values are not science-free, trans justice edition

Last month, Sociologists for Trans Justice released a statement condemning the wave of anti-trans legislation that has been proposed in state legislatures across the United States. The statement includes a link to a new reader titled #ProtectTransYouth which collects valuable resources for those interested in learning more.

One section of the statement struck me as especially well-phrased and useful for thinking through the relationships between science and activism and between facts and values. This topic is of perennial interest but has been especially salient in sociology in the wake of, among other things, the 2016 election and the Trump administration, the 2019 American Sociological Association annual meeting theme on “Engaging Social Justice for a Better World”, and the growth of the Du Boisian Scholar Network with its mission of “scholarship at the service of emancipation & liberation.”

In just a couple of sentences, S4TJ describes one vision of the relationship between facts and values in the context of anti-trans legislation:

Scientifically speaking, neither sex nor gender are binary. Socially speaking, trans, intersex, and non-binary people deserve to be treated with the same social respect that all people deserve. For these reasons, we oppose these bills and laws in the strongest possible terms.

To me, this set of claims perfectly illustrates political theorist Elizabeth Anderson’s claim that values are not science-free. As I understand it, part of what Anderson is arguing is that many values are informed by people’s understanding of how the world works. That is, people’s values are shaped by their empirical beliefs, and that “empirical observations can count as evidence for a claim that something is good.” (Anderson 2004: 3) In this case, anti-trans values are shaped by the (false) empirical belief that sex is binary (and fixed & biological), that gender in turn is binary, and that gender merely reflects sex. In this sense, the empirical/scientific claim from S4TJ (backed up by a range of research in a variety of fields from biology to psychology to sociology) that “neither sex nor gender are binary” has significant moral implications, not because it is itself a value-laden claim (though there are other senses in which all scientific claims are value-laden), but because the value judgments “trans people do not deserve respect” or “trans people should be shamed” or “we should force trans people to live as cis” are premised on a (false) scientific understanding of sex and gender.

Put another way: sociology (and science more generally) can’t prove that everyone deserves respect. But sociology can tell you that the scientific premise behind your justification for why it’s moral to treat some people poorly is false.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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