What Are We? The Three Answers Underlying Many Spiritual, Moral and Political Disagreements (And Why One Answer Is Better Than The Other Two) Post 7 Of 8

The third answer to “What are we” is that we are essentially nothing. Therefore each person should define his or her individual “essence” and pursue whatever activities he or she believes will lead to individual flourishing. On this view promoting the common good is nothing more than ensuring everyone has the freedom and ability to pursue one’s own definition of flourishing and “the good life.” But is this right? I think not. Here are three reasons why not…


What is “Postmodern Anti-Essentialism” (PAE) Anyway???

First it is important to understand this third view (what I’ll call Postmodern Anti-Essentialism, or “PAE” for short). PAE agrees with Physicalism that there is no shared, universal human nature that makes us what we are and defines objectively what human flourishing is. In short, PAE also rejects Substance Dualism.

But it goes a step further and rejects Physicalism, which is also an “objective” definition of what we are. The Physicalist says we are essentially a human body (a fundamentally physical thing). Yet this is still too “propositional,” “rationalistic,” “objective” and therefore constraining for PAE.

There simply is no one thing that defines all human beings. So PAE is deeply anti-essentialistic. What we are can only be defined individually, by choosing one characteristic and self-determining this to be one’s essence.

For instance, one may choose one’s ethnicity—I am essentially a person of color: white, black, Native American, and so on. More than any other feature, this is the fundamental reality of who I am and answers the question “What am I?”

As a result, everything else is understood and interpreted in light of this ultimate identity: my relationships, conversations, how I understand what good and bad political agendas and laws are, and ultimately what “the good life” is. That which promotes my ethnicity, even at the expense of others, is good. That which doesn’t is bad.

From this I identify my social group and band together in order to seek—not the “common good”—but that which is good for my identity group. I form social and political groups in order to advance this agenda.

Others choose not to take ethnicity as their ultimate, “essential” identity, but rather choose from any number of other characteristics—gender, sexual orientation, religion, class status, and so on. Ultimately the PAE definition of what it is to be human is defined “existentially”—in light of my experience and desires (as a “black” man, a “gay” woman, etc.) For instance, recently I read a news story of a new parent in Canada fighting a law requiring a gender be listed on the baby’s birth certificate. The mother said,

I'm raising Searyl in such a way that until they have the sense of self and command of vocabulary to tell me who they are, I'm recognizing them as a baby … outside of the restrictions that come with the boy box and the girl box…

This rejection of anything fixed and absolute is a defining characteristic of postmodernism. Being postmodern, this approach is enjoying much popularity these days. It fits well within the current cultural ethos of valuing complete freedom and choice in all things. But popularity doesn’t make it right or true. And so popularity doesn’t mean it will in fact lead to human flourishing and the common good. This is bad news for the many who espouse this view on talk shows, news shows, blogs and even in pulpits these days.

But the fact remains that pithy sound bites (“to each his own”), attacks on those who disagree (the ad hominem fallacy) and just saying “of course everyone knows…” (the bandwagon fallacy) are poor substitutes for good old-fashioned reasoning from evidence and true premises to a sound and valid conclusion. When thought about a little more deeply we find this definition of what it is to be human runs aground in three ways.


1. Socially: PAE does not lead to Flourishing or the Common Good

We have to live together—planet earth is not big enough for us to live in isolation, or within only our chosen identity group. We are forced to find ways to live together peacefully, hopefully in ways that are good for us all.

This was easier when there was widespread agreement that we are essentially the same due to a shared human nature. When faced with moral or social challenges we could come together and discuss what course of action would best lead to everyone flourishing. We could agree, at least in principle, because we all flourish the same way based on our shared nature (see my first post in this series). We had a basis for determining the “common good” in which to ground our decisions and laws.

However, if PAE is correct, moral and political debates will only become more contentious and fragmented. Public dialogue makes sense only if there is a shared human nature and therefore right and wrong answers to questions about human flourishing and the common good. If there is no shared human nature, as the PAE says, civic (and civil) discourse is of no use in determining how to foster human flourishing and the common good.

 Rather, public discourse will continue to devolve into name-calling and shouting matches. Gatherings for the purpose of discussing various views on public issues will continue to meet with protests, violence and shouting down the speaker advocating a different point of view. 

The political implication is that change is brought about not by civic discourse in order to agree on the correct course of action, but by political force alone. One group obtains enough influence or authority to impose its will on all others and silence dissenting voices. PAE finds its full and final expression in police states that have complete power to define what can and cannot be said. Dissenting voices are silenced through imprisonment or even execution.

Furthermore, if there is no shared nature that makes us all the same, and therefore equally valuable, there is no longer a solid basis for the idea of “equality” and treating one another with dignity and respectIf allowed to run its full course, this usually ends in the ruling class defining dissenters as “non-human”—not sharing what they define as the essence of being human. For instance, in Nazi Germany one’s essence was one’s ethnicity, and so non-Arians were discriminated against to the point of death camps.

 Alternatively, PAE may end in complete anarchy where each person is his or her own law. However, such states do not last long, as someone ultimately rises above this in order to impose his will on everyone else (what Nietzsche called the “Uberman” and Hitler saw himself as.)

These outcomes of PAE do not show it is the wrong view. However, they do “up the ante” for us. They show how important it is to choose the right answer to the question “What are we?” The implications of PAE should make us all want to look very carefully at the logical and philosophical assumptions underlying the PAE's answer to see if it can stand up to such scrutiny. I think PAE fails in both these ways.


2. Logically: PAE Can’t Be Consistent

A sign of truth is that a person can live consistently with their belief. Yet PAE fails here in significant ways. To be consistent, the PAE must grant that each and every person has the right, and even the responsibility, to define their own essence.

However, PAEs have a hard time allowing everyone to do so. For instance, if one decides to self-identify as essentially a racist, this would be unacceptable. As would one self-identifying as essentially a “homophobe.” Or as essentially a misogynist. The PAE quickly points out that this is wrong, intolerant, bigoted and argues laws should be in place to make sure no one self-identifies in any of these ways.

Notice the inconsistencies here. If we are not essentially anything until we self-identify, and so there is total freedom in what I am, then there is no boundary to limit how I self-identify. For instance, it is equally logically consistent to self-identify as a misogynist as it is to self-identify as a feminist. On what logical grounds can the PAE affirm one self-identification and reject the other?

The PAE will often appeal to an ethic of “tolerance.” Yet to be consistent tolerance itself must extend to tolerating all self-identifications. It is not tolerance if you only tolerate some choices (the choice to self-identify as a feminist) and not others (the choice to self-identify as a misogynist).

Furthermore, in the appeal to tolerance there is an implicit assumption of objective moral values. The PAE is claiming bigotry is objectively wrong. She is not claiming it is just wrong for her or her culture now. No, it is just plain wrong—for everyone, always and everywhere. I agree. But the PAE must be able to give a reason to defend her claim of universal, objective moral values. PAEs refuse to do so, for this goes against the postmodern assumption that all moral values are relative.

(I believe bigotry is objectively wrong due to the existence of the objective moral value of equality grounded in the Christian world view's belief that all people bear the image of God, and in Substance Dualism's belief that all people share a common human nature. But the PAE rejects these assumptions.)

Not only must the PAE accept all these self-identifications as equally valid, she must take any other possible self-identifications as equally valid as well. There are no grounds to say my self-identification is OK but yours is not. For instance, some choose to self-identify as other species (trans-speciesism). A recent article observes

Transgender has a challenger. . . . Lately there has been a lot of publicity about 20-year-old Nano from Norway, who believes she is a cat trapped in a human body. She likes to crawl on all fours. She meows and she purrs.

The PAE must grant this is equally normal and valid. Even if a person wants to self-identify as God, this must be accepted by the PAE. Yet we intuitively know that such self-identifications are signs of mental imbalances. The gracious and loving thing to do is to help such persons seek professional help, not affirm such delusions as valid and healthy self-expressions.


3. Philosophically: PAE Fails Compared to Substance Dualism

Finally, when attempting to answer the question “What are we?” the winning view must be a better answer than the other two. So the PAE must show how the substantial arguments discussed earlier in favor of Substance Dualism fail. I am not aware of PAEs even attempting to do so, much less being successful.

Nor do PAEs offer a robust philosophical argument in favor of their answer to the question. Rather this view depends on pithy sound bites like, “What is most important is being authentic and true to yourself.” This is not an argument—any view can come up with cute sayings. So we wait for the PAE to provide a more solid foundation for their view than Substance Dualism has offered for the view that we have an essential human nature.

Yet instead, PAE tends to rely on power, force and public shame to limit other views from receiving consideration. In this way PAE wins the public debate by default—other views can’t even get a hearing. Notice how often we hear of universities “uninviting” speakers with different points of view. If a non-PAE does speak, he is often booed and heckled to the point of silencing his voice. These are always the tactics when a view can’t stand on its own merits.



PAE attempts an anti-essentialist answer to the question “What are we?” This answer fails, as did Physicalism. Therefore the notion of human flourishing and the common good can only be supported by the Substance Dualist answer to the question. This has many implications. In my last post in this series I’ll discuss a number of these implications.

Until then, grace and peace.