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A social construct is a concept that has meaning only because we collectively choose to give it meaning. The choice need not be a conscious or deliberate one. A relatively pure example would be something that has essentially no natural meaning, like language. The socially constructed nature of language should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered speakers of another language. No word has any inherent meaning, and a language could easily arise that does not share a single word in common with English. However, not everything about language is socially constructed. Our ability to make certain noises, and our innate disposition to learn our native language with relative ease, are the products of our biology and existed prior to human socialization.

Some phenomena, like language, are obviously social constructs. Some phenomena, like the length of a day, are obviously not social constructs. Other cases are more nuanced. Is gender a social construct? Some feminists have argued that the only natural part of gender is the basic anatomical differences between men and women. Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, claimed that the maternal instinct is a product of human culture. This is surely too extreme. However, a good deal about gender is clearly socially constructed. Norms of men's and women's clothing vary substantially from one society to another, and are obviously socially constructed, although clothing is sometimes designed differently to account for anatomical differences.

God(s) and Nature

Understanding social constructs is important because what is socially constructed can be changed. This may not have been obvious to ancient societies that thought all of their norms came from divine revelation. However, the substantial variation among the world's religions should be enough, without more, to give us reason to doubt that our own religion is the correct one. Furthermore, even ideas that are common to most or all religions are not immune from criticism. Religion has long been an important tool that humans have used to control each other, and tends to reflect the thinking of those in power. For instance, many monarchs throughout history have claimed to be either descendants of, or installed in power by, a deity.

As religious people see nature as created and governed by the divine, they often use the term nature in a way that is confusing to those who do not accept their religious beliefs. For instance, conservatives of many faiths denounce homosexuality as unnatural. If we understand nature in a scientific way, this makes no sense. Natural is sometimes used in contrast with artificial, as when we say that television is not natural. This cannot be what opponents of homosexuality are referring to. Unless a pastor abstains from all use of technology (and the Amish practice of relying only on technology available in Biblical times does not count), he cannot mean that homosexuality is wrong because it is artificial. The claim is further undermined by the growing number of animal species in which homosexuality has been observed and evidence that homosexuality exists across all cultures.

The most sensible reading of the claim that homosexuality is unnatural is something like the following. (While this argument is based on the Bible, it could easily be modified to accommodate a different religious tradition.) Here, unnatural is interpreted as "against natural law."

1.  Homosexuality is denounced throughout the Bible.
2.  The Bible is the word of God.
3.  God is the author of nature.
4.  Thus, God's law is natural law.
5.  Thus, homosexuality is against natural law.

The argument is coherent enough in this form, but why should we care that the Bible condemns homosexuality? The Bible states that witches should be put to death. Witches do not exist. The Bible expressly permits slavery and on several occasions describes the Israelites following God's orders to commit genocide. The New Testament softens some of the harshness of the Old Testament, but also introduces the idea that those who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus face eternal torture. It would be hard to find a less credible source of morality that a substantial number of people take seriously.

With religion out of the picture as a justification, the choices society makes are revealed to be its own. Unless we are prepared to say that morality is whatever society says it is, these choices are subject to moral scrutiny.

Morality and Necessity

It is often said that ought implies can. This means that morality is only about matters that are within our control. For instance, it makes no sense to say that a person is morally obligated to live forever, though a person might have a moral obligation to avoid certain acts likely to substantially shorten his or her life. But the maxim that ought implies can only makes sense given a certain level of understanding of what is possible. For instance, someone who wrongly believes that all of his actions are beyond his control might conclude that he is untouched by morality. Such would be the situation of the society that believes all of its laws come directly from a divine source, and that it is not free to change them. This easy out cannot be the right answer. We cannot simply say that our laws are inevitable without verifying that this is true.

Far from the radical tool of postmodernists, who regard nearly everything as a social construct, the concept of a social construct might actually seem too conservative, especially in light of technological advances. For instance, many diseases that once ravaged humanity have been brought under control and some have been eradicated. Smallpox was not a social construct, but human ingenuity has allowed us to basically eliminate it. One who firmly believes that it is wrong to tamper with nature might think that eliminating smallpox was a moral error, but humanity is clearly better off without it.

The Hard Question

Once we have concluded that something is a social construct, or perhaps more to the point, that it is within human control, we must face the hard moral question. Social constructs can be good or bad. So can nature, at least as to the parts that we have some control over. There is growing evidence, for instance, that humans are causing significant change to the earth's climate. This is not inevitable. The nature of the changes is so catastrophic that there can be little sensible debate about whether human caused climate change is something we ought to do something about. But many cases will not be so obvious. Nature is sometimes beneficial and sometimes harmful. A certain level of caution is warranted, especially with changes that will not be easy to reverse, such as the eradication of a species. However, there are cases in which it is right to alter nature, such as the eradication of a deadly virus that has no discernible effect on the ecosystem other than killing humans. In some cases, the consequences of not acting are so dire that the conservative approach may not be the cautious one.

With regard to social phenomena, we must ask their origin, nature, and, if they are not inevitable, their desirability. We must also take note that what was once inevitable may cease to be inevitable as technology advances. For instance, now that sex is no longer the only way to conceive a child, it at least makes sense to ask whether alternatives such as in vitro fertilization are better. Opposing in vitro fertilization because it is unnatural makes no sense. A great deal of what we already do is unnatural. On the other hand, we should not swear our blind allegiance to technology. Just because we can now genetically engineer crops to withstand large amounts of pesticide doesn't mean we should. Sometimes, there is a good reason why humanity has done something a certain way since time immemorial. Other times, it is because of a lack of ingenuity, or because alternatives have only recently become available.

Humans have a great deal of ingenuity. Ingenuity is not uniquely human, but we have a degree of it that no other species is known to have. We are also risk takers by nature, doing things that other animals would never do. For instance, humans are perhaps the only species to take mind-altering drugs just to experience altered states that would induce panic in other animals. (It is surely the bane of the drug warriors that our propensity to use and abuse mind altering drugs is one of the defining characteristics of humanity. For that matter, in important respects, drug abuse is itself a social construct, as drugs do not naturally have proper or improper uses. If occasional recreational use of cannabis or MDMA is abuse, why is occasional recreational use of ethanol not?)

Sometimes, we take unjustifiable risks. Maybe this is the price of our ingenuity; we can be too curious for our own good. We are the only species known to willfully defy our nature. This may be both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Social constructs, and our ability to change them, are an important part of what makes us what we are.
Essay I wrote in 2014 about what social constructs are and why they matter.
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Graeystone Featured By Owner Jan 3, 2017
Witches do not exist.
DarkVikingMistress Featured By Owner Edited Dec 31, 2016  Student Writer
I don't believe gender is socially constructed. Gender expression is promoted by bodily fluids like hormones and bodily functions of men and women which makes it partly biologically grounded. Women will be more likely to lean to certain tasks which are nuturing or creative and negotiative which is important when you are the main carer of children. Men will be more likely to be attracted to high action activities, competition and oneupsmanship which is important when trying to attract the fussier sex when it comes to sexual selection and also to appear as a suitable provider for a woman's children.

That and testorone and estrogen have been shown to promote certain specific patterns of behaviour. Testorone promotes risk taking, aggressiveness and competitiveness. Estrogen promotes cautiousness and a nurturing, sociable nature. It's not an accident that women are generally born with high estrogen levels and men with high testorone levels. Also both need high levels of their gender specific hormone to be healthy and function well. Even transmen and women have to go on hormones so they transition and don't feel depressed or suicidal anymore.

I don't think that biology is all there is to it but it has quite an effect on how we act and it shouldn't be cast aside in favour of a totally socially constructed gender theory.
agnosticdragon Featured By Owner Dec 31, 2016
I agree with you that a lot of gender is biological. The question is how society should deal with this. Historically, the answer was an unabashedly male dominated society where women were viewed as weak and in need of protection. Society is evolving in the direction of equal opportunity, though I do not think we are there yet. I will have more to say on how nature shapes morality, but I gave some reasons above for why we should not just accept nature as the guide for our behavior.
DarkVikingMistress Featured By Owner Edited Dec 31, 2016  Student Writer
I don't believe it means that we should act on our worse nature. I just think we need to be aware of the reality. As humans we do have strong biological drives but they can be
channeled into positive things. Like men often take risks in a good way to save people in risky situations and women use their nuturing sides to heal people emotionally.

I think we just need to be aware of it, and then work with it so we can acheive the best means in a society. I think that we need to use psychological and psychiatric means also to tame the extreme sides of the male and female reality ie. Too much risk taking and violence on the male side and too much emotion and caution on the female side. And we need to show people positive ways to funnel these influences. However in order to do this we have to debate those who believe gender is a complete social construct. Because gender being a social construct still being taught widely in schools and other places means we haven't accepted the reality to begin with. That's my main problem with it.
PyrrhusiVictoria Featured By Owner Jan 1, 2017  Hobbyist General Artist
The way I think of it is like this - "gender identity", which to say the male or female identity one possesses, is purely a neurological and chemically-induced phenomena. "Gender roles", which is to say the boundaries of acceptable roles and behaviors for each sex, this is something that is a social construct, promoted in part by evolutionary trends.
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