices, the kinds of meat favored, the manner of presentation, etc. all you like, you are always going to get something that provides nutrition.  Cuisines do this in a specifically human way because they reflect the creativity that follows from our rationality, but they nevertheless always build on rather than replace the raw biological function served by food.

Now, sex and gender as traditionally understood are like this.  What expectations follow from being either “male” or “female” in the gender-related senses of these terms may vary somewhat from culture to culture, but they also traditionally have always been taken to reflect merely different, distinctively human ways of being male or female in the biological or sex-related senses of the terms.  And merely to note that gender is socially constructed does not suffice to show that that traditional view is mistaken.  You might as well argue that because cuisine is a socially constructed category, it follows that there could be cuisines that serve no nutritional end but have only wax, or Play-Doh, or the like as ingredients. 

Arguably, it is because some activists rightly perceive that gender is bound to be less fluid if sex differences are natural that they want to cast doubt on the latter thesis – however beyond reasonable doubt it is. 

Byrne quotes a remark from Butler to the effect that she seeks “to undermine any and all efforts to wield a discourse of truth to delegitimate minority gendered and sexual practices.”  The idea seems to be that if the objective facts entail that male and female are less fluid categories than Butler and like-minded thinkers suppose, then so much the worse for the idea of objective facts.  Here, I think, we need to move well beyond Byrne’s diagnosis, and to read the signs of the times in light of Aquinas’s account of the “daughters of lust” – especially the one he labels blindness of mind.  (That is a topic I’ve addressed in a couple of earlier posts, here and here.)


  1. Perfect. Absolutely perfect!

    I cannot believe that there exist individuals who earnestly argue that sex is a social construct, and who devote much of their intellectual efforts on defending such a patently nonsensical proposition.

  2. The new trendy argument is that because there are so many variations within the sexes that there are really thousands of sexes and that two sexes is merely a social construct.

    1. First of all, there are many different ways to be good at being a man or good at being a woman. This is similar to the fact that there are many ways of being a good basketball player, even though the goal of being a basketball player is unquestionably to get the ball in the other team's hoop and prevent them from putting it in yours. Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were really different players, but they were both very good at achieving the fundamental goals of basketball.

      (Having a specified goal also sets up the possibility that some people, like myself at basketball, are pretty terrible at achieving that goal.)

      So, there are a range of different ways of achieving certain goals, and that creates a variety of different kinds of people devoted to succeeding using those different ways. So, men for example, tend to be somewhat different physically and psychologically from each other and pursue the distinct goals of being a man in different ways.

      What complicates this is that we have two sexes with somewhat different goals, particularly reproductive goals. Now, men and women do tend to be different physically, but also psychologically. However, there is, for example, in psychology a significant overlap. This is especially true on individual psychological traits, but even when you aggregate all the psychological traits there is still an overlap.

      So, different suites of psychological traits tend to work better at achieving male goals or achieving female goals. But there appear to be a few suites of psychological traits that work for both sexes.

      (Of course, some of these suites could also be bad for achieving male or female goals.)

      The question is what to call these tendencies. They are not properties, like having a sense of humour is a property that normally flows from being a rational being. But clearly certain psychological tendencies flow from being a human male or a human female, because certain suites of psychological traits are better at achieving the goals of a particular sex. But they aren't proper to being a human male or female either, as a normally functioning human male or female wouldn't necessarily have to have them.

    2. @Thursday,

      Quote:"Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were really different players, but they were both very good at achieving the fundamental goals of basketball...

      So, there are a range of different ways of achieving certain goals, and that creates a variety of different kinds of people devoted to succeeding using those different ways."

      Wouldn't this then also apply to the general ghuman oal of being a good person and fulfilling the ends of one's nature correctly - which can also be called sanctity?

      If so, then I guess this quote from C. S. Lewis is quite apt: "How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints."

      Quote:"The question is what to call these tendencies. They are not properties, like having a sense of humour is a property that normally flows from being a rational being. But clearly certain psychological tendencies flow from being a human male or a human female, because certain suites of psychological traits are better at achieving the goals of a particular sex. But they aren't proper to being a human male or female either, as a normally functioning human male or female wouldn't necessarily have to have them."

      It seems this analysis would also apply to the variety of personality types that humans can have, especially since having a certain personality isn't predominant either among men or women; both could have the same.

  3. If gender is a social construct, then what can it mean to BE a certain gender, or to identify as a certain gender? It doesn't seem that this can be something that somebody is stuck with, against their will. The most they can have is a deep-seated predisposition towards or comfort with a given construct (due to whatever factors, biological or hormonal or otherwise), but the choice is still ultimately theirs whether or not they will actually identify with that construct. And so it would seem that the choice of actively identifying with and acting out the behavioral roles that constitute a given gender construct is a decision which is open to ethical evaluation. I don't see how anybody could avoid this conclusion unless they take the position that gender is NOT constructed, or not completely constructed, or not always a construct, etc.

    1. If gender is a social construct, then what can it mean to BE a certain gender,

      It would mean that the way you ARE (objectively, such as having this or that organ) fits well with the socially designated category of male gender.

      or to identify as a certain gender?

      No, No, No! if SOCIETY designates that the organs you have fit with their category they name "male gender", it doesn't matter what you want to "identify" as. If it is SOCIALLY decided, it is not a PERSONAL choice. One or the other. You can't have gender be a social construct AND have it be up to the individual.

      Those who want it to be up to the individual use (and abuse) the "social construct" theory to break down the traditional understanding of the sexes, not to properly and logically ground their claims. They don't really think that there should be a social construct either. They would be more honest if they stopped using the words sex and gender altogether, and made a different word for what they want to talk about, because neither a biologically determinate sex nor a socially determined gender are up to personal choice.

      This, by the way, also tells us the correct answer to the use of pronouns. Language is a social construct, you don't get to impose by personal fiat what words OTHER people will use in social contexts. The social constructs revolving about "him" and "her" are not matters of personal choice. If a person who wants to "identify" as female, the fact that he has a penis and looks like biological males look means that other people will want to refer to him as "he", and they have at least as much right (if not more) to express their perceptions and apprehensions in language that is socially conformative and clear to others, than being required to conform to an anti-social demand to please the feelings of the individual. This is what it means to live in society. Get used to it.

    2. Tony, "Get used to it"? I think you misunderstand my purpose. My point was NOT to defend those who wish to dictate the pronouns with which others refer to them. My point was that these people are wrong to act as if they are "oppressed" for something which they cannot control. Rather, they CHOOSE to identify with a certain gender, and they can be judged for this. I said, IF gender is purely a construct, then it cannot be an objective part of their identity. [Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person's biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender‐normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity (APA, 2012)] So, an individual can act out any role-set they please, but it is up to them. And it is subject to ethical evaluation, regardless of their feelings or predispositions.

  4. You're going far too deep down the rabbit hole here, Ed. The primary problem with these arguments is that they have redefined 'gender' and 'sex' to mean something different than they actually mean. If I redefine 'young man' to be a socially constructed category and 'boy' to be a biological category I can get up to all sorts of funny business with this distinction. But the distinction is false because those are not the actual meanings of those words. It is like pointing to a monkey and saying 'chicken' and when someone tells you that its not you redefine the term 'chicken' to mean monkey.

    The etymology clears this up for us. 'Gender' is the older of the two terms, originating in English in the 13th century. It stems from the Latin term 'genus' of which one meaning is 'sex' (in Latin 'sexus'). 'Sex' comes later into English language in the 14th century. It originates from the Latin sexus.

    So, in fact, 'gender' is the older term used to describe the division between the sexes. But that is a secondary point. The primary point is that language develops organically. Trying to impose meanings from the outside is just incorrect. And if you try to counter this while accepting the terms of the debate you're just dialoguing with a madman. Good luck!

  5. Social constructivism about anything is---surprise, surprise, surprise---arbitrarily self-exempting.

    So one of the keys to this issue, as with positivism, relativism, subjectivism, and most all other isms, is what is not mentioned.

    By the way, does anyone know of book or essay arguing for determinism that discusses theory choice?

    As Berlinski would say, "I'm just asking."

    Merry Christmas

    1. “Social constructivism about anything is---surprise, surprise, surprise---arbitrarily self-exempting.”

      What do you mean by that? If I say that the game of chess is socially constructed, how am I being arbitrarily self-exempting?

    2. it means that some people will deny that Social Construction theories are themselves socially constructed, much like supporters of verificationist theory will deny that the theory must itself be verified.

  6. For all the assignment argument shows, the indeterminacy in question in the cases it cites is merely epistemological rather than metaphysical.

    As far as I can tell, there is nothing that metaphysically prevents a human being from being both sexes. So, it isn't necessary to say that an intersex person is really male or female, we just can't tell which.

    Now, because human beings are by nature a sexually dimorphic species, being a genuinely intersex person will tend to radically impede function. There are no recorded instances of intersex people being able to reproduce in both a male and female manner. And in all cases being an intersex person tends to create problems for reproduction.

    I'd also note that we can only tell that a person is intersex because we recognize the male and female aspects of their genitals from comparison with normal males and females, and thus we can differentiate these male and female aspects not only from each other, but from, say, completely random growths in the crotch area.

    In the instance of homosexuals, in most instances they have a neurology that is more typical of the opposite sex in many ways, but they have the genitals, typically the functional genitals, of their own sex. So, it is possible to argue that homosexuals are intersex individuals, in a way, with a neurology that is mismatched with their genitals. Now, this doesn't mean that they are now free to use their genitals for pleasure with people of the same genitals, as, regardless of their mismatch with their neurology, those genitals still have the function they have and it is still immoral for an individual to use those genitals in a way that frustrates the purpose of those genitals. And it is fair I think to argue that, despite a mismatched neurology, the presence of unmixed and usually functional genitals should be determinative in whether a homosexual person is male or female. After all, a lesbian who is raped or artificially inseminated is usually capable of becoming a mother.

    An interesting phenomenon that deserves some thought is when people have differing sex chomosomes in different parts of their body. So, you yourself might be XX throughout most of your body, but be XY in your arm or finger. You are otherwise a normal heterosexual human female. (This is a real thing, btw. It happens because of some weird circumstances in the womb.) In that case, I think you have to go with function again. Despite have a genetically freaky anomaly in part of your body, on the whole you are oriented towards reproducing in a certain way. Again, unmixed genitals should be determinitive, as such a person is typically just as capable of being a father or mother. This situation does, however, complicate the identification of sex based solely on chromosomes.

  7. It seems to me that people want to separate gender from sex in order to make real whatever fantasy they have. Gender has become more of a placeholder for whatever the hell you want to 'self-identify' as. Taken to its logical end, gender can come to mean anything. It is simply the fantasy one wants to be. This is when you get people 'self-identifying' as dogs and horses and other things they are not.

    People can live in their fantasy worlds as much as they want (though this is obviously not good), but we cannot legislate or moralize fantasies into reality.

  8. The Thomist John Finley has done some really good work in this area. Here is a really helpful talk he gave, though he uses gender/sex in a non-standard way:

    1. Here is his paper on the subject:

  9. I hope our host here includes the topic of how we distinguish between men and women in his book on sexual morality.

  10. This topic gets into essentialism.

    It's pretty clear how to analyze true substances in terms of formal and final causes. It's also pretty clear to analyze artifacts in terms of formal and final causes.

    But what about things that are clearly not substances or artifacts, like lakes, clouds, planets? They clearly don't have the unity of a true substance. Nor are they created though the imposition of purpose by a human being or other such rational creature, like an artifact.

    Yet, I can recognize a planet or lake when I see one, so such categories clearly have some reality. How is that possible? How does one analyze such things in terms of formal and final cause?

    If you know of any resources on this topic, please post them.

    1. "Nor are they created though the imposition of purpose by a human being or other such rational creature, like an artifact."

      Being created by humans is not what makes something an artifact. Feser says,

      "the Aristotelian distinction is ultimately concerned with the difference between what has a substantial form or inherent principle of its activity, and that which has only an accidental form. And there are man-made objects that have substantial forms (e.g. new breeds of dog or of corn, water synthesized in a lab), and naturally occurring objects that have only accidental forms (e.g. a random pile of stones that has formed at the bottom of a hill)."

    2. Yet, I can recognize a planet or lake when I see one, so such categories clearly have some reality.

      Well, there are some issues even there, of course. How do you specify the difference between a large pond and a small lake? Between a wide spot in the river where part of the flow is very slow, and a narrow lake? How do you know whether Pluto is a "real" planet versus a "dwarf planet" which is now considered a different thing? Can you identify the difference between a sea,a bay, a gulf and fyord? Between a cape, a promontory, and a peninsula?

      These problems aren't really indications that we can't tell that there are "real" things like lakes and planets. Even with plants and animals, which certainly do have substantial forms, there can be boundary cases where it is difficult to tell whether something is a "this" or a "that". The existence of gray areas around the edges is not proof of the non-existence of real "kinds".

      I suspect that the answer is that when we "know" that Lake Michigan is a lake what we are doing is applying analogous reasoning, similar to but distinct from when we know that Fido is a dog. The analogy comes from the fact that we apprehend the unity embedded in the instances of "dog" that we have seen in virtue of a number of traits that are common, and we do something similar with lakes: anything that has a certain set of 3 or 4 characteristics "just is" a lake. But in the case of lakes, there is no definitive reason that we should select those 4 traits, and hence there is no definitive answer to things like "is X really a lake" when it has 3 of the 4 and it has been called a lake from time out of mind. Maybe it's just an "exception", like a dog that has lost its 4th leg? No, there is no fundamental integrity to lake-ness that tells us we have to use these specific 4 traits and no others. But this is just a guess, I don't know.

  11. If our host is going to be reading Butler for any his book projects, I'd like to recommend Sarah Salih's introductory book on Butler. Butler deliberately writes bad prose, but Salih is crystal clear. She's an admirer of Butler too, so it's not a hostile caricature either, though it sometimes reads like one. Butler is the cray cray.

  12. I don't follow. Male and female in the category of gender are supposed to be as French cuisine and Thai cuisine in the category of cuisine. But then the question is not what the two cuisines
    have in common ("features that are true of all cuisines"), and whether that has a basis in nature, but whether the distinction we make between them has a basis in nature. And isn't the distinction between French and Thai cuisine entirely socially constructed?

    1. I don't think that's correct. Surely the equivalent of French or Thai cuisine here would be French or Thai (or whatever) ways of being a man or woman. Feser is saying that cuisine is the social expression of food, but it thereby has limits imposed by the very nature of food. Gender is connected to sex, but the division between the sexes is natural, so surely the division between the genders must be. It's the division between different cultures' expression of each genders that is social. This interpretation also matches the analogues numerically, as there are two genders (I'm ignoring the 49 genders or whatever silliness) and two sexes, whereas there are a multitude of both cuisines and social expression of genders.

    2. There are many natural differences among items in the category "food", but those differences don't dictate the differences among national cuisines.

  13. Male and female in the category of gender

    I would deny that there is such a thing. If we are talking about gender roles, then we are talking about things perceived as being masculine or feminine according to a given culture. A male who does things considered feminine is still a male, because being a male is not a social construct.

  14. Notice the language used, 'assignment' of sex, as if it is an entirely arbitrary process. The doctor sees a penis, and declares the child a boy, but he could just as easily declare the child to be a girl. As if, the doctor observing the penis, and declaring the child a girl, would be just as equally accepted. It would be more correct to say that the doctor observes the sex of the child. Only in the case of ambiguous genitalia is there any question about what sex the child is.

  15. I agree with the substance ofr Byrne/Feser's argument but the treatment of the performative argument looks incomplete.

    "Performative arguments are not susceptible to error." Granted. "The doctor's declaration is susceptible of error." Ergo, etc.

    But logically speaking, it is not proved that the doctor's declaration is indeed susceptible to error - this is merely assumed. So the performative argument is not refuted.

    I think the burden of proof is on the defender of the performative argument, but this blog post takes on itself to disprove that thesis so it needs to show how the doctor's statement can be erroneous, not simply assume it.

    1. I think that the Byrne/Feser argument is trying to get at something here:


      For example, the performative argument seems to boil down to something like this:

      Articulating a description of an object and then acting as if this description were true creates the relevant object and gives it its properties. In the absence of this description and performance there is no object and no properties.

      So objects are created in an arbitrary way by pure acts of will; if the doctor produced a human baby and declared it to be a coal bucket, and people 'performed' as such, the baby wouldn't exist but a coal bucket would.

  16. To add to Byrne’s objection, we might note that to claim that the declaration “It’s a boy” makes it the case that a baby is a boy is as silly as claiming that a doctor’s declaring his diagnosis by saying “It’s cancer” makes it the case that a patient has cancer.

    Heh. I’m suddenly reminded of the tale told of my first being presented to my mother: three pounds, nearly two months premature, extremely jaundiced, a wooden probe still sticking from my tiny head like My Favorite Martian...

    DOCTOR: It’s a boy!
    MOTHER: A boy? I’ve had chickens bigger than that.

    And then they put me under the heat lamp to finish cooking. It’s good to know that I started being involved in these debates young.

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