Talking about Transgenderism 4: Biology and Morality

Talking about Transgenderism

Earlier in this thread, I wrote that there are some things for Christians that don’t change, here.

Then I wrote about feelings of squeamishness and their role in moral thinking, here.

Then I wrote about some of the key biblical texts that come up in conversations about gender, here.

A Very Bad Argument

For my final (I think) post about transgenderism, I want to talk about science and morality. I’m going to start by pointing out a bad argument that conservatives and liberals use with equal frequency, and I’d like to disarm both of them. I’ll name it and then I’ll explain it.

It’s called the naturalistic fallacy.

Put simply, you can’t argue from the biological to the moral. What occurs naturally in the world is never essentially good by virtue of it being natural. The fact that someone is born in a certain way or with certain unchosen inclinations does not make that state or those inclinations good or even morally permissible.

We are born with all kinds of inclinations that are blatantly bad. We can be born with an inclination to addiction or to anger. We can be born with mental disorders and physical abnormalities. Anyone arguing that the state of a person at birth (usually with a dumb catchphrase like, “God don’t make junk”), doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Babies can be born with heart defects that kill them a few hours after they’re born. If that which is natural is intended by God, then God has a sick sense of humor.

We use surgery, medicine, and counseling to correct all kinds of natural things. Cleft palates, heart defects, crooked teeth, wisdom teeth, inflamed appendices, hermaphroditism, vision problems, inclinations to depression, and hundreds of other problems with which one can be born are things that we correct. Recommending that a pregnant woman eat healthy is itself an attempt to control the natural and the impacts of nature. The natural is not the moral. Our biology isn’t inherently good.

Morality is the control of natural inclinations. That which is most praiseworthy in moral thinking is that which requires self-discipline. When someone does something good because they get a personal thrill out of it, simply for the sake of their own happiness, we usually don’t admire them quite so much as someone who vigorously restrains destructive impulses and practices the good to make it a habit. The moral is the control of the natural.

So…

The liberal inclination to say that sexual inclinations that are natural, unchosen, and consensual must therefore be good or even permissible is nonsense. This applies to transgenderism, gay marriage, and every other gender or sexual expression. If a behavior is found to be permissible or good, it must be on grounds other than biology and nature.

The conservative inclination to say that the natural order shows that God means for certain things to be a certain way is also ignorant. If surgery can be used to correct cosmetic issues like crooked teeth, or to enact lifesaving procedures like heart surgery, or to alter biological issues related to gender like hermaphroditism, and if you want to be logically consistent, you can’t say that there is a special category of natural things that can’t be medically corrected. (Furthermore, the natural order itself doesn’t show that God created a simple gender binary – there are species in the animal kingdom that naturally change genders and can reproduce as male or female.)

Nature doesn’t determine morality. Not at all. Give this argument up. I’m tired of hearing it.

The Morality of Transgenderism: Three Options

One researcher has come up with three helpful options for talking about the science and morality of transgenderism, and it doesn’t require the naturalistic fallacy.

First, perhaps the inclination to change one’s gender is a sin. Though the biblical case isn’t clear here, some have tried to argue that physical gender as it appears (as when the doctor says, “It’s a boy!”) is tied irrevocably to identity, and our identity is connected to the image of God, and to reject our God-formed identity is to reject God’s will. The solution is to repent, bear one’s cross, and fight with the discontent and desires.

Second, perhaps gender dysphoria – the feelings of discontent with one’s own gender – is a mental illness. Some sort of confusion, be it genetic, brought about through hormone imbalances, or caused by painful life experiences, makes people dislike their gender. The solution is to seek counseling and wrestle with the feelings to find mental peace.

Third, perhaps transgenderism is part of a diversity of life, without moral implications. The approach here is to accept it.

The Non-Conclusion and the Conclusion

I’m not going to choose for you. I don’t think the Bible clearly answers this one. I don’t think there has been sufficient research into genetics, neurology, psychology, and endocrinology to explain exactly where transgenderism comes from. I don’t think there’s been sufficient research into gender transitioning to talk meaningfully about the help or damage that it does. Sectors of American society have been too eager to condemn change, and others have been too eager to endorse and enforce change.

The way Christian morality works, in broad brush strokes, has three steps:

  1. If God speaks to a subject, his will is definitive.
  2. If there is not clear direction from God, Christians seek to act from virtuous motives, doing what Jesus would do, with love governing the virtues. The implications of the Scriptures are applied as best they can be discerned.
  3. With all else equal, Christians seek to maximize kindness to others and limit harm, living to draw attention to Jesus.

On the issue of transgenderism, I personally am stuck in #2. If transgenderism is a case of biology not jibing with its design, it is analogous to hermaphroditism. If it is a case of psychological woundedness, it is analogous to depression.

What I am certain of, which is exactly where I started this series of posts, is that when religious people rise up to castigate and cast out people who don’t fit social norms and expectations, Jesus stands beside the rejected to defy the religious. The Church should have always been a place of such overwhelming love that outsiders would have known it to be a safe place. Instead, it has been a bastion of Pharisees eager to condemn. If a transgender person can’t walk down the center aisle of a church and worship in the front row, there’s something wrong with the church, not with the person standing outside its doors.

Brothers and sisters, love one another, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves knows God, and those who don’t love don’t know God.

Death by Explanation

ImageScientists can describe to you the project of finding a “universal theory,” something that explains the whole of existence in its most basic terms.  This generally involves some form of reductionism, usually collapsing the three great sciences into one another.  Biology is to be explained by chemistry, and chemistry is to be explained by physics.  In other words, the activity of our hearts and minds are the firings of neurons and the swirling of chemicals.  Those chemicals are fundamentally the interactions of molecules, which are the interactions of atoms, which are the interactions of protons, neutrons, electrons.  If you slice with a thinner razor, you come to quarks and leptons and bosons.  The universal theory aims at getting to the center of these Russian dolls and explaining how the little one, and the forces that hold them together, governs everything else.

This is a real effort in the sciences.  Darwinism is the greatest reductionist theory in existence, an alternative to a Designer.  Next, scientists are looking for a source for the big bang, trying to come up with a viable alternative to a Creator.  This is a real effort in the sciences – and it really isn’t going to work.

Renee Descartes tried to do the same thing with the mental world.  He tried to break thought down into its smallest, most basic parts.  If he imagined that the world around him didn’t exist, imagined even that the parts of his body didn’t exist, that with which he ultimately left was “I think therefore I am.” The criticism of his theory has always been, “Hey, where did this ‘I’ come from?  What’s the ‘I’ that’s doing the thinking?” In other words, you can’t really separate thinking from the person who is doing it, so it’s hard to say what the tiniest little atom is in the sequence of mental events.  You could try saying, “Thinking happens,” but that doesn’t really explain the fact that thinking is self-conscious.  Our thoughts are part of a bigger story, a narrative, and no one thought can be separated out by itself from the others.  Thoughts can’t be broken into atoms.

The same thing is true in the physical sciences.  The problem with atomistic theory is that nothing in the real world can be dissected down to constituent parts that are actually separated from one another.  The atoms are holding hands.  Physics is a narrative.  The fact that some atoms make up the point where my pencil ends and others make up the point where the paper begins constitutes a story about the atoms that the individual atoms can’t tell on their own.

Ultimately, materialistic, atheistic scientific efforts will keep hacking away at life looking for its smallest unit.  But science is trying to grab hold of mercury.  What it’s trying to contain will always slip away.  Atoms will never by themselves tell the story of existence.  The whole narrative is bigger than the sum of its parts.

The scientific reduction of biology into chemistry and physics tells us as much about life as dissection tells us about what it feels like to fall in love.