Is/Ought & Public Policy – Updated

Is Ought and Public PolicyIssues concerning sexuality and gender identity are often assumed to be matters of science, rather than philosophical interpretations of science. This presupposition embedded in our culture rests upon an incongruous inheritance of Enlightenment theories of metaphysics, epistemology, and postmodern reactions against Enlightenment rationality. The metaphysical inheritance of the Enlightenment is the united natural philosophy of Descartes and Newton; the epistemological inheritance is significantly influenced by Humean causal theory; and the postmodern reaction to this universal rationalism is a reductive narrative subjectivism. These three philosophical variants significantly influence the modern concept of the human person.

Consider these passages from the textbook, Our Sexuality (original emphasis):

“Many writers use the terms sex and gender interchangeably. However, each word has a specific meaning. Sex refers to our biological femaleness and maleness. These are two aspects of biological sex: genetic sex, which is determined by our sex chromosomes, and anatomical sex, the obvious physical differences between male and females. Gender is a term or concept that encompasses the behaviors, socially constructed roles, and psychological attributes commonly associated with being male or female. Thus, although our sex is linked to various physical attributes (chromosomes, penis, vulva, and so forth), our gender refers to the psychological and sociocultural characteristics associated with our sex – in other words, our femininity and masculinity. In this chapter we sue the terms masculine and feminine to characterize the behaviors that are typically attributed to males and females. One undesirable aspect of these labels is that they can limit the range of behaviors that people are comfortable expressing. For example, a man might hesitate to be nurturing lest he be labeled feminine, and a woman might be reticent to act assertively for fear of being considered masculine. It is not our intention to perpetuate the stereotypes often associated with these labels. However, we find it necessary to use terms when discussing gender issues.”[1]

The textbook continues discussing gender identity,

“Gender identity refers to each individual’s personal, subjective sense of being male or female. Most of us realize in the first few years of life that we are either male or female. However, there is no guarantee that a person’s gender identity will be consistent with his or her biological sex, and some people experience considerable confusion in their efforts to identify their own maleness or femaleness.”[2]

Finally, a lengthy passage addressing sexual orientation,

“We begin this chapter with a discussion of the continuum and characteristics of sexual orientations. Homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexuality, and asexuality are words that identify various sexual orientations. Multidimensional components indicate a specific sexual orientation and can include whether an individual:

  1. Engages in sexual behavior with men, women, both, or neither.
  2. Feels sexual desire for men, women, both, or neither.
  3. Falls in love with men, women, both, or neither.
  4. Identifies himself or herself with a specific sexual orientation.

The complexity and ambiguity of defining sexual orientation results from the varying combinations and degrees of these four components. For example, how much sexual attraction to and experience with the same sex can someone have and still be heterosexual? And, vice versa, how much sexual attraction to and behavior with the other sex can someone have and still be homosexual. Or, is everyone who does not consistently and completely meet these four components bisexual? Further, can someone who self-identifies as heterosexual but is sexual exclusively with same-sex partners really be heterosexual? Even scientists who do research about sexual orientation do not use consistent criteria in categorizing subjects according to sexual orientation. In some studies, subjects are included in the bisexual/homosexual category if they have had any element of same-sex attraction, behavior, or self-identity. In other studies, subjects are not considered homosexuals unless their sexual behavior, attraction, and self-identity have been consistently with the same sex since puberty.”[3]

The text proceeds in similar fashion, introducing the studies of Alfred Kinsey to justify various spectrums and fluidity of sexual orientation.

For better or worse, this is where the conversation begins when discussing gender identity and sexual orientation. So understood, the contemporary obstacle every Catholic must overcome is not primarily scientific; rather, it is the metaphysically assumed Cartesian/Newtonian mechanistic naturalism, the so-called is/ought dichotomy prevalent since Hume, and postmodern subjectivism. These three pillars of modernist thought embedded in the understanding of the human person are lurking underneath the surface of the textbook passages referenced above. Most strikingly obvious is the Humean is/ought dichotomy. This view claims that we cannot derive what we ought to do ethically from the is of nature; that is, there is nothing intrinsically discoverable in the natural order that can point us toward, or bring us closer to the teleological ought of the good or the good life.

This problem, however, does not begin with epistemology or even moral philosophy; rather, it is a problem that has its roots deep in the soil of a specific metaphysical understanding of reality. A primary reason for the is/ought problem prevalent in epistemology and moral philosophy is based on the mechanistic metaphysical world picture popular since the Enlightenment. The mechanistic understanding of the natural world casts aside the notion of formal and final causes that were so vitally important for the classic understanding of an organic, rather than mechanistic, view of nature. For the classic mind, inherited by the Patristics, and perfected by the Medieval Scholastics, nature is imbued with telos. The rejection of the Scholastic synthesis resulted in the reformulation and ultimately the denunciation of a teleologically infused natural order. When telos is no longer a central feature of a metaphysical understanding of reality, appealing to human nature can never point us toward proper ethical behavior. On this view, human nature is simply a brute fact, so to speak, and we can either appeal to some sort of utility maximization, categorical imperatives, or a will to power. However, the utilitarianism of Mill and the deontology of Kant were shown by Nietzsche to collapse into a nihilistic will to power. Therefore, to choose the Enlightenment project’s attempt to replace the telos of virtue and the divine commands of the Decalogue ultimately result in the transvaluation of all values, which finds its social expression in political liberalism.

Another important factor to consider regarding Hume, is that the is/ought dichotomy is based on the notion that causal interactions are merely patterns of sensory impressions. The causal features of the natural world are loose and disjointed, rather than reliable, substantive powers connected in the organic classical sense of metaphysical reality. For example, we experience the pattern of event B following event A, but we can never “prove” that event A is the cause of event B because this “proof” is only based on past experience. There is nothing in our experience that says event C could not follow event A. The only sensory input available is the pattern previously detected. If this understanding of nature is accepted, it would make sense to disregard natural law theory because there is no ought that can possibly be derived by the is of nature since there are only disjointed patterns.

How do Catholics proceed at this point in the discussion? Catholic moral philosophy is often a combination of natural law, virtue ethics, and divine command; how are we to overcome this issue we face in the age of confused modernist and postmodernist assumptions about reality?

I maintain that the first step is to properly recognize that the point of rhetorical stasis is not in the realm of science, or even at the level of ethics, as I previously hinted above. The debate is more fundamental; it is metaphysical and ontological. It is metaphysical in the sense that theism as a foundation will point us in a different direction than modern atheism. Moreover, it is metaphysical in the sense that the Catholic understanding of the hierarchic structure of nature combined with the Aristotelian acceptance of formal and final causes allows for an organic comprehension of a natural created order imbued with logos, telos, and a recognizable derivative ethos. In addition to the metaphysical component of the Catholic world picture running contrary to the modernist model under examination, ontology plays an important role. The being of created reality is important for understanding its relation to that Being which is Being itself, the “I AM” who creates and sustains the being of existence at ever moment. These classic metaphysical views inherited by and reformulated by the Catholic Church differ drastically from the mechanistic metaphysical world picture, as well as the flattened modernist ontology of naturalistic mathematical physics. We can also say that the classical theism of the ancient world and Medieval Catholicism differs significantly from the deistic concept of theistic personalism that has been popular since Newton, although it has only recently received this catchy title.

These fundamental differences are what we will run into quite often in contemporary debates concerning almost every topic under discussion. Now let’s see how these theological and philosophical differences may result in a different approach to public policy.

Let’s consider the dust up over bathroom laws and the treatment of transgendered persons. Within the causally mechanistic pattern detection outlined above, it may be perfectly sensible to think that gender dysphoria is something that should be tolerated and accepted as a normal state of affairs within the disjointed nature of human experience. After all, if this view of the world is true there is no biological is that should dictate a gender ought. This is evident from the textbook passage above. Moreover, there would be no psychological is that should direct us towards any teleologically orientated moral ought concerning this dysphoric state of affairs within the mental faculties of the transgendered person. So understood, it would seem completely reasonable that public policy should be shaped by these truth claims about reality. The legal code should enshrine this reductionist subjectivism into law.

But what if this view of reality is false (which is exactly what I am contending)? What if the correct view of reality is much older than the innovations of the Enlightenment and the deformation of postmodern narrative subjectivism? What if nature is organic and connected rather than mechanical and disjointed? Well, this changes things a bit.

If reality is organic and connected, we most certainly can derive an ought from an is, and the teleologically infused natural order can become a dependable guide towards ethical norms and the pursuit of the good life. Natural law and virtue ethics all of a sudden become realistic, if not entirely accurate, moral persuasions guiding individual, communal, and state conduct concerning economic transactions, jurisprudence, and public policy. This public policy would include a recognizable biological is connected to a gender ought. Person’s suffering from gender dysphoria would be encouraged to seek professional psychological assistance in order to overcome their identity crisis, rather than pushed to sex change surgery. Rather than being used as political props by the sexual revolutionaries and secular progressives, transgendered persons would be encouraged to seek psychological help before they mutilate their bodies with hormone treatment and surgical procedures. Instead of allowing children to maintain the incorrect belief that they were “born in the wrong body” they should be helped to understand reality correctly, and shown that they are simply confused about their so-called gender identity.

It becomes quite clear, given these explanations and examples, that metaphysics and ontology greatly influence moral persuasions, which also influence politic philosophy and public policy. Unfortunately, we live in a society entirely uninterested in these fundamental questions and continue to debate at the surface of the issue.


– Lucas G. Westman

Originally published May, 17th, 2016

[1] Crooks & Baur, Our Sexuality 12th ed., Pg. 111, 112

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid, Pg. 248

2 thoughts on “Is/Ought & Public Policy – Updated

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