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Feminist Metaphysics

The field of metaphysics has only fairly recently been touched upon by feminist theory.  While some have argued that the two fields are largely incompatible, efforts in feminist metaphysics have generated a wide amount of controversy in how applicable sex and gender are in the way we perceive and rationalize the world.  Of particular interest to some philosophers has been how the concept of natural kinds fits into our views of males, females, and their corresponding perspectives.  In this paper, I will argue that the traditional concept of mutually exclusive male and female kinds is misguided, that any social systems dependent upon a male-female dichotomy are not based on any fundamental feature of reality, and that the terms “male” and “female,” themselves, are arbitrary.



There is an important distinction to make early on in any discussion of the topic of sex and sexual identification, and that is the distinction between sex and gender.  For the purposes of this essay, “sex” refers to the biological markings and functions that are commonly associated with either males or females.  “Gender,” on the other hand, will refer to a social construct of what it is like to be and behave like a man or woman, along with learned social norms that are at least somewhat derived from biological sex.  A person’s sex has been traditionally defined as either male or female.  One’s gender is often described as either masculine or feminine.  While there is an initial inclination to pair maleness with masculinity and femaleness to femininity, these pairs are not bound necessarily.  Gender, as a social construct, is often expressed as the situation requires.  Many males may find behaving femininely to be more acceptable in certain circumstances, and females may find themselves behaving masculinely as the situation requires.  The ability to express traits typical of either gender is often called “androgyny.”  The traditional sense of what it is to be male includes traits such as having a penis, testes, a higher level of testosterone than females, and some other biological markings such as broad shoulders and increased musculature.  The traditional sense of the female includes having a uterus, ovaries, vagina, higher estrogen levels, and other secondary sex characteristics commonly attributed to females such as having breasts and wider hips.  These conditions of males and females have been held throughout the centuries, and they have been useful in creating specific and readily identifiable types of people for practical and scientific purposes.


The concept of natural kinds has been the topic of scientific and philosophical enterprise for millennia.  Being able to effectively and pragmatically group individuals into specific categories allows for accurate generalizations for those specific categories, and such groupings let us apply our scientific knowledge over a wider breadth of topics.  The idea of natural kinds is well-rooted in metaphysics, and feminist metaphysicians have taken up the reins on how natural kinds affect sex, sex roles, and gender.  In Sally Haslanger’s article “Feminism in Metaphysics, Negotiating the Natural,” Haslanger analyzes the epistemological problems associated with the social indoctrination of the sexes into their gender roles and how this indoctrination might cloud and bias our views of reality.  Haslanger also investigates if male and female kinds are integral features of reality, if they have corresponding universals or if they are merely useful as artificial shorthand for humans to sort themselves and the world, and what male and female kinds mean if they are universals (118).  In the realm of kinds, there are more than just natural kinds.  There are also those kinds that are not features of the natural world but rather the world that humans have created.  These kinds are commonly labeled as artificial kinds and represent the groupings of individuals in the social realm.  Artificial kinds can be something as fleeting as the designations we have created for our favorite sports teams or as ingrained as economic class.  While the concept of kinds can be problematic in many social sciences due to the ever-changing norms of cultures and in biology due to the ubiquitous flux generated by evolution, male and female kinds seem so prevalent that there is little dispute about their relevance.  Sexual reproduction is very common in the animal kingdom, and sexual dimorphism is prevalent in many of the animals that sexually reproduce.


It is important to note that in Haslanger’s article, she does not ultimately take a stance on whether male and female kinds are universals.  Much of her essay focuses on what such kinds mean for the field of philosophy and our social systems, regardless of whether these kinds are features of reality or created by humans.  This essay hopes to exposit further on the claims that Haslanger made regarding the social structures and norms that surround male and female kinds.


My argument is laid out as follows with justification provided for each of the premises and the conclusion in the ensuing paragraphs:


P1) Male and female kinds are not mutually exclusive.


P2) If male and female kinds are not mutually exclusive, then social structures that have been constructed on the basis of mutually exclusive male and female kinds do not have a basis in natural reality.


P3) If social structures that have been constructed on the basis of mutually exclusive male and female kinds do not have a basis in reality, then social structures based on this sex binary and the terms we use to define sexes are artificially created.


C) Social structures based on this sex binary and the terms we use to define the sexes are artificially created.


This argument is valid by modus ponens.  The first premise and the second premise generate the antecedent of the third premise, and the conclusion follows from the third premise and its antecedent.


The first premise states that male and female kinds are not mutually exclusive.  This initial premise might be the most jarring of those listed above.  Male and female kinds have long been thought to be mutually exclusive.  In this understanding, it is stated that if one is a male then that individual is not female, and if one is female then that individual is not male.  The strength of this view comes largely from its long cultural backing and the way we determine sex through biology.  Our traditions have held that one is undeniably either male or female, that this assignment is permanent and that there is no in-between.  Many of our social institutions from marriage to sex segregation in education to parenting to restroom assignments are all based on a fundamental idea that males and females are separate entities, incapable of overlap.  A similar statement can be made of the traditional chromosomal assignments.  We have commonly linked the XY chromosome structure to males and the XX chromosome structure to females, largely on the basis of genital configuration; individuals we considered to be male almost always had XY chromosomes and females XX chromosomes.


In the interest of investigating this further, it is important to understand how we decide sex assignment for any specific individual.  From birth, if a child appears to be free of defects or other immediately apparent congenital abnormalities, then that child’s sex is determined based on the phenotypical expression of the genitals: a penis and testes implies a male, and a vulva, vagina, and clitoris implies a female.  However, this quick and easy measure of determining sex breaks down when the child appears to have an abnormally large clitoris, a lack of external gonads along with a penis, or other features that seem in some ways in between a male’s genitals and a female’s genitals.  Cases such as these describe individuals who are classified as “intersexual,” those who do not quite fit into either the male or female categories.  The definition of “intersexual” is quite broad, encompassing those who show forms of hermaphroditism to those whose chromosomes do not match up with their genitalia.  Unfortunately, intersexualism has long been thought to be an abnormality, and doctors are often swift in “treating” such conditions.  In Sharon Preves’ book Intersex and Identity, she states that the tradition has been to intervene early in these cases and modify the genitals to match whatever sex they seem most similar to, and a sex is then assigned to the child based on the results of the operation. (48-49)


In these cases, it is clear that determining sex based on genitalia is a muddy and difficult matter, so we often turn deeper in order to decide the matter.  The next and final stop is to analyze the sex chromosomes of the individual to determine if those karyotypes are XX (female) or XY (male).  This might seem like where the buck would stop, but even at this level, there is reason to be unsure what conclusions we draw from what we find, as mentioned above with intersexuals.  Preves’ literature reviews have shown that there are a number of atypical sex chromosome assignments and pairings that can be expressed.  One of the more famous examples is Klinefelter’s Syndrome, where an individual is born with a Y chromosome and more than one X chromosome, be it XXY, XXXY, XXXXY, or even more.  These individuals have genitalia that appear male.  Turner’s Syndrome is another case, where a child is born with no Y chromosome, noted as “XO.”  Those with Turner’s Syndrome have genitalia that appears female, if somewhat underdeveloped (30).  Genital ambiguity is not apparent in these cases, but surprisingly, most intersexual individuals with obvious genital abnormalities have the typical XX or XY chromosomal arrangement, with a slightly higher percentage being XX (26).  From this, it is clear that even at the chromosomal level, the issue of determining sex is extremely difficult.  There are individuals who exist with female-typical (XX) or male-typical (XY) assignments who have genitals that look and functioning nothing like their corresponding chromosomes.  The connection that has long been held between sex chromosomes and sex assignment is rather tenuous and is therefore not a good determinant of sex.


Once we see how poor chromosomes and phenotypes are in determining the sex of an individual, the question is raised about how we come to know sexes at all.  If chromosomes do not provide a necessary condition of sex and neither do phenotypical genitalia, it is difficult to say what basis we can use to determine sex.  A person who has the chromosomes XY or XX could very well have a penis and a vagina.  We can label this person a male or a female, but there still seems to be something overlooked if we choose either designation.  This opens us up to the possibility of there being multiple sexes or perhaps forsaking the classification of sex for a more accurate collage of gray areas.  The classification schemes we have used to define the sexes pale in the light of a possible intermediate group.  To use the term “female” to describe something is to say little more than that this being has certain properties.  However, in the case of someone having XY chromosomes and a vagina, there is clearly something that the terms “male” and “female” do not capture.  In a case like this, one could easily satisfy the conditions for being both a male and a female.


After all this, we are left with a very fluid understanding of the sexes.  The traditional means that we have used to assign sex seem unreliable, even with the aid of chromosomal research.  A concept of mutual exclusivity between males and females seems false under the presence of intersexual individuals.  The overlap and ambiguity between the two sexes seems strong enough to consider the possibility of having qualities and properties of both sexes, as demonstrated by intersexuals.  The mutual exclusivity of males and females, then, seems to be incorrect.


The second premise of my argument follows directly from the first, that if maleness and femaleness are not mutually exclusive, then there is no natural basis for the social structures that stem from a mutually exclusive concept of sex.  The purpose of this premise is to show that our traditional understanding of sex and sex relations is ultimately founded on fundamental features of reality.  This is not to say that males and females are not different.  This premise shows that while there are classes of males and females, there is significant overlap with these classes.  In the past, there have been many attempts to derive a specific social order based on supposed fundamental differences in people.


Male and female kinds are a type of distinction between humans in a similar way as the distinctions between the races.  We determine these categories based on specific properties that seem to be characteristic for each group of people.  For example, we often distinguish race by skin color or facial features.  Similar to how we treat race, when we distinguish males from females, we tend to overlook the prejudices we carry with our understandings of these differences.  Women, in general, are born with less testosterone than men.  As a result, they tend to have less muscle mass than men.  This might generate a social system that emphasizes the importance of male in fields that require greater physical strength.  This system might then become self-fulfilling, as more and more males are tasked with physical work and females are ushered into tasks that do not require as much physical work.  While this system might be more efficient than a system organized inversely so, that does not mean that a society in which females perform the physical tasks is necessarily impossible.  Our social systems need not necessarily adhere to the biological bases that underlie the differences in the sexes.  Further, when the differences between males and females allow for a great deal of overlap, any social system which demands specific and distinct sex roles is bound to have a wide amount of overlooked gray area.  Because of this, social systems which glance over these incongruities have a false perspective of sex.


The third premise is closely linked to the second, stating that the social classes generated from the basis of mutually exclusive male and female kinds are artificially created.  While there are indeed apparent differences between explicitly male and female individuals, what we make of these differences are based on our own self-interested concerns.  As Sally Haslanger put it, “some sets are more important to us than others.”  She states that the way we distinguish males from females is laced with our own “interest-laded concerns,” and that the social systems we derive from the distinctions between males and females are largely for practical purposes (123).  If the social systems we witness today have no fundamental basis in a natural reality, then they must have been created by us.  We, in the interests of pragmatism and survival, have noticed that the majority of the population fits into the classes of “male” and “female” neatly enough to not cause problems.  While this assumption of mutually exclusive sexes may have carried us far in the past, that does not make it a correct interpretation of sex.


Once we consider that male and female kinds are not a fundamental feature of the natural world, that they are social constructs developed by humans, and that a large overlap has been ignored between male and female kinds, we can see that male and female kinds have been arbitrarily determined.  There does not seem to be any essential property in what it means to be a male or a female.  As such, we have assigned a label to those that display a certain number of traits that seem prevalent in some people and not others.  Generally, those who showed the broader shoulders, the larger physiques, more external genitalia, and the more competitive mannerisms received a title.  Those who showed the broader hips, the smaller physiques, less external genitalia, and the more cooperative and nurturing mannerisms received another title.  Most individuals fell into one of these categories.  These titles, “male” and “female,” could have been any other words and could have embodied any group of traits or specific criteria.  In the interest of practicality and later of scientific investigation, we set up these groupings of people, and we need to be open to new interpretations of these groupings when the old categories fail us as they have in the case of intersexuals.


From the three premises given, by the virtue of modus ponens, this argument concludes that social structures which rely on a sex binary are artificially created.  That is to say those social structures have been created by us humans.  Furthermore, the biological determinants we use for deciding sex do not necessitate a specific type of social order because we are the ones who have devised the labels of “male” and “female” to create these groups of people.


One of the main objections one can raise to this view of males and females is an argument from intuition.  It seems contradictory to say that a person can be both a male and a female.  The idea of there being dichotomous male and female kinds seems so deeply intuitive that there is probably a better explanation for intersexuals and those who do not fit so easily into the sex binary.


While it is arguably safe to rely on our intuitions for some matters, it is difficult to say if these intuitions can be trusted when the sexes they describe are so wrapped up in sex roles and the social realm.  Almost invariably, we have all been brought up as our culture’s idea of what a male or a female is like.  Nearly all of us have gone through a lifetime of affirming and reaffirming that we are a member of a specific sex.  Similarly, we have been taught that the same holds true for everybody else: all of our acquaintances, friends, and family have been brought up as male or female, with associated social norms and customs attached to their sexes.  This dichotomy has been deeply instilled in many cultural traditions and paradigms, likely influencing our intuitions on the matter.  As a result, it seems unlikely that our intuitions would not serve as a trustworthy source to decide this matter.  These altered intuitions may also lead us to believe that there is an inherent contradiction in the concept of someone being a male and a female.  In the case of the intersexual that I brought up in premise one, there are many people who exhibit the features, both phenotypically and chromosomally, of males and females.  This is no more a contradiction than a pot being painted half blue and half red, or a pot that is violet as a mixture of blue and red.  As such, the apparent contradiction in the case of the intersexual is true when our jaded intuitions are set aside for a deeper understanding of the biological features of intersexual individuals.


A second objection one might raise to this view is that there is a long evolutionary history backing a mutually exclusive understanding of the sexes.  A huge number of animal and human behaviors are centered around the concept of there being distinct male and female types.  Pregnancy is a big example of a sex role that is distinctly and separately female.  There are clear and well defined biological differences between males and females, and these differences invade our social systems so strongly that it seems required for male and female kinds to necessitate certain functions of social systems.  Whether it comes to the elevated levels of testosterone in males creating a higher amount of aggressive behaviors or the long gestation periods in females resulting in them needing more protection during pregnancy, sex roles and norms seem built into the biological differentiations of the sexes.


However, this is something of a violation of the is/ought principle.  Simply because apparent differences between the sexes have been observed across time does not mean that the kinds are distinct and necessarily separate entities.  Any disruptions of social systems that might occur as result of the inclusion of intersexuals would not be the fault of the intersexuals but rather the social systems for neglecting the possibility of entities existing that do not fit into the easy female/male dichotomy that many societies have established.  Indeed, the differences between male and female do not need to result in the respective masculine and feminine gender roles that have been established.  In the case of pregnancy, we tend to associate certain roles with mothering such as nurturing and caring for one’s children.  While there is an evolutionary reason why these traits of motherhood and nurturing, caring, and empathy tend to exist simultaneously, this does not determine that the traits are coterminous and bound to one another.  Pregnancy is a biological construct, but that does not necessitate that it create a specific social system.  Early hominids might have had a system where gestating female needed to be protected by the non-gestating males.  However, it does not follow that all females, regardless of state of gestation, would need protection.  Non-gestating females could very well be protectors in line with the males.  Therefore, this social system generated from the existence of pregnancy is based only on the concept of pregnancy itself, not on a necessary state of femaleness.


The idea of males and females not being mutually exclusive carries a host of implications.  Not only that, but the concept of overlap between males and females seems like its own feature of reality, one we have disregarded in many societal practices from how we dress our infants to the inherent bias in gendered language.  By coming to understand the shades of gray that permeate sex, we can understand how so many of our social institutions are instated by us and how sex assignment, itself, is arbitrary.  It is important to inculcate that the traditional distinctions between males and females in the past have contributed to our understanding of the world.  However, like a theory, the male-female dichotomy must be analyzed for its truth, and in the case of falsifying evidence, the dichotomy should be reexamined.  With the evidence for the existence of intersexuals piling up, our devotion to the sex binary ought to become weaker and so should our devotion to thinking that certain sex characteristics require certain forms of society.