Identity and Essence

by Kieran Healy on July 14, 2003

This is really Brian’s territory (and Laurie’s even moreso, but she’s in Australia so I am forced to ontologize without the help of a professional), but Eugene Volokh has been posting about gay marriage and he quotes this argument from one of his readers:

I happen to be 40 years old, happen to be an economist, and happen to be fertile, but I AM a man. I am not a human who happens to be a man. Being male is fundamental to who I am in a deeper way than any of these other characteristics.

The reader goes on to talk about fertility and infertility in hetero- and homosexual couples, and Eugene disagrees with him. But this first paragraph struck me as odd. I can understand how being male is more fundamental to his identity than being 40 or an economist, but he also seems to say that it’s the essential thing about him. He’s a man first, “not a human who happens to be a man.” Can he really mean this? What if he had to choose one property or the other? Would he really prefer to be a male non-human than a non-male human? Say, a fine, strapping male canary rather than a woman? Maybe I’m misreading his view. Or maybe my he-canary vs woman preference ranking is not widely shared.



Dennis G. Jerz 07.14.03 at 9:56 pm

Hmm… I think there is pretty clearly a difference between “man” (as Eugene uses the term) and “male [something]” (as Kieran uses it). Eugene is not talking about being “male” he is talking about being “a man”. Lots of things are males, but only humans can be men.


rea 07.14.03 at 10:03 pm

“Eugene is not talking about being “male” he is talking about being ‘a man’.”

Well, it’s a guy Eugene is quoting rather than Eugene himself. But how do you derive your claim from what he says?

“Being male is fundamental to who I am in a deeper way than any of these other characteristics.”


Kieran Healy 07.14.03 at 10:04 pm

Fair enough. I suppose a sociologist (of all people) should be a bit more precise about the distinction between sex and gender.

Just to be clear, the post doesn’t quote Eugene, but one of his correspondents.


Kieran Healy 07.14.03 at 10:05 pm

Though the guy himself isn’t too clear on the disctinction, so maybe he’s not making it in his own mind.


Matt Weiner 07.14.03 at 10:37 pm

I think some personal identity theorists (though I can’t name any) have an idea that one’s essence is one’s genotype. If this were so, then being male-if-not-transgendered would be part of one’s essence. So would being infertile, if that infertility were genetic. So would having blue eyes. I don’t much like this view.

It seems to me that a failsafe necessary condition for essence is the following: If X can change from being F to not being F without ceasing to exist, then being F is not part of X’s essence. And I think that being a man, at least in one sense, flunks this test. If Mr. Phelan (Volokh’s correspondent) were to undergo gender reassignment surgery, the same person would still exist–it wouldn’t be the case that he died on the table and a new person was born. So I don’t buy it.

I’d point out that gay men and lesbians aren’t incapable of having and raising children. They can’t have children with their partners, but it’s not that uncommon for heterosexuals to wind up raising their spouse’s children. If Mr. Phelan thinks that the purpose of marriage is to protect a family that consists of two parents and their biological children, I expect he’s gung ho against giving parental rights to step-parents, and against adoption in general.

I suspect, however, that Mr. Phelan’s citation of Aristotelian essence is less a serious argument and more an attempt to maintain a prejudice after its props have been knocked out.


Ruth Feingold 07.14.03 at 10:47 pm

I see your point — and I’d certainly rather be me, a non-male human, than a canary — but my guess is that the canary example won’t really work: it is conceivable that this guy could, were circumstances only slightly different, be infertile, 45, or perhaps a biologist; no way is he going to be a canary. Humanity is simply taken for granted in this equation. And, given that gender is basically the FIRST thing people learn about themselves*, and is a definition that continues to be enforced throughout our lives, I’m not that surprised that someone would consider it the most essential label he can give himself.

*As an illustration of this, has anyone seen T3 yet? The female Terminator, in her first moments in our time, looks at a Victoria’s Secret billboard and learns how to flirt & display cleavage; Arnold puts on some star-shaped sunglasses, then rejects them as inappropriate. Gender norms in action, just minutes after “birth.”


Brad DeLong 07.14.03 at 10:54 pm

>>I happen to be 40 years old, happen to be an economist, and happen to be fertile, but I AM a man. I am not a human who happens to be a man. Being male is fundamental to who I am in a deeper way than any of these other characteristics.<< I, by contrast, am a man, am 43 years old, have chosen to be an economist, happen to be fertile, but I AM the Holy Roman Emperor. Being the Holy Roman Emperor is fundamental to who I am in a deeper way than any of these other characteristics...


Brian Weatherson 07.14.03 at 11:58 pm

I basically agree with Matt’s comment, but I think it needs to be phrased a little more pedantically to be quite right. Let F be the property of having witnessed Australia’s last three ignomious exits from World Cup qualifying. I couldn’t change from being an F to being a non-F and keep my identity simply because I couldn’t change whether I’m an F because I can’t change the past. But these are obviously accidental properties – I might have just ignored the games, and (maybe) it’s possible that Australia qualified. So that can’t quite be the distinction. What matters is whether I could have been different with respect to F-ness.

Fussy fussy I can imagine you saying, and not without justification. But some people think it makes a difference. For example, it is perfectly obvious that it is possible for me to be turned into a horned bullfrog, waiting for a kiss from a charming prince(ss) to turn me back into my current state, and still be me. On the other hand, people say it isn’t so obvious that I could have been born a horned bullfrog. Such is modern metaphysics.

So the real issue is whether Mr Phelan could have been born female, not whether he could have a sex change operation. I don’t see why he couldn’t have been, although the intuitions here are messy. When we imagine a parent saying to a male child “If you’d been a girl we would have called you Cameron”, it is a slightly odd use of ‘you’. (A bit like when we answer the friend’s telephone call and say “If you’d been another bloody telemarketer I’d have sent bullets down the phone line.”) So maybe sex is essential by current standards.

But this should show how absurd it is to try and base ethical conclusions on metaphysical considerations. The evidence for the metaphysical conclusions here mostly consists of intuitions about the propriety and impropriety of certain abtruse locutions. If you want to try and draw moral conclusions out of semantic/pragmatic data, you’re a lot braver man/woman/Holy Roman Canary than I.

Just to back up Mr Phelan on one point though. I think it’s pretty clear from the text that ‘other characteristics’ in the original post didn’t include being human. As a couple of people noted, he was taking for granted that humanity is essential not accidental.


Andy 07.15.03 at 12:03 am

Yeah- it looks like the claim that Phelan’s after (after a quick glance at the longer passage) is that both humanity AND maleness are essential to him, not that maleness is and humanity isn’t. That’s a bit of a tough sell (for the kinds of reasons Matt cites) but at least it’s not obviously crazy.


Andy 07.15.03 at 12:12 am

Cool, dude (that was for you, Brad). Brian and I must have been writing at the same time… I was thinking about the male-at-birth stuff, too, but I think Matt’s actually got no worries on this score. He just needs the necessary condition- that F is an essential property of me *only if* I can’t lose it and still exist. He doesn’t need it as a sufficient condition, which is where he’d get into trouble about having watched various sporting events.

I guess that being born male does seem more plausibly essential than being male, but I’m worried about in-vitro sex changes (and various permutations further back as necessary) now…


Matt Weiner 07.15.03 at 12:23 am

I wouldn’t say that it’s not perfectly obvious that you could be turned into a horned bullfrog. Certainly it would be a very odd horned bullfrog that resulted–one not of bullfrogess born. Also one that had the potential to turn back into Brian Weatherson under the right circumstances.* So I’m not willing to concede that, after the spell is cast, you are a bullfrog, though you look like one, hop like one, and croak like one.

I don’t think reversibility of the spell makes a difference, either. If there’s a difference, I argue it’s the difference between Brian taking the temporary guise of a bullfrog and Brian disappearing and being replaced by a newly created bullfrog (possibly one with odd memories).

This means, on the position I’m taking (partly for the sake of argument), that the issue isn’t whether Mr. Phelan could’ve been born female, but whether Mr. Phelan would count as female after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Are MTF transgendered people with XY genotypes women? I say yes, but then I think gay marriage is completely unproblematic anyway.

The F test was supposed to be necessary but not sufficient, BTW–that’s why it doesn’t get the World Cup example. Perhaps we should argue over when you can say “I could not have been born F and been me, even though it is not part of my essence to be F.” Or you could just demand that I come up with a sufficient criterion to go with the necessary one, which would shut me up right quick.

*That is, if the prince(ss) applies to it the form of Brian Weatherson, that form being contained in his/her lips. Aristotelian joke that I don’t know enough to be making. Probably I know more than Phelan, though.


back40 07.15.03 at 12:27 am

Over at Easily Distracted, , Timothy Burke recently blogged about Lisa Ruddick’s essay _The Flight From Knowing_, . There’s also an IA thread at .

Among the many things discussed in these threads is an idea Ruddick calls “analytical slippage”. She says:

“What current critical theory routinely does, though, is to collapse the difference, making the good thing look bad by calling it by the name of its near enemy-saying, for example, that anyone who speaks up for decency is imposing an oppressive social norm.

There seems to be a whiff of analytical slippage in this discussion, as can be expected when essentialism is discussed.

IA says:

“For Ruddick, this slippage — the “summoning the near enemy to discredit some precious ideal that most people wouldn’t part with easily” — constitutes a moral problem. It is the problem of demoralization:”

It seems that reducing the specifics of claims to near constructs, even if not “near enemies” and even if not designed to discredit, in order to apply a logic construct loses important information, human information.

Slippery stuff.


Matt Weiner 07.15.03 at 12:27 am

Ah, thanks Andy. We were writing at the same time too–I guess cross-posts are the sign of a hopping discussion.


Invisible Adjunct 07.15.03 at 2:45 am

“but I AM the Holy Roman Emperor.”

Sooner or later it had to come out: Brad DeLong has a Charlemagne complex.

Interesting thread. I have to say, I am increasingly suspicious of the extreme social constructivist view of gender. But given the unlevel playing field, the persistence of the American cult of domesticity, and so on and so forth, this is a potentially dangerous concession for a feminist to make.


David Weman 07.15.03 at 2:59 am

“This means, on the position I’m taking (partly for the sake of argument), that the issue isn’t whether Mr. Phelan could’ve been born female, but whether Mr. Phelan would count as female after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Are MTF transgendered people with XY genotypes women? I say yes, but then I think gay marriage is completely unproblematic anyway.”

It’s perfectly arguable that transgendered women were always women. That’s what they tend to say themselves, isn’t it? I believe most transgendered people would agree with Phelan that maleness and femaleness is essentioal, not accidental.


Neil 07.15.03 at 2:59 am

Lots of philosophers think that genotype fixes identity (Kripke seems to, and the entire debate about Parfit’s non-identity problem turns on this). And most of them assume that genotype determines sex – since sex is a question of chromosomes. But there is a good sense in which this is false. Genetically female rats injected with prenatal testosterone have male genitalia and behavior. The male economist could have been a girl, if his androgens had been neutralized prenatally.


ByWord 07.15.03 at 3:15 am

On the original topic, I think that arguing against this guy’s point based on questions of fertility and identity is beside the point.

The bigger issue, of course, is as always that opponents of gay marriage need to show that it is demonstrably harmful to society, and that that harm outweighs the harm caused by giving the state a right to deny equal treatment to a group of its citizens.

It’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind.


Mark Kleiman 07.15.03 at 3:16 am

I have no reason to want to defend Eugene’s essentialist correspondent, but if I read him correctly he is *not* saying that being make is a more fundamental fact about him than being human, but that it is more fundamental than his age, profession, or fertility.

“I happen to be 40 years old, happen to be an economist, and happen to be fertile, but I AM a man. I am not a human who happens to be a man. Being male is fundamental to who I am in a deeper way than any of these other characteristics.”

“These other characteristics” must surely mean age, profession, and fertility status, not species.

He’s saying, then, that he’d still be himself if he grew older, or became a lawyer, or became infertile, but that he would be another person if he became a woman. Well, that may not be right, but it certainly isn’t silly. Consider, for example, that most transgender people take new names, and a name is a central symbol of identity.


PG 07.15.03 at 6:54 am

Much of this discussion seems way more complex than Phelan’s comment warrants.

I immediately stereotyped him as the kind of guy whose sense of self is strongly bound with identifying as A MAN, and who therefore feels threatened by the gender ambiguities that tend to crop up with same-sex unions.
I suspect that he would be horrified by Dan Savage’s boyfriend, who has taken on the “feminine” role of primary caretaker of their adopted children.

The more secure people feel about their own identities, the less disturbed they are by ambiguity.


Erik 07.15.03 at 9:08 am

While a TG may contend that gender is essential, they’re not talking about their physical sex. Which comes around and bites things like laws restricting marriages to physical male/female unions in the, erm.


David Weman 07.15.03 at 10:53 am

Well, that’s true.


dsquared 07.15.03 at 12:08 pm

Deirdre McCloskey certainly seemed to believe that being an economist was more fundmental to her than being a man …

Meanwhile, I will quixotically assert that manhood and economisthood are mere incidents to my personality, but that it is essential to my being that I am 30 years old. It is absolutely fundamental to who I am.


Ruth Feingold 07.15.03 at 1:58 pm

“Consider, for example, that most transgender people take new names, and a name is a central symbol of identity” (Mark Kleiman, above)

Yes — but many people also take new names when they enter religious orders (or get promoted within those religious orders — think of the Pope), go on the stage, get married, or enroll in a 7th-grade French class. You can certainly make an argument for each of these changes of condition being a form of change of identity (either all-inclusive, or situational), but does that mean that these particular identity changes are therefore essential?


Matt Weiner 07.15.03 at 2:29 pm

Byword, pg, etc–
You’re right that philosophical considerations about the metaphysics of essence are beside Phelan’s point–we wouldn’t convince him that gay marriage was OK, even if he was reading this and accepted our points. I like thinking about metaphysics more than about how people rationalize their anti-gay prejudices.

Mark–I think the name change may partly be due to the high correlation of name and gender. It would be awkward to go through life as a woman named “Matt” or “Mark.” Anecdotally, most TGs seem to choose names that share an initial with their old one. An interesting tidbit: One TG friend-of-a-friend obtained a new birth certificate with her new name. I don’t know whether that supports or opposes the idea that it’s a new person. The purpose wasn’t metaphysical–it allowed her to get legal ID with her new name on it, because she didn’t think it would be a good idea to out herself as TG every time she had to show her driver’s license.


SKapusniak 07.15.03 at 3:10 pm

Thinking aloud…

The dispute here is that Phelan views identity more in terms of binary yes/no answers, whilst Kieran’s question assumes more of a continuum (I least I that’s what’s going on).

Phelan is effectively saying that, given a list of everything about him, some things you could take away or change and he would still consider the result to be ‘Phelan’, others if you took them away or changed them would cause the result to be ‘not-Phelan’.

He has placed ‘being a man’ as one of the things that if removed would give the ‘not-Phelan’ outcome. He mentions some other things that wouldn’t have that result. It’s a very hard bright line. Either something on his list of traits would make him ‘not-Phelan’ if removed, or it wouldn’t.

He has not commented directly on whether swapping his being ‘human’ with ‘not-human’ would also cause him to be ‘not-Phelan’. I rather suspect it would ;)

Kieren however seems to be thinking in terms of ‘more-Phelan’ and ‘less-Phelan’, rather than ‘Phelan’ and ‘not-Phelan’.

In this model it’s almost certain that swapping ‘being a man’ with ‘being a woman’ we get a result that is ‘more-Phelan’ than if we changed ‘being human’ to ‘being a canary’. However, that argument doesn’t make a lot of sense in the yes/no model, you’re either ‘Phelan’ or you ain’t and in that model either of the two operations result in the ‘not-Phelan’ outcome.

I’m not sure which model works best for Holy Roman Emprerors…


JRoth 07.15.03 at 7:59 pm

I think skapusniak has nailed down the nugget of this discussion; therefore, I want to address another issue.

One, I hasten to add, that has already been raised by invisible adjunct: the relationship between gender and identity and societal constructs.

I understand and appreciate the reluctance to admit of inherent male and female identity traits (we can all agree on the male and female physical traits, yes?); it’s a slippery slope from “Many girls tend to play with dolls” to “All women should be legally required to bear and raise all the children they can.” But I think it’s useful to look at it this way:

Starting with the concept that “gender” is a social construct, there’s also “sex,” which covers more innate characteristics. Gender traits are largely arbitrary across societies – whether it’s men or women who wear their hair long, or who expose their legs. Sex traits are less arbitrary (although far from universal) – men fight wars, women tend to infants. Now here’s my point – both of these groups are overlapping sets within and across individuals. I’m envisioning a diagram with 2 centers – male & female. Gender & sex traits are denoted with different colors, and plotted according to relative position. For any number of characteristics, any individual will look like a cloud, usually centered around one of the two points. The sex traits will usually cluster more tightly, while the gender ones will vary much more. There’s a fair amount of overlap in the sex traits – Joan of Arc and George Bernard Shaw are flipped on warrior tendencies – while there’s a huge overlap in gender traits – my sister the rugby player, your father the home cook. Maybe this is pointless, but the mental image is useful for me.

The reason I bring it up is that asserting that there are no sex traits, only gender traits, is counterproductive. People sense (rightly, I think) that their identities are, in some ways at least, derived directly from their sex. Tell them that it’s society that makes a 8 month old boy choose a ball over a doll, and you’ve lost the argument – they won’t buy it. But if you insist that _each individual_ can be all over this map, with broad social tendencies to gather at the respective centers, then you sound reasonable, and you’ve made an argument for tolerance and open-mindedness.


Michelle 07.15.03 at 8:00 pm

Regarding a previous question:

Yes, you can have a human with an XY (male) genotype (What their genes are) and a female phenotype (sexual characterisitcs/parts).


There was also a fascinating article in Discover about this a couple of years ago.


Invisible Adjunct 07.16.03 at 12:23 am

“(we can all agree on the male and female physical traits, yes?)”

Actually, no, some people would not agree with this. At the extreme end of the social contsructivist spectrum, the sex/gender distinction (which was one of the major contributions of feminist theorists in the 70s and 80s) doesn’t go far enough: even to maintain the notion of two sexes is to construct a false binary.

I agree that this is counterproductive. Very few people outside a select subgroup of academics actually believe that there are no sex traits. I don’t think such arguments do much to strengthen the appeal of feminism. But there is so much gender reaction out there that I don’t know how to parse the distinction without lending support to the “boys will be boys and girls will be mothers” crowd.


Jeremy Leader 07.16.03 at 6:53 pm

invisible adjunct, the question of whether sex traits “exist” or not is a little tricky. First, you have to decide whether “sex” exists.

That is, can you divide all people into two groups, “male” and “female”, with every person fitting into exactly one group or the other? If so, how do you choose which group to classify someone in? Granted, any classification scheme is going to have a pretty easy time classifying most individuals, but any scheme I can think of ends up with a few tough cases. For example, if you use genetics to classify “male” and “female”, what do you do with individuals bearing various chromosomal abnormalities, such as XYY? Likewise, examining external genitalia runs into all sorts of edge cases: hermaphrodism, other deformities, and gender re-assignment surgery.

I imagine there are lots of classification schemes that would more or less arbitrarily classify the ambiguous individuals, but I suspect that any traits not being used for classification are not going to neatly divide up with one sex all having one form of the trait, and the other sex having a different form. For example, if you define the male/female distinction as “has/lacks an externally visible penis greater than x centimeters”, the only trait that you’ll find common in all males and absent in all females is that same penis.


dsquared 07.16.03 at 7:29 pm

>>For example, if you define the male/female distinction as “has/lacks an externally visible penis greater than x centimeters”, the only trait that you’ll find common in all males and absent in all females is that same penis.

Depends where you set the cutoff point, as the rabbi said to the bishop.

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