Free Will and Gender Identity

One of the reasons that belief in free will persists is because it so vividly feels like we have free will. This intuition is better than any philosophical, scientific, or religious argument for or against free will. We believe ourselves to have the ability to freely take actions of our own volition, despite much scientific evidence that our preferences, desires, and even behaviors are biologically and culturally determined.

This post was inspired by the following video:

In the video, Stephen Woodford of Rationality Rules examines Ben Shapiro’s supposed favorite argument for the existence of God. I won’t go into Shapiro’s argument (or lack thereof) for the existence of God (watch the video to see how muddled and confused it is), except to say that Shapiro asserts that his belief in (libertarian) free will is why he believes in God. That we have free will is not argued for or established by Shapiro, he merely asserts that he believes we have free will.

Arguments for and against free will abound online and in scholarly literature. I won’t go too deeply into it here, but you can see why I do not believe in free will here.

What interested me, however, were two things: if we have libertarian free will, then isn’t our gender identity something we are free to choose? And (regardless of the answer to the first question) if libertarian free will is something we believe through our intuition – through how it feels to be a consciousness in the world – then shouldn’t anyone who believes in libertarian free will also be committed to believing that a person who identifies as the gender opposite their sex is telling the truth?

The first question – whether our gender identity is something we have control over – is, in essence, adding a third prong to the nature vs. nurture argument. It is now nature vs. nurture vs. choice. It used to be argued that homosexuality was a choice, which is a canny move given that choice is an important aspect of morality. It began to be accepted that homosexuality and transgender identities have a biological component, though that has fallen out of vogue with the leftist orthodoxy. Now the predominant belief in academia (at least in the humanities for now) is that sexual orientation and gender identity are determined by cultural and political structures, namely power dynamics.

Someone like Ben Shapiro, however, who believes in libertarian free will would have to explain why, given that we are freely choosing beings, why we cannot choose our gender identity. Shapiro is an outspoken opponent of so-called gender ideology, and the phenomenon of transgender identity in particular. I would imagine that his opposition is based more on morality than metaphysics, meaning that if he could be convinced that transgender identity is real that he would be opposed to gender affirming therapies and medical interventions.

The problem, though, is that if we have libertarian free will, and hence our gender identity is freely chosen by our individual will, then our moral beliefs are also something we have freely chosen by our individual will. A person who subscribes to a religious doctrine concerning morals then freely chooses to adopt that moral code and (presumably) attempt to abide by it to the best of their abilities. Both clauses (subscription and observance of the moral strictures) have issues.

  1. The issue with the former clause: why should a person choose to subscribe to a particular religious moral doctrine? The answer is likely that it is commanded in the scriptures and teachings of the religion in question. This means that it doesn’t matter whether or not the moral doctrine makes sense, maximizes pleasure, is logical or internally consistent, or any other criteria a human might otherwise apply, because all that matters is that a higher power has commanded it. The adherent of the religious moral doctrine will likely argue that the moral doctrine does make sense and will maximize pleasure and all that since it was made to complement human nature; yet, if free will is part of human nature, then aren’t restrictions on free will antithetical to human nature? Besides, if God has free will, then how do we know that God’s commands are good and not just edicts promulgated by a powerful tyrant? This leads into things like intellectualism vs. voluntarism (of both God and humankind) and the Euthyphro dilemma.
  2. The issue with the latter clause: if you have free will and you have adopted a moral code, why would you ever choose to transgress those morals? In other words, if you are not determined by anything other than your own free will (e.g., biology, culture, the sinful nature of humankind) to choose the moral vs. immoral action, then why would you ever choose the immoral choice?

On the other hand, if our gender identity is not freely chosen by our individual will, then restrictions are placed on our individual will. The task then is to determine why some things are determined and others are not. An opponent to transgender identity like Shapiro would then have to show, for instance, why a person’s gender identity is determined but other beliefs are not (e.g., beliefs about the existence and nature of God, in climate change, and so on). Also to be explained are the results of adoption and twin studies that repeatedly demonstrate that biology is an important component in our preferences and desires; or why people hold onto beliefs in light of overwhelming countering evidence (i.e., if a person is free to choose their beliefs, why wouldn’t they adopt the beliefs that are objectively the most convincing, except that something has determined them to cling to certain beliefs?); or why I favor pleasure over pain; or why I would keeping “choosing” to feel empathy when it mostly causes me discomfort upon witnessing the suffering of others; or why I would be willing to lick the seat of a public bus for $1,000,000 but not for $10; or why I can’t choose to enjoy country music or the flavor of mint-chocolate desserts; and so on.

This post isn’t meant to be making an argument, but is a sincere inquiry. If the best reason to believe in libertarian free will is because it feels, subjectively, as if we do have free will, then why can’t this argument be used for anything else, such as gender identity? And if one does subscribe to libertarian free will, then are they not committed to accepting that something like gender identity is a choice (i.e., meaning that a person, if they choose, can genuinely and truly identify as the gender opposite their sex)? And if we put restrictions on libertarian free will (things like gender identity are determined by biology and/or culture) then what criteria must be met for some preference, decision, or belief to be solely or primarily within the domain of the will instead of some predetermined conditions (biology, culture, sinful nature of humankind, etc.)?