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What is Your Gender? A Friendly Guide to the Public Debate

What is your gender? A friendly guide to the public debate

Brian D. Earp


Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of an informal lecture, based on coursework submitted as part of my Ph.D. It was recorded on Whidbey Island, Washington, and published online on January 15th, 2020. A link to the video is here:


Video description:  I’m a philosopher and cognitive scientist who studies gender, sex, identity, sexuality and related topics and I am offering this video as a friendly guide to the (often very heated) public debate that is going on around these issues. This is my best attempt, not to score political points for any particular side, but to give an introductory map of the territory so you can think for yourself, investigate further, and reach your own conclusions about such controversial questions as “What does mean to be a man or a woman?” This video is not meant to be authoritative; it is not the final word; experts on these topics will find much to quibble with (and perhaps some things to disagree with outright). But for those who would like to take some first steps in getting a sense of the landscape without feeling intimidated, I hope this will be of some use.



Hello, my name is Brian. I’m a philosopher and a cognitive scientist and I work on issues that have to do with sex, gender, sexuality, and identity. These are topics that, as you’ve probably seen, are playing out in the public discussion quite a lot. Much of that discussion seems very negative or vitriolic and you might be standing on the sidelines wondering what to think—or what you’re allowed to think—as well as how to reason through what it means, for example, to be a man or a woman or to count as a member of one sex category or another. What does it mean to say that somebody is male or female? Does it have to do with certain bodily attributes? Which ones?

I asked online the other day whether people would find it helpful if I tried to map out some of the territory of these debates—not to give any hard and fast answers, but just to clarify some of the main sources of disagreement, what seems to be at stake in the disagreement, and so forth. Hopefully, then, you would be able to feel a little bit more equipped to think for yourself about how best to reason through these very difficult topics. Maybe if you interact with somebody who seems to hold a different view to your own, rather than descending into name-calling or whatever, you might instead feel like you could identify where the source of the disagreement was and have a more productive conversation. I’m going to try to do this without notes, in one take—and be as concise as possible—so bear with me and let’s see what happens.

One way to characterize what’s going on in the public discussion right now is that there seems to be a fundamental disagreement about what it is to be, for example, a man or a woman. People seem to be making different claims about ontology—which is just a philosophical term referring to what exists, the study of what there fundamentally is in the world. I want to suggest that when people seem to be disagreeing about what there is, this is often a conceptual issue that’s built on top of lower-level facts that these people probably don’t disagree on. When there are people appearing to talk past each other, sometimes it can be helpful to go down a few levels and see what’s down in the basement—where people can find some shared footing and agree on what they’re talking about.

For the moment, I’m not going to start by defining terms. I’m not going to say, “Here’s what I mean by gender,” “Here’s what I mean by gender identity,” “Here’s what I mean by sex or sex categorizations, by male or female.” Instead, I’m going to try to pretend that you and I are having a conversation—maybe at a bar where we’ve just met each other—and you want to know what gender I am. This is going to be a somewhat stylized conversation. This is probably not how it would play out between any real human beings, certainly not in this current climate. But I’m going to belabor some points just so that you can start to see how I’m building this model from the ground up, and then we can begin to see where it is that people are really disagreeing with each other.

So let’s say that you just asked me, “Brian, what’s your gender?” I could try to anticipate what you’re trying to find out about me or what you want me to say. Or, I could just answer with what I feel the answer is. But for our purposes, what I would do is ask you a question in return. I would say, “What is it—specifically—that you want to know about me? What are you trying to find out about me by asking about my gender?” There are a number of things you might say in response, and what I would answer back would potentially change depending on what exactly you asked.

I’m going to run through some possible things you might ask me and then I’ll give you some answers. I’ll try to be truthful about these answers. I’ll give little thumbnail sketches—you don’t need to know my whole life history, but just so you can get a sense of how this might go.

“Brian, what’s your gender?”

“Okay, what is it that you want to know about me?”

You might say, “I’m trying to find out if you are chromosomally disposed to getting a disease that people with XY chromosomes tend to get.” If you asked that question, I could just skip all the metaphysical stuff about gender and say, “Well, for purposes of this line of interrogation, I can answer that I have XY chromosomes” (or I presume I have XY chromosomes—I haven’t checked). And now we can go to the next question that you have: What specifically is it that you’re trying to find out about me?

You might say, “I’m trying to find out if your naturally occurring testosterone levels are situated somewhere on an upper or lower bell of a bimodal distribution of testosterone levels compared to the species average.” Again, nobody would really ask the question in that way, but suppose that that’s more or less what you’re trying to find out. Well, again, I can just answer the question. I don’t have to refer to gender or sex or any of those things. I can say, “I presume that my naturally occurring testosterone levels are somewhere on the upper bell of this bimodal distribution—probably not on the very far end of it; maybe somewhere in the middle.” I don’t know the exact answer, but to answer that question is not to have a metaphysical dispute or a debate about what fundamentally exists. There’s just a descriptive, boring answer to that question. You just have to measure my testosterone levels and then you’ll find out what the answer is, and nobody would disagree about the answer to that question if it was measured properly.

Now maybe you say something like, “I want to know whether you can engage in penile-vaginal intercourse unassisted.” Maybe this is a date or something and you’re trying to figure out where it’s headed. In any case, I can answer this functional question. I could let you know that, under the right conditions, I would be able to engage in penile-vaginal intercourse if it was consensual, and so forth. Maybe you want to know whether I can get pregnant. I could say, “No, I don’t have a uterus or fallopian tubes. I don’t have the relevant bodily features that would enable me to become pregnant.” Maybe next you want to know whether I’m capable of growing a beard. Well, you can just see for yourself that I am capable of that. (So here you might be asking about what are sometimes called secondary sex characteristics.)

Let’s say that we now have a pretty good map of my bodily features. You’ve asked all the different things that have to do with my reproductive system, my sexed body parts, and so forth, and now we can move into the realm of my mind. Maybe you want to ask me a question like this: “I want to know whether you find yourself intuitively and irresistibly drawn toward, and resonating with, ways of behaving, dressing, interacting with others, engaging with cultural artifacts, and so forth, that are stereotypically feminized or masculinized in our culture.” I could answer that question. As you can see, I have short hair and a beard, so some aspects of my presentation are certainly consistent with things that are stereotypically masculine in my culture, in the United States. There are other aspects of my life that don’t fit the mold. I could tell you some of my upbringing, and I could say, “When I was in middle school, I didn’t really understand people who acted in a stereotypically masculine way and were very domineering. It seemed kind of silly to me; and a lot of my friends were girls. I sometimes felt more comfortable in this situation than in that situation…” and I could kind of walk you through the story.

But I think almost everybody, if they were to answer this question in a rich and robust way, would have to take a little bit of time, and they would have to reflect on different aspects of their inner mental life that seem to resonate with feminine or feminized aspects of the culture or things that are stereotypically considered to be masculine. Most people probably have some combination of both of these things, or fall along a spectrum, and it might change from time to time. So, some people would have a very strong answer, where they would say, “I just overwhelmingly find myself strongly resonating with things that are almost exclusively considered feminine in our culture.” Others might say, “I’m very strongly and exclusively drawn toward, and irresistibly understand my own lived experience in terms of, things that are characterized as masculine in our culture.” But, again, most people probably have some complex combination of these things.

You might ask other questions about my mental life or about, perhaps, my socialization. You could say, “I want to know whether you were raised in a male or female gender role.” Again, it’s not a metaphysically complicated answer. It’s a long answer. It’s an answer that would involve my telling you about my childhood. I might say something like, “Well, in my household, my dad did much of the cooking. My mom made certain household decisions. I played with dolls when I was a kid, but I also played with trucks. I read all the Babysitters Club books because my sisters had those on the shelf and I’d already read all the Hardy Boys books,” and so on and so forth.

Then I might say something about how I could see that there were certain scripts or expectations in the society—scripts having to do with being a boy—that I saw were meant to apply to me. Some aspects of those scripts I felt cool with and they seemed to make sense. A lot of those aspects, I didn’t feel very comfortable with, and I didn’t like the characteristically “boy” things that were presented to me by my society. Again, there’s not an on/off switch or a “yes” or “no” answer. Here, there’s just a long story that I would tell you about what my upbringing was like, and how I related to the scripts, norms, and expectations of my society that are for what “boys” and “girls” are supposed to be like.

You could ask a personal question about how I would like you to relate to me—what would be a means of showing me respect in terms of my own gendered self-understanding. You could say, “Would you like me to use certain pronouns to address you? Do you want me to invite you to certain types of events that are segregated for men or women?” I could answer those questions and you would get a sense of what I would regard as respectful behavior toward myself and my self-conception.

You could ask questions that are a little bit more outside my mental attributes. You could ask about, for example, whether I’m a recipient of male privilege. Again, the answer to that question is not metaphysically complicated. It’s an empirical, sociological question. I assume that because I read as, or function socially as, a man, insofar as people who are widely perceived to be men or males in our society are characteristically advantaged along certain dimensions, I am very likely advantaged along those dimensions.

You could ask a legal question. Do I count as a man legally? The answer to that question just depends on whatever the rules are in a given jurisdiction. In the United States, I don’t know what the rules are, but I assume that I count as a man in the United States for legal purposes.

Now we’ve had this very long conversation. We’re three drinks in, and I’ve shared all this stuff about my childhood. I’ve told you about my body, all the different bodily attributes that I have that are relevant to our conversation. I tried to tell you a lot about my inner mental life, my psychological traits, and I told you about my socialization—social facts about me that have to do with how I’m situated within social systems, some of which is beyond my control. Now imagine that by spelling out all this information, I’ve in essence given you very precise coordinates for where I sit in multi-dimensional, gendered space. It actually doesn’t matter what you call this space; you can just call it the space of the conversation we’re having, and we don’t need to talk about whether it’s “gendered space” or “sex space” or anything, at least for now. But I positioned myself in these very precise coordinates where every dimension that you’ve learned about me has a pretty specific, metaphysically uninteresting, empirically determinative and determinable answer (at least in principle).

What exactly are my testosterone levels on this distribution? Well, you go along and you mark off wherever my measured testosterone levels are. Do I have XY chromosomes or XX chromosomes? (And then there’s some other combinations of chromosomes, XO, for example, as in Turner syndrome. There’s not very many people who have this, but there’s a specific answer.) I assume I have XY chromosomes, so I would be there on that dimension.

Imagine that we were talking about genitals, external reproductive features, and you wanted to be able to include in the conversation people who had genital structures that were not stereotypically masculine or feminine. Let’s say you had somebody characterized as “intersex” or somebody with a difference of sex development who had a genital structure that’s not clearly a penis or a clitoris—it’s somewhere in the middle. Now, this just shows how pervasive our language practices are in encouraging us to categorize things based on what is statistically common, and then forgetting that that’s just a shorthand. All of us have a cliteropenis. There’s this one organ in early fetal development that, usually in response to testosterone, will diverge, grow, and become longer. If you have a longer version of this organ, [more outside the body], we call it by convention a penis. If you have a shorter version of this organ, [more inside the body], we call it by convention a clitoris. But sometimes, in the course of development, this organ will pause somewhere in the middle—the urethra may or may not route through—and then what you have is something that’s not conventionally a penis or a clitoris. It’s just a cliteropenis, like we all have, of a certain length [and relative position]. So again, if we’re not so obsessed with the language that we’re using, we can just say, “How long is your cliteropenis?”—and all of us have a precise answer to that question. We don’t have to categorize it in any particular way; we can just give the descriptive information. “My cliteropenis is X number of centimeters long.” Everybody who has this organ will have an answer to that question.

Here’s where we are in the conversation. I’ve given you a descriptive, metaphysically uncontroversial answer to all of your questions. Some of them involve very long stories, so those might be a little hard to summarize on a number scale, or something like that. But basically, I’ve positioned myself in this multi-dimensional space. Now imagine that you said, “Okay, so then what’s your gender?”

Now it might seem like kind of an ill-posed question. I’ve already told you all the possible things you might want to know about my body, my mental states, and my social positioning. To then come down and say what my gender is, as though there’s just one fact of the matter, it doesn’t seem like you’d be getting any more information that way. You’d rather be asking for a very short-hand summary of a whole lot of complex information that I just shared with you. Depending on what it was that you wanted to know and toward what end, I could have given you a different specific answer. But now you’re asking this kind of omnibus question that’s meant to summarize all this up, and this is where the disagreement begins to happen.

Different people think that different dimensions should be given more weight in determining who gets to count as a member of the social category “man” or “woman” for some purpose or another. Let’s say that you’re really strong in the transgender ally community. You’re concerned with the fact that people who have transgender identities, who are trying to live out the gender that they regard themselves as, and by which they understand their experience and can make coherent their inner life, are subjected to violence, mistreatment, stigmatization, are not taken seriously, and can often suffer very severely because of that. You might think that the dimension that should be given the most weight for deciding who counts as a member of the social category “woman” or “man” (there are also other categories we could refer to and I’ll come back to those) is the dimension having to do with the psychological attributes that I talked about: my inner life. Something about how I relate to—irresistibly—and am drawn toward things that are masculinized and feminized in my culture. It might also have to do with the dimension of what I regard as respectful behavior toward myself. Essentially, if you’re on this side of the debate, you would say that these sorts of dimensions should be given essentially all of the weight, such that, insofar as you sincerely regard yourself as a man or a woman, by virtue of that alone, you are a man or a woman.

I would say it a little bit differently. I would say, by virtue of that, you count as a member of the social category man or woman, because I don’t think there’s a fundamental ontological fact here. “Man” or “woman” is just a sound we make with our mouth. It’s a bit of language we use to carve up this very complicated biopsychosocial space for some purpose or another. Because it’s true that there are regularities where certain physical and mental attributes cluster together statistically, you have two main clusters: one that by convention we refer to as “male” or masculine, another that we refer to as “female” or feminine. We are a sexually reproducing species, which means that there are underlying, causal reasons why it is that there are primarily people with XX or XY chromosomes and why the downstream effects of having XX or XY chromosomes, along with the way that certain hormones play out during early fetal development [etc.], lead to clusters of attributes that, by and large, hang together in a recognizable fashion out there in the world. But which of these dimensions—through which you could divide up these clusters—are the ones that matter for the social purposes of determining who counts as a member of a social category? Well, that’s more of a pragmatic question. That’s a question of why we care about distinguishing men and women or males and females in the first place. The answer to that turns out to be different depending on your specific purpose.

To get away from the politics of men and women for a second, let me just give an example. Imagine you’re a scientist and you’re trying to run an experiment where you want to see whether a given drug will have a different effect on male or female rats. If you think about it, this drug is not going to be having an effect on the “maleness” or “femaleness” of the rats—that wouldn’t make any sense. It’s a chemical, so it’s going to be interacting with chemicals in the rats. So let’s just talk about testosterone levels or estrogen levels. You might be interested in which rats are the relatively high-estrogen rats. (Maybe you have a more sophisticated question where it’s not just overall levels you’re interested in, but let’s simplify.) You want the high-estrogen rats and the low-estrogen rats, and you want to see whether this drug interacts differently with this bimodally occurring distribution of estrogen levels.

What you should do is not pick up the rats and look to see which one has a penis and which one has a vulva. That’s a proxy that you could do. It’s a rough-pass proxy for the thing you’re really interested in, and it’ll get you most of the way there. But if you’re a good scientist, what you should do is just directly measure the estrogen levels. Then you should put the high-estrogen rats over here and the low-estrogen rats over there, and then you run your experiment. What you’ll find, when you’ve divided up the rats this way, is that some of the high-estrogen rats are going to have a penis (if you have enough rats), and some of the low-estrogen rats, or the high-testosterone rats, are going to have a vulva. But that doesn’t matter for the purposes of the experiment. You were never interested in penises and vulvas; you were interested in hormone levels.

Similarly, when we have segregation in society where it matters whether some group of people are characterized as male or female, we’re going to give a different answer to which features matter for that distinction depending on what we’re trying to do. In the world of sex distinctions, those come out of the scientific field of biology primarily, and it’s just because biologists are predominantly interested in certain kinds of explanatory questions. They’re interested in the fact that we’re a sexually reproducing species, as opposed to an asexually reproducing species. So, the features of our organism that are most salient to biologists, the ones that they think are most important for drawing dividing lines, are the ones that help us explain why it is that we are able to reproduce sexually. They’re concerned with, typically, physical or biological attributes that help explain that.

So, for rough-and-ready purposes, biologists will distinguish between male and female members of the species. But those words, “male” or “female,” are just rough proxies that are referring to a whole cluster of different attributes that mostly hang together—in the vast majority of cases, in a recognizable way—but with all sorts of different exceptions, gradations, and variations along these dimensions. For different purposes, maybe social purposes, political purposes, or legal purposes, it might very well be that different attributes are the ones that are more appropriate for grounding membership in the social category “man” or “woman.”

I mentioned the view of those who are strongly committed to creating a safe world for people with various ways of being gender non-conforming. The word “transgender” is really a big umbrella term that refers to a lot of different people who have a lot of different things going on, and have different life stories. The best thing to do if you meet somebody who says, “I’m a transgender person,” or “I’m non-binary,” or whatever, is just to talk to them, hear their story, and let them tell you what’s important about their life. There’s a risk of conflating a lot of very different stories under this one umbrella term, because it’s essentially a political term that’s trying to carve out space in the discourse for promoting protections for a marginalized group of people. And then there’s a question of who counts as a member of that marginalized group.

On the other side of the debate, there are people who go by various names, and they’re all controversial. But among the less controversial names would be “Gender Critical Feminists” […] and they have a different purpose. Their purpose is something like tearing down male supremacy. That’s maybe their primary political purpose. They want to fight the patriarchy, which involves people who are perceived as having certain reproductive features being systematically treated differently in a society. People who are perceived from a young age to have female reproductive features tend to be systematically disadvantaged along numerous dimensions in societies that are patriarchal—that are characterized by male dominance. So, for their purposes, the features that should count or that are most salient when deciding who counts as a member of the social category “woman,” are going to have more to do with being perceived as having certain reproductive features, and less to do with how the person regards themselves from the inside out. For the purposes of this video, I’m not going to try to weigh in on one side or the other because I think that that’s essentially a political dispute. What political considerations you find to be most important, pressing, or weighty are the ones that are going to shape which of the dimensions I mentioned earlier are, to your mind, the most important for grounding membership in the relevant social category.

The way that I would like to think about things, and what I hope is helpful for some of you who are watching, is, instead of getting so caught up on ontological claims — Who is a man? Who is a woman? — we could instead use language that has to do with what attributes people have. We can go down to that level where people will agree. Whatever your view is about whether I count as a man or a woman (for all intents and purposes, the easiest answer is that I count as a man, and certainly function socially as a man. I have all sorts of complicated stuff going on in terms of my gendered thoughts and feelings, and so forth, and depending on the conversation, maybe those attributes would come to the fore); but whatever you think the answer to that question is, we can all agree that I can grow a beard. We can all agree that I have certain bodily characteristics. We can all agree that I’m a recipient of male privilege, however it is that I might identify inside or whichever pronouns I might prefer that you use for me.

If, when we’re having these big, vitriolic disputes, we could move away from these really weighty, metaphysical claims about what it is to be a man or a woman, and instead say that we are all people with properties, [that might be more helpful]. We are all people with attributes. For most of those attributes, there’s very little disagreement about what attributes a person has. What the disagreement is about is which of those attributes are the ones that should count with the most weight for grounding membership in a social category—and that’s a moral question, that’s a political question. What social categories are for, to repeat this point, is some pragmatic purpose or another.

The reason why we draw distinctions between males and females has a different answer when you’re dealing with, say, reproductive medicine. In that case, what you want to know is who has a uterus, for example. You might be more concerned with who has a uterus than who identifies as a man or a woman, because sometimes those things are going to come apart. You might have somebody who identifies as a man or understands their inner life best by characterizing themselves in [such] terms. Some of those people might have a uterus. And if you’re a doctor who’s trying to figure out how to treat your patient, it’s that fact that’s the most relevant for how you should categorize this person. You should categorize them as a person with a uterus.

For questions about who should be able to use what bathroom, I’m not going to wade into that debate, but you would have to ask yourself: Why do we have different bathrooms in the first place? I don’t know the history entirely. I have read up a little bit about it, but let’s assume that there’s some valid reason for having gender-segregated bathrooms. (Maybe there isn’t. Maybe we should have just gender-neutral bathrooms or single stalls, or something like that.) But assuming that there’s a valid reason for having men’s and women’s bathrooms, we should ask ourselves: What is the point of having this segregation? If it’s a valid point, which I don’t know whether it is, then you have to say which features of a person are the ones that are relevant to that particular distinction, which might be different from the distinction that’s relevant for reproductive medicine.

You might say for the purposes of using this bathroom over that bathroom, what’s relevant is certainly not going be anybody’s chromosomes. It may have to do with how the person identifies in terms of their gender identity. It might be a mode of respect or accommodation. It might have to do with certain outward attributes, or how somebody uses the toilet, or whatever it is. But there’s going to be specific features that are relevant to that question, and then there’s going to be political debates about which features are most important, because people maybe have different attitudes about what bathroom segregation is all about in the first place.

This also comes up in the world of sports. You might ask, “Why do we have men’s professional basketball and women’s professional basketball?” The original reason for that, probably, is that if you only had one league for the people who scored the most points in basketball, probably more than 99% of those people would be what, in common-sense language, we would refer to as men. They would be people with penises, who have XY chromosomes, who probably regard themselves as men, who are socially treated as men, who are recipients of male privilege, and so forth—just because there is, again, a bimodal distribution of certain physical attributes that are relevant to how high you can jump or how tall you are. And if that’s the way the league is arranged, then there aren’t going to be many female role models for little girls who might want to grow up and be professional basketball players.

So, one reason why you might have a men’s and women’s league, is to create a separate space for very capable, high-point-scoring women players to serve as role models for little girls. Then you might have somebody who has some of the attributes that are characteristically associated with being a man, but not others, or characteristically associated with being a woman, but not others. Then you might have a question about which league should they get to play in. I don’t think that the answer to that question has really much to do with whether the person is “really” a man or a woman, because that’s the whole thing that’s being disputed—that’s what everybody can’t seem to agree about. What the right question is, is: Which features does this person have that are relevant to the reason why we have a men’s versus women’s league in the first place? We’re calling them men’s and women’s leagues for shorthand, but if we wanted to characterize them in terms of the relevant features, it might be something more like the Really Tall People League and the Slightly Less Tall People League, or the Highest Jumpers League and the Less High Jumpers League, or whatever is the relevant criterion.

As it happens, that corresponds as a pretty good proxy to what in everyday language we refer to as men or women. And the historical purpose of having this league might have been to create female role models for girls, so it works well enough to talk about men’s and women’s leagues. But the answer to the question of which league should someone play in, I think, is not usually going to come down to whether the person regards themselves as a man or a woman, or whether the person is really a man or a woman (which again, is the very thing that’s in dispute in this kind of debate).

I hope I haven’t shown my hand too much about the way that I think about this. It’s also a work in progress for me; I’m constantly learning from people who have a wide range of views on this topic and I’m trying not to leap to conclusions. But if I’ve provided any service at all, I hope that this discussion gives you some tools for thinking about what we all agree on: that there are people with properties. A lot of these properties cluster together statistically and, for certain social purposes, by convention, it’s useful to refer to a given cluster as male or female for shorthand, or as masculine or feminine for shorthand.

But the question of who really is a man or a woman is not actually a scientific question. There’s no “manness” written in my genes. My being a man is a way of positioning me within a recognized social category. I have most of the attributes that typically are used for grounding membership in that category, but there are other attributes I have that are not typical of that category. A lot of my inner mental life may not correspond to masculine stereotypes. Nevertheless, I can answer the specific questions about my male privilege or which bodily features I have or what-have-you.

I don’t know if that’s been helpful. Hopefully this gives some light and not just heat. Let me know what you think; I’m willing to put up another video if there are particular criticisms I should respond to, or whatever. Good luck out there!


Postscript. After recording this video, I was sent this paper, written by the incredibly thoughtful Esa Díaz-León (reference below). The general approach taken by Díaz-León, as well as the particular arguments in this essay, are very much in the spirit of what I was trying to lay out in this talk, and I do recommend that anyone interested in a more formal (and precise) account of gender read the paper. I am also heavily indebted to Robin Dembroff, who has shaped my overall thinking about gender more than anyone—and whose writings address many of the notions expressed above, only in much more sophisticated and philosophically rigorous ways. It should go without saying, however, that any weaknesses in what I have said/written are my own responsibility.


Related reading and inspiration 

Alexander, S. (2014). The categories were made for man, not man for the categories. SlateStarCodex. Available at

Andersen, S. M., & Chen, S. (2002). The relational self: an interpersonal social-cognitive theory. Psychological Review, 109(4), 619. Available at

Appiah, K. A. (2006). The politics of identity. Daedalus, 135(4), 15-22. Available at

Barnes, E. (2019). Gender and gender terms. Nous, in press. Available at

Bettcher, T. M. (2007). Evil deceivers and make‐believers: On transphobic violence and the politics of illusion. Hypatia, 22(3), 43-65. Available at

Chambers, C. (2005). Masculine domination, radical feminism and change. Feminist Theory, 6(3), 325-346. Available at

Dembroff, R. (2019). Beyond binary: genderqueer as critical gender kind. Philosophers’ Imprint, in press. Available at

Dembroff, R. (2019). Real talk on the metaphysics of gender. In B. Takaoka & K. Manne (eds.), Philosophical Topics: Gendered Oppression and its Intersections, in press. Available at

Dembroff, R. (2018). Why be non-binary? Aeon. Available at

Dembroff, R. (2017). Categories we (aim to) live By. Doctoral dissertation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Díaz‐León, E. (2016). ‘Woman’ as a politically significant term: a solution to the puzzle. Hypatia, 31(2), 245-258. Available at

Eagly, A. H. (2018). The shaping of science by ideology: How feminism inspired, led, and constrained scientific understanding of sex and gender. Journal of Social Issues74(4), 871-888.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). The five sexes, revisited. Sciences40(4), 18-23. Available at

Haslanger, S. (2000). Gender and race: (What) are they? (What) do we want them to be? Nous, 34(1), 31-55. Available at

Jenkins, K. (2016). Amelioration and inclusion: Gender identity and the concept of woman. Ethics, 126(2), 394-421. Available at

Mahmood, S. (2001). Feminist theory, embodiment, and the docile agent: Some reflections on the Egyptian Islamic revival. Cultural Anthropology, 16(2), 202-236.

Manne, K. (2017). Down girl: the logic of misogyny. Oxford University Press.

Oyewumi, O. (2002). Conceptualizing gender: the eurocentric foundations of feminist concepts and the challenge of African epistemologies. JENdA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies, 2(1), 1-5. Available from

Shattuck-Heidorn, H., & Richardson, S. (2019). Sex/gender and the biosocial turn. S&F Online. Available at

Sveinsdóttir, Á. K. (2013). The social construction of human kinds. Hypatia, 28(4), 716-732. Available at

Watson, L. (2016). The woman question. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 3(1-2), 246-253. Available at


Some further essays about sex and gender by me and colleagues

Chawla, M., Earp, B. D., & Crockett, M. (in press). A neuroeconomic framework for investigating gender disparities in moralistic punishment. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, in press. Available at

Earp, B. D. (2020). What is gender for? The Philosopher, forthcoming.

Earp, B. D. (2020). Systems thinking in gender and medicine. Journal of Medical Ethics, in press. Available at

Earp, B. D. (2020). Gender or genital autonomy? Why framing nontherapeutic genital cutting as a children’s rights issue is both ethically and pragmatically necessary. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, 42(2), e17. Available at

Earp, B. D., Monrad, J. T., LaFrance, M., Bargh, J. A., Cohen, L. L., Richeson, J. A. (2019). Gender bias in pediatric pain assessment. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 44(4), 403-414. Available at

Earp, B. D., and Boerner, K. (2019, April 4). Does gender bias influence how people assess children’s pain? OUPblog. Oxford University Press. Available at

Earp, B. D., & Steinfeld, R. (2017). Gender and genital cutting: a new paradigm. In T. G. Barbat (Ed.), Gifted Women, Fragile Men. Euromind Monographs – 2, Brussels: ALDE Group-EU Parliament. Available at

Earp, B. D. (2017). Gender, genital alteration, and beliefs about bodily harm. Journal of Sexual Medicine. 14(5), Supp. 4, e225. Available at

Earp, B. D. (2016, July 1). In praise of ambivalence: “Young” feminism, gender identity, and free speech. Practical Ethics. University of Oxford. Available at

Hodson, N., Earp, B. D., Townley, L., & Bewley, S. (2019). Defining and regulating the boundaries of sex and sexuality. Medical Law Review, 27(4), 541-552. Available at

Coronavirus: Dark Clouds, But Some Silver Linings?

By Charles Foster

Cross posted from The Conversation

To be clear, and in the hope of heading off some trolls, two observations. First: of course I don’t welcome the epidemic. It will cause death, worry, inconvenience and great physical and economic suffering. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. The burden will fall disproportionately on the old, the weak and the poor.

And second: these suggestions are rather trite. They should be obvious to reasonably reflective people of average moral sensibility.

That said, here goes:

1. It will make us realise that national boundaries are artificial

The virus doesn’t carry a passport or recognise frontiers. The only way of stopping its spread would be to shut borders wholly, and not even the most rabid nationalists advocate that. It would mean declaring that nations were prisons, with no one coming in or out – or at least not coming back once they’d left. In a world where we too casually assume that frontiers are significant, it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the basic fact that humans occupy an indivisible world.

Cooperation between nations is essential to combating the epidemic. That cooperation is likely to undermine nationalist rhetoric.

2. It will make us realise that people are not islands

The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person – a model that dominates political and ethical thinking in the west – is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable. Our individual boundaries are porous. We bleed into one another and infect one another with both ills and joys. Infectious disease is a salutary reminder of our interconnectedness. It might help us to recover a sense of society.

3. It may encourage a proper sort of localism

Internationalism may be boosted. I hope so. But if we’re all locked up with one another in local quarantine, we might get to know the neighbours and the family members we’ve always ignored. We might distribute ourselves less widely, and so be more present to the people around us.

We might even find out that our local woods are more beautiful than foreign beaches, and that local farmers grow better and cheaper food than that which is shipped (with the associated harm to the climate) across the globe.

4. It may encourage altruism

Exigencies tend to bring out the best and the worst in us. An epidemic may engender and foster altruistic heroes.

5. It may remind us of some neglected constituencies

Mortality and serious illness are far higher among the old, the very young, and those suffering from other diseases. We tend to think about – and legislate for – the healthy and robust. The epidemic should remind us that they are not the only stakeholders.

6. It may make future epidemics less likely

The lessons learned from the coronavirus epidemic will pay dividends in the future. We will be more realistic about the dangers of viruses crossing the barriers between species. The whole notion of public health (a Cinderella speciality in medicine in most jurisdictions) has been rehabilitated. It is plain that private healthcare can’t be the whole answer. Much has been learned about the containment and mitigation of infectious disease. There are strenuous competitive and cooperative efforts afoot to develop a vaccine, and vaccines against future viral challenges are likely to be developed faster as a result.

7. It might make us more realistic about medicine

Medicine is not omnipotent. Recognising this might make us more aware of our vulnerabilities. The consequences of that are difficult to predict, but living in the world as it really is, rather than in an illusory world, is probably a good thing. And recognising our own vulnerability might make us more humble and less presumptuous.

8. Wildlife may benefit

China has announced a permanent ban on trade in and consumption of wildlife. That in itself is hugely significant from a conservation, an animal welfare, and a human health perspective. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.

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Pandemic Ethics: Infectious Pathogen Control Measures and Moral Philosophy

By Jonathan Pugh and Tom Douglas

Listen to Jonathan Pugh and Tom Douglas on Philosophical Disquisitions  discussing  Covid 19 and the Ethics of Infectious Disease Control, a podcast interview that was inspired by this blog.

Following the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, a number of jurisdictions have implemented restrictive measures to prevent the spread of this highly contagious pathogen. In January, Chinese authorities effectively quarantined the entire city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, which has a population of around 11 million people. There has since been much discussion of various measures that might be implemented now or in the future to counter the spread, including various forms of social distancing, further mass quarantines and lockdowns, closed borders, mandatory testing and screening and even potentially forced treatment.

There are important questions about the lawfulness of infectious pathogen control (IPC) measures. Here, though, we focus on the moral justification of IPC. How can moral philosophy help us to think through when and whether different IPC measures ought to be employed?

To do so, we will briefly summarise our analysis of the different ways non-consensual medical interventions can be justified in infectious diseases control and criminal justice settings, which we originally published open access here.


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Lying About Santa: The Sequel

Written by Ben Davies

Another Christmas, and another blog about the ethics of Christmas-based lying.

Around this time last year, Alberto Giubilini wrote a post about whether we should allow children to believe in Santa. Alberto was pretty scathing about some of the arguments in favour of Santa-based honesty, but I want to offer some ethical considerations in favour of this unpopular view.

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Mr Broccoli Versus Piers Morgan: Hypocrisy and Environmental Action

Written by Doug McConnell

Everywhere we look environmentalists are being exposed as hypocrites. But is this relevant to the arguments these environmentalists are making and, if not, how can we improve the quality of public debate on environmental issues? Continue reading

An Ambitious Vision for Bioethics – Some Reflections on Professor Jing-Bao Nie’s St Cross Seminar

Written by Ben Davies

Many readers of the Practical Ethics blog will remember the astounding announcement last November by Chinese researcher He Jiankui that he had used CRISPR-cas9 technology to edit into two healthy embryos a resistance to developing HIV, later resulting in the birth of twins Lulu and Nana. As Professor Julian Savulescu expressed in several posts on this blog, the announcement spurred widespread ethical condemnation.

The first in this year’s series of St Cross Special Ethics seminars saw the University of Otago’s Professor Jing-Bao Nie (who is also currently a 2019/20 Fellow of Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study) get behind the headlines to consider the political and social context of He’s experiment. At the core of Professor Nie’s presentation was that the decision to engage in genetic editing of healthy embryos could neither be written off as the act of a ‘rogue researcher’, nor dismissed as merely the product of a uniquely Chinese disregard for ethics, as some have argued.

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The Doctor-Knows-Best NHS Foundation Trust: a Business Proposal for the Health Secretary

By Charles Foster

Informed consent, in practice, is a bad joke. It’s a notion created by lawyers, and like many such notions it bears little relationship to the concerns that real humans have when they’re left to themselves, but it creates many artificial, lucrative, and expensive concerns.

Of course there are a few clinical situations where it is important that the patient reflects deeply and independently on the risks and benefits of the possible options, and there are a few people (I hope never to meet them: they would be icily un-Falstaffian) whose sole ethical lodestone is their own neatly and indelibly drafted life-plan. But those situations and those people are fortunately rare. Continue reading

Making Ourselves Better

Written by Stephen Rainey

Human beings are sometimes seen as uniquely capable of enacting life plans and controlling our environment. Take technology, for instance; with it we make the world around us yield to our desires in various ways. Communication technologies, and global transport, for example, have the effect of practically shrinking a vast world, making hitherto impossible coordination possible among a global population. This contributes to a view of human-as-maker, or ‘homo faber‘. But taking such a view can risk minimising human interests that ought not to be ignored.

Homo faber is a future-oriented, adaptable, rational animal, whose efforts are aligned with her interests when she creates technology that enables a stable counteraction of natural circumstance. Whereas animals are typically seen to have well adapted responses to their environment, honed through generations of adaptation, human beings appear to have instead a general and adaptable skill that can emancipate them from material, external circumstances. We are bad at running away from danger, for instance, but good at building barriers to obviate the need to run. The protections this general, adaptable skill offer are inherently future-facing: humans seem to seek not to react to, but to control the environment.

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What the People Really Want: Narrow Mandates in Politics

Written by Ben Davies

Last week’s by-election in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire saw a reduction of Boris Johnson’s government majority to just one, as Liberal Democrat Jane Dodds won the seat. The result was an interesting one: more voters went for No Deal-friendly parties (mainly Johnson’s Conservatives and the Brexit Party) than for the out-and-out Remainer Lib Dems. Dodds won not because a majority of voters supported her, but arguably because the pro-Brexit vote was split, and the Lib Dem vote was boosted by Plaid Cymru and the Greens declining to field candidates (it can’t have helped that the Conservatives also simply reselected their candidate whose unseating for expenses fraud triggered the election).

The result generated two sets of comments by Conservative Chair James Cleverly. Cleverly’s first claim was that the Liberal Democrats had engineered a “back room deal” with other Remain-friendly parties – Plaid and the Greens – in a way that was, he implied, undemocratic. Continue reading

Doing More Harm Than Good? Should the Police Always Investigate Non-recent Child Sexual Abuse Cases?

Hannah Maslen, University of Oxford, @hannahmaslen_ox

Colin Paine, Thames Valley Police, @Colin_Paine

Police investigators are sometimes faced with a dilemma when deciding whether to pursue investigation of a non-recent case of child sexual abuse. Whilst it might seem obvious at first that the police should always investigate any credible report of an offence – especially a serious offence such as sexual abuse – there are some cases where there are moral reasons that weigh against investigation.

Imagine a case in which a third party agency, such as social services, reports an instance of child sexual exploitation to the police. The alleged offence is reported as having occurred 15 years ago. The victim has never approached the police and seems to be doing OK in her adult life. Although she had serious mental health problems and engaged in self-harm in the past, her mental health now appears to have improved. She does, however, remain vulnerable to setbacks. Initial intelligence gives investigators reason to believe that the suspect has not continued to offend, although there are limits to what can be known without further investigation. Should this alleged offence be investigated?

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