On the Meaning of Sex 3(c): What Happened to Unique and Unrepeatable?

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of SexRead my Introduction here.]


[All the crayons matter, Budziszewski]

We’ve got a new feature this week in our On the Meaning of Sex series: real debate! Normally, Budziszewski builds his arguments against counter-arguments that I can’t even recognize. Strawmen everywhere.

But last week, I asked of Budziszewski, “So the question is, if individual cases keep wrecking his schema, why not put aside the schema and focus on individuals?”

For once, Budziszewski has an answer. About people who make arguments like mine, he writes:

First, he must believe that nothing exists but individual things. In other words, he must take the view that the way we classify things is purely arbitrary; ‘natural kinds’ do not exist. He may believe that Mary, Claire, and Felicity are real individuals, but he may not believe that there is any underlying basis in reality for the category ‘woman.’ Second, he must view all existing individuals, including individual humans, as just clusters of properties. From this point of view, there isn’t anyone deep down whom these properties describe. Claire is simply the sum of qualities like ‘sings,’ ‘has long hair,’ and ‘balances her own checkbook.’ Subtract all these qualities, and there is no Claire; the self who gives rise to these qualities, the subsistent being of whom these qualities are true, does not exist. (50)

“Against these two premises,” Budziszewski continues, he holds that “individuals are more than just clusters of properties,” that humans fall into one of two distinct categories, “male” or “female,” and yadayadayada all the stuff we talked about last week. 

Let’s take these two assertions in turn.

First, regarding question of whether gender classification is arbitrary or not—let me remind Budziszewski (and my readers) that that’s what the science says. Them’s the facts. There is no clear, universal division between male and female: not genitalia (which can be ambiguous), not hormones (which vary from person-to-person), not even chromosomes or “potentiality for motherhood,” unless Budziszewski seriously wants to insist that a woman with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is not a woman. Which no one with an ounce of humanity would say.

And let me point out, too, that Budziszewski is conflating “arbitrary” with “non-existent” or “unreal.” In saying that our division between male and female is arbitrary, I’m not saying there’s no such thing as male or female, or that these divisions have no basis in biology.

For comparison, the division we make between “adult” and “child” is also  an arbitrary one, but that doesn’t mean that those categories aren’t real, or that those terms have no meaning or no basis in biology. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s enough to show that the dichotomy Budziszewski is setting up is a false one. 

Second, let’s deal with this:

 “[H]e must view all existing individuals, including individual humans, as just clusters of properties.”

This is pretend logic. That “must” doesn’t follow from anything I’ve said or any argument I would make. 

Here’s a statement on human subjectivity from the Catholic Church’s Compendium of Social Doctrine:

The human person, must always be understood in his unrepeatable and inviolable uniqueness. In fact, man exists above all as a subjective entity, as a centre ofconsciousness and freedom, whose unique life experiences, comparable to those of no one else, underlie the inadmissibility of any attempt to reduce his status by forcing him into preconceived categories or power systems, whether ideological or otherwise.

That’s what I believe. If you take away Claire’s long hair, or her voice, or even her consciousness, she’s still a unique and unrepeatable individual, created in the image of God (who is male and female). That ought to be exactly what Budziszewski believes, too.

Here’s where we differ: I’m saying (with science) that gender is one of those “preconceived categories.” To squash a person into a defined role without taking into account his or her “unique life experiences, comparable to those of no one else” is to do violence to that person’s human dignity. To reduce that person, in the Church’s words.

Later, as a sort of trump card, Budziszewski will assert “Even now, even today, confused and disoriented, the overwhelming majority of men do not think of themselves as Frank [me?], Steven, or Abdul. They think of themselves as men, and want to be recognized as masculine” (52-3).

Two answers to that.

First: For the millionth time, “the overwhelming majority” is not the same thing as “all.”

Second: Of course! That’s where our “life experiences” (and, yes, biology) have led us. And,contra Marcotte, there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as “masculinity” isn’t code for putting down women (or anyone who doesn’t fit our definition of masculine). So long, in other words, as we can recognize and the unique and unrepeatable subjective selves of everyone else. To go back to to the analogy Budziszewski bungles at the start of the chapter: if I celebrate purple and red-violet and blue-violet, in no way am I diminishing the value of red and blue, the only two colors Budziszewski seems to recognize.   

This is the point: all the crayons matter, equally.

As one last aside, I’d be interested to see how Budziszewski would address Galatians 3:28. His argument, basically, is that because your average Frank and Claire see themselves as male and female, respectively, that division reflects something essential about every single one of us. In other words, that our individuality comes through our gender identity. Galatians 3:28 says that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” In other words, our individuality is beyond our gender.

That’s easy to reconcile with the notion of each human as a unique and unrepeatable individual. But it’s much harder to fit into the argument Budziszewski is making. 

Next week: Love and Marriage in Chapter 4

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