Thanks to Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance in Vanity Fair, the issue of gender identity has become a mainstream topic. While I will not address the specific subject of Caitlyn Jenner, I will discuss the matter of gender nominalism and competition. This will, however, require some small amount of groundwork.
One of the classic problems in philosophy is the problem of universals. Put a bit roughly, the problem is determining in virtue of what (if anything) a particular a is of the type F. To use a concrete example, the question would be “in virtue of what is Morris a cat?” Philosophers tend to split into two main camps when answering this question. One camp, the nominalists, embrace nominalism. Put a bit simply, this is the view that what makes a particular a an F is that we name it an F. For example, what makes Morris a cat is that we call (or name) him a cat.
The other camp, the realists, take the view that there is a metaphysical reality underlying a being of the type F. Put another way, it is not just a matter of naming or calling something an F that makes it an F. In terms of what makes a be of the type F, different realist philosophers give different answers. Plato famously claimed that it is the Form of F that makes individual F things F. Or, to use an example, it is the Form of Beauty that makes all the beautiful things beautiful. And, presumably, the Form of ugly that makes the ugly things ugly. Others, such as myself, accept these odd things called tropes (not to be confused with the tropes of film and literature) that serve a similar function.
While realists believe in the reality of some categories, they generally accept that there are some categories that are not grounded in features of objective reality. As such, most realists do accept that the nominalists are right about some categories. To use an easy example, being a Democrat (or Republican) is not grounded in metaphysics, but is a social construct—the political party is made up and membership is a matter of social convention rather than metaphysical reality. Or, put another way, there is presumably no Form of Democrat (or Republican).
When it comes to sorting out sex and gender, the matter is rather complicated and involves (or can involve) four or more factors. One is the anatomy (plumbing) of the person, which might (or might not) correspond to the second, which is the genetic makeup of the person (XX, XY, XYY, etc.). The third factor is the person’s own claimed gender identity which might (or might not) correspond to the fourth, which is the gender identity assigned by other people.
While anatomy and physiology are adjustable (via chemicals and surgery), they are objective features of reality—while a person can choose to alter her anatomy, merely changing how one designates one’s sex does not change the physical features. While a complete genetic conversion (XX to XY or vice versa) is not yet possible, it is probably just a matter of time. However, even when genetics can be changed on demand, a person’s genetic makeup is still an objective feature of reality—a person cannot (yet) change his genes merely by claiming a change in designation.
Gender is, perhaps, quite another matter. Like many people, I used to use the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably—I still recall (running) race entry forms using one or the other and everyone seemed to know what was meant. However, while I eventually learned that the two are not the same—a person might have one biological sex and a different gender. While familiar with the science fiction idea of a multitude of genders, I eventually became aware that this was now a thing in the actual world.
Obviously, if gender is taken as the same as sex (which is set by anatomy or genetics), then gender would be an objective feature of reality and not subject to change merely by a change in labeling (or naming). However, gender has been largely (or even entirely) split from biological sex (anatomy or genetics) and is typically cast in terms of being a social construct. This view can be labeled as “gender nominalism.” By this I mean that gender is not an objective feature of reality, like anatomy, but a matter of naming, like being a Republican or Democrat.
Some thinkers have cast gender as being constructed by society as a whole, while others contend that individuals have lesser or greater ability to construct their own gender identities. People can place whatever gender label they wish upon themselves, but there is still the question of the role of others in that gender identity. The question is, then, to what degree can individuals construct their own gender identities? There is also the moral question about whether or not others are morally required to accept such gender self-identification. These matters are part of the broader challenge of identity in terms of who defines one’s identity (and what aspects) and to what degree are people morally obligated to accept these assignments (or declarations of identity).
My own view is to go with the obvious: people are free to self-declare whatever gender they wish, just as they are free to make any other claim of identity that is a social construct (which is a polite term for “made up”). So, a person could declare that he is a straight, Republican, Rotarian, fundamentalist, Christian, man. Another person could declare that she is a lesbian, Republican, Masonite, Jewish woman. And so on. But, of course, there is the matter of getting others to recognize that identity. For example, if a person identifies as a Republican, yet believes in climate change, argues for abortion rights, endorses same-sex marriage, supports Obama, favors tax increases, supports education spending, endorse the minimum wage, and is pro-environment, then other Republicans could rightly question the person’s Republican identity and claim that that person is a RINO (Republican in Name Only). As another example, a biological male could declare identity as a woman, yet still dress like a man, act like a man, date women, and exhibit no behavior that is associated with being a woman. In this case, other women might (rightly?) accuse her of being a WINO (Woman in Name Only).
In cases in which self-identification has no meaningful consequences for other people, it certainly makes sense for people to freely self-identify. In such cases, claiming to be F makes the person F, and what other people believe should have no impact on that person being F. That said, people might still dispute a person’s claim. For example, if someone self-identifies as a Trekkie, yet knows little about Star Trek, others might point out that this self-identification is in error. However, since this has no meaningful consequences, the person has every right to insist on being a Trekkie, though doing so might suggest that he is about as smart as a tribble.
In cases in which self-identification does have meaningful consequences for others, then there would seem to be moral grounds (based on the principle of harm) to allow restrictions on such self-identification. For example, if a relatively fast male runner wanted to self-identify as a woman so “she” could qualify for the Olympics, then it would seem reasonable to prevent that from happening. After all, “she” would bump a qualified (actual) woman off the team, which would be wrong. Because of the potential for such harms, it would be absurd to accept that everyone is obligated to accept the self-identification of others.
The flip side of this is that others should not have an automatic right to deny the self-identification of others. As a general rule, the principle of harm would seem to apply here as well—the others would have the right to impose in cases in which there is actual harm and the person would have the right to refuse the forced identity of others when doing so would inflict wrongful harm. The practical challenge is, clearly enough, working out the ethics of specific cases.