Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Philosophy: Asking the Wrong Questions (About Homosexuality)

When faced with a difficult philosophical quandary, it is often important to investigate whether or not the right question is even being asked. All too often, it seems to happen that two sides of a debate end up talking past each other, or arguing on an issue that isn’t actually relevant to the question at hand.

One such irrelevant questions has become central in the debate about homosexuality in the public sphere – whether or not homosexuality is “natural.” By natural, I take most people to mean genetically determined, while the opposite camp would call it a choice.

But what are we trying to get at here? There is, of course, a purely scientific question of whether or not homosexuality is genetic, but that is not the question as it appears in public debate. Rather, it seems to me clear that what is being investigated is of a moral nature. In the end, what people are fighting about is whether homosexuality is wrong or right.

Given that this is really what the debate is, the question arises – is the genetic “naturalness” of homosexuality even relevant? It seems to me that both sides of the issue have assumed it is, but might they be making a mistake?

There are many “natural” things most people would still judge to be wrong. There are genetic diseases, for example, and it even seems that there are born sociopaths. Both of these things are genetically “natural” and both are things we would eliminate given the chance.

Conversely, many “unnatural” things are quite good. I think, for one, that most Americans think government is ultimately a good thing , yet government could hardly be called natural, and a cure for cancer, if we developed one, would similarly be “unnatural.”

So, let us imagine homosexuality is, in fact, simply a matter of choice. Would the game be up? Would gay-rights activists throw up their arms in despair and admit they were wrong all along? Of course not, because the question of whether it is right or wrong still stands.

Or imagine the opposite case – homosexuality is proved to be genetic beyond any shadow of a doubt, so thoroughly that no one thinks it can be disputed. Again, those who oppose homosexuality would continue to do so, because the question of right would still not be answered.

I have mostly avoided this particular topic on my blog, and, for the most part, I plan on continuing this policy, as I’m not much of a fan of being flamed. However, I wanted to, without coming down on either side of the issue, air my thoughts on this confusion.

Thank you, and have a good night. 


  1. Justin Jason DeckerOctober 13, 2010 at 11:08 AM

    "There are many “natural” things most people would still judge to be wrong. There are genetic diseases, for example, and it even seems that there are born sociopaths. Both of these things are genetically “natural” and both are things we would eliminate given the chance."

    Are you REALLY throwing homosexuality in with potentially fatal genetic diseases and sociopaths? It may not be explicit, but it sure is implied through the context. That seems quite unfair, appalling even, and intellectually disingenuous to boot.

    Part of the problem with this analysis, I believe, is in how you define "right" and "wrong." The concepts themselves are relative. I, for one, do not place homosexuality anywhere near genetic disease. Sure, you're writing in the realm of the theoretical, but to argue that there are natural things in this world "that we would eliminate given the choice," in reference to genetic diseases and sociopaths in the context of a discussion on homosexuality is an intellectual stretch.

    Here's why:
    Genetic diseases KILL people. Sociopaths have the potential to KILL people. Homosexuality is merely a lifestyle that you disagree with.

    Also, I think your question as to whether or not we are asking the right questions--in reference to whether or not it is natural or unnatural--is also silly, because it would obviously be an important question to anyone who wants to consider the issue beyond the litmus test of "morality," if and only if it wasn't already virtually settled.

    Justin Decker

  2. wow. way to only read one paragraph.

    I'm curious as to how it is implied in the text that homosexuality = genetic disease. It was an example used to further his point. Nothing more.

    Besides, he said " There are many “natural” things most people would still judge to be wrong."

    Wrong. Not bad, evil, or dangerous. Wrong. Are you seriously trying to argue that no one judges homosexuality to be wrong?

  3. I was not saying homosexuality was like fatal genetic diseases or sociopaths. I chose those two as examples of things that I take to be both genetic and unambiguously wrong.

    On your reading, I just as easily could have been comparing homosexuality to curing cancer too.

    As for considering "the issue beyond the litmus test of 'morality'" I have two comments.

    First, as I said, there is the purely scientific interest of whether its genetic or not, and that does matter for all kinds of things.

    That said, the debate that is going on right now IS one about morality. It's pretty clear that the "conservative" side of the issue is treating it morally, but that's just as true of the "liberal" side.

    Just look at what the movements called - "Gay Rights." It's right there, "rights". Rights are a moral category. The people on that side of the issue are saying that homosexuality is okay, indeed many think it admirable. And, as I said before, if some one came out with conclusive evidence that homosexuality was not genetic, most of those who support gay rights would still support gay rights.

  4. Great post, Kevin, and something I've said all along. As a Christian who believes in original sin, the question of genetics is irrelevant. I say it's an inherited condition regardless of the studies!

    And that doesn't even touch on the "nurture" angle, that it may not be so much a choice as a result of environmental factors.

    But your point stands that this question is absolutely irrelevant.

    We need to acknowledge, right or wrong, that there are homosexual people in the world, so since that's not going to change, how do we respond, preserving human dignity, but allowing both sides to discuss their beliefs without name-calling and overgeneralizations.

  5. @Justin You're kinda missing the entire argument. "Wrong" is simply the category of things that are undesirable and should be changed. This category usually contains things like "actions that cause harm to others" but it is by no means limited to that. It can also include "actions that decrease the sustainability and biodiversity of the environment" or "situations that give one individual an advantage over another" or "lifestyles that evidence an improper distribution of human affect". It's not even necessary that each is equally wrong.

    That's all beside the point though. All Kevin's trying to say is that it is possible for an action to be Natural and yet still be Wrong. x∈{Natura} does not imply x is not contained in {Wrong}.

  6. Justin Jason DeckerOctober 13, 2010 at 2:06 PM

    By no means did I mean to cast this argument as having equated homosexuality with genetic disease, but I do believe the analogies used to "further the point" are flawed.

    Let me illustrate my point further:

    Assume homosexuality is at least in part genetic. So are some diseases. But diseases are not a moral issue, using your definition or mine (which is entirely secular), nor are they able to be differentiated between "right" or "wrong." Diseases are unambiguously destructive; not on a moral level, but on a physiological level.

    Also, morality implies a choice. One makes a choice to be moral or not, in any given circumstance. One can choose to be moral or immoral as they make their way through life, passively or actively. Morality or immorality requires a decision, consciously or unconsciously.

    That is why the debate over whether homosexuality is natural or unnatural should have a place in the discussion. If homosexuality is a choice, only THEN can it be judged against morality. But if homosexuality is as natural in the world as heterosexuality or the wind, as the evidence is increasingly showing, one cannot possibly declare it as being anything but amoral. If some are genetically predisposed to homosexuality, then they have not acted rightly or wrongly, but have simply existed.

    One may judge homosexuality to be wrong. But that person will be everlastingly frustrated, because those that are genetically predisposed to homosexuality will never have the opportunity to right their wrong--to have acted "morally" as opposed to "immorally."

    This debate could go on for ages. Of course rights are a moral category (believe that those secular-types have what they regard as morals, as well). But when I said "litmus test of morality," I was referring to how the question of homosexuality is often framed: sin or non-sin, as derived from scripture. That is a personal determination. But it does not take away from the fact that if and only if homosexuality is natural, then it can not be judged universally as right or wrong, moral or immoral, as it is simply a state of being that one has the opportunity to disagree with, but not declare morally inferior.

  7. Justin Jason DeckerOctober 13, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    For the record, I find this discussion incredibly intellectually stimulating and am not making personal judgments. That I assure you.

    I admit that I sounded horribly antagonistic in my first post, and for that I apologize. I was just overly-excited after a tremendous night of sleep.

    All is well and I hope UCLA is treating you nicely, Kevin.

  8. Even if homosexuality is genetic, there is still a choice, so there is still a moral dimension - namely, how to act on that choice.

    By analogy, there are people who have a genetic predisposition for alcoholism (I think it's safe to call alcoholism wrong) Those people still have a choice - they can not drink alcohol. Ever.

    Of course, this means that for them, doing the right thing is much more difficult. That's not fair, but it's the world, and it's one of the difficult questions that comes up a lot in ethics (usually under the title moral luck).

    Also, this will come up whether we're talking about nature or nurture. Someone who was abused as a child is more inclined to abuse in turn, etc.

  9. Being one who is fine with homosexuality as a phenomenon specifically in regards to religious contexts, I would very much like to support your dismissal of the question of the "natural." As Zizek, Morton, and other advocate an ecology without "Nature," so too I think it fitting to admit and ethics without "the natural."

    Anything perceived as "natural" or primordial is done so from the background of the unnatural, the human, thus it seems that anything can be regarded as natural. In other words one can equally say homosexuality is natural given a genetic predisposition or that its prevalent in the animal kingdom, or with equal fervor say it is unnatural given the animal kingdom, genetics, etc.

    The argument from the "natural" presupposes a viewpoint from which to the view the natural, i.e. religious view, philosophic, ethical, what have you. I think this is the interesting point you touch on here Kevin, namely that the natural always follows from how we view people, primarily ethically--the fact of the matter is that genocide, disease, ecological disaster, chaos, etc. are all equally natural--we tend to view the forest as warranting preservation but not the desert. Likewise we conceive of natural disasters as antithetical to "nature" because nature always symbolizes something other.

    All that to say that "the natural" functions along the same way--one party perceives birth control as unnatural, another retorts that then likewise beavers are unnatural for damming streams. The natural is the view we take on the world, not some transcendental, epistemic interaction with the Real itself. If something is found to "cause" something from some sort of biological determinism, this "determined" thing is only done against the background of one's worldview.

  10. Josh, I wouldn't actually have thought of considering "nature" as arising from the ethical, but I think that's a very good reading of the situation.

  11. @Justin That's a valid formulation of morality, but it is by no means the only possible one. Many Christian traditions have held morality as conformance to an ideal state, defining evil as any departure from that state whether by choice or nature. If this is the case, then certainly choices can be judged right or wrong based on whether they conform to the ideal, but also unintentional and unavoidable states of existence can be judged. Even if something is genetically mandated or "Natural", it can be Wrong because it is not as it should be. Consider a rapist or serial killer whose crimes are psychologically compulsory (and perhaps even genetically influenced). Certainly we wish to judge them Wrong even if they cannot change their behavior. Judging something immoral does not demand the practical possibility of moral compliance, only the ideal possibility of moral compliance. Put simply, the demands of morality are not necessarily limited to the capability of the moral agent.

  12. Justin Jason DeckerOctober 14, 2010 at 4:34 PM

    But is forcing one's definition of morality, or what they consider right versus wrong, onto someone else moral in itself? Seems to me to be an ultimate form of rejection and condescension--high and mighty I-know-the-answer-and-you-do-not, par excellence. It necessitates one suppressing a significant part of themselves--and in many cases, living what they know is a lie. What makes one happy has the potential to be psychologically and emotionally damaging to another in that case, which cannot possibility be considered "right."

    And one other point:
    Rapists and serial killers are dangerous in the fact that, by definition, they affect others on a level beyond morality. They inflict tangible physical, mental, and emotional harm on OTHERS. They are destructive in a physical sense, the best example being a serial killer killing, whereas homosexuality is a personal matter that has absolutely no physical implication for anyone else. Unless, of course, that homosexual is a rapist or a serial killer.

  13. To address your second point first, I don't know what you call the thing that makes inflicting "tangible physical, mental and emotional harm on others" wrong, if not morality.

    As for your first point, the view that forcing what you think moral onto someone else is moral gets you into something of a quandary, because then you are at the very least judging, and are quite possibly going to end up inflicting *that* view. (i.e. if you stop someone from enforcing their morality on someone else, then you're enforcing your morality on them).

    But more to the point, if you really believe that, than you should be against all law (or at least only support it for pragmatic reasons). I mean, after all, murder is wrong, but if someone doesn't think so, and enforcing our morality on them is wrong, then it's wrong for us to stop them.

    Now, you may have a rubric by which you judge certain moral acts to be so heinous as to need stopping (say ones that harm others) and some to be wrong, but not so wrong as to be damaging to society. That seems to be what you're ultimately trying to get at with your post.

    And, by the way, I would agree to a point here, though not necessarily with the terms. There's an older post of mine in which I talk about the role of law, and address this. Law is inherently moral, but the law can't make people moral. You're quite right that someone simply force to act a certain way will chafe against it. Law, I think, exists to create a framework in which basic moral life is possible (i.e. one in which a peaceful person won't be murdered by "stronger" men).

    That doesn't mean, however, that law aside we ignore morality in others. If we believe someone is seriously in the wrong, it's our duty to try and persuade them of it. I say persuade very purposefully. I do not mean intimidate, hurt, or hate.

  14. So without trying to sound argumentative, if homosexuality IS a genetic state AND you have the choice to just not do it, then why not just choose to not get cancer or down syndrome?

    And yes, it's exactly the same argument. I am heterosexual by genetics. It wasn't a choice. I was born and knew I like boobs. Some other boys wake up and know they want boobs.

    We are all creations of the Divine and the sooner we realize that He has called the shots and it's not up to us to decide, the better we will all be.

  15. The Chaotic Buddhist said, "if homosexuality IS a genetic state AND you have the choice to just not do it, then why not just choose to not get cancer or down syndrome?"

    Genetics are complicated. Well, duh actually, but I'm not here talking about the complexities of amino acids etc, but the complexity of just what something being genetic even means.

    Let me clarify. Genetics are predetermined and predetermining, but of what? For example, choice (if it exists) is in one sense created genetically. For, it is genes that build up brains and bodies, and in most cases it is brains and bodies that allow for choice. Whether I sit here and type or read a book is dependent on me having a body with which to sit and type, or read.

    This has another consequence, while I can't determine the form genetics gives me, I can choose what I do with it. That freedom is not arbitrary, but I'm inclined to think no freedom is. Freedom, by its nature, requires limits.

    There are also genetics which give us certain tendencies (as I said). An individual may have a genetic tendency towards alcoholism, but picking up a drink, at least the first time, is still his choice. This individuals array of choices is more constrained then what we might call the average person. Most people have at least three choices given to them in regards to alcohol: to not drink, to drink moderately in a way that does not impede there life, or to drink to excess. For the person with a genetic tendency towards alcoholism, the middle way isn't really a choice - they can either not drink, or drink to excess, but choice remains.

    And yes, there are genetic conditions that cannot be chosen - cancer* or down syndrome were your examples.

    My contention is that homosexuality either cannot be of the last kind, or at least that it is very unlikely that it is so. Keep in mind, we speak here of the act, the lifestyle, not the desire. In this realm, choice remains and so the question of morality remains.

    *Actually, even here there is some degree of choice. The choice is not absolute, but, if one knows of a genetic tendency towards cancer, one can go in for regular checkups, wear sunscreen, etc.