Friday, March 18, 2022


Who’s Afraid of Kathleen Stock?


The 8th edition of The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings (henceforth, PoS8) of which I am the lead editor, was published in February 2022 (the other editors are Jacob M. Held, Natasha McKeever, and Alan Soble). On February 26, 2022, I announced its publication on the Teaching Philosophy group on Facebook. Almost immediately someone (James Stanescu) complained that the volume includes an essay by the philosopher Kathleen Stock, “Sexual Orientation: What Is It?” “You added an essay by Stock?” Stanescu asked, as if the mere mention of Stock’s name was sufficient to make the point. This opened the door for others to complain (e.g., Sara Uckelman: “What, it was ADDED?! Ugh”; Quill Kukla: “Essay by stock? Hard pass” and Kian Bergstrom: a vomit emoji). These remarks generated a limited but perhaps useful discussion among some members of the group about the merits of including work by philosophers and other thinkers who are considered by some to be objectionable.

About a week later, a philosophy graduate student at the University of British Columbia, Alex Bryant, posted on Twitter his disappointment that the anthology included an essay by Stock. He got inundated by other tweets accusing him, among other things, of being a hypocrite for being a student of philosophy while also wanting to de-platform philosophical ideas from being discussed. He was pushed by some of the tweets, especially those by Professor Carole Hooven, to articulate his precise objection to having an essay by Stock included in PoS8, which, to his credit, he attempted to do (more on his attempt below).

The purpose of the present post is to tease out and articulate these objections to the inclusion of Stock’s essay and to show why they all fail. I write “tease out” because, with few exceptions, the objectors did not provide reasons for their objections.

            First, however, a word on the essay itself. “Sexual Orientation: What Is It?” was first published in 2019 in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (vol. 119, no. 3, pp. 295-319), so it was not written specifically for PoS8 (something important to keep in mind for reasons addressed below). The essay is wide-ranging in its scope, though anchored in the topic of sexual orientation. It defends what Stock calls “the Orthodox Account” (OA) of sexual orientation, which is the account that seems to be accepted by most people outside academia, and by quite a few academics.

The OA has various aspects, but the most important three are (1) that sexual orientation is a type of sexual attraction based on the sex of the people to whom the person with the orientation is attracted; (2) that sexual orientation also refers to the sex of the person with the orientation (such that, e.g., that a lesbian is a female human being who is attracted to other female human beings); and (3) that there are only three orientations (maybe even only two, if we think of bisexuals, as Stock suggests, as having not one orientation, but the other two, heterosexuality and homosexuality). Given these three aspects, the OA would be at odds with any account of sexual orientation that denies one or more of (1), (2), and (3), such as an account that conceives of sexual orientation as sexual attraction based on only the gender (not the sex) of the other person; or an account that does not consider the sex or gender of the person with the orientation to be necessary for the concept of sexual orientation; or an account that implies that there are more than three sexual orientations. Let this summary of Stock’s essay suffice for now; below I say a bit more about its arguments.

            The objections to the inclusion of Stock’s essay in the anthology seem to fall into three groups: (a) those based on the identity of the author; (b) those based on the work, in general, of the author, including the essay in question; and (c) those based on the aptness of including that specific essay in PoS8.

Objection (a) is basically that Stock is so problematic as a person that no work of hers should be assigned to students. Amy White wrote on Facebook, “I’ll stick to the previous version [of PoS] until I can find another text. I really don’t want to support a book that includes Stock.” When pressed by Mark Oppenheimer about which other authors White would boycott, White replied, “Any that make a stigmatized group of my students feel even less valid and threatened.” When Oppenheimer asked for examples, White did not reply, but Kelli Potter did, giving Oppenheimer himself as one example, followed by the ever-helpful “lol.” Of course, by White’s logic, an endless list of historical figures would be banned from being taught, rendering entire areas of philosophical studies verboten, and chipping away at the freedom of inquiry that lies at the heart of the discipline of philosophy.

            The fact is that (a) on its own cannot be taken seriously. It needs support in at least one of two forms. The support can be facts about the author’s personal life (the figure is a spouse beater, a pedophile, an animal torturer, etc.), so that, for example, we should not teach Heidegger because he was a Nazi (let’s bracket the question whether his Nazism seeped into his philosophy). Or the support can be (b), the problematic nature of the author’s work. Since Stock, I take it, is not a monster in her personal life, the support for (a) would have to come from (b).

But when we look at (b), we do not find anything that merits the outrage that Stock has been met with. The essay in question defends a commonsensical account of sexual orientation, with which most people would agree. Perhaps the outrage has to do with what Stock has written about gender identity, which has led some people to accuse her of transphobia. On Facebook, Kristina Grob sarcastically wrote, “Yes, it’s a little ridiculous that people are getting all bothered by the inclusion of arguments that undermine the full humanity of others and contribute toward their harm, exclusion, and oppression.”

Grob’s reasoning, however, is worrisome, especially coming from a fellow philosopher. Grob seems to be referring to Stock’s arguments and positions regarding whether transwomen are women or whether transmen are men. Here, it must be noted that the essay by Stock in PoS8 is not about gender but about sexual orientation. Even so, there is nothing in Stock’s views about gender, whether in the PoS8 essay or in general, that undermines “the full humanity of others”—certainly not if we go by the obvious meaning of “the full humanity of others.” Stock does disagree with the claims that transwomen are women and that transmen are men, though she agrees that we should have adequate concepts to refer to trans people (which is one way, I suppose, for accounting for their full humanity). Stock approaches this issue through the lens of conceptual analysis—“what an entity has to have, or be like, to be covered by [a] concept” (Material Girls, p. 143), and the need to delineate certain concepts for particular uses (see Material Girls, ch. 5, where she also argues against some accounts that attempt to subsume trans people under the concepts “woman” and “man”). But this position does not imply, let alone that it is identical with, the claim that trans people are not human or fully human. Moreover, Stock is explicit about this matter in her book, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism (pp. 176-177; ch. 8; and passim).

Third, it is unclear how Stock’s views have contributed to the “harm, exclusion, and oppression” of trans people. Is this attribution of harm, exclusion, and oppression an empirical claim? If yes, where is the evidence for it? If it is not an empirical claim, what kind of claim is it? Even if Stock’s views have fueled some people’s transphobia, why is she to be held morally and professionally accountable for that? If all it takes to boycott a philosopher’s views is the standard that the views have causally contributed to some people’s bigotry, then we would have to banish most philosophers from our syllabi, since one can argue that some philosophers’ support of, say, the immorality of gay sex or pro-life positions, is sufficient to justify removing their writings from our syllabi because they cause some people to be homophobic or mysoginist.

Fourth, and most troublingly, Grob’s reasoning seems to confuse teaching with—to put it starkly—evangelizing. When I include Kant’s Crimina Carnis section from his Lectures on Ethics in my course on the philosophy of sex, this does not mean that I uncritically teach his views, let alone simply accept them. As a matter of fact, I have always taught the New Natural Lawyers on gay issues, Zionist thinkers on Palestine, and philosophers who think it is perfectly okay to hunt, kill, or eat animals (three issues that I am passionate about). The inclusion of such thinkers does not mean that I refrain from criticizing their positions, let alone accepting them. But I also do not—and many might disagree with this point—push my students to hate Kant or the New Natural Lawyers or Roger Scruton, because the issue is not them as people. Instead, I encourage my students to lay out their arguments clearly and to critically evaluate them. Of course, someone can cogently argue that we should encourage our students to morally condemn these philosophers, and I respect this position. But the minimal common ground in philosophy education should be explaining (or interpreting, as the case may be) arguments and subjecting them to critical scrutiny. This is a crucial part of what it is to teach philosophy.

The last point brings me to another thread on Facebook about Stock’s essay. Roman Altshuler asks whether it is okay to teach racists—or, more accurately I take it, racist works—in a class on racism. He tends to think that it is okay. Altshuler adds, “If yes, is the difference that views on racism and sexism are settled enough that we don’t expect anyone to be seduced by them who isn’t already, while this is not the case with transphobic views?”

Altshuler’s question has two aspects: whether it would be okay to teach, say, racist views in our classes, and whether the answer has mainly to do with whether the issue in question has been settled. To my mind, however, it is difficult to answer the question whether it is okay to teach racist views with an absolute yes or no, even if the issue in question has been settled. Much depends on the course and its purpose. For example, if the course is on the history of racism, then, yes, the students will need to know which racist views have been espoused and how they were argued for. More importantly, to claim that an issue has been settled can mean various things, but one thing it usually means is that we have come to agree that, say, racism is wrong. But that there is consensus that something is wrong does not mean that we agree on why it is wrong. Indeed, philosophers disagree on how to define racism and why it is wrong. And it is not just racism: philosophers still debate why many other practices or attitudes are wrong.

Moreover, even if professional philosophers agree on why something is wrong, our students likely do not understand why that thing is wrong. Given my many years of teaching, I bet that most undergraduate students cannot articulate in philosophical terms why racism or sexism is wrong, especially as they start college. They need to learn philosophical reasoning, and for this there is no replacement for parsing and evaluating arguments, and teachers who deny their students the opportunity to evaluate, say, racist or homophobic arguments are guilty of some form of epistemic paternalism. Incidentally, and for those not familiar with recent editions of PoS, there is a list of discussion questions at the end of each essay, and many of the questions are highly critical of the arguments. This is to aid teachers and students in discussing the material and to underscore the main task at hand, which is the critical evaluation of these essays and their arguments.

In selecting arguments to evaluate, we should select the strongest ones; doing so makes the exercise of parsing arguments intellectually engaging to our students, and it is charitable to those whose arguments we are evaluating. But sometimes there are good reasons for students to see views that are obviously immoral or poorly constructed, and hence easy to criticize. In an introductory course on the philosophy of art, for example, I want my students to learn about aesthetic definitions of art, even if such definitions face easy counter-examples given that much contemporary art is not concerned with the aesthetic. I want them to learn these definitions because I want them to emerge from the class with a familiarity with what has been written and discussed about defining art, and aesthetic definitions fit this criterion. From this perspective, Stock’s views cannot be ignored. Any teacher teaching a course on sexual orientation or on current debates on gender should include Stock’s views on pain of cheating their students of a proper exposure to what has been written on the subject. (In this respect, Jozef Delvaux’s remark on Facebook—that third parties to these debates might want to have a variety of outlooks—is right on the money, and Kukla’s reply to Delvaux that we can include views by Haslanger or Barnes continues to limit whose views are allowed.) If students take a class on the philosophy of gender and they do not read Stock, then they would have been robbed of a full airing of the subject.

One might dismiss the above reasoning by arguing that Stock just does not have enough cache among philosophers writing on sexual orientation and gender for teachers to feel obligated to teach her views. Although Stock’s impact on the discipline can be debated either way, this point neglects another criterion that we use to decide whose views to teach, namely, the importance of exposing our students to as full a range of views on a subject as falls within a course’s constraints. I would venture to say that we have a moral obligation to expose our students in this way, by having them read various views, by inviting speakers with whom we or our students disagree, or by some other means. So even if Stock’s views on sexual orientation or gender are not popular among most philosophers of gender and sexual orientation (and we know that whose views are academically popular has, to put it mildly, political and sociological aspects to it), this would not by itself settle the question of whether to teach these views. This is especially true given that her views would resonate with most members of the public, from where, it bears remembering, our students come (a point especially true of public universities, which are partly funded by the public).

I have been articulating various criteria that philosophy teachers can and do use in deciding on which views to teach: what the course is and its purposes, the importance of evaluating arguments (whether we agree with them or not), the importance of the views to the history of the field, and the importance of having our students learn various points of view on the subject. I don’t claim that these four criteria are exhaustive or that they all need to be satisfied for a view and its arguments to be taught. But they are all very relevant to such a decision.

Still, even if all the above is true, I have not yet fully addressed (c), the question as to whether Stock’s essay should have been included in an anthology such as PoS. I say “not fully” because the last two points under (b) do so to some extent: an anthology on the philosophy of sex and that includes essays on sexual orientation might need to have an essay that defends the “orthodox” view. Still, anthologies have limited space, so why Stock’s essay? The above-mentioned graduate student, Alex Bryant, after being pushed to articulate his reasons against the inclusion of the essay, posted a few tweets about why it should not have been included. Some tweets mentioned that students are statistically at the highest risk of being subject to sexual violence and of being perpetrators (though I am not sure where these statistics come from or their relevance), that students have to deal with the consequences of coming out (again, the relevance of this claim is unclear), and that Stock’s arguments “don’t rise to a disciplinary standard many of us expect, and so should our students.” The third point is obviously quite relevant, but it does not really explain why Bryant takes Stock’s arguments to fail to rise to these standards—after all, the issue is why Stock’s essay fails in this way, and Bryant’s tweet merely pushes the question one step back. (Because after all these tweets we don’t get an answer, I am reminded of the ancient saying about the mountain that goes into labor only to birth a mouse.)

I understand Stock’s essay to consist of two tasks. First, it seeks to explain and clarify the OA, especially in terms used by philosophers (e.g., what it means for sexual orientation to be a disposition and how that is compatible with having sex with members of the sex to whom one is not oriented, and whether sexual desire operates de dicto or de re). Second, the essay aims to argue that there are no good reasons to abandon some aspects of the OA (namely, its basis in sex), which Stock does by rejecting gender as an alternative such basis. She also argues that we have good reasons to retain other aspects of the account (namely, the sex of the person with the orientation). She concludes by arguing against various attempts to understand the differences between sexual orientations and sexual preferences (including an old attempt of mine), and by explaining her view on the matter.

Stock’s argumentative strategy is common to many other philosophical strategies, and her arguments are not obviously invalid or unsound, so that it is clear that they should not be included in an anthology such as PoS. Indeed, many would find the arguments compelling. People are of course free to criticize her arguments, and I expect nothing less in a class room environment or in a research paper. But having criticisms of an argument or position is not a sufficient basis for rejecting the paper’s inclusion in an academic volume such as PoS8. It is also important to add that the paper was previously published in a prestigious journal, whose papers are selected and invited for publication by a committee; it is in conversation with other philosophers who have written on sexual orientation (such as Robin Dembroff’s “What Is Sexual Orientation?, which is also in PoS8); and it fits nicely with other essays in PoS8 on sexual orientation (Brunning and McKeever’s on asexuality, and Rudy’s on zoophilia). Thus, and in addition to the above-discussed criteria, not only are the objections against including Stock’s essay in PoS8 baseless, there are excellent reasons for its inclusion.

At the end of the day, philosophers are free to use or not to use PoS8. If they do use it, they are free to teach or not to teach Stock’s essay. But if they refuse to use the book just because it has Stock’s essay, then they would miss out on a good book, much to their loss and to their students’ loss. Of course, the issue is not just PoS8, but which books we use and why. If philosophers refuse to use books simply because they include philosophical views that we dislike or disagree with, then we would be failing to live up to our professional standards and contributing to dismantling the field itself.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

On Pansexualism


On Pansexualism

At the time of this writing, I am 53 years old. When I was younger—in my teens, my twenties, my thirties, and even my forties—I never had a problem finding sexual partners. I managed to turn a few heads, as the expression goes. Whether in Beirut or in Chicago, finding other guys to have sex with was never an issue. But as I aged, fewer and fewer heads were being turned. Please understand that I am by no means complaining about this (though I do lament it), and I never for a second think that my experience is rare or uncommon. The opposite is in fact true: those who are into “grannies” or older guys notwithstanding, the fact is that as one gets older and older, one becomes less and less sexually desirable. Sexual desirability and aging are inversely proportional. (Those who rail against sexual objectification often forget that for older people being sexually objectified might be quite welcome.)

            If sexual attraction for older people is very uncommon, and expectedly so, what about for sexes and genders that do not match one’s sexual orientation? Straight men are not usually sexually attracted to other men, straight women not to other women, and gay people not to people of the opposite sex. Yet there are nowadays more than rumblings to the effect that not being attracted to some genders is a phobia of sorts. A YouTuber by the name of Riley J. Dennis did a couple of videos on why not sexually desiring trans people is transphobic. The philosopher Rachel McKinnon famously (or notoriously, depending on your point of view) tweeted in September of 2019 that because “sexual genital preferences [are] immoral,” any sexual orientation other than pansexualism is immoral (more on pansexuality below). And, in a more academic context, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan in her widely read essay in the London Review of Books (“Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?”) claims that although no one has the right to sex, we nonetheless must query why our sexual desires under patriarchy are the way they are—why many people do not sexually desire the fat, the disabled, and the trans. Referring to transwomen, she writes, “Transwomen often face sexual exclusion from lesbian cis women who at the same time claim to take them seriously as women.” The implication here—I think—is that if you, as a lesbian, claim to take transwomen seriously, why are you not willing to sleep with them?

            Why not indeed? Is the fact that some transwomen retain their male genitalia an acceptable reason for lesbians to not have sex with them? Or should lesbians work on their sexual desires and make them more inclusive? This is where pansexualism comes in. If “genital preferences” are wrong, as McKinnon says, then we should work to change our sexual orientations to make them as inclusive as possible. We should, in other words, try to be pansexuals.

            Is pansexualism plausible? Before we assess it, let’s first better understand it. (To my knowledge, pansexualism has not been fully elaborated or defended by philosophers. This post is a step in that direction.)

            The “pan” in “pansexual” means “all,” which indicates that pansexualism is about finding anybody sexually desirable, regardless of sex, gender, age, body size, skin color, race, and so on, as long as someone is human—though even here there is no reason to draw the line at being human if we take “pan,” if not literally, at least seriously. However, this is not how the term is usually used, which is to refer to only gender and sex. Under its usual understanding, a pansexual is someone who is attracted to others regardless of their sex or gender (henceforth, “sex/gender”). This usual understanding does imply, at least implicitly, that a pansexual person’s sexual attractions to others could be limited by non-sex/gender factors, such as others’ age. In this respect, pansexuals are no different from gay, straight, and bi people in having limits to what their sexual desires might target. The only difference is that sex/gender is no obstacle to pansexual people. (Supposedly, they differ from bisexuals in that bisexuals are attracted to each sex/gender—it is important that the person to whom bisexuals are attracted is a man or a woman—whereas this is not so for pansexuals, whose attractions include genderqueer people.) I will for now assume that pansexualism is limited to sex/gender, though below I will argue that this limitation is arbitrary.

            Right at the start, we should distinguish between pansexualism as a descriptive view and pansexualism as a normative view. The former merely states that that there are people who are pansexual, though how many or what percentage of the population they constitute is unclear. (Pansexualism can also refer to a possible orientation: that even though there are actually no pansexuals, there can be if our biology or social history were different. I will not be concerned with this.) That there are pansexual people seems to me to be neither surprising nor interesting. To those who are surprised by its existence, I can point them to even more bizarre orientations, with which pansexualism is very mild by comparison.

            The more interesting version of pansexualism is the normative one. This is the view that says something to the effect that we all should be pansexuals or at least try to be. It is the view that seems to follow from MacKinnon’s tweet; after all, if having genital preferences is immoral, then we should work on getting rid of those preferences, which means that we should work on being pansexual. I will shortly explain some arguments that might motivate such a view.

            In a recent essay in The Electric Agora, the philosophy professor Robert Gressis dissects and criticizes two forms of normative pansexualism, what he calls “uncompromising pansexualism” and “compromising pansexualism.” The former, according to Gressis, sanctions non-pansexual orientations and promotes pansexual orientations. Non-pansexualism refers to the usual orientations: a gay man who is not attracted to, say, ciswomen, or a straight woman who is not attracted to pre-op transmen. On the other hand, and as Gressis describes them, pansexual orientations are orientations to people regardless of whether they have penises or vaginas (or possibly something else).

            Why should we sanction non-pansexualism and promote pansexualism? Gressis’s answer is because it deprives both cis and trans people of “sexual opportunities and relationship-satisfaction.” If you were sexually attracted to only cis people but you are now attracted to all sex/genders, then you enlarge the pool of sexual partners. And if you were sexually attracted only to trans people but you are now attracted to cis people you also enlarge your pool of partners. (I will return below to this and two other arguments in support of pansexualism in more detail.)

            Gressis replies to uncompromising pansexualism by arguing, convincingly, that unlike preferences to others based on their race or ethnic belonging, heterosexual orientation is probably genetically hardwired, given evolutionary theory: “the survival of the species kind of depends on it” (Gressis is silent on homosexual orientation, which seems to be as hard-wired as the heterosexual one, though whether genetically is unclear). Moreover, the attraction in question is not just to penises or vaginas, so that a straight cisman can be as easily attracted to a transman as long as the transman still has a vagina. Gressis writes, “It’s quite reductionist to think of straight men (or, for that matter, lesbians) as sexually attracted to just vaginas. While genitals are part of the object of sexual desire, I suspect other bodily features matter a great deal too (compare: when it comes to food, sweetness is important, but it doesn’t follow from that that everyone is completely indifferent to texture).” Gressis is thus “highly suspicious of the idea that sexual desire is entirely socially constructed.”

            Although I share this suspicion, a McKinnon-like stance on “genital preferences” can be understood to mean not a narrow focus on the genitalia, but that the genitalia are central to one’s attractions to others, such that although other bodily features matter, as Gressis rightly points out, they might matter in light of our beliefs about another person’s genitalia. For example, I might find a person’s arms sexually arousing in light of my belief that he has male genitalia. Think of it this way: our beliefs about another’s genitalia might centrally organize our attractions to that person’s body and its other parts. Gressis would be right that other parts matter, but only because (or especially because) we perceive them as connected to the genitalia. In this way, they retain a stronger connection to the genitalia than texture might retain to sweetness.

            Be that as it may, the uncompromising pansexualist might reply to Gressis’s criticisms that even though it is difficult to change one’s desires, one might still be able to change them and to develop desires that one did not previously have. Such new desires might require some effort and cultivation, “but that would simply make it the sexual equivalent of scotch: an acquired taste.” To this, Gressis replies, again convincingly, that not everyone can develop such acquired tastes; some can, but others cannot. He argues that even if sexual desires are socially constructed, this “construction” might only go so far, and the 0’s and 6’s on the Kinsey scale attest to this. That many people are willing to undertake serious risks to satisfy their sexual desires (think gay male sex in countries where men can be put to death for this kind of activity) further attests to this unmalleability.

            Uncompromising pansexualism is not a plausible view because not everyone’s desires are malleable. This shows that pansexualism is not obligatory for everyone. This, however, means that it is for some—for those whose desires are malleable. But now enters compromising pansexualism: everyone should at least try to be pansexual. If you fail, so be it, but at least you would have tried. (How hard and for how long we should try, however, is a sticky point that Gressis does not address: how much time and energy should I spend trying to find out whether I have a lingering thread of straightness in me? And when to know when to stop trying? I will return to this below.) If you succeed, it’s a win-win situation.

            Gressis objects to compromising pansexualism on two grounds. First, it “stinks of the worst kind of social engineering,” and, second (and more importantly to Gressis), it assumes the idea that you should love people for who they are, and not for their looks. But “[t]aken to its logical conclusion, this position should condemn, not only heterosexuality or homosexuality, but also preferences for thinness, youthfulness, able-bodiedness, and so on.” This is the position that Gressis calls “Mind Over Body,” that romantic relationship decisions should be based on someone’s character traits, not their physical looks. Gressis rejects this view because physical traits are as much of the package as are character traits, so they, too, should count. In short, insofar as compromising pansexualism “rests on the idea that it’s permissible to love people only for who they are, not what they look like,” it is a false position.

            Gressis is right that compromising pansexualism smacks of being one of the worst kinds of social engineering projects, although, I note, not the kind whose advocates think should be enforced by third parties (not yet, anyway), only by our inner sense of moral duty to make the lot of others better in the realm of romance and sex.

            However, Gressis’s criticism latches onto a form of pansexualism that is, strictly speaking, not part of the view. For if pansexualism is about sexual desire, and if sexual desire (and sexual activity and sexual pleasure) is different from love, romance, and relationships (even though sexual desire for and activity with others can be the causal initiator and maintainer of relationships), Gressis’s criticism that compromising pansexualism rests on the assumption that we may love others only on the basis of their character saddles pansexualism with a position about love that is not essential for the view. Perhaps there is a version of pansexualism about sex and love, but at its core pansexualism is about sex, not love, and we should address its core.

            This means we need a better criticism of compromising pansexualism, one that does not construe it as being a theory about sex and love and relationships. And here, such criticism seems hard to come by. After all, what is so wrong with a view that says, as does compromising pansexualism (henceforth only “pansexualism”), “That it is not asking too much that you at least try to find people sexually attractive regardless of their sex/gender”? What’s wrong with trying? Perhaps we owe as much to others. Is this a plausible view?

            There is a famous principle in philosophy (about which doubts have been raised) that states that “ought implies can.” This roughly means that one does not have a moral obligation to do something if one cannot do that thing. A child, for example, does not have the moral obligation to take care of his ailing grandparents if he is too young to do so. Or one does not have the obligation to donate upward of a $100,000.00 to charity if one does not have the money. The point is that if our sexual desires are not malleable, then we have no obligation to change them, not even to try to change them.

            Now, the question of the malleability of sexual desire is an empirical one and we need more and better data on it than we currently have. However, we can also see how a philosophical argument based in the nature of sexual desire can be offered in support of sexual desire’s malleability. The argument goes as follows. (This argument is most eloquently offered by the philosopher Seiriol Morgan in two essays, “Sex in the Head” and “Dark Desires”; in the comments section of Gressis’s essay, the philosopher Duane Long gave a truncated version of it.) Unlike non-human animals, human beings’ experience of sexual desire is conceptual. This means that when we feel or undergo sexual desire, we do not experience it as merely an instinct, but as mental, as infused with ideas. For instance, someone’s stereotypes about a group of people might prohibit her from finding them desirable (“X’s are dirty, he’s an X, so yuck”), and someone’s conception of another might enhance their sexual desire (“She is a movie star! She is way hotter than I thought!”). Now, the argument goes, if sexual desire is conceptually mediated, and if we can “work on” fixing those concepts, then we might change our sexual desires. If I can convince myself that X’s are not dirty, I might start finding them more and more sexually desirable.

            I think that this is an interesting argument. But it is limited because it assumes that sexual desires are always conceptually mediated, or at least mediated by concepts that are changeable. But this is not true. For one thing, human bodies might be attractive regardless in which culture they occur. Take a picture of a naked (young) man or woman (with a decent body), and show it to any person with the “right” orientation, and they will probably find the person sexually attractive, regardless of the time period or the culture of the person who is looking at the picture. Or consider encountering a person whose ethnic or racial belonging you cannot figure out. Does this mean that you will be unable to find that person good (or not good) looking until the data are in? Of course not. Sexual desire is often not conceptually mediated in this respect, and a lot depends on which concepts we have in mind. Stereotypes about cultural groups? Yes, these can be changed. Concepts about human desirable figures? Not so much, despite the range of variability we have witnessed across cultures and times. Because sexual desire might target human bodies regardless of their cultural layers and regardless of our beliefs about the specific people to whom we are attracted, then either sexual desire need not always be conceptually mediated or the concepts that mediate it can be basic, perceptual ones.

            In this regard, we should not be misled by improper analogies. First, we should not be misled with the analogy of sexually desiring or not desiring members of specific racial or ethnic groups. It is one thing to claim that sexual desires for ethnic or racial groups is malleable, it is another to claim that it is so for age or sex groups. Just because it is malleable for one group does not mean that it is (or as) malleable for another. I suspect that evolutionary mechanisms will help identify for which groups sexual desire is and is not malleable (or as malleable). There is nothing about being white, black, Asian, Latino, or Arab that should, from an evolutionary perspective, hinder sexual desire. But being old or very young, or being of the “wrong” sex/gender clearly does, at least in many cases.

            Second, we should not be misled by analogies with emotions. Philosophers correctly argue that because emotions are belief-laden, if we change the belief we can change the emotion. For example, if I am angry at someone because I mistakenly believe that he has insulted me, realizing that he has not will typically get rid of my anger. But this is not so clear with sexual desire. What will likely change my sexual desire for a handsome man standing before me? My belief that patriarchy exists? That our sexual desires are socially constructed? That I should not be attracted only to cismen? It’s not clear that insisting on such beliefs, or repeating them to myself, will change my desires. Probably the only thing that could change my desire is knowing something about this man that I find seriously off-putting, say, that he is a thug, a criminal, a rapist, a torturer—though it is a well-known fact that sexual desire often remains resilient despite these beliefs, perhaps even because of them (e.g., finding “bad boys” attractive). And even if my desire for this man changes because I come to know that he is a thug, my desire will change for this man, not for men in general, let alone for beginning to find women sexually desirable. Sexual desire, unlike emotions, is essentially bodily, aroused often by mere images and perceptions. It can be felt as a twinge between our legs, our crotch telling us, “Hey! I see something I like!” No amount of conceptual re-engineering might change that.

            To be clear, my point about the non-malleability of sexual desire does not concern sexual desires as manifested in particular situations. If Y pays X enough money, X might manage to go through with a sexual act (and with some success) with Y even if X does not find Y attractive, even finds Y repugnant. And if you put Z long enough in an environment with no other people of the “right” sex/gender, Z will be able to, and enjoy, having sex with others in that environment. Our imagination and sexual fantasies play a big role in seeing us through a particular sexual act. The point, instead, concerns a person’s sexual desires under normal conditions and during a longitudinal section of a person’s life, or a person’s sexual desires as they form a pattern, an orientation.

            I should also be clear that none of the above implies that there are people whom none finds sexually attractive. There are as many types of sexual desires out there as there are many types of people, so there will always be “niche” sexual desires and orientations (but, alas, they are niche).

            Nor am I am precluding the possibility that with years and years of social change, our patterns of sexual desires might change. Yes, evolutionary biology plays a big role in our sexual desires and how they are formed. But we are continuously evolving, and our environment, which is shaped to a large extent by our own minds and ideas, plays a role in this evolution. So it is entirely possible that with the passage of time many or most people become pansexual. I do not discount this possibility.

            The point is that in general, and for a large majority of people, sexual desires and orientations do not extend to certain groups of people, and that there are probably social explanations for this limitation, some of which have an underlying, deeper evolutionary explanation for why some sexual desires but not others are unshakeable (though this is not a reason to stop us from examining, as Srinivasan wants, the political underpinnings of our sexual desires).

            Let us grant, however, that sexual desire, with some effort and work, can be made pansexual—let us, that is, put the “can” issue aside and address the “ought” one. One might reasonably ask, “Why should we try to be pansexual? What moral reasons do we have for doing that? After all, life is short (and busy).” More specifically, if I find myself not attracted to a particular sex/gender, and very much attracted to another, why should I spend time, effort, and possibly money to change my sexual desire when (a) I am likely to be busy, (b) I already find the prospect of having sex with the “right” sex/gender extremely appealing and satisfying, (c) there is no guarantee of success in changing my sexual desires, and (d) I do not know when to stop trying?

            I will address three reasons in support of trying to be pansexual: those based in consequences, those based in fairness, and those based in character. Note that each of these three reasons (or arguments), whether successful or unsuccessful, shows the arbitrariness of confining pansexualism to sex/gender, because each argument is equally applicable to every other group: the old, the fat, the (very) thin, the physically handicapped, the ugly, the too short, the too tall, and every other marginalized group in society when it comes to sexual favoritism. Indeed, these arguments have much stronger force when it comes to these groups, because most trans people have no difficulty finding sexual partners (though love, which involves public dimensions that sex does not, might be different owing to the social stigma attached to sexual and gender minorities), whereas the physically handicapped and the very old, for instance, have a hard time indeed. In this regard, it is a mystery as to why pansexualism should be understood in such a way as to be confined to sex/gender, though probably the reason is not philosophical but genetic, having to do with its origin in finding support among some trans people.

            Consequence-based reasons. The idea here is that we should try to be pansexual because being non-pansexual deprives groups of the “wrong” sex/gender of, as Gressis puts it, “sexual opportunities.”

            Note (again) how much it strongly applies to sexually marginalized groups on the basis of traits other than sex/gender—the old, for example, seem to be as worthy of having sexual opportunities as any other (and lest you think that being old is not a good reason because old people were once young and would presumably have already had plenty of sex, think of other groups, those who are physically deformed or morbidly obese, for instance). And note, second, that I have yet to hear of ciswomen and cismen (non-jokingly) complain about losing sexual opportunities because they are ciswomen and cismen and because there are straight and gay people out there who are not attracted to them.

            Finally, note, third, that if we are thus referring to trans and genderqueer people, and not to cis people, we do not know how many trans and genderqueer people, out of the entire population of trans and genderqueer people, who are sexually marginalized, and how many of those are marginalized because of their sex/gender identity (after all, just because X does not desire a trans person does not mean that the trans person is undesired because of their trans-hood).

            Having noted the above, the main difficulty with the argument is that it does not seem to generate an obligation to try to cultivate pansexualism. If it is sexual opportunities we have in mind, then members of sexually marginalized communities can have recourse to other means to satisfy their sexual desires, such as hiring a sex worker. At most, what follows from the argument is that society ought to attend to its sexually deprived members by setting up institutions to help them satisfy their sexual needs (maybe even have them covered by health insurance). So it is unclear how an obligation that individuals become pansexual follows from the idea of increasing the sexual opportunities of members of sexually marginalized groups. More importantly, even if obligations for individuals do follow, it is unclear why the obligation is to try to be pansexual, as opposed to sucking it up (no pun intended) every now and then and having sex with someone with whom you would ordinarily not want to, out of a sense of kindness and compassion to that person. (The philosopher Alan Soble has an interesting essay on this issue titled “Gifts and Duties.”)

            So the above argument does not establish individual obligations to try to be pansexual. The argument would be on much stronger ground if it were about relationships and love, not just sex, because the two goods of love and relationships cannot be properly supplied by direct social mechanisms or by mere outward behavior. Obviously, to have love or a relationship, one has to be with the right person, with someone who loves or makes one happy.

            But because being with or loving someone is a deep investment, we need to look at the opportunity costs (to put it crassly) of the person who spends time and effort cultivating their pansexualism. Imagine Marge, a straight woman who is pretty clear that she is straight and attracted to cismen. As everyone knows, finding a decent partner is tough and requires spending time and effort, and even when one finds a person who is promising, spending time with that person is necessary to make sure that he is Mr. Right. But all this might come at the expense of cultivating one’s pansexualism. So should Marge spend time pursuing cismen or cultivating her pansexualism? (Although these two are not mutually exclusive in a conceptual sense, they are in a practical sense, especially in those cases when one is not in doubt about one’s sexual interests and when one does not have much time to spare.) Now, although it would be morally good of Marge to devote herself to pursuing both avenues, and although it would be even morally better for Marge to pursue only the avenue of cultivating her pansexualism, it is odd to claim that this is her obligation. It is more plausible to claim that it would be what philosophers call “supererogatory”—an action that goes beyond the call of duty. (There is also the question about which motivation Marge should act from when she embarks on cultivating her pansexualism, because some motivations might very well be patronizing and condescending to trans and genderqueer people, but I set this issue aside.)

            Fairness-based reasons. One might argue that everyone deserves to have a satisfying sex life or a romantic (or domestic) partner, and being deprived of this is unfair. (Note, again, how this reason applies to everyone, not just on the basis of sex/gender, again indicating the arbitrariness of the way that “pansexualism” is used.) Now, it might very well be true that everyone deserves to have a decent sex or love life, and it might be true that everyone has a right to such a life (though I doubt it, especially with respect to love), but it doesn’t follow from this that everyone has this right against a particular individual. For example, even if X deserves to have a good sex life or has a right to it, it does not follow that it is Y who should be X’s sexual provider (unless they have a pre-established specific arrangement). So the kind of fairness in question is not one that generates obligations on the part of specific individuals.

            One might reply that perhaps we have obligations to cultivate pansexualism to try to provide others with more opportunities for sex (and love), thus a higher chance of giving them what they deserve, even if they cannot claim this of anybody in particular. Think of it this way: the more people are pansexual, the more people can have their deserving sexual and love-related needs met. By cultivating pansexualism, we are closer to a fairer system for the distribution of sexual desire.

            True. But it does not generate obligations on individuals given the time and effort considerations I brought up in the case of Marge. At best, such a cultivation would be ideal, wonderful, over-and-beyond, but it is too demanding to claim that it is obligatory.

            Character-based reasons. One might argue that being a good person and morally improving ourselves are obligations of sorts (certainly, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that we had the duty to morally improve ourselves). Given that providing others with a good sex or love life is a good thing, we should then cultivate those desires that would enable us to do this.

            However, this argument’s success depends on the success of the two previous arguments, because it is only if we have an obligation to satisfy others’ sexual needs that we will have an obligation to cultivate those traits that would enable us to do so. If no such individual obligations exist, then we have no obligations to cultivate specific sexual desires or orientations. To be sure, we have an obligation of sorts to be good people, and, in this regard, we should cultivate as much as possible the virtues: courage, justice, moderation, wisdom, generosity, compassion, and so on, though none of these virtues entail that we develop a particular sexual orientation. If we add further virtues to the list, such as open-mindedness and openness to others (an epistemic and a moral virtue, respectively), we reach the point that our sexual reactions or attitudes to others should be ones of openness and not cruel, humiliating rejection (a point that Gressis raises in one of his replies to the comments on his post). But that’s about it, and it’s a far cry from cultivating pansexualism. In other words, even if we have a moral obligation to cultivate the virtues of openness to others and of open-mindedness, they at least imply that we should not hurtfully reject someone based on their being of the “wrong” sex/gender, and they at most imply that we should give them a chance, neither of which is an obligation to cultivate pansexualism.

            I would like to go back to age and use it to flip the above arguments for pansexualism on their heads: If there is an obligation to try to be pansexual, then there is an obligation to try to sexually desire the old. But there is no such obligation to try to desire the old (which is not to be confused with possible obligations to have their sexual needs met). So there is no obligation to try to be pansexual. And if there is an obligation to be pansexual but not to desire the old, the obligation will have to be supported by other reasons, and I cannot think of any good ones.

            We have obligations (with exceptions, of course) to treat others respectfully, to accepting them for who they are, and to understand that human sexuality is an important albeit a complicated matter. Perhaps these attitudes, along with the possibility that sexual desire is partially socially constructed, will with enough time transform most of us into pansexual beings. Until then, either we can institute social programs to help the sexually needy or/because we should accept the fact that there will always be people who are not sexually desired by a large majority of others.


(An edited version of this post appeared in Quillette under the title “The Philosophy of Pansexualism.”)

Saturday, August 1, 2020

What Is Privilege?
We have in recent years gotten accustomed to hearing about various types of privilege that people have, such as white privilege, male privilege, and heterosexual privilege. People also now admonish those who have privilege to “check” their privilege, even though what this means is not entirely clear. Before we can discuss what “checking privilege” means, however, we need to have a good idea of what the concept of privilege itself means. I will offer in this post what I take to be a plausible definition of privilege, one that coheres with how the concept is used and is intended to be used. I will also argue that the concept does not refer to any new phenomena or play any important explanatory role when it comes to issues of social justice. I will argue that although it can be used to raise one’s consciousness about one’s position in regards various social issues (even though other concepts are also available for this purpose), its use by third parties to, for example, admonish someone to check their privilege, are best abandoned.

I. Definition of Privilege
(1) Whatever having privilege means, those who use this concept often have in mind specific groups of people with privilege. For instance, the group thought to be with the most privilege is the group of white, straight, abled, middle class or rich cismen (though the age is not clear). If a person belongs to this group, then he is at the top of the privilege pyramid, so to speak. White, straight, abled, middle class or rich ciswomen come next. And so on. In this regard, the concept of privilege is not meant to capture just any group whose members have privilege. For instance, being young has its advantages (vigor, optimism, agility, etc.), so belonging to the group “young people” is a privilege of sorts, yet it is not the kind of privilege that the concept is intended to include. This is because the groups have to be connected to issues of social justice, and simply being young (or old) is not as such related to that. Instead, privileged individuals are ones that are thought to benefit or have benefitted, due to their group membership, from an unjust social structure or system, such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and able-ism.
            (2) Moreover, the privilege in question is mostly social and political, not legal or even economic (though having or lacking social privilege could, and usually does, have economic consequences or be the result economic causes). This is not to deny that in the past some groups had legal privileges whereas others did not (e.g., only opposite-sex marriages were legal), but that the focus of the concept of privilege is social and political, as we will see in the examples below.
            (3) Because an individual can belong to various groups that are socially yet unjustly advantaged (e.g., white and straight),[1] privilege is intersectional. The more privileged groups to which one belongs, the more privilege one has. In this respect, some people (e.g., white, straight men) can have more privilege than others (e.g., white, gay men), depending on the groups to which they belong.
            (4) The concept of privilege is also intended to be general and social, not specific to particular contexts. For example, even if black basketball players might have more advantages than white basketball players in the context of the NBA,[2] black basketball players still lack general social privilege as black people (that their fame and stardom might soften the impact of not having privilege does not detract from the idea that in virtue of being black they lack privilege). Thus, those who think that in the context of the NBA black basketball players have privilege might be misapplying the concept of privilege as it is intended.[3] Indeed, since each of us easily belongs to some group that has advantages, each of us will have privilege in some respect. This is clearly, however, not the idea behind the concept. To repeat: privilege and its lack must connect to groups in their relation to issues of social justice and injustice.
            With these four features in mind, let us ask what it means to claim that someone has privilege. In an essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,”[4] Peggy McIntosh states that “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” She provides a list of 50 examples such as going shopping without being followed or harassed (presumably by the store’s security), that her children will be given curricular materials that “testify to the existence of their race,” that she can rely on her skin color “not to count against the appearance of financial reliability,” that she can speak in public to a powerful male group without her race being “put on trial,” that she is “never asked to speak for all the people in [her] racial group,” that she can expect to see people of her own race represented on television and in history books, that she can travel without expecting to experience hostility by those who deal with her, and that she “will feel welcomed and ‘normal’ in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.”
            McIntosh’s 50 examples illustrate four types of privilege.[5] The first and most dominant theme is the ease with which white people can move in and about the world, at least as compared to non-white people (examples #4, 5, 10*, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23*, 25, 27, 30, 33, 34, 35, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 47, 48, 50).[6] The second is the idea of the ease of the availability of resources to white people that are not available, or not as easily available, to non-white people (examples #3, 8, 9*, 14, 24, 37, 38, 44, 46, 49). To see the difference between the two, consider a white person who goes into a store and who is treated well and politely by the cashier or the store workers. This is not about availability of resources, but about easily moving in and about the world without meeting unnecessary obstacles. Instead, not encountering curricular materials about your own culture or race (if you are not white) is an example of the unavailability of resources.
            The third theme is that of finding people of one’s own race represented in various areas, such as the media or school curricula (examples #6, 7, 12, 24, 26, 45), and the fourth is additional burdens that people with privilege do not have to assume as a consequence of who they are or what they say or do (examples #15, 21, 28*, 29, 31, 32, 36, 40, 42). For instance, Example 15, which is about not having to educate one’s children about racism for their daily physical protection, is an additional burden on non-white people who do have to educate their children about this. As is clear, this fourth theme is distinct from the other three.
            The “package of assets” to which McIntosh refers includes the above four. The package is also invisible, unearned, and the person who has it is “meant” to be oblivious to it. The package is invisible in that people who have it are not usually or consciously aware of it. Moreover, they are not “meant” to be aware of it. McIntosh places “meant” between quotation marks to presumably signal that although no actual person intended people with privilege to not be aware of the package, the system is “set up” or has evolved in such a way that those privileges are as invisible as possible to those who have them. The packages are unearned because being white does not, as such, entitle one to anything. You, as a white person, have not done anything to earn those privileges; they come with the territory of being white (in the context of racism).[7]
            If McIntosh’s statement is intended to be a definition of “privilege,” then it does not succeed because it is too inclusive to be plausible.[8] That is, a definition should include those and only those packages that accrue to white people, whereas McIntosh’s statement of white privilege includes a lot more. Given that non-white people can have invisible and unearned packages that socially benefit them, and given that they can have resources more easily available to them than to others, they would also have white privilege! And given that white people can have unearned and invisible packages that have nothing to do with their whiteness, white privilege would include those as well, on McIntosh’s statement. To give an example of the former, African Americans and Cuban Americans have a whole set of legal privileges that non-citizens have, and these advantages are neither earned nor typically visible to those who have them. To give an example of the latter, some white people have unearned invisible privileges having nothing to do with their whiteness, such as having a sunny disposition, being healthy, and enjoying their hobbies, which are all privileges but have nothing to do with being white as such.[9] (The same examples can apply to non-whites, but the point is to illustrate how whites can have privileges that have nothing to do with their whiteness.) So what McIntosh offers is too general to be a definition.
            Thus, because McIntosh has in mind only packages in virtue of being white, and because her characterization of white privilege is very broad, the characterization is not a definition (though it might be an adequate starting point).
            Is the list of 50 examples sufficient to explain what privilege is? Can we do without a definition? No, because all the examples on the list can be captured by already-existing concepts other than privilege, which means that the examples have failed to illustrate what is unique about privilege. For instance, the ease of availability of resources for whites, the burdens on non-white people, and the lack of representation can be captured by that of racism: it explains the inequality that exists in the availability of resources for black and white people; it explains how non-white people have additional hurdles to jump; and it explains why non-white people have inadequate representation. The concept of stereotypes can easily explain the ease of maneuverability in the world (and it can explain the additional burdens), according to which having stereotypes about non-white people blocks their ability to easily move about in the social world. And the concept of racism can easily explain the non-availability of resources since racism explains the kind of social and economic inequality that we often encounter. Privilege seems to not add anything of interest in this regard. If anything, the concept of privilege is not prior to the above concepts, but is based on them. Put differently, people have privilege because of racism and sexism and other isms, not the other way around. This puts pressure on the concept of privilege in that we will need to find a reason for its use. Is it just an epiphenomenal concept that arises out of the concepts of racism, sexism, and so on? Or does it do any real explanatory work? I will return to this issue below.
            A different definition of “privilege,” given by Dan Lowe, is that privilege is “a person’s advantage due to their membership in a social group, in contexts where that membership shouldn’t normally matter.”[10] To understand this definition, note its key terms: “advantage,” “membership in a social group,” and “context.” The following example illustrates the definition. In virtue of being a man, I belong to the social group of men. Now consider the context of walking alone on the street late at night. In that context, I have the advantage of not having to worry about being sexually assaulted, and it is an advantage that I have in virtue of my social group membership (i.e., in virtue of being a man). But this is a context that should not normally matter to my having the advantage of safety; women who walk alone on the street late at night should also not have to worry about being sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, they do have to constantly worry about that. So being a man confers upon me the advantage of feeling safe in the context of walking down the street late at night. This is a privilege that I have in virtue of being a man in contexts in which I should not have that advantage (in comparison to women who do not have it).
            What are some examples of contexts in which having an advantage in virtue of belonging to a group is not morally problematic? Lowe gives the example of having the advantages of belonging to a country club:[11] members have certain “perks” in virtue of being members of country clubs, and these perks are not morally problematic because this is what it means to be a member of a country club. Fair enough. Are there examples of contexts in which being a man confers an advantage that is not morally problematic? If yes, then being a man would not be a privilege in those contexts.[12]
            Lowe’s definition, however, faces counter-examples, ones stemming from its reliance on the idea of context, and others from its reliance on a broad concept of social groups.
            Consider being a man or a woman in the context of crime punishment or custody of one’s children. These contexts should not confer an advantage in virtue of one’s being a man or a woman, in that men and women should serve the same punishment for the same crime, and men and women should have equal forms of custody assuming that they have identical histories and cases (e.g., an alcoholic parent should get the same amount of custody regardless of whether the parent is the father or mother). Presumably, however, men get tougher sentences than women do for the same crimes, and it is much harder for men than for women to retain custody of their children.[13] If so, then it turns out that women have privilege in particular contexts that men do not have.
            Why is this a problem for Lowe’s definition? It is a problem because the definition yields implications that do not cohere with the intention behind the concept of privilege. The concept should not have the implication that in one context men have privilege, while in another context women do. Instead, the concept is absolute: that in virtue of being men, men have privilege, period, and in virtue of being women, women lack privilege, period (though of course the privilege increases or decreases depending on other factors). Insofar as Lowe’s definition is a philosophical reconstruction of the concept of privilege, it fails to capture this crucial dimension of the concept’s application. It implies that some individuals, depending on the context, do not always have privilege, whereas the main point behind the concept is that they do have privilege precisely because they belong to particular groups. That is, in relativizing privilege to context, the definition neglects the connection between privilege and social injustice.[14] Lowe’s definition, I am guessing, uses the idea of context so as to include those cases in which belonging to a social group confers a rightful advantage (and the cause, I think, is Lowe’s broad notion of social groups). But in doing so, it misses out on the (just-mentioned) crucial aspect of the way the concept of privilege is meant to work.[15]
            The second problem has to do with the broadness of the idea of social group. It covers an indefinite number of groupings, including men, women, country clubs, vegans, maids, single parents, restaurant owners, dog walkers, pants-wearers, nurses, engineers, ice cream eaters, ice cream makers, and so on. Basically, any group of people that is a group in virtue of having a social property (as opposed to a merely biological or merely mental property) is a social group. The drawback, however, is that on this broad conception of social group the definition includes many cases of privilege that the concept is not intended to include (so these cases are also counter-examples to the definition).
            Consider the following two counterexamples offered by my student, Chloe Kucirka, in her final exam. First, imagine two male politicians debating each other on stage, one of whom wears a medical, yet stylish, pair of glasses. The eye-glasses-wearing politician does better on the polls than his opponent because he comes across as more intelligent and chic. The politician who wears glasses, according to Lowe’s definition, has an advantage of appearing more intelligent due to belonging to the social group of eye-glasses-wearing men, in a context in which this membership should not provide him with any advantage.
            Second, consider membership in the social group of men who own puppies. Men in this group have an advantage over men who do not own puppies in the context of securing dates on Tinder and other apps because guys/gals just love puppies and are more likely to give a guy with a puppy a chance for a date (so as to hang out with the the guy and the puppy). According to Lowe’s definition, men puppy owners have privilege because their social membership to that group improves their dating chances. However, in the context of judging potential dates on Tinder, having a puppy should not weigh in favor of or against one’s dating abilities.
            The above two examples show that Lowe’s definition can generate an indefinite number of privileges that people have in virtue of belonging to various social groups and in different contexts. But few, if any, advocates of the concept of privilege would accept this consequence. This is because the concept of privilege, as I explained above, is meant to be tied to social justice, and neither wearing stylish eye glasses nor owning puppies has much to do with social justice.
            I propose a simpler definition that captures the intention behind the concept of privilege, while leaving room for context. The definition is as follows: Privilege is the social-and-political advantage that an individual has in virtue of being a member of one or more social groups on list L, with the proviso that for a group to be correctly placed on L it has to occupy or to have occupied a socially and politically advantaged position compared to other groups (in the same society) owing to systemic injustice.[16]
            Note three things about the definition. First, it itself does not state which social group is on L, only requiring that for a group to be on L, it has to have social and political advantage compared to other groups in the same in the same society because of social injustice. Determining which specific group goes on L is done through historical, social, political, and philosophical analysis of which groups have historically been, so to speak, on top. Thus, second, L is not a fixed list and varies from society to society and from time to time.[17] This is a virtue of the definition, because it makes it applicable to all societies.
            Third, the definition itself says nothing about whether someone’s social membership in an L-group actually confers an advantage on the person in a particular situation or context, given that in some contexts other factors might override the membership’s ability to be effective (i.e., to confer an actual advantage). For example, a man’s whiteness might not confer an advantage on him in the context of the NBA, and a man’s manliness might not confer safety from sexual assault in the context of being in prison. This is a good implication of the definition, because it allows us to say that one has privilege even if one does not “cash in” the privilege in every circumstance.[18]
            The definition, as worded, might face counter-examples. But its main idea is sound: any definition of privilege that hopes to capture how the concept is used needs to connect privilege to the idea of membership in groups that have had advantages owing to social injustice.

II. The Point of Talking About Privilege
Let us turn to the issue of the point of talking about privilege: What are the reasons for employing this concept?[19] This question is ambiguous and can mean at least three things. The first has to do with the reference of the concept: Does the concept refer to a fact or a phenomenon that other existing concepts do not refer to? Does the concept capture something that we have missed? The second question has to do with explanation: Does the phenomenon or fact captured by the concept of privilege explain other facts and phenomena that existing concepts cannot explain or do not explain as well? The third question has to do with the practical or political uses to which the concept can be put: How can the use of the concept of privilege better society?[20]
            I am not convinced that the concept captures something new.[21] The main reason for my claim is that we have always known that various forms of social injustice, such as racism and sexism, have given some groups of people unfair social advantages while depriving others of these advantages. For example, racism in the United States has given whites various forms of power—legal, social, political, economic—that non-whites did not have. In this regard, we have always known that members of such groups, respectively, had and lacked advantages. So it is unclear what the concept of privilege adds to these facts. Has anyone doubted, before we stumbled upon “privilege,” that, generally speaking, white people can, but black people cannot, move about a place not having to worry about being racially profiled or stereotyped?
            One might reply that what privilege captures is the subtle phenomena of racism, sexism, able-ism, etc. as they continue to this day, especially given that many people believe (erroneously, perhaps) that our society is in general no longer racist, sexist, able-ist, etc. That is, while racism, sexism, able-ism, and so on are generally no longer obvious or “on the books,” they still make their way into the fabric of society in subtle, daily ways, and privilege captures this fact.
            No doubt, racism and sexism and other forms of inequality persist, but we do not need the concept of privilege to capture them. We already have existing concepts that do so. Using racism and society as an example, consider five such concepts: inequality, disadvantages, disparate treatment, lack of representation, and stereotypes. Between them, these concepts more than suffice to capture the continued racism, be it subtle or not subtle.
            Privilege also does not seem to play any important explanatory role—it seems to be explanatorily idle. That I have the privilege, as a man, of feeling safe while walking down the street late at night seems to be a fact that results from a system of sexism, rather than a fact that explains sexism—it is an epiphenomenon. And although it can (partially) explain why there are more solitary men than women on the streets late at night, the concept of privilege need not figure in the explanation because other phenomena can do this as well, such as male sexual aggression in a sexist system.
            Lowe suggests that we need privilege to explain why advantages persist. He states, “If we only think about disadvantages and the ways in which society fails certain groups, it becomes somewhat puzzling why these disadvantages haven’t yet been remedied. Yet when we focus on the advantages gained by dominant groups, we recognize that some groups have a vested interest in society staying the way it is.”[22] Lowe is right that a concept such as privilege helps explain the vested interest that some people have. But it is unclear why we specifically need the concept of privilege to explain this fact. Why not, for example, use a concept that we already have, such as advantages (which Lowe himself uses)? Knowing what we know about the social inequalities between, say, whites and blacks, and that whites as whites have social advantages that blacks as blacks do not have, we immediately recognize that whites “have a vested interest in society staying the way it is.” No recourse to the concept of privilege is needed.
            Thus, so far I see no particular theoretical advantage to using this specific concept. The facts that it points to are subsumed by other concepts, and it seems to play no obvious explanatory role when it comes to diagnosing and understanding unequal economic, social, and political structures.
            Of course, none of the above need stop us from using the word “privilege” as a new or additional term, albeit with somewhat different connotations than other terms (like “advantages”), to refer to the phenomenon that some members of society, in virtue of membership to particular groups, have types of advantages due to social injustices. Indeed, “privilege” does have—I think—particular connotations when used to refer to individuals as having privilege. That is, because its use is not confined to theoretical analysis, but is often practical and applied to individuals (e.g., when someone is told, “Check your privilege”), the term has some interesting connotations. I find them to be underhandedly accusatory, in that even though one might not be culpable in having the privilege that one has, one should still do something about it, with the implication that if one doesn’t, one is morally at fault, perhaps by being willfully complicit in an –ism or a –phobia. The idea is that because one is at that point aware of one’s privilege, the refusal to do something about it is culpable.
            What can one do about one’s privilege? For one thing, one can be conscious of one’s privilege, because this, as Lowe writes, would help one “empathize better with members of other social groups, to understand that they may not have the same advantages or face the same obstacles” that one does.[23] Lowe adds that this is what “check your privilege” means, which is “not to feel ashamed for having it or use it as an excuse for inaction, but to acknowledge that your experiences and perceptions of the world may be quite different from those of members of other social groups.”[24]
            Lowe’s remarks are plausible but ambiguous. Being conscious of one’s privilege can be a general outlook or framework within which one operates and steers one’s life. And it can be a momentary declaration or thought that one does once, twice, or on various occasions (e.g., at the start of meetings). My preference is for the former, because it is the “real thing”: it is an insight that can go deep into one’s psyche and re-orient one’s way of seeing the world, whereas the latter can get ritualistic and can be forced, done because one feels that one has to (e.g., to appease a crowd, to virtue signal).
            In addition to being empathetic and more understanding of others’ experience, how might one check one’s privilege in one’s own life in particular situations? Put differently, how does one’s general awareness of one’s privilege translate into particular actions on one’s part? Consider the Alice example that Lowe uses. Alice, who is a real person, is a white, poor woman who shoplifts. She is honest in claiming that she has an easier time shoplifting because she is a white woman: store security personnel just don’t suspect white women as much as they suspect others.[25] Discussing this example in regards to what Alice should do about her privilege, Lowe states, “In addition to the fact that she probably should not have been shoplifting, she shouldn’t have been willing to benefit from using privilege in the way she did.”[26] This claim struck me as bizarre when I first read it. I mean, if Alice should not be shoplifting to begin with, then this is it—end of story. What else can Alice do to not benefit from her privilege? Perhaps Lowe is suggesting that if she insists on shoplifting, then she should shoplift by not using her privilege. But it is unclear what this means.[27]
            To better see what is strange about this, change the example to innocuous behavior. Instead of using an example of wrongdoing (e.g., shoplifting), consider an example of a man walking down the street and feeling safe from sexual assault. What should this man do to check his privilege? Should he stop walking late at night by himself? Perhaps. But even though it would be noble of him to do this, the action is not morally required, because he, as the specific individual that he is, did not gain this privilege at the expense of women.[28] If women were able to feel safe while walking alone late at night, men would not lose their privilege because of that—it is not a zero sum game.[29] So what is the man in question supposed to do as a result of being aware of his privilege? (Again, in addition to being empathetic towards women who do not want to walk alone late at night or who ask their men friends to accompany them to, say, their cars.)
            An additional complicating point about what to do about one’s privilege is that the concept of privilege as it is used does not refer to special benefits that privileged people get over and above what is normal; it refers to what everyone should have, as part of everyday life: walking alone late at night while feeling safe and not being profiled by the police are and should be the normal states of affairs. So talk of privilege is talk of some groups having access to the “normal” that other groups do not have (otherwise, talk of social injustice would be mostly out of place).[30]
            This leads, however, to a third complicating point, namely, that talk of privilege focuses not on those who need to be lifted up to the normal state of affairs, but on those who occupy the normal state of affairs. As Ben Burgis puts it, “It’s not just that women and black people should have more. It’s that men and white people should have less.”[31] Combined with the second complication stated above, this indicates that when we ask someone to do something about their privilege—again, setting aside asking them to be aware of it and to be empathetic—we border on asking them to give up what is normal for everyone to have. If true, then it is entirely unclear why someone should give up something that should be normal for everyone, especially when one’s having it does not come at the expense of others’ having it, and when the focus can and should be on lifting those who do not have it to the normal level.[32]
            A fourth and final complication is that individuals are often told to check their privilege without much knowledge about those individuals’ history and circumstances. On the definition that I offered, I noted that one’s privilege need not always lead to one having any actual advantages, because the context can have additional features that render one’s privilege ineffective. This can happen because non-privileged aspects of one’s identity defeat the privileged aspects of it, as when one’s gayness undermines one’s manliness in a homophobic context, or when a woman’s womanliness renders irrelevant her whiteness in a context of male sexual aggression. In addition, one’s privilege can be rendered ineffective because elements external to the person render ineffective the privileged aspects of one’s identity: imagine someone who is at the top of the privilege pyramid (white, middle class, able, straight cisman) and think of the various situations, short and long term, in which his privilege is ineffective: being attacked on the street late at night, being humiliated at a party, failing his exams, people not paying him any attention, being riddled with anxiety, taking care of a terminally sick person, being terminally ill himself, and so on.
            When we combine these four points—individual privilege as not coming at the expense of others, privilege as referring to what everyone should have, privilege as focusing on bringing down as opposed to lifting up, and contexts that can render one’s privilege ineffective—it becomes unclear what individuals should do to check their privilege. This lack of clarity lends support to the suspicion that asking individuals (especially publicly) to check their privilege reeks of being an exercise in guilt-tripping and shaming. In addition, when individuals are sometimes not even given the chance to engage the admonitions, the shaming and guilt-tripping are compounded by robbing the accused of the dignity of a response.[33]

III. Concluding Summary
I have explained the features of the concept of privilege and argued against one philosophical definition of it, offering a different one instead. I have also argued that the concept neither captures something new nor plays an important theoretical explanatory role. Despite this, we might still wish to retain the word for whichever purpose (theoretical or practical). If we do so, however, I caution against its use by third parties against individuals. To my mind, its best practical use is self-application: individuals applying the concept to their own selves, to help them look at the world and others’ experiences through a different lens. But even here we have other concepts for that, ones without the connotations of shaming and guilt-tripping that have tainted the discourse surrounding “privilege.”

[1] It is an interesting question whether privilege is primarily a property of groups and secondarily of individuals, or vice versa. I will define the latter in terms of the former because claims of having privilege tend to be made of individuals. Nonetheless, there is a very good possibility that this puts the cart before the horse. I will touch on this again below where I offer my definition of “privilege.” For the sake of simplicity, I will use “privilege” as an adjective to describe both groups and individuals. And when I use it to describe a group, I mean by it that the group has a socially advantaged position compared to other groups owing to socially systemic injustice.
[2] I borrow this example from Dan Lowe, “Privilege: What Is It, Who Has It, and What Should We Do About It?” in Ethics Left and Right, edited by Bob Fischer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 457–464 (the example is on pp. 459–60). Below, I address Lowe’s definition of privilege.
[3] Lowe thinks that in the NBA context black basketball players have privilege, which would put him at odds with how the concept is intended.
[5] Ben Burgis categorizes McIntosh’s examples into two groups: “(a) actual examples of unjust disparities between the treatment of white people and members of racial minorities (e.g., the traffic cop example) or (b) examples of frustrations that result simply from being a member of a cultural minority in any society (e.g., not every store, including major ones, will offer an exhaustive supply of your staple foods).” See his “The Problem with ‘Privilege’ Talk”; Arc Digital, April 9, 2020 (; date of access July 21, 2020).
[6] Three things: (1) I put an asterisk next to the ones that I found unconvincing. (2) I do not list those examples that I found unclear (examples #1, 2, 11, 22). (3) I relist those examples that illustrate more than one theme.
[7] This last claim can get complicated pretty quickly. Suppose that I am a white person who claims that whatever I have now I have earned through my own perseverance, labor, diligence, and so on. Then one might reply that perseverance, labor, and so on are easier for white people.
[8] I’m using “inclusive” in the philosophical, definitional sense, not the positive sense associated with “being inclusive” or “inclusivity.”
[9] This, too, can get complicated pretty quickly, because for any advantage given as an example, one can argue that white privilege had something to do with it: sunny dispositions don’t just come down from the sky like manna, but can be the result (partly) of having an easier time maneuvering through the world.
[10] Lowe, “Privilege,” p. 457.
[11] Thus, on Lowe’s definition country clubs are social groups. This implies that on Lowe’s definition the concept of social group is very broad. I will return to this.
[12] I do not give such examples because they are hard to come by; any suggested ones will be controversial in regards to whether the advantages are really not morally problematic. The point here is the same as that in Footnotes 7 and 9.
[13] For some data, see David Benatar, The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), pp. 50–54, and pp. 59–61.
[14] Lowe can reply that his definition is compatible with the idea behind the concept of privilege because the contexts in which men have privilege vastly outnumber those in which women have privilege. That might be empirically true, but it would sever the crucial connection between a group’s having privilege and social injustice.
[15] See the similar (but subtly different) objection that Spencer Case gives to Lowe’s definition; “Reply to Lowe,” in Ethics Left and Right, 476–478 (the objection is on pp. 476–477).
[16] To pick up on a point from Footnote 1, if we think that it is groups that a definition of privilege should apply to, not individuals, then this definition is wrong-headed. So I propose the following: A group has privilege if it occupies or has occupied a socially and politically advantageous position in comparison to other groups (in the same society) due to systemic injustice. An individual, then, has (defeasible or pro tanto) privilege in virtue of being a member of a group with privilege. An individual’s privilege is defeasible (or pro tanto) because in some contexts some factors might override this privilege.
[17] Of course, we can have a Grand List of all the groups, ever, who have occupied such social positions. Such a list might be complicated for various reasons, including identifying groups as enduring through various cultures and times.
[18] Another option is to build the context into the definition by saying say that one has pro tanto privilege or all-things-considered privilege. My main worry about this option has to do with whether the defeating conditions merely drown (or overtake) one’s privilege, or whether they obliterate it. The former coheres with the intention behind the concept of privilege (whereas the latter does not) insofar as we want to say that a white man always has privilege, in every context.
[19] This question is not about the psychological reasons that individual people have for using the concept; these can vary widely.
[20] Lowe raises the issue of the point of talking about privilege, but he does not distinguish between these three aspects of it.
[21] This need not stop us from using it as a new name for whichever phenomena we already have covered by other concepts, if doing so satisfies certain conditions, such as political or social utility, or highlighting those phenomena. More on this shortly.
[22] Lowe, “Privilege,” p. 463. I am assuming that Lowe intends this as a partial explanation, given that such social phenomena usually have more complicated explanations and explaining why they persist cannot be reduced to only vested interests.
[23] To put my cards on the table, I have come to dislike the word “empathy” because it is overused and, as a colleague of mine put it, because it is used “selectively.”
[24] Lowe, “Privilege,” p. 462. I doubt that we need this concept to have such awareness.
[25] Lowe, “Privilege,” p. 457.
[26] Lowe, “Privilege,” p. 462.
[27] Perhaps Lowe wanted to suggest that Alice’s reasons for not shoplifting should be that stealing is wrong and that stealing by a white woman helps entrench certain practices against black people.
[28] It is not even clear that when it comes to privilege that privileged groups have it at the expense of groups that do not. In his response to Case, Lowe claims that ordinary talk about about privilege “involves no judgment about whether the harm experienced by black people benefits whites” (“Reply to Case,” p. 475, my emphasis; in Ethics Left and Right, edited by Bob Fischer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 474–475).
[29] Case makes the similar point that privilege in the strong sense means that the privileged group is the oppressive group. See “White Privilege: A Conservative Perspective,” in Ethics Left and Right, edited by Bob Fischer (Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 465–472. The point is made throughout the essay, but is introduced on pages 467–468.
[30] Thanks to José Antonio Fernández for elaborating and advising me to discuss this point.
[31] “The Problem with ‘Privilege’ Talk” (emphasis in the original).
[32] Consider this remark by McIntosh from the first paragraph of “White Privilege: The Invisible Knapsack”: she states that men tell her that they are willing to help enhance women’s statuses “in society, the university, the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s” (my emphasis).
[33] Consider this final paragraph from Cara Liebowitz’s essay about being privileged with ableism: “You don’t have to know that ableism exists to be an ableist. Nor does being an ableist mean that you are a horrible, soulless person. Being an ableist just means that you have privilege you need to acknowledge, and patterns of thought that you need to change. So what should you do if someone calls you out on your ableism? Take a step back. Reflect on your privilege and what you said or did. Recognize why someone may take offense at that. If you don’t understand why it’s ableist, don’t start pointing fingers at the other person, claiming that they are oversensitive. Ask politely, and think on their answer. Apologize, and learn a lesson. You are not evil because you are an ableist. So take the opportunity to learn about your own privilege. Hopefully, you’ll come away knowing more than you did before” (“Just Because It’s Ableist Doesn’t Mean It’s Bad,” in Privilege: A Reader [4th edition], edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Abby L. Ferber [Westview Press, 2017], pp. 153–155, at p. 155.

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