Some time ago Dr. Leonard Peikoff remarked on the morality of performing sex reassignment surgery. His conclusion: It’s immoral.
In late June, he answered a follow-up question on a related topic. Here’s my transcript of his comment:
[Reading the question from a listener] “In a previous podcast you said that it is wrong to go against nature by undergoing a sex-change operation–that the metaphysically given is an absolute. But by this definition gender is not metaphysically given because we can now change it if we so choose.”
I reiterate that the nature of man is immutable. Of course, there are freaks in every species but you don’t define the nature of a species by reference to freaks. You cannot change the sexuality of a person; you cannot change a woman into a man and visa-versa, no matter what hormones and what surgery — the end up lacking certain crucial capacities of either sex. And the best example of this is to see what kind of sex lives they live; what kind of pleasurable experiences they can get from sex. And from what I can tell and from what I’ve read, they simply mimic the sex act because they don’t have the pleasure part connected to the nervous system. Nature does give us an either-or metaphysical absolute. If you say, “Well, I don’t like nature’s choice. I wanna be the other sex,” you are rebelling against nature, against reality.
Now, let me say this: if it were true that by some kind of magic you could take a man and transform him into a woman, OK. I mean, I can’t oppose that, but there is no such magic. We’re talking about in reality. All you can do in reality is remove, destroy, mutilate.
Now, I want — you’re thinking of this as an example of rebelling against reality. This is an exact parallel to the sex change. There are parents, I just — somebody just sent me this article — who have had a child — the won’t release whether it’s male or female and they have decided to bring the child up in such a away that the child has no idea which he is and he will choose when he reaches maturity which he wants to be. You know, it’s a parallel to people who don’t say anything about religion or atheism and then when the kid reaches 18 that say, “Ok you study and pick.” But in this case, what do they have to do to keep him ignorant of what is, in fact, an absolute? They have to — what? Conceal his or her genitalia? Or tell them, “That doesn’t really matter. That’s got nothing to do with sexuality.” They can’t remove them because what if that’s they way the kid chooses? They’re going to have to give them the same clothes or they give them the opposite clothes? Are they going to promote 50% dolls and 50% machine guns? I mean, to me, no possible result of this except a dead kid. He’s completely finished. Because they’re trying to take a non-absolute position to try and say something inherent in the nature of man — he’s male or he’s female — and suspend it. That is just another version of trying to reverse it and both are just as corrupt. If you asked me — if any of you remember Elian [Gonzalez] the kid that got to Florida and then Clinton forced him to go back to Castro; we all bewailed the fact of how — what a disastrous life he would have — this kid brought up by these parents, in my opinion, would have a worse life than being brought up under a communist dictatorship.
This came up on the OHomos list and also because it is so breathtakingly wrong — even offensive — that I feel compelled to address this at some length. But where to begin?
First, “freaks.” I am going to assume benevolent intent here and take his use of the word to be a neutral reference to the unusual, outliers. So, let’s just move along and refrain from going on for a number of paragraphs about how backwards and offensive this remark would be taken by any native speaker of contemporary English.
Nonetheless, his argument that we do not define a species by the outliers is well-taken. Certainly, in our discussions of human sexuality, we would not regard homosexuals, for example, as representative of the whole of sexual identity of humans at large. However, it would be foolish to exclude them from our concept of human sexuality, as well. Gay happens. Deal with it.
Transsexualism also happens. I do not claim to have any deep insight into the nature of transsexualism, but from what I understand on Wikipedia, it is classified as a disorder, but not necessarily as a pathology. (I just learned this because I have the Google.) My point is that although it is relatively unusual, it does happen — and it isn’t necessarily a function of tragedy, abuse, or some sort of insanity. Given what I have read and understand about it, we also need not conclude that transsexualism is the result of some fundamental philosophical error or moral failing. What we do know is that some people can’t not be transsexual and the best route for them to achieve happiness in their life is to pursue a life as the other sex, even to the point of sex reassignment surgery (SRS).
Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden made pronouncements similar to Leonard Peikoff’s comments but in reference to homosexuality. Peikoff has since concluded in the light of science and reason that one might be perfectly moral as a homosexual. My hope is that he does a bit more reading on the topic of transsexualism to realize that his comments on this issue are equally uninformed.
I have no idea what he means when he refers to “crucial capacities of either sex.” I welcome suggestions for what the crucial capacities of men and women might be that transitioning and transitioned transsexuals lack.
I will say this: while the biological nature of sex is very clear and consistent– boys have a penis, girls have a vagina — the nature of gender is not. Gender standards may vary from culture to culture. Here in America, we think it is effeminate, like a woman, to wear dresses, but in Scotland and India and other places it is somewhat common for men to wear garments to cover their bottom half that aren’t divided between the legs. There are numerous similar examples, which only confuses me more about what the “crucial capacities of either sex” might be.
“[Transsexuals] simply mimic the sex act because they don’t have the pleasure part connected to the nervous system.” This comment is patently false. A simple search, again on The Google, will reveal numerous sources of information contradicting this assertion.
So, Dr. Peikoff’s conclusion, “if it were true that by some kind of magic you could take a man and transform him into a woman, OK. I mean, I can’t oppose that, but there is no such magic. We’re talking about in reality. All you can do in reality is remove, destroy, mutilate,” is wrong. It’s 2011, not 1311. We call this magic “medicine,” now. I may write to Dr. Peikoff to provide him with some more information in hopes that he will acknowledge his error.
And I do think his comments on this topic are made out of simple ignorance. I’m joking and snarky about it at points above, but I do think he believes he has all the information he needs and he’s simply providing his conclusions based on that information. It’s very wrong, very obviously wrong information.
There are two broader problems I have with his pronouncements on this, though.
- This level of ignorance here in 2011 is really pretty inexcusable. Do some fact checking before shooting your mouth off, OK? I know it’s Dr. Leonard Peikoff and this is just part of his routine, but it’s tired and I really believe it is detrimental — and getting worse — to the promotion of Objectivism in our culture. I mean, how can we expect people to take us seriously when our ideological leaders can’t even figure out Google.
- Objectivism rejects the intrinsicist notion that particular actions are morally wrong no matter the context. I can’t think of a single action that according to Objectivism has reached the level of a categorical imperative. So, if you don’t know why a person is pursuing SRS, how can you possibly declare that action immoral? Context matters.
One final thing.
You know how it annoys me when I see someone misrepresenting the views of those they disagree with. I think if you’re going to oppose someone’s arguments, you should actually oppose them on the merits of what they actually argue and not what you wish they had argued so that they would look like a crazy person.
The article that Dr. Peikoff is referencing is likely one from ParentCentral about parents who are attempting to raise a child without the societally-imposed notions about gender.
They are NOT hiding their child’s gender from himself. They aren’t telling other people and there’s no pressing reason that other people need to know. They are not trying to present their children (This is their THIRD child, by the way.) in an environment that is perfectly balanced with stereotypically male and stereotypically female (machine guns vs dolls) toys and clothes. They’re simply allowing their children to choose whether they prefer dolls or machine guns. We should also point out that at least one of their children does sometimes insist on being acknowledged as male even when he’s dressed like a princess.
I don’t necessarily agree with what their parents are doing — at least not to the extent that they’re doing it — but I don’t see it as especially problematic. It is certainly hyperbolic to say that it will kill the children or that it is better for them to live under a communist dictatorship than to suffer the confusion and oppression associated with being permitted to forego haircuts and wear pink.
But no matter how much I might disagree with these parents, it is transparently false and therefore unjust to say, “they have decided to bring the child up in such a away that the child has no idea which he is and he will choose when he reaches maturity.” Again, being generous, I prefer to think that Dr. Peikoff just didn’t read the article very closely and he does not know what these parents are trying to do. But still. It’s not like this information was hidden or difficult to find. It’s in the very article he was sent. So, his comments strain my ability to extend the benefit of the doubt here.