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When is a man not a man? Or a woman not a woman? A philosophical conundrum.
October 31, 2015, 10:43 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Poor Germaine Greer is in trouble over her refusal to believe that a man whose body has been surgically and chemically altered to resemble a woman’s is therefore truly a woman. This situation raises some interesting questions.

It is maintained by some that there are persons who, while their physiology/anatomy is of one sex (male or female), they are “really” of the other sex. Certain surgical and chemical procedures can rectify this “gender dysphoria”, and anyone who does not endorse their interpretation of what has happened is guilty of (is this the word?) “transphobia”.

What does this interpretation imply? If an apparent man is “really” a woman, or an apparent woman is “really” a man, does that mean that human personality belongs to some non-corporeal reality (the soul?) distinct from the body? What might this non-corporeal reality be? While St Thomas Aquinas taught that the human soul is essentially the “form” of the body (using the Aristotelian categories of form and matter), other Christian theologians have thought of the soul as a distinct entity, in principle separable from the body although ordered to its body.

However, it has not been thought that the soul, so conceived, is essentially either male or female, apart from reference to its body. Does the phenomenon of “gender dysphoria” go against this? How might such a condition be objectively verified? As far as I understand it, what counts as evidence that one is in “the wrong body” is simply a strong belief that this is so. If I believe it, it must be true. I find this a very odd position to take.

The alternative solution is that this is a mental, not a physiological, issue, to be dealt with by psychiatry rather than surgery and medication. This answer is very unpopular with those who take the first view, which is why Ms Greer has been so vilified. I wonder what an out-and-out materialist makes of this? I would have thought that the most that could be claimed by a materialist is that the brain-states of the gender-dysphoric person are out of sync with their genital configuration; but this does not settle which of the two (brain-state or genital physiology) is “right”, or even whether this is a meaningful question at all.

Ms Greer has said that she does not wish to interfere with anyone’s freedom to have whatever surgical/medical procedures they want or feel they need. She merely rejects their right to impose their own interpretation of those procedures on those who understand sex and gender in a different way. (I note, by way of digression, that not long ago an American woman who felt that she was “really” black, though her parents were white, and wished to identify with black Americans, darkening her skin, was roundly condemned as not “really” black. So what beliefs trump what other beliefs?)

I am not an expert. I understand that sex is primarily determined by genetic factors, the presence of XY or XX chromosomes in every cell of a person’s body (with a smallish proportion of anomalies), which can be objectively determined. It has nothing at all to do with what a person feels or believes about him/herself. I am not aware that surgical or chemical procedures alter this genetic makeup, but I stand under correction. Like Ms Greer, I do not want to interfere with anyone’s freedom to undergo whatever procedures they feel they need for peace of mind. But I object most strongly to being told that I must agree with them. Sincere belief does not in itself change reality.

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