Recently a former Olympian athlete and c-level pseudo-reality star has announced his attempt to turn himself from a man into a woman through the use of plastic surgery, copious amounts of make-up, and photo-shop. Lauded for his courage by both ESPN and the White House (who seem to have forgotten the meaning of the word), the result has been a showering of attention and adulation by most of society in general and the media in particular. Reasons to oppose the attempted transition, such as those given by John Hopkins Psychiatrist Dr. Paul McHugh, are easily ignored by simply dismissing the author as an old white guy.
Nonetheless, lost in the excitement of a man trying to turn himself into a woman has been real discussion of what it means to be a man or a woman, and how personal identity is determined. And this is largely a question of world-view. A human being is either a body and a soul, a body alone, or a soul alone. As far as I can tell, these account for all the possibilities. Which of these is true will determine how one should view trans-gendering.
The Platonist Option
For the ancient philosopher Plato, man was essentially a soul. This view was popular in the late antique world and held as well by Descartes in the Early-Modern. While, in this material world, man appeared as body and soul, the body was merely the prison of the soul, a deadly weight on the soul from which the soul hoped to escape. For Plato, the whole material world was simply a lesser copy of the more real, better, and higher world of forms and the soul hoped to escape from its prison to that world. Hence, in this world-view the real essence of the person was the soul. The body was unnecessary and, indeed, undesirable.
The Medieval Option
This may also be called the Aristotelian or the Thomistic option (from the Catholic Philosopher Thomas Aquinas). In the Medieval option, popular after the revival of Aristotle, the student of Plato, man was made up of body and soul, but this union made the complete man. Aristotle broke with his teacher; for him the body was not the mere prison of the soul or real man. Rather, the body and the soul together made the man. A corpse was not a man- that was a body without a soul; but so too a ghost is not a complete man- that would be a soul without a body. For the medievals, the soul was the form, or blueprint, of the body. The soul gave the body the form it took and the union of the two, soul and body, made for the complete person.
The Materialist Option
Also a very old option, though some historically informed moderns think this a new one, the materialist option holds that the soul does not exist and that man is simply matter. It was the position, the best I can tell, of Lucretius and the Epicureans, as well as many moderns. This holds that only the material world exists and hence man is only matter, a body with no sort of soul at all.
World-view and trans-gendering
A logically coherent account of trans-gendering is obviously impossible on the medieval view of man. The trans-gendering person is essentially claiming that he is a man trapped in a woman’s body. That regardless of what his body is, the real him, the inner him is a woman. On the medieval view of man, this is simply impossible. The soul is the form of the body and so a conflict between body and soul is impossible.
What about the materialist option, so popular today? On this view man is only a body. But if man is only matter, then this seems to make the concept of trans-gendering implausible. If man is only a body, if he is his body, then he can hardly have a real self inside. There is no inside or outside, there is only his body, which he is. For a materialist to claim that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body thus seems logically incoherent. (2)
This leaves only the Platonist view where man is a soul trapped in the prison of the body. Man is his soul and the body simply a sort of instrument that man uses. Here, a man could claim that the real him, the inner him, is actually a woman and is trapped in a male body. Hence, this view seems to the only one on which trans-gendering has the potential to succeed (3). It would require that a person accept that souls are gendered (hence a female soul trapped in a male body). The view of souls as gendered would probably not be a problem for a Christian, but might be difficult for a modern person who typically holds gender to be a social construct. It would also require the trans-gendering advocate to explain how a female soul came to be trapped in a male body in the first place (4).
Unfortunately for the trans-gendering advocate, the Platonist view has gone well out of fashion in the modern world. This is largely because of increasing influence of materialism, but Platonic style dualism faces formidable philosophical obstacles of its own. If a person is only a soul using a body (the soul is the real him), then as Pruss points out, the government, which has the right to tax my property, could take a kidney by the power of taxation. A man has never kissed his wife (only her body, which is not the real her), and rape becomes a mere property crime (5).
Ultimately then, it seems there is really no world-view that allows for a logically coherent account of trans-gendering. The most promising possibility is platonic dualism, but that seems to face over-riding obstacles; why trans-gendering remains so popular anyway is a separate question for another time.
(2) The only alternative for the trans-gendering materialist that I can think of is to claim that is a female brain trapped in a male body, but this doesn’t seem to work either. First, it seems to suppose a strong distinction between brain and body that isn’t possible on the materialist view. The brain is simply part of the body. Indeed, according the a standard view, the brain is the central operating system/computer of the body; given this, it is not easy to see how there could be the huge gap between brain and body required by trans-gendering proponents. Furthermore, if the brain acts on the body, and Bruce Jenner has a female brain, then his brain should be affecting the body, ie, we should see some outward signs like estrogen imbalance or other. My thanks to Erick Chastain for pointing this out to me.
Much of the idea for these remarks came from Fr. Robert Baron, here, who pointed out the Gnostic implications of the standard trans-gender advocate.
(4) Which could only lead to further absurdities like the idea of divine error or pre-existence of souls floating around and erroneously entering the wrong body.
(5) Some of these given by Pruss here: http://uffl.org/vol12/pruss12.pdf