We cannot say we have fairly considered the issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ conversation without understanding and having good reasons why we embrace either the Libertarian or Essentialist view. Last week I discussed the Libertarian position. This week I’ll do the same for the Essentialist point of view.
The Essentialist’s Ontology
The opposite view to metaphysical nominalism is metaphysical realism, from which Essentialism follows. Basically, this is the view that there is a “fixedness” to reality, including what human persons are. This fixed reality is grounded in objective, absolute forms that make reality what it is.
This is the ontology of Plato and Aristotle, and the intellectual tradition developing their line of thinking. Standing in this line are Augustine, Anselm, Boethius, Bonaventure, and Aquinas. Fast-forwarding to our day, such thinkers as Alvin Plantinga and Dallas Willard stand in this lineage.
Given this “fixity” of reality, including what it is to be human, we only flourish as we live according to this reality. As I wrote in an earlier post:
[T]o define what true flourishing is for us, we must first define what a human is, for different types of things flourish in different environments.
The tulips planted in my backyard are flourishing because they are planted in the right type of soil, with the right amount of moisture, the right nutrients, and the right amount of sunlight. Yet if I dug a hole and “planted” my dog in the backyard with exactly the same conditions, needless to say, he would not flourish. Just the opposite—he would die. This is because the nature of a tulip requires one environment to flourish, but the nature of a dog requires a different environment to flourish.
So it is with humans—what type of thing we are determines the type of environment we need to flourish. So what type of thing are we—what is it to be “human”?
If the Essentialist ontology is correct, human flourishing only occurs when one understands the contours of human nature and lives within these boundaries.
Yet this means that complete freedom and autonomy to self-determine how one flourishes is a dangerous path to trod. In fact, a very different type of freedom is required to find the good life. On the Essentialist view, true, life-giving freedom is not the ability to do whatever one wishes. Rather, it is the ability to do what one should do—what is according to one’s nature and leads to flourishing.
To illustrate, consider a baseball game. Only by restricting your freedom and playing by the rules can you enjoy the game. Let’s say you are playing baseball and claim you have complete freedom to run to any base, at any time, and doing so means your team gets any number of runs you decide. This freedom to do anything you want doesn’t lead to you (or others) enjoying the game. Rather, it violates the basic rules that one must follow in order to benefit from the experience.
In the same way, if Essentialism is true, there are “rules” about how to live well that are grounded in our nature as human persons. Therefore, true freedom to find the good life is having the ability to do what one should do. Not exercising this freedom to do what one should do, and thus living contrary to one’s nature, is the reason a person fails to live a full, rich, and fulfilling life.
If the Essentialist view is true, this has important implications for the LGBTQ+ lifestyle. It means that embracing the LGBTQ+ approach to life will not be life-giving and lead to one’s flourishing. Rather, practices will be endorsed that “cut against the grain” of reality, leading to pain and frustration on the personal and cultural levels.
Therefore, for all committed to helping all people flourish, the most loving thing to do is not affirming the LGBTQ+ lifestyle and the Libertarian ontology underlying it. Rather, the most loving thing to do is gently help others understand that such an approach to life is contrary to how we flourish and thus is harmful to the individual and society.
This is similar to how we approach other practices that we believe are harmful to one’s flourishing. For instance, addiction to cigarettes has been shown to cause lung cancer, which obviously does not lead to a happy, healthy, and flourishing life. We have no problem saying so, and (gently, lovingly) helping people live within the confines of this reality by learning to say “no” to their inclination to light up.
Of course, a heavy smoker could reject his doctor’s understanding of reality as related to smoking and lung cancer. He could argue that he alone can and should define how he will flourish, and by smoking two packs of cigarettes a day he is bravely expressing his uniqueness and individuality. In fact, he may even get angry at his doctor, claiming his doctor is afraid of his desire to be self-expressive, is against equality for all views concerning the lifestyle of smoking, and is not celebrating the diversity of views on smoking.
But the smoker’s protestations do not make his doctor’s view less true. Therefore the most loving thing for his doctor to do is continue trying to help him understand his chosen lifestyle will not lead to his flourishing.
It is important to note that metaphysical realism also seems to be assumed in the biblical text, which refers to all people as created in and thus sharing the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This imago Dei defines what we are and how we flourish. For this reason, the Christian tradition has also maintained that we flourish and find the joy we seek only as we live within the boundaries inherent in our nature, as God created us.
It is clear Libertarianism and Essentialism have opposite views of what leads to human flourishing. So both can’t be true. Therefore, in order to help one another flourish, we must determine which is the correct way to understand what we are. Understanding this clarifies the questions we should be asking and discussing. It determines how the data of experience should be interpreted. And it highlights the wrong questions both sides have been focusing upon.
So how do we answer the central question, “What are we?” Next week I’ll share why I think Essentialism is the correct answer to this question.
Until then, grace and peace.
For a defense of metaphysical realism see Reinhardt Grossman’s The Existence of the World: An Introduction to Ontology, and J.P. Moreland’s Universals (or for his more basic summary see Chapter 11 of Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, and for his even more basic summary see Chapter 2 of Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult).