Research

Overview

Norms and normative standards shape our lives in ways both large and small. As human agents, we encounter norms in almost all areas of our lives; and given that we are embedded in social structures which are deeply unjust, we must reckon with the fact that many or most of the norms which govern our behavior and provide us with reasons for action are also deeply unjust. Using the tools of analytic metaethics, feminist philosophy, trans studies, social epistemology, sociology, and decolonial theory, I aim to explain how norms and normative standards are constructed and warped by power structures, in order to understand how those structures shape our behavior at the level of shared concepts and individual normative deliberations. Put differently, I seek to understand how norms and normative standards work, in order to deconstruct the ways in which norms make us complicit in systems of injustice by shaping what individuals feel like we (collectively and individually) ought to do.

 

Primary Research Project

In my dissertation, "Gender Norms and Trans Experience," I construct an account of gender norms as a normative domain that explains how gender norms apply individuals and groups, and thus how gender norms shape normative deliberations by providing us with reasons. It is sometimes assumed that gender norms apply to people on the basis of their assigned gender categories; for example, feminine norms are taken to apply to people because they are assigned the category “girl” or “woman”. This category-based view is the predominant view in analytic feminist metaphysics of gender.

I raise two objections to this view. First, trans and GNC people often experience gender norms which do not match our assigned categories as nevertheless applying to us and exerting force over our normative deliberations. For example, a person assigned the category “woman” may nevertheless be responsive to norms of masculinity; they may feel that they ought to, e.g., wear masculine-coded clothing.

Second, decolonial feminists have argued that gender norms do not apply to Black and Brown colonized peoples on the basis of gender categories. Black and Brown colonized peoples are constructed as animalistic, and thus assigned only sex classification and not gender categories. They are nevertheless evaluated according to normative gender standards and punished for violating them, often in much more brutal and violent ways. A category-based view therefore ignores some of the most oppressive and harmful elements of gender norms as a normative domain.

To explain these features, I develop traits ascriptivism (TA) as an account of gender norms. Ascriptivism here refers to the view that gender norms are socially assigned, rather than voluntarily adopted by individuals. Traits are understood to be descriptive features of individuals or groups. Traits ascriptivism is therefore the view that gender norms are socially assigned to particular features of individuals or groups, rather than to individuals on the basis of their gender categories. Gender norms in dominant contexts are treated as if they cluster around some “natural” properties of individuals. They therefore operate on the basis of expected coherence. If some trait is coded masculine, for example, it is thereby expected to occur together with all and only other traits that are coded masculine. But traits do not naturally cluster in this way. If a person who is assigned the category “woman” is disposed to express a trait which is coded masculine, they may feel that masculine gender norms exert force over them. Moreover, traits are racialized as well as gendered, and normative gender clusters in dominant contexts include traits of whiteness. Individuals and groups who are perceived to have traits that are coded as masculine or feminine, but do not have the traits coded white, can therefore be punished for having incoherent traits despite, and perhaps because of, their lack of assignment to the relevant gender category.

I further explore the ways in which gender norms can be experienced as having normative authority over individual behavior. This authority is sometimes cashed out as authenticity. For example, a trans person might say that they are living in accordance with particular normative features of gender because that way of living represents who they really are. Given feminist commitments that gender norms are socially constructed, these claims may initially seem puzzling. To make sense of them, I draw from 20th century phenomenology and queer and trans theory to argue that we should understand authenticity in these contexts as a constructive, socially embedded project of building and “owning up to” an honest and intelligible self, rather than a passive “finding” or “uncovering” of pre-given features of the self. This requires attentiveness to certain facts about one’s situation and psychology—such as facts about particular traits that one has, and the social gender-coding of those traits. Living authentically may therefore involve owning one’s responsiveness to gender norms.

 

Secondary Research Project

Shared concepts can be distorted by power, so that they systematically misrepresent the experiences of marginalized people. Existing analyses often focus on lacunae, or "gaps" in the shared conceptual understanding where marginalized people need some concept to be. I argue that a distinctive problem is the distortion of concepts which oppress by occupying space in that shared conceptual understanding.

In metaethics, a thick concept is a concept that contains both normative and descriptive content, and the normative content is taken to apply in virtue of the descriptive content. Ideally, the normative content of a thick concept would fit the descriptive content; for example, courage is a thick concept where the normative content (laudable or praiseworthy) fits the descriptive content (resistance to pain, fear, or grief). Consider, however, a thick concept like slut. The concept of slut contains the descriptive content someone (usually a woman or a feminized person) with many sex partners, which is understood as morally bad or corrupt. While it is true that there are women or feminized people who have had many sex partners, these individuals are not morally bad or corrupt in virtue of this behavior.

I argue that distorted thick concepts can fill gaps in the hermeneutical understanding by capturing existing descriptive facts, and thus serve to "crowd out" the development of better hermeneutical resources. This can perpetuate oppression in a variety of ways. One way is by distorting the way individuals construct their identities. We use social concepts to understand ourselves; if the only available descriptively accurate concepts are normatively warped, then our self-understanding, and our personhood, is also warped. Another way is through what I call descriptive misdirection. Attempts to change or eliminate thick normative concepts in the shared understanding may be foreclosed by an appeal to the descriptive accuracy of a concept. For example, an attempt to question the mobilization of a concept of slut might be met with resistance, because the concept of slut picks out some real descriptive facts in the world. Descriptive misdirection can be particularly effective when concepts are understood to be scientific, as science is often mobilized as an ultimate epistemic authority on descriptive matters.

This project has the potential to speak to many issues in the current political discourse that mobilize an understanding of 'science', particularly those involving concepts relevant to vaccinations or climate change.

 

Papers

“I’m Fully Who I Am:” Authenticity, Morality, and Gender Norms (Revise & Resubmit)

Some people report that certain gender norms are authentic for them. For example, a trans man might say that norms of masculinity feel like his own or that abiding by them tracks who he really is. Authenticity is sometimes taken to appeal to an essential, pre-social “inner self”. It is also sometimes understood as a moral notion. Authenticity claims about gender norms therefore appear inimical to two key feminist commitments: that gender norms are socially constructed and that they are morally bad. I argue that that this apparent tension is spurious. I show that authenticity and morality can come apart; what is authentic for someone is not always, on the whole, morally good. I give an account of authenticity as a socially embedded constructive project, rather than a reflective connection with a stable, essential inner self. This project is undertaken in a non-ideal world and must therefore make use of available non-ideal materials. I conclude that gender norms can be authentic for someone, while at the same time being socially constructed and morally bad. This conclusion can help to enable a theoretical space that is both respectful of trans experience and critical of dominant gender norms, an important liberatory goal.

 

Inside and Out: Ascriptivism About Gendered Traits (Under Review)

Ascriptivism about gender normativity is the view that gender norms are assigned to individuals, rather than voluntarily adopted. It is a well-established view in feminist theory, for good reason. However, ascriptivism as it is defended in the literature faces two major objections. First, it does not track actual gender-normative phenomena; some trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) people experience gender norms not assigned to them as exerting force over them. Second, ascriptivism locates gendered oppression on the female-assigned body. This ignores the oppression of male-assigned people, such as trans and GNC people, or men of color, who can experience gendered oppression not only in spite of, but in part because of their male-coded bodies. I argue that a modified version, traits ascriptivism, can solve these problems. On the established view, individuals are assigned a normative role, and thereby a set of gender norms (“masculine” or “feminine”). On my view, traits are gender-coded, and thereby expected to cluster with other similarly-coded traits. The crucial move here concerns the order of explanation; on my view, the traits come first. I show how traits ascriptivism can solve both identified problems, as well as predict further features of how gender normativity actually operates. Traits ascriptivism therefore can do justice to the feminist motivations behind ascriptivism while improving its theoretical and political power.

 

It's Just Science: Thick Concepts and Hermeneutical Injustice (Under Review)

In discourse about social concepts, it is common to appeal to mere science; one just is a woman, or intelligent, or rational, it is claimed, in virtue of some empirical facts about one’s body or psychology. This move is used to silence protests against oppressive uses of a concept. Many appeals to “mere science” rest on false information. However, sometimes the empirical facts are as described, but the concepts in use “smuggle in” unjustified normative content. Assuming that many social concepts are thick—containing both normative and descriptive content—I argue that the descriptive content of some concept can be correct, while the normative content may be warped. Prying apart the descriptive and normative content of thick social concepts can help us understand and evaluate how normative claims are embedded in appeals to “mere science”, so that such appeals, regardless of their empirical accuracy, may function to reify oppression.

 

Distorted Identities: Hermeneutical Injustice and Normative Social Roles (Draft)

Normative social roles help to shape our self-conceptions, to organize our social reality, and to make us the individuals that we are. We use shared social concepts to construct our normative social roles; and when those shared social concepts are warped by power relations, those normative social roles are also warped. I draw from the work of Korsgaard (2009) to understand normative social roles as constitutive of individuals, and argue that warped normative roles can distort one's construction of a coherent, autonomous self. I understand this as a function of hermeneutical injustice. If the available concepts which describe one’s experience are normatively flawed, one is a victim of hermeneutical distortion. When those concepts are embedded in a normative role, those who occupy that role are at risk of having their selves shaped by this distortion. I suggest that these normative roles can be repurposed as tools of resistance, provided that one identifies with them critically—that is, provided that one takes the associated norms as relevant to one’s conduct, but not normatively binding.

 

The Role of a Lifetime: Trans Experience and Gender Norms (Draft)

It is a guiding principle of the social sciences that individuals become responsive to gender norms as a result of internalization; individuals are trained by their social contexts to become psychologically responsive to them. This is also an important commitment for feminist theory, as feminists hold that gender norms are socially constructed and assigned. Most prominent views in the metaphysics of gender assume that gender norms apply to individuals on the basis of their gender category; call this the category-based view. However, individual norm-responsiveness does not always track category assignment; many trans and gender-nonconforming people experience responsiveness to norms which were not assigned to them. I argue that a commitment to internalization does not entail a commitment to the category-based view. Instead, we should adopt a traits-based view. On a traits-based view, gender norms apply to individuals on the basis of their individual traits, rather than their gender categories. Internalization of norms is trained according to an association between trait and norm; individuals learn the gender-coding of traits, and understand that expression of those traits is associated with the relevant gendered standard. This view explains how gender norms are assigned on the basis of observed features, while also capturing the way individuals actually experience them as action-guiding.

 

Papers in Progress

A paper on gender identity (with E.M. Hernandez)

A paper on trans authenticity and intelligibility

A paper on gender norms as weapons of colonial power

A paper on social norms and "worlds of sense"