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In my mind, one of the most important implications of qualitative individualism is that we human beings should not be defined by bodily or biological categories. I think that point has done a great deal to underlie various liberation movements of the past century. I think it is perhaps most visible in Simone de Beauvoir, who detached gender roles from biological sex and warned us against an “essentialism” that tied sex and gender so closely together. The increased acceptance of people being transgender, I think, is the next step in a process that began with Beauvoir: my biological genitalia do not define my gender identity. I view the struggle for racial equality in the light of this ideal as well, as Prince Ea does: skin colour or related phenotypical characteristics should not define who we really are.

Beauvoir’s critique of essentialism may be what appeals to me most about the existentialist movement. It says that we should be able to define ourselves, rather than being stuck into ascribed categories that we were born with and cannot escape. It may even be the thing that appeals to me most about postmodernism. Benedict Anderson once mentioned to his class that Jacques Derrida’s experience of being constantly labelled as “Jew” in his childhood gave him a lifelong hostility to being classified.

This sympathy puts me, and most of my contemporaries, at some distance from a number of classical philosophical traditions. Those traditions often prescribed separate functional roles for men and women. For Confucius the essence of proper human living is to structure the social order by five relationships, one of which is that between husband and wife; Mencius specifies that this particular relationship should be characterized by differentiation or distinction (bié 別). Mencius spells out such a distinction with an example from the Book of Rites: “A prince ploughs himself, and is assisted (by the people) to supply the millet for sacrifice. His wife keeps silkworms and unwinds their cocoons, to make the garments for sacrifice.” (Mencius 3B:3)

Confucius and Mencius accompany this distinction, as is so often the case with gender distinctions, with subordination: “to be docile (shùn 顺) is the Way of a wife or concubine” (Mencius 3B:2). Fortunately, I think, relatively few would defend such explicit subordination today. But there do remain a large number of people who defend the complementarity described in the passage about ploughing and silkworms; contemporary conservative monotheists, especially, often take up a complementarianism that views men and women as naturally having distinct but equal roles.

I disagree with such a complementarian view and I imagine most of my readers do too. That view is certainly far away from the ideals of the transgender movement. But it is worth thinking about why we disagree with such a view. We may be suspicious that the equality supposedly put forth by complementarianism is not real equality. I think that’s a reasonable suspicion, and that might be reason enough to oppose it. But I suspect the majority of us would object to complementarianism even if we could be assured it was real equality between the male and female roles. I certainly would. And we should think about why.

My own rejection of the complementarian view has to do above all with a rejection of natural teleology (of a sort found in Aristotle as well as Mencius), and a corresponding acceptance of individual teleology. The modern post-Darwinian biological synthesis has given us compelling reason to believe that there is nothing naturally ordained about biological adaptations: they are the products of random chance, which we find ourselves thrown into. Against the natural lawyers, biology is not the source of our true purposes.

Instead our true purposes, our true teleology, should be seen as individual teleology: we each have our own purposes that are tied to our own true natures. Those true natures, in turn, come out of our deeply felt cares and aims. Contrary to the existentialists, our cares and aims are not produced by an act of arbitrary will or choice. They do come out of our biology in a certain sense, in that biology together with history gives us our cares and aims, in a way that we can shape but never have full control over. (That point is what Prince Ea’s Cartesianism misses as well). But what biology is not, is determinative. Our biological sex, let alone the phenotypical characteristics we typically refer to as “race”, does not determine our cares and aims, and so neither of these should not place any limits on who we are or what we can become.

That is not to say that group identities should never matter. Culture, especially, does do a great deal to constitute who we are and what our ideals are, much more than biological categories do. Anyone who has lived at length among people who speak a different language knows that they often think differently in relatively predictable ways. The culture in which we are raised does a lot to constitute our individuality, as Herder saw. Just as much, there are cultural identities that we are not born with which still constitute us, which choose us in a way we have only partial control over: thus I am constituted in part by being Buddhist, in a way that I take to be rational but not a matter of choice as such.

I recall long ago reading the social geographer Susan Smith rejecting the concept of “ethnicity” because it conflates race and culture, and I have come to find myself in great sympathy with Smith’s view. This is because, as our life courses come to determine our natures and teleologies, our cultures can in a sense change to reflect that: thus I can become a Buddhist, or an American. But race – like caste – is typically not considered something we can change, or have any control over. For that reason, race is something that holds us back; it stops us from truly being who we are (in a way that being culturally Caribbean-American or Cherokee or Marathi does not). I think we would be better off without it. In the next couple weeks I want to explore some implications of that point.