In my last post I concluded, “[I]n order to help one another flourish, we must determine whether Libertarianism or Essentialism 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.”
I believe much of the LGBTQ+ conversation has been sidetracked by not understanding this. As a result we have been asking the wrong questions. This has led us away from finding common ground in the LGBTQ+ conversation.
Again, I believe the calmer voices on all sides of this debate want to make progress in this discussion, resulting in a culture that helps everyone find satisfying, fulfilling, and flourishing lives. The question is how we can come together and make progress.
Making Progress Toward Common Ground
Progress is a funny thing. It is only possible if we are on the right path to begin with. So making progress sometimes means turning around and going the opposite direction.
C.S. Lewis made this observation in Mere Christianity:
Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when we do arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on.
So it is with the LGBTQ+ conversation. We will only make progress toward our shared goal of all people flourishing if we identify the right question to ask. As I’ve argued in my previous posts, the right question is, “Will I and others flourish by promoting the Libertarian or Essentialist view of what we are?”
But we have been asking the wrong questions—questions about individual freedoms and rights of self-expression. This has hampered us making progress toward finding common ground, because these are secondary questions arising only after the primary question has been answered.
So it seems making progress toward our shared goal of human flourishing requires not only going back and asking the right question, but also finding the right answer. In the last few posts I’ve outlined both the Libertarian or Essentialist answers to this question.
In what follows I’ll share why I think the Essentialist answer is the correct one, and the way for all people to find the good life. (Please be sure to read the previous posts in this series first, if you have not done so already. Otherwise much of what follows will not make sense, and can easily be taken out of context and misunderstood.)
Arguments in Favor of Essentialism
As I have thought about these issues I’ve concluded Essentialism is the most reasonable description of what we are, and therefore, it is the path to human flourishing and the common good. I have come to this conclusion because of the many reasons to embrace Substance Dualism, and the failure of arguments against it.
Substance Dualism is the view that we are essentially a unity of two things: a body and a soul. Our body is the physical dimension of who we are. Our soul is the immaterial dimension of who we are.
What a soul is turns out to be very important for this conversation. A soul, on the Substance Dualism account, is an individuated human nature. I explain this in more detail here. Here “nature” is being used as I’ve used “essence.” Therefore, Substance Dualism assumes Essentialism–that we have an essential nature that makes us what we are. It follows, therefore, that if Substance Dualism is true, Essentialism is also true.
In my series What are We? I discuss Substance Dualism in more detail and provide a number of reasons to believe it is true. In Post 1, I discuss why this issue is so important, and define Substance Dualism. In Post 2 and Post 3, I give six reasons to believe Substance Dualism is true. In Posts 4 through 8, I discuss arguments against Substance Dualism, and why these arguments don’t succeed. I also discuss two alternative views of what we are and give reasons why these views are less adequate than Substance Dualism. From this I conclude Substance Dualism is the most reasonable view. This counts as equally strong support for Essentialism.
Implications of Essentialism For Our Souls and Bodies
Substance Dualism and Essentialism have important implications for the relationship between our souls and our bodies. As I’ve discussed in this post concerning the nature of DNA, it seems that our soul (our individuated human nature) expresses itself in a range of parts, properties, and capacities, including the parts, properties, and capacities of our bodies.
This is Aristotle’s ontology, affirming the deep and fundamental relationship between “form” and “matter.” On this view matter is only what it is in light of the form (the immaterial reality—the essence of the thing), which truly “in-forms” the matter. The form makes the material thing what it is, giving it “being.”
If so, then our soul literally “informs” our body and makes it what it is. So since men and women have different physiologies (male or female genitalia, for instance), and our bodies are what they are in virtue of our souls, it follows that our souls also have these gender differences. If Aristotle is right on this (and I think he is), our souls are essentially gendered.
From this it follows that sexual orientation is fixed as well, consistent with the fixed gender of our body and soul. If this is true, each person’s flourishing (the common ground we all seek) can only be obtained by living according to this reality.
What I’ve said above is only true if Essentialism is true. If so, then the Libertarian answer is flawed, and leads to further flawed assumptions about how to promote human flourishing and the common good. In this case, making progress toward our common goal of all people living rich and fulfilling lives requires going back and adopting the Essentialist point of view.
I certainly may be wrong about Essentialism. If so, I am eager to be corrected. Many have raised objections to Essentialism. These objections should be given serious consideration. I’ll do so next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading see recommendations in my previous articles cited above.
In addition, a very important book discussing Substance Dualism has recently been published: The Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism. This is an academic discussion of the topic, containing chapters from leading scholars, both for and against. Blackwell is a well-known academic publisher that has a number of volumes on important philosophical topics in their Blackwell Companion series. They always do a good job of getting top scholars who take different positions on a topic to write chapters, and so the chapters are always detailed, careful, and fair. This book is no exception. In doing so it showcases the strength of the case that can be made for Substance Dualism. If you want to plumb the depths on this issue, The Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism is the book to read!
But is not the heart of the LGBTQ+ position an expression of Substance Dualism where the soul is of one gender and the body is of another? Using braces to change one’s teeth, for example, does not change one’s soul. Why not change the body’s gender to match the soul’s gender?
Jerry, good question. This would be possible on Plato/Descartes’ version of Substance Dualism (known as “Cartesian Dualism”). On this view the soul and body are entirely distinct and do not causally interact. What happens in the soul has no bearing on the body, and vice-versa. Therefore, one’s soul could be of one gender, and one’s body of the other gender.
However, on the Aristotelian/Thomistic form of Dualism this is impossible. The soul and body are causally linked in a deep and abiding way. Furthermore, the soul is logically prior to the body, meaning it is the soul that makes the body what it is. So on this view, if a soul is gendered male, it follows that the body must gendered male as well (since the soul makes it what it is).
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in reply.
I would be interested to hear the rationale evaluating both these positions.
But both seem too restrictive. Has not God created humans with bodies having both gender parts? Might God have created soul/body combinations which are exceptions to the norm? He made fish that fly and birds that swim.
(I posted my last comment before reading your article #9. I’ll go read it now.)
Having read article #9, my question is how does one know whether humans have the higher-order capacity to change gender or not? Or, from an Essentialist perspective, is not one of the higher-order capacities of humans that of changing gender?
My understanding of those who change gender is not that they claim to have changed the gender of their soul but only their body. No one seems to be saying that immaterial gender change is a higher-order capacity of humans. Or are they?
How would you respond to someone who said they changed the gender of their soul by their own choice?
Jerry, I think the question only arises if you begin by assuming a Cartesian view of soul-body relationship, in which the soul and body are superficially related. But on the Aristotelian view, the body is only what it is (including the gender it is) because the soul has caused it to exhibit these features (the body gets its being from the soul, which is ontologically prior to the body). So the only way a male gendered body even comes to be is if a male-gendered soul exists (ontologically) prior to that body and causes it to be formed as it is.
As for the later part of your post, it would only be possible for one to change the gender of their soul by their own choice if there is no essential nature which makes us what we are, and thus we can determine this by choice. (On the Essentialist view what we are cannot be changed–that what it means for it to be essential.) So this (the claim made in your last paragraph) begs the question against Essentialism, by simply assuming a Libertarian ontology is correct, and therefore people can cause such a change by choice alone.