“What I want is a world where neither gender nor sex are destiny. Where no child is ever told there’s anything they can’t do, or must do, ‘because you’re a boy’ or ‘because you’re a girl.’ It’s not a world where anything is ‘taken’ from anyone – it’s one where everyone’s possibilities are enlarged”
– Naomi Alderman
The argument I’m going to present is sort of a counter argument or counter rebuttal in using said postulation. Originally presented by John Stuart Mill, there is a metaphysical principle known as plurality of causes. Plurality of causes challenges the notion that while causes are relational to their effects, effects however are not necessarily relational to their causes. And for clarity I’ll provide a brief definition. Plurality of Causes: though the same cause must have the same effect, the same effect however need not have the same cause. Now let me re-emphasize that this principle is only stating that it is not necessarily the case that causes are necessarily relational to their effects. So what I’m going to be arguing here is that a particular effect, such as sexual dimorphism, are not necessary of a singular cause.
So that said, let’s jump right in! You may have heard the sentiment “because you weren’t born a certain way or because you weren’t conceived of a certain way, then what you’re doing is wrong or unnatural.” I’ve heard this argument come up several times in private and public discourse and it comes in various forms. Now to some it may seem convincing, and while I do think it’s meant to be persuasive, it’s far from being rational. But let’s take the statement by itself. When we look at it what is the statement saying? Firstly it’s arguing a causal relation of a singular cause and its effect. X is inconsistent or immoral because you weren’t born that way. Or, in other words, X is inconsistent or immoral because that to which is effected wasn’t caused in a specific way. Now the fallaciousness of this argument any philosophy student could point out is by dismissing or affirming a thing by stating its origins which commits a genetic fallacy but that’s a different argument altogether. What we’re arguing is the presumption that certain effects are immutable and necessarily relational to its cause (Immutable meaning that it doesn’t change, and necessary of its cause, as it argues that effects themselves are somehow necessary of a singular cause and cannot be caused any other way). To be clear, what I mean by effect & causality is causality being the determining factor of a thing and effect as the end factor of a thing; just so there’s no confusion.
Firstly, we have to attack the preconceived notion of naturalism within causation. What makes a thing a thing shouldn’t not simply be determined by propagation. I think it goes without saying that many things can be affected by unnaturalistic means. But to use a naturalistic argument is simply fallacious by the very nature of the argument itself (appeal to nature). That is to say that naturalistic arguments are descriptive. An argument about what is the case cannot tell you it ought be the case. Meaning descriptive or naturalistic arguments cannot lend any sort of moral or normative justification for an objective property. An objective definition can only tell you what that something is not what it ought be; this is why Hume’s law is so revered. It may be the case that an ought can be derived from an is but this requires some linguistic flexibility. It must also be noted that the terms natural and unnatural are not proper definitions in academia but I do not wish to argue that here. I’m simply using the terms natural and unnatural for pragmatic linguistic purposes.
What is important though is to point out the fallacious assumption being made here when it’s asserted that the effect of something is inconsistent or not acceptable because it wasn’t caused a certain way. Since effects can have a multiplicity of causes then it’s perfectly rational to state a different kind of cause that brings about the same effect, either via natural or unnatural methods. Sex is affected mainly through sexual reproduction but it can also be determined by other methods including in laboratories. For example, we can look at other scientific methods of sex determination which are proven to have an affect on determining a young fetuses sex, such as fertility treatments and genetic engineering. In the genetic engineering portion there is a method called preimplantation genetic diagnostic and gender selection in which chromosomes are artificially karyotyped in vitro then planted into predetermined eggs for transfer (Robertson, 2003). In vitro fertilization is just one process that can determine the sex of the fetus by means other than natural reproduction. (Updated: As of April 2019, PGD and gender selection now referred to as preimplantation genetic profiling).
As a linguistic philosopher I see one of my contemporaries pointing out that if plurality of causes is true then what of conditional statements? Let’s first note that conditional statements are compound statements meaning they are simply one example of how a hypothetical proposition(s) connects with its logical operator. This is also a red-herring since conditional statements are allowed to be invalid even if intuitively false. And conditional statements are not necessary of a particular cause and its effect. Let’s say I ate a sandwich then digest it. This is a natural process, but it may also be true that I may get sick and throw it back up. Lastly, conditional statements are not the same as causality. For instance, a disabling-condition can actually prevent a causal change from occurring. But you, the reader, don’t need to understand all this philosophical jargon. This is simply a response to some likely objections. In other words, stomping out the fires before they start.
But of course what kind of cause are we speaking of? It’s easy to simply assert that there are other causes that affect sex determination. But what kind of causation can be given to gender and does it follow the same method of other gender casual determinants? Now to tackle this we’ll go back to classical metaphysics and Aristotle. Aristotle, is not the most credible source for explanations on physical properties. We must remember he lived thousands of years before the scientific method was to be invented. But with the help of other contemporaries and pre-Socratic philosophers he is considered the father of analytical reason and logic. He left us with a profound understanding of metaphysics. In one of his major works known collectively as Physics & Metaphysics he attempted differentiate between four foundational causes that, I would argue, still hold true as valid explanations of physical change. He stated four foundational causes. The one we will be discussing here is an efficient causation. The efficient cause defines the agent cause and the principle that to which brings something about.
Let’s remember an efficient cause is stating two things here. 1) The method or principle that guides its creation. As for one to be a producer of something one must follow a principle that brings about that effect, such as the art of making a table. 2) The agent cause, or what Aristotle describes as the artisan. The artisan, is the agent, the person who first initiated the formal change with intentionality (Aristotle on Causality, 2006). When we look at the idea of gender & sex the efficient cause is already stated. We have the principle affect that guides its creation (medical treatment) and the agent cause, the initiator of the change which first started it (agent/physician). So the principle method of change by which redetermines a persons sex is really no more valid than any other natural method. But even if unnatural it fits within a particular kind of principled causality that can account for the change (efficient causality).
Okay, but by what scientific method can this change occur? This is a question I simply don’t have an easy answer for; at least at the time of writing this. Currently, medical technology has advanced enough to be able to change 2ndary sexual characteristics but still struggle to change some primary sex-characteristics, like chromosomes. However; this does not entrench the idea that sex determination is ridged or inflexible. Certain conditions like Turner syndrome would mean that an individual may have a different numeric set of chromosomes such as XXY. In terms of being able to physically ‘change’ chromosomes, the development of recombinant DNA technology, (also called gene cloning or gene splicing) is a promising field that has been able to create, in a lab, proteins to determine or manipulate the sequence of DNA expression (Stephenson 2016). If the field of gene splicing is successful it is very possible that we can change sex chromosomes. While this type of medical technology is promising it’s still a newly developing field and may not be available within my lifetime. Yet we must understand that science operates under two terms basic and applied science. While basic science can tell us what is, it is applied science that can show us what we can further change and develop. While both are important and play a key role in the development of the advancement of science, it is a fallacy to say that one determines the other.
So when we look at the argument again that “X is inconsistent or immoral because you weren’t born a certain way or because you weren’t conceived of a certain way”, becomes absurd when applied to logical principles.
- We know that naturalism is not a precursor for any type of moral/normative justification for an argument (is/ought & appeal to nature).
- Dismissing a proposition simply by pointing out its origins is a genetic fallacy.
- If it can be determined that a plurality or multiplicity of causes can produce the same effect then a singular cause is NOT necessary.
- If the alternative causation is practical in both principle and intentionality (efficient causality) then it becomes rational & justifiable as an alternative method.
These arguments demonstrate the erroneous conclusion that an assertion of an effect is an assertion of its affect or causality. What brings about change in something can vary by method and modality. And just because certain physical properties within a system occur naturally doesn’t make unnatural methods any more invalid or amoral.
– Jubilee Nunnallee 5/17/2013
Robertson, J., (2003), “Extending preimplantation genetic diagnosis: the ethical debate: Ethical issues in new uses of preimplantation genetic diagnosis”, Retrieved from academic.oup.com/humrep/article/18/3/465/626048
Aristotle on Causality,. (2006), “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”, Retrieved from plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/#FouCau
Henning, B., (2009), “The Four Causes,”Journal of Philosophy, 106: 137–160.
Stephenson, F., Calculations for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (Third Edition), 2016