Friday, April 2, 2010

There are no moral arguments against homosexuality (only arguments to evade morality)

I agree with maverick philosopher: ‘homophobia’ is a silly word (and ‘Islamophobia’ an offensive one). The problem is not fear of homosexuality (a very specific emotional state), but hatred of it. Queer-hatred is every bit as real as Jew-hatred.

Where I disagree is his claim that there are moral arguments against homosexuality. This is false: there are no moral arguments against homosexuality ['moral arguments against homosexual practice' being, as explained below, a rather arch way of putting it since anathematising the practice entails holding the inclination to be some sort of deformity]. No more than there are moral arguments against heterosexuality or being Jewish, Catholic, black, a woman and so on. That is to say, there are things that purport to be moral arguments against such, but are not. Instead, there are arguments which seek to justify evading the constraints of morality.

There are religious arguments against various of these categories of people, or for the inferiority of being them, but there are religious arguments for all manner of horrid and bigoted conclusions. Perhaps the most active use of God in moral discourse is as an authority to deny moral protections to particular groups: hence, as the salience of religious belief has declined, societies have become more moral in their behaviour while polities which use God-justifications in their public policy are fairly horrid societies. (The Papal States, for example, were the last Western European polity to maintain and enforce the ghetto laws against Jews right up until it lost the power to do so.) While the claim to be concerned about someone’s salvation in attacking their sexuality, them-as-believers or so on is a theological nonsense (involving, as it does, imposed salvation: it is generally one’s own sense of salvation as a “warrior for God” that is operating) and a religious argument, not a moral one.

The function of morality
What is the function of morality? Morality exists so we can live in functioning societies. Morality is not an optional extra: without morality, any level of society above that of a small protection racket is impossible.

If, for example, we can expected to be mugged by anyone at anytime for any useful thing we might find or create, then progress beyond the simplest form of hunting and gathering is impossible: there can be no substantive tool use in such circumstances. If there are no respects for pair bonds, then the basis of substantial cooperation is massively undermined, and so forth. Even the worst criminal relies on the moral restraint of others every time he or she walks down the street.

The fundamental idea of morality is reciprocity in the most general sense: I respect your person, property, etc and you respect mine. If you betray that basic reciprocity, then, to that extent, you are forgoing the protection of such reciprocity. One is moving from the moral mode of behaviour—based on reciprocity—to the power mode—what you can get away with. Since that is clearly a threat to others, you then opens yourself up to sanctions to force you back into the reciprocity protections. (Note: I am using ‘reciprocity’ in the sense of ‘mutual assumption of moral constraints towards each other’, a much more general, and ‘thin’, sense of reciprocity than Jonathan Haidt uses in his five foundational moral impulses).

One of the basic signs of immoral behaviour is that you are demanding a form of respect for you and yours that you are not willing to grant others. “I get to keep mine, but you do not get to keep yours, if it is inconvenient to me”.

Hence the tendency of power imbalance to promote immoral behaviour: the sanctions do not operate equally.

Morality at its most basic is thus “pre-theory”. It deals with the direct realities of human existence. To be sure, people develop complex theories of and about ethics, but these often operate to cut categories of people off from the protections of morality: Thomist moral thought being a case in point. Hence tolerance for homosexuals is directly connected to having social connections with known-to-be homosexuals, with seeing them as “just folks”. (In what follows, I leave aside arguments over how sexual identity should best be described.*)

In the same vein, it is worth noting that anti-propertarian philosophies naturally lead to massively immoral behaviour when people attempt to implement them. Not merely because it takes a great imbalance in power to take people’s property away from them—and because a denial of private property so pervasively attacks human agency by denying people direct connection to resources—but also because it attacks the sense of boundaries and protected ambit for action which is at the heart of morality.

The distinguishing feature of bigotry is that it purports to be a moral claim while denying some group the protections of morality. Hence bigotry is at its worst when conjoined with power imbalances. In fact, they tend to go hand-in-hand, there being obvious problems with trying to deny the protections of morality to some person or group as powerful, or more powerful, than yourself. Thus homosexuals—being a small minority born and raised in overwhelmingly heterosexual families and social milieus—are a particularly vulnerable group: a fact not at all incidental to the virulence and persistence of the antipathy to them. Especially as they therefore make such easy targets for priests and clerics to act as “gatekeepers of righteousness”, deciding who is “in” the moral community and who is “out”, selling effortless virtue to a very large majority against a small and vulnerable minority.
The only other group with a history within Western civilisation of such persistent and virulent antipathy being the Jews: hardly surprising since queers and Jews have the relevant features in common—small minority who should not exist (the Jews should have accepted Christ, homosexuals should be heterosexual), who were deemed to be in revolt against God’s purpose (Jews were Deicides, same-sex acts contravene the procreative purpose of sex), whose continued existence priests took to be affronts to their theories and who priests could preach effortless virtue to their congregations against as part of establishing their authority as the gatekeepers of righteousness. The Church having taught revulsion against them--just as Muslim are taught to regard dogs (and, for that matter, Jews and Christians) as unclean--both groups were historically subject to murderous brutality by Christian mobs and polities. In post-Enlightenment times, Catholic and Orthodox priests and apologists in particular have taken granting each group equal protection of the law to be a reductio ad absurdem of liberal modernity.

There is also the appalling irony that it was a Jewish thinker whose melding together of the Judaic tradition of scriptural revelation and the Greek tradition of natural law thinking established the notion of God-the-virtuous-exterminator-of-excoriated-minority (the very term ‘sodomite’ invokes God-the-virtuous-exterminator). The notion of virtuous extermination of an excoriated minority thus entering Western civilisation through Catholic and Orthodox teaching, to bear horrid fruit in periodic pogroms and then in the biggest pogrom of them all. (If you want to understand the C19th and early C20th debates about Jews in Western society, the current debates over homosexuals and same-sex marriage replicate the patterns extremely well, with oppression of homosexuals in Christian Africa being analogous to the treatment of Jews in Romanov Russia.)

None of this implies that there anything inherently wrong with criticising people’s beliefs. Indeed, if you can show a belief is false, you are usually doing them, and others, a service given that false beliefs are quite likely to have adverse consequences. If you can show that a belief is immoral, or leads to immoral behaviour, you are also performing a social service by strengthening the web of morality.

I have, for example, no hesitation in saying that—given its dominant claims about proper behaviour towards, and status of, non-Muslims, women and homosexuals—that Islam is an immoral religion because it thereby denies the basic reciprocity that is fundamental to the social function of morality. Not that it is the only religion to do so, Islam just does so rather more systematically and extensively than other religions. (Christian denominations which deny such reciprocity do so by subverting the second principle of Christianity: either by claiming God requires them to, or that such persons are not “really” our moral neighbours, or that “love” requires they be treated so, or some combination thereof.) Note, I am not arguing against people identifying as Muslim, given that the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers—people may well not believe, still less act on, particular doctrines while still adhering to a wider religious identity.

Attacking human agency
Homosexuality, by contrast, no more involves betrayal of the basic reciprocity of morality than heterosexuality does. Moreover, claiming to have “moral” arguments against homosexuality is to attack the personhood of other people quite directly. It is to accuse them of not being proper manifestations of the human, or having “betrayed” their humanity, or whatever, given that, if homosexuality is a proper manifestation of humanity, there can be no moral argument against it. No more than there can be a moral argument against being black or white, for example.

To declare that homosexuality is immoral is also a direct attack on the human agency of homosexuals and is so whether or not homosexuality is chosen. (In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that homosexuality—in the sense of erotic orientation—is not chosen; tell us all about the moment when you “chose” to be erotically oriented to the opposite sex. Same-sex orientation is, fairly clearly, a persistent, normal human variation.) There can be no moral argument for such a pure attack on human agency as that betrays the reciprocity that is the very basis of morality. Hence there can be no moral argument against homosexuality in the same way as there can be no moral argument against heterosexuality.

We can see this by contrasting homosexuality with paedophilia. Children are not emotionally or psychologically developed to be sexual beings. To treat them as sexual beings is to—in a quite profound sense—attack their human agency because you are attacking their healthy psychosexual development: particularly as the relationship must be, in so many ways, such an unequal one.

By contrast, to say that people “are not supposed to be” homosexual attacks their nature as being an improper form of the human. This is a profoundly different claim from saying that children are not sufficiently developed as sexual beings to engage in sexual activity with an adult. The entire basis of attacking homosexuality—of saying it is wrong—is to attack the human agency of homosexuals: to deny their wishes, aspirations, experience etc as having any positive warrant. That is profoundly immoral. It is a profound denial of basic reciprocity.

It betrays reciprocity in another way: it asks heterosexuals to give up nothing (except extending the full moral protections to homosexuals) while asking homosexuals to give up an enormous amount, including self-respect. For it is being demanded of them that they hold their erotic nature, their erotic longings, as immoral, wrong, deformed, not properly human, etc.

There is a sense in which holding that paedophilia is wrong, is immoral, is attacking the nature of the paedophile. But that is being done to protect vulnerable others. Attacking homosexuality defends no one: the claim that one is defending “decency” or whatever by doing so is no more entitled to respect than the claim that attacking Jews, blacks, equal rights for women or whatever is defending “decency”. The notion that one is, for example, “defending” marriage by denying homosexuals equal protection of the law is exactly the same notion that some institution is undermined by giving Jews, blacks, Catholics or women equal protection of the law. (The claim that there is no historical basis for same-sex marriage is simply false: many human societies had various forms of same-sex marriage.)

The claim that there are moral arguments homosexuality is a profound attack on fellow humans in the same way that claiming there are moral arguments against heterosexuality, being black, being a woman, etc are or would be. The entire framework rests on denying homosexuality as a legitimate manifestation of the human. Remembering there is no attack on the basic reciprocity of morality inherent in being a homosexual (“practising” or otherwise). The term ‘practicising homosexual’ itself reflects contempt for others, a demand that they be alienated from their own nature—compare it to ‘practising heterosexual’. (Issues such as promiscuity, consent and so forth pertain to being sexually active generally, not to a particular orientation.) These are not mere acts, one is talking about a pattern of life deeply grounded in someone’s nature: you cannot attack the acts as such without attacking their nature.

Which is why claiming homosexuality is wrong has all the horrid consequences it does: murder, persecution, suicide, misery, breaking up of families by parents rejecting their gay children**, the undermining of integrity through deceit and self-loathing; all manifestations of not being treated as a proper manifestation of the human. The difference between, for example “God hates you”, “God hates the way you are” and “God wants you to repress how you are because it is wrong” are distinctions without much difference: the same with the non-religious equivalents. It is only by ignoring, denying or dismissing as irrelevant the demonstrable consequences of claims that homosexuality is morally wrong that one can even begin to make the claim that there are moral arguments against homosexuality. And such ignoring, denying or dismissal is a profoundly immoral thing to do.

What does one have to not consider to fail to realise that a tradition that held that burning people alive (or throwing them to the dogs to be eaten alive) for the form of sex, or for getting married, represents other than moral barbarism? The notion that a group should not exist is, after all, a provisional warrant for their extermination.

Indeed, the consequences of holding homosexuality to be immoral are so much worse than those of erotically desiring members of your own sex that it is only by massively discounting the experience of homosexuals, let alone their agency, that the claim can even be made. To the extent such consequences are considered, they are blamed—as bigotry typically does—on the victims of the hostile moral framing imposed on them, not as predictable consequences of that framing.

There appears to be no limit to the hatred and contempt people can foist onto their fellow humans for failing to conform to their particular theory of how people “properly” are, for being the gap between theory and reality. Particularly if they hold that theory to be “God’s theory” of the human and so the inconvenient and confronting reality of people who fail to conform to said theory is an affront to God Himself. So much so, medieval Catholicism even published the claim (and beatified its compiler) that Jesus insisted on the extermination of those who failed to conform to the proper nature of the human before He would incarnate.

This is why monotheism has so often been so brutal and oppressive. It is not merely the belief that there is a single truth, but that there is a single authoritative point of view on the truth whose authority is so overwhelming that, not only is almost any level of brutality is warranted to impose it, but it gives its adherents complete sanction to declare categories of people outside the protections of morality—and blame them for being so. Absolutely trumping authority is a form of power imbalance in itself.

To admit the notion of there being moral arguments against homosexuality is to make the basic humanity of homosexuals contestable, to make their sexual orientation to be a mark of deep deformity, in the same way as to mount moral arguments against black people is to turn blackness into a deformity, to make their humanity contestable. It is no act of “love” to do that: it is an act of despite, no matter how much people may delude themselves otherwise. It is only bigotry pretending—as all bigotry does—to be moral, to be making moral claims, while denying fellow humans the reciprocal protections of morality. Such arguments are arguments for avoiding and subverting the restraints of morality in a quite fundamental sense, not embracing them, and are thus not moral arguments at all but anti-moral arguments.

* I generally prefer ‘same-sex attracted/oriented’ and ‘other-sex attracted/oriented’ as being a bit less historically fraught and, in the case of ‘attracted’, less exclusory. But ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ have fairly clear contemporary meanings.
** Regarding the effects on families:
“… the study showed that teens who experienced negative feedback were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as vulnerable to severe depression and more than three times at risk of drug use. More significantly, ongoing work at San Francisco State suggests that parents who take even baby steps to respond with equanimity instead of rejection can dramatically improve a gay youth's mental health outlook. One of the most startling findings was that being forbidden to associate with gay peers was as damaging as being physically beaten or verbally abused by their parents in terms of negative feedback, …”
Being banned from associating with people like oneself is both profoundly isolating and a clear attack on, and rejection of, the child’s own nature.

ADDENDA This post has been amended to clarify and extend a couple of points.


  1. This needs to go in your sidebar, Lorenzo. I can tell you were very cross when you wrote it, but it's still calm and controlled. That's difficult to do.

  2. I tried to leave a message here earlier but I'm not seeing it yet. Is there comment moderation I'm waiting to pass or did it just not post? I'll try again.

    What are moral arguments against being a neo-Nazi? Or against being an alcoholic? Or a peeping tom? Or a pedophile? I apologize if my questions seem "arch" but I am asking over a wide range of moral 'options' so as to better gauge where your position lies, metaethically.


  3. Does a neo-Nazi advocate denying moral protections to particular categories of people? Does a paedophile damage those they prey upon? Does a peeping tom violate the privacy of others? These are so obviously different things from being black, Catholic, Jewish, homosexual, etc the question seems more than "arch", given I discuss the function of morality.

    Being an alcoholic seems a somewhat different case in that alcoholism is destructive of the personality and one's interactions with others. That is, it has moral implications but the issues are also significantly medical and therapeutic.

    (The only moderation I have is to block spam. I have not blocked any comment by yours. We are using a free service here, so it can be a bit erratic.)

  4. Cogitator: did you notice I specifically discussed the case of paedophilia?

  5. Yes, but I guess I was looking for more from a metaethical plane. I will read it again. I guess I am surprised at how neutrally you accept "social identity" in this post, as if "being Catholic" or "being black" or "being gay" was not and is not in some social milieux a highly loathsome thing. Further, if certain secularists are right, being Catholic––being religious––is an actual social evil. Also, being Catholic is a choice people make, and unmake. Is being homosexual likewise a choice? I guess I am channelling Foucault too much but once you buck natural law it seems that everything is plastic.


  6. Yes, certain social identities are viewed in some milieux as loathsome: that is rather my subject matter. One can, of course, disagree strongly with certain doctrines, but 'Catholic' is an identity that does not entail belief in particular doctrines (particularly not active belief). In Oz, for example, Catholics are the denomination whose members are least likely (pdf) to rate homosexuality as immoral. The logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of identify-as.
    My base point is that attempts to strip some group of moral protections regardless of whether they have actually trespassed against the moral protections of others is not a morally legitimate move.

  7. I look at morality through the evolutionary lense. I believe that Morality's maintains the in-group against out-group's invasion. The purpose of evolution is survival and reproduction, and I believe that homosexulality might be attacked because it can prevent reproduction and survival of the human species. Ethnocentrism (preference of one's culture), as can be also seen in the community of heterosexuals, can lead to prejudice, hatred, and discrimination against the out-group. It is time to get rid of those stereotypes..

  8. With the greatest respect, there are plenty of moral arguments against homosexuality. It's perfectly fine to find them unpersuasive, and for what it's worth I myself tend to be rather on the fence but erring toward the view that toleration of a fairly strong variety ought to be the end goal, even if it's not necessarily practical under current conditions for various reasons.

    Anyhow here's a non-exhaustive list of sketches of decent moral arguments against homosexuality, without regard to whether or not you (or I for that matter) ought to agree with them:

    1. The presence of open homosexuality in society introduces ambiguity into male relations. In 'homophobic' countries, men will frequently kiss each other, buy each other flowers and so on, in various contexts not limited to but including commerce and community. This makes the high trust society easy to establish and provides all manner of ways to assess reliability, sincerity and commitment to relations that don't involve the legal system. In the widespread presence of open homosexuality, this becomes impossible, as evidenced by the convention of saying "no homo". A businessman routinely kissing people on first meeting would in fact find that estimations of his reliability went down not up if he did it in the West.

    2. Since homosexuality is not connected (with perhaps some caveats and exceptions in the current year) to family and reproduction, the presence of openly gay couples in society is equivalent to the presence of openly promiscuous people in society. This is a bad thing for heterosexuals because it increases the perception that relations unconnected to family and reproduction are normal. This reduces societal cohesion and trust.

    3. The track record of gays with regard to violence in relationships, suicide, sexual misconduct and poor sanitation is not impressive.

    4. A society in which homosexuality is strongly tolerated cannot be a society in which religion (any religion) can be sincerely practiced. Every religion that seeks to survive in a pro-homosexual society must by necessity water down its creed. This has rippling effects, reducing the power of religions to curb human instincts toward covetousness, envy/resentment and (hetero)lustfulness. Socialism is an excellent example of these things run amok.

    Essentially these four moral arguments centre on the idea that homosexuality has anti-social effects on individuals, on families and on society.

    You may not believe they have merit. As I said, I'm rather on the fence and would not like to see oppression of homosexuals even in the current situation, but there's no question that these are legitimate moral propositions based on the legitimate view that our behaviour has effects on others in terms of setting examples, interfering with functional norms and influencing the direction of received wisdom.