Radical is a civil-rights campaign for truth and freedom on matters of sex and ‘gender’, committed to free expression and equal respect, founded by Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson. This Radical piece is written by Rebecca, the former director of FREER.
Until recently, it would’ve been funny to hear someone claim it controversial to state that only “adult human females” are women. You could even imagine this being used as an example, back then, of “something we all believe to be the case”. It’s not so funny any more.
I couldn’t care less, however, what word is used to denote members of the female sex set — as long as it’s one that’s generally understood. Use “shwoman”, or “WTDMOTFSS”, for all I care. But we need such a word. And for many reasons — though I can’t be bothered to write about them again, not least because I know you know them, even if you pretend you don’t!
I also know you know that human beings can’t change their biological sex, no matter how much some people want to, or how much it would mean to them for others to pretend they can. We should be kind to such people. That doesn’t extend to propagating falsehoods about biological fact, however; I’m not convinced such lies are kind, anyway.
But I know you know about the immutability of human sex (or that you would, if you’d ever thought about it) because it’s an obvious fact of life. Unless, of course, you truly have been taken in by the “gender-identity” lobby, which has captured our institutions and edited formal public discourse, rather than just pretending you’ve been taken in by it, because you’re scared about what might happen to you, otherwise.
Let’s turn to that. If you hold any of these standard sensible beliefs — that human beings can’t change biological sex, that sex matters, and that we need to be able to talk about these things — then you’d better follow Maya Forstater’s appeal this week. She was sacked for stating these beliefs in public, and is going through a horrific ordeal to try to redress the matter, in the hope you won’t have to.
But I want to use the rest of this Radical column to talk about something related, but, on the surface, much more niche. I want to talk about consequentialism: the moral theory that holds that consequences are the only consideration on which normative stuff (like acts) can be judged, in terms of that stuff’s rightness. Or, in simpler terms, the idea that only consequences matter, morally. The most famous consequentialist theory is utilitarianism, which John Stuart Mill described as based on “the ‘greatest happiness principle’ [which] holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”.
I grew up hating consequentialism, and particularly the work of its modern high priest, Peter Singer. My childhood beliefs followed these lines: “Consequentialists think the one can be sacrificed for the many!”; “Singer thinks infanticide is OK!”. And the more about his ideas I learnt, the more sure I was that this man was in the league of other 1990s’ villains, like Saddam Hussein. I mean, Singer did genuinely say that parents should be allowed to kill their newborn disabled babies…
This early hatred of Singer wasn’t something foisted on me by my parents, who talked to me about all kinds of philosophical ideas. It was just something I came to think. And these days, I still hold a hardcore view about the evil of consequentialism — though, now, it’s from the position of having read lots of it and about it, and having spent much time thinking about these things. The greatest blessing for me has been having wonderful philosopher parents; the greatest happiness is thinking about philosophy for myself. Now, let me explain why this indulgent bit of self-history is relevant to this column.
Last week, the first issue of the long-awaited Journal of Controversial Ideas was published. It’s edited by Singer, alongside two other philosophers, though Singer appears to be its prime spokesperson. My assumption was this journal would be a place for full-on Singer-style controversy. After all, a recent New Yorker interview shows he still believes parents should be allowed to kill their disabled babies.
So, imagine my surprise when I looked down its contents page and spotted an article defending from attack the idea that “trans women are women” (TWAW). Hilarious! Such an article is not the slightest bit controversial! TWAW is straight-up societal orthodoxy — particularly in intellectual circles. Sure, you might point out there’s also an article in the issue from “the other side” of the debate. Great. But it’s hardly controversial for a journal focusing on controversial ideas to publish a piece on a super-controversial topic — and what’s more controversial than arguing that only “adult human females” are women?
It’s also hardly controversial to slip into the whole “equal public space for both sides of the argument” thing, to hide behind the veneer of neutrality. Indeed, another sad orthodoxy of the moment is the denial that there are some matters about which there are truths: that there are topics on which it’s not about seeking consensus, but rather, about searching out what’s right and wrong.
To those of us who still believe in such enquiry, some truths are determinable via the scientific method: truths relating to whether human beings can change sex, for instance. And some are moral truths, for which there is no hope of scientific discovery. Rather, we need arguments about values, which we expose to each other, sure that there are right and wrong answers, but that nobody can know for certain whether they’ve landed on them, beyond being persuaded that they have.
Of course, some people don’t believe there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. And it can be hard to persuade them otherwise. But one technique I find helpful is to instrumentalise the views of Singer, and say, “But don’t you think it’s just totally blatantly horrifically wrong to kill disabled babies?”. If you think so, then you think it’s a matter of truth.
Singer doesn’t deny the existence of moral truths. But consequentialists do typically deny the idea that we can’t know for certain whether we’ve landed on these truths or not. They think consequentialism provides a sure-fire route: a calculator for determining right and wrong. This is its greatest selling point.
Consequentialism is seductive because it offers a (supposedly) simple approach for dealing with complex important matters, and because at its fundaments is something that’s not only undeniably important, but is also a part of everyday moral reasoning: the consequence. Consequentialism elevates the consequence into the lone foundation of a neat framework that can be be used to understand and assess difficult interrelations between good and bad and right and wrong. This is attractive to anyone believing there are moral truths out there to discover.
Well-known objections against consequentialism’s success as a moral theory, however, include the way in which its classic instantiations deny what John Rawls called the “separateness of persons”. Consequentialism thrives on treating individuals as a means to an end. And it can be used, therefore, to defend intuitively horrific things, like massacres, and the killing of disabled babies.
I’ll leave you with something to consider. In that New Yorker profile I mentioned, which Singer view do you think it was that the interviewer seemed to push back on the most, substantively? Was it Singer’s fight for the right to infanticide, or his keenness to publish journal articles on both sides of the “gender” debate? Answer that. Then have a think about what the predictable answer tells you about society today.