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 Gendered Traits," I construct an account of gender norms as a normative domain that explains how gender norms apply to 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, gender norms do not always apply to marginalized people on the basis of gender categories. For example, Lugones (2007, 2010) argues that membership in dominant gender categories of “man” and “woman” is historically reserved for white colonizers; Black and Brown colonized people are excluded from membership in these categories. Similarly, Spillers (1987) argues that Black enslaved bodies are ungendered through the legacy of chattel slavery. And Wilchins (1997) points to the ways in which trans and GNC people are treated as “gendertrash,” outside the boundaries of binary classifications. However, the gender norms associated with dominant gender categories are nevertheless enforced on those excluded from dominant categories in particularly brutal ways—in part because they are denied gender category membership. A category-based view therefore ignores some of the most oppressive and harmful elements of gender norms as a normative domain.

I argue that we should reject a category-based view in favor of a traits-based view. 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, dominant normative traits clusters prioritize features associated with privilege, such as whiteness. Individuals and groups who are perceived to have traits that are coded as masculine or feminine, but do not have the traits associated with privilege, can therefore be punished for having incoherent traits despite their exclusion from 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

Being Your Best Self: Authenticity, Morality, and Gender Norms (Forthcoming in Hypatia)

Trans and gender-nonconforming people sometimes say that certain gender norms are authentic for them. For example, a trans man might say that abiding by norms of masculinity 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 commitments in feminist philosophy: that all gender norms are socially constructed, and that many domains of gender norms are both morally and prudentially bad. I argue that that this apparent tension is illusory. Concordant with existing trans narratives of authenticity, I articulate an existentialist view that understands authenticity as a socially embedded, constructive project undertaken in a non-ideal social world, rather than a reflective uncovering of a pre-given, essential self. I then show that authenticity and morality can come apart; what is authentic for someone need not be either morally good or good for them. I conclude that the authenticity of gender norms does not cut against the feminist commitments that I identify. This conclusion enables a theoretical space that is both respectful of trans experience and critical of dominant gender norms, an important liberatory goal.

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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 games

A paper on marginalized experience and philosophical method