A better solution to gender pronoun disagreement

Person A wants to be addressed by the pronoun Z and feels disrespected if they are not.

Person B want to address A by the pronoun Y and feels disrespected if forced to do otherwise.

When I wrote about David Mackereth, I said that resolving these kind of disagreements is very difficult. Giving it some more thought, I think it’s actually quite easy. There’s a means of addressing people which conflicts with neither Person A or Person B’s preferences: calling a person by their name. Instead of using the gender pronoun Y, person B can simply call A by their name.

It’s interesting how seemingly difficult problems often have obvious solutions.

Against the American Conservative, The Sun and The Daily Mail on David Mackereth

A refutation of:

The articles above assume that the DWP’s decision to deny David Mackereth employment was unjust and constitutes an unacceptable restriction of speech. I’m not so sure.

Some restrictions on speech are acceptable. Let’s say a hard right white nationalist who refuses to refer to black people by any other word than n***** applies to a government job that requires interacting with citizens. Few of us would have a problem with them being rejected on the grounds that civil servants must refer to people in a respectful manner. The principle at work here is that while the government should not deny a person a job on the basis of their beliefs, it can and should deny employment to people who are unable to do a job, regardless of whether their inability is down to their beliefs or some other reason. Just as denying a pacifist a position in a frontline military unit is acceptable, so the white nationalists inability to respectfully interact with black people makes them unable to do the job, justifying the decision to not employ them. It is a restriction of speech, but one that is justified as the intent is not to silence but to hire the best person for the job.

Moving to the case of David Mackereth, the first question is whether his inability to use a persons chosen gender pronouns renders him unable to do his job. This boils down to whether we expect government employees to use people’s preferred gender pronouns. That boils down to where we draw the line of what constitutes disrespect. That line is devilishly tricky to draw because it is heavily based on cultural norms as opposed to universal, rational moral principles. Act’s which may constitute an offence grave enough for murder in one culture mean nothing in another. That’s why I’m not going to try and directly argue whether or not using someone’s chosen pronoun is a reasonable expectation or requirement for respect. I don’t think that argument is necessarily possible to make, it may well be a matter of axiomatic intuitions, or can be made in a reasonable amount of time. Instead, I’ll try and present another case. How you feel about it should tell you a lot about how you should feel about the case of Dr Mackereth.

Lets say there’s transgender hard left activist who, believing that gender is an oppressive construct which should be destroyed, refuses to use people’s given pronouns and instead refers to everyone as “ze”. They apply for the same position in the DWP and are rejected because they refuse to refer to people by their chosen gender. Would this also constitute an unacceptable restriction on free speech? There are three positions you can take

  1. Civil servants should refer to anyone however they want (Both Dr Mackereth and the activist can get a job)
  2. Civil servants should be required to refer to people by their chosen pronoun (Neither Dr Mackereth nor the activist can get a job)
  3. Civil servants should refer to strigh/cisgender people by their chosen pronoun, but have no obligation to refer to non-cisgender people by their chosen pronoun. (Dr Mackereth can get a job, the activist cannot)

If you believe 1 or 2, your beliefs are consistent and, while I may disagree with them, they are not in my eyes immoral.  If you believe 3, which I assume is the position these publications would take, I think there’s a burden you have to meet to justify the double standard. I don’t think these articles, nor any other I’ve seen, have attempted to do so.

Obvious improvements #1: The state, not firms, should pay for maternity leave

Image result for crying baby

In the status quo, employers have to give maternity leave. They also have to pay workers while they are on leave. The latter is bad.

  • It disincentivises hiring young women. Losing a worker for months is already costly. Having to pay them while they’re away is even more costly.
  • It allocates the burden of supporting young mothers unequally. In a just society, we all have an equal responsibility to support those who deserve help. Maternity pay disproportionately and unfairly falls on employers more likely to employ young women. This allocation is unjust.
  • It allocates the benefits of maternity leave unequally. In a just society, all women would have the same allowance for maternity leave. In an employer funded system, women on maternity leave who’s employers go bankrupt loose their pay. This is morally arbitrary and unfair.

Full government funding is a better alternative.

  • It disincentivises hiring young women less. Employers still risk loosing a worker for months, but no longer have to pay them during the absence.
  • It allocates the burden of supporting young mothers equally. Tax is paid by all employers equally. A tax funded system of maternity pay ensures all employers share the burden of supporting young mothers equally.
  • It allocates the benefits of maternity leave equally. As long as the state is solvent, all mothers get their maternity pay regardless of the financial solvency of their employers.



Politicians are not optimized for persuasiveness

I once heard someone say that politicians are optimized for persuasiveness. This isn’t true. In a first past the post system like the UK or US, you don’t have to be electable to get into office. If you have good ties in a party you can get a seat in a constituency which is overwhelmingly likely to vote for your side. Manage this and you are essential guaranteed to win every election. From then onward, your ability to gain power is less a matter of getting normal people to like and vote for you and more a matter of your ability to manage patronage networks and relationships with important people within the party. They’re the ones who decide who gets a minister/committee post, not the voters.

Many people were surprised that Donald Trump, a sleazy businessman, could win the US primary, let alone the election. It’s not that surprising when you remember that the people he was competing against were career politicians selected for patronage management, not public speaking.


I’ve head people say that the existence of evil proves there is no God.

The conclusion is good. The argument is not.

Evil may serve a purpose. Some virtues are exist in opposition to suffering and evil. Courage, struggle, bravery, martyrdom. A world without evil could be a world without virtue, a world without sacrifice. For some, that is worse than any hell.

Evil may be a necessary consequence of free will.

Evil may be an illusion. It could be that suffering minds are transported to a heaven the moment their suffering becomes such that they would rather cease existing, their physical bodies taken over by a philosophical zombie.

As SSC said, it could be that God creates all possible universes where goodness outweighs badness. Most are perfect. Some are farther from perfection. Some lie just over the knife edge, just the point at which their non-existence would be better than their existence.

Against singular conceptions of the good

The most popular theories of ethics tend to have a singular conception of the good. They say there is one thing, and one thing alone, which determines whether an action/person/system is just.

  • Utilitarianism:  pleasure maximization.
  • Libertarianism: non-coercion (by other humans)
  • Deontology: the decision making process, not the real world outcomes of that process
  • Egalitarianism:  equality
  • Rawls: The difference principle. (In reality the idea that justice is the overriding concern of society rather than other things like not starving to death)

All these theories are wrong. They run counter to our moral intuitions in obvious ways.

Utilitarianism says an action or outcome is good insofar as it maximizes utility, usually meaning pleasure. This does not match our intuitions. Most of us would trade off some pleasure for some amount of knowledge, freedom or justice. Utilitarianism has only two defenses to this. First, ever expanding definitions of utility. This fails because as the definition of utility moves towards “things we like”, utilitarianism nears the trivially true claim that we should maximize good things and minimize bad things. Second, to claim that we value other goods solely because they give us utility. This is unfalsifiable and hence unacceptable.

Deontology says only the process matters, not the outcome. Lying is wrong regardless of the consequence. Rape is always bad. It fails because, while the process does matter to us, the outcome does too. Murder is wrong but murdering one person to save a whole galaxy worth of lives seems right. Lying is wrong but lying to the Gestapo to save a Jewish familly is less wrong. Caring about process alone means that your moral reasoning is detached from reality. Our intuitions aren’t.

Egalitarianism thinks that equality is all that matters yet a world of starving slaves seems worse than a world split between millionaires and billionaires.

Rawls thinks maximizing the minimum is our duty. I’ve already written about this. He’s wrong. Trading a universe of happy, meaningful lives where a few starve for a universe where everyone starves but slightly less is not right, nor a world any of us would choose if placed behind the veil of ignorance.

All of these theories are based on a singular conception of the good. They all claim that we value only one moral good, absolutely and to the exclusion of all others. We don’t. We value many moral goods and to different extents in different circumstances. Our ethical universe is not simple. It is complex. Our morality is not the product of a single value but of a complex optimization process which maximize for many different things. Refusing to see this is putting a square peg in a round hole. It’s refusing to look at the difficult question of how we trade off competing values and instead denying that such trade-offs exist.

Simplicity is not truth. Morality is not monolithic. Any theory or philosopher who says otherwise is wrong.

Being good and doing good.

I’ve always thought that the inability to hold contradictory thoughts was bad. I think only small minds cannot hold two horizons. There are many reasons I hold this belief, and many arenas I think it applies. When trying to find the truth, you can never truly understand a different paradigm/worldview from your own without truly believing it strongly enough to step into it. When trying to decide what person you should be, you cannot adopt only one persona. If you do, you only see one side of the world. The prophet sees hope. The politician sees a far grimmer reality. Both are right. I’ve come to believe the same of good and evil. I think being good, truly good, isn’t easy. The evil is so deeply ingrained. It requires burning away everything you are. Burning away the desire to hate and punish. In doing so, you become something else. You rise above caring for yourself or the consequences of your actions. You rise above hate or revenge. You become a pure being. The problem is that purity is so easy to take advantage of. If you want to actually change the world for the better, brutality, cruelty and hard, cynical realism are necessary. I used to think that that was the true cost of doing good. By choosing to wage the war against evil, you gave up your soul and your purity, your chance to be good.

I still think that’s true. You can’t be an angel/prophet and a leader. The latter requires compromise, both with your morals and with reality. That being said, I think the path of the leader has a risk and that risk is that, step by step, you give up the very values you gave up your soul to fight for. Every compromise with your morals, every step in to the dark is a step closer to loosing yourself and, in doing so, loosing your capacity to do good. I think there is a a way to help guard against this. Be in two minds. Don’t be the leader or the prophet. Be both. Be a leader when you need to but every once in a while step out of yourself and into another role, another person and another way of being. I don’t think drawing walls around your actions in this ways stops the corruption. I do think it slows it.

And as always, remember that if you wear the mask long enough and it will consume you.