Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sex Selection and Gender Norms

Via Daily Nous, I came across this puzzling objection to sex selection by Tamara Browne:
Most parents will not desire a male or female child in the sense of their genitalia. Rather, they will want a child who fulfils socio-cultural definitions of ‘boyhood’ or ‘girlhood’. This is problematic because it assumes our sex determines our adherence to gender-based social norms and behaviours.
At best, acting on assumptions which are not evidence-based is bad science. [... Furthermore,] sex selection is a product of, and perpetuates, false assumptions about gender that keep men and women “in their places”. This prevents progress towards equality and freedom from restrictive gender roles and bias.

This is simply false.  In order for one's gender preferences to motivate sex selection, one needn't assume that the latter perfectly "determines" the former.  It is surely sufficient for there to be a strong correlation, such that by selecting a particular sex one makes it (significantly) more likely that one's child will be of the preferred gender.  And one can hardly pretend that there is zero correlation between the two -- that is not an "evidence-based" position.

It also seems highly prejudicial to assume that any parents with gender preferences must thereby be disposed to rigidly enforce traditional gender norms (let alone "restrictive gender roles and bias"!). A good parent must be open-minded and supportive of their children however they turn out, and this may well be incompatible with imposing overbearing expectations on the child that they may turn out not to satisfy.  So I fully agree that "[t]he wishes of intending parents should not override the need to respect the child who will be born." But there's no good argument from this premise to the conclusion that sex selection should be banned.  After all, having preferences and imposing expectations are not the same thing. Even if many people are tempted into the latter by the former, we need to be clear on where the real problem lies.
If the parents truly understand that each child is different, it becomes hard to explain why the parents seek to undergo the trouble and expense of sex selection.

"Each child is different" is not incompatible with understanding that some features (e.g. biological sex) can affect the likelihood of other features (preferred activities, behaviours, mode of dress, etc.). This should not be that hard to explain.

Finally, even if one were to accept Browne's assumption that there's something problematic about parents having gender (or, indeed, any?) preferences regarding how their children turn out, there's a big question about how one can infer any policy conclusions from this.  Browne wraps up her argument as follows:

All children have a right to a maximally open future and this right is curtailed when parents expect their children to act according to a narrow set of gender norms. The stronger the parental preferences to have or avoid a child of a particular gender, the more likely those expectations will harm the child. 
Only parents with particularly strong prejudice are likely to undertake such an invasive, risky and expensive procedure. As such, the risk to the child’s right to self-realisation and self-determination is even greater. As a result, the need to uphold their rights is even stronger.

Okay, let's consider the worst-case scenario of parents whose gender preferences leak over into their imposing gender expectations that may prove harmful to the child if they don't naturally fit these expectations. How is banning sex selection going to help this?  Suppose the parents really want a feminine-gendered child, and will be bad parents to any child that fails to meet these expectations.  (We may agree that such people shouldn't become parents at all, given the potential risks, but suppose that they are determined to go ahead regardless.)  Allowing sex selection would seem to minimize the risks here, since it is more likely that a biologically female child will happily adopt feminine gender norms than that a biologically male child will.

As this example shows, one cannot in general move from "preference X is morally problematic" to "acting in ways that aim to satisfy preference X should be banned".  This is especially so when what's so problematic about preference X is precisely the harms that may result when it is not satisfied!

Perhaps there's an implicit assumption in the background that the availability of sex selection would somehow make the problematic preferences and expectations more common than they would otherwise be.  It would be good to see some evidence to back up this assumption, however.  Perhaps one could argue that, in general, when people act with an aim to realizing a preference for X, they naturally come to form a stronger expectation of X than they otherwise would.  We could call this the Act-Expectation principle.

I worry that its application here involves an equivocation. The principle seems plausible (perhaps even obvious) if we read "expectation" in a purely epistemic sense, i.e. as having a higher level of credence in X's coming about.  But the problematic form of "expectation" is not merely epistemic, but involves a kind of overbearing / presumptuous / imposing behaviour.  And it's far from obvious to me that such behaviour necessarily (or even probably) follows from merely acting in a way that increases the chances of X.

Especially if the agents involved have a prior commitment to refrain from such overbearing behaviour, as good parents presumably should.


  1. "In order for one's gender preferences to motivate sex selection, one needn't assume that the latter perfectly "determines" the former. It is surely sufficient for there to be a strong correlation, such that by selecting a particular sex one makes it (significantly) more likely that one's child will be of the preferred gender. "

    So, I think there's more to this position than this, though Browne's occasional emphasis on epistemic rationality may be misplaced. Gender norms are pretty fluid across cultural and historical space, though there may be some very general innate sex-based predispositions. The correlation in question is thus (to a large extent) a Searlean "social fact", i.e. one that is constituted by our attitudes and behaviours. It is Browne's position that contemporary gender norms are harmful, and I don't take you to be disagreeing with her there. So merely highlighting the correlation in question misses the point: her position is that the correlation is grounded in a harmful reality, and that the harmful reality is partly constituted by the attitudes of prospective parents who desperately desire a gendered child.

    Thus, to say that "allowing sex selection would seem to minimize the risks here, since it is more likely that a biologically female child will happily adopt feminine gender norms than that a biologically male child will" is to treat the relevant likelihoods here as fixed, when it is the likelihoods themselves that are the problem. Analogously, in a rigidly racist society, it is "more likely" that members of the systematically subordinated race will be earnestly docile and obedient, and thus more fit for jobs as butlers, servants, luggage-carriers, etc. But the question of the epistemic rationality of selecting them for those positions ought to be moot: the real problems are (a) that our society produces a class of docile and obedient persons, in order to (b) fulfill essentially servile roles.

    Finally, in the case of social norms, something like the act-expectation principle seems eminently plausible, perhaps almost analytic. A social norm or convention just *is* a shared expectation that certain behaviors will be generally adopted, combined with shared dispositions to approve of those who conform and disapprove of those who do not. Without active, expressed approval and disapproval, there are no social norms. So all Browne has to show is that people who desire sex-selection are more likely to accept gender-norms, and thus to disapprove of children who don't conform to them. I don't suppose you really want to bet against *that*?

    1. Hi Vanitas, insofar as there are multiple "points" in the article that I address separately, I'm not sure it's quite fair to accuse me of "missing the point" when I address one of those points ("assumptions which are not evidence-based...") even if it is not the most important one.

      Now, I'm certainly no fan of rigid gender norms. But I'm not convinced that there's anything inherently problematic about mere gender preferences. And the question is whether the Act-Expectation principle is true of gender preferences. I don't see any reason to expect that it is. (Your semantic point, that these preferences will not technically qualify as "norms" if the principle isn't true of them, doesn't establish anything of interest.)

      It's also not true that "all Browne has to show is that people who desire sex-selection are more likely to accept gender-norms". That would repeat the error of thinking that a ban on X is justified by showing that the people who want X are (more likely to be) bad people. That's just bad reasoning. What Browne needs to show is that acting on a desire for sex-selection is more likely to make people accept gender norms (in the oppressive sense of "norm"). And again, I don't see any reason to assume that this is true.

  2. I was struck by the phrase: "All children have a right to a maximally open future". Taken literally, that would seem to suggest that ALL parental expectations concerning their children are illegitimate. But surely nobody believes that? Every decent parent has some degree of moral, hygenic, social, career etc. expectations for their children.

    It seems like, before entering the political minefield of *gendered* expectations, a deep philosopher should start by asking the more basic question of why should there be parental expectations at all. Obviously children can be harmed by expectations that are too rigid. But presumably children can also be harmed by expectations that are too loose, and some sort of balancing is required?

    1. It's a bit loosely stated, but there's surely a plausible idea in the vicinity, i.e. that prematurely closing off options is generally something to be avoided (in the absence of even stronger countervailing reasons). Of course, there are strong countervailing reasons to enforce moral expectations and the like. Aside from the obvious moral reasons, there can also be reasons stemming from the value of maintaining open options itself for some (e.g. educational) expectations. So some "balancing" is in this way required in order to give children a maximally open future, where we understand this as leaving open as many worthwhile options as we can (weighted by the worth of the various options, perhaps, so that leaving open one really good possibility might be worth closing off a couple of less worthwhile ones -- but taking care not to parochially assume that our own personal tastes or preferences contain all that is objectively worthwhile). But I'm not sure any of that really affects the current discussion at all, since it's not clear what countervailing reasons there are that would justify imposing constraining gender expectations.

    2. Well, that sounds a lot like the sort of balancing which I was referring to, so I don't think we disagree there. Of course, when we judge which options are "worthwhile", we are implicitly making reference to some kind of probability distribution over the likely interests and abilities of our children. (It is more valuable to preserve an option which they are likely to use later in life, then to preserve an option they are likely to disregard.)

      With respect to gender roles specifically, it seems you would agree that, as a matter of empirical fact, there are significant differences between the probability distributions of the likely interests, personalities (and therefore also abilities) of boys and girls, not just as children, but also after they grow up. (Even if there is also signficant overlap of the probability distributions along many axes.) It would therefore seem, that if a parent is to perform this balancing act correctly, they should have at least slightly different parenting for girls and boys. To say otherwise, in the interests of egalitarianism, would simply be throwing away relevant information.

      Of course, these probability distributions must also be updated in light of actual observations of one's children! Otherwise we are again throwing away relevant data.

      This by itself doesn't necessarily justify "constraining" or "rigid" gender roles. But it seems clear that, apart from gender, some parenting expectations should be "rigid" (meaning that we impose them even if the child expresses a dislike for the standard). Whatever criterion we adopt for imposing such standards, it doesn't seem crazy to think that on occasion, the criterion might be met for one sex but not the other (given the difference in probability distributions). Examples in popular culture that seem to me relatively innocuous, are holding boys to a higher standard of physical courage and ability to tolerate discomfort, while holding girls to a higher standard of appearance and social skills. (Hopefully without implying that these skills are valueless in the other gender!)

      If I have a son who wants to be a florist, or a daughter who wants to serve in the military, good for them! (So I guess I don't believe in that many constraints.) But that doesn't mean one should run to the opposite extreme by e.g. trying for complete "gender balance" in the toys that one gives to children. I don't think there is anything inherently unjust in saying, in effect, "You are a [boy / girl], here are some things that [boys / girls] typically like, you may like them too". Even if this exaggerates whatever innate gender differences there may be, I don't see that as an inherently bad thing.

      But I agree that parents should have the humility to recognize that their children are going to be different people than themselves, and should be prepared to love them however they turn out.


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