In the continuing saga of the rise to power of a subjectivist ontology, people who are suffering from gender identity disorder or body integrity identity disorder (and various body dysmorphias) are, with increasing frequency, able to find people willing to help ameliorate their belief that their body doesn’t match who they really are by changing their bodies to reflect their beliefs.
Maybe that means helping a woman blind herself by damaging her eyes severely. Maybe that means allowing a person to amputate a limb, or performing surgery to rearrange their genitalia to something more closely resembling the genitalia of the opposite sex. The imperative in these cases is to resolve the conflict between the person’s physiology and their beliefs about their true self, whatever those are.
As a philosopher, I’m interested in understanding the rational stopping point for arguments, so I want to look at another physiological characteristic often at odds with how people feel about themselves: age. It’s fairly common to say that someone has or is an “old soul.” It suggests that their true age is not reflected in their physiology. And there are certainly plenty of people perceived to be older than they are based on the maturity of their thoughts and actions, those signs of our true selves, whether those are rooted in a soul or not.
For years, I felt quite old relative to my physiological age because of how people perceived my behaviors and because of my own internal states which seemed to correspond to those more commonly felt by older folks. Was I transaged? Was my body at odds with my true self? And if so, should I have been treated for this condition by therapy to help me accept my body, or was there nothing wrong with me that couldn’t be resolved by means of hair dye to make my hair silver, plastic surgery to give me wrinkles and make my joints creak, and dressing on clothes typical for older people?
What if a child feels that they are old enough to have sex with their much older teacher? Should we criminalize sex between those whose true ages are above the age of consent? And what about those who feel that their true self is younger than their physiology would indicate? Should we criminalize sex between a man of 50 years who believes that his true self is 16 and a girl of 15 years who expresses consent?
And what about the teacher who has sex with a student and gets pregnant by him? Will we grant, when her lawyers show her Instagram feed and how she behaved like a much younger person for many years, that she is truly young enough that her actions don’t count as statutory rape? These questions are currently hypothetical, but that won’t last long. Because various government benefits are based on age and sexual consent is based partially on age, this question will inevitably have to be answered in our legal system.
It’s worth thinking about how we want to answer that question now rather than later, so that when the issue comes up we have a rational legal standard for dealing with those cases. I don’t know what that rational legal standard will be, but I think that it should be coherent with how we treat other cases in which a person’s belief about their true self is contrary to the evidence of their physiology.