Monday, July 13, 2009

What is it to be human?

(I posted this comment over at Reclusive Leftiist, I have slightly cleaned it up here).

Abortion is an intractable issue because it is one of those "what does it mean to be human?" debates.

The war against human sexual diversity is all about "what does it mean to be human?" Catholic (and Orthodox) natural law theory defines people as heterosexual-by-nature so same-sex orientation is a "false form" of the human ("objectively disordered" is the current jargon term). So nothing they want in terms of their orientation counts or has any standing. The evangelicals buy into that through cherry-picking Leviticus and St Paul's use of natural law theory (almost certainly from Philo of Alexandria).

Of course, once you get into the game of "false forms" of the human, extermination is the natural endpoint.

The same groups notoriously define a fetus as human. So a fetus counts as a full human for moral purposes, but a same-sex oriented person does not.

The other link is all about sex. Since the One God is solitary, the One God is not sexual, so sex separates us from the divine EXCEPT in its creative aspect, so the only thing that justifies sex is its ability to create life and bind life-creators.

It is all very coherent, if you do not let things like the issue of forcing women to give birth and systematic cruelty towards your fellow humans bother you.

There is also a lot of effortless virtue involved. Heterosexuals deciding that same-sex activity is evil are not giving anything up. It gives a sense of virtue requiring no effort (apart from completely refusing to give the other person any credence).

Men deciding abortion is wrong are also not giving anything up. The situation with women is obviously, indeed notoriously, more complicated. Such as how motherhood fits into the sense of being a woman. But the thinkers who worked the details of the system out were all men. Typically, celibate, unmarried men.


  1. "There is also a lot of effortless virtue involved" -- I never thought about it this way before, but you are absolutely correct. No wonder then that the most outspoken religious opponents of homosexuality are those who are the most self-righteous and "virtuous".

  2. I believe bigotry has a logic to it. There is a lot of literature about what bigotry means to the sufferer of bigotry, there seems to be much less attention to what bigotry offers to the believer in it. That, however, is surely crucial to understanding it.

  3. I find your articles very interesting and they have many good points. I just wanted to comment on what you said about Catholic teaching considering homosexuals as non-human. I don't think this is true, Catholics still consider them human; they are not labeling the people as wrong but their actions as wrong. This is a huge difference I think. As a Catholic I have been taught to strive to love all people and homosexuals are people too. But that doesn't mean we have to approve of everything they do but we don't shun them either. No one is perfect and everyone had struggles, that includes Catholics. I know I'm really far from being virtuous.

  4. I am not claiming that the Catholic position is that homosexuals are non-human, but that they are a lesser version of the human {that is "objectively disordered"} and, if they act on their "objective disorder", that they are betraying their humanity in a quite crucial sense.

    Now, the Church is no longer in a position to burn people to death over it, but the underlying theology really has not changed. Only the power of the Church and what it has to adapt to. The Church has strenuously opposed every step to make the lives of gay folk better: it was against decriminalising, against positive representations in the media, against civil unions, etc.

    The "love the sinner, hate the sin" thing does not work in this context. If you said to someone "love you, hate the fact you are black" everyone would see how wrong that was. Sexual orientation is such a basic feature of personhood, that to make it a huge moral problem is to attack their nature, their personhood. Going on to be "charitable" about it, having made it problematic in the first place, is a moral nonsense.

  5. I'd be careful when using the terms "person" and "human" within a Catholic context because for many Theologians they are not interchangeable. Dating back to the Ancients, what today we consider personhood didn't really exist yet. They had the term prosopon, which meant mask or showing, which is believed to be where the term person comes from, but as far as identifying individuals there existed only souls, with different types of appearings showing themselves from each.

    Today, most consider the terms human and person to be interchangeable, and I think that is where the confusion lies when attempting to interpret the Christian doctrine from a "human" standpoint. From a theological standpoint, the term person is an appearing that manifests itself from the soul of an individual. With that in mind, I don't think the tradition considers gays either non-persons or non-humans; just irrational persons. Aquinas follows with Aristotle in the belief that what is Good is that which fully serves its function, and the function of Man is to reproduce other functional individuals. If this chain ceased to exist then the species would also cease.

    Christians are taught to love all life, despite what species or manifestation, but also to spread rational truths through peaceful discourse. The way I read the scripture is that it is not the function of humanity to hate anything, but to serve as a function of rationality. Persons manifest the way the do, often with little control, but the scripture exists as a way to follow the function God set forth for humanity without the burden of feeling the need to hate any person or attribute of a person, including oneself.

    Btw, love reading your articles, keep up the good work!


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  6. The person/human distinction is a good one to keep in mind, thank you.

    And I have never felt that the official Catholic position treated gays as non-humans (or non-persons except in the "their aspirations don't have any positive worth" sense), just "disordered" ones. "Irrational" is, of course, thoroughly insulting and, like "disordered", permits the complete discounting of their wishes, wants and aspirations.

    It is nice to think of the Christian position as barring hate, but of course actual Christians have manifested huge amounts of it, and for reasons they deem "Christian". Burning people alive for having sex or getting married, for example.

    The notion that human nature has to be singular is clearly not grounded in how human nature actually is, but how human nature is deemed to "properly" be. Once one has a theory about how humans ought to be, then those that fail to conform to it are outside the range of the "properly" human. They become a category of person who should not exist, and that is a provisional warrant for extermination. See previous comment about burning people alive.

    (The same point applies to Marx's labour theory of value and the way it declares whole classes of people as people who should not exist.)

    The distinction between "properly" and "improperly" human is also a device for subverting the second principle of Christianity ("love thy neighbour as thyself").

  7. To my mind it's overrated nowadays. No one cares whether smb is gay or not. But it's wrong to put someone forward just because of one's sexual orientation. Hey, people, just be yourselves.