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.

Talking about Transgenderism 2: “Ew”

Talking about Transgenderism

In the first of a series of posts on this topic, I address some things that don’t change, here.

Moral philosophers and psychologists discuss a profound influence on the act of making moral judgements, an influence which is pervasive, convincing, and irrational: the phenomenon the literature calls “disgust.” Everyone knows the experience of whiffing rotten milk or witnessing crude behavior. There are experiences that just make you say “Ew!” In some cases, we then attach moral weight to that feeling. The problem is that this powerful intuitive sense isn’t always right. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to explain why it triggers us the way it does.

Consider a series of examples:

  1. Eating bugs. Normalized in many cultures of the world and arguably good for the global environment, many of us get squeamish at the idea of ingesting creepy crawlies, even cooked.
  2. Eating synthetic meat. Scientists can, in a lab, grow a steak. Using cells of a living animal and a regenerative stimulant, scientists can recreate this dietary staple, and do so in a way that neutralizes much of the concern about cruelty to animals. But given the choice, many (even non-vegetarian) people are too turned off by the idea to give up the real thing.
  3. Eating synthetic human. Think this through. #2 can be replicated with a swab of the cells of a human cheek. No one dies, and there’s nothing fundamentally unhealthy about it, but scientists could plausibly create edible human matter. See? That’s the feeling of disgust you’re having right now. Such an idea is, and I’m carefully choosing the scientific term here, super-gross, and I’m never going to try it, but it’s hard to explain morally why it would have to be morally wrong.

So what is that phenomenon of disgust that we feel? Being overpoweringly revulsed by something feels a lot like a moral intuition, but if one tries to discern a moral principle that lies behind the feeling of disgust, or the moral facts that disgust identifies, it’s hard to pin them down. That’s because there aren’t any. Disgust alone is not a moral radar.

Disgusting Research

Jonathan Haidt, professor at New York University, has been studying disgust for decades. In The Righteous Mind (2012), Haidt identifies six different loci of moral decision making, and one of them he calls “purity.” We make moral decisions about what we think is pure. From a sense for purity comes the reaction of disgust. He and other evolutionary psychologists trace a sense of disgust back to a survival-instinct’s self-protection against pathogens, but over time it has been transferred to a moral inclination to protect the social order. Haidt has developed the “Disgust Scale,” an instrument for measuring to what degree individuals experience disgust (spoiler alert: we don’t all experience it to the same degree or at the same things). He says, curiously, that feelings of disgust are stronger in people who vote conservatively rather than liberally.

Discussing Disgust

Disgust is a good indicator of one thing – it tells you how you relate to a subject. I dislike bugs…deeply. I feel it whenever I see one in the bathroom and call out for my wife or children to come and kill it. I am perfectly willing to endure the household ridicule as long as I don’t have to touch bugs. What disgust is not a good indicator of is the moral worth of the subject. God made bugs, and for all I know, loves them. I can’t see how, but maybe. They certainly aren’t evil, even the ones that look like they crawled out of hell (to take up lodging in my bathroom). Disgust doesn’t tell me anything about the value of the thing in itself, only the nature of my relationship to it.

It’s also entirely possible to be disgusted by something that is actually morally wrong. There really is a sense of propriety that we develop, and violations of it will set off our disgust alarm. Some of this comes from the psychologically healthy, genetically encoded inclination towards empathy which makes us dislike seeing someone else being unjustly hurt. We may be disgusted by injustice. But the moral wrongfulness of someone being unjustly hurt is something that can be explained rationally on moral principles; it doesn’t rest on negative feelings alone. If anything, the negative emotions are a healthy trigger that make us investigate the moral value of a state of affairs, but they can’t be left on their own to answer the question.

Think about ways that disgust goes wrong or is inconsistent:

  1. Watching an autopsy can make one feel totally disgusted, but scientific research on cadavers has made vast contributions to medicine.
  2. It’s not that long ago in American history that people responded with disgust to interracial marriages. In certain cultures today, romantic relationships across social castes are met with disgust.
  3. People with OCD, especially fixated on cleanliness, feel disgust at things and to degrees that a healthy person would not.
  4. A 1997 study (by Rozin) of vegetarians shows higher feelings of disgust towards meat among vegetarians motivated by ethics than among those motivated by health concerns.

In sum, disgust alone can’t lay a moral foundation.

Transgenderism, Disgust, and Morality

The relevance of the phenomenon of disgust to the discussion of transgenderism is that disgust (or choose a term that suggests a milder aversion – any feeling that it must be wrong without a rational grounding) is that this feeling doesn’t get to cast a deciding vote on the issue. If, for the Christian, transgenderism is a moral issue, it can’t be a moral issue based on feelings of squeamishness. Nor can a thinker with any integrity try to craft a rationale around the feeling to justify it; any moral argument must stand independent of feelings of unease.

This is not to suggest that everyone who deems elective gender transitioning immoral is motivated by feelings without rationale (I’m going to move on in other posts to look at those rationale). But some are. For some people, the whole idea of gender transition just feels weird and wrong. I’m trying to sweep this mistake out of the way before we get to the heart of the issue.

Issues of gender and sexuality are often linked to intense feelings, social mores, guilt, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and the like, and it’s hard to get through that river of emotion to do the hard work of moral reasoning. But the truth is, when we talk about people with gender dysphoria, we’re talking about people who are made by God and loved by God, and they deserve that difficult river-crossing. We owe this slim minority of people, a fraction of one percent, the compassion it takes not to condemn them to silence and alienation, abuse and suicide. For the Christian, whatever moral conclusions we draw on the issue, it’s not enough to feel disgusted and walk away. We have to get past those feelings to ask what is really right and wrong and how we know.

“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” – Luke 7:39

Invisible Things

The gravestone of Immanuel Kant reads, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Today I visited the Getty Villa, a museum in Pacific Palisades.  On display was the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2500 year old clay cylinder Cylindercovered in cuneiform writing.  An edict of King Cyrus, it prescribes freedom of worship and the release of slaves from the conquered Babylon.  This was the king who set the Jews free from slavery to go and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4).  The cylinder is a statement from the ancient world that we have a deep intuition that life and liberty are inherently valuable.

Later, my family and I stopped by the Santa Monica beach and watched the sunset.  I turned to my son and said, “Which is older, the Cyrus Cylinder or the ocean?” He said, “The ocean.”  Then he paused hesitantly and added, “Is that right?” And for a six year old, it is right.  But for a Sunsettheologian, the answer is, “It was a tie.” The beauty of moral values deeply impressed on the human heart and the beauty of a well-painted sunset sprang from one and the same mind before the world began.  I am constantly aware of a compelling morality that makes me conscientious and an awe-inspiring beauty that leaves me breathless.  Both make me look  from the shore, across the waters, at something that seems too far away to see, yet something that I can’t stop looking for.

Muddy Morality

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This article was posted on the Download Youth Ministry blog, one of the most well-read youth ministry websites out there.

One of the most and least popular Sunday school classes I ever taught involved a lot of mud.  “Most” popular, I say, because the students always remembered it.  “Least” popular, because their parents weren’t all that happy with the results.

Early on Sunday morning, I walked out onto the church lawn with a hose.  This was one of those formal churches, where the girls where frilly dresses and the boys wore handsome suits.  On the front lawn of the church that day, I made a mud puddle.  And by “puddle,” I mean lake….

Read the rest here.

A Philosophy Lecture

ImageSo I was sitting and listening to Richard Swinburne, the Oxford professor who is perhaps the leading voice in philosophy of religion among Christians worldwide, and I was getting knots in my stomach.  I didn’t want to stand up and ask questions, because I felt like a kindergartner who had wandered into a class on nuclear physics.  But something just wasn’t sitting right with me.

Swinburne believes that morals exist, regardless of the existence of God.  God clarifies morality, and sometimes makes obligatory things that are only neutral otherwise, but morality is just a real thing that everyone knows about.

So when the nice man stood there waiting for questions, and the glazed-over undergraduates with limited experience in philosophy had nothing to say, I felt worse for him than I did about myself, and I went to the microphone.

“If there are logically necessary moral principles,” I began, “then how do you respond to the sweepingly popular atheism in the West that uses those morals to critique the canonical God, who does things like telling Abraham to kill Isaac?” To be honest, there were probably a lot of “ums” and “uhs” in there too.

What Swinburne did next was dumfounding.  He said that the early church used an analogical reading of Scripture to make the difficult texts jibe with Christian morality.  For instance, he said, citing Psalm 137, the early church took the “children of Babylon” to be our evil desires, and the “rock” against which they were to be bashed was of course Jesus.  So some texts don’t have to be interpreted literally.

So there was my answer – difficult passages of Scripture can be written off with flowery and virtually nonsensical interpretations.

That interaction brought me back for his second lecture the next night.  I wasn’t disappointed.  He talked about how it’s beneficial to be governed by Christian moral principles, like the fact that men should be the decision-makers in their marriages and homosexuals shouldn’t marry.

So I hopped up to the microphone again.  “If we believe that passages that don’t jibe with Christian morality can be interpreted analogically,” he nodded as I spoke, “and you’ve said that humanity seems to be progressing morally over time through a process of reflective equilibrium, why can’t we analogically interpret the passages that now run counter to increasingly widespread thinking in the modern Church?”

His answer was a long one, which wove its way through the correct way to analogically read Scripture to the process of canonization to Augustine to the nature of modern ethical thinking.  I’m not quite sure what the conclusion was.

But here’s the deal – on those places where I agree with Swinburne, I come to my views based on a literal reading of Scripture.  Analogically divorcing the God of the Scripture from moral principles that seem more intuitively appealing is just going to create a false, albeit nice, God.  It’s an idol of intuition.  And it’s going to be impossible to hold onto rigid, literal biblical principles on human sexuality while writing off a God who doesn’t behave the way we want him to.

Morality is determined and dictated by the God who can command Abraham to sacrifice his son.  He can tell us who to marry and who not to.  Morals cannot fundamentally exist without God, because morality is, and only is, what God makes it.  The minute we try to soften that God with flowery interpretations of Scripture, we lose God all together.  Without God, we are highly evolved puddles of primordial ooze, and morality is a joke.

Then again, admittedly, I’m not qualified to challenge a mind like Swinburne, and an hour’s lecture with brief Q&A isn’t sufficient to plumb a man’s thoughts.

Atheist Richard Dawkins “has lost”

In a provocative commentary entitled “Richard Dawkins Has Lost: meet the new atheists,” writer Theo Hobson alludes to how compelling the moral argument is.  In recent posts, I’ve presented it’s strongest formulation, and despite nitpicking and name-calling, I think the argument has spoken for itself.  Hobson observes that modern atheists are wrestling with morality: “Rejecting religion is no sure path to virtue; it is more likely to lead to complacent self-regard, or ideological arrogance.” He goes on to describe how secular humanists today have become squeamish about Dawkins’ arrogance and venom, and instead are turning to more nuanced and subdued appeals for humanism.  Once such nuance is the casual admission that atheists are still desperate to find a foundational, unifying moral ground.

 

Studies have reported that “the single biggest predictor of whether someone will be charitable is their religious participation.”

Experiments in Common Decency

 So I’m looking across the counter at her, and it’s my turn to talk, but I’m clearly not talking.  I’ve just given her $22 for a $12 purchase and I have apparently just rocked her world of simply changing twenties.  The look in her eyes is like a ob-gyn who just delivered a hermaphrodite and who is looking at the father who wants to know how his baby is.  And then it dawns on me.  I am not a nice person.

            In my head is a motherboard overload of responses, none of which would get a star next to my name in Sunday school.  I’m tempted to let loose on this woman like John McEnroe on a referee.  So I’m going to experiment in a way that no self-respecting Gen X, Boomer-hating, unsentimental, non-cheesy, sitting-in-the-corner-and-castigating cynic ever would.  I’m going to be nice.  I’m going to be Hallmark nice.  I’m going to be Miracle on 34th St. nice.  Not just once a day.  In every five minute conversation I’m going to go out of my way to compliment the person I’m talking to.  I’m going cold turkey.  Or nice turkey.

            What will be entertaining is not just the reaction to the unusual.  It will be the reaction to me doing it, which would be like the Statler and Waldorf shouting compliments at Fozzie Bear.

            I tried it with my wife today.  She was talking about…I’m not sure, I wasn’t listening, because I was concentrating so hard on something nice to say.  I remembered that I never notice when she gets her hair cut, and I looked hard at her hair, and it looked shorter than the last time I took a good hard look at it.  So when she was done with whatever it was, I said, “Hey, I like your new haircut.” And she said, “I haven’t gotten it cut in six months.  Nice new shirt, Slick.” My shirt has mustard stains on it.  From college.  So she sat there with her uncut hair, and I with my dirty shirt.  All who give and receive such compliments are the wisest.  Everywhere they are wisest.  They are the magi.