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This post was slightly sloppily written but it has attracted some attention since it was posted. I would like to try to polish it some time and also clarify what I am saying, probably in less words.

I don’t have that presentation ready as of right now, but I just wanted to say that the question might be more simply understood as:

  1. Maybe in a variety of social contexts, one hears certain things, the approximate average of which is something like, “it is very morally important to use a person’s ’preferred pronouns’”.
  2. What is the underlying ethical principle for why this should be?
  3. Is that principle upheld consistently across other domains than ‘preferred pronouns’?

The post also includes an analysis of what it would specifically mean to “prefer a pronoun”, and considers how different interpretations of that might imply different answers to questions 1-3 above.

The question also includes a suggested alternative to the current widespread idea that pronouns are something you choose for yourself, and suggests that we could imagine a society where you have the right to choose or prefer pronouns for other people and not just yourself. This could be a kind of pronoun pluralism in which it is ok to refer to a person with different pronouns, it would reflect the perception of the person using the pronoun to describe someone else.


The Wikipedia style guide discusses how if a person states that they consider themselves a particular gender, selects a name for themselves in conjunction with a change in gender, and asserts particular gender-inflected words would correspond to them, that the article should not mention the name they had before their altered identity, and that it should refer to the person using pronouns which they have elected.

Refer to any person whose gender might be questioned with gendered words that reflect the person's most recent expressed gender self-identification... This holds for any phase of the person's life... If a...transgender...person was not notable under a former name..., it should not be included in any page...

I wish to ask a broader question of what general ethical principle this draws from, with regards to the extent to which people should comply with attested characteristics someone makes about themself, or, about someone else.

I believe a case can be made that before it became more common to think of personal pronouns as loose, variable, and customisable, a pronoun was taken to have intrinsic, semantic, propositional content. Just as the word "red" was (by many, if not all) assumed to be a signal, a token by which people could commonly understand what was being referred to (a certain colour they can see in their mind or recognise in front of them), a pronoun such as "I" was (again, commonly, yet not obligatorily) taken to have impartial semantic implicature - it meant that the person speaking was making an assertion about themself. Thus, I think previously, a word like "he" was simply a stand-in for the idea that "the person I am talking about is a boy".

If someone chooses a pronoun, it may be interpreted that they simply prefer this pronoun, in a simple sense that they enjoy it, just as some people enjoy ice cream. Yet, it seems there is to a degree an intermingling of humanity's creative liberty with words, and situations in which the veracity of words is checked by people hearing them to see if they correspond with the situation at hand, with regards to what they understand the word to mean.

Therefore, if someone creates a new pronoun for themself, and in the case that it seems to be implied that the pronoun is "semantic", that it is not a mere preference, but that it is the word that propositionally denotes what they are, it appears to be implied that they therefore have a particular gender corresponding to that pronoun, and that that gender is not "male" or "female", possibly, since otherwise, they may believe themselves to be relevant to those terms, instead.

I sometimes do not know if this distinction is particularly well recognised or articulated in contexts in which it is unflinchingly communicated that the ethically sanctioned conduct with regards to social interaction is to be defined as unconditionally obeying someone's publicly communicated "pronouns" - at least from my own experience, it does not seem common to discuss whether or not a stated pronoun is nothing other than a "preference", just as I prefer to be vegetarian and to only eat vegetarian meals, or if "preferring a pronoun" is really only a minor extension of a much more substantial, propositional claim, that of what your gender is.

I guess where I was headed with this is that if pronouns, as a class of words, are neutral with regards to human attitudes - not something you like or dislike, but merely semantic vehicles communicating what something is - that if there is ever disagreement about what pronoun should be used, it really should be reformulated as what gender you think someone is.

From this perspective, it does not seem logically self-consistent to make the blanket statement that it is highly morally incumbent to use a pronoun because someone says they think those pronouns correspond to what they are, which is ultimately an objective assertion, like saying "I am George Bush", or, "I am from outer space", etc. From this perspective, it could be seen as analogous that a person says that when in their presence, thou shalt refer to dogs as squirrels, because they think that dogs are squirrels, and you must not defy the order of the world as they see it, when you are with them.

I do not believe this is a morally consistent principle. Every human has the freedom of consciousness to assess what they think they are; a natural corollary is that every human retains the freedom of consciousness to judge and evaluate what they think anything is, as well.

Ultimately, if pronouns are something one merely prefers, as one prefers salad, it does not seem morally dire to have to agree with someone's preference. Whereas, if pronouns merely hint at an objective characterisation of what someone is, then I think the common practice in general is for it to be ok if you state disagreement with something somebody says, if you so happen to disagree.

To me, it does not make sense that people can enforce what kinds of assertions are made about them, gender-specific or not. If pronouns are customary, something that can be ordained, they lose deep semantic force. Whereas if pronouns are semantic, then they would need to be scrutinised and evaluated as such - as objective claims about the world.

Therefore, I believe that Wikipedia should not make it mandatory to comply with a person's self-attested characteristics, because if it fills the role of an information resource, I would hope one of its foremost aims would be accuracy. The editors of an article can instead discuss and try to reach a consensus about which pronoun is most corresponding to their personhood.

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The following aims not at giving the answer but mainly tries to offer possible perspectives that are closer to what is discussed in contemporary ethics and philosophy of language.

Autonomy as an ethical principle

The general ethical principle behind the whole gender sensitivity or whatever one likes to call it is that of autonomy, which literally means "making one's own laws" and is a cornerstone of any liberal and, specifically, Kantian ethics.

Autonomy means that you have the right to make your own decisions about how you want to live your life, which is necessary to assume responsibility for one's actions, and thus a central concept in moral, legal, and political considerations and theories of agency: if we are to blame a person for their actions and see them as "theirs", we need to give them the space and opportunity to develop themselves as the persons they want to be so that they can own their actions. Otherwise, they'd be mere products of their upbringing and judging them for their behaviour would be hard to justify.

This term is closely linked to human dignity. Following the above reasoning, it is often thought that ignoring something that is so intimately linked to a person's self like their self-image and how they want to be seen and addressed has much more of an ethical impact than any social, cultural, and individual adjustments that have to be made in order to achieve that. This does, to some extent, involve a conflict with the autonomy of other persons that see no need/reason in that or judge their values differently. As e.g. Frankfurt argues, there are differences in preferences and their ethical importance, though, and arguably, addressing someone with the gender and the pronouns they can identify with is closer linked to the "self" and thus a preference of a higher order than other ones that may be involved.

Just compare it to a scenario where you know a vegan person who is vegan for ethical reasons really important to them, visits you, asked you to offer a vegan alternative which you could easily have done even if you do not like it, and you intentionally offer only stew with meat or the like. It would rightly be considered an offense, wouldn't it? That is because ignoring one's preferences means ignoring one's values. And ignoring one's values means ignoring the person's right to autonomy.

Since such rights exist¹, the main question deciding what the ethical thing to do is, as Frankfurt and others argue, how to weigh these values, and they are to be weighed according to the importance to the respective persons self(-expression). Frankfurt is just a stand-in for many writers here, but he is a good example especially because his theory is explicitly about the self and autonomy. So much for the ethical dimension.

Philosophy of language

That said, the conception of language as semantic content binding institutions and persons to a specific use of words is pretty outdated since the late 1920s², depending on the academic flavour at least late 1950s³. Language has many dimensions - most of them malleable and depending on practical context above all else - and develops much faster than we thought. There are "language games" (see ³, Wittgenstein) that are very technical and involve almost exclusively claims about objective facts, yes, but addressing persons generally in direct communication is hardly such a language game. Just consider the terms with which people sometimes address their loved ones - or insults as an extreme case.

How are other words used to refer to persons in conversations fundamentally different just because they are pronouns? Pronouns are pro-nouns, ie. substitutes for proper nouns, and ultimately any word that successfully transports the reference to the correct person works. How often do you use the word "him" to stress a male gender and not simply as a stand-in to avoid a constant repetition of the same language-token to refer to the person?

You seem to be stumbling across the notion that "referring to him means referring to a male person" and conveying that the person does have a certain gender (or biological sex). That is correct on a basic level. Yet, the same can be said about (most) names. Do you reject to use the officially recognized name of a transgender person just because you think it does not "fit" with their chromosomes? Do you know the genetic and epigenetic constitution of this person?

According to Schulz von Thun's model of communication, every uttered proposition does convey something about the world. But what is it? Ultimately, it is a belief about the world, nothing more, nothing less. Therefore, the use of the pronoun "he" bears no weight beyond transmitting the belief of the utterer that the person referred to is male and should be addressed thusly. This, you successfully convey by using the word. Yet, who are we to tell a person who says "but I am not male" that their belief is wrong and we are right?

Conclusion

In the light of the above, I would argue that there is some prima facie merit in the claim that addressing persons in whichever way they like is less ethically problematic than not doing so (given it is something that really makes a difference to these persons). Your argument about pronouns also seems to be off when we look at actual language practice and modern philosophy of language and theory of communication.

Also, if, as I assume, all this is built on the assumption that biological sex is binary and the same as gender, it may be time to get an update on current science and how it uses these terms. It is much more complex that this, I am afraid.

Footnotes

¹ Modern constitutions protect human rights, which essentially are there to protect personal development against too much private and official intervention.

² Carnapp released his last work on scientific language in 1928 or 1929 IIRC and shortly thereafter had to admit in conversations and letters that it does not work out as a model for an ideal natural language

³ Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Sellars' Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, shortly thereafter Gettier's Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?

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    The general ethical principle behind the whole gender sensitivity or whatever one likes to call it is that of autonomy, which literally means "making one's own laws" and is a cornerstone of any liberal and, specifically, Kantian ethics.” How so? I know almost nothing about Kantian ethics. What do you consider “liberal ethics” and in what way is “making one’s own laws” a cornerstone of it? Commented Mar 21 at 3:53
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    It is often thought that ignoring something that is so intimately linked to a person's self like their self-image…has much more of an ethical impact than doing something one does not think of as making sense” My post is mainly about if social institutions should consider certain kinds of or levels of compliance with preferred pronouns to be an ethical absolute (unconditional & important). You say that observing someone’s “preferred pronouns” has “more ethical impact” than “doing something one does not think makes sense”, but that is not fully my question/point - Commented Mar 21 at 3:59
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    It is more of a conditional: if compliance with preferred pronouns is ethically important, does that imply respecting other aspects of self-image is important, and are they being so, or are there other aspects which are being inconsistently not observed? Commented Mar 21 at 4:00
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    That said, your conception of language as making objective claims is pretty outdated since the late 1920s, depending on the academic flavour at least late 1950s.” I don’t base my thinking on which decade has the correct theories, I try to make arguments based on my own understanding of the world. If there are theories you think undermine my claims I would like to hear them explicitly. Commented Mar 21 at 4:02
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    Reference to matters of facts (instead of shared objects of reference more generally) is only a very small part of daily talk, and only 7% of direct communication is verbal in the first place.” I don’t see the relevance. I agree that a lot of “communication” is “nonverbal”, but my post isn’t about “communication”. The fact that a small portion of human language use is a “reference to facts” doesn’t mean much to me, I personally tend not to use the word “fact” since I don’t have a good personal definition or understanding of it. Commented Mar 21 at 4:10
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"Their House, Their Rules" Absolute Liberalism, an offshoot of classical liberalism. This school of thought champions unrestricted personal sovereignty and vigorous defense of private property rights. Adherents hold that individuals ought to wield complete control over their possessions, subject only to voluntarily agreed-upon contracts. Proponents argue that consenting adults should determine the conditions governing spaces and activities they fully own. Therefore, homeowners bear the responsibility for setting guidelines for guests and visitors.

You seem to support this in your post but apparently did not expand your thinking to include, websites having the right to decide what happens on their domain. Perhaps easier to accept is that website owners as individuals have the same rights as you and therefore can decide how you behave while within their "house".

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  • I agree that Wikipedia can do what it wants to, but my question is more about asking if the general idea has an ethical argument behind it that is consistent and complete, in a way. Commented Mar 21 at 3:46
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Using the correct pronouns conforms to the ideal of trying to communicate effectively. Gender is a psychological phenomenon, hence what we know about it in terms of individuals is what they embody and report about it. So if you want to make accurate statements about an individual, those statements should utilize the pronouns as indicated by their actions; including declarations of their preferences, in all cases where that helps with the understandability of the writing/speaking.

Note that in the OP one of the antecedents is not generally true: " if pronouns are something one merely prefers, as one prefers salad,..." thus inferences drawn from that assumption are conditional, at best. Rather, in most cases where individuals report a distinct preference on which pronouns apply to them, that report represents a categorically different kind of valuation than mere food preferences.


Maybe in a variety of social contexts, one hears certain things, the approximate average of which is something like, “it is very morally important to use a person’s ’preferred pronouns’”.

What is the underlying ethical principle for why this should be?

The principle of trying to communicate accurate information about the world when speaking/writing.

Is that principle upheld consistently across other domains than ‘preferred pronouns’?

Yes; though pronoun usage is a distinct case from the other fanciful cases brought up in the OP, since in English we have gendered pronouns and a linguistic convention of having the grammatical gender conform to the sexual gender of, in particular, people. The other cases of self declared status can also be communicated about clearly and effectively, but that communication does not involve modifying pronoun usage; just being careful and clear about what one is saying.

For example, if a person [Alice] is vegan and someone [Bob] refers to them as vegetarian (or vice versa) Alice be justified in correcting Bob's error. If Bob continued to describe the other person by the incorrect category, they'd be making inaccurate statements.

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    I don't understand what is behind the insistence that people comply with objective norms. It has to be fear, but fear of what? I used to feel it, I think, but I no longer have any insight. Like trying to relate to what I felt in a dream after waking from it. Similarly, I don't understand why people insist on their self-definitions. Something must be at stake, but I don't know what. I don't get either side of the debate, although I might have in the past.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 21 at 2:42
  • “Rather, in most cases where individuals report a distinct preference on which pronouns apply to them, that report represents a categorically different kind of valuation than mere food preferences.” I feel that my post covers this - see the sentence after the one I wrote about “preferring salad”. Commented Mar 21 at 3:49

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