Sex, Vagueness, and the Olympics

Hypatia 30 (4):708-724 (2015)
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Sex determines much about one's life, but what determines one's sex? The answer is complicated and incomplete: on close examination, ordinary notions of female and male are vague. In 2012, the International Olympic Committee further specified what they mean by woman in response to questions about who, exactly, is eligible to compete in women's Olympic events. I argue, first, that their stipulation is evidence that the use of vague terms is better described by semantic approaches to vagueness than by epistemic approaches. In addition, the IOC's 2012 stipulation was made with sensitivity to its practical consequences. Linguistic actions often have morally relevant consequences, and I contend that, other things equal, we should adopt theories about language that acknowledge the responsibility we bear for what we say. Taking vagueness to be an epistemic phenomenon precludes the sense of agency needed for moral responsibility; taking it to be semantic does not. Thus I advance two arguments for semantic approaches to vagueness, as against epistemic approaches: one descriptive and one normative.

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Helen Daly
Colorado College


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