Reality Is NOT a Social Construct

Human behavior is, to a large extent, socially constructed. People often act based on social norms, expectations, or habits rather than by attempting to ascertain the nature of reality itself. In that context, it is true to say that people’s perceptions of reality are socially constructed, as explained by the Thomas theorem:

Another way of looking at this concept is through W.I. Thomas’s notable Thomas theorem which states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928). That is, people’s behavior can be determined by their subjective construction of reality rather than by objective reality.

In “Praxeology: The Methodology of Austrian Economics,” Murray Rothbard defines praxeology as “the logical implications of the universal formal fact that people act, that they employ means to try to attain chosen ends.” People attempt to make decisions based on their best evaluation of the reality of the situation. If we have a good grasp of that reality, our decisions are likely to lead toward our goals; a weak grasp of reality is likely to yield disastrous decisions. Rothbard observes that “all that praxeology asserts is that the individual actor adopts goals and believes, whether erroneously or correctly, that he can arrive at them by the employment of certain means” (emphasis added). Our perception of reality may be erroneous or correct. When we fall into error, we do our best to review and correct our perception of reality in order to make better decisions in the future. This commonsense principle is reflected in the popular slogan FAFO: “FAFO is an acronym for ‘eff around and find out.’ It’s a cheeky way to tell people that if they play with fire, they might get burned—or to announce that they already have been.”

The commonsense view that our decisions are influenced by cultural and social norms is often overstated to convey the mistaken idea that there is no such thing as objective reality: reality itself is a social construct that depends on how you perceive or define it. This partly reflects a form of recklessness—abandoning the effort to investigate or distinguish true from false—sometimes because inquiry is deemed too costly and sometimes from a desire to avoid interpersonal or intergroup conflict by proclaiming that everyone is correct. It suits the egalitarian ethos of our time to declare that everyone has the right answer. I have “my truth,” and you have yours. In mathematics, teachers have been urged to be inclusive by teaching pupils that there are no right or wrong answers.

White supremacy culture shows up in math classrooms when the focus is on getting the “right” answer. . . . The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so. Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuates objectivity as well as fear of open conflict.

If everyone has different subjective perceptions of reality and it is not clear whose perceptions are correct and whose are erroneous, it often seems easiest to aver that nobody is right or wrong. If all “realities” are personally and socially constructed, then each person gets to choose his own reality, and everyone is a winner. Thus, we must accept that if anyone says he is a woman because he feels like a woman, then that is his reality. He really is a woman.

This idea that reality is a social construct prevails in public discourse and all fields of academic inquiry. Further, the fact that subjective perceptions of reality are influenced by factors such as a person’s intelligence, culture, and life experiences leads many to the mistaken conclusion that there is nothing self-evident in the world. Everything is up for debate, and the best we can do is to describe our personal “lived experiences.”

Hence comes the nostrum “do not believe your lying eyes”—after all, I may claim to see something different from what you see, and therefore, you should not believe anything exists just because you see it right there in front of you. Perceptions could be mistaken; therefore, nobody knows what is real. It would take decades of empirical peer-reviewed academic study to discover what is real.

For example, for all you know, you might not be a man but just a butterfly dreaming that you are a man. What proof do you have that you are not a butterfly? What credentials qualify you to distinguish between a man and a butterfly?

A story tells that Zhuang Zhou once dreamed he was a butterfly, flitting and fluttering around, happy, and doing as he pleased. As a butterfly, he did not know he was Zhuang Zhou. All of a sudden, he awoke and found he was Zhuang Zhou, solid and unmistakably human. But then he did not know whether he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou.

Ultimately, Zhuang Zhou must accept the evidence of his own eyes as it is not possible for a sane person persistently to lie to himself. As Rothbard observes:

Of course, a person may say that he denies the existence of self-evident principles or other established truths of the real world, but this mere saying has no epistemological validity. As Toohey pointed out, “A man may say anything he pleases, but he cannot think or do anything he pleases. He may say he saw a round square, but he cannot think he saw a round square. He may say, if he likes, that he saw a horse riding astride its own back, but we shall know what to think of him if he says it.”

Those who are currently embarked upon empirical studies to prove the existence of the ninety-nine different sexes and genders have already mapped out the spectrum:

The sex designation of your brain and body may not be as black and white as scientists have believed it to be. Instead gender may fall somewhere on a gray scale. Scientists are trying to unravel the complex biological breakdowns of gender, and as they learn more, it’s becoming more apparent there aren’t just men and women among us.

A scientific analysis of what is a woman titled “White matter microstructure in female to male transsexuals before cross-sex hormonal treatment. A diffusion tensor imaging study” informs us that “the white matter microstructure pattern in untreated FtM [female to male] transsexuals is closer to the pattern of subjects who share their gender identity (males) than those who share their biological sex (females). Our results provide evidence for an inherent difference in the brain structure of FtM transsexuals.”

This explains why Justice Ketanji Jackson, when asked “What is a woman?” replied that she is not a biologist and thus could not answer the question. If a justice of the Supreme Court publicly asserts that she does not know what a woman is, the implication is that this is a question best left to the credentialed experts.

The aim of “reality is a social construct” ideologues is to persuade ordinary people that they cannot know or understand reality without immersing themselves in top-level academic study that, conveniently, is currently under the tight control of socialists. For example, you cannot know or understand the meaning of justice until you have devoted years to studying the work of the expert on justice, John Rawls. When Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was published, Ayn Rand observed:

Let me say that I have not read and do not intend to read that book. . . . Is A Theory of Justice likely to be widely read? No. Is it likely to be influential? Yes—precisely for that reason. . . . if you want to propagate an outrageously evil idea (based on traditionally accepted doctrines), your conclusion must be brazenly clear, but your proof unintelligible. Your proof must be so tangled a mess that it will paralyze a reader’s critical faculty—a mess of evasions, equivocations, obfuscations, circumlocutions, non sequiturs, endless sentences leading nowhere, irrelevant side issues, clauses, sub-clauses and sub-sub-clauses, a meticulously lengthy proving of the obvious, and big chunks of the arbitrary thrown in as self-evident, erudite references to sciences, to pseudo-sciences, to the never-to-be-sciences, to the untraceable and the approval—all of it resting on a zero: the absence of definitions.

The same may be said of many great works that are treated as the unofficial mark of credibility for anyone who wants to comment on current affairs or political events. You must study John Maynard Keynes to discover whether there is inflation and, if so, whether inflation is good for you—do not just believe your lying wallet. You must study all eight volumes of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s General History of Africa before you can comment on whether socialism will work in Africa and study Karl Marx’s Das Kapital to form an opinion on whether communism will work in Africa if it is “done properly.”

While the complexity of science is self-evident, and acquiring a comprehensive understanding of any discipline requires many years of study, it does not follow that human beings cannot know or understand reality until a credentialed expert informs them of the “correct” view of the facts. Moreover, as David Gordon illustrates in his essay “Butler, Butt Out,” expert theorists who deny the existence of objective principles often lead their readers up the garden path:

It is often quite difficult to understand what she is saying. Here is a sample passage, by no means the most obscure in the book: “A phantasmatic sliding—what [Jacques] Lacan calls glissement—happens amid the kinds of arguments considered above. Are they even arguments? Or must we see the way that the syntax of the phantasm orders, and derails, the sequence of an argument?”

Faced with prose of this kind, the familiar words of Juvenal come to mind: Difficile est satiram non scribere.

Originally Posted at

By Mises