In my last post I identified the common ground existing among all involved in the LGBTQ+ conversation—the desire to see all people live full, rich, and meaningful lives. However, this also surfaced the ultimate point of tension: two views of how to reach this shared goal of human flourishing. Only one of these views can be correct. And we must choose wisely, in order to help everyone experience life to the fullest and foster the common good.
Therefore, it is necessary to do a deeper dive into the two underlying views of reality that lead to these differing views of what leads to the good life.
How Do We Know What Is Really Real?
Our view of what is real determines everything else we believe, the choices we make, and how we live. The study of what is real is the focus of a branch of philosophy known as “metaphysics.” I’m not referring to Eastern metaphysics, with its emphasis on what is often referred to as“New Age” thinking. Rather, I’m referring to Western metaphysics, beginning with the writings of Plato and Aristotle.
Plato and Aristotle were philosophers. This word is composed of two root words: philia (love) and sophia (wisdom—an understanding of reality giving one the ability to live well). So philosophers are those who love wisdom. In this sense, hopefully we are all philosophers!
Aristotle and Plato truly were lovers of wisdom. They looked around and saw things that were interesting. They wanted to understand these things in order to live well. They both said that philosophy begins in wonder. (Plato, through Socrates, says this in Theaetetus 155d and Aristotle in Metaphysics 982b.)
Sometimes this wonder, and investigation to understand, concerned physical things like plants and animals and planets. Now we call this study “science.” But for Plato and Aristotle (and everyone else until the Enlightenment), the study of physical things was but one branch of philosophy—“natural philosophy.” Aristotle titles his book on natural philosophy “Physics” (from the Greek work phusis—“the order of nature”).
But sometimes they observed immaterial things. For instance, they observed that all people seemed to agree stealing is wrong. They began to wonder about and try to understand the cause of these facts of the world as well. However, these were things “beyond” the physical. So they were no longer doing “physics” (studying things in nature) but “meta-physics” (studying that which is beyond the physical). This is the title of Aristotle’s book discussing the reality of things that are beyond the physical realm.
Questions about moral values, God, souls, natures, and so on are all topics of study in metaphysics. Therefore, the question of whether or not we have a shared human nature is a question of metaphysics. (More specifically it is part of a subfield of metaphysics known as ontology—the study of being [ontos is Greek for being].)
Ultimately, the differences between Essentialists and Libertarians are questions of ontology. In this and next week’s essays I’ll outline the underlying ontologies giving rise to the Libertarian and Essentialist views of human persons, and thus what constitutes human flourishing.
First, I must offer one caveat. This is a very challenging field of study, with its own technical vocabulary and more than a few complex issues. Therefore, it requires rigorous and sustained study. I will do my best to summarize the key points here, but some of the concepts are not reducible to “sound bites.” If interested in understanding this in more detail, or if my explanations are not clear, I highly suggest consulting the suggested books at the end of next week’s article.
The Libertarian Ontology
Libertarianism flows from a view known as metaphysical nominalism. On this view there are no objective, fixed, absolute realities—no fixed, unchanging “universals” (including natures). All reality is composed of particular things. Everything is in (ontological) flux. Therefore, what is true, real, good, and beautiful is determined by what a person chooses to believe is true, real, good, and beautiful—nothing else.
This was the idea promoted by the Enlightenment, and has shaped our thinking to this day, including many ways we do don’t even recognize. We truly are intellectual “children of the Enlightenment.”
Nominalism finds full expression in Nietzsche, and following him, the postmodernists who deny reality is grounded in anything outside the individual or linguistic community. This view has become very popular in universities these days.
If the nominalist ontology is correct, then what we are as humans, and how we flourish, is self-determined. We have complete freedom to define who we are and what we need to find fulfillment. From this it follows that freedom – defined as the ability and responsibility to do what we want to do and be who we want to be in order to be authentic and self-expressive—is the ultimate good.
This includes the freedom to self-identify our gender and sexual identity. Furthermore, any and all self-identifications are equally true, real, and good. And only by being brave enough to exercising this freedom of self-identification can we truly flourish. In turn, promoting unlimited freedom of self-expression is the only way to foster the common good. As the popular sayings go, “Be yourself” and “You do you”!
This also means that anything limiting one’s freedom is wrong and to be eschewed. To limit one’s freedom to fully express one’s individuality is to deny that person the right to self-identify in order to live a full, rich, and meaningful life. Such limitations, including suggestions that there are boundaries determining gender and sexual orientation, are nothing less than egregious oppression.
The Libertarian ontology is the common view we hear in our culture today (again, as children of the Enlightenment). In fact, we hear it so often that we may be tempted to assume it must be true.
Yet there is another view with a long history and many proponents—Essentialism. I’ll discuss this second view next week.
Until then, grace and peace.