Solving the problem of transgender pronouns with discourse ethics

I. Background.

Discourse ethics is a metaethical theory developed by Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel that states that moral truths may be known by examining the presuppositions of discourse or debate. (A bastardised version developed by neo-feudalist anarcho-capitalist philosophaster and fascist sympathiser Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who studied, oddly enough, under Habermas, is known as argumentation ethics, and aims to demonstrate the truth of the right-libertarian conception of self-ownership, but fails by confusing the idea of a liberty right with a claim right.) The theory is as follows: When two or more people engage in discourse, there are certain norms that everyone is obliged by necessity to presuppose. For instance:

  • The participants are engaging in the same language-game.
  • No relevant argument is being suppressed or excluded by the participants.
  • The only force used is that of the superior argument.
  • All participants are motivated solely by a concern for the better argument.
  • Everyone agrees to the universal validity of the thematic claim.
  • Everyone capable of communication and action is entitled to participate.
  • Everyone is equally entitled to introduce new topics.
  • Everyone is equally entitled to express their attitudes, their needs, or their desires.
  • No claim to validity is categorically or uniquely exempt from critical evaluation through argumentation.

Following from these presuppositions is the universally binding obligation to maintain impartial judgement when engaged in discourse, which requires each participant to adopt the perspective of every other participant.

Now, an important notion in discourse ethics is that of the performative contradiction; that is, when asserting a proposition, the proposition contradicts the very presuppositions of asserting it. For instance, if I were to state that I do not exist, then that would be a performative contradiction, since in order to assert that I do not exist, I must exist. The very action of asserting that one does not exist presupposes that the one who asserts it exists.

In discourse ethics, the performative contradiction takes a central role in deducing moral rules. As an example, one of the presuppositions of discourse is that, unless the participants have already mutually consented to a fight, violence should not be used to resolve a dispute. Thus, to argue for the use of violence to resolve a dispute is a performative contradiction, and the moral rule 'Do not use violence to resolve a dispute' can be deduced.

The fundamental principle of discourse ethics may be paraphrased as such:

The only norms that may be claimed to be valid are those which have the ability to meet with the approval of everyone in a practical discourse affected by them.

This principle presupposes Habermas' conception of universalisation, again paraphrased:

Everyone who is affected by the anticipated consequences of the general observance of a given norm can accept said consequences for the satisfaction of everyone's interests, and said consequences are preferred to those of alternative possibilities.

II. The argument.

The presuppositions of discourse listed in Part I are not the only ones; rather, they are simply initial examples. By further examining the necessary obligations of discussion and referencing the initial examples, I may derive some additional presuppositions, which I will justify and use in my argument:

  • Everyone capable of communication and action must be made to feel that they are equally welcome to participate, as an atmosphere in which anyone is discouraged from participation hinders discourse.
  • Each participant's needs or desires which are necessary for their participation must be satisfied.

From all of these presuppositions, I'm pretty sure I can construct a damn fine argument.

Premise I. To make a person feel that they are not equally entitled to participate in discourse or to dismiss a person's stated needs or desires contradicts the presuppositions that everyone is equally entitled to participate in discourse and that everyone is equally entitled to express their needs and desires by implicitly establishing a hierarchy of participants and their needs and desires in opposition to the principle of universalisation. (Hence the two additional presuppositions listed in this part.)
Premise II. To use pronouns inconsistent with those preferred by a person can make them feel uncomfortable and alienated; these feelings of discomfort and alienation may make them feel that they are not equally entitled to participate in discourse. If they express the need or desire for others to use their preferred pronouns, then, given that failure to satisfy this need or desire may make them feel that they are not equally entitled to participate, this need or desire must be satisfied.
Conclusion I. To use pronouns for a person inconsistent with those preferred by that person or to argue against using any given person's preferred pronouns contradicts the presuppositions that each person must be made to feel equally entitled to discourse and that each person's desires and needs necessary for them to equally participate in discourse must be satisfied.
Conclusion II. Given that any argument against using any given person's preferred pronouns is a performative contradiction, then to use others' preferred pronouns, even if reluctantly, is a universally binding obligation.


III. Afterthoughts.

This whole argument can really be applied to any form of misgendering or invalidation, including the use of a trans person's dead name, not just in the case of preferred pronouns, and not even specifically limited to trans people.

Engaging in this argument has left me with an even more intense curiosity about Jürgen Habermas' work. As I write, I have three Habermas-related tabs open in my browser. Both his earlier work developing critical theory with the Frankfurt School and his later work on communicative rationality and pragmatics interest me.

If you find a flaw in my argument, please let me know in the comments. I'm always happy to learn from my mistakes and improve my knowledge of philosophy!

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Eva Gnostiquette

Eva Gnostiquette
Hi!
My name is Eva Gnostiquette.
I'm a multimedia artist, podcaster, game developer, programmer, and aspiring physicist and neuroscientist. I'm a Gnostic druid.
I enjoy reading, music, and various other things. I write about nerd stuff, spirituality, and conspiracy theories, alongside more mainstream politics and science.
I am also a queer trans girl of Jewish, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish descent with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, OCD, and PTSD.
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