Monthly Archives: January 2013

Is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?


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In the course of discussing guns control, gun rights and related issues my friend Doug raised the question “is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?” Since this is an interesting question, it seems worthwhile to attempt to address it.

Before the question itself can be addressed, a working definition of tyranny is required. A rather extreme view of the matter is put forth by the philosophical anarchists, such as Goldman. In general, anarchists of this sort regard all government as tyranny. As such, this sort of anarchist would consider a denial of gun rights by the state as tyranny. Thus, the question is easily answered by those who accept anarchism of this sort.  However, accepting this sort of anarchism would require rejecting that the state has any legitimate role to play, which seems to be a rather implausible view. Fortunately there are other accounts of tyranny.

A rather reasonable account is put forth by John Locke in his writings on government.  He defines tyranny as “the exercise of power beyond right, which none have a right to” and this involves an official “using power, not for the good of those under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” Locke also adds that “where law ends, tyranny begins, if the law is transgressed to another’s harm.” This view can be disputed, but I will assume it for the sake of the discussion that follows.

Turning now to the matter of gun rights, I am inclined to take the view that gun rights (if there are such things) would fall under the more general right of self-defense (if there is such a right). As with any talk of rights, one useful way to address the matter is to make use of the classic approach of considering rights in the state of nature (a possibly hypothetical state in which there is no government).

Thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke argue that people have the right to self-defense in the state of nature. Hobbes even goes as far as to contend that a person is obligated to preserve herself. He notes that without a right to the means of self-preservation, the right to engage in self-defense would be useless. Because of this, he contends that in his version of the state of nature everyone has a right to all things. So, on Hobbes’ view, if guns were around in the state of nature, everyone would have the right to be armed (and anyone with any sense would be armed). Attempting to deprive someone of her gun in the state of nature would not be tyrannical or even unjust—after all for Hobbes there is no justice until the state of nature has been replaced with civil society. In the state of nature depriving others of their guns would generally be the sensible thing to do—and something that would presumably result in numerous fatal shootouts.

While Locke presents a much nicer state of nature (complete with rights to life, liberty and property) he does allow for the use of violence and force against wrongdoers. On his view, people would presumably have the right to be armed in the state of nature. After all, he argues that the rights need to be enforced by what amounts to vigilante justice and hence if guns existed, then people would need them to defend themselves and others against the people who would violate rights. Since there are no police in the state of nature, everyone would need to be armed—or risk being an easy victim.

While Locke and Hobbes take rather different views of the state, they both argue that when the transition is made from the state of nature to the state of civil society each person gives up her individual right to act as a vigilante, judge, and executioner. This would then place a limit on gun rights (on the assumption people had guns in such a state).

In Hobbes’ case, the sovereign sets the laws and enforces them by the use of force. While the individual retains the right of self-preservation, all other rights are set by the Hobbesian sovereign. Thus, on Hobbes’ view the denial of gun rights would be just, provided that the state was able to enforce its laws. Naturally, if the sovereign were to be gunned down and replaced by a new sovereign that supported individual gun rights, then that would be right—at least until the next sovereign took over.

In Locke’s case, people set aside the role of vigilante in order to create a society with a legal system. As such, people would lose the gun rights that allowed them to dispense justice from the barrel of their own guns. However, Locke explicitly addresses the matter of self-defense. As Locke seems to see it, if someone is threatened and the agents of the state are not available to act in her defense, then she and the person threatening her are effective returned to a state of nature and potentially a state of war. In this state, the person’s right to act as the enforcer of the rights to life, liberty and property return in full. Given that this right is retained even in civil society, it would seem to follow that on a Locke style system that restricting gun rights would impose on this right of self-defense and this could qualify as tyranny. After all, an official would not seem to have the right to deny a person the means to self-defense.

Of course, the obvious counter is that Locke sees the main purpose of government as serving the good of the people. More specifically, this involves protecting life, liberty and property. Given this, it would seem that some limitations on the right of self-defense could easily be justified in terms of protecting the life and property of others. To use a somewhat silly example, this could be justly used to deny people the right to possess weapons capable of doing significant accidental (and intentional) property damage (like grenades, rocket launchers, cannons and bombers). To use  less silly example, it would also seem to allow the denial of rights to weapons when doing so would do more to protect people from harm (that is, protect the right to life) than would allowing people to possess such weapons. This could be used to justify the denial of the right to simply walk into a store and buy an automatic weapon. This would, of course, need to take into account the legitimate right of self-defense. As such, Locke’s view would seem to protect self-defense rights (and presumably gun rights), provided that those rights did not create a threat to the right to life. As such, the state could impose on certain rights (such as the rights to have certain weapons) in a way that would not be tyrannical—that is, acting within the legitimate functions of the state.

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Gun Rights & Tyranny: A Coda

I’d like to present a quick little philosophical coda to Mike’s latest post on gun rights and tyranny by outlining a difficult puzzle.

Consider the following propositions:

1. A state is any organization that successfully upholds the possession of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

2. It is legitimate to defend against tyranny by the use of force.

Both premises look to be pretty plausible. The first is Max Weber’s definition of the state, which is widely influential. The second is a commonsense construal of the Second Amendment, once you formulate it in a way that is consistent with the Constitution [and other founding documents].

But what follows from these two premises? Well, anyone who makes a legitimate claim to the use of force, and who is not a part of the government or acting as a party to its laws, cannot help but be seeking to disrupt the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Hence, those who recognize the validity of this commonsense reading of second amendment are de facto advocates of vigilantism. Even if you are a centrist or left-libertarian who advocates gun control, so long as you recognize (2) is a plausible reading of the constitution, you are stuck moonlighting as an advocate for vigilantism. This is remarkable.

Obviously, many of us do not want to come to that conclusion. So there must be something wrong with one or both of these premises. Perhaps (1) is a vulgar statist formulation which pretends that ‘legitimacy’ equals morally rightness. So you might think that the difference between (1) and (2) trades on an ambiguity in the meaning of the term ‘legitimate’. But this critique does not seem destined for success. ‘Legitimacy’ seems to be a non-moral normative phrase, meaning something like, ‘is commonly recognized to hold a certain status’.

It’s a distressing and difficult puzzle, made all the more frustrating by the fact that it is so easy to formulate. Needless to say, quite a bit rides on the answer to the question. But whatever the answer is, the first step in a good conversation is for everybody to recognize a problem as a problem.

Joel Marks on aesthetics wars

I’ve been reading Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality by Joel Marks (Routledge 2013). I’ve written a sort of review for Free Inquiry, and expect it to be published a month or two down the track. I also have some (rather different) initial observations over here at The Hellfire Club. In summary:

This book deserves a larger audience than it is likely to find in the rather expensive academic edition published by Routledge. Though Marks is an academic philosopher, there is little or no technical verbiage, and the text should be accessible to general educated readers. I suspect that a very similar book from a trade press, written by an author with more of a profile with the general public, could be a big seller in the mode of the most recent books from Sam Harris, but this one will probably find only a niche audience.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of scope to discuss small aspects of this rather nice little book. Marks is a (de?)converted moral sceptic. He denies that any “metaphysical morality” exists, while thinking that many people actually do believe in such an elusive thing. This puts him on the path to being an error theorist, believing that huge numbers of moral judgments are ipso facto untrue simply because they contain terms that don’t refer to anything in the real world (“morally wrong”, etc.). For Marks, our judgments of what is right or wrong are ultimately grounded in subjectivity – what we actually care about, find admirable, or distasteful, or whatever – and there is no ultimate truth about what, for example, we should care about. Contrary to what is widely believed or assumed, Marks thinks, morality eventually rests on various subjective responses.

This is all fairly standard stuff from error theorists, moral sceptics, relativists, and the like. But Marks goes a step further and argues the case for moral abolitionism. He’d like us to stop using moral language such as “morally wrong”, or just “wrong”, much as non-religious people have largely abandoned talk of “sin” (and we have abandoned talk of “witches” in the literal sense of women with magical powers, etc.). Not only does all moral language fail to refer to anything in the real world, Marks thinks; he considers it positively harmful. Read Chapter 4, where he sets out his case for this position. Oh, and of course Marks is aware that some language with a subjective element needs to be used if we are to communicate at all. E.g. he has not expunged the word “desirable” from his vocabulary, though he acknowledges that nothing is objectively desirable.

Which leads me to one of the book’s long endnotes. Here, Marks discusses the fact that most of us now accept the subjectivity in judgments about beauty, artistic merit, and the like. So why not give up saying that “Movie X is good”, or “Y style of art is superior to Z style”, or that a specific joke is funny, or that certain people were great composers? I might add such judgments as that certain Hollywood stars are “sexy” or “beautiful” (they might not appear so to an intelligent warthog-like creature from a neighbouring galaxy!).

Marks is pragmatic:

However, were the heated arguments [about these issues]… to become a basis of universal discord, rampant persecution, and armed conflict, then, because so much suffering were caused by our mistaking something subjective for something objective, I might very well want to urge that we eliminate the aesthetic way of speaking that lent itself to this abuse.

Fair enough, I think, although there is a further question as to how we are able to have arguments that are often not heated, but calm and rational, about aesthetic issues such as Marks describes. Is it all like abstruse and vacuous theological talk (as Marks tends to think of moral debate), or is something more rational happening here? I think the latter, although I agree that, strictly speaking, aesthetic claims have an irreducible subjective element. They may depend on a shared subjectivity among the people in the conversation, but they do depend on subjectivity. I suggest that a further exercise for philosophers is to try to unpack how we are able to talk as sensibly and coherently as we do (so it seems to me) about these aesthetic issues, and also about issues relating to such “moral” matters as people’s “good” or “bad” characters.

Gun Rights & Tyranny

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common approach to arguing in favor of civilian gun rights is to claim that such rights prevent, deter or at least provide a defense against tyranny. In general, the idea seems to be that the people in power will be less inclined and less able to impose tyranny if the civilian population possesses the right to keep and bear arms. In the United States, this is presented in terms of the members of the government deciding to impose tyrannical rule over the people.

On the face of it, this justification does have some appeal. After all, if the government has to overcome armed civilians, then it would obviously be harder than using force against unarmed civilians. Also it could be argued that politicians might fear that they would be assassinated by armed patriots if they started acting in tyrannical ways.

People also point to the American Revolution and claim that the fact that the civilian population was armed was an important factor in the American victory over the British tyranny. Those with some science-fiction leanings also present counter-factual scenarios in which one is asked to imagine what would have happened in Germany if the Jews and anti-Nazi Germans had possessed the right to keep and bear arms (or were at least armed). Stalin and other dictators are also often brought up in this context. The idea is, of course, to appeal to the intuitions of the audience and persuade them that if only the Germans had had their own Second Amendment, then Hitler might have never been able to come to power and the Holocaust might not have happened.

The idea that the cowardly politicians who dream of tyranny are kept in check by red-blooded Americans exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms does have a certain emotional appeal. So too does the thought of armed plucky rebels defending America from tyranny. In fact, such scenarios would no doubt make for successful Hollywood films. But what is appealing and what might make a blockbuster film are not the same as what is, in fact, true.

Naturally enough, the general idea of the role of civilian armaments in deterring tyrants can be debated extensively. This is, of course, a worthwhile debate and would be a rather interesting project for historians to sort out. However, what is under discussion here is the rather specific matter of whether or not the right to keep and bear arms is warranted by the deterrent value of this right against tyranny. This, obviously enough, involves some key matters of fact.

One obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not gun rights frightens politicians with tyrannical intentions—that is, whether worries about assassination keep them in check.

As argued above, it makes sense to think that a politician would be less inclined to do something if she believed doing so would result in people attempting to kill her. Naturally, if the population has easy access to firearms, then an assassin could easily acquire a gun. If there were strict controls on guns, then politicians would have less to worry about in terms of assassins drawn from the ranks of the general population. They would just have to worry about the military and police forces (and anyone who could make a bomb or wield a knife). Obviously, even in a state with strict civilian gun control, the politicians would need to win over the majority of the military and police forces to their tyrannical agenda—or their attempts at tyranny would end rather quickly. In the United States, this would require winning over the national forces (the military, FBI, and so on) as well as the state (National Guard and state police) and local forces (police and sheriffs).

Interestingly, democratic states with stricter gun control than the United States, such as the United Kingdom, do not seem to have fallen into tyranny. This suggests that it is not fear of assassination by citizens exercising their guns rights that keeps a democratic state from tyranny, but rather other factors. But perhaps they are just biding their time and the United Kingdom will soon be back under an absolute monarchy.

A second obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not civilian gun ownership would deter the military and police forces from imposing tyranny on the people at the behest of the tyrant(s). This, of course, assumes that the tyrant(s) has won over the majority of the military and police forces to her plot of tyranny and that there is no significant opposition from the military and police forces that are not in on the tyrannical take over. That is, the tyrant has won over the American citizens in the military and police forces to the degree that they would be willing to throw aside the Constitution and turn their weapons against the general population—including their friends, family, spouses, and children.

In such a scenario, it would seem that civilian weapons would be of little use. After all, the military and police forces of the tyrant would have military weapons (tanks, attack helicopters, bombers, artillery, ships, nukes and so on). Handguns, rifles and shotguns would be of rather limited use against such forces. Back in the time when civilian weapons and military weapons were essentially on par (muskets) and the most destructive military weapons were very limited (muzzle loading cannons) an armed civilian population would reasonably be regarded as a deterrent. However, it is hard to imagine suburban Americans battling successfully against tanks, Predator drones, and Hellfire missiles using AR-15s and .38 specials. That said, there is something to be said for an honorable death fighting against impossible odds.

Of course, the civilians could turn to the sort of tactics used by insurgents and terrorists to resist the military and police of the tyrant—but this would not be a case of the right to keep and bear arms deterring tyranny. However, the main thing that seems to defeat tyrants is a lack of support-without that a tyrant is a just a single man.

Naturally, it can be pointed out that civilian arms could be used to resist a small scale tyrannical incursion (perhaps a takeover in a small town). However, in such a scenario the tyrant would soon be dealt with by the police or military of the state. Also, the main deterrents against American tyrants grabbing American towns would seem to involve not guns but other factors—like an unwillingness to go along with a tyrant.

It would thus seem that civilian gun ownership would be little, if any, deterrence or defenses against a serious tyrant. It is also interesting to note that if such armaments provided considerable power against the state, there would be the fear that they would be used by a segment of the population to impose their own tyrant on others.

In light of the above, the defense against tyranny argument would seem to provide little in the way of justification for civilian gun rights. This should not be terribly shocking—after all, the second amendment does not justify the right to keep and bear arms in terms of having an armed population ready to shoot it out with other armed citizens.

There are, however, good reasons for gun rights, but these are beyond the intended scope of this essay.

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Contingent Faculty

Tenure (film)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I began my career as a professor, I worked as an adjunct. There are many downsides to being an adjunct, not the least of which is that employment is entirely contingent. That is, an adjunct can be let go simply by not offering a contract for the next semester. It is also not uncommon for adjuncts to begin work with only the promise of a contract-a promise that sometimes turns out to be empty.

After being an adjunct, I became a visiting professor. This is rather better than being an adjunct, since it comes with better pay, benefits and the contract length is longer (a year or sometimes longer). However, visiting professorships are (by their very nature) limited in duration. Visiting professors also do not, as visiting faculty, earn tenure.

After being a visiting professor, I was able to get into a tenure track line and eventually earned tenure. There are various misconceptions about tenure, such as the notion that tenured faculty cannot be fired. This is not true-tenured faculty can be fired. Unlike contingent faculty, a tenured faculty member can not be simply let go. Rather, a tenured faculty member can only (in general) be fired for cause.

While tenure is presented as its detractors as a means by which inept faculty can avoid being fired as they coast towards an easy retirement, this is not its intended or actual purpose. One purpose of tenure is to serve as an incentive for success. That is, if a faculty member works hard for the better part of a decade and achieves professional success, then she can get the security of tenure. Naturally, this is not as lucrative as the rewards ladled out to comparable levels of success in the financial or business sectors-but people who go into academics tend to have somewhat different values. To steal a line from the folks who argue relentless against depriving the wealthy of even a fraction of their wealth, to remove tenure would punish success and destroy incentive. After all, if the job creators would be broken and demoralized by tax increases, then presumably the faculty would also be broken and demoralized by the loss of tenure. But perhaps significant incentives are only fit for the job creators and no one else.

A second reason for tenure is to protect academic freedom. Once a faculty member has tenure, then she has a degree of protection that can allow her to express intellectual ideas without (much) fear of being simply disposed of in retaliation. To be honest, once a person has spent years grinding away towards tenure, she has obviously learned to work within the system. One rarely sees a faculty member suddenly emerging from the caterpillar state of being tenure earning to become a radical butterfly once getting tenure. However, tenure still serves a valuable purpose by protecting intellectual freedom more than a lack of tenure would.

As might be imagined, some are opposed to tenure. These people tend to favor the business model of academics in which one key goal is to reduce labor costs. By removing tenure, faculty can be let go and replaced with cheaper faculty as needed. Also, faculty perceived as “troublesome” (such as union organizers) could be fired, thus reducing the threat of a powerful faculty union.

Some people also oppose tenure on more philosophical grounds. One common view is that employers should have the right to fire employees at any time, even without cause or reason. Going along with this view, obviously enough, is the idea that employees do not have any right to be employed. Interestingly enough, many of the same folks who hold this view also contend that the risk-takers in business should have the chance for massive rewards because of the risks they take. Interestingly, they seem to fail to see that people working without job security are rather big risk takers. After all, everyday is a day they risk being fired because their employer wants to cut expenses to boost profits.

Folks who support this view often tend to point to live outside of academics where most workers lack job security. A standard refrain is “why should tenured faculty have the job security that other workers lack?” But, a better question might be “why should other workers lack the opportunity to earn the job security that faculty enjoy?”

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Motherhood and Moral Luck, Philosophy and Atrocity

Until December 14, 2012, I was thinking quite hard about writing a post for Talking Philosophy on the subject of parenthood and moral luck. Or, rather, partly on parenthood and moral luck, and partly on motherhood and moral luck, since it seems to me that there are some special considerations that motherhood generates in relation to moral luck which don’t always arise in quite the same way for fatherhood.

I’ll outline part of what I thought about writing. But I also want to talk about some reflections which, on December 14, turned me away from posting as I had planned to.

In case any of you aren’t familiar with it, the term moral luck relates to those cases in which we are held to be proper objects of moral praise or blame despite the fact that the outcomes in relation to which we are being assessed depend on factors which are beyond our control. The existence of moral luck is challenging because it undermines  a conception we have of morality as being an area in which we are immune from luck: for example, we tend to say that, provided someone acts with good intentions, and with proper deliberation of means and end, she is immune from blame, whatever chance outcome her actions produce. The term was introduced by Bernard Williams in his classic essay “Moral Luck,” in which, famously,  he guides our thought on the subject by introducing us to the deliberations of (a somewhat fictionalised version of) the artist Paul Gauguin as he decides whether to abandon the obligations he has to his wife and children in order to travel overseas and pursue his calling as a painter. The abandonment of his obligations is a moral cost which matters to this Gauguin. Whether he will, retrospectively, come to reproach himself for his decision to leave his family depends on how his new life turns out. If it turns out well, and he produces great art, he might regard the decision as justified. If it turns out badly because he is not the great artist he thought he was (Williams calls this “intrinsic bad luck”), he might regard the decision to leave his family as lacking justification. If it turns out badly for other reasons, unconnected with his artistic talent (what  Williams’ calls “extrinsic bad luck”), he might regard the decision as untested. Since there is good and bad luck involved in the success or failure of his new life, it will be a matter of luck – moral luck, in Williams’ view – whether he has cause to reproach himself for the decision he made.

I like to think hard about Mrs Gauguin (or at least a somewhat fictionalised version of her) in the story Williams tells. Many or most of us have more in common with her than we do with her husband. This is because we, like her, are likely to find that our greatest moral hazard lies wholly in our domestic lives, not in the world of art. Lacking the belief that we have the capacity to produce epoch-making art, we might think, with good reason, that the hugest decision we make in our lives, the one in which our exposure to moral luck is at its highest, is our decision to have children. The stakes here are almost limitlessly high: Will we be good parents or bad ones? Will our children suffer or enjoy their lives? Will they be good people or bad? And what of the children that our children have? The difference between producing even the greatest art and producing bad art might seem tiny in relation to these uncertainties.

As parents we are painfully exposed to moral luck. That applies of course to all parents, mothers and fathers alike, Mr and Mrs Gauguin both. But there is an element in Williams’ account that suggests the possibility that mothers (in our society) are even more exposed to moral luck in respect of parenthood than fathers are.

To see this, notice that Williams distinguishes between the justification tout court of a life-defining decision and its justification in the eyes of the agent who made it. There is, he says, no external standpoint from which the justification of a life-defining  decision can be asserted , no universal currency in which to evaluate it. When we look back on our lives and uphold or refute the grounds of some pivotal decision, we do from a standpoint that has been significantly shaped by that very decision. The question arises: Are the conditions of our society  such that, not all of the time by any means but more often than not, a woman’s life is more significantly shaped in her eyes by her decision to have a child than a man’s life is? Is motherhood more likely to become constitutive of a woman’s self-identity than fatherhood is to become constitutive of a man’s self-identity? If so, then a woman is more exposed to the moral luck involved in parenthood than a man is – in the sense that, if her parenthood turns out badly, it is more likely than it is for a man that she has failed at something on which (thanks to social pressures of various sorts) she has staked her self-understanding. Similarly, in the eyes of society at large she might find the assessment of her life more closely bound than a father’s might be to her success or failure as a parent.

I don’t want prejudge the answer to the question as to whether women are in fact more exposed to the moral luck of parenthood in this way, but it seems like an interesting line of thought to explore. Part of the reason I am drawn to it is that, like many women, I do find myself fighting on many battlefronts (some inside me, some outside) to find a sense of self in which “mother” does not loom tyrannously large.

But there is another source of my interest in that question – and it is the source of the reticence I felt about writing my blogpost last December. It is Lionel Shriver’s excellent novel, We Need To Talk about Kevin. This novel  is a sustained and deeply perceptive fictional account of a woman’s decision to have a child, and of her prolonged and painful reflection on that decision when it turns out very badly indeed. The book is a very rich resource for exploring in detail the issues  that Williams sketches briefly in his Gauguin story – deliberation under uncertainly about matters of profound moral importance and of profound importance to one’s life; failure and the analysis of failure. Most of all it revolves on the never-quite-answered question as to whether the woman’s bad moral luck was “intrinsic” or “extrinsic”: Did her life’s project of parenthood fail because it was a flawed one, one that could never have grounded value in her life because she was not the person that project required her to be? Or did it fail because of the brute, extrinsic bad luck of giving birth to a “difficult” (impossibly difficult) child?

As well as providing a source of detailed reflection on the issue of moral luck as presented by Bernard Williams, the book is also a meditation on the ways in which motherhood can have a very different significance in the life of a mother than fatherhood has in the life of a father. The story shows us a mother who finds herself much more relentlessly confined by motherhood than her partner is by fatherhood,  with the result that her identity is much more comprehensively consumed than his by the failure of the project of parenthood (even though he is in fact killed by that failure).

As everyone probably knows, this novel centres on a very painful event indeed, a mass killing on school premises by a young man. At any time, this is a subject that both literature and attempts at philosophy ought to address only with great care and reticence. But in the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook last December it seemed impossible to treat this subject abstractly, as a resource for philosophical reflection, impossible to encounter it in any way other than through the concrete responses of horror and shock and pity. So I abandoned my intended piece of writing.  As time passes, it does seem to become possible again to write about such things, but not (it seems to me) without some preliminary thought about when and how  it is acceptable to touch on matters of such great sadness in the course of doing philosophy. And perhaps we also need some preliminary thought about why it is acceptable to view matters of such great sadness through the lens of fiction.

Is philosophical reasoning too glib, too abstract, too trivialising to intrude on tragedy? It can be conducted in that way. Moral philosophy takes as its subject matter some of the most troubling features of our existence and, for the sake of clarifying our ideas, it refines this subject matter into technical terms (like “moral luck”) and setpiece thought experiments that deliberately discard as much as possible of the white noise that is the stuff of life. For some thinkers no doubt this coolness is a temporary stepping back from deep engagement with the ethical features of their lives, in order to live their lives better. But for many of us it becomes an end in itself.  That isn’t wrongful: clarity is worth pursuing for itself. But there is a time and a place for it.

At its best, though, philosophy can restrain its tendency to glibness by taking seriously the Socratic point, that wisdom lies in the awareness of how little we know: rather than expertise, philosophers offer tools for the sustained interrogation of their own ignorance and everyone else’s. When philosophy is conceived in this way its reigning sentiments are bewilderment and hesitancy, amounting to a kind of intellectual pessimism, about the possibility of finding the kind of answers that ultimately satisfy. Those sentiments aren’t out of place at the scene of a tragedy, I think.

Williams avoids the artificial clarity of much analytical philosophy. His account of moral luck emphasises the limited role of rationality in our assessment of our own actions: an “entirely clear-headed agent” might, he says, discard much of the sense of responsibility that we do, in fact, feel for the outcomes of our actions. Rather than rational analysis, he offers a critique of ethical experience. He asks us to reflect carefully on our actual reactions to a range of ethically challenging situations, and to do so without the hope that philosophy will provide all of the solutions that we seek.

This emphasis on lived ethical experience makes Williams’ account  not-glib, rich, and humane – the kind of philosophy that we perhaps shouldn’t be ashamed to bring out in the context of a tragedy. And his emphasis on ethical experience is also what makes literature so promising a resource for exploring moral luck. We Need to Talk about Kevin is a case study of ethical experience, offering the depth and richness of experience that is present in life itself, but presenting it with the kind of lucidity that real life rarely offers. Literature also gives us a kind of completeness that we can’t get from observing real life. In a novel people have a relatively small set of characteristics, and every one of these characteristics  is present to the reader (provided that the reader reads thoughtfully enough). There is nothing hidden, so all of the relationship between a person’s deliberations, actions, reactions, and self-assessments can be made fast and clear and determinate. There is no similar completeness of revelation in life. Too many variables, too many secrets.

I think I have convinced myself that  a blogpost on parenthood – especially motherhood – and moral luck written in the light of a novel about a mass killing at a school, might not be too insensitive in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, and might help a little bit as we grapple with our reactions to the event. And I’ll hope to make such a post at some point.

The NRA & Obama’s Children


National_Rifle_Association (Photo credit: ChrisWaldeck)

The NRA recently released a video in response to Obama’s skepticism about its proposal to put an armed guard in every school. The gist of the matter is that Obama is accused of being an “elitist hypocrite”  because his two daughters have constant Secret Service protection.

The ad asks “Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?” It then, perhaps somewhat oddly,  drags in the matter of taxes on the wealthy: “Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he is just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

Obama’s view on the matter of armed guards in schools was presented on n NBC’s “Meet the Press”  in December of 2012: “I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools, and I think the vast majority of the American people are skeptical that that somehow is going to solve our problem,” Obama said. “And, look, here’s the bottom line. We’re not going to get this done unless the American people decide it’s important.”

On the face of it, the ad could be seen as a well-crafted  ad hominem tu quoque.  This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:

  •  Person A makes claim X.
  • Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  • Therefore X is false.

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true – but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.

In this case, pointing out that Obama seems to say one thing (that he is skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools) while practicing another (having his two girls protected by the Secret Service even when they are in school) and then inferring Obama is in error would seem to be a clear example of this fallacy.

It is also well worth pointing out that Obama’s claim does not seem to be inconsistent with his daughters having secret service protection. After all, what he claims is that he is “skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools.” That is, he is skeptical that putting more guns in school and doing nothing else will solve the problem.

Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, expanded on the content of the video and seems to be making an appeal for a consistent application of a principle/practice: “The president and his family enjoy 24-hour-security from law enforcement at taxpayer expense, and this ad asks very real questions: If it’s good enough for the president, why shouldn’t it be good enough for the rest for us?”

A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. To fail to do this is to apply a principle inconsistently, which is what Arulanadam seems to be accusing Obama of doing.   Inconsistent application of a principle is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently.  Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.  Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences.

Arulanandam does seem to make a reasonable point. After all, if such armed security for Obama’s children is acceptable, then consistency would seem to demand that the same protection be afforded to other children (or even everybody).  Or, at the very least, that providing such protection for others would be reasonable.

Naturally, similar claims could be made regarding all the special treatment the President receives. For example, the president’s plane is maintained to a degree that vastly exceeds what is required for commercial airliners. Given Arulanandam’s view, it would follow that commercial airlines should be required to follow the same practices. Interestingly, Arulanandam’s view could also be applied to almost any special perks anyone receives. If this view were not being put forth by the NRA this view would certainly be seen as rather leftist.

The obvious reply to Arulanandam is to point out relevant differences between Obama’s situation and that of other Americans. Obviously, Obama is the president and this means his family is more likely to be targeted for harm than other families. As such, the difference in protection can be justified based on this relevant difference. Not surprisingly, other powerful individuals tend to secure more protection for their families on similar grounds, namely that they are more likely to need that protection than the average person. Thus, the difference in protection could be justified on the grounds of relevant differences.

One obvious counter to this is, as the NRA noted, that this sort of disparity seems elitist. After all, he and his family are protected around the clock by trained professionals, while the rest of us are mostly on our own (although we can call the police). He also gets to fly in his own wonderfully maintained plane in luxury while the rest of us generally have to fly coach in planes that are most likely maintained at the legally minimum levels (if that). Given the NRA remarks about taxing the wealthy, it is somewhat ironic that this would apply to all the elites who enjoy all those elite benefits that the rest of us do not receive. It, as the NRA contends, seems unfair that Obama and the other elites get so much while the rest of us get so little.  Who would ever have suspected that the NRA would make what seems to be a leftist attack on the privileged elites in favor of what seems to be equality? Then again, maybe they are only concerned about equal armaments and not equality in general.

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Thomas Nagel on objective values

Thomas Nagel has spent much of his career worrying at the problem of whether there are objective values, and a fair bit of that trying to defend an objectivism about values. I’ve been mostly unimpressed – it is difficult to get any such defence off the ground without begging the question against opponents.

Admittedly, there seems to be a widespread tendency for human beings to believe that objective values exist, so perhaps those of us who are sceptical ought to be able to say a bit about why this might be if objective values do not, in fact, exist. All the same, the idea of objective values seems odd when you look at it closely… or so it appears to me.

Meanwhile, I’ve been re-reading Nagel’s Equality and Partiality, mainly to try to get a better understanding this time round of Nagel’s complex views on distributive justice (which will play no further role in this post!). As I have before, I came across a passage in the Chapter 2 (the first substantive chapter after the introduction) where Nagel makes what seems to me a very weak attempt to defend the existence of objective values. The argument seems to go as follows:

P1. You cannot maintain an impersonal indifference to the things that deeply matter to you.
P2. You are much like others human beings in relevant ways.
P3./C1. You must come to regard the most important things (to you) as being objectively valuable. (From P1.? Or is this meant to be a separate point, with P1. as a kind of spare wheel in the argument?)
C2. Some things are objectively valuable (or are known to be objectively valuable) because you value them. (From P3./C1.)
C. Some things are objectively valuable (or are known to be objectively valuable) because other human beings value them. (From P2. and C2. by analogy.)

So the argument is supposed to show that there are some things that are objectively valuable, even though I don’t actually value them (at least in the first instance), namely certain things that other people value deeply. And so, I should treat those things as if I valued them. Presumably, this might include the lives and welfare of other people. Thus, even if I feel no sympathetic identification or concern for those people I should regard their lives and welfare as objectively valuable, and respond accordingly. This might then lead into something like a utilitarian moral system, though based on a sort of Kantian argument.

Surely, though, the above argument is a hopeless mess. P1. and P2. may well be true, but so what? P3./C1. does not follow from P1., if that is how the argument is supposed to work. Nor does P3./C1. seem like something I must accept without any deeper support for it. The fact is that we all value various things, and we may, in unreflective moments, simply see them as valuable. But it by no means follows that we must assent to the proposition that they possess objective value in any strong sense (e.g. that another rational being which fails to agree that they are valuable is making a mistake about the world).

I can go on intensely valuing all sorts of things (such as my own continued life and health, the safety and welfare of my loved ones, or whatever) without at all believing they are objectively valuable. So if P3./C1. denies this, it is simply false. Even if it were true, C2. would not follow. I.e., even if, as a matter of human psychology, I am forced to regard certain things as being objectively valuable, it does not follow that they really are objectively valuable.

So even if we accept the analogical step at C. (which I am prepared to do), the argument fails.

This argument, as I’ve presented it, is so bad that it is difficult to believe that it is what Nagel is trying to say. However, as far as I can work out he makes very similar errors in, for example, The Last Word. Furthermore, I’ve seen other Kantian rationalists present similar arguments to this, always, as far as I can work out, disastrously. I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this. I’m tempted to say that many philosophers feel under so much psychological pressure to demonstrate the existence of objective values that they can fool themselves that even very weak arguments are actually strong. But who knows? Perhaps they’re saying something, or trying to say something, that I just don’t “get”.

Anyway, I won’t be buying a theory of objective values on the basis of anything remotely like Nagel’s approach.

Lex talionis in the experience machine

When it comes to punishment, I imagine that even the most progressive of us, and even the most consequentially minded of us, continue to hold some pretty strong retributive intuitions. Even if you are thoroughly convinced that the primary justifications for the practice of punishment are forward-looking considerations like deterrence or rehabilitation, you probably still feel the pull of more retributive concerns – the idea that some people ought to be punished because they somehow deserve to be punished; that because they have inflicted suffering on others, it is appropriate that they suffer in return.

Unsurprisingly, I tend to have this retributivist response most strongly with respect to particularly violent crimes or crimes that involve the deliberate infliction of especially painful and long-lasting suffering, and where the perpetrator shows little remorse. For example, the real-life case that most strongly elicited this response in me was that of the two men convicted of throwing acid into the face of model and television presenter Katie Piper. This attack inflicted a huge amount of physical pain and psychological suffering, as well as permanent disfigurement. Indeed, this was the objective; the attack served no other purpose, and can only have been motivated by a desire to inflict suffering and cause permanent damage. Furthermore, the perpetrators of this crime have never expressed any remorse or regret for their actions. When I read the details of this crime, and others like it, the feeling of injustice makes me understandably angry. The fact that these people have knowingly and intentionally inflicted such a huge amount of pain and suffering on an innocent person, and yet do not appear to be suffering in any real sense themselves, feels to me to be a real injustice. It seems to me that it would be a better state of affairs if they could experience the kind of suffering they have inflicted; if they could feel and understand the pain and damage they caused. Not only because this would hopefully deter them from committing future attacks, but also because I can’t help feeling that they deserve to feel pain equivalent to the pain they have inflicted.

Now of course, you may dismiss this response of mine as simply an emotional desire for vengeance which, no matter how understandable, has no place in a civilized society and certainly ought not to be incorporated into our practices of punishment. There are legal systems in some parts of the world where lex talionis is enshrined in law, and inflicting physical suffering on a perpetrator equivalent to that caused by the original crime is a possible form of punishment. In a literal case of an eye for an eye, Iranian courts ruled that as punishment for disfiguring and blinding Ameneh Bahrami by throwing acid in her face, her attacker Majid Movahedi should be punished by having acid dropped into his eyes (although this punishment was never carried out, as Ms Bahrami pardoned Movahedi at the last minute). I share the abhorrence that was most people’s reaction to the initial ruling, and believe that no judicial system ought to punish people by inflicting this kind of physical harm on offenders, no matter what their crime. What I’m interested in though, is the reasons why we believe this kind of judicial punishment is wrong. Is it wrong because it is always wrong for the state to inflict the subjective experience of physical pain on to offenders? Or is it wrong because of the objective harm that would be caused by dropping acid into the offender’s eyes, and the likelihood this would cause lasting, permanent damage? To try to work this out, I’d like to make use of a thought experiment.

Suppose we really had access to experience machines, like the one that Robert Nozick devises in Anarchy, State and Utopia. That is, imagine that there are machines that we can be plugged into, like the people in The Matrix, that are programmed to stimulate our brains in such a way as to replicate any experience. While you are plugged into the machine, you aren’t aware that the experiences are a simulation – you think these events and experiences are actually happening. After a certain amount of time, you can be unplugged, and go back to your normal life. Now let’s imagine that these machines are routinely used as a form of judicial punishment, as a way of enacting a type of lex talionis punishment that, while inflicting the experience of physical pain and suffering, does not cause any long lasting harms. So for example, as punishment for committing an acid attack, the perpetrator would be plugged into the machine, and in the machine, have the simulated experience of having acid thrown into his face. He would feel the same physical sensations that such an attack tends to cause in the real world. Furthermore, he would, in the machine, have the appearance of being physically disfigured, and experience the psychological anguish and distress that usually accompanies this. During his time plugged into the machine, he would not realise this is a simulation; he would believe he was actually having this experience. After a given amount of time – however long we deemed was an appropriate length of time for him to suffer – he would be unplugged from the machine, physically unharmed.

Could such a form of punishment be justified? If we think it could, then that suggests that what is wrong with judicial corporal punishment is not the infliction of physical pain itself, but rather causing objective, long-lasting, possibly irreversible harms. But if we think that lex talionis in the experience machine is wrong, then that suggests that what we think is wrong about judicial corporal punishment is simply that it causes the subjective experience of physical pain, irrespective of any objective or long-lasting harms it inflicts. This may be right – it might be the case that the state ought never to inflict physical pain upon its citizens, no matter what offence they have committed. But this position leads to familiar worries about why the infliction of physical pain is considered unacceptable when the infliction of psychological distress is considered legitimate – clearly for many people, having their liberty restricted by being sent to prison is likely to cause a great deal of psychological suffering, and yet we tend to think this is ok. So the person who thinks lex talionis in the experience machine is an impermissible form of judicial punishment will need to explain why causing subjective psychological pain is acceptable, while causing subjective physical pain is not.

As a tentative conclusion, I’m inclined to think that the reason to object to judicial corporal punishment is that it inflicts forms of physical damage that are objective, that is, that are harmful independently of how the subject experiences the harm. This is why it would be wrong for the Iranian judicial system to have carried out their punishment of dropping acid into the offender’s eyes – this would have blinded him, which is an objective and irreversible harm. But perhaps if we could simulate the pain and suffering caused by having acid thrown in one’s eyes without actually inflicting this objective harm, then this would be an acceptable form of retributive justice. Lex talionis within the experience machine might be a permissible form of punishment.

Don’t throw out the Feminist baby with the Burchill bathwater

The controversy over Julie Burchill’s unpleasant headline-grabbing article on some ‘trans’-activists’ attacks on her mate Suzanne Moore rumbles on in the blogosphere, as the Observer promise to look into whether or not to have Burchill write future columns for them:
I aim here to essay some philosophical and political reflections on this matter. My take on the controversy includes this: Burchill is Burchill. She is (and arguably always has been) a controversialist who lives off creating outrage. Her column was deliberately unpleasant; the Observer should have reined it in, or spiked it. But, leaving Burchill’s agent provocateur-ism to one side now: I have some sympathy with Suzanne Moore, Bea Campbell ( ), Julie Bindel and even Germaine Greer over this issue: The way they have at times been targeted and criticised is unpleasant. There IS a Feminist case against some of the discourse of the trans lobby. I hope that point doesn’t get lost in the anti-Burchill clamour.
Readers of this site will be aware that I am by no means an uncritical admirer of Julie Bindel: . And, as a Feminist-identified man, my own taste in Feminism is different in some important respects to that of the above-named group: I generally favour a Radical Feminism attuned closely to the critiques of ‘essentialism’ that Jane Flax, Nancy Fraser and others pioneered.
BUT to be a critic of gender essentialism is one thing; to seek to dissolve the category of ‘woman’ altogether, in favour of a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman, quite another. As Richard Rorty used to argue: ‘woman’ is an experiential category and a political category. It has, I would submit (and here I am simply echoing mainstream Feminist ideas) a material basis in lived experience including bodily experience, and it has a political reality and a political point. As both Rorty and Carol Gilligan rightly hold: so long as there is patriarchy, so long as there is oppression of women, then there is likely to be a ‘different voice’, there is certainly a need for Feminism: and Feminism starts with women being allowed to define themselves and to carve out spaces for themselves.
Trans women will say that they are exactly that: women being allowed to define themselves. But you can see the impasse here: If women find themselves being told by some with male genitalia etc. that they are obliged to accept the latter as women, because they ‘define’ themselves as so, that is hardly a knock-down argument. Take an analogy: Imagine that some people regard themselves within themselves as disabled, as missing a limb. Are disabled people obliged to regard those people as already part of the disabled community? I would suggest: obviously not. (And note: this is NOT even a philosopher’s made-up example. Tragically, there are people who want to have one or more limbs amputated, who want to become disabled: )
The identity of the group of women starts from clear cases. The existence of grey areas does nothing to challenge this. (For detailed argument to this conclusion, through a broadly-Wittgensteinian discussion of the sorites and vagueness, see Chapter 6 of my new book, discussed here: ). It is not reasonable, it is not feasible, for those wanting entry to any group to act as if they have already magically gained such entry just by virtue of wanting entry. I will discuss this point in more detail, below.
So: Burchill has almost certainly done Moore et al a disservice. But the questions that Bindel, Moore et al have raised about the relationship of trans-sexualism to Feminism / to women remain genuine questions – they shouldn’t be tarred with Burchill’s brush. The point of MY intervention is just to seek to help ensure that we don’t miss the nuances of this difficult debate between Bindel & Moore & some other Feminists on the one hand and some trans-activists on the other, in the hurly-burly of this ‘political panic’ of attacks on Burchill for her attacks on transgender people.
So, two important points:
1) That there is a genuine, complicated question within Feminism about whether trans-women can or should in every or all respects be regarded straightforwardly as women (They don’t have periods, they don’t experience menopause; they chose to be (to become) women rather than having been brought up gendered female; etc. etc). It is complicated. Does feeling psychologically as if you are a woman and making certain changes to your body as a consequence make you a woman? Or first, a more basic question: Is it enough, in order to BE a woman, to psychically identify as one? To this second question, we must surely answer: no. (It it were, then it would presumably be enough to be disabled to psychically identify as disabled; it would be enough to be black to psychically identify as black; etc.)
At this point, it may be helpful to introduce another element to the discussion. To use the term that has in the course of this spat made the journey from academia to the blogosphere, identities are intersectional: many aspects make up our identities and this is what intersectionality as an approach tries to emphasise. One’s social class, one’s gender, one’s sexuality, one’s ethnicity, one’s political and moral commitments all intersect in such a way as to create one’s identity. Talking of intersectionality, as some already have, should alert us to the different intersecting identities that a trans-woman and non-trans-woman have, and therefore guard against endless arguments over real identity.
Are the trans-activists who pushed Moore off Twitter saying that women have no right to a say on who gets to be a woman?? Or again: Should non-trans-women similarly have the absolute right to define once and for all the term woman?? We should see that our identities are complexes of many different intersecting aspects, and recognise that just as these bring us close to those who share similar aspects they might also distance us from others, including the very people whose identity we might wish to share.
And this means that, as well as a symmetry, there is an asymmetry here: Women do not have an absolute once and for all right to define who they are. But they are do have more of a say than others as to who they are (and who they are not / who are not they), right now. Our individualist age would be taking a step into utter absurdity, if it were to say that any individual by virtue of feeling a certain way can magic themselves into any group-identity.
Do the mass of women who did not go through the process of sex-reassignment — ordinary women, so-called ‘cissexuals’ — have no right to point out some differences between themselves and trans-women? I think they surely do have such a right, including the right to point to a broad mass of broadly (albeit not universally) shared, overlapping experiences that they tend to share. Hopefully, they will have the heart to recognise the difficulties specific to the trans experience, and the feeling of commonality that the transsexual has with women. But hopefully too, those gendered male who wish to transition to female-hood will recognise that they are seeking to join a group with specific experiences some of which they have not shared, a historically-oppressed group, a group which has fought hard for the right to have spaces where women can organise together, clear of the male gaze, etc. .
It is not essentialist to point out the difference between being gendered female one’s who life and being gendered female as a result of a choice. It is not essentialist to point out certain material differences between men and women: the only question is what SIGNFICANCE to attribute to those differences. (Feminism of course argues that patriarchal societies tend to attach a wrong and excessive significance to those differences.) Does a man choosing to seek to become a member of an oppressed group (women) have the right to demand full unequivocal membership of that group and then speak as part of it without any possibility of objection? It is complicated, but it is at the very least not at all self-evident that one ought to answer that question with a Yes.
(2) While Burchill is an unpleasant controversialist who tries to create outrage, and while nothing that I write here should be interpreted as a defence of what SHE has said, there has also without doubt been some real and I think in part quite unwarranted unpleasantness from one very vocal section of the trans community against anyone, including some prominent Feminists, who dares to say out loud anything resembling (1).
Now, some trans-activists would say that what I have just written is in any case misleading, in that it makes being a transgender seem a ‘choice’ like any other, when the lived experience of trans people is that they have no choice about their gender-identification being opposite to the sexual identity they are assigned on the basis of their biology. Saying that there is no choice about making the trans-ition is, however, misleading: i) It suggests a new essentialism, which Foucaultians and some Queer Theorists would object to; it suggests that psyche is destiny (that if you are ‘a woman in a man’s body’ then you are really a woman) and, ironically, leaves no room for human experimentation or novel self-definition (i.e. for the flexibility of being able to resist society’s binarism, the insistence that you are either a man or a woman — trans-women insist on the latter, for themselves –, by creating genuinely new sexual identities); ii) It cannot make sense of the experience of another important minority that tends to get ignored in these debates: those who feel profoundly ill at ease in their bodies gender-wise and yet do NOT choose to seek to pass as women, do NOT undergo sex-reassignment surgery, etc.
The issue that concerns Bindel etc, is whether it is good and practical Feminist politics to completely unqualifiedly open the ranks of women to some former men. I am nervous about men or trans-women insisting that it goes without saying that it IS.
When I made some brief remarks similar to the above on Facebook recently, I was accused of bordering on gender essentialism. I would point out in this connection that it is ironic to be accused of borderline gender essentialism, when what the Trans activists in question are in some cases arguing for is the right to be taken for a woman with no questions asked ONCE SEX RE-ASSIGNMENT SURGERY ETC HAS HAPPENED. For surely no-one seriously claims that simply feeling like a woman is enough to make one one, for the reasons I gave above; but it appears that the hardline Trans position is that having the surgery etc certainly IS. But: that amounts to believing that anatomy is identity / destiny – but that you can change your anatomy, and so change your identity / destiny. This is pretty clearly a neo-essentialism, it seems to me.
Notice furthermore that there is something deeply and viciously paradoxical about the idea that simply feeling like a woman is enough to make one one. For what is it that one feels like, if one feels like a woman? It can’t be that the feeling of feeling like a woman is in and of itself a complete, self-validating, ‘private’ experience, of an individual (to see why not, Wittgenstein’s anti-private-language considerations are helpful); the experience must have some content. Obviously, what the content of the experience is, and necessarily so, is: feeling like one of ‘those’. Like one of those humans who has a body of a certain kind/shape, who perhaps dresses in certain ways, etc. (Thus some Feminists are understandably nervous that some trans-women may identify women by reference to an ideal of femininity that Feminism itself, rightly, puts into question). In other words, feeling like a woman / feeling like one is a woman is necessarily defined by reference to the pre-existing class of women. This point makes it clear that trans-women are dependent on the pre-existing category of women – on (ordinary) women, in other words. In simple terms: Being a trans-woman is necessarily in part based on the idea of being someone who in some sense on at present is not. This already guarantees that the feeling that one is one of them – a woman – is not sufficient. Because such an identity-claim is precisely a claim that goes beyond / differs from what one currently is. (It is, as we might put it, a desire-claim concerning oneself, as much as an identity-claim.) And such a claim is logically dependent on the pre-existence of the group that one identifies with. It is that pre-existence that underlies the asymmetry I pointed up, above.
Now, what I am saying might be countered by saying this: Surely the ideal of feminism would be that gender identity is irrelevant when it comes to the rights, opportunities and roles available to a person? In that case, denying trans women ‘full’ womanhood is illogical, as doing so uses gender as a basis for discrimination. This may not be an ideal world but the only way to move towards one, it might be argued, is to remain true to such ideals.
In reply, I would say this: Yes, that certainly is the ideal of much feminism – but it remains an UNREALIZED ideal. Until it is realised, it is premature to criticise Feminists for retaining the category of ‘woman’. If women want all/only-women spaces, etc., then, in a still-patriarchal society, they should certainly be allowed to create them. It is not true that to move toward an ideal world we have to pretend that we are already in one.
The picture is of course in reality even more complex, however, than I have so far allowed. Trans-women typically cannot actually get the surgery they want until they have been living as a woman for years. The most common process is for a trans woman to “come out” as trans and start to live as a woman long before they have surgery, if they even have surgery at all. Many don’t ever have the surgery for various reasons, including because it comes with a great many complications and the results are not always satisfactory. While there are of course different positions the general trans position is that surgery is just one part of a greater process, and, some would say, not necessarily even an essential or the most important part.
Recognising this complexity however creates only additional difficulties for the simplistic case made by some trans-activists. It creates, to be precise, a dilemma for them. Either one says that only post-op trans-sexuals should have a right to be treated as women without question: in which case, as implied earlier, it appears to be the trans-activist who is being essentialist, by attributing gender identity to anatomy (plus hormones etc), and merely adding that anatomy is malleable. Such a position puts a stark dividing line within the trans-community between pre-op (or non-op) on the one hand and post-op on the other. Or one says that all self-identifying women (i.e. pre-op trans-sexuals too) should have a right to be treated as women without question: in which case, it really must be asked, do you really not see ANY good argument for women to exclude from women-only spaces people who have male genitalia, etc? Can you really not see how some women might find it problematic to be told that they simply must let such people in on equal terms?
To move towards conclusion: A key problem for both sides in this debate is not having truly taken on board the point that identity is not a simple but a complex; hence they both end up arguing over something which is merely one aspect of the complex and by extension they commit themselves to the very essentialism they all argue they are against.

I think the real culprit here may then be a profound – a hyper- — individualism in our society, a kind of psychical consumerism of identity-politics that makes it seem as though any claim to identity is self-validating and must be accepted, and a wearing of victimhood as a badge such that one’s victimhood is supposed to prevent any criticism of one’s psychologically-based claims to identity. In tandem with this, ironically, lies a deep-set and enduring power of essentialist gender stereotypes and of biologism; a deep-set cultural assumption that one’s body ought to reflect gender stereotypes and ought to take on one of two supposedly-biologically-pre-set formations.

I will never rest until all oppression is ended. But the oppressed (and of course that is virtually all of us, in one way or another) must also seek to step out of the victim-role; to boldly fight for themselves, and to work in coalition to make this world a place where all of us can and will flourish; rather than to seek to vie as to who is more oppressed.

In this context, is it too much to hope, to hope that a little reflective philosophy such as I have essayed here may shed a little light on the matter? That tempers might calm enough to think things through as I have sought to do here? I hope not…

For, unlike Julie Burchill, I have the greatest of sympathy for trans-sexuals, a small minority who remain deeply misunderstood today, and who are probably in very many cases worse oppressed than many (non-trans) women. I hope that our society grows in its acceptance of such complicated sexual identities. I reject transphobia completely and out of hand.

But: I think that Feminists have a right to point out that there can in some cases be a prima facie tension between the desire to become a woman and the full recognition of the still-often-stark oppression of women, much of the time, in much of the world. And, more important (because more pressing): it is just plain wrong for any victim-group to use its victim-status as a tool with which to beat other victims of oppression. Whenever a trans-activist bullies a Feminist (or of course, equally, vice versa), Feminism dies a little – and trans-women need Feminism badly. Because, if they don’t know all there is to know about the oppression of women before they become one, I am reliably informed (by a transsexual acquaintance) that they often get to know a lot more about it afterward…

[Thanks to those who gave me comments on an earlier version of this piece. Please note that, in this piece, I am, obviously, discussing only male-to-female transsexualism. That’s complicated enough, without also addressing the reverse case, let alone hermaphroditism, etc.]