Wednesday, May 23, 2012

SOME THOUGHTS ON GENDER AND WHETHER IT IS RIGHT TO CHANGE IT

             There has been a lot of attention given, recently, to the issue of gender transformation. For example, men change their bodies to become women, and vice versa. As such, it is good to ask the question, is it morally acceptable to change one’s gender? However, in order to answer this question, we need to ask, at least, four preliminary questions. First of all, what is gender? Secondly, Is it actually possible to change gender? Thirdly, is this a question for the natural sciences, specifically biology and the medical sciences, or is it a question for moral philosophy? The final question that needs to be asked, prior to any discussion of the morality of gender changing, is, What is the foundation for human morality? In this article I will address each of these questions in turn, and will finish with an argument which seems to demonstrate that changing one’s gender is immoral. There are other issues that, though not essential to the topic that we will consider, are connected. For example, What if a person was born male, but “feels” like a woman, and, upon reaching an age where sexuality becomes important, is sexually attracted to men? In this case, should that person change their gender so as to be, physically, a woman? The question could be asked of a person who was born a female but “feels” like a man, and, upon reaching an age where sexuality becomes important, is sexually attracted to women. What about a person who is born with the sexual equipment, or close enough, of both genders? As becomes immediately obvious, this question is a delicate question, as it concerns the, so-called, self-identity of the person who is intimately concerned with this question. Furthermore, it is an issue that many people would prefer to avoid discussing. We will not avoid discussion, but will take this question head-on.

What is Gender?
            We must, first of all, answer the question, What is Gender? The term gender is synonymous with the term sex. Though most people know what sex is, we will quote the definition given by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary “either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male especially on the basis of their reproductive organs and structures.”[1] Gender, or sex, seems to be primarily determined by examining the physical constitution of any given living being that is capable of reproduction. Gender is not specific to the human race; rather, anything that can be classed under the genus animal, regardless of their species, can also be classified as either male or female. The classification of male or female does not depend upon how they act, feel, or interact with other animals of their species. Rather, the classification is based upon their genitalia – their physical reproductive organs. It does seem that those physical characteristics that decide whether or not an animal (I include humans under the genus animal, with the difference, rational.) is male or female are more than simple accidents (an accident is that which inheres or exists only in a substance. An accident cannot exist on its own. Anything that is not essential to the nature of X is accidental to X.) because they seem to be more essential to one’s personal identity than the other physical characteristics. For example, a eunuch, even when he has been entirely emasculated, would still be considered male. A male dog, or cow, or any other domesticated animal, which has been castrated, is still considered, even without its genitalia, to be a male. However, if it was possible to replace entirely the male genitalia, by female genitalia, then would the animal in question have changed gender? I would argue that gender is not based upon the bodily characteristics of any given animal, but upon its DNA. That is to say, its gender is determined by its DNA, and it is classified, by us, based upon physical observation of its genitalia. Now, DNA is as accidental to human nature as are the bodily or physical attributes (the genitalia). However, it seems that the only way to truly change one’s gender one must, not simply change the genitalia, but change the DNA which is the reason why one has such genitalia. This would explain why a eunuch is still a male, and why a castrated male dog is still considered a male dog.

 There are some concerns that complicate this question, at least when it comes to humans, (though I am of the impression that this can also be applied to any other animal) namely, the character of the animal in question also seems to come into the picture. Furthermore, for humans (and I am of the impression that this is unique to humans, due to their rational nature) self-identity, and social awareness also seem to come into the picture. For example, a man, who sees himself as a man, has always been treated as a man, who grew up male, even if he were kidnapped, and had all of his male genitalia removed, and was physically transformed into a woman, including all of the appropriate genitalia, would still, I assume, consider himself a man. In which case he would most likely be very confused and experience an identity crisis. These considerations seem to complicate our ability to define gender.

In order to clear the waters a little bit, I would suggest that, we concentrate our attention primarily on rational animals. Before we finish our consideration of what gender is, we should answer some of the preceding questions. It seems, first of all, that the character of a rational animal (and for that matter any animal, as can be seen especially with dogs and cats) is formed, not so much by its physical constitution, but rather by its social surroundings. This has been proved time and time again by psychology. It is almost a law of social psychology, that the first five years of any child’s life are the most important years for the formation of that child’s character. The child’s character will be formed, as much by verbal and intentional actions towards it, as by non-verbal and unintentional actions towards it. The child’s character is formed, not only by its social surroundings, but also by its reactions to its surroundings, both social and physical. Therefore, I would argue, that the character of a child has nothing to do with its gender.[2] Secondly, self-identity is an element of the character of the rational animal in question. It has to do with how the human being in question views him/herself. This, again, is formed partially through social awareness (how society views the person in question and how that person reacts to the perception of its immediate society.), and partially through its developing character. Most human beings experience a form of identity crisis, at least twice in their lives. The first happens when their bodies change, at puberty, allowing them to become sexually active. The second happens when their bodies begin losing the strength and beauty that they once had. So, it seems that self-identity and character are not so much dependent upon the physical constitution of the person in question,[3] as upon their social surroundings and their reactions to these surroundings.

Therefore, in light of these observations, it seems that we can persist in the claim that gender is the classification, for reproductive purposes, of any given animal which is determined by the physical constitution of the animal in question, based upon its reproductive organs. The physical constitution of the animal is determined by its DNA, therefore, gender is, properly, based upon DNA. This brings us to our second question.

Is it actually possible to change gender?

            We defined gender as the classification, for reproductive purposes, of any given animal which is determined by the physical constitution of the animal in question, based upon its reproductive organs. Now, it seems that, if gender is based only upon accidental aspects of human nature (for example, certain bodily accidents, that is, bodily members or characteristics), then it is possible to change genders. Furthermore, if gender is only based on the body, matter, or, what seems to be the most essential part of the matter of human beings, the DNA of the human being, then, it would appear, it is possible to change genders. If, on the other hand, gender is intrinsic, or essential, to the rational form of the human being, then it is impossible to change genders without changing the form. It seems that gender cannot, in any way, be based upon the form of the human being. If gender is based on the rational form, which combined with determinate matter is that form/matter composite which we define as a rational animal, then, all human beings would be one gender. For example, if the rational form was male, then anything possessed of a rational form would be male. Therefore, due to the fact that some humans are male and some humans are female, gender is not based upon the rational form.

            If gender is not based on the rational form, then it is based upon the matter of that form/matter composite which we call a human being. Therefore, gender is entirely based upon the body or matter of the human being. Gender is based, not, however, physical organs of the human body, but upon the DNA, as we established earlier. We have determined that gender is based upon the physical constitution of the animal in question, which is based upon its DNA, and, therefore, that it is possible, at least in theory, to change genders. The question that we must direct ourselves to is, is it morally right to change genders? We must ask, first of all is the question of changing genders a question that should be answered by the natural sciences, or by moral philosophy?

Is this a Question for the Natural Sciences or for Moral Philosophy?

            The natural science that is concerned with the change of gender is Biology, which is the study of living beings. The practical sciences, which are guided by Biology, and which are concerned with the change of gender are the medical and surgical sciences and practices. Moral Philosophy is concerned with what is normative, or morally right and wrong. As such, insomuch as the question that we ask is, “Is it possible to change the body parts, thus changing the gender, of a human being?” we are in the domain of the natural sciences and the practical arts that are directly related to them.

            However, insomuch as we ask the question, “It is morally right, or acceptable, to change one’s gender?” we are in the domain of Moral Philosophy. In order, however, to properly answer any moral question, we need to find the foundation upon which such an answer will be based. This brings us to the last question we must ask before we ask whether it is right or wrong to change one’s gender, “What is the foundation of human morality?”

What is the Foundation of Human Morality?

            The foundation for human morality will be determined, first of all, by our metaphysics. Are there common natures by which we can both predict what will happen in the case of inanimate objects, for example, if we throw an egg against a window, and prescribe what X should do, in the case of animate entities, for example, if a tiger is hungry is should go hunting? A common argument, given by extreme realists, is that without common natures it is impossible to engage in scientific inquiry. That is, it is impossible to predict, for example, to predict what will happen when we let a ball roll down a hill running into a building, if the ball does not have a nature that is the same, or at least similar, to other objects. If there is such a common nature, then, not only can we predict what will happen in the case of inanimate objects, but we can also prescribe what animate entities should do. The “should” is a normative affirmation, which, when it comes to rational animals, is a part of the domain of moral philosophy.

            Perhaps it would help if we considered this in a different way. Everything that exists, that has a material component, also possesses a formal component. The formal component is that which makes X what it is. The form of X can also be called the nature of X. The nature of X is defined as the essence of X when we consider it according to its proper function.[4] The proper function of a being is that which distinguishes it from all other beings of the same genus. Humans are, as I mentioned above, included in the genus animal. Animal, by definition, is a living being, composed of matter and form, which is the source of its own movement. Humans fit that description, therefore, they are animals. A species, by definition, is genus plus the specific difference (the specific difference is that which distinguishes the particular species from all other particular species that fall under the same genus). That which distinguishes Humans, from all other animals is its capacity for rational thought. Therefore, human nature is, by definition, rational animal, where rational is the specific difference and animal is the genus. Now, the end of a thing is determined by its nature, because, the end is that towards which a thing tends.[5] Any given X tends towards its own good. For example, the nature of a refrigerator is to preserve food by the maintenance of a certain temperature. A good refrigerator is one which maintains that temperature, thus preserving the food which is stored within it.[6] The end of any X is its own good. That is to say, the good of X is related to the end of X. An X is good insomuch as it attains its proper end. According to Edward Feser, human morality is simply a particular case of the good.[7] Human morality is, quite simply, the application of the principles we have just discussed, to human nature. The general notion of the good describes the good as being that which is desirable for itself, and that towards which each thing tends, in accordance with its nature. For example, though money is good, it is not the good, as it is good only in relation to some further good that we desire. Therefore, the end of any X is its good, and any X is good insomuch as it attains its proper end. The end, as we noted above, of any X is based upon its nature. Therefore, human morality is based upon its proper nature – which is, rational animal.

            Now, if anything is good insomuch as it attains its proper end, and if its end is based upon its nature, then, humans are good, insomuch as they are perfectly human. Humans are rational animals; that which distinguishes them from all other animals is the fact that they are rational. Therefore, human actions are morally right insomuch as they are rational. In fact, those actions which humans perform, which are no different from the actions of irrational animals, such as reproduction and defecating, can still be judged as moral or immoral insomuch as they are done rationally, or irrational. Therefore, though it is morally neutral for a dog to defecate in the park, even though there are children playing, it is morally wrong for a human to defecate in the park when there are children playing.

            Concerning human morality, Edward Feser has this to say, “practical reason is directed by nature towards the pursuit of what the intellect perceives as good; what is in fact good is the realization or fulfillment of the various ends inherent in human nature; and thus a rational person will perceive this and, accordingly, direct his or her actions towards the realization or fulfillment of those ends. In this sense, good action is just that which is ‘in accord with reason’ (ST I-II.21.1; cf. ST I-II.90.1), and the moral skeptic’s question ‘Why should I do what is good?’ has an obvious answer: because to be rational just is (in part) to do what is good, to fulfill the ends set for us by nature.”[8] Human morality, therefore, is based upon practical reason, applied to a situation. The moral human is that person who properly assesses the situation, and properly determines that which is the appropriate way to attain what is the good of that person’s nature. The good of that person’s nature may or may not, depending upon how rational that person is, be what is actually good for that person. Quite frequently, when we are presented with many things which may be perceived as goods, we are unable to distinguish which is actually good for us.

Included within the concept of the good is the fact that all things have proximate goods and one ultimate good. The proximate good of every particular thing is to be that which it was created to be. For example, the proximate good of a human being is to be a perfect human being.  This includes both intellectual virtues and practical virtues. The intellectual virtues have to do with knowledge. The practical virtues have to do with physical actions. A virtue is that which is found in a mean. A perfectly moral human being will have both practical and intellectual virtues. An example of the application of practical virtues can be shown by looking at anger. Now, to be a virtuous human being, who is angry, is to be angry for the right reasons, towards the proper object, in the right way, and in the appropriate amount. This changes from situation to situation, yet, the principle that virtue is found in a mean, or moderation, can be applied in all situations. The morally virtuous person is the one that is able to properly judge the situation, and to act moderately, in the appropriate way, based upon the situation. There are times when it is right to be angry.[9]

            The ultimate end for all things is the ultimate good. The ultimate good is that towards which all things tend, it is the reason for their existence. The ultimate good of all things is God. Though God is the ultimate end of all things, most things are unaware that God is their ultimate end (as they are irrational), and humans, as rational creatures, can choose to ignore their ultimate end, setting up proximate ends as if they were the ultimate end. This is evidenced in people who seek, above all else, sex, money, fame, popularity, etc.[10] The ultimate end for human beings is to be united with God. Furthermore, human nature was created by God. Therefore, we should say that the foundation for human morality is human nature, and God created us this way. Therefore, we are what we are because God made us this way, and, therefore, human nature is based upon the idea of human beings which is in the mind of God. It is to that idea, we might say, that we are supposed to measure ourselves. There is, therefore, an objective basis for human morality.

            With these principles in mind we can now consider the question that we have been working up to: “Is it morally right to change one’s sex?”

Is it Morally Right to Change one’s Sex?

            Based upon the observations that we have already made we can now tender an answer to this question. It seems, as we have attempted to demonstrate above, that gender is primarily based upon physical or bodily characteristics. Gender is determined by the physical constitution of the animal at birth in the same way that the rest of its physical constitution is determined – by its DNA. The question, then, can be asked as follows, it is morally right to change the “gender” of a human being by simply replacing organs? A second question to be asked is, if it was possible, would it be morally right to change the gender of a human being by changing its DNA? Both of these questions would fall under the answer to the broader question, is it morally right to change one’s gender? If the answer to this broader question is no, then the answers to both of the sub-questions would also be no. If the answer to one of the sub-questions is yes, then the answer to the broader question would have to be yes.

            In order to answer this question we need to keep in mind that which is the good of human beings, both the ultimate good and the proximate good. The Ultimate good, as we noted above, is for man to be united with God. The proximate good is for man to be that which he was created to be - truly human.

            Now, we noted above that neither character, nor self-awareness, nor social awareness, have any real impact on one’s gender. Gender is a question of one’s DNA which is the reason why a males and females have different genitalia. Now, we can answer the first sub-question as follows. To change one’s “gender” by replacing one’s genitalia is not a true change of gender. The DNA is still the same, therefore, even though a man may be made to look like, act like, think like, or react like, a woman, or vice versa, they have not changed their DNA, and, therefore, they are still their original gender. Such an act, therefore, is no different than self-mutilation. In order to say that it might be morally right to do X, one would have to find a circumstance in which it would be morally right to do X. Now, it seems that there is no circumstance in which self-mutilation is morally right, or even morally acceptable. Therefore, the superficial change of genitalia, by which one might attempt to change one’s gender, is morally wrong in all circumstances.

            Now, once the human being is born, it is no longer possible to actually change its gender by changing its DNA, therefore, this is not even a possibility. Now, the gender of the human being is determined upon fertilization, and the appearance of the physical genitalia happens within the first few weeks. Therefore, though it may be possible through a selective process taking place in a laboratory, prior to fertilization, to choose the sex of one’s future baby. It is actually impossible to change one’s gender by changing one’s DNA. Therefore, the second question can only be asked prior to fertilization, and, therefore, would have to be reworded as follows: Is it morally right to choose the gender of one’s baby? This, however is not the question that we are asking. We are asking whether it is possible for a human person, after birth, to change its gender. Now, if gender is determined, ultimately, by one’s DNA (we have already established that it is), then it is impossible to actually change one’s gender. All that can be done is to change the genitalia so as to take on the appearance of the opposite gender. In the previous paragraph we determined that such a practice is morally wrong, therefore, we can answer the over arching question as follows: it is morally wrong to change one’s gender.


[1]Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2012, s.v. “sex”.

[2]This is especially evident with dogs, which, regardless of their sex, can be made violent or docile, based upon the actions of their owners.

[3]Physical constitution will play a part in the formation of their character, as it is a part of their physical surroundings. However, its role in the formation of character and self-identity seems to be minimal, when compared with the social surroundings of the human in question.  A human male, isolated entirely from all interaction with other humans, will not question its gender. In such a case, “gender” is taken for granted.

[4]Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence, trans. Armand Maurer (Toronto, ON : Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1983).

[5]We could also use the term purpose.

[6]Food, of course, can only be preserved for a certain amount of time at the temperature that a refrigerator is designed to attain, so, the good refrigerator preserves the food, for as long as the particular food in question is capable of being preserved at the ideal temperature of a refrigerator.

[7]Edward Feser, Aquinas : A Beginners Guide (2009; repr., Oxford : One World, 2010), 176.

[8]Ibid., 185.

[9]This is only a summary treatment of the human virtues, and as such, it does not deal with objections, nor with a multitude of examples.

[10]Romans 1:19-20 claims that the existence, divine power, and divine nature of God is evident to humans when it is considered in the things that God created.  Therefore, although there seems to be, in human beings, a longing for something greater than them (as is evidenced by human kinds constant deifying and worshipping of the things that exist – the sun god, etc.), it is not a given that they will ever come to know the God who is the creator of all things, as knowledge of this God does not seems to be innate.