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Should the gov't care what's in my pants?
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Someone over at philosophy is preparing to debate the Against side in a debate on the permissibility of gay marriage, in the context of a first-year ethics class, so they asked for some arguments against gay marriage.

The responses are interesting—it’s a bunch of people who are pretty much for gay marriage, who are steeped in the proper practices of rational argument and critical thinking, trying to find the best arguments against. If nothing else, it’s a good exercise in understanding what one is up against.

One comment in particular caught my eye, as one of the (implicit) arguments it made was one that I hadn’t heard before but makes a lot of sense:
Privacy issues: does the government have the right to categorize and distinguish between its citizens with regard to sex? Does the government have the right to even know my sex? Think about what the government would have to do to find out my sex if I refused to tell them (and for some reason they can’t find my birth certificate), and ask yourself if those actions are consistent with an ethical society.
I put the question to you: what good reasons does the government have to know a citizen’s sex (let alone gender)? Are there good logistical, legal, or moral reasons to have that datum on file?

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I can think of lots of good reasons for knowing this information in the aggregate -- the government funds some services that are gender-specific, especially in health.

In practice, you can't have aggregate data without authenticated individual data.

But it's interesting. I know someone who deals with census stats for the US federal government. I'll ask her.

As far as I know, though, it's entirely possible to obtain authenticated aggregate data through procedures that mask the individual from the data-gathering entity. It's done in sensitive-data surveys all the time.

So, I don't see a problem reconciling the need for aggregate census data involving a person's sex and veiling that same person's sex from the eyes of the government.

The best argument I could think of stemmed from this line of thought, though. Aggregate data is necessary for a number of reasons for setting policy involving health. Now, what if it were necessary to be able to legislate a health law for legitimate medical reasons based on the sex of a person?

I would think that the government wouldn't need to know which citizens where of what sex to do this.

Still, I can vaguely imagine some need for a registry of who has received treatment and who has not, or whatever is at issue. Even then, though, that would sound, to me, like an implicit argument for the government having enforced and guaranteed separation of different databases on individual citizens, like they're already supposed to.

It's done in sensitive-data surveys all the time

Yeah, I know. I was really reaching there.

I wonder what the initial justification for asking was. Perhaps conscription?

Or maybe it is part of the human impulse to want to categorize people by sex. When we meet someone whose sex/gender we can't figure out, there's a little bit of panic and confusion.

Fascinating as this line of argument is, I'm not sure it works.

Let's say the state acknowledges that sex is private information, not be demanded unless required -- for instance, a driver's license might require you to describe yourself, and sex/gender is part of the description.

And let's also say that we live under a government that decrees that marriage is between a man or a woman. It follows that in order to obtain the license, I have to disclose my sex. No contradiction there.

If we lived in such a state, yes.

However, assuming that we didn't, it would then be necessary for the state to assure the separation of that data from its data on citizens, the same way that health records are mandated to be separate from our tax records in Canada. To accomplish this with driver's licenses would require a body established to manage driver's licenses that is separate from the government (ie, cannot enact legislation) and cannot share their data with the government.

That doesn't work if you consider a driver's license to be government identification, though... Not sure how to counter that. I suppose it could be argued that they don't function that way now anyway, as the combination of name+address doesn't guarantee a 1:1 mapping to citizens anyway.

I don't understand your reply -- I guess I wasn't clear.

I wasn't making an argument about driver's licenses or sharing databases. That was an example of giving up private personal information to obtain specific licenses from the government. They may share or not share that information with others.

In other words, the idea that they don't normally have a right to know what's in my pants, while interesting, isn't at issue with gay marriage.

It's whether they have the right to know in the specific case of granting a marriage license. And then we're back to square one.

It's whether they have the right to know in the specific case of granting a marriage license. And then we're back to square one.

In this case, there's no reason for the government to know except that they've mandated that it be so. Unlike with a driver's license, a marrage license has no need for sex as an identifying characteristic for it to be a useful document. A driver's license (it could be argued) requires the sex of the citizen to be specified for identification purposes and is useless without this datum. A marriage license is not functionally impeded if the sex of the signatories is somehow smudged beyond recognition.

(As for the databases tangent above, I thought you were suggesting that, regardless of what other ways the gov't may vow to not find out one's sex, they'd have to for some things like driver's licenses and therefore not be able to avoid finding out.)

Ah... I think I was zeroing in on gay marriage, but you're interested in the general question of recording information about sex.

My gut reaction to this was, "Of course they need to know that. They need to know it because..." and then I came up blank.

I can think of reasons they'd need the statistical information of sex ratios, but that could be gathered on the Census- no need there for information on the sex of individuals.


I concur. None of their business what plumbing is in my pants, although the statistical pants of the nation are relevant for things like health care and social program planning.

It follows that it's none of the government's business what plumbing is contained within the pants of my partners, be we married or not.

"the statistical pants of the nation"

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