By Stephen Kessler, Ed.D.
The issue of transgenderism and its various forms is polarizing. The left wants to empower transgendered people and endow them with their ( supposed ) rights to use whichever toilet they want. Those on the political right see them as either suffering from mental illness or as a potential threat to the safety of girls and women in various changing and locker rooms.
The moral foundations of these two positions reveal the deep divisions between liberals and conservatives. Liberals, in the vein of their patron saint, Jean Rousseau, believe that human beings are born pure, benevolent, and naturally good, but society corrupts us. By fixing society, we can therefore fix the world and create an equitable and happy civilization.
Conservatives believe that we were born neither purely good nor evil, but with a dualism. We are all capable of doing great good and great evil; there’s an angel on our right shoulders, and a devil on the left. The conservative believes that the devil on our shoulders is in charge of our unruly passions and appetites. These passions and appetites necessitate restraints on them to prevent them from running amok.
Let’s compare and contrast Rousseau ( 1712-1778 ) and Burke’s ( 1729-1797 ) thoughts on this issue. Rousseau believed that:
“The fundamental principle of all morality, upon which I have reasoned in all my writings and which I developed with all the clarity of which I am capable is that man is a being who is naturally good, loving justice and order; that there is no original perversity in the human heart, and the first movements of nature are always good.” (Rousseau, as quoted by Blum, 1986, p. 103)
The natural goodness of men means that we are devoid of an evil inclination. This natural goodness makes all of our actions benevolent, so long as we mean well. As Rousseau said later, “I give myself to the impression of the moment without resistance and [even] without scruple; for I am perfectly sure that my heart loves only that which is good” (as quoted by Ryn, 1978). Here, we understand what Rousseau believes: that our natural goodness made all our actions moral and just. All one needs to do is, “listen to his heart and yield effortlessly to its pleasant command” (Ryn, 1978, p. 145). What this amounts to is all that matters is that we feel good about what we’re doing and that our intentions are pure. The result of our feelings and actions? Not so important to Rousseau and his disciples.
Unlike Rousseau, Edmund Burke was concerned with the results as well as the intentions. He said, “They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill” (Burke, as quoted by Kirk, 1990, p. 96). Burke understood that meaning well and actually doing well are two different things. At the trial of Warren Hastings, he said we, “Will not judge of his intentions by the acts, but . . . will qualify his acts by the presumed intentions.” It is on this preposterous mode of judging that he has built . . .his conduct ” (Burke, as quoted by Stanlis, 1986, p. 179)- which is to say that meaning well is irrelevant if your actions cause harm.
Burke did not believe in the natural goodness of men either. Burke believed in the dualism of the Judeo-Christian religion. For him, he was always concerned with our evil inclinations and the restraints they necessitated. He said:
“Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” (Burke, 1791)
Burke always knew that when the restraints on our passion and appetites are removed, “a life of absolute licence tends to turn men into savages” (Burke, as quoted by Stanlis, 1986, p. 134). He further felt that when you, “Leave a man to his passions . . . you leave a wild beast to his wild and capricious nature” (Burke, as quoted by Stanlis, 1986, p. 168). Burke, ever fearful of our unruly passions and appetites, believed restraint was of the utmost importance in life because hard-wired in human nature is our evil inclination that cannot be eradicated.
As Melzer (1990) said of Rousseau
“The political system is the source of all evil and therefore, through revolution, men can aspire not only to change rules but to transform the human condition itself. Such political messianism, at the heart of most modern revolutions, grows directly out of the thought of Rousseau.” (p. 262)
Essentially, with positive legislation and social engineering, the contemporary liberals, who are the disciples of Rousseau, feel they are able to change human nature. Because society is the evil which corrupts our natural goodness, by simply adjusting society, we’ll be a step closer to perfection. Rousseau said, “the first of all goods. . . is freedom” (as quoted by Melzer, 1990, p. 91). Melzer further said that, “In short, Rousseau attempts here to bestow on virtue the splendor of self-creation, absolute freedom, or what later came to be called ‘autonomy’” (1990, p. 105). Autonomy and freedom are the hallmark of human action for Rousseau and his disciples, believing it is the first and most important step towards transforming human nature for the better.
Case in point, the segregation of genders in restrooms / toilets and locker rooms. To the disciples of Rousseau, these are restraints imposed on us by society that prohibit the natural goodness of men and women from shining through. These restraints imposed on us are corrupting and immoral. By allowing transgendered people to choose their own restrooms, they are achieving the highest level of human action, freedom, and autonomy.
To the conservatives of today, who also believe in the evil inclination that lurks inside us all, removing both the legal and moral prohibitions and stigmas against entering a changing room of the other gender, is to invite disaster. Such conservatives believe that the issue of whether to alter one of our oldest and most axiomatic institutions, namely separating men and women while undressing, in order to satisfy a tiny percentage of our population, is one that should be resolved by common sense, and above all should not be difficult. The absurdity of doing so is clear. But as Burke said
“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.” (Burke, 1790)
The conservatives are concerned with opening the floodgates to impropriety for the convenience of only a tiny number of people. If these floodgates are opened, they believe, the passions and appetites people have for sex, especially men, will run amok and lead to the worst of places.
It should be axiomatic that allowing a person to pick and choose his or her restroom of choice will help only a small few, yet open many to danger. In their zeal to show how virtuous and kind they are, the left thinks they are, as Burke said, “combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature” (1790, p. 47). The left, ever in denial about human nature, willfully pretends it does not know the nature of men. By this intentional ostrich-like burying of its head in the sand, it is enabling actual predatory behavior and encouraging real rape-culture.
Perhaps it has less to do with right and wrong, and more to do with beating your opponent. Burke once said that there are those “who are more angry with those who differ from them in their particular plans and systems, than displeased with those who attack our common hope” (1790, p. 150). This underutilized quote articulates the idea that we are often more concerned with winning and defeating the opposition than in doing what is right.
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” (1929)
This idea is known as “Chesterton’s Fence.” The liberals are in a hurry to tear down Chesterton’s fence, believing in the natural goodness of men. They believe that the restraints imposed on about which restroom we can enter is a fence which must come down. They do not recognize the possible function performed by our laws and mores in this instance. By allowing the transgendered community to pick and choose their facilities of choice, they believe they are helping the downtrodden. To the conservatives, they are helping a few, but enabling the evil inclinations of many. The conservatives know that these rules serve a purpose- a purpose the liberals will soon learn only through agony.
We are ultimately left asking ourselves one particular question: is it more valuable to enable the good while also enabling the bad, or is it more valuable to prevent the harm while preventing the perfect?
According to psychologists Kahneman and Tversky’s “Loss Aversion” theory (Lehrer, 2010), the answer is clear. “Loss Aversion” is the idea that the sting of a loss is stronger than the elation of a victory. Winning is less powerful than losing. The application here is quite simple: allowing the Caitlyn Jenner’s ( see, NOTE below ) of the world to freely change and relieve themselves wherever they want to, is a lesser good than protecting women, and more importantly young girls from sexual assault in non segregated environments.
To conclude, in Think Like a Freak (2014), Levitt and Dubner, the authors of the Freakonomics book series, list off well intending policies that had dismal consequences. In India, a British imperial colonist wanted to eradicate the deadly and poisonous cobra snakes in the area. He offered money for every dead cobra snake brought to him. This would surely incentivize people to kill the snakes and make the area safer, right? How could it do anything but?
What happened was the exact opposite. The local Indians began breeding the snakes specifically for the cash prize offered by the British. Once the British got wise to the hustle, they ended the program. The Indians then asked themselves what they needed with all of these deadly and poisonous snakes? The answer was they didn’t need them. They then released them into the wild. In their effort to eradicate the cobra problem, they actually made the problem even worse!
In a few years from now, this issue of multi-sex bathrooms and changing rooms will no doubt be seen in the same way as the British attempt to eradicate cobras in India. We may have corrected a minor ill- the inability of people to change exactly where they want, only to create a more obvious and graver ill- a much reduced security for women. We must reestablish the sense that struggle between good and evil is something that ultimately takes within the individual. We must not ignore the hard wiring that is deep in human nature. We must stop blaming society for our personal problems. We must, as Burke warned us years ago, voluntarily accept restraints on our passions and appetite’s. If we continue to blame society for all our ills and live without restraint, our society will fall like all the other societies before it.
NOTE: Caitlyn Jenner is an American athlete who was born Bruce Jenner in 1949, but who announced that she had transitioned into Caitlyn Jenner in July 2015.
Blum, C. (1986). Rousseau and the republic of Virtue: The language of politics in the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornel University.
Burke, E. (1791). Letter to a member of the national assembly.
Chesteron, G.K. (1930). The thing: Or why I am a Catholic. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead, and CO.
Kirk, R. (1990). Our conservative constitution. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway Publishing.
Lehrer, J. (2014). How we decide. New York, NY: Marine Books.
Levit, S. & Dubner, S. (20143). Think like a freak. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Melzer, A. (1990). The natural goodness of man: On the system of Rousseau’s thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
Ryn, C. (1978). Democracy and the ethical life. Baton Rogue, LI: Louisiana State University.
Stanlis, P. (1986). Edmund Burke and the natural law. Shreveport, LI.
Stephen Kessler, Ed. D. is the Edmund Burke Society Fellow at the Russel Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal ( among our American links ). He recently completed his doctorate in Higher Education Administration from the University of Rochester, N.Y.