Hume’s gap, Hume’s law, Hume’s guillotine, the “is-ought” problem, the naturalistic fallacy–they’re all phrases for the same observation: That a moral prescription (an “ought” statement) cannot be derived from an empirical observation (an “is” statement) by itself. The gap that you ought to bridge, if you want other people to clearly see your reasoning and thus evaluate your claim more accurately, can be done with the use of an “if” statement, which will delineate a specific goal or intention and which provides the avenue for empirical investigation. Which, astute readers will note, I just did with that exact sentence: “You ought to bridge the is-ought divide if you want your moral reasoning to be understood clearly because the ‘if’ will provide a logical avenue of investigation.” We could do a poll and ask which argument is more convincing: “trees produce oxygen, I need oxygen to breathe, and if I want to breathe, I ought not to cut them all down” or “trees occur spontaneously in nature, nature is good, therefore trees are good” and thus shed some light on whether my premise is accurate.
Of course, even that formulation assumes “I want my moral reasoning to be understood clearly” and so it carries a few weaknesses: If I am a charlatan, my actual moral reasoning is likely related to my immediate material gain, but being a charlatan I’d want to convince you my moral reasoning is something else, in which case my argument falls apart–the charlatan doesn’t want their moral reasoning to be clear, so they have no incentive to bridge the is-ought divide and instead pretend you can make it from one side to the other with a judicious application of creative thinking.
And so we jump feet first into moral skepticism, the intellectual quagmire in which I have been stuck waist-deep for a few years. My arms are outstretched, if any theorists from other moral schools care to grasp them in a bid to free me from my prison. I invite you to heave-ho and extract me from this intellectual quicksand in the comments, though I suspect my colleague Marcus will likely try sabotage your efforts.
All of which was a rather long-winded introduction to one of the more stark demonstrations of the is-ought divide I’ve seen in trans-antagonistic arguments: Society hates trans people, transition “cures” gender dysphoria but marks us as “trans,” therefore we should (somehow) get rid of gender dysphoria without transitioning. I’m not the first trans feminist to see this proposed to them, either–here’s Zinnia Jones: (emphasis original)
What’s being proposed here certainly does not constitute a coherent “treatment” in any sense, and is generally lacking in any details beyond the unwavering insistence that trans identities should be rejected. But what if we were to evaluate this as if it were a treatment? I’ve spent plenty of time examining the measurable results of acceptance and affirming care for trans people – so how does rejection stack up in comparison? What outcomes can be expected in trans people’s lives when they’re pushed to live as their birth sex, and their genders are rejected and denied by those around them?
And Natalie Reed:
That is, in fact, part of what drives the fascination behind this thought experiment. The idea that transition is something so hideously awful that wouldn’t we do everything we could to avoid it? That transition is and only ever should be an absolute last resort, if things are just so completely horrible and you’re so miserable that you have absolutely no other choice? That we’d take the “easy” way out, even if it meant annihilating an essential aspect of who we are, if there were any other way?
The premise is based on a myth. The same myth that would be used to enact such a genocide if this “cure” ever came along as a “better” alternative. The actual reality is that transition DOES work. That it isn’t a horrible terrible fate that we should avoid at all costs, while spending our time daydreaming of appallingly unethical alternatives.
…who both take note that the is-ought divide is not resolved in the slightest, albeit not using that vocabulary. This question, rather than taking a moment to bridge the divide, straps on a pair of parachute wings and sky dives straight into it. (emphasis original)
What actually gets me angry is this:
The question is typically posed in terms of what would make things easier for us trans people. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about what would make things easier for cis people.
I’ve found that people who pose this question tend to really dislike it when I say “no”. And it tends to be used as a springboard for them to go on little rants about how I can’t possibly be satisfied with my body, how I’ll never menstruate or be pregnant, how I’ll never look quite like a cis woman, how I’ll never ever be a “real” woman, and how there’s no way I could ever actually be happy being a transsexual woman and that OBVIOUSLY everything would be better “for me” if I’d just take the stupid fucking hypothetical trans-annihilation pill!
Reed wrote that in 2012, five years ago as of writing this post. Compare it to how that exact question played out when it was posed to me on Medium…
Content Notice for extreme ableism:
However that ‘relatively’ is pretty important, because it won’t be exactly “normal”. By this I mean the average experience, before anyone hounds me in the comments about it. Transition isn’t perfect, you don’t become 100% biological female or male, you don’t sprout ovaries or testes, your voice won’t unbreak and you won’t ungrow tits. Oh and of course, in some cases, there’s sterilisation. There’s a lot of problems with medical transition which I think are great grounds on which to try and seek something better.
When it boils down to it, really the argument is that we should accept that what we have isn’t ideal.
…and how my response…
You continue to insist that medicine is “less than ideal” without explaining how or why, you just flatly assert that this is true. But I do not think so. If I am injured, I want the full breadth of medical technology to enhance my healing. If I am ill, I want the full breadth of medicine to increase the extent of my recovery. And when the rubber meets the road, I suspect this is true of most people. If you are ill, you do not want a witch doctor to stab a voodoo doll, you want a frackin doctor who knows how your body works and knows the strategies to bring you back to health.
This is why I ask why you single out estrogen. It’s medicine like any other. I see no obvious moral component, nothing to indicate “good” or “bad,” as it is simply a matter of necessity. If I didn’t need it, I wouldn’t need it, but you have not established how this would constitute a moral “good” without falling back on the naturalistic fallacy. To me it’s not any different than if I break my leg and need a cast. A cast is not a moral good or a moral evil, it is simply a tool. I take estrogen as a tool to resolve my gender dysphoria and caffeine as a tool to help me think. The equivalency [the author made] is moral, not practical. How are they morally different such that we could apply words like “ideal” which are moralistic judgements? You haven’t established this.
…was met with a litany of abuse:
Please stop being such an idiot now.
Christ woman, what even is your problem?
Stop wasting my time.
So because cisgender people do not need transition-related healthcare and have no anxiety specifically caused by their sexed attributes, trans people ought not to require it either because…
because… (second CN for extreme ableism)
I don’t care about your morality on the subject or how uncomfortable it might make you feel to accept the fact that disabled people are physically inferior, or developmentally inferior to the typical, healthy, human being.
because “fuck you,” I guess? How’s the wind on the way to the bottom of Hume’s gap?
It goes like this: Transitioning shifts several sex characteristics in a myriad of ways. A certain set of sex characteristics are more commonly held than others. Having characteristics more commonly held makes one “superior,” and if I want to be considered among them, then I ought not to shift my sex characteristics.
And so the question to blow this thinking wide open is thus: Who the fuck defines “superior“? The answer to this question was simply taken for granted, a splendid example of how cisgender supremacy is not actually the sole monopoly of cisgender people. Here was a trans person arguing that she herself was morally defective, and could not on any level engage logically with another trans person who doesn’t view themselves that way–in this case, because I myself am not presently convinced moral knowledge can even be known.
Natalie Reed was just as right five years ago as she is now:
That reaction, and that clear disapproval with my answer, is not about concern for me. It also makes it very clear that the people asking weren’t asking out of interest in my “unique perspective” or getting to understand me better, or understand trans people better. They were trying to make a point, and daydreaming about a world they’d prefer.
It was never a question, but always a thesis statement: The world has trans people, and it ought not to. I could just as easily say the world has transphobes, and it ought not to, so we should offer people pills to cure their transphobia, but what do I know? I’m a moral skeptic after all.