Over ten years ago, I invited readers to submit their thoughts as to what grand themes will dominate the 21st century and highlighted some of the responses. My own view at the time was that, despite the specter of radical Islam and the usual issues of war and peace, there was one issue that would trump them all, and I still feel the same. It is the looming cultural, philosophical, and religious conflict on the question of the meaning of human nature because of the growing capability for man to transform his very nature due to the advances in the biosciences and neurosciences. As a result, we will be forced to return seriously to the questions of who are we and why are we here in a way that has been too long absent from public discourse. And I fear that our public intellectual leadership has been so undermined by the postmodern drift away from the discipline of philosophical pursuit of moral truth that we will not be equal to the task.
For example, this week I watched a segment of CBS Sunday Morning which explored the phenomenon of young children who are challenging their sexual identity. In other words, they came into this world as either boys or girls but want to reverse that identity and their parents, while hesitant, are generally sympathetic. And these are children of ages 4 to 12! National Review reports that Facebook gives its users 51 genders to choose from and that we have accepted the notion that sex is biology, but gender is what we choose for ourselves. This is a manifestation of the “mystery passage” in the Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey in 1992: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”, the ultimate in what has been called “postmodernist jurisprudence”. Brave new world, indeed.
There are implications for this trend that go far beyond the same sex marriage debate and will make the abortion wars of the past 40 years mild by comparison. There will be political decisions of enormous impact and complexity on these and related issues over the next several years. As I said then, to hope that these decisions can or should be made in a morally neutral vacuum is a delusion and to delegate them to the scientific and professional “bioethicists” (or worse, the judiciary) is a dereliction of duty in a democratic republic.
If you want a good read on why the American body politic seems so polarized and dysfunctional, look no further for a leading indicator. It’s the culture, stupid.