The idea that human beings are non-bodily persons inhabiting non-personal bodies never quite goes away. Although the mainstreams of Christianity and Judaism 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 underwrites and shapes the expressive individualism and social liberalism that are ascendant.
Christianity’s rejection of body-self dualism answered the challenge to orthodoxy posed by what was known as “Gnosticism.” Gnosticism comprised a variety of 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 the one hand, and the spiritual or mental or affective, on the other. For Gnostics, it was the immaterial, the mental, the affective that ultimately matters. Applied to the human person, this means 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, as persons, are identified entirely with the spirit or mind or psyche, and not at all (or in only the most highly attenuated sense) with the body that we occupy (or are somehow “associated with”) and use.
Against such dualism, the anti-Gnostic position asserts a view of the human person as a dynamic unity: a personal body, a bodily self. This rival vision is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian teaching. This is not to suggest that Christian teaching rules out the view that the individual is numerically identical with his or her immaterial soul. Contemporary Christian thinkers are divided on whether the separated soul is numerically distinct from the human person, or is just the person in radically mutilated form. They agree, however, on the essential point, namely, that the body is no mere extrinsic instrument of the human person (or “self”), but is an integral part of the personal reality of the human being. Christ is resurrected bodily.
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 only material). We do not occupy or inhabit our bodies. The living body, far from being our vehicle or external instrument, is part of our personal reality. So while it cannot exist apart from the soul, it is not inferior. It shares in our personal dignity; it is the whole of which our soul is the substantial form. 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 a 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—at least until the organism ceases to be.
Yet we are not brute animals. We are animals with a rational nature—organized from the start for conceptual thought, and for practical deliberation, judgment, and choice. These intellectual powers are not reducible to the purely material. Creatures possessing them are able, with maturity and under favoring circumstances, to grasp intelligible (not just sensible) features of options for action, and to respond to those reasons with choices not determined by antecedent events. It is not that we act arbitrarily or randomly, but that 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 we take the Gnostic view, then human beings—living members of the human species—are not necessarily persons, and some human beings are non-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.
The moral implications are clear. It is personal life that we have reason to hold inviolate and protect against harm; by contrast, we can legitimately use other creatures for our purposes. So someone who buys into a Gnostic anthropology that separates person and body in the way I have described will find it easier to speak of those with undeveloped, defective, or diminished mental capacities as non-persons. They will find it easier to justify abortion; infanticide; euthanasia for the cognitively impaired; and the production, use, and destruction of human embryos for biomedical research.
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 makes it harder to appreciate that marriage is a natural (pre-political and even pre-religious) human good with its own objective structure. If sexuality is just a means to our subjective ends, isn’t it whatever we want it to be? How could it be oriented to procreation, or require 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 thus has human and moral, not “merely biological,” significance. Spouses, in their bodily unity, 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. (A mother desires to be sent home with the baby she actually delivered, and not with one assigned to her randomly from the pool of babies born during her stay in the maternity center.) This instinct reinforces a sound sexual 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 of our sexual natures to procreation and the rearing of children. The conjugal conception of marriage as a union of the sort that is naturally fulfilled by the spouses having and bringing up children together strikes the ear of the neo-Gnostic as unintelligible and even bizarre.
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—such as affection or, for that matter, 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 or separate bank accounts is. Different strokes for different folks. The essence of marriage is companionship, not sex, to say nothing of procreation.
And all of this explains, of course, why contemporary liberal ethics endorses same-sex marriage. It even suggests that marriage can exist among three or more individuals in polyamorous sexual (or non-sexual) 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. For 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 (or not, as the case may be). If that’s what marriage is all about, then denying them marital status means denying “marriage equality.”
And then there are transsexualism and transgenderism. If we are body-mind (or body-soul) composites and not minds (or souls) inhabiting material bodies, then respect for the person demands respect for the body, which rules out mutilation and other direct attacks on human health. This means that, except in extraordinarily rare cases of congenital deformity to the extreme of indeterminacy, our maleness or femaleness is discernible from our bodies. Sex is constituted by our basic biological organization with respect to reproductive functioning; it is an inherent part of what and who we are. Changing sexes is a metaphysical impossibility because it is a biological impossibility. Or very nearly one. It may become technologically possible to change the sex of a human individual at a very early stage of embryonic development—either by changing the genome, or in the case of an embryonic male by inducing, say, androgen insensitivity early enough that all sexual development proceeds as it would in a woman. Of course, it would be immoral to do it, since it would involve a radical bodily intervention without consent and with grave risks.
So sex changes are biologically impossible whenever it becomes true that to change the person’s sexual capacities down to the root would require reversing so many already-differentiated organs and other sexual traits that one wouldn’t end up with the same organism. (I suspect that that point is reached at least quite early in utero.) As Paul McHugh has argued, 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 non-existence 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 (“transgender”) 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.
Even this way of putting it might concede more than is warranted. What is a pre-operative “male-to-female” transgender individual saying when he says he’s “really a woman” and desires surgery to confirm that fact? He’s not saying his sex is female; that’s obviously false. Nor is he saying that his gender is “woman” or “feminine,” even if we grant that gender is partly or wholly a matter of self-presentation and social presence. It is clearly false to say that this biological male is already perceived as a woman. He wants to be perceived this way. Yet the pre-operative claim that he is “really a woman” is the premise of his plea for surgery. So it has to be prior. What, then, does it refer to? The answer cannot be his inner sense. For that would still have to be an inner sense of something—but there seems to be no “something” for it to be the sense of.
Yet for the neo-Gnostic, the body serves at the pleasure of the conscious self, to which it is subject, and so mutilations and other procedures pose no inherent moral problem. Nor is it contrary to medical ethics to perform them—indeed, it might be unethical for a qualified surgeon to refuse to perform them. At the same time, the neo-Gnostic insists that 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 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 “gender identity.” You have a right, we are now told, to present yourself however you feel yourself to be.
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 non-conforming”), nor are you permanently locked into any particular gender. There is the full Facebook 56, or 58, or whatever the number is, 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. Of course, 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 non-bodily person inhabiting a non-personal body.
The anti-dualist 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:
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, who recently outraged partisans of social liberalism by denouncing the practice of teaching children that gender is chosen rather than given as a matter of biological sex, 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, following Robert Bellah, I have referred to as “expressive individualism,” one 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.
Are we right to resist? Might the dualistic understanding of the human person have been right all along? Perhaps the person is not the body, but only 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 our entire experience of ourselves is the experience of being unified actors. Nothing gives us reason to suppose that experience to be illusory. Even if body-self dualism could be made coherent—which I doubt—we would have no more reason to believe it than we have to suppose that we are now dreaming, or stuck in the Matrix.
But there is more. Consider the most common of human experiences: sensing (e.g., hearing or seeing). Sensing is, obviously, a bodily action performed by a living being. The agent performing an act of sensing is a bodily creature, an animal. But it’s clear that in human beings, as rational animals, it is one and the same agent who both senses and understands or seeks to understand (by mental activity) what it is that he or she is sensing. The agent performing the act of understanding, therefore, is a bodily entity, not a non-bodily substance using the body as some sort of quasi-prosthetic device. Were it otherwise, we would never be able to explain the communication or connection between the thing doing the sensing and the separate thing doing the understanding.
To see the point more clearly, perhaps, let me invite you to consider what you are doing right now. You are perceiving—seeing—words on a page or screen. And you are not only perceiving, considered as an act of receiving impressions (a kind of data) through the medium of vision, you are understanding what it is you are perceiving: First, you are understanding that what you are seeing are words (and not, say, numbers, or blotches, or something else), and second, you are understanding what the words themselves mean (as individual words and strung together as sentences). Now what, exactly, is the entity—namely, you—that is simultaneously doing the perceiving and understanding? And, more to the point, is it one entity or two? Perception or perceiving is indeed a bodily act, but is it not the same actor (namely you, as a unified being) that is seeing the words and understanding that they are words and what they mean? It would make no sense to suppose that the body is doing the perceiving and the mind, considered as an ontologically separate and distinct substance, is doing the understanding. For one thing, it would generate an infinite regress of explanations in trying to account for the relationship between the separate substances. We wouldn’t be able to make sense of the idea that you are doing the understanding, but an instrument you are using, not you yourself as a unified agent, is doing the perceiving.
Or consider a simple case of predication and thought. You approach your desk and judge that what lies on it—that thing there—is a journal (let’s say, as it happens, an issue of First Things). That’s a single judgment, and both parts of it (subject and predicate) must have a single agent: a being that does both the seeing and the thinking, that both sees the particular, concrete thing and understands it by applying an abstract concept (journal). How could it be otherwise? How could any being hold both parts together in a single judgment—the sensory image and the abstract concept—if he weren’t exercising both sensory and intellectual abilities?
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 (journal) must be a person. (A non-rational creature, such as a dog, might perceive, but lacking rationality of the sort that makes possible the formation of universal concepts, it would not understand what it is perceiving to be a particular instance of a universal.) It follows that the subject performing the act of judging—that thing there is a journal—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 vs. not) would be based on a mere difference in degree (rather than a difference in the kind of thing the being is), 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, there are few projects more urgent than recovering the commonsense view that human persons are indeed dynamic unities, creatures whose bodies are parts of our very selves—not extrinsic instruments. 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 and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.