One of the concerns around the recent controversy over Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner is that it seems awfully presumptive to assume that the athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner is mistaken about always feeling as if he ought to be a woman. And in truth, assuming that anyone is mistaken about their own persistent feelings is quite presumptive indeed. I do not presume to disbelieve anyone who claims to feel a certain way. I have no way of assessing a person’s inner states without a lot of advanced diagnostic tools, and even then I would not be able to assess them with certainty.
I am, however, less inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt when they claim to be able to accurately assess their true nature. Not just because human beings are notoriously bad at self-assessment according to extensive research (which we are), but because many of us have believed utterly ridiculous things about ourselves at some point in our lives. And I’m not referring to that people who believe that parts of their body which have been with them for their entire lives and are functioning properly need to be amputated or mutilated. Nor am I referring to those who suffer from body dysmorphic disorder. To the people suffering from those conditions, the facts don’t matter because they truly believe that they are correctly assessing the nature of their being.
And in the case of gender dysphoria as well, the facts don’t matter. I think that what we are seeing in our culture is a move from subjective morality to subjective ontology. And it makes some sense. If we assume it’s the case that an individual as a subject can determine the correct way to behave in all times and places, and that we have no objective standard of behavior to which we can appeal, then it makes sense to also view the individual as subject as able to determine their own true nature, and that we have no objective standard to which we can appeal that determination. Thus, that which is objective must be modified to conform with the understanding of the subject, because the subject is the ultimate authority with regard to the subject, unable to misapprehend their own nature.
This is of course not a position applied consistently. If it were, young boys running around claiming to be their favorite flying superhero would be arrested for vigilantism and perhaps violating protected airspace, people suffering from xenomelia would get amputations every time instead of psychiatric care, and doctors would be treating anorexic patients with liposuction. Cultural thought tends to shift gradually. It’s rarely the case that everyone decides to move from one coherent set of philosophical positions to a different coherent set of them. The trend usually starts small and gradually becomes an assumption against which many other propositions are tested.
All this is to say that I don’t know that we’re on the march to pure subjectivism. Cultural change tends to be a recursive function rather than a linear one. This trend may not get very far. Or it might go as far as gene therapy for people experiencing species dysphoria. And if it does get that far, the reaction against it later may be devastating. I have no way of knowing which it will be. However, I do suspect that the most likely result is that we will only believe that we can accurately assess our own true nature in instances in which it is either politically or personally convenient, because confirmation bias is a strong talent we have, a much stronger talent than our talent for self-assessment.
Either way, we as a species have been pretty unreliable at self-perception for millions of years and likely will continue to be until our species is replaced by something else. While it’s certainly possible that there are genuine cases of folks born with a set of genitalia that doesn’t match their true nature (even aside from cases of intersex individuals), placing full trust in each person to know their own nature with precision seems like just as dangerous an idea as allowing a politician to decide someone’s nature for them based on their chromosomes. There are no simple answers here, and I am very suspicious of both the conservative and progressive attempts to pretend that there are simple answers.