Friday, January 21, 2022

Can modern society define what a woman is?

Last year I had a debate with someone who insisted that the term "woman" could refer to anything that a person identifying as such wanted it to mean. My objection that if the term could mean anything at all that it became meaningless fell on deaf ears. 

This debate has now gone mainstream. Matt Walsh was invited onto the Dr Phil show and he had this argument with a trans activist (starting from about 7:20):


The discussion kicked off when Matt Walsh asked the trans activist (Addison) to define the term "woman". Addison replied: "Womanhood is something that I cannot define because I myself am not [a woman]. Matt Walsh interjected: "But you used the word, so what did you mean when you said transwomen are women if you don't know what it means?" Addison: "So here's the thing, so I do not define what a woman is because I do not identify as a woman. Womanhood is an umbrella term, it includes people who...." Matt Walsh interjecting: "That describes what?" Addison: "People who identify as a woman." Matt Walsh: "Identify as what?" Addison: "As a woman." Matt Walsh: "What is that?" Addison: "To each their own. Each woman, each man, each person is going to have a different relation with their own gender identity and define it differently." Matt Walsh: "You won't even tell me what the word means though".

In my post I suggested that this inability to define a term like "womanhood" could be traced back to the metaphysics of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes who rejected realism in favour of nominalism:
You can see here the logic of nominalism (that there are only individual instances of things) and a certain type of materialism (that we are just matter in motion) in undermining a "teleology" - a view that there are proper ends to human life that are discernible through reason.
  Sohrab Ahmari had a similar take on the Matt Walsh discussion:

And what of the feminists? One made this comment:

This doesn't really help much. Yes, it defines the term "woman" with clarity as "a person with a female body". But it deliberately stops there and refuses to give any meaning to the term "womanhood". Our terf feminist wants "womanhood" to be self-defined in a similar way that the trans activists want "woman" to be self-defined.

Terfs and trans are both running with the same principle, of claiming that our sex has no real content that might influence who we are or what we do. For that reason, championing the terf position prepares the ground for adopting the trans one - it becomes very difficult to hold the line once the general principle is accepted.

Nor is the terf position persuasive even in terms of biology. If it is clear that we are biologically distinct sexes, then it is unreasonable to suggest that these biological distinctions would have no effect on personality. If men evolved more muscular bodies fit for the purposes of hunting large game and for defending the tribe in warfare, and if women's bodies are designed for the bearing and nurture of infants, then how could you possibly claim that this would have no effect at all on who we are in our personhood? 

And why should people even care about manhood and womanhood under the terms suggested by terf feminism? If it is just a matter of different bodies, with no ramifications for the human person, then who would care if they were erased as coherent categories? The categories would be merely accidental to life if what the terfs say is true.

Nor are terf feminists consistent in severing sex and personality. They are not as laid back in claiming that each man can have any kind of personality. Instead, there is a categorising of some kinds of masculine personality as "toxic" and attempts to educate men into adopting more emotional expressions of personality. In other words, there are value judgements when it comes to expressions of manhood, rather than "each man can equally define for himself in any direction he chooses". 

It is better to acknowledge some positive content to manhood and womanhood, rather than making these terms wholly based on subjective, individual preference or practice. This does not have to be overdone, to the point that they are felt to be unnecessarily restrictive or limiting. But look at what happens when a society refuses to define at all and denies any objective meaning to terms like woman or womanhood. The categories are then effectively erased and become meaningless except, as Matt Walsh aptly put it in the video, as "costumes that can be worn".

Friday, January 14, 2022

The rights place

I am currently reading The Unintended Reformation by Brad S. Gregory. I am learning much from the book about the history of ideas - it is worth reading for this alone. 

Gregory's most basic argument (I hope I do it justice in this summary) is that an unintended consequence of the Reformation was a proliferation of truth claims and that various attempts to finds ways to adjudicate between these failed. This contributed to the period of political instability and warfare which devastated parts of Europe in the later 1500s and 1600s. This then encouraged a shift from an ethics of the good to one of rights. For a period of time a shared religious culture was able to provide an ethics of the good now missing at the formal, public level, but in the long run the effect was to subjectivise morality, so that the good was whatever I subjectively held it to be.

In Gregory's own words (p.226):

In an attempt to address the unintended problems derived from doctrinal disagreements in the Reformation era, Christian contestation about the good was eventually contained by the sovereign liberal state through individual rights. The political protection of rights has in turn unintentionally fostered the subjectivization of morality by legalizing the self-determined good as a matter of preference. 

One of Gregory's many arguments is that the notion of rights was based on a concept of natural law, which made sense within the traditional understanding that man was made in God's image and that the natural world was God's creation. From this could be derived a view that man had been created in certain ways and for certain purposes that should not be violated - hence "rights".

However, when this traditional understanding waned, and was replaced with metaphysical naturalism (i.e. that there are only natural, material processes at work in the universe), then it becomes difficult to view rights as anything other than mere assertions. Gregory makes an interesting point about the incoherence involved in suggesting that moral actions are merely subjective preferences whilst violations of rights are inherently wrong (pp.225-226)

It is not uncommon to hear people insist on the constructed arbitrariness of moral values and yet denounce certain human actions as wrong because they violate human rights. That such a self-contradictory absurdity seems to be widespread and tends to escape the notice of its protagonists suggests both that it is deeply rooted and that it fulfils an important function...

The incoherence of such a pervasive sensibility - moral values are arbitrary but some actions are wrong - derives from unawareness of the historical genealogy of two desires that are contradictorily combined. The first seeks to maximise individual autonomy to determine the goods according to one's preferences (hence the advocacy for arbitrariness). But the second endeavours to uphold human rights as a safeguard against the horrific things human beings can do to one another depending on their preferences (hence the insistence on non-arbitrariness). The first desire is the long-term product of a rejection of teleological virtue ethics, the second a residue of the belief that human beings are created in God's image and likeness. Their combination depends for its appeal on a skepticism that goes only so far but no further. One needs to get rid of a God who acts in history, who makes moral demands and renders eternal judgements consonant with teleological and divinely created human nature. Otherwise human beings would no longer be the neo-Protagorean measure of all things, and the ideologically foundational modern commitment to the autonomous, unencumbered self would be threatened. But one equally cannot permit human actions that are consistent with the scientific finding that human being are nothing more than biological matter-energy. Otherwise human being would be ultimately no different from amoebae or algae....and one could act accordingly depending on one's preferences and desires. So souls must go, but rights must stay; skepticism must be embraced with a carefully calibrated and catechetically inculturated arbitrariness. It must be frozen where it unstably stood after the Enlightenment's supposed supersession of the Reformation era in the late eighteenth century: in just the rights place.

Gregory presses an argument in the book that what has been lost is an ethics of the good practised within a moral community. I thought this when I was still in my twenties, i.e. that a community has to be willing to articulate its vision of the good and to uphold it (reasonably) as a moral standard or norm. If it fails to do so (for instance, in the belief that it is not possible to discern such a good, or to come to a shared understanding of it), then there will be a lowering of the moral understanding within that community.