Capacities, Rights, and Essences: Part 3 – Essences

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

There are three common bases for moral reasoning that drive me crazy: capacities, rights, and essences. They bug me because they don’t, and can’t, work even though they dominate the popular discourse. They are different in most ways, but I believe their appeal is what they have in common. I will look at each one in turn before coming to their commonality.

What do BLM and the KKK have in common? How about Trans-activists and transphobes? Zionists and antisemites? Chauvinists and feminists? They all believe in some form of essentialism. It’s an incredibly pervasive viewpoint and I hate it. Many of the people who argue for essentialism probably don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing. I thought if I try to explain why I hate it so much, maybe we can work towards eliminating it.

This hatred goes back a while. I remember a conversation I had when the Rodney King trial was happening. The person I was talking to said to me, “It’s awful what the cops did to him. It’s not his fault he’s black.” I agreed with the first part, but I was so taken aback by the second that I didn’t know how to respond. It was the word fault, if you couldn’t guess. It implies that there’s something wrong with being black. After a bit, I ventured, “There’s nothing wrong with being black,” and she responded, “I know. You know what I mean. He didn’t choose it.” I’ve been dissatisfied with that conversation for the past thirty years. At the time, I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t articulate it and I didn’t pursue it.

Now I realize that my interlocutor was engaging in a kind of essentialism. Her focus was on what Rodeny King was. She was missing the fact that it didn’t matter, on any level, that King didn’t choose what he was. The cops would have been just as wrong if he had chosen his skin color. No choice that he could have made would have justified that treatment. It’s frankly weird that his lack of choice in his features was brought up at all. And, intentional or not, this sentiment still implies that there is something wrong with being black.

One of the more common ways that essentialism rears its head is with the “Born This Way” slogan used by the LGBTQIA+ community. There are a few things that go through my head whenever I hear it. First, it’s obviously committing the appeal to nature fallacy. Just because something is natural has nothing to do with whether it is good or acceptable. Second is just kind of a general, “Who cares?” And third is that it’s sneaking in the idea of choice from my Rodney King discussion. LGBTQIA+ people shouldn’t be protesting that they don’t have a choice. They should be letting everyone know that there is absolutely nothing wrong being LBGTQIA+. It wouldn’t matter one bit if it were a completely free choice.

It is ironic the way marginalized groups and their oppressors engage in the same type of reasoning. Both say there is something essential about the group that sets them apart, makes them different. The difference between the advocate and the bigot is whether they think the difference is something to be celebrated or something to be condemned. I understand why the bigots choose these arguments. They don’t have any good arguments to use and appeals to nature can be rhetorically effective. I’m baffled why the good guys don’t do better.

I’m on the fence whether essences are even real. But, even if people have essences, they have nothing to do with any person’s moral worth. Since people like talking about pronouns, it might be easiest to think of it as confusing what and who. Morally speaking, it doesn’t matter what, it matters who. We should all remember that.

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