Tag Archives: Social Sciences - Page 2

Being a Man I: Social Construct

my 1960s wedding suit

Apparently some men are having trouble figuring out what it is to be a man. There are various groups and individuals that purport to be able to teach men how to be men (or at least dress like the male actors on the show Mad Men).

Before a person can become a man, it must be known what it is to be a man.  There are, of course, many conceptions about what it is to be a man.

One option is to take the easy and obvious approach: just go with the generally accepted standards of  society. After all, a significant part of being a man is being accepted as a man by other people.

On a large scale, each society has a set of expectations, stereotypes and assumptions about what it is to be a man. These can be taken as forming a set of standards regarding what one needs to be and do in order to be  a man.

Naturally, there will be conflicting (even contradictory) expectations so that meeting the standards for being a man will require selecting a specific subset. One option is to select the ones that are accepted by the majority or by the dominant aspect of the population. This has the obvious advantage that this sort of manliness will be broadly accepted.

Another option is to narrow the field by selecting the standards held by a specific group. For example, a person in a fraternity might elect to go with the fraternities view of what it is to be a man (which will probably involve the mass consumption of beer). On the plus side, this enables a person to clearly  be a man in that specific group. On the minus side, if the standards (or mandards) of the group differ in significant ways from the more general view of manliness, then the individual can run into problems if he strays outside of his mangroup.

A third option is to attempt to create your own standards of being a man and getting them accepted by others (or not). Good luck with that.

Of course, there is also the question of whether there is something more to being a man above and beyond the social construction of manliness. For some theorists, gender roles and identities are simply that-social constructs. Naturally, there is also the biological matter of being a male, but being biologically male and being a man are two distinct matters. There is a clear normative aspect to being a man and merely a biological aspect to being male.

If being a man is purely a matter of social construction (that is, we create and make up gender roles) than being a man in group X simply involves meeting the standards of being a man in group X. If that involves owing guns, killing animals, and chugging beer while watching porn and sports, then do that to be a man. If it involves sipping lattes, talking about Proust,  listening to NPR  and talking about a scrumptious quiche, then do that. So, to be a man, just pick your group, sort out the standards and then meet them as best you can.

In many ways, this is comparable to being good: if being good is merely a social construct, then to be good you just meet the moral standards of the group in question. This is, of course, classic relativism (and an approach endorsed by leading sophists).

But perhaps being a man is more than just meeting socially constructed gender standards. If so, a person who merely meets the “mandards” of being a man in a specific group might think he is a man, but he might be mistaken. But, this is a matter for another time.

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Rhetorical Overkill

Adolf Hitler portrait, bust, 3/4 facing right.

Image via Wikipedia

As part of my critical thinking class, I teach a section on rhetoric. While my main concern is with teaching students how to defend against it, I also discuss how to use it. One of the points I make is that a risk with certain forms of rhetoric is what I call rhetorical overkill. This is  commonly done with hyperbole which is, by definition, an extravagant overstatement.

One obvious risk with hyperbole is that if it is too over the top, then it can be ineffective or even counterproductive. If a person is trying to use positive hyperbole, then going too far can create the impression that the person is claiming the absurd or even mocking the subject in question. For example, think of the over the top infomercials where the product is claimed to do  everything but cure cancer.  If the person is trying to use negative hyperbole, then going too far can undercut the attack by making it seem ridiculous. For example, calling a person a Nazi because he favors laws requiring people to use seat belts would seem rather absurd.

Another risk is that hyperbole can create an effect somewhat like crying “wolf”. In that tale, the boy cried “wolf” so often that no one believed him when the wolf actually came. In the case of rhetorical overkill, the problem is that it can create what might be dubbed “hyperbolic fatigue.” If matters are routinely blown out of proportion, this will tend to numb people to such terms. On a related note, if politicians and pundits routinely cry “Hitler” or “apocalypse” over lesser matters what words will they have left when the situation truly warrants such terms?

In some ways, this  is like swearing. While I am not a prude, I prefer to keep my swear words in reserve for situations that actually merit them. I’ve noticed that many people tend to use swear words in everyday conversations and I found this a bit confusing at first. After all, I have “hierarchy of escalation” when it comes to words, and swear words are at the top.  But, for many folks today, swear words are just part of everyday conversation (even in the classroom). So, when someone swears at me now, I pause to see if they are just talking normally or if they are actually trying to start trouble.

While I rarely swear, I do resent the fact that swear words have become so diluted and hence less useful to make a point quickly and directly. The same applies to extreme language-if we do not reserve it for extreme circumstances, then we diminish our language by robbing extreme words of their corresponding significance.

So, what the f@ck do you think?

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Another Point About Canine Cognition

Descartes, most famous for writing “I think, therefore I am, also wrote about the minds of animals. Roughly put, his view was that animals lacked minds, at least as he saw minds (as immaterial metaphysical thinking substances). He had two main arguments for this: first, animal behavior can be explained without such minds using purely physical explanations. So, by Occam’s Razor, there is no need to accept that animals have minds. The second argument he have is that animals do not use true language and this is the surest sign that they lack minds.

Descartes was well aware that clever animals, like dogs and horses, could learn various tricks and that all animals can make noises to express feelings. However, he held that these facts did not show that animals think.

In recent years, researchers have begun to accept what dog folks have known since humans started having dogs as pets: dogs are smart. For example, research has revealed that dogs can recognize the use of a pointed finger. While recognizing what a pointed finger means (“that”) seems simple enough, it actually requires fairly advanced cognition. The intent of the action must be understood and the object of the action (what is pointed at) must also be recognized.  This sort of sign seems to be more abstract than a direct physical gesture, such as a display of anger or joy. As such, this sort of interpretation requires fairly impressive communication skills.

Dogs, as all dog folks know, are very good at conveying their feelings and desires. They are also quite good at understanding words and can have rather complex vocabularies. For example, my husky can distinguish between numerous words and phrases and react accordingly. She also has various vocalizations and behavior that make it clear what she wants or seems to be thinking at the time. While this might be dismissed as mere habituation, even habituation that complicated would require some significant mental horsepower.

While dogs do not use true language, they certainly seem to have a rather good grasp of our use of language as well as our gestures. Because of this, I am inclined to regard dogs as having minds, albeit less complex than those of most humans (of course, I believe that my husky is smarter than some humans). Unlike Descartes, my view is that having a mind is not a “you do or you don’t” sort of thing in all cases. Rather, minds seem to come in varying degrees. Of course, what the mind actually might be is something that is still under considerable debate.

The Running Gender Mystery

Since I am a runner (well, returning to running as my tendon heals), I pay some attention to news about the sport. One thing I like about the coverage is that it tends to involve less controversy and bad news than other sports. Of course, running is not free of such controversy as a recent incident attests.

Semenya, a South African runner, is currently the world’s champion in the women’s 800 meter race. The controversy is that it has apparently been claimed that she is not a woman. The basis of this is that her testosterone levels were tested at three times the normal level. She has also been under observation since her racing ability has made incredible advances in a relatively short time. Since natural improvements are generally gradual in nature, this raised suspicions.

One reply that has been given to the charge that “she is actually a he” is that Semenya certainly seems to be a female.

This sports controversy also raises a controversy over the nature of gender. Presumably Semenya appears to be a female (it has been implied that sort of check has been done). However, there are cases in which a person looks like a female yet is genetically male. This is complete androgen insensitivity syndrome and is more common than one might expect. Such people have higher testosterone levels than “normal” women because they have testes (albeit not descended). I must emphasize that I am not making any claims about Semenya, I am merely bringing this up for the sake of the discussion.

Since human societies are generally built around an obsession about gender identity and divisions, this syndrome does create some difficulties. If the syndrome is discovered when the child is young, there is the option of assigning a gender through the use of medical means (including surgery). In some cases, the procedure is delayed until the child can make his/her own decision.

Sports are, of course, not free from the gender obsession. Of course,  the concern over gender can be seen as quite reasonable. After all, males have a general physical advantage over females and for sports to be fair, males should be distinguished from females. This seems to be morally on par with divisions based on age (like age groups in road races) and weight (like in boxing). However, if someone looks like a women yet has male genes (and the higher testosterone) then that person might be seen as having an unfair advantage over “normal” women. Of course, such a person might be at a disadvantage relative to “normal” male athletes.

One way to deal with this sort of concern would be to determine the degree to which a person with this syndrome has an advantage over “normal” woman in regards to athletic competition. If such an advantage exists and places the person into the male range, then it would seem to be unfair to allow the person to compete against “normal” women. Of course, if people are to be tested to determine how they fall on the competitive spectrum, then fairness would seem to require that all athletes be tested and grouped based on their capabilities rather than on gender. Of course, practical concerns (costs, for example) would make this sort of testing and sorting very unlikely. As such, the sorting of folks by gender is likely to remain the standard in sports.  Of course, this approach is the cause of the difficulty in the matter at hand.

Because sorting is and will remain gender based, it seems most reasonable to allow a person with the syndrome to compete as the gender they have chosen (or been assigned). It is not a perfect solution, but seems to be the fairest approach. Naturally, the person would have to be “established” in the gender rather than simply deciding to be, for example, a woman for the purposes of competition after having lived as a male.

Of course, some “normal” women have naturally high levels of testosterone. This can presumably provide some women with an advantage over other women, but this would not be cheating. After all, some people are born with better lung capacity or more efficient muscles and this is not cheating.

It must be said, of course, that a person might also have unusual high levels of testosterone due to the use of synthetic testosterone as a steroid to increase athletic performance. If this is the case, then the ethics of the situation are quite clear-such cheating is morally unacceptable in sports.

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Emotion and Ethics

Paging through last week’s Newsweek, I came across Sharon Begley’s article “Adventures in Good and Evil.” I found the article rather interesting and, shockingly enough, have some things to say about it.

Begley accepts a current popular view of ethics: it is rooted in evolution and grounded in emotions.  She briefly runs through the stock argument for the claim that morality is an evolved behavior. Roughly put, the argument is that our primate relatives show what we would consider altruistic behavior (like helping each other or enduring hardship to avoid harming others of their kind). Naturally, the primates are more altruistic with their relatives. It is assumed that our primate ancestors had this same sort of behavior and it helped them survive, thus leading to us and our ethical behavior.

Perhaps this “just so” story is true.  Let us allow that it is.

Begley then turns to the second assumption, that ethics is more a matter of “gut emotion”  than “rational, analytic thought.” Using a stock Philosophy 101 example, she writes:

“If people are asked whether they would be willing to throw a switch to redirect deadly fumes from a room with five children to a room with one, most say yes, and neuroimaging shows that their brain‘s rational, analytical regions had swung into action to make the requisite calculation. But few people say they would kill a healthy man in order to distribute his organs to five patients who will otherwise die, even though the logic—kill one, save five—is identical: a region in our emotional brain rebels at the act of directly and actively taking a man’s life, something that feels immeasurably worse than the impersonal act of throwing a switch in an air duct. We have gut feelings of what is right and what is wrong.”

Begley’s reasoning is, of course, that since the logic is identical, it follows that the different judgments in the cases must be based in emotion rather than reason. While her view is reasonable, I disagree with her on two points:  I believe that the logic is not actually identical and that her explanation of the distinction between the two cases is mistaken. Obviously enough, I need to make a case for this.

While the logic of the two cases is similar, the logic only becomes identical if the cases  are considered in a rather abstract manner.  To be specific, the logic is identical if we only consider that the agent is choosing between five deaths or one. If this fact were the only morally relevant fact about the situations, then the logic would indeed be identical (because the situations would be identical). However, there certainly seem to be morally relevant distinctions between the two cases.

One obvious distinction is the oft discussed letting die versus killing. In the first case, the agent has a role to play in who dies. However, the agent is not killing the children. Rather, s/he is deciding who the gas will kill. In the second case, if the agent does nothing, then s/he lets one person die. If she acts, then she kills a person. Since this distinction has been discussed in great length by other philosophers I will not go beyond saying that it is reasonable to take this to be a morally relevant distinction. Hence, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that the cases are not identical-and hence that the logic is not identical. If this is the case, then the distinction in the positions need not be explained in terms of a gut reaction-it could be the result of a rational assessment of the moral distinction between killing and letting die.

Another matter worth considering in regards to the logic is that of moral theories. When I teach my ethics class, I use the same sort of examples that Begley employs: I contrast a case in which the agent must chose who dies with a case in which the agent must chose between killing or letting die. Naturally enough, I use a case like Begley’s first case to illustrate how our moral intuitions match utilitarianism: if we cannot save everyone, then we are inclined to chose more over less. However, I do not use the second case to illustrate that ethics is a matter of a gut reaction. Rather, I use it to show that we also have moral intuitions that in some cases it is not the consequences that matter. Rather, we have intuitions that certain actions “just aren’t right.” Naturally, I use this sort of example in the context of discussing deontology in general and Kant‘s moral theory in particular. In the case at hand, it need not be a gut reaction that causes the agent to balk at killing an innocent person so as to scrap him for parts. On Kant’s view, reason would inform the agent that he must treat rational beings as ends and not simply as means. To murder a man for his organs, even to save five people, would be to treat him as a means and not an end. Hence, it would be an immoral action. There is, obviously enough, no appeal to the gut here and the logic of the cases would be different.

Other moral approaches would also ground the distinction without an appeal to the gut. For example, my religious students often point out that murdering someone would be an evil act because it violates God’s law. In this case. the appeal is not to the gut but to God’s law. As another example, a rule-utilitarian approach would also ground the distinction. After all, the practice of murdering people to use as parts would create more unhappiness than happiness-people would worry that they would be the next person being cut to pieces.  In both of these examples the logic of the two cases is not identical and there is no appeal to the gut.

Naturally, it is reasonable to consider the role of emotions in moral decision making. Obviously, most people feel bad about murder and this no doubt plays a role in their view of the second case. However, to simply assume that the distinction is exhausted by the emotional explanation is clearly a mistake. After all, a person can clearly regard murdering one person to save five as immoral without relying on a gut reaction. It could, in fact, be a rational assessment of the situation.