Scientific Research, Consequentialism and a Touch of Foxglove

Scientific Research, Consequentialism and a Touch of Foxglove September 29, 2017

The other day, I wrote a post about the University of Bath Spa not sanctioning some research into transgender people and issues concerning reversal operations. This was labelled by many in the category of “political correctness” (a term that I do not at all like and don’t use myself) on the understanding that the university made the decision about not sanctioning the research on the basis of public perception.

To be honest, I didn’t give too much commentary to the piece myself because I was hoping to write a follow-up in more detail. I suppose this will be it.

My interest in this story actually has nothing to do with trans issues whatsoever. I’m sorry if I made people think otherwise, but this is the case. The context could have been anything. I have long had an interest in ideas about the value of knowledge. Indeed, on my essays page, there is a piece titled “Are there good reasons for believing something that is wrong”. In the essay, I talked about whether knowledge is purely consequential in nature such that you can use it, or lack of it, as a means to an end. In other words, can you believe a falsehood for good reason? In the case above, can you stay your thirst for a particular set of data and knowledge for good reason? Are some things just not worth knowing about, or does knowledge and data in and of itself have some kind of intrinsic value?

An example of this might be race (as difficult a term as it may be). Imagine if there was data to be found, and thus research to be funded, that found that blacks (or whites or any other subgroup) were properly way below other groups in important characteristics. Would it be worth stifling research into that area in order to foster greater social cohesion and societal health? Or should we always promote a thirst for knowledge no matter how uncomfortable that knowledge may well be (I am hugely simplifying here)?

And so we come to Foxglove, a transgender commenter who so eloquently posted their thoughts on the aforementioned piece:

This is a long comment, so be warned (TL;DR version below):

Hi, Jonathan!

Now, I’ve decided to reply to this blog at length. It may sound like I’m a bit angry with you. Well, I’m not, because obviously I know that you’re a good guy. The reason for my reply is that this blog—along with some of the comments already posted—simplifies this issue greatly. There are all sorts of things going on here, which we transpeople would know all about but which most cispeople have probably never even glimpsed. So I’d like to address some of those issues.

First of all, I as a transgender person get mightily tired of hearing complaints about “political correctness”. We transpeople are beneficiaries of PC and as a consequence tend to be more favorable towards it than others. That’s because of what it means to our lives.

As an example, political correctness means that if you’re a young person in school, the school administrators have an obligation to clamp down on any bullying you might be subjected to. Lots of kids—not just LGBT kids—are bullied for one reason or another. School administrators are not allowed to turn a blind eye to it. In theory, they’re required to deal with it. Whether they will in practice is of course another question. But political correctness requires that they make an honest attempt.

Another example: I’ve been going to the same GP’s office for years. When I came out, political correctness (and now the law) required those GP’s (and any other doctor I might need to see) to continue to treat me to the best of their ability. This is hugely important, especially in times when many, many transpeople still report being refused medical attention.

This is why transpeople (along with other minorities) like political correctness. It gives us a chance to live our lives. It gives us a chance to enjoy the same rights and freedom that all other citizens enjoy. And generally speaking—generally speaking—people who complain about political correctness are people like Donald Trump, who want to be free to treat people any way they like. They want to be rude, discriminatory or just plain bigoted with no comeback to them. My reply to such people is, “If you don’t like political correctness, then don’t create the need for it.” People who are not beneficiaries of political correctness because they’ve never needed it are not in a position to appreciate what it means to some of us.

Now—apply this instance of political correctness to the phenomenon of “transition regret”. There are all sorts of things going on here. First of all, “transition regret” is one of the main weapons that our enemies aim at us. “Such-and-such percentage of transpeople regret having transitioned. Therefore, allowing transpeople to transition is a bad idea. We should prevent them from doing that.”

There are all sorts of misconceptions current about transitioning. One of the main ones is that transitioning implies hormone treatment and surgery. It doesn’t necessarily. Transitioning is a step-by-step process that ordinarily takes years to complete, and no one is required to go the full route. You’re free to stop at any point along the road. The name of the game is maximizing your happiness, and if, at any point along the road, you feel that you’ve got about as much of that as you’re going to get, that any further steps might be more costly than would be worth the likely benefits, then you’re free to stop.

And note that studies consistently show that only 4-5% of transpeople go the full route anyway. Now I base this statement on older studies. If there are more recent studies out there, I suspect the percentages might be somewhat higher than this. Nonetheless, the fact remains that only a small minority of transpeople go the full route.

I can point out, too, that this term “detransitioning” is misleading. The idea is that if somebody takes a step backwards, that’s a case of “transition regret”. It isn’t necessarily so. The best example I can give you is of a MTF transperson who lived female for a number of years, then eventually decided to return to living male. This is perfectly valid.

The reason is that you get to a point along the road where you’re not sure whether you want or need to go forward. “Would I be happier living female or male?” Sometimes you’re simply not sure—and the only way of resolving the question is to give it a go. Switch over and try the life for a while. You may eventually decide, as this person did, that all in all you’re happier the way you were. But to call that a case of “regret” or “detransitioning” is misleading. It’s actually a case of someone doing what they needed to do in order to be able to make a reasoned decision.

There are other cases in which the term “regret” is misleading. My case, for example. As soon as I came out, I learned that, practically speaking, living female is harder in ways than living male. Now this doesn’t mean that I’ve ever regretted my decision. On the contrary, I wish I’d made it many years ago and there’s no way I would now go back to my old life. What it does mean is that as a typically whiny human being I’ll often complain about the costs involved in living the way I do. But I continue to pay them, because the benefits are far and away higher.

What we need to touch on here is the question of honesty. If you spend some time looking at transgender forums, you’ll find that there’s a high degree of honesty there. When you’re trans, it is very much in your interest to be scrupulously honest with yourself. If you’re not, you can screw up your life very badly. There’s a particular danger involved when you first come out. You’re all excited, all gung-ho, all eager to go forward as quickly as possible. This is called “getting lost in the pink fog”.

Wiser and more experienced people will try to bring you down to earth. They make no bones about the difficulty of what you’re facing. They emphasize that transitioning fully is an arduous, painful, time-consuming and expensive journey, and if you’re determined to go ahead with it, you’d better be prepared to pay the price. The way it’s generally put is, “If you can survive, if you can function in life, without fully transitioning, then don’t transition. The only way you want to transition is if you simply can’t avoid it.”

You can compare that to the total absence of honesty on the opposing side—that coming from, e.g., a transwoman who had fully transitioned and soon fully regretted it. She proceeded to set up a website warning people of the danger of transitioning. You don’t have to read too much of it to note her dishonesty. It’s quite clear from her story that she just jumped right into it without taking the time to truly consider what she was doing. There are idiots in the trans community, and she’s one of them. But instead of recognizing that, she wanted to take the line that “It was wrong for me, therefore it’s wrong for everybody else.”

So when we’re talking about a proposed study of the question of “transition regret”, transpeople like me will automatically have misgivings about it. Consider the basic dishonesty of the whole endeavor. We all know there’s a certain amount of regret out there. But that’s only to be expected. Any time people are making decisions, in whatever area of life, there’s going to be a certain amount of regret. Scads of people regret having married the person they married. In some places fully half of all marriages end in divorce. Yet nobody’s proposing to ban marriage for this reason. But our enemies do in fact use this notion of regret not just to attack the notion of transitioning itself, but to attack the whole notion of transgender rights.

And where does the justification for this study now proposed come from? Well, some doctor somewhere reports increasing numbers of transpeople wanting to detransition. But who is this doctor? There are plenty of medical professionals out there who are just as uninformed on trans issues and hostile to transpeople as any layperson. You can look at Ray Blanchard, e.g., with his theory of “autogynophilia”. You can look at Kenneth Zucker who has worked with transpeople for 30 years without copping onto what transpeople actually are. You can look at that McHugh fellow at Johns Hopkins whose remarks about transpeople are as infantile as anything you’ll find on the net. You can look at the psychiatrist that I myself ran into who openly scoffed at the notion of transgenderism and strongly hinted that it was nothing but a form of psychosis.

So some doctor out there sees a need for another study. That’s fine. But from our point of view, it’s not really necessary. Studies have been done, and they all show a certain amount of regret. We know that. But no study is going to tell a particular transperson whether they should go forward or not. Let every study show that there’s only 3% regret. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I should go ahead without any worry. I could be one of the 3%. Or let every study show that there’s 97% regret. It doesn’t automatically mean that I shouldn’t go ahead. I could be one of the 3%. Every transperson is aware that there’s a certain amount of regret, and what every transperson needs to carefully consider is, “Regardless of everybody else, is this right for me?” Being transgender is a very individual thing, and what is right for others is not necessarily right for you. This is something that every transperson knows.

So, what do we say in this case? Another study has been proposed. Now I myself am OK with that. I’m the sort of person who believes that we always need to investigate and learn. You never have enough knowledge at your fingertips. Above all we need to look at inconvenient truths. The convenient ones are no problem. We’ll find them readily enough. It’s the inconvenient ones that we’re often reluctant to face.

It’s just that in this case we do already have studies and we do already know the inconvenient truth. And what really causes me misgivings is, suppose this study shows a higher level of regret than previous studies have. What are our enemies going to do with that fact? Well, they’ll do the same thing with it that they do with every other fact they come across.

Like this: it’s a well-known fact that transpeople (like gay people) have an astronomically high suicide rate. And what do our enemies do with that fact? They blame that on us. They use it as evidence that transpeople are inherently mentally unstable. What they don’t consider is the notion that transpeople are driven to suicide by the bullying and harassment and abuse that we routinely suffer.

In fact, they often expressly deny that transgender suicide has anything to do with abuse. Instead they take the line, “Transpeople are mentally unstable. Therefore we should crack down on them, try to prevent them from being transgender.” Which of course implies more abuse, which of course will keep suicide rates at high levels. It’s a self-feeding, vicious circle. This is what our enemies do with facts. They look at the ones they want to look at and ignore the ones they find inconvenient.

So now people want another study? Should we be honest enough to ignore the dictates of political correctness? Fine, let’s do that. But are our enemies going to be honest enough to at long last take an honest look at transgender issues as a whole? There’s plenty of evidence out there as to the benefits to transgender people in having the freedom to live our lives as we please. Are they going to consider that?

So there it is, Jonathan. What I’m pointing out here is that this issue is far more involved than a simple case of “political correctness gone wild”. There’s all sorts of things involved here that cisgender people won’t necessarily be aware of. A transgender person can rightly be concerned about a study because they’d wonder how exactly are the results going to be used. That’s precisely where I am. OK, a study’s fine, a study is always good. But what are people going to do with it?

I myself try to be philosophical about things. Another study might or might not give our enemies ammunition against us. In this case, I’d be very surprised if it does. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Our enemies are always going to have a go at us, regardless of whether or not there’s any justification for it. I believe that at the end of the day we transpeople are going to win this war. Another study or another instance of excessive political correctness isn’t going to change the outcome.

Thanks, Foxglove

Let me summarise for brevity:

  1. FG is tired of “political correctness”. I fully agree for the reasons given and many more. Hopefully, this was simply a misunderstanding. I only use the term when quoting r summarising other people.
  2. “Transition regret” is one of the main weapons used against the trans community.
  3. Transitioning can be a long journey with many (sometimes indefinite) pauses. Only some 4-5% go the whole way.
  4. “Regret” is perhaps (at least in some cases) the wrong word since it is about the contest at the time. I suppose an analogy might be, I used to play X sport, and then took up Y sport; this doesn’t mean I regretted playing X. I wonder if this works for FG?
  5.  “Getting lost in the pink fog” is the trans manifestation of that evangelicalism that all new converts get (veganism, religion, atheism etc.). This can perhaps cause some rash decision-making.
  6. In the same way marriage isn’t attacked as an institution based on almost 50% failure rates, don’t attack (or do work that will facilitate attack on?) the trans community on the basis of a far smaller, non-representative proportion.
  7. There will always be regret but this shouldn’t invalidate trying to do a particular thing, especially if the regret proportion is low.
  8. So why study now? If this shows a higher proportion of regret, it will only serve as ammunition against trans.
  9. There is already a high enough mental burden on trans people (i.e. suicide rates reflective of “mental burden” for want of a better term). This is used against the trans community to claim they are unstable (reversing the causality).

I hope this does justice to FG’s comments (if they don’t, then I would of course welcome corrections). I really appreciate their taking the time to put together such cogent thoughts.

The simple reality is that I pretty much agree with everything written.

Where there is interesting discussion is around the epistemological points. To me, these are the questions that are important to my original thinking (though all the points are important in one way or another):

  1. What are the motivations for this research? I honestly don’t know enough about it. Are there really increased levels of reversal surgeries? What does Caspian want to do with it? He doesn’t seem the sort of person, given his context, who would want to undermine the trans community since he works for an organisation who supports it. One of the outcomes of scientific research is to see whether anecdotal claims and evidence stand up to testing. Is this enough to warrant the test?
  2. Does testing need warrant? Should we question at all whether we should test a given area? Or is it about finances and funding? With finite funding, should we always prioritise research based on some matrix of the benefit to society it obtains?
  3. And so, is scientific data collection a consequentialist means to an end. Data for data’s sake is not good enough. We must always consider what ends it can be used for. In the above racial case, if it gets used for some form of eugenics, then is it the case that we simply shouldn’t do the research (hypothetically)?
  4. Who gets to decide whether research gets done, and whether it is potentially harmful or not? Who arbitrates over what is harm and to whom?

Perhaps this is where I go too abstract and then start questioning too much, I don’t know.  I certainly don’t want to be in the camp who attacks the left (of which I am a part) for closing down discussion based on “political correctness gone mad”.  I am not one to coin the phrase “political correctness” in this context. As mentioned, I am not a fan of using this pejorative phrase. I think I could keep the term to merely “political”.

And here, we start getting towards the larger contention of climate change. Trump and his administration are, for political motivations, stymying research and data collection into climate change.

All humans have agendas and motivations, including scientists and especially politicians. It is very difficult to divorce these motivations from conversations about any given topic, particularly if the topic has ramifications in the political, social and economic spheres. Whether the swallowtail butterfly better reproduces under such and such conditions will be met with less motivated thinking by researchers and consumers of the research than work around climate change, or in this case, the trans community. As such, what we are arguing here is that research into that community needs much more careful thought and consideration or it can cause more damage than worth derived from it.

And this is the consequentialist nature of the problem.

As ever, with consequentialism, one of the big challenges is predicting the future. To say X people will use B (research findings) for negative effect on Y community, causing 5 units of suffering is an appeal to an unknown future, but would hopefully rely on some “science” itself. If there is good evidence to suggest that such research findings are often used to attack the trans community, then inductive reasoning would imply that it would probably happen again. Ths seems to be what Foxglove is saying. I simply don’t know enough about the trans community to make such a judgement and Foxglove seems a thoughtful enough person to take seriously when making this claim.

I see myself as one investing time and effort in social justice causes, and I see this as a good thing, obviously. But passed the normal blog entries, political grumblings and whatnot, I am no trans expert (although I probably know a damned site more than, for example, my parents on the matter).

This, then, is the application of my more abstract musings. The trans community and this case with the University of Bath Spa, is applied philosophy.

What do we think of data and science and knowledge – should we endeavour to find out as much about the world around us, no matter what the social cost and implications might be?

And contextually, in this case, was the University of Bath Spa then correct, or at least warranted, in withholding the funding or permission for such research?

To answer the last part, since I was not knowledgeable enough about trans issues, I erred on the side of the abstract in that, to me, withholding access or desire to research into a given area due to the social implications of doing such work seems intuitively against my principles. However, consequentialism is also a fairly central aspect of my moral philosophy. So we return to whether knowledge has intrinsic value and is a non-derivative currency in the same way as pleasure/lack of pain is (arguably). If this is the case, and both are currencies in our (my) moral value system, does one outrank the other? If so, how?

Let me leave you with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (this entry on consequentialism is a good one):

When consequentialists incorporate a variety of values, they need to rank or weigh each value against the others. This is often difficult. Some consequentialists even hold that certain values are incommensurable or incomparable in that no comparison of their values is possible (Griffin 1986 and Chang 1997). This position allows consequentialists to recognize the possibility of irresolvable moral dilemmas (Sinnott-Armstrong 1988, 81; Railton 2003, 249-91).

Pluralism about values also enables consequentialists to handle many of the problems that plague hedonistic utilitarianism. For example, opponents often charge that classical utilitarians cannot explain our obligations to keep promises and not to lie when no pain is caused or pleasure is lost. Whether or not hedonists can meet this challenge, pluralists can hold that knowledge is intrinsically good and/or that false belief is intrinsically bad. Then, if deception causes false beliefs, deception is instrumentally bad, and agents ought not to lie without a good reason, even when lying causes no pain or loss of pleasure. Since lying is an attempt to deceive, to lie is to attempt to do what is morally wrong (in the absence of defeating factors). Similarly, if a promise to do an act is an attempt to make an audience believe that the promiser will do the act, then to break a promise is for a promiser to make false a belief that the promiser created. Although there is more tale to tell, the disvalue of false belief can be part of a consequentialist story about why it is morally wrong to break promises.

When such pluralist versions of consequentialism are not welfarist, some philosophers would not call them utilitarian. However, this usage is not uniform, since even non-welfarist views are sometimes called utilitarian. Whatever you call them, the important point is that consequentialism and the other elements of classical utilitarianism are compatible with many different theories about which things are good or valuable.

Instead of turning pluralist, some consequentialists foreswear the aggregation of values. Classic utilitarianism added up the values within each part of the consequences to determine which total set of consequences has the most value in it. One could, instead, aggregate goods for each individual but not aggregate goods of separate individuals (Roberts 2002). Or one could give up aggregation altogether and just rank total sets of consequences or total worlds created by acts without breaking those worlds down into valuable parts. One motive for this move is Moore’s principle of organic unity (Moore 1903, 27–36). For example, even if punishment of a criminal causes pain, a consequentialist can hold that a world with both the crime and the punishment is better than a world with the crime but not the punishment, perhaps because the former contains more justice. Similarly, a world might seem better when people do not get pleasures that they do not deserve. Cases like these lead some consequentialists to deny that moral rightness is any function of the values of particular effects of acts. Instead, they compare the whole world (or total set of consequences) that results from an action with the whole world that results from not doing that action. If the former is better, then the action is morally right (J.J.C. Smart 1973, 32; Feldman 1997, 17–35). This approach can be called holistic consequentialism or world utilitarianism.

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