To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part I

This is the second of three posts on trans* issues in philosophy.

The second part of this post is here.

I recently gave a short introduction to moral bioenhancement at a multidisciplinary Philosophy of Technology reading group. The conversation soon shifted to definitions of enhancement as a whole. When I was explaining how the welfarist account of enhancement avoids the problems in defining disease involved in distinguishing enhancement from the treatment of disease, I got to witness the following contributions to the discussion:
Sociologist: Like those sex changers! They go through the sex change and then their well-being improves.
Engineer: And if their well-being doesn’t improve, they change again. That has happened in Sweden!

As I facepalm in dismay and say something about moving back to the topic of enhancement, the sociologist rushes to stress that this really is relevant for the discussion at hand: what is the purpose of healthcare – should it treat disease or, more broadly, improve well-being? I agree. It is relevant. But there were things that disturbed me.

First, it was apparent that my co-conversants were not aware there was a transgender person in the room, or that they were talking to him. This was not even a possibility. Transgender people were something “out there in the world”, discussed as a curious phenomenon. While I read the sociologist as trying to expand the argument at hand to defend wide accessibility of medical interventions for trans* individuals (and the engineer as discrediting trans*identities as passing phenomena best suited to be the butts of his jokes), “the sex changers” were clearly something other, foreign, peculiar. To be accepted, sure, by any liberal standards; but also, only relevant to those present insofar as they proved a point.

Second, while their wording of choice was not in itself a huge problem – should merely terminology be off, it can simply be corrected – it was a telltale sign of something else, namely that neither had actually familiarised themselves with the phenomenon they were discussing. Nevertheless, they were purporting to claim it as evidence for their views. A marginalised group was used as a narrative to lend evidence to a debate among the privileged social majority – without the privileged having bothered to even google it.

Third, as the binary, mythic verbalisation of transitioning as “the sex change” (that can even be redone!) as if there was a single medical intervention that somehow magically turned the binary on/off switch of gender to the other end of the spectrum, resulting in a change from maleness to femaleness or vice versa, gave away – they were discussing a phenomenon that did not exist (other than in their tabloid-fueled imaginations).

While this was a single case, in the context of informal discussion, it was not an isolated incident. The three problems I outline above are ones that are often present in public discussion about trans* issues, and they also appear in academic debates:

Continue reading To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part I

Trans* and Queer Bioethics

This is the first of three posts on trans* issues in philosophy.

I was excited to read Annika Thiem’s piece on Queering Philosophy in The Philosopher’s Eye. Thiem raises questions about the relationship of philosophy and queer theory: what kind of a place does queer theory have within philosophy, and how can it inform and improve philosophy as a whole?

During my BA studies in Comparative Literature, queer theory (and feminist theory in general) was one of the best recognized approaches to the study of literature, which draws heavily from continental philosophy as a whole. By contrast, as I jumped over to another faculty and to the Department of Philosophy, firmly grounded on the analytic school, feminist perspectives were marginal at best. I have since reflected on how the differences in methodology and discourse could be bridged, in order to pursue analytic philosophy in a manner that is mindful of the work done in the context of gender studies. Plenty of this work is relevant to issues in analytic philosophy – and not just in questions pertaining to applied ethics, although this appears to be among the most obvious applications. Relatedly, a recent special issue of the The Hastings Center Report was themed around LGBT* Issues in Bioethics. This is an important field of inquiry given that, firstly, problematic assumptions abound as to to what extent medical sciences are relevant to understanding gender and sexuality; and more urgently, there are widespread deficiencies in trans* health care, just to name two.

Thiem suggests that a starting point for applying a queer theoretical understanding to philosophy needs to be “to reject the rhetorical gesture that renders queerness as something that “is studied only out of personal interest” or something studied “objectively” from a distance”. This rejection of false “objectivity”, of course, is relevant to any topic in applied philosophy: it would be sloppy thinking to treat being a member of any group, whether minority or majority, as disqualifying one from pursuing philosophical inquiry on topics pertinent to that group. This appears evident on some topics: after all, medical ethics ought to be researched by medical doctors and researchers without medical training alike. However, the topics of gender and sexuality are under such polarized discussion that attitudes conflating persons with their arguments (as well as with straw men) abound. A recent article on The Guardian springs to mind, in which Matt Haig, a male feminist writer, upon sharing his intention to write a book about masculinity, received Twitter criticism accusing him of “mansplaining feminism”.

Continue reading Trans* and Queer Bioethics

Great Beginnings

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the first lines of literary masterpieces. It appears every great novel has an equally epic opening line. I was inspired to check how some central works in contemporary analytic philosophy fare in the art of beginning.

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
“In this introductory chapter I sketch some of the main ideas of the theory of justice I wish to develop.”
Rawls is not even trying. I presume he has pareto optimal reasons not to.

Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
“Philosophers usually think of their discipline as one which discusses perennial, eternal problems–problems which arise as soon as one reflects.”
Generic, but promising.

Robert Nozick: Anarchy, State, and Utopia
“Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).”
Well, that’s an attempt. I’m not sure whether I should add or subtract points for using parentheses within the first full sentence of a text.

And the winner is…
Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons
“Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.”
Full points for this one. Cat mentioned within the first three words. That’s hard to beat.

Self-Enhancement, Well-Being, and Moral Worth

It’s been quiet in the blog – something’s been brewing… A master’s thesis, that is! Getting the thesis fresh out of the press feels great, but by no means do I feel done. There are so many new projects waiting, and I look forward to processing them here, as well.

But, just to commemorate this point in time, here’s the abstract for the thesis. The full text of the thesis can be downloaded from my profile.

POLARIS KOI: Self-Enhancement, Well-Being, and Moral Worth
Master’s Thesis, 64 p.
Department of Philosophy, University of Turku
May 2015

This thesis is an approach to the topic of whether the trait improvements accomplished by human enhancement technologies are morally valuable as such. While the moral desirability of self-improvement appears intuitive to many, some object that technological self-enhancement does not hold equal moral worth to conventional self-improvement.

Many defenders of enhancement technologies associate their moral desirability with the well-being they are purported to improve. I will present one way of articulating how the moral worth of self-enhancement can be defended on the basis of the well-being it confers, which I term ‘the well-being thesis’. This argument defines enhancement interventions as promoting well-being and proposes that actions that increase well-being are right actions. Acts of undergoing self-enhancement are, therefore, right acts, and they also meet the other criteria for acts with moral worth.

I examine the premises of the well-being thesis and subject it to central criticism against the moral desirability of the use of enhancement technologies. This discussion draws heavily from recent debate concerning ‘moral enhancements’, a class of interventions intended to alter our moral psychology. The central arguments of this debate are expanded and applied across self-enhancements as a whole. One of my central sources is Thomas Douglas’ article “Enhancing Moral Conformity and Enhancing Moral Worth” (2014). In my analysis, the moral evaluation of self-enhancement problematizes notions of autonomy, authenticity, and the relationship of technology with the agent.

I conclude that even though the well-being thesis is relatively strong against the counterarguments based on effort, the autonomy and authenticity of the agent, hyperagency, and the role of deliberation in moral agency, its main liability appears to be its most fundamentally ethical premise that improving well-being would constitute a right-maker. This is a controversial claim; additionally, even when this premise is accepted, definitions of the concept of well-being can limit the scope of the well-being thesis.

Keywords: Bioethics, human enhancement, technology, transhumanism, well-being

What I Read In The Summer: Charles Taylor

Those summer days are over, but one can always reminisce. This is part of a series of posts on my summer reading. Just add ice cream.

The critics of modern individualism are many, and Charles Taylor is one of the more articulate ones. The Ethics of Authenticity (1992) is a slim yet powerful volume. Many of its core theses have been discussed in more bredth in Sources of Self (1989); The Ethics of Authenticity, however, remains lucid despite its more distilled form.

Taylor makes an effort to analyze, interpret and evaluate the modern search for authenticity. He supports the quest for personal authenticity while criticizing its individualist side. For Taylor, leading an authentic life is not a solo effort, but rather a form of engaging with the society.


What I Read in the Summer: Joseph Raz

Those summer days are over, but one can always reminisce. This is part of a series of posts on my summer reading. Just add ice cream.

A quick poll around my circle of friends reveals that the perfectionist philosopher Joseph Raz has none of the sex appeal Karen Barad (in my previous post) does. Maybe that’s because Raz makes no attempt to blow your mind with metaphysics or to connect their theory with groundbreaking science. As John Danaher has remarked in his blog, Raz’s writing is dull. At times it’s boring the point of despair. I can only be grateful I was reading his monograph, The Morality of Freedom, in the summer, sipping one home-made ice latte after another in an effort to stay awake. Which, I think, was well rewarded: Raz’s argument against state neutrality was one of the more interesting views I’ve come across lately.

What? Freedom without state neutrality? How is this plausible? Will this bearded old fellow be able to pull this off?

Continue reading What I Read in the Summer: Joseph Raz

What I Read in the Summer: Karen Barad

Those summer days are over, but one can always reminisce. I’ll be writing up a series of posts on my summer reading. Just add ice cream.

The new materialist theorist Karen Barad has a remarkable fandom among the gender studies majors in my circle of friends. It’s easy to remark why: coming from the background of hard science, she portrays both the unknown and the familiar types of learnedness to my queer buddies in the humanities. One described her as lucid, important, and among their principal influences in queer studies; another said they would not even try to understand everything and preferred to just dig it. Make of my friends’ statements what you will. Barad calls her philosophy ‘agential realism’; I read her monograph, Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), in an effort to understand it, at least in part.

Barad’s philosophy is an ambitious one. She takes theorists and philosophers like Bohr, Foucault, Butler and Haraway, and basically alters their work only enough that she can stick an universal quantor in front of everything she deems worthwhile. This is because her theory is an attempt at capturing the universal, at finding a metaphysics that would explain both quantum mechanics and feminist struggle, among other phenomena.

Continue reading What I Read in the Summer: Karen Barad