We haven’t always argued over who could use a restroom. Nor have we argued over how to enforce laws determining if a person is allowed to use a restroom. How did we get to this debate? It’s not like everyone had a convention and decided on the next major cultural issue. The answer, as with most issues, requires some philosophy and historical background. It’s a natural continuation of ideas from the 19th and 20th Centuries. Specifically, it’s a logical continuation of moral relativism as applied to culture. As Richard Weaver wrote in 1948: “Ideas Have Consequences.” We are dealing with the consequences of moral relativism. When society is unmoored from absolute truth, any aspect of society can be arbitrarily redefined.
Moral relativism is the overarching theme. You have to examine more closely to see the current “restroom debate” take shape. The first seeds for it came out of the cultural waves of the 19th and 20th centuries. Two culture waves are important: feminism and the sexual revolution. It’s important to note here neither wave was inherently bad, in fact both helped improve the lives of women. Expanding the right to vote and bringing women into equality under the law are two vitally important improvements to society. These were positive developments that fulfilled the Founding Father’s promise of liberty for all. However, these movements began derailing in the mid-20th century.
The first problem within these movements was moral relativism replaced absolute truth and morality as the foundation for critiques of society. The movements built their arguments on basic moral relativism: there is no absolute truth and we cannot know those truths if they did exist. This was done in order to attack areas feminism and the sexual revolution saw standing in their way to progress. American society was built on the idea that there are natural rights and morals built into the world. In order to attack natural rights and morality in place, the two waves used moral relativism and said there was no truth to previous morality. Which leads to the next logical argument: because nothing is true, everything perceived as true is only a construct of society.
Societal construct is a key phrase used. It means something that was created by the powerful in a culture (the powerful can be any group. In modern news, you hear “the establishment,” “the patriarchy,” and “the man” among many). It also means that if morality is only created by the powerful in a culture or society, it is ultimately not true because it is a facade/construct created by the powerful. It can change over time if society so chooses. The two waves recognized this and turned moral relativism on sex and gender roles and did two things: 1) They bifurcated the concepts of gender and sex. The two terms now described two different concepts instead of generally being used as one. Sex describes the biological characteristics of men and women, gender refers to the societal roles between men and women (or entirely new “genders” created by modern progressives). 2) Since there was no absolute form of truth, they accused any traditions of sex and gender as constructs of society. In other words, sex and gender roles were facades created by the powerful to keep minorities down. Historical, traditional, or biological definitions of sex and gender roles were ruled meaningless and discriminatory. Instead, the argument was replaced with: “People should be free to define themselves.” People latched on to this last sentence of self determination, ignoring the moral relativism underneath.
With no rules in place on how to construct sex or gender, and the arguments for any definitions fully politicized, the argument then moved to the following: People should be allowed to create whatever construct they want for themselves. At first this was used to show how men and women could perform similar roles within society. While it is perfectly fine to have both sexes in different roles, the philosophical foundation for this, moral relativism, is incapable of asserting proving why sexes can take different roles. It was left saying women can only have a different role because of “shifting societal values,” not, “women have inherent value as humans.” So you hear reports about “changing societal roles,” not, “men and women, being created equal, are intellectually capable of fulfilling equal career goals.” The distinction is important because natural law asserts men and women have inherent value, moral relativism does not. But because moral relativism was the foundation for this argument, it quickly began redefining sex and gender roles beyond what was intended by feminists and the sexual revolution.
This created the stage for the modern debate over bathrooms. This is where the moral relativistic case for transexuals comes into play. For a long time, if a person thought they were a man trapped in a woman’s body, or vice versa, it was treated as a mental illness. If a person’s mind shows a disconnect between mental and physical reality, then something is typically thought to be wrong. In most cases of mental illness, we see this as a fact. But the politicization of sex and gender roles has given a cultural argument to people claiming otherwise: there are no absolutes; you cannot determine sex and gender for a person who does not want those claims. Instead of approaching this as a mental illness, it is now discrimination for anyone to speak against the mental state of a person regarding sex or gender.
In a discussion over this point, a friend pointed out that since natural law gives people inherent value, shouldn’t they still be capable of defining their own definitions of sex and gender? After all, respecting that inherent value would mean accepting that person for what they claim. It’s a good point, but flawed, because natural law presumes a set order to society and the world. What we’re currently seeing is an attempt to go beyond the male/female dichotomy and have more than one sex or gender. This is beyond the natural order of the world. In other words, you can’t suddenly choose to redefine something it is not based on an individual claim. Definitions have meaning and removing a definition does not fit in natural law. Further, the reason these meanings do not change is because they are set by natural law, not society. These are immutable truths of the universe, not societal constructs as moral relativism claims. [1. I’m not going into the full mechanics of natural law, absolute truth, and definitional meanings in this piece. I’ve written about them in other pieces on this site. If you want a more in-depth explanation I recommend this primer and a discussion by J. Budziszewski, a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He also has a book on the subject that is considered a classic.]
To recap: the two waves asserted moral relativism as the foundation for sex and gender roles. Sex and gender have no set meaning now, the only reason we had set meanings before was because society built them. If society was the only thing that built sex and gender, then feminists and the sexual revolution could rearrange them and claim whatever they wanted, since there were no absolute truths. Societal roles for men and women were meaningless facades set up to put women and minorities down. This has left us with multiple factions attempting to build new societal facades and constructs to define sex and gender after destroying the previous definitions. We are left with people asserting they are something other than what they are biologically.
Finally, I want to cover two points: first on discrimination and the next on the self-defeating nature of the moral relativism we’ve covered here.
First, on discrimination: You’ll notice, only people who claim transgenderism are allowed to claim discrimination. This is because if you assert an absolute truth against their belief system, it is claimed as discrimination. Moral relativism gives them the cover they need to make this claim. Because truth is not absolute and can’t be known or agreed upon even if it exists, asserting anything contrary to them is an attack on their self constructed reality. Self-determination rules the day because no truth exists that can disprove the validity of self-determination. The point here: if you assert a truth, like sex is a biologically determined DNA fact, you’re immediately branded as hateful bigot. This isn’t a fight against opinions people can disagree on. This is a disagreement over the fundamental nature of truth. Absolute truth says they are wrong, to get around confronting this concept, they assert discrimination. As I’ve written, this is nothing more than a shame culture trying to silence dissent.
Second, the self defeating nature of the moral relativism argument: Moral relativists assert nothing is true and everything is a construct of society. The irony of this is that they are attempting to build a construct/facade for society and call it true themselves. Asserting self-determination as a moral truth is a form of moral absolutism. It is a person claiming everyone should affirm their personal decision as true. Ironically, there is no basis for truth in this claim under moral relativism. It’s nothing more than a claim backed up by an individual, enforced on society. There is no more basis for a self constructed facade to be true than a traditional facade under moral relativism. This is why you see the shame culture trotted out, because there is no argument that supports moral relativism or ideas built off of it.
Moral relativists may respond to me and say: if there is no absolute truth, we have no ability to say a person is wrong in their self determination – to do so is discriminatory and judgmental. This is also wrong: If there is no absolute truth, as they claim, then you can’t say a person has the right to self determination. That is an absolute claim. Moral relativism has no basis to claim anything is right or wrong – any attempt to do so violates the central core of moral relativism of there are no truths.
As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, the great irony of moral relativism is that it is self-contradictory. It states there are no absolutes, which is an absolute statement itself. Modern liberalism says sex and gender have no meaning, while forcing the world to recognize “new” roles. They are creating more and more subsets while claiming there is no such thing as a subset. The same is true of the bathroom debates, transgenderism, and any other topic that will develop from this line of argument. The problem is that there is no truth to these claims. They are philosophically self-contradictory and incapable of standing up to any scrutiny. Which is why claims of discrimination and shame culture are the main defense for these ideas. When compared to absolute truth and natural law, moral relativistic constructs for sex and gender are empty promises. Society cannot be built on the empty lies of moral relativism. Ideas have consequences, and unless we counter these ideas, we will continue to reap the consequences.