As assaults on religious liberty and traditional morality grow fiercer, Modern Age is proud to excerpt this essay from the new, updated and expanded edition of Robert P. George’s acclaimed Conscience and Its Enemies. In this essay and throughout the book, the Princeton professor explodes the myth that secular liberals represent the voice of reason in today’s debates.
The idea that human beings are nonbodily persons inhabiting nonpersonal bodies never quite goes away. Although the mainstream of Christianity long ago rejected it, what is sometimes described as “body-self dualism” is back with a vengeance, and its followers are legion. Whether in the courts, on campus, or at boardroom tables, it significantly shapes the expressive individualism and social liberalism that are dominant among elites.
Christianity’s rejection of body-self dualism answered the challenge to orthodoxy posed by what was known as “Gnosticism.” Gnosticism was composed of many ideologies, some ascetical, others quite the opposite. What they held in common was an understanding of the human being—an anthropology—that sharply divides the material or bodily, on one hand, and the spiritual or mental, on the other. For Gnostics, it was the immaterial, the mental, that ultimately mattered. Applied to the human person, this view entails that the material or bodily is inferior—if not a prison to escape, certainly a mere instrument to be manipulated to serve the goals of the “person,” understood as the spirit or mind or psyche. The self is a spiritual or mental substance; the body, its merely material vehicle. You and I are identified entirely with the spirit or mind or psyche, and not at all (or in only the most highly attenuated sense) with the bodies that we occupy (or are somehow “associated with”) and use.
Against such dualism, Christianity asserted a view of the human person as a dynamic unity: a personal body, a bodily self. This rival vision suffuses the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian teaching. Aristotle, who broke with his teacher Plato on the point, defends one form of this “hylomorphism,” as it has come to be called. Without denying the existence of the soul, it affirms that the human person is a material being (though not merely material). We do not just inhabit our bodies; we are our bodies, whatever else we are. The living body, far from being our external instrument, is part of our personal reality. So while it cannot exist apart from the soul—which is its substantial form—the body is not inferior. It shares in our personal dignity. The idea of the soul as the substantial form of the body is orthodox Christianity’s alternative to the heretical conception of the soul as a “ghost in the machine.” One can separate living body from soul in analysis but not in fact; we are body-soul composites.
So we are animals—rational animals, to be sure, but not pure minds or intellects. Our personal identity across time consists in the endurance of the animal organisms we are. From this follows a crucial proposition: the human person comes to be when the human organism does, and survives—as a person—until the organism ceases to be.
We are, again, not brute animals but animals with a rational nature—organized from the start to develop and exercise rational powers. We have the capacities for conceptual thought and for practical deliberation, judgment, and choice. These powers are not reducible to the purely material. We do not act arbitrarily or randomly; we choose based on judgments of value that incline us toward different options without compelling us. There is no contradiction, on the hylomorphic view, between our animality and our rationality.
If human persons are purely mental substances, then human beings are not necessarily persons. Those in the embryonic, fetal, and early infant stages are not yet persons. Those who have lost the immediate exercise of certain mental powers—victims of advanced dementias, the long-term comatose and minimally conscious—are no longer persons. And those with severe congenital cognitive disabilities aren’t now, never were, and never will be persons.
But it is human persons who are bearers of dignity (worth) and rights. It is personal life that we have reason to hold inviolate and protect against harm; we legitimately use inanimate objects, plants, and even brute animals for our purposes because they are not persons. So someone who buys into a philosophical anthropology that separates person and body in the way I have described will find it easier to justify the production, use, and destruction of human embryos for biomedical research; abortion; infanticide; and euthanasia for the cognitively impaired.
By the same token, such an anthropology underwrites social liberalism’s rejection of traditional marital and sexual ethics and its vision of marriage as a male-female union. That vision makes no sense if the body is a mere instrument of the person, to be used to satisfy subjective goals or produce desirable feelings in the person-as-conscious-subject. If we are not our bodies, marriage cannot essentially involve the one-flesh union of man and woman, as Jewish, Christian, and classical ethics hold. For if the body is not part of the personal reality of the human being, there can be nothing morally or humanly important about “merely biological” union, apart from its contingent psychological effects.
Presupposing body-self dualism also makes it harder to appreciate that marriage is a natural (prepolitical and even prereligious) human good with its own objective structure. If sexuality is just a means to our subjective ends, isn’t it just whatever we want it to be? How could it be oriented to procreation, or call for permanent exclusivity, by its nature?
We can make sense of this one-flesh union conception of marriage only if we understand the body as truly personal. Then we can see the biological union of a man and woman as a distinct union of persons—achieved, like the biological union of parts within a person, through coordination toward a single bodily end of the whole. For the couple, that end is reproduction. Its orientation to family life can have human and moral, not “merely biological,” significance. Spouses can choose bodily unity to renew the all-encompassing union that is their marriage. This vision, in turn, helps us to make sense of the natural desire to rear one’s own children and the normative importance of committing to do so whenever possible, even at great personal cost. It makes sense of a sound sex ethic, which specifies the requirements of faithful conjugal and parental love, an ethic that seems pointless and cruel to contemporary social liberals.
For them, after all, what matters is what goes on in the mind or consciousness, not the body (or the rest of the body). True personal unity, to the extent that it is possible at all, is unity at the affective level, not the biological one. “Marriage” tends to be seen, then, as a socially constructed institution that exists to facilitate desirable romantic bonds and to protect and advance the various feelings and interests of people who enter into such bonds. It is not a conjugal partnership at all, but rather a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership. Procreation and children are only contingently related to it; there is no sense, even an indirect one, in which marriage is a procreative partnership or a partnership whose structure and norms are shaped by an inherent orientation to procreation and the rearing of children. The conjugal conception of marriage as a union of the sort that would be naturally fulfilled by the spouses having and bringing up children together strikes the ear of the neo-Gnostic as, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, discriminatory and exploitative.
Indeed, as contemporary social liberalism presents the matter, sex itself is not an inherent aspect of marriage or part of its meaning; the idea of marital consummation by sexual intercourse also seems bizarre. Just as, for social liberals, two (or more) people can have perfectly legitimate and valuable sex without being married to each other, so two (or more) people can have a perfectly valid and complete marriage without sex. It’s all a matter of the partners’ subjective preferences. Consensual sexual play is valuable just insofar as it enables the partners to express desired feelings—for example, of affection or, for that matter, of domination or submission. But if they happen not to experience desire for it, sex is pointless even within marriage. It’s merely incidental and therefore optional, much as owning a car or having joint bank accounts is. Different strokes for different folks. The essence of marriage is companionship; it does not necessarily include sex or an orientation to procreation.
All this explains why marriage as a matter of contemporary liberal ethics need not be between persons of opposite sexes. What’s more, it suggests that marriage can exist among three or more individual in polyamorous sexual (or nonsexual) groups. Because marriage swings free of biology and is distinguished by its emotional intensity and quality—the true “person” being the conscious and feeling self—same-sex and polyamorous “marriages” are possible and valuable in the same basic ways as the conjugal union of man and woman. Partners in these other groupings, too, can feel affection for each other and even believe that the quality of their romantic partnership will be enhanced by mutually agreeable sex play. If that’s what marriage is all about, then denying them marital status means denying “marriage equality.”
A World of Fifty-Six Gender Options
And then there is transsexualism and/or transgenderism. If we are body-mind (or body-soul) composites and not minds (or souls) inhabiting merely material bodies, then respect for the person demands respect for the body, which rules out mutilation and other direct attacks on human health. Then we are, except in extraordinarily rare cases of deformity to the extreme of true indeterminacy, males or females. Our maleness or femaleness, constituted by our basic biological organization with respect to reproductive functioning, is an inherent part of what and who we are. Desiring to change sexes is a pathology—a wish to cease being oneself and to be someone else. It is not to will one’s good, but to will one’s nonexistence as who one is.
By contrast, on the contemporary liberal view, no dimension of our personal identity is truly determined biologically. If you feel as though you are a woman trapped in a man’s body, then you are just that: a woman. And you may legitimately describe yourself as a woman, despite the fact that you are biologically male, and take steps—even to the point of amputations and hormone treatments—to achieve a feminine outward appearance, especially where you think doing so will enable you more fully to feel like a woman.
Because the body serves at the pleasure, so to speak, of the conscious self, to which it is subject, the mutilations and other procedures pose no inherent moral problem. Nor is it contrary to medical ethics to perform them. At the same time, surgical and even purely cosmetic changes aren’t necessary for a male to be a woman (or a female a man). The body and its appearance simply do not matter, except instrumentally. Since your body is not the real you, your (biological) sex and even your appearance need not line up with your (psychological) “gender,” so long as you and others can proceed smoothly enough as if you are what you feel yourself to be. So if you feel as though you are a man despite your female biological makeup, then you are a man—and others should regard and treat you as such—even as you menstruate, for example, or conceive and give birth to a baby, or go through menopause.
And since feelings, including feelings about what or who you are, fall on a spectrum, and are even fluid, you are not limited to only two possibilities on the question of gender identity (you may be “gender nonconforming”); nor are you permanently locked into any particular gender. You can choose from the full range of Facebook’s fifty-six (or fifty-eight, or whatever the number is) gender options, and you can find your gender changing over time, or abruptly. It may even be possible to change genders by acts of the will. You might change genders temporarily, for example, for political reasons or for the sake of solidarity with others.
Most of these observations about gender identity can extend to the concept of “sexual orientation” and the practice of self-identifying in terms of sexual desire—a concept and practice well served by a view of the human being as a nonbodily person inhabiting a nonpersonal body.
Dignity and Dualism
The antidualism position historically embraced by Jews and by Christians (Eastern as well as Western, Protestant as well as Catholic) has been forcefully rearticulated by Pope Francis. Here are his words:
The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.”
The pope is not engaging in idle or purely speculative philosophizing. He is responding to the specific challenge to Christian orthodoxy represented by the modern revival of a philosophical anthropology against which the Church struggled in its formative early battles with Gnosticism. He knows that this anthropology is now itself a kind of orthodoxy—the orthodoxy of the particular form of liberal secularism that has secured dominance among Western cultural elites. It provides the metaphysical foundation of the social practices and ideological challenges against which Orthodox Jews and faithful Christians (as well as many Muslims and others) find themselves contending today: abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, sexual liberation, the redefinition of marriage, and gender ideology.
But are they right to resist? Might the dualistic understanding of the human person have been right all along? Perhaps the person is not the body but merely inhabits it and uses it as an instrument. Perhaps the real person is the conscious and feeling self, the psyche, and the body is simply material, the machine in which the ghost resides.
To think so, however, is to ignore the fact that we experience ourselves as unified actors. Nobody really believes that his body is only a temporary housing for an independent spirit. It is too much a part of our experience to interpret so prosthetically.
Consider a simple example. You approach your desk and judge that what lies on it—that thing there—is a book. That’s a single judgment. So both parts of it (subject and predicate) must have a single agent. How could it be otherwise? How could any being predicate book (or magazine, or cat, or pomegranate) if that thing there didn’t somehow possess both elements, being and predicate?
Furthermore, the agent sensing the particular—that thing there—must be an animal, a body with perceptual organs. And the predication that goes with perception is a personal act; the agent applying a universal concept (book) must be a person. It follows that the subject performing the act of judging—that thing there is a book—is one being, personal and animal.
We are not two separate entities. Nor can “person” plausibly be just a stage in the life of a human animal. If it were, after all, a categorical difference in moral status (person versus not) would be based on a mere difference in degree, which is absurd. We are, at every moment of our existence as human beings, bodily selves and personal bodies.
In the domain of moral thought and practice, few projects are more urgent than recovering the insight that human persons are indeed dynamic unities, creatures whose bodies are parts of our very selves—not extrinsic instruments—and share in our status as human persons. Contemporary social liberalism rests on an error, the tragic mistake behind so many efforts to justify—and even immunize from moral criticism—acts and practices that are, in truth, contrary to our profound, inherent, and equal dignity.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. He has received the Presidential Citizens Medal, the Bradley Prize for Intellectual and Civic Achievement, and the Canterbury Medal of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. He chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and has served on the President’s Council on Bioethics. Professor George holds degrees from Swarthmore, Harvard, and Oxford.
This essay is excerpted from the new, updated and expanded edition of his book Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism, which is now available from ISI Books.