I have friends who request certain gender pronouns are used, which I do not believe to be correct. I have thought about this topic at some length and concluded that while using these pronouns would be loving to my friends, it clashes with my conscience. The crux is that ethically/morally I do not believe that a person's self-perception and wishes to be recognised a certain way should take priority when we disagree.

This could be abstracted to any situation where we disagree of course not just gender identity, but given this is typically closely linked with a person's very sense of self I can't see a way to put my position that wouldn't be taken as an attack on the person themself.

If I cannot in good conscience refer to someone by their preferred pronoun for equally deep-seated reasons, how can I proceed? We would surely struggle for it not to be an issue because while most people are gracious to accidentally mis-gendering if I am corrected and simply ignore it, that's going to be quite obvious eventually.

Hopefully an obvious addendum but I realise this is very much an emotive, non-academic issue to many people. I do not wish to get into the details _of_ the issue. I could rewrite this as generically "when we disagree over an issue both of us feel is not negotiable" if that is more helpful.

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    Waiting for it to become obvious is itself rather deceptive. If this is how you feel you should let your interlocutors know upfront, and explain your ethical reasons. Then both of you will have a decision to make: either one of you gives, or you stop interacting and go separate ways.
    – Conifold
    Jan 22, 2020 at 20:44
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    @Dcleve that is not your position to judge, nor is it my position to convince you. If you're saying philosophers cannot discuss a theoretical situation then I would very much reject that. You are taking as axiomatic that I am being rude and callous and making huge assumptions what can/cannot be a valid argument.
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 23, 2020 at 9:50
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    @another_name I'd prefer my question doesn't head in this sort of direction
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 23, 2020 at 10:05
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    I don't know what would be best to do in this situation but I would refuse to play the gender-pronoun game. The whole thing is profoundly daft. But you don't mention which pronouns you don't want to use so I'm only guessing the exact problem. .
    – user20253
    Jan 23, 2020 at 11:34
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    Typical protocol is to avoid contentious issues like politics, religion, etc. in most social scenarios, unless they're somehow on-topic. Gender pronouns can be tricky because they're widely used in polite contexts, before the relatively recent stuff. The solution would seem to be to shift them back out like everything else -- which, in this case, would seem to be using gender-neutral language.
    – Nat
    Jan 23, 2020 at 12:25

7 Answers 7


Well, I think we do have to consider the elephant in the room, here: do you want to keep these people as friends, are are you willing to sacrifice their friendship for the sake of your principles? Because that seems to be the dilemma you are facing. People who have reached the point where they want to be addressed with alternate pronouns are going to be offended if you steadfastly refuse to do so, and it places you in the unfortunate position of the bully who insists on referring to people by names they dislike.

Imagine if I insisted on calling someone 'dweeb,' despite their frequent, angry objections; imagine I justified it by stating that I honestly believe that person is a dweeb, and see no reason to use any other (overtly false) description. Is my principle of honesty sufficient to override their dislike of the label, and is it reasonable to insist that they put up with my behavior?

You do not have to agree about their perceived gender identity; that is a matter for you and your conscience. You have a right to dispute and debate matters of practical concern, within reason. But using this pronoun or that is a matter of no practical consequence, and accommodating people on that kind of thing is a litmus of social respect. And nothing will kill a friendship faster than overt displays of disrespect.

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    Thanks Ted. I'm not sure I totally agree with the argument I must act as they request to be friends, as a parallel example I know people who are opposed to gay marriage who have gay (married) friends. I would debate "using this pronoun or that is a matter of no practical consequence" too. My concern is that by doing so, I am implicitly validating that position and feel I'm lying to myself (I have tried this approach out of love for my friend but it prickles my conscience). Further if my friend knows I am speaking contrary to what I believe, wouldn't they rightly be upset?
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 23, 2020 at 9:56
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    @Mr.Boy — This is the eternal problem of perspective. You complain about being forced to abide by your friend's preferred form of address; Your friend (I'm sure) will complain about being forced to abide by your standards. It's become a competitive mode where the only options left are surrender or fighting. Do the people you mentioned with married gay friends refuse to acknowledge that these friends are legally married? That would make for some fun dinner parties... Jan 23, 2020 at 14:58
  • this is sound advice, but it's probably not philosophy.
    – user38026
    Jan 23, 2020 at 14:59
  • @Mr.Boy — 'Validation' is a tricky thing. You may not want to validate an act, or intention, or idea; I can understand that. But if you don't validate the person involved, then you are guilty of objectification. Maybe if you sit down with your friend and have a long talk about why you refuse to use the preferred pronouns you can come to some compromise that your conscience will bear. But you'll both have to give some ground. Jan 23, 2020 at 15:04
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    @another_name — The fact I'm not spelling things out in philosophical jargon doesn't imply that I'm not working from a philosophy. But you're right: this whole question is probably a poor fit for this site. A bit too 'Ask Amy'... It would seem odd to suddenly burst out with (say) a Heideggerian take on gender identity. Jan 23, 2020 at 15:09

Maintaining integrity would mean you want to be honest whilst having strong moral principles. Integrity is a question of not having two faces - if you really believe something, why would you “say one thing here and another thing there”.

This in itself is almost an impossible task to do as humans, since we so frequently make mistakes which undermine our “strong moral principles”. It can work, however, if you attribute these principles to a perfect, external source - where the idea of integrity would shift from upholding one’s own principles to ‘maintaining a loyalty’ to its perfect source (or evidencing your belief by following given principles).

It is very good, we should all think, that you have involved the question of love - because, by most moral standards, love has been what sands down the rough edges of any crude attempts at following our moral principles.

If you would like to be loving, yet maintain this integrity (or evidenced loyalty to, what you believe to be, perfection) - could I suggest humility to be a key propagator for the two.

If you truly believe something, discussing the topic with your friend in true humility may be the best step. Being proactive, perhaps, in setting up a good environment to talk about it - I.e. inviting them to a coffee shop, confessing that you have been restless about this certain topic and would really appreciate if you could just have a half hour to talk about it.

This discussion may make you even better friends; paying for their drink, or other way of making them feel comfortable, will show you care about how they feel; allowing them to be part of your decision-making (rather than coming to a conclusion without conferring) will show you care about what they think; and, finally, a humble stance will show you are truly struggling with this and want there to be peace.


Let's look at the possibilities here:

  1. You're just resistant to change. I have a close friend who changed his name. I didn't like his new name, I had trouble pronouncing it, I constantly forgot it, I felt it was unfair to people who knew him to have to learn a new name. Eventually I adjusted, and 20 years later, we're still friends. I can no longer imagine him by any name except his chosen one. I think we can all agree in this scenario, you just have to adjust, and not be selfish.
  2. You feel threatened by this change. I think this is another one where you have to get over it. It's not your life, it's not your body, it's not your pronouns. Nothing about you is changing, including your beliefs and commitments. If your personal gender identity is fragile, that's not your friend's problem.
  3. You have a genuine belief that anything that promotes, or fails to oppose "gender confusion" is significantly harmful to society. If you feel this way, then you might have to accept that your friendship with this person is over. You have incompatible moral commitments. Be honest and up front about this, and part as amicably as possible.
  4. You feel this is personally harmful to your friend, and you don't want to be a part of that. This is the most legitimate scenario. However, it's also a bit patronizing. You aren't this person's parent, guardian or priest. I think in this case, you owe them one solid direct conversation, where you make it clear how you feel. Share your concerns for them, and then shut up about it. In this last scenario, I still think you should use the pronouns they request. It's not like giving alcohol to an alcoholic or drugs to a drug addict. Using OR refusing those pronouns isn't going to change how they identify, it's only going to change how they feel about you and your relationship. It's really just a baseline courtesy. If you can't do that much, even if it feels icky, then this is another scenario where you accept the friendship is over.

Let's generalise the problem. It boils down to the following: your friend would like you to behave in a way that conflicts with your personal values. You have a number of choices about how to respond. There is no absolutely right or wrong response, so it is up to you to decide. You can either make a choice based on your instinct, or you can try to make a more reasoned choice. If you want to do the former, just go with your gut feel. If you want to do the latter, one way to approach the decision is to list your options, identify their pros and cons, then weight the pros and cons according to your thoughts about their relative importance. For example, the possible options might include:

  1. Go along with your friend's preferences and swallow your principles.
  2. Ignore your friend's preferences and risk upsetting them.
  3. Evade the problem by trying to avoid the need to use pronouns- instead, use the person's name.
  4. Explain your dilemma to your friend, and ask if they mind if you don't use their preferred pronouns.
  5. Agree to use their pronouns, but explain to them that you are doing so only out of respect for them and that you don't really agree with their request.
  6. Try to become more tolerant by questioning your values.

The pros and cons of those options might include:

a) Maintaining your friendships b) Not upsetting people c) Having to make an effort to speak in a certain way d) Not compromising your views

Possibly you could think of more pros and cons. Either way, you would need to rank the pros and cons in order of importance to you, and pick whichever option has pros that most outweigh the cons.

If my friends asked me to use particular pronouns, I would say sure, and try to remember to do so. If I forgot now and again, and my friends complained about it, I would say sorry but tell them to stop being so precious about it. That said, my views could be coloured by the fact that I was one of a very large number of children in my family, and our mum often got our names mixed up. That didn't bother us in the least, because we knew that our mum loved us. Hopefully your friends would feel that way if you forgot to use their preferred pronouns. If, on the other hand, they considered your ability to remember which pronouns to use to be more important than your friendship, then you might want to find better friends.


The solution: Do not overload pronoun-use with any kind of ontological claims. If you adopt the rule that you are using whatever pronoun for a person that that person prefers (guess as well as you can if they haven't told you), then your own understanding of how gender should work becomes mostly irrelevant for social interactions. Since now by definition "correct" and "preferred" pronoun coincide, there is no conflict anymore.

Your question: It seems to me that you are asking for a way to gain absolution for acting like an asshole, either by philosophical argument or by alternative kindness. This is fundamentally something many people try, but it never works. If you adopt a wordview that requires you to act like an asshole, you shouldn't expect this to be accepted as an excuse for the subsequent behaviour. What exactly the reasons behind problematic behaviour is usually matters little for the people suffering from it, and if possible, they will chose to disengage (or even retaliate).

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    I can see your point on the first part, effectively I internalise the decision to treat preferred gender pronouns as a 'social title'? On the second part I think you're either being rude, or simply unable to accept that someone who doesn't share your view on gender pronouns is anything other than an asshole... that discussion is exactly what I wish to avoid here.
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 29, 2020 at 18:28

Everyone agrees there are gendered roles, even those that would claim these are social constructions that should be abolished, along with 'gender'.

I'm not sure what 'gender' means to your friends, but people kinda have the right to be addressed as they choose. If you continue to call someone "Nigel" on the grounds that it's their birth name, then I wouldn't worry about being their friend much.

We may be reluctant to suppose that someone is a woman when they are biologically male and not trans, especially if we are in relationship that is charged by more than gender. Be that sex, or not. But, if we suppose that gender is just an idealization of gender roles, and I can't think what else it is, arguing with them is just vacuous.


"The crux is that ethically/morally I do not believe that a person's self-perception and wishes to be recognised a certain way should take priority when we disagree"

In essence, you think your opinion on this person's identity is more important than how they see themselves.

If the situation was reversed and your friend decided that because of your mannerisms, voice, dress style and attitudes that you were much more appropriately addressed as being the opposite sex, and they had "equally deep-seated reasons" for doing so, how much of a friend would you consider them?

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    I would say I fundamentally disagree an individual has the right to dictate how society should recognise them rather than me personally. I think your comparison is a little flimsy because those are trivialities and the weight of history is on my side but ignoring that, if they could explain their position coherently and demonstrate it was genuinely important to them and done for reasons of integrity not malice... I wouldn't rule out accepting that.
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 29, 2020 at 18:22
  • Your question wasn't about society. It was about how you personally viewed your friend. You're shifting the argument to try and harness the wider world behind you. Ditto with the "weight of history". History has condoned all sorts of behaviour that we'd consider morally reprehensible today (slavery, child labour etc etc). I don't think you should go looking to history to back you up. If you reframe the question as to whether society should accept an individual's self-identification, it would open the debate up. As it stands, it just makes you look like a poor friend IMHO.
    – Kevin Ryan
    Jan 29, 2020 at 18:32
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    @KevinRyan While I think your reversal argument is quite interesting, it ignores that one party desires to be seen as normal while the other wants to be recognized as so special and unique as to warrant a change to language.
    – Uueerdo
    Jan 30, 2020 at 20:51
  • @Uueerdo Your point hinges on the word "normal" and what you consider that to be. A lot of things we call normal today would have been aberrant 1000 years ago, and vice versa. Society evolves and changes, and language changes with it. At the moment, at least in the West, we seem to be going through a period of reassessment of sexuality and identity. It's 'normal' that this will make a lot of people uncomfortable.
    – Kevin Ryan
    Jan 30, 2020 at 21:42
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    No, I am not using "normal" in the sense of what I consider to be normal, I am using "normal" in the most general sense, as in "conforming to the majority". There are many things that make me different from that, for good and ill, but I don't insist on those things being called out every time. It could be argued that "ugly" and "pretty" are both abnormal, and your comparison is based on equivocating one person not wanting to be called ugly (according to their standards) with another insisting on being called beautiful (according to their standards).
    – Uueerdo
    Jan 30, 2020 at 22:04

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