Philosophers Should Not Be Sanctioned Over Their Positions on Sex and Gender

Philosophers Should Not Be Sanctioned Over Their Positions on Sex and Gender

How should the discipline of philosophy respond to current discussions of sex and gender identity?

Recent conversations among academic philosophers have given traction to proposals to censure or silence colleagues who advocate certain positions in these discussions, such as skepticism about the concept of gender identity or opposition to replacing biological sex with gender identity in institutional policy making. Those who support such sanctioning have appealed to various considerations, among them the contention that these positions call into question the identities of trans people, thereby making our discipline less open and welcoming to all.

We, all scholars in philosophy at universities in Europe, North America and Australia, oppose such sanctioning. The proposed measures, such as censuring philosophers who defend these controversial positions or preventing those positions from being advanced at professional conferences and in scholarly journals, violate the fundamental academic commitment to free inquiry. Moreover, the consequent narrowing of discussion would set a dangerous precedent, threatening the ability of philosophers to engage with the issues of the day.

We acknowledge that philosophical arguments can lead to pain, anxiety and frustration when they challenge deeply held commitments — whether pertaining to gender identity, religious conviction, political ideology or the rights and moral status of fetuses or nonhuman animals. Moreover, some of us believe that certain extreme conditions can warrant restrictions of academic speech, such as when it expresses false and hateful attitudes or incites violence or harassment.

Yet none of the arguments recently made by our colleagues can reasonably be regarded as incitement or hate speech. Policy makers and citizens are currently confronting such metaphysical questions about sex and gender as What is a man? What is a lesbian? What makes someone female? Society at large is deliberating over the resolution of conflicting interests in contexts as varied as competitive sport, changing rooms, workplaces and prisons. These discussions are of great importance, and philosophers can make an essential contribution to them, in part through academic debate. Philosophers who engage in this debate should wish for it to be pursued through rational dialogue, and should refuse to accept narrow constraints on the range of views receiving serious consideration.

Academic freedom, like freedom of thought more broadly, should be restricted only with the greatest caution, if ever. While the respect due to all people — regardless of sex, gender, race, class, religion, professional status and so on — should never be compromised, we believe that contemporary disputes over sex and gender force no hard choice between these commitments.

Accordingly:

  • We affirm the right of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals to live free of harassment and abuse, and we welcome them enthusiastically as fellow participants in the profession of philosophy.
  • We reject calls for censuring or deplatforming any of our colleagues on the basis of their philosophical arguments about sex and gender identity, or their social and political advocacy for sex-based rights.
  • We condemn the too frequently cruel and abusive rhetoric, including accusations of hatred or transphobia, directed at these philosophers in response to their arguments and advocacy.
  • We urge that the philosophical discussion of sex, gender and related social and political issues be carried out in a collegial and mutually respectful manner, reflecting the full range of interests at stake and presuming the good faith of all parties.

It is only on these grounds that philosophy can continue to play its essential role in society as a discipline in which sensitive and controversial issues are investigated with patience, care and insight.

José Luis Bermudez, Texas A&M University

Clare Chambers, University of Cambridge

Cordelia Fine, University of Melbourne

Edward J. Hall, Harvard University

Benj Hellie, University of Toronto

Thomas Kelly, Princeton University

Jeff McMahan, University of Oxford

Francesca Minerva, University of Ghent

John Schwenkler, Florida State University

Peter Singer, Princeton University and University of Melbourne

Nicole A. Vincent, University of Technology Sydney

Jessica Wilson, University of Toronto

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