Sunday, October 15, 2006

Beards, Race and Sexuality

[By Alex Gregory]

One hair on your chin does not make a beard.
If you do not have a beard, growing one additional hair will not give you a beard.
Conclusion: No-one have ever grown a beard.

That's Sorites paradox. Some predicates are vague; it isn't clear where they start and end. Still, we want to maintain, the predicates do still apply: Some people are bearded, some are not, regardless of whether there's a murky uncertainty in the center of the scale. That's why its called Sorites paradox: it's hard to square the above argument with our deep conviction that some people really are bearded.

It might be the case that in some cases of this form, we really do conclude that the predicate in question in not "real". But hopefully the above shows that the mere fact of vagueness is not sufficient to draw the conclusion that the predicate is not real.

So here are two other arguments which I think are secretely of this form I've heard from time to time:

There aren't really "black" or "white" people, because it's really only a scale between various skin colours

There aren't really "heterosexual" or "homosexual" people, everyone is really some degree of bisexual.

In both cases, I think we need more evidence to draw the supposed conclusion. Again, the mere fact of vagueness need not propel us into thinking that the terms in question are not real.

Does anyone think that there really is some additional evidence available in support of the conclusions above?

Can anyone name an argument of this form that we do seem to take at face value to show that the predicate in question is not real?


  1. > There aren't really "heterosexual" or "homosexual" people, everyone is really some degree of bisexual.

    Depends on what you mean by 'heterosexual' or "homosexual" but
    1) bonobo chimps appear to be 'bisexual' (so maybe we are just repressed?)
    2) close your eyes and having sex with a girl could be rather similar to with a guy. So what can you say fundamentally is the difference that makes you enjoy one and not the other
    3) how about an extremely good looking transvestite? you could easily have been attracted to one - even had 'sex' with one and not know.

    > There aren't really "black" or "white" people, because it's really only a scale between various skin colours

    1) I don’t know if I've ever seen a person I would call really "white" - as a Chris rock (I think) skit once went *grabbing a purse* "THIS is white - that girl is just pink". And grabbing something jet black and comparing to a African American "this is black - he is just brown - really dark brown, but still brown"
    2) What does "black" or "white" mean? is it a measure of "skin colour" or "race" (genetics) or "goodness" or "culture"?
    If its genetics it is very confused even the whitest white person is probably something like 10% black just because all the genes are everywhere. (I.e. there is no such thing as a 100% white person - maybe there never was)

    The main point however is that we have a choice regarding dividing the world into two sets of people or not doing it. Since WWII many have thought it may be better not to.

  2. Your examples remind me of Charlie Martin's ontological generator (and this is a rough approximation from memory);

    'If you can describe 'A' purely in terms of 'B', then there is no 'A', there is only 'B'.

    You simply plug in whatever appropriate values for A and B and your off!

    Example 1;

    Race: There is no 'black' or 'white', as both concepts are actually part of a contiuum of colours moving from pink to dark brown.

    Example 2:

    Sexuality: There is no 'gay' or 'straight' as both concepts are actually part of a continuum of sexuality moving from exclusively hetero to exclusively straight.

    The modification to CM's OG is two fold.
    1. In both examples the extremes of a position are lumped together as 'A' with a broader continuum being the catchall for 'B'.

    In the example I always remember the OG was plugged in for God and conciousness.

    God: All evidence for God can be explained by natural science and its insistence on a material world. Therefore, there is no God, there is only the natural material world.

    Consciousness: All purported talk about unconscious phenomenae can be explained by resorting to conscious phenomenae. (Dreams aren't unconcious events, they are actually memories formed upon waking).

    Great site!

  3. I don't know about arguments like this which persuade us the predicate is not real, but it is interesting to compare this to the pro-life position Jeremy presented on this very blog:

    He assumes that a personhood must be all or nothing and so must begin at the moment of conception as the only clear dividing point. However, I think the more logical answer is that like the beard, personhood is a vague concept which admits to borderline cases. So just as we cannot say one hair to the next when the beard arrives, so we cannot say one moment to another when the personhood arrives.


  4. I agree that it is not enough just to show that a property is "vague"; one must also specify the degree of vagueness.

    This is because there no such thing as "vagueness" or "precision". There is only a continuum leading smoothly from one to the other.

  5. but alex,

    if you define homosexuality strictly (for example) then it is occupied by a set of 0 people, if you define it vaguely, then it encompasses bisexuality (you could say all or some of it, but not both). On a day to day baisis I would use the latter definition, while in a theoretical debate I might indeed call one hair a beard and use the one drop rule for race. As a a result there is no disagreement - just different terminiology. ie those two words (although identical to the eye/ear) mean genuinely different things depending on the context and who says them - and trying to reconcile that is a fools game.

    GNZ (in aust)

  6. Quine argues against the analytic/sythetic distinction on the basis of an argument something like this, and lots of philosophers have taken that argument at face value. Admittedly, some of them would have claimed that there are theoretical reasons for thinking the distinction would have to be sharp if it existed at all (not that any have been presented), and recently people have come around to admitting that Quine's arguments weren't very good after all (though for some reason a lot of them still think he showed something important, even if his evidence was no good), but that argument was very influential for a long time.

  7. For the record, my position on personhood is that the ordinary concept of personhood is relatively undefined as compared with philosophers' use of the concept in abortion literature. What I think is clear is that the kind of moral status we attribute to human beings is all-or-nothing. I think the ordinary concept of human rights is Kantian, and I don't think that comes in degrees. Utilitarian moral status surely does, but not Kantian moral status. It's when philosophers define personhood to be whatever moral status humans have that then leads me to say that personhood is all-or-nothing. I have no problem with a vagueness in personhood, as long as you don't also then assign personhood to be what gives the all-or-nothing moral status that human beings distinctively have (that other animals don't have).

    Now on the race question, there are lots of arguments besides the vagueness one, though that is found in some of the anti-race literature (e.g. Naomi Zack). I should say that there are two kinds of responses (at least) to vagueness arguments with race. One can accept that there is vagueness about what race someone belongs to but that there are also clear cases, just as there is vagueness with which things count as red and then some very determinative cases of redness (or pick your vague predicate). That alone shows the fallacious nature of these arguments.

    But there's another possibility. Maybe race predicates are not vague after all. Maybe there are clear criteria for which characteristics someone must have to be in a race. What we think of borderline cases then would not be borderline cases at all but just people with no race (or people whose race is something other than the main races, e.g. mulatto). I don't think this view is correct, but it's a way to make sense of the cases that seem unclear without removing the sharp lines for the major racial categories.

    But the biggest problem with the way this argument has been framed has nothing to do with vagueness. The argument as it appears in this post takes races to be mere groupings of people according to shades of color. Maybe you could add in several other intrinsic properties such as facial shape, bone structure, hair type, and so on. That still wouldn't be enough to get you races. There are lots of people who have very similar such characteristics who don't count as being of the same race by anyone's criteria. Indians (meaning those with ancestry from India, not native Americans) and Latinos can often have the same sorts of intrinsic features on the level of phenotype, but they never count as the same race on any racial classification scheme. You need to factor in social and historical properties such as the geographical origin of someone's ancestry, how someone is in fact treated by a culture, the modal properties of how someone would be treated if such ancestry were known in the cases when it is not, and so on. The features determinative of race are not just intrinsic physical characteristics.

    Now you could reframe the vagueness argument by factoring in all these vague criteria if you wanted, and then it would still be subject to all the above problems, but I couldn't allow this naive picture of races as determined by mere intrinsic properties to stand without saying something about it.

  8. The main argument against race is that nothing in reality corresponds to the concepts of race that we have. Zack and Appiah claim that the concept of race that we have is contradictory, and thus there must be no such thing. Nothing in the world could match up to it. I tend to think they've got a simplistic notion of how language works to be able to say such things, since all sorts of terms we use involve vague concepts with contextually-determined elements that apply sometimes and not at other times, and therefore contradictory elements may appear but never in the same contexts.

    One argument has to do with the genetic facts. If race is supposed to be genetic (which it isn't, if you look carefully at how the terms are used), it seems that there aren't genetic properties that determine race that are biologically significant enough for it to count as a sub-species in the way breeds of dogs count as sub-species. This is primarily an argument that races are not genetically diverse enough to count as sub-species on that level. It isn't an argument that there are no such things, however, since races might be something other than sub-species on that level.

    Similarly, people often claim that races must not exist simply because there is more genetic variation within racial groups than there is between racial groups. Well, there could be more genetic variation between conservatives than there is between conservatives and liberals, but that wouldn't mean there are no such groups. If what makes for a race is not purely or even primarily genetic, this argument is silly. Even if genetic factors go into what determines races, it would seem that certain genetic factors matter, while others don't. Whether earlobes are attached is irrelevant, but skin color is relevant. So the fact that most of human variation occurs within each race is irrelevant if those variations aren't what determines the races. The relative variation within a group does not eliminate the general differences in skin color, bone structure, hair type, facial shape, and so on between one group and another. If those are what contribute toward biological differences between races, than the relative difference as compared with differences within a racial group will just be irrelevant.

    There are also eliminativist arguments based on moral reasons. Some say we should remove these categories because they lead to harm. For one thing, these arguments aren't for eliminativism. They are for eventually working our way toward a time when eliminativism might be true. It's not an argument against the reality of race but an argument that we should seek to make racial realities no longer morally important. Second, these arguments are undermined to a great degree by the fact that racial problems still occur, and you can't identify those if you don't classify people according to race. I discussed this in a recent post on this blog, in fact.

    So those are a sampling of some of the other arguments against race (and why they should not be thought of as convincing arguments). I don't know the literature on sexual orientation as well. Some of these arguments will have analogues, while others will not. But there are plenty of arguments against race. Naomi Zack and Anthony Appiah are the two best known philosophers against the idea of race. Lots of good work has been done responding to them. Those who take race to be a natural kind include Philip Kitcher and Robin Andreasen. Those who take it to be a social construction but real nonetheless (among analytic philosophers) include Paul Taylor, Bernard Boxill, Jorge Gracia, Lucius Outlaw, Charles Mills, and Linda Alcoff (my dissertation supervisor). Most continental types take a similar view, but virtually everything is a social construction for them. I'm trying to undermine the distinction between the natural kind views and social construction views, but I certainly don't think there's much merit to the arguments that race doesn't exist.


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