Stoic advice: gender pronouns

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

D. asks: What should a Modern Stoic think of the requirement to use gender-neutral pronouns and the refusal by some people to use them?

Ah, a simple question fraught with lots of potential complications! Let’s start with the second part, concerned with the refusal by some to use gender-neutral pronouns when asked by others to do so, presumably in social situations.

The obvious Stoic answer is, of course, that other people’s judgments and actions are not up to you, only your own. Marcus said:

“To care for all men is according to man’s nature; and man should value the opinion only of those who openly live according to nature.” (Meditations III.4)

Which in this context can be put into practice in the following fashion: you should care for other people, so if they think they have good reasons to ask you to address them with whatever pronoun they prefer, you should do it. It costs you nothing, and it makes for better human relations.

By the same token, however, if you encounter people who stubbornly refuse to oblige, because they think it is “silly,” or because they “don’t get it,” then they fall into the category of those who do not live “according to nature,” and their opinion should therefore be irrelevant to you.

That said, it is within your power to influence other people’s opinions (as distinct from determining them), and you do have a social imperative to do so, according to Stoic philosophy. Here is Marcus again:

“Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” (Meditations, VIII.59)

Teaching people, in this case persuading them that the request for a gender neutral pronoun is reasonable and not costly for the person who obliges, is both possible and, in fact, a Stoic duty, because we want to apply (our) reason to improve social living — that’s one good way to interpret what it means to be living according to nature. Always bearing in mind, of course, that your goal should be to do your best to reach people, it cannot be for them to actually agree with you, because the latter is outside of your control.

According to Seneca: “At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected” (Letter XLIX. On the Shortness of Life, 11), so we can perfect both ourselves and others.

The first part of your question, however, concerns a different aspect of the issue, if I understood you correctly: what should we think, as Stoics, when a particular language usage is required, and not simply requested? That is, is it okay for institutions, like the government, or my school, or any employer, to mandate a particular use of language, or to prohibit other usages?

The beauty of virtue ethics is that the answer to these questions is almost always “it depends.” This endlessly frustrates those who would rather go by a simple set of rigid rules (deontologists) or by the optimization of simple utility functions (utilitarians), but unqualified answers, or answers given in the absence of details on the specific circumstances, simply won’t do in most real life situations.

For instance, it is perfectly okay for an employer to establish parameters for a reasonable speech code that aims at making everyone comfortable in the workplace — within limits, and those limits are up to the practical wisdom (one of the Stoic virtues) of whoever drafts the policy. It is, however, far less reasonable for a government to intrude in how people talk to each other across all social circumstances. That is the way of totalitarian states, not of open societies. And yet, even in the latter case there certainly are limits to free speech that can, and even should, be the business of government, the most obvious example is when someone shouts “fire!” in a crowded place just for the fun of it, thereby possibly leading to a stampede that may injure or even kill people.

So the Stoic should have no problem following rules, either imposed by private employers or by the state, so long as those rules are justified by the specific situation on the ground. If the imposed rules become evidently burdensome or patently unjust, then I think the Stoic should exercises the virtues of justice and especially courage, taking a stand against arbitrary impositions that will make social living worse, rather than better.

My personal opinion about the use of gender pronouns, then, is that their use should not be mandated by institutions, as this may actually cause resentment in some, which in turn may lead to incomprehension and hostility. But if you are asked by someone to address them in a particular way, that is the reasonable, and hence the Stoic, thing to do.

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26 replies

  1. “My personal opinion about the use of gender pronouns, then, is that their use should not be mandated by institutions, as this may actually cause resentment in some, which in turn may lead to incomprehension and hostility. But if you are asked by someone to address them in a particular way, that is the reasonable, and hence the Stoic, thing to do.”

    Well said.

    If asked by someone I know personally to use a particular pronoun, I’ll just refer to them by their name.

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  2. I thought the questioner was referring to the use of gender neutral “their” as a singular antecedent as in “Everybody must do their best.” For many grammatical purists such a usage requires a Stoicism of the Mr. Spock sort.

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  3. Alan,

    I don’t see what Spock has to do with it, but I’m pretty positive I got the meaning of the question right. The original email I received was a bit longer than the part reprinted here.

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  4. I meant using the plural “their” to refer to a singular antecedent. In my attempt at humor, I got the grammatical terminology wrong. Sorry, Massimo, no more attempts to be funny.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Massimo: “Teaching people, in this case persuading them that the request for a gender neutral pronoun is reasonable and not costly for the person who obliges, is both possible and, in fact, a Stoic duty, because we want to apply (our) reason to improve social living.”

    I must depart from your often sound advice. While I might agree to use a gender-neutral pronoun (or even a pronoun that represents the person by another sex – one of the many invented varieties) so as not to offend, there are many other considerations at stake:

    I also want to stand in solidarity with those who refuse to use updated pronouns because it violates their sincere beliefs.
    Speech that violates the militant forces of political correctness is now being criminalized. Free speech is a precious right that is worthy of defense even if one is opposed to a particular expression of free speech.
    To narrow speech in this manner curtails necessary discussion of vital issues and is not in the best interests of society and of education.
    This highly sexualized agenda of sexual choice is forcing its way into the schools for the indoctrination of even 1st graders to their detriment. There are no studies that suggest that children will benefit from such sexual confusion.

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  6. This enters into the Machiavellian realm of power politics and Decadence. Gender pronouns are a light appetizer. Post Modern Critical Theorist Cultural Marxists have one overarching desire in their radical relativism; objective destruction of Western Culture through Totalitarian enforcement of Decadence through state sanctioned violence (police, military).

    This made the U.S. flyover States throw up Obama and Hillary. Trump reflected the collective electoral college nausea and desire to regain some minimum level of self respect, and to reverse the trend of the Nihilistic Devaluation of all Values.

    What should a Stoic do? Depends. If one were Marcus Aurelius one would be a warlike Martian Dancer, an Apex Predator Alpha killer who’s psyche is fixated on winning wars. So this PC war would depend on what was in it for them politically.

    If one were a Beta looking to fit in with their Left leaning group, they would conform to Victim vs. Victimizer Oppressor vs. Oppressed identiity political activism lest they be ostracized.

    Jordan Peterson vs, Canada as one example.

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  7. Jaycel Adkins wrote “If asked by someone I know personally to use a particular pronoun, I’ll just refer to them by their name.”

    Is it such a burden on you to simply use the pronoun that someone requests that you would sooner do away with pronouns altogether where that person is concerned than grant this simple courtesy?

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  8. So, predictably this post generated a lot of controversial comments. Just look at an exhaustingly long (and more than occasionally nasty) thread about it on the Stoicism Facebook page…

    Daniel,

    “I also want to stand in solidarity with those who refuse to use updated pronouns because it violates their sincere beliefs”

    But this is a Stoic blog: for a Stoic one’s beliefs, no matter how sincere, don’t need to be validated by others, so I don’t need solidarity concerning them.

    “Speech that violates the militant forces of political correctness is now being criminalized.”

    That suggests that you, like so many other commenters, have not read the OP carefully: I very clearly came out against institutions enforcing speech. I simply gave the advise that if someone wishes to be referred to by a particular pronoun it is polite to oblige. It makes for better social living.

    “Free speech is a precious right that is worthy of defense even if one is opposed to a particular expression of free speech”

    This has absolutely nothing to do with free speech.

    “To narrow speech in this manner curtails necessary discussion of vital issues and is not in the best interests of society and of education.”

    Who, exactly, is here suggesting to curtail speech or discussion? What are you reacting to? Certainly not my OP.

    “There are no studies that suggest that children will benefit from such sexual confusion.”

    There are no studies they will be harmed either.

    Wtquinn,

    I’m not sure what to make of your comments, but I picked up on these bits:

    “Post Modern Critical Theorist Cultural Marxists have one overarching desire in their radical relativism; objective destruction of Western Culture through Totalitarian enforcement of Decadence through state sanctioned violence (police, military).”

    Nonsense on stilts.

    “Trump reflected the collective electoral college nausea and desire to regain some minimum level of self respect, and to reverse the trend of the Nihilistic Devaluation of all Values.”

    Anyone who thinks, and I use the word loosely, that Trump has made it possible for our society to regain self-respect is a fool.

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  9. Thought police have no more to do with this than they have to do with whether you give into or resist the impulse to call an abusive or cruel relative some kind of epithet to their face. Although you have a sincere right to believe that your alcoholic abusive in-law is a (insert curse word here), you’re probably going to want to hold your tongue around that in-law and/or any people who fiercely defend that person. If you have occasion to bring the issue of this person’s behavior up – privately, with a loved one – then you can talk about the matter. I think it makes sense to act similarly if you sincerely believe that flexibility in gender and sexual identity is “against nature” and should be discouraged, especially given that a lot of people are going to disagree with you on the notion that this person’s behavior is somehow harmful, unlike the case of an abusive in-law. It’s common-sense avoidance of needless and pointless trouble to bring up that issue bluntly around a person who clearly believes otherwise. Maybe if you’re a concerned relative of that person, you can bring the issue up with the person directly, but remember that how they react is outside your control and calibrate your expectations accordingly.

    As for the illiberal left more generally…well…they may go overboard when they deny even a forum for civil discussion in, say, college courses, on the basis of fear of traumatizing one or two students who express interest in the course. But I don’t think that’s necessarily what’s being discussed here. Social conservatism should be able to be discussed freely, but in the appropriate time and place, such as a college psychology, sociology, or philosophy course, a peaceful protest march, or perhaps a small group of family and friends, as long as they agree to refrain from deliberately insulting each other as much as possible. It should also probably be discussed courteously even in those situations, to avoid situations that are likely to do far more harm than good. Someone could, in fact, say that they think the person who wants to be referred to by a gender-neutral pronoun is “against nature” or something of the sort without referring to them by the pronoun corresponding to their sex-at-birth in a way intended to insult them. And if insults are used, well, the people who get involved in such a discussion should probably make some kind of agreement not to take them personally. All hard, but it would vastly improve the quality and potentially the productivity of political discussion.

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  10. Sophia Saphira wrote:

    “Is it such a burden on you to simply use the pronoun that someone requests that you would sooner do away with pronouns altogether where that person is concerned than grant this simple courtesy?”

    Yes, it actually can be a burden that worth dispensing with pronouns altogether.

    The advantage of traditional pronoun usage is that it is reflexive to must of us at this point. If I see someone who looks stereotypically female, I use she/her. If I see someone who looks stereotypically male, I use he/him. Where it is difficult to tell, I revert to using personal names or they. It is not perfect, but it works in almost all cases.

    Adding in a second layer to deal with some trans people complicates this, but not too much. I work with some trans women and men on occasion and it doesn’t take much additional cognitive overhead to update the rule to accommodate using she/her for the trans woman and he/him for the trans man.

    Where this breaks down entirely, however, is once you are attempting to deal with a large number of people and an ever growing list of pronouns to remember.

    Once we get to the point where there are multiple pronouns which are based on individual choices, distributed across multiple people, and there is a high probability of causing offense at using the incorrect pronoun, it is not worth bothering with pronouns at that point.

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  11. Massimo, thank you for posting my comment. And for your wise prediction.

    wtquinn

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  12. I’m wondering how I’m going to remember what pronoun to use for everybody. I have enough problems with names. Don’t today’s young people have something more important to worry about, something beyond themselves? Subjects are not lacking — economic and political equality, human rights, the state of Earth and many more. But they are worried about pronouns. Odd…

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  13. Massimo,
    On an earlier attempt to comment on this post I was unable to as WordPress couldn’t make a connection to Facebook to let me log in. I’m taking it as a sign from Zeus to discard the original comment. 😉

    Let me say this though: the posts you write where I’m most tempted to weigh in on are those posts where you bring Virtue Ethics into the universe of policy or jurisprudence which has become dominated by deontological ethics these last several centuries – and I regard both Thomistic/Aristotelian Natural Law Theory as well as Kant’s ethics (which I like to call “dignity ethics”) as deontological.

    I think the banishment of Virtue Ethics from this and other spheres was definitely part of the problem or problems, so it’s good to reintroduce the body of thought, but I think I differ with you in that I feel sure they are sine qua non, though while necessary they remain insufficient.

    Taking that back to antiquity: the Stoics held that Virtue was the only Good. The Platonists disagreed, arguing that Beauty and Truth were also both also Goods.

    Today’s deontologists might change the semantics and replace Beauty and Truth with Dignity and Conscience.

    The matter of these pronouns comes up at the demilitarized zone at the tense border between Dignity and Conscience and while this is an admirable try, ultimately I think it will be fruitless for virtue ethicists to try to persuade people that they should lay down their Dignity and Conscience Flags and stand together under the Virtue Flag.

    But that isn’t to say Virtue has no role in restoring peace to the demilitarized zone. I’d love to see you tackle Natural Law Theory, Aristotle/Thomas/Final Cause – but I’d rather see you take this suggestion instead: see if you can’t arrange a dialog, maybe podcast it or create a YouTube video – include in the dialog a Thomist representative of NLT, a secular Aristotle scholar or else a Maimonides scholar (either of whom to provide an alternative perspective on Aristotle), a Kant scholar who can represent Kant’s ethics, and yourself. Possessing very few bonafides except the intuition that it’s at the intersection of these four roads that we find the nub of our problem, and the fact that all four groups think they understand one another but likely do not, I’d volunteer myself to moderate, or I can volunteer an handful of others but it would be hard to find someone familiar with the subject who isn’t going to lean one way or the other and I think it’s that we all have these leans, and often aren’t aware of it, that is the problem – that and the fact that we need to find a way to live with our own leans without bending others to them.

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  14. Society these days doesn’t do much to encourage people to care about anything more than their own and their close associates’ freedom (to be whoever they want to be) and happiness (interpreted as feeling good or comfortable). Perhaps you don’t agree that they should care so much about such things. That’s fine. But if you know they do, and that deliberately not making an effort to acknowledge their identity is going to just tick them off and make them not even consider taking what you have to say seriously, it’s probably a good idea to watch what you say around them, because you know you have more control over your mouth than their politics. (If you do make an honest mistake, then you can ask for forgiveness…and see what happens.) Free speech is a two-way street. They have a right to say college students shouldn’t have to read books depicting violence or prejudice; you have a right to call them jackbooted Marxists. You have a right to call them by the pronoun corresponding to their sex at birth when they would rather be called something else; they have a right to call you a bigoted lout. Of course, those kinds of exchanges are probably going to end poorly and should thus be avoided unless your aim is not to make the best decisions you can, but simply feel smugly superior to those who make what you perceive as poorer decisions than yours.

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  15. John,

    “Subjects are not lacking — economic and political equality, human rights, the state of Earth and many more. But they are worried about pronouns”

    By that reasoning, you shouldn’t be upset if someone insults you. You have more pressing problems on your mind, like political inequality, human rights, and the state of the earth. You see the fallacy in that reasoning?

    Daniel,

    A post on natural law is on my wishlist. One of these days… As for the panel discussion, good idea, I’ll see if my friend Dan Kaufman, with whom I do a lot of philosophy video conversations, might be interested in organizing one. (See: http://tinyurl.com/y9cj7smu)

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  16. If you’re wondering why people are so concerned about pronouns, maybe this article might help answer you: https://letsqueerthingsup.com/2014/09/15/what-youre-actually-saying-when-you-ignore-someones-preferred-gender-pronouns/

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  17. Hey and I apologize for that last sentence – huge run-on, kinda made sense as I wrote it but reading it again, sheesh.
    Anyway – get what well-educated Catholics are taught about Aristotle and his final cause.
    If you buy into that teleology, then the “type 1” error – failing to err on the side of conservatism, is to favor dignity over conscience when dignity is seen to conflict with the final cause.
    If you don’t buy into that teleology, but you do hold to a deontological ethics – then you are probably relying on Kant, and then the type 1 error is to favor conscience when someone’s dignity seems to be at stake.

    Very, very difficult to find a compromise. Maybe impossible. Virtue ethics may offer some means, if only for co-existence, but not without first understanding the problem, why the conflict exists, and why it won’t go away.

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  18. Here on this thread, we’ve seen people use scare terms reaching from “Cultural Marxism” to “Thought Police”, with little consideration of whether those scare terms are even validly applicate to what they are applied to — and this is just over the suggestion that it would be a good thing to respect people’s requests over what pronouns to use on them.

    We haven’t even opened up discussion about hate speech — which would have triggered lots of wailing about impeding on free speech – often by people who don’t show the same outrage about similar restrictions on speech that are set up to protect people of privilege in the way that hate-speech restrictions aim to protect the marginalized — such as slander/libel laws.

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  19. Overnight I gave some more thought to this and the narrow parameters of what you are setting out to do, Massimo, is to answer the question “What should a Modern Stoic think of the requirement ,,,?”

    Confined to that scope, your answer is better than I first assessed it (and I didn’t assess it badly in the first place, just saying).

    It is interesting that your defined scope is lost on nearly everyone responding to it.

    It might be helpful to understand that there are two spaces at work, colliding. One space is conflict over the rules of the public square, or over the rules of the Commons. That’s the subject nearly everyone reflexively responds to, and why they almost all fail to take on your more narrow thesis.

    The other is your thesis – which isn’t a position statement on gender-neutral pronouns, it’s an answer to “what should the Stoic think or do, about this conflict over the rules of the Commons?”

    The difficulty is in disentangling the scope not only of your answer, but of the Stoic, from the scope of the Commons. The Stoic might not even have a position on the Commons and inasmuch as he does not, you are correct to assert that obliging a request to use a gender-neutral (or non-gender dictomous) pronoun, costs *** the Stoic *** nothing.

    But to those who feel they have a stake in the Commons, it does cost them something.

    Lots to say about that, but sticking to the line where I usually feel pulled into this: the difficulty for Stoicism and virtue ethics is that this legitimately seems to occupy the border region beyond which virtue ethics seem relatively inadequate to inform policy.

    Virtue ethics here inform a Stoic as to how to respond to others’ needs and requests, i.e.: “please call me by this or that pronoun”, and to others who conflict over the rules of the Commons.

    But can we rely on Stoicism, or virtue ethics, alone, to inform the rules of the Commons? Well, we can’t force everyone to be Stoic, to do so would be un-Stoic, and lapse into fascism. And practically speaking we can’t persuade everyone to be Stoic. Which brings us to the border, where I see it being quite difficult to rely on virtue ethics alone to inform a normative ethics agenda.

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  20. Daniel,

    Right, my answer was at two levels: (i) what should a prokopton do when asked by someone to use a particular pronoun; answer: oblige because the use of a particular pronoun is a preferred indifferent and it helps the polis to treat people with respect and politeness; (ii) does a Stoic have a problem with a business or a government imposing the use of a certain language? Not up to a point (for the same reason as (i)), yes beyond that point (because too much regulation of language also hampers social intercourse).

    And yes, some people confuse the two and/or focus only on the latter.

    “Can we rely on Stoicism, or virtue ethics, alone, to inform the rules of the Commons? Well, we can’t force everyone to be Stoic, to do so would be un-Stoic, and lapse into fascism”

    That is not the objective of Stoicism or any other virtue ethical approach. Virtue ethics is about developing the right character, not passing laws. Laws are the result of an agreement within the polis, and the more virtuous the individual citizens, the more virtuous the laws.

    I would go so far as to suggest that the two competitors of virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism — contra what their supporters often maintain — also have little to say about the law. Our laws are a mix of different philosophical precepts, no country is ruled by the Kantian imperative or by the idea of maximizing a given utility function.

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  21. “For Foucault, discourses control what can be “known” and in different periods and places, different systems of institutional power control discourses. Therefore, knowledge is a direct product of power. “In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one ‘episteme’ that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in theory or silently invested in a practice.”

    https://areomagazine.com/2017/03/27/how-french-intellectuals-ruined-the-west-postmodernism-and-its-impact-explained/

    The current-state of gender identity, pronouns, etc. on a macro level is politically charged (thus Massimo’s prescient self-fulfilling prophecy some would enhance the pigeon-hole topic). Gender pronouns are about desire for power to have the state impose language rules tantamount to Orwellian thought crime.

    “The notion of political correctness came into use among Communists in the 1930s as a semi-humorous reminder that the Party’s interest is to be treated as a reality that ranks above reality itself,” Dr. Codevilla writes in the Fall 2016 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.”

    https://www.academia.org/where-political-correctness-originated/?utm_content=bufferf51d8&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

    I’m guessing even modern Stoics are not clones with a single in-group preference lens of looking at the world. Stoics are currently free from violence of the state (in U.S.) to think and express real diverse views, however that’s at risk.

    One on one, my personal impulse is to accommodate out of genuine empathetic respect anyone’s request to be called by the personal name, pronoun, etc. of their choice.

    However if one brings a police officer with a gun to that one on one meet and greet introduction, that’s where polite discourse ends.

    Then again, post-modern’s don’t believe in discourse.

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  22. I doubt gender pronouns are consciously, among most people who care about them, some kind of desire for totalitarian control of language. I think they’re mostly about wanting to not feel controlled by others’ closed minds regarding sexuality and gender. In the past, such people would have felt extreme pressure (under threat of illegal but poorly prosecuted violence and perfectly legal constant ridicule) to live as their birth sex, conform to the traditional roles of their birth sex as much as they can, and keep quiet about their deep-seated feeling that they’re faking such a life. Today, some people would vastly prefer they still did that, and violence and ridicule to pressure these people to try to fit into the box they were stuffed in at birth have not disappeared.

    I personally disagree with a lot of postmodernism (most notably the notion that there’s no such thing as objective facts, only narratives related to power structures – now that REALLY kills discourse, not by force but by magnifying the impact of people’s own deficits in education), but activism in order to get society to be more open-minded about gender identity – to see it as something that can be decided upon like a modern profession instead of something you’re born into like a caste – does not seem like one of those problems, as long as there are no jackboots and guns involved to enforce it. And no, I don’t see any need to deny objective facts in order to be open-minded about gender. Biological sex is one thing – yes, 99% of us are either male or female – but nothing biological determines how people have to dress and speak, choose professions, engage in intimate relationships, and tend to their homes and families. (Yes, only biologically female people can gestate and lactate, but males and intersex people can easily give a baby a bottle of breastmilk or formula and change diapers.)

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  23. Thanks for the reply Massimo.
    I think within the scope offered your answer to the question or thesis is fully defensible – your trouble, as I’m sure you are observing, is those critiquing are wont to not stop and restrict themselves to the same scope.

    re: “I would go so far as to suggest that the two competitors of virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism — contra what their supporters often maintain — also have little to say about the law. Our laws are a mix of different philosophical precepts, no country is ruled by the Kantian imperative or by the idea of maximizing a given utility function.”

    I dunnoh. Little of column A, little of column B.
    When settling an Obergefell, do Ginsberg and Kennedy have Kant informing their judicial reasoning? I think a good argument is to be made that they do. Ditto that that Scalia and Alitto may call on the vectors of NLT when looking to err this way or that.

    How does society get there? Well: of course it’s more complicated than adherence to deontology, let alone awareness of it.

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  24. Wtquinn,

    “Gender pronouns are about desire for power to have the state impose language rules tantamount to Orwellian thought crime”

    While I am generally speaking against undue institutional impositions on language, this seems like more than a slight exaggeration.

    “However if one brings a police officer with a gun to that one on one meet and greet introduction, that’s where polite discourse ends.”

    Right, but of course nobody has done anything even close to that.

    I tend to agree with Julie’s take:

    “activism in order to get society to be more open-minded about gender identity – to see it as something that can be decided upon like a modern profession instead of something you’re born into like a caste – does not seem like one of those problems, as long as there are no jackboots and guns involved to enforce it”

    And on this:

    “Biological sex is one thing – yes, 99% of us are either male or female – but nothing biological determines how people have to dress and speak, choose professions, engage in intimate relationships, and tend to their homes and families.”

    Daniel,

    “Little of column A, little of column B.
    When settling an Obergefell, do Ginsberg and Kennedy have Kant informing their judicial reasoning? I think a good argument is to be made that they do. Ditto that that Scalia and Alitto may call on the vectors of NLT when looking to err this way or that.”

    Oh sure, Kant, Mill, and others do influence our laws and judicial decisions. But our system as a whole is neither Kantian nor Millian, nor can it be a coherent mix, since the two are mutually incompatible, philosophically speaking.

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  25. Massimo, just keeping the conversation going, …
    “Oh sure, Kant, Mill, and others do influence our laws and judicial decisions. But our system as a whole is neither Kantian nor Millian, nor can it be a coherent mix, since the two are mutually incompatible, philosophically speaking.”

    I know plenty of folks who seem to believe this or that philosophy was / is ** the cause ** for why society takes this turn or that. I think that a scientific observer will find that point of view tenuous at best.

    That said: what’s often going on with the philosophy is that some people are putting subjects under a microscope and applying the best analytic method and the most data to look most closely at a problem. So writ large: you see society continually expanding and aggregating to some 49:51 or 47:53 face-off and most people can intuit which side of the face off they are on, but they only align based on broader social forces.

    Writ-microscopically, someone can put to light why we push out to those lines of demarcation, and the next 3, 10 and 1999 scholars who study it closely, run into the same thing.

    That’s where we find Kant, Locke, Mills, etc, I think anyway.

    One judge will look at a case and the law does not tell us, but a judgment must be made – rule one way and conscience will be affirmed but dignity denied, rule another and dignity will be affirmed but conscience denied. It will be nearly impossible to satisfy both concerns – it’s literally a “question of value”.

    Kant arrived first at articulating the value and primacy of dignity, Thomas, channeling Aristotle, arrived at articulating the value of conscience. We can step back, then come at it again, on issue after issue, and we keep encountering the same meta-ethical framework.

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  26. Daniel,

    All I’m saying is that one cannot consistently be a Kantian and a utilitarian, but that in practice we all take into consideration duties (“Kantian”), and consequences (“utilitirian”), filtering them through our own characters and values (virtue ethics). That is, ultimately, we are all virtue ethicists…

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