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.

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