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Gender as Biological Fact vs Gender as Social Construction

Francisco Javier Camacho Jr asks, what difference does it make?

Conservative cultural commentator Ben Shapiro makes quick work of the “gender question:” “Science is certainly not divided on whether gender differences are rooted in biology or culture – the answer is both, but with a heavy emphasis on biology.” (‘The Left’s Doomed Crusade To Erase Gender Differences’, National Review, 2018) Meanwhile, the feminist philosopher Judith Butler has made a now classic statement of the other side of the argument:

“Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being. A political genealogy of gender ontologies, if it is successful, will deconstruct the substantive appearance of gender into its constitutive acts and locate and account for those acts within the compulsory frames set by the various forces that police the social appearance of gender…”
(Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, p.33, 1990)

In other words, to Butler and others, gender is more of a social construction than it is a biological fact. The ‘gender question’, then, this aspect of the so-called culture wars, is a matter of opposing views about the relative responsibility of society and biology for gendered behavior. The first view says that biological sex largely defines gender, the other that society or culture largely defines it. I will call this opposing pair of views the twin views.

The twin views represent answers – but to what kind of question? Shapiro is explicit here: the gender question is really an empirical question, for it is a proclamation of science that biology is more responsible than society for gendered behavior. And Butler’s ‘political genealogy’ is an analysis of observable gendered behavior: peel away the layers of performance, of convention, of force and coercion, and you will see that nothing is left. But what kind of ‘deconstruction’ could this be if not one based on observation and experiment? The twin views, then, are taken by their proponents to be empirical claims, vindicated by the scientific method.

This idea is important because it colors the rhetoric we’ve seen in the gender debate. If your opponent judges you to be unable or unwilling to ‘see the truth’, if you don’t ‘acknowledge facts’, if you ‘just don’t get it’, a familiar dynamic starts up. The charge of ‘being irrational’ will not be far off and it will bring with it the license to dismiss or coerce you to some degree or to call your motivation into question. You will be accused of being guided not by a desire for an objective accounting of the situation, but by your adherence to ideology or doctrine, whether or not you realize it. You will be seen as a crusader of the liberal left, or a bulwark of the conservative right.

Another thing happens specifically in arguments about transgenderism. According to your position in the disagreement, your opponent will accuse you of one of two things. They will accuse you, on the one hand, of prioritizing your feelings over facts – of failing to recognize that ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’. This sentiment is expressed on t-shirts that say ‘I’m fat but I identify as skinny. I’m totally trans-slender’. What it means to say that you are playing fast and loose with facts – that you are to an unacceptable degree guided by feeling – is that you willingly engage in thinking and behavior that does not conform with the facts, that is dishonest or marked by contrivance or performance, up the point of mimicry or stereotyping. This was the sentiment behind a controversial joke made by Dave Chappelle in his comedy special The Closer (2021), that TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, with whom he claims to sympathize) “look at trans women the way we blacks might look at blackface. It offends them, like eww, this ***** is doing an impression of me!”

In arguments about transgenderism your opponent may, on the other hand, accuse you of failing to empathize with people, of being unresponsive to their pain, or inconsiderate of them as human beings. You will then be accused of willingly engaging in aversion and animosity towards them, up to the point of sanctioning harm against them. This is the sentiment behind much of the response to Chapelle, including that by Imara Jones, creator of Translash Media, who says that his comments are “essentially hate speech disguised as jokes”; that they either constitute or license acts of harm, for they “argue that trans people aren’t real … and at the heart of the violence against trans people … is the belief by the perpetrators that they weren’t doing anything wrong, that is to say, that the person isn’t human.” (PBS Newshour, October 21, 2021)

What these charges, from opposite sides of the debate, have in common is that they are aimed at the opponent’s state of feeling. One charge is that feeling is given too much weight, to the detriment of truth, the pursuit of which requires a degree of disinterest, of subjugation of feeling. The other is that a person is ‘unfeeling’ – that their positive social feeling is underdeveloped or suppressed. These charges are the well-worn armaments in which the proponents of the twin views are draped, and they are deployed at the point at which their opponents ‘fail to see the truth’, enshrined in the celebrated maxims that ‘there are only two genders’, or that ‘gender isn’t a binary, it’s a spectrum.’

Refracted Identity
Refracted Identity
Dror Rosenski 2022

A Pragmatic Perspective

But does every expression of distaste at, or skepticism of, or confusion about a person purporting to transition their gender constitute the real annihilation of a human being? And does every instance of a bathroom being made gender neutral or a trans athlete being allowed to play on the team corresponding to the gender of their transition warrant the cries that the fundamental order of society is being eroded?

If we have reason to suspect that the answer in both cases is ‘no’, it is because an assumption built into the twin views is false. My contention is that neither of the twin views are assertions of ‘fact’ in the sense that they are established by observation and experiment. The twin views are not mutually exclusive empirical hypotheses, so the dispute between them is not a scientific dispute. They are not scientific claims, though they are bandied about as such. The central methodological principle in the tradition of American Pragmatism, the ‘Pragmatic Maxim’, can help us see why.

The maxim, originally defined by Charles Sanders Peirce and intended by him as a ‘method of attaining to more perfect clearances of thought’, was stated succinctly by the chemist Wilhelm Ostwald: “In what respects would the world be different if this alternative or that were true? If I can find nothing that would become different, then the alternative has no sense.” (Quoted by William James in Pragmatism, 1907)

As Richard Rorty – another American Pragmatist – put it, “Questions which have a point are those which meet William James’ requirement that any difference must make a difference” (Philosophy and Social Hope, 1999, p.58).

Let’s apply the maxim to the case at hand. Imagine the world in which it is true that gender is more of a biological fact. Now imagine the world in which it is true that gender is more of a social construction. What, in terms of practical bearings on experience, is the difference? Is there a difference in what is open to observation and experiment, on the basis of which one of the twin views could be affirmed as true? There being such a difference is the basic requirement for a theory or assertion or hypothesis to even count as scientific. You can see, however, that there is no such difference, for across the two worlds in your imagining, both biological activity and social activity will play out in exactly the same ways. Suppose, for instance, that a young bachelor, possessed of an idea of chivalry, the wind of hormones at his back, holds a door open for a woman. Or suppose a little girl cannot abide the disorder of rough and tumble play, and chooses instead to play house, being drawn to its maternal aspect. These actions, like other gendered behavior, and like their underlying biological phenomena, obtain whether gender is more of a biological fact or more of a social construction. It is not as though the reality of the girl’s playing, or of the bachelor’s action, depend upon the truth of one or the other of the twin views, so that if one of the views is true, their actions happen, but if the other view is true, their actions turn out to be mere illusion. He holds the door and she plays house, whether biology or society is more responsible for the happening. The twin views are equally consistent with these happenings, as they are with the great body of gendered behavior.

This consistency is, of course, by design. The proponents of either view are trying to say something about gender in general, across all particular instances. And they could not do that if there were some state of affairs, let’s call it ‘gendered behavior X’, that was inconsistent with their view. The observation of gendered behavior X would instead be grounds upon which to reject their view, just as much as an observation of the phases of Venus is grounds upon which to reject the Ptolemaic model of the solar system, due to being inconsistent with that model. But if no such twin-view-refuting state of affairs exists, then we have an answer to the question of what practical import the twin views have: none whatsoever that could ground an empirical justification of one view over the other. So there can be no sense in maintaining that what we have is a debate between scientific hypotheses. The celebrated maxims are undercut, for we now see that the claim that either view is ‘a plain and simple matter of scientific fact’ is itself a pseudoscientific claim.

Gaze Victoria Peng 2022
Image © Victoria Peng 2022. To see more of Victoria’s art on Instagram, follow @v1ctoriasart

A Practical, Not Theoretical, Distinction

Yet it is not the case that there is no difference whatsoever in the practical import of the twin views. There is indeed a difference, and to see what it is, let us, again, apply the maxim. Imagine the world in which it is true that gender is more of a biological fact. Now imagine the world in which it is true that gender is more of a social construction. What, in terms of practical bearings upon experience, is the difference? We’ve seen that there is no difference of the sort that could ground an empirical justification of one view over the other. The difference that does obtain is the following. If gender is more of a biological fact, certain actions are appropriate or correct or decent or acceptable, and some, consequently, are not. If gender is more of a social construction, certain other actions are appropriate or correct or decent or acceptable, and some, consequently, are not. Which actions? Those at the heart of our ongoing controversies: the use of pronouns, of bathrooms, the classification of athletes, hormonal treatment for minors, etc. The practical difference between the twin views lies not in the type of evidence that backs them up, not in their being alternative descriptions of the constituents of persons, but in the courses of action that they sanction. The twin views are standards of etiquette, by means of which we proscribe and prescribe behavior. They are norms, for they represent standards for the correctness or incorrectness of behavior. And insofar as they are abbreviated standards, when they are unpacked and considered in light of their fuller role, as guides by which to live, they name ethics.

The confusion is, I think, an example of our tendency to turn matters of practice into matters of theory. Take the frustrated wife, for instance, who fails to see her husband as the process that he is. She fails to see his behavior as only an aspect of his fluctuating tendencies, his state of mind at successive points in time, and his changing beliefs and desires. Instead she reifies his present behavior, attributing substantial, static properties to his constitution, her speculative faculty creating the explanation for the difficulty of their partnership: “He’s judgemental, selfish, and superficial.” Meanwhile, the enamored, enthralled husband is no less confused. His theorems, of a different hue, to the effect that “She’s brilliant, she’s just what I’ve been looking for, she is the perfect woman,” prime him for frustration of a different sort when he encounters the conflicting practical reality: her full self. These cases illustrate the seduction of theory. It is the invigorating, propelling character of aversion and antipathy that motivates her theorems, and it is the gripping, consuming character of desire that motivates his.

Likewise have the proponents of the twin views been seduced. For it is alluring to suppose that you could hold in your hands the great mass of gendered behavior and assess all of it at once, seeing the line that divides social activity from biological activity, and in seeing the thing for what it is, distinguish once and for all between appearance and reality in this important aspect of human life. And the attempt to resolve the ‘gender issue’, by means of articulating an ontology [a theory of what things exist and don’t exist. Ed.] is made all the more alluring by the controversial, moral, and political nature of the issue – the very aspects that tend to activate the dynamic of desire and aversion and so the tendency, as we just observed, to engage in metaphysical theorizing. If insights bring power, then for people of goodwill – honest seekers after truth and justice – the power to realize one’s vision in the world by means of espousing a theory is magnetically attractive. But to righteous and exalted courses of action the twin views, as metaphysical principles, can give no aid. The deflating reality is not unlike the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars’ description of a phrase that “recommends itself as a useful metaphor… and, like other useful metaphors, has congealed into a technical term.” (‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 1, 1956).

If, then, the twin views, while cloaked in the garb of metaphysical principle, are nonetheless really only standards of practice, then the ‘transgender question’, cannot be answered by articulating an ontology. It can only be answered by articulating a practice – a scheme for how we should treat each other; of what our society should do in the wake of what are called ‘innovations’ by some and ‘corruptions’ by others. For if the twin views only specify standards of etiquette, their proponents cannot appeal to any ‘fact of the matter’ about gender, any more than people arguing about when someone should send thank you cards or the proper way to make an omelet can appeal to some ‘fact of the matter’ about gratitude or eggs. But I am not making the relativist claim that any course of action with respect to the issue of transgenderism is just as good as any other. I am saying that there is nothing beyond the standards of practice to which we are already committed to which we can appeal, just as there is nothing beyond culinary and social convention to which to appeal in the case of omelets and thank you cards. There is no ontology of gender (or eggs or gratitude) waiting to save the day. From this point of view, we can see the claims that the proponents of the twin views would be entitled to make were they to acknowledge the twin views’ underlying pragmatic structure – their reality as standards of practice: that there should only be two genders, or that gender should be a spectrum.

As far as the practical recommendations that have been made are concerned, it seems to me that the situation calls for a response that is much more substantive than either removing a comedy special from Netflix or defending it as a piece of free speech. For the most significant ethical issue here is the violence, physical and psychological, faced by transgender people. So ending that violence should be the principal goal towards which to commit our forces, including the capacity to theorize. The place of theory here should be as a handmaiden to practice, and its use should be a function of what is practically required to reach the goal. I am talking about seeing the violence against transgender people through the lens of public health, and ending that violence by means of the instruments and methods of the discipline of public health. The work has already begun. Cure Violence Global, founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin and based upon research showing that ‘violence is a contagious disease’, employs violence reduction techniques modelled on methods associated with disease control.

Yet in our popular discourse, we have hardly progressed beyond moralizing. Imara Jones employs the wisdom that ‘the oak is in the acorn’ – that what is latent in trans-skeptical remarks such as Chappelle’s will grow into substantive harm. It’s the ‘broken windows’ theory of urban policing applied to the phenomenon of violence against transgender people. But just as there is no straight line connecting relatively minor infractions of the civil code with wanton criminality in the streets, there is no straight line connecting trans-skeptical comments with the view that transgender people are not human beings, or with actions based upon that view. The difficulty for us is that there are probably many very curved lines connecting them.

It is the urgency of the fact that there are imperfectly understood connections between the social ill of anti-trans violence and what conditions it, that should orient planning and strategy towards a technical means of curing the ill, as opposed to the generation of metaphysical theories that do no more than enable increasingly technical moralizing. But even a surface understanding of transgenderism should put to bed Chappelle’s implied claim that there is something like fakery or mimicry in the basic phenomenon of transgenderism. It's notably cynical to suppose that a person who is trying to be comfortable in their own skin, who is trying to actualize themselves, even on pain of ostracism, social alienation, and violence, is just ‘performing’ in a show of their own making. Rather, the important truth is that people are being harmed and killed for being themselves.

It is probably not controversial to suggest that violence against transgender people should be addressed through the instruments and methods of public health. But as a society we are a house divided against itself. And our failure to make our response adequate to the task has been due in part to our stopover in the garden of theory, where, floating free of the practical reality, we argue about the metaphysics of gender. We shall have to free ourselves from this last dominion over us – that of ideas and abstractions, the specters in our heads – in order to arrive at the further vistas we know are there.

© Francisco Javier Camacho Jr 2022

Francisco is a writer living and working in Oakland, California.

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