ethics

First published in Between the Lines on March 23, 2006.

In his nationally syndicated column of March 17, Charles Krauthammer uses the HBO series “Big Love” (about a modern-day polygamist family in Utah) as a springboard to telling gay-rights advocates “I told you so.”

Krauthammer writes:

In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement—the number restriction (two and only two)—is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.

This is what we philosophy professors call a “non-sequitur,” which is a very fancy way of saying that the conclusion doesn’t follow, which is a moderately fancy way of saying “Not!”

To see why, suppose I were to define marriage as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender of (3) the landowning upper class. And suppose you were to argue (correctly) that the third requirement is arbitrary. It would not follow that either of the other two requirements is similarly arbitrary. The moral of the story: each element of the legal definition of marriage must be judged on its own merits.

That fact hasn’t stopped otherwise intelligent people—including Krauthammer—from invoking the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamous marriage. If you advocate any change to our understanding of marriage, they warn, then there’s no principled reason for barring any other change.

This is nonsense of the first order. What’s worse, it’s old nonsense. The same argument has been trotted out every time the legal parameters of marriage have been changed: for example, when married women were finally allowed to own property, or when the ban on interracial marriage was lifted. Make any change, and soon the sky will fall.

Of course, the fact that the old arguments were needlessly panicky doesn’t entail that the current one is. After all, each change should be evaluated on its own merits.

Precisely. (Now write it down and memorize it, please. It’s going to be on the test.)

The trouble with the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamy is that it’s a nice sound-bite argument that doesn’t lend itself to a nice sound-bite response. “Show us why polygamy is wrong,” our opponents insist, as if that’s easy to do in 20 words or less. (Try it sometime.)

But here’s a little secret: they can’t do it either, because their favorite arguments against same-sex marriage are useless against polygamy. “It changes the very definition of marriage!” (No: marriage historically has been polygamous more often than monogamous.) “The Bible condemns it!” (Really? Ever heard of King Solomon?) “It’s not open to procreation!” (Watch “Big Love” and get back to me.)

If there’s a good argument against polygamy, it’s likely to be a fairly complex public-policy argument having to do with marriage patterns, sexism, economics, and the like. Such arguments are as available to gay-marriage advocates as to gay-marriage opponents. So when gay-rights opponents ask me to explain why polygamy is wrong, I say to them, “You first.”

Krauthammer seems to assume that those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change. But this requirement is clearly too strong. One might just as well argue that those who advocate allowing men in dining rooms without neckties have a burden to explain why they must nevertheless wear pants, or that those who advocate banning abortion have a burden to explain why we shouldn’t also ban contraception, interracial dating, and dancing (why not?).

While most of us would love to see our opponents spin their wheels on issues unrelated to the dispute at hand, such diversionary tactics hardly advance a debate.

But heck: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Many of our opponents (including Krauthammer) have lamented the high rates of divorce in this country, and some have advocated the tightening of divorce laws and even the elimination of “no fault” divorce. Next time they do this, let’s ask them: why not ban interracial marriage? Why not prohibit married women from owning property? After all, those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change in those rules—don’t they? Don’t they?

Don’t hold your breath for a response.

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First published in Between the Lines on February 26, 2006

I have just completed a week’s worth of same-sex marriage debates with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. During the debates, Stanton made an excellent case in favor of traditional heterosexual marriage. I really mean that.

What he did not do—what he utterly failed to do—was to make a case AGAINST same-sex marriage. There’s a difference, and it’s crucial.

As I’ve said repeatedly, extending marriage to gays does not mean taking it away from straights. It’s not as if there are a limited number of marriage licenses, such that once they’re gone, they’re gone.

So I have no problem joining Glenn is saying hooray for heterosexual marriage, an imperfect but extremely valuable institution. I love heterosexuals. My parents were heterosexual (still are). Some of my best friends are heterosexual. I support their marriages and wish them all the best.

All I ask is that they give me the same support. This is not a zero-sum game.

Consider an analogy: most school classrooms have both right-handed desks and left-handed desks. Now imagine a time before left-handed desks. A reformer then might have argued, “Hey, right-handed desks are great. But not everyone is right-handed. Left-handed desks would make life better for left-handed people; their classroom experience would be more productive, and in the long run, their increased productivity would benefit everyone, left-handed and right-handed alike.” Sounds like a strong argument for left-handed desks.

Now, imagine an opponent responding, “But we’ve always had right-handed desks! Right-handed-desks have served society well. We obviously don’t need left-handed desks; we’ve gotten along fine without them thus far. What’s more, introducing them is an untested social experiment, one that could have serious repercussions for our children!”

Before you dismiss this comparison as silly, recall that left-handedness was once considered a sign of moral depravity, witchcraft, or worse. It’s no accident that the word “sinister” matches the Latin word for “left.” But that’s not the point of the analogy.

Many of the arguments against same-sex marriage—including some of those offered by Glenn Stanton—commit the same fallacy as the response above. They rightly point to the many social benefits of heterosexual marriage, but they then wrongly infer that any other marriage arrangement must be bad. This is a non-sequitur.

Let me be clear on what I am not saying here. I am not saying that choosing a spouse is just like choosing a desk, or worse yet, that whether children are raised by mothers or fathers is somehow equivalent to whether they have right-handed desks, left-handed desks, or both. When I used the analogy during a debate last week, Stanton misread me to be saying just that. (In fairness to him, I should note that he was responding off-the-cuff.)

What I am saying is that we can recognize something to be good without inferring that any alternative must therefore be bad. Right-handed desks are good for most people, but they’re not good for everyone. Similarly, heterosexual marriage is good for most people, but it’s not good for everyone.

All analogies are imperfect. However, one of the differences between these two cases actually favors the case for same-sex marriage: any classroom can only have a limited number of desks, so left-handed desks mean less space for right-handed ones. By contrast, there are not a limited number of marriage licenses. Again, this is not a zero-sum game.

But what about the claim that allowing same-sex marriage would “redefine marriage for everyone”?

Nonsense. No one’s wife is going to turn into a man just because we recognize marriage equality for gays. No one’s husband is going to turn into a woman. Heterosexual marriages will go on being just as heterosexual.

What same-sex marriages would do is to acknowledge that society has an interest in supporting stable, committed unions for its non-heterosexual members. Those unions are good for gays and lesbians, but they’re also good for society at large, since people in stable, committed unions are typically happier, more productive, and less likely to place demands on the public purse. It’s a win-win situation.

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First published in Between the Lines, January 11, 2006

Stanley Kurtz is at it again. In the cover story for the December 26th Weekly Standard—“Here Come the Brides: Plural Marriage is Waiting in the Wings”—Kurtz cites a recent Dutch “triple wedding” as further evidence for the slippery slope from gay marriage to polygamy. (The Netherlands legalized same-sex marriage in 2001.) In Kurtz’s ominous words:

It’s easy to imagine that, in a world where gay marriage was common and fully accepted, a serious campaign to legalize polyamorous unions would succeed…. For a second time, the fuzziness and imperfection found in every real-world social institution will be contorted into a rationale for reforming marriage out of existence.

I have argued here before that there is no essential connection between same-sex marriage and polygamy. But it’s worth pointing out several confusions in Kurtz’s current iteration of the slippery-slope argument.

Confusion #1: The “Dutch triple wedding” was not a marriage at all. It was a private cohabitation contract signed by a Dutch notary public. It is not registered with, or sanctioned by, the state. It is no more a legal plural marriage than, say, a lease signed by three roommates.

Of course, lease-signings are not usually followed by cake and champagne. But if the fact that this Dutch trio had a private ceremony means that they actually have a plural marriage, then plural marriages are already taking place—not just in the Netherlands but in the U.S. Any group of people can put on any ceremony they like. That doesn’t make it marriage.

Confusion #2: Kurtz obscures an important distinction between two understandings of the slippery-slope argument. One can understand the argument as a causal prediction: if gay marriage happens, plural marriage will follow. That doesn’t mean that it should follow, or that there’s any logical connection between the two.

Alternatively, one can understand the argument as a statement of principle: regardless of whether gay marriage leads to plural marriage in the actual world, there is a logical connection between the rationale for one and the rationale for the other, one might argue.

Kurtz, like many same-sex marriage opponents, seems to switch back and forth between these two versions of the argument. The distinction is subtle but important. By itself, the causal-prediction version is weak, for two reasons:

1. Because there may be a good principled case for gay marriage despite some adverse consequences. Same-sex marriage might lead to any number of things, some good, some bad. It might lead to higher revenues for the catering industry. It might lead to increased gay-bashings. Neither of these causal predictions affects the validity of the case for same-sex marriage, which ought to be evaluated on its own merits.

This is not to say that consequences are irrelevant in determining public policy—far from it. But that point leads us to the second weakness of the causal-prediction form of the slippery-slope argument:

2. The prediction seems unlikely. Plural marriage won’t ever have widespread appeal in this country, as long as sexism and religious extremism are kept in check.

Polygamy typically flourishes only in societies with rigid gender-hierarchies. In egalitarian societies, most people find it challenging enough to maintain a long-term relationship with a single partner. (Indeed, insofar as gay marriage undermines gender hierarchies, same-sex marriage may make plural marriage less likely.) It’s also worth noting that many prominent same-sex marriage opponents—including Maggie Gallagher and Hadley Arkes—find the causal-prediction version of the slippery-slope argument unconvincing.

So that brings us to the other version, which asserts a logical connection between same-sex marriage and group marriage. Allow gays to marry, the argument goes, and there’s no principled reason for forbidding polygamy.

Why would anyone think this? After all, polygamy can be heterosexual (for example, with a husband having one-to-one relationships with several wives), homosexual, or bisexual. What does one thing have to do with the other?

The answer reveals the third confusion in Kurtz’s current argument:

Confusion #3: The myth that gay marriage rests on the claim that people should be allowed to marry “anyone they love.” Although careless gay activists occasionally make this claim, it is foolish and easily refutable. Consider the absurd entailments: if I love my sister, I should be allowed to marry my sister. If I love my Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator, I should be allowed to marry my Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator. (Do you know how much beef jerky costs in the store?)

No, the case for gay marriage is not (or not merely) about whom people love. It’s about whether these marriages are good for individuals and society. Increasingly, the evidence suggests that they are.

Whether plural marriages are good for society is quite a different question. Switching the focus to that question may be a good debate tactic, but it’s hardly an argument against gay marriage, much less a new one.

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First published October 27, 2005, in Between the Lines.

During a recent debate in Bar Harbor, Maine, I was confronted with a seemingly novel argument against same-sex marriage. Rev. John Rankin of the Theological Education Institute of Hartford, Connecticut, claimed that same-sex marriage, far from being a civil right, actually undermines the very foundation of civil rights.

His argument is detailed in his document Yes to Man and Woman in Marriage, No to Same-Sex Marriage or Civil Unions, published in the Hartford Courant in April 2005. It reads, in part:

1. In the United States, the civil rights which we all enjoy are rooted in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” in the unalienable rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

2. The unique source for unalienable rights is the Creator, the God of the Bible.

3. The Creator defines true marriage as one man and one woman in mutual fidelity. The health of society and well-being of children are rooted in this foundation. Thus, the Source for unalienable rights also gives us the true definition of marriage.

4. In human history, no society rooted in the approval of homosexuality has ever produced unalienable rights for the larger social order.

(The full text is available at Rankin’s website.)

The core of Rankin’s argument is the second premise: the unique source for unalienable rights is the God of the Bible. From this, he derives the conclusion that we ought to define civil marriage according to biblical teaching.

If I understand Rankin’s argument correctly (and during our debate he admitted that I did), then it’s the worst kind of argument: it proceeds from what is not true to what does not follow.

It is not true that the unique source for unalienable rights is the God of the Bible. The notion of “unalienable rights” was introduced during the Enlightenment, when philosophers and politicians rejected appeals to biblical revelation in favor of the sovereignty of human reason.

Among those philosophers and politicians were our nation’s Founders, who quite deliberately made no mention of God in our Constitution. Indeed, when Franklin (himself quite skeptical about religious authority) proposed during the Constitutional Convention to begin each session with a prayer, Alexander Hamilton reportedly quipped that this was no time to seek “foreign aid.”

While the Founders were not atheists in our sense of the term, neither were they biblical literalists. Quite the contrary, they considered much of the Bible to be, in Jefferson’s words, “defective and doubtful.” Which is why, even if one grants Rankin’s historically confused premise about the source of unalienable rights, it does not follow that we ought to define civil marriage according to biblical teaching. For it could be that the Bible is right about unalienable rights—or would be, if it actually contained that notion—but wrong about various other things, such as slavery, or homosexuality, or the status of women.

More generally, Rankin’s inference is an example of the genetic fallacy, which confuses the historical source of an idea with its justification. Thus, for example, from the fact that many abortion-clinic bombers have been inspired by biblical teaching, it does not follow that the Bible actually provides any support, much less the sole support, for abortion-clinic bombing. Same for unalienable rights.

Besides, the Bible has historically inspired as many rights-abusers as rights-supporters. One could just as easily argue that the unique source for the divine right of kings is the God of the Bible, and then advocate replacing our democracy with a monarchy.

Rankin’s argument also depends on a suppressed premise, namely, that if the Bible teaches a doctrine, it ought to be made a matter of civil law. Put aside debates over whether the Bible actually contains a blanket condemnation of homosexual conduct. Taken to its logical conclusion, Rankin’s position entails that I have no right to sleep in on Sunday, since the Bible clearly teaches us to keep holy the Sabbath. Yet Rankin claims (inconsistently) that he supports freedom of religion.

One premise I do accept is Rankin’s fourth: no society rooted in the approval of homosexuality has ever produced unalienable rights. But that’s because no society has ever been “rooted in the approval of homosexuality.” One might as well argue that no society rooted in the approval of left-handedness has ever produced unalienable rights—or anything else, for that matter. Non-existent societies don’t produce anything.

If, however, Rankin means that societies tolerant of homosexuality have been more hostile to unalienable rights than those intolerant of homosexuality, then his claim is simply false. If there is any correlation between tolerance of homosexuality and respect for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the correlation is a positive one.

A resounding lesson of history is that we ought to be very careful when people try to make their interpretation of God’s commands the basis for civil law. In that sense, Rankin’s position is unfortunately not very novel at all.

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First published April 28, 2005, in Between the Lines.

Although some people would describe me as a fallen Catholic, they’re wrong: I didn’t fall; I leapt. Still, after John Paul II’s death, I followed the papal candidates with an enthusiasm normally reserved for American Idol contestants. Eagerly I scrutinized their biographies on interactive websites, trying to guess who would be picked.

“Do you think it will be Ratzinger?” my friends asked.

“No way,” I answered. “Too divisive.”

“Habemus papam,” came the announcement (which is Latin for, “He’s changing into something white — hang on”). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI.

I knew Ratzinger’s name well. Back in the late 1980s when I was a philosophy and theology student at St. John’s University (NY), I studied his “Letter to the Catholic Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” There Ratzinger described homosexuality as “an objective disorder” towards “an intrinsic moral evil.” Incidentally, at the time I was a candidate for the priesthood and had recently come out of the closet as a gay man.

The letter was not without its “pastoral” moments. Ratzinger (as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which enforces Church orthodoxy) wrote that “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society.”

But he followed this admirable admonition with a more equivocal one: “But…when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

In other words, when gays demand civil rights, we should expect people to beat them up. While Ratzinger’s wording was more nuanced than many critics admit, it is hard not to detect a “blame the victim” element in it. Similar blame-shifting appeared in some of his comments on the priestly sex-abuse scandal.

But what worries me even more about Ratzinger/Benedict is the false dilemma he erects between fundamentalism and relativism. In a homily before the papal conclave, the soon-to-be pope stated:

“Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

Relativism is the view that truth is dependent on, or relative to, a person’s or culture’s perspective. Contra Ratzinger/Benedict, it need not have “as its highest goal one’s own ego,” since not everyone’s perspective is egoistic.

Granted, relativism often results in moral wishy-washiness (to use the technical philosophical term). Relativists believe that any moral view is ultimately as good as any other. And that belief is not only false, it’s pernicious, since it demotes moral commitments into matters of mere personal taste.

But the proper alternative to relativism is not fundamentalism, which closes itself off from the world and brooks no dissent. The proper alternative is a healthy — and thus humble — regard for truth.

Can truth tolerate dissent? Absolutely. Pope Benedict (along with the rest of us) would do well to recall the words of the philosopher John Stuart Mill on this point. In his 1859 classic On Liberty Mill argued that those who silence opinions — even false ones — rob the world of great gifts:

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Mill understood that we should embrace diversity of opinion, not because there is no objective truth, but because history shows us to be imperfect in its pursuit. We should welcome other perspectives, not because we necessarily lack confidence in our own, but because a confident perspective need not fear dialogue.

Upon his election as pope, Benedict described himself as “a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.” It is hard to recognize humility in a man who insists that anyone who rejects his particular religious worldview must therefore endorse relativism and egoism. It is still harder to recognize it in someone who now claims to speak directly for God.

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First published August 12, 2004, in Between the Lines

One of the most persistent debates surrounding homosexuality regards whether gays are “born that way” or whether homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle.”

The debate is ill-formed from the start, in that it conflates two separate questions:

1. How did you become what you are? (By genetics? Early environment? Willful choice? Some combination of the above?),

and

2. Can you change what you are?

The answers to these two questions vary independently. My dark hair color is genetically determined, but I can change it (though I’d make a rather frightful blonde). The fact that my native language is English is environmentally determined, but I can’t change it. (I can learn a new language, of course, but at this stage it would never have the character of my native language.)

The fact that I put the last sentence in parentheses is a matter of willful choice, and, like most matters of willful choice, it can be changed (although my editors had better leave it alone if they know what’s good for them). Still, some choices are not so easily undone. Having chosen never to practice piano as a child, it would be possible, but rather challenging, for me to become proficient at piano now.

Of course, sexual orientation is not like piano-playing. I never turned down “straight lessons” as a child. (“No, Mommy, I wanna play with my Easy-Bake oven instead!”) I never chose to “become gay,” and I’m not even sure how one would go about doing so. We do not choose our romantic feelings — indeed, we often find them thrust upon us at surprising and inopportune times. We discover them; we do not invent them.

So we must be born this way, right?

Wrong. For several reasons. No one is born with romantic feelings, much less engaging in sexual conduct. That comes later. Whether it comes as a result of genetics, or early environment, or watching too many episodes of Wonder Woman is a separate question that can’t be settled by simple introspection.

Moreover, the fact that feelings are strong doesn’t mean that they’re genetically determined. They might be, but they might not. Sexual orientation’s involuntariness, which is largely beyond dispute, is separate from its origin, which is still controversial, even among sympathetic scientists.

But here’s the good news: It doesn’t matter whether we’re born this way.

A lot of gay-rights advocates seem to think otherwise. They worry that if we’re not “born this way,” then homosexuality would be “unnatural” in some morally significant sense.

Nonsense. Again: the fact that I speak English rather than French is learned behavior, but it does not follow that my doing so is unnatural or in need of reparative therapy.

But wouldn’t a genetic basis for homosexuality prove that God made us this way? No, it wouldn’t — at least not in any helpful sense. Put aside the difficulties about establishing God’s existence or discerning divine intentions. The fact is that there are plenty of genetically influenced traits that are nevertheless undesirable. Alcoholism may have a genetic basis, but it doesn’t follow that alcoholics ought to drink excessively. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to violence, but they have no more right to attack their neighbors than anyone else. Persons with such tendencies cannot say “God made me this way” as an excuse for acting on their dispositions.

“Whoa!” you might object. “Are you saying that homosexuality is a disorder like alcoholism?” Not at all. The difference between alcoholism and homosexuality is that alcoholism has inherently bad effects whereas homosexuality does not. But this distinction just reinforces my point: we do not determine whether a trait is good by looking at where it came from (genetics, environment, or something else). We determine whether it is good by looking at its effects.

Nor does it matter whether sexual orientation can be changed. For even if it could (which is doubtful in most cases), it doesn’t follow that it should. Much like my hair color.

Remember: bad arguments in favor of a good cause are still bad arguments — and in the long run not very good for the cause. This is not to say that we shouldn’t frequently remind people that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a deep, important, and relatively fixed feature of human personality. It’s just that those facts can only get us so far.
In a 1964 speech to the New York Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group, activist Frank Kameny announced:

“We are interested in obtaining rights for our respective minorities as Negroes, as Jews, and as Homosexuals. Why we are Negroes, Jews, or Homosexuals is totally irrelevant, and whether we can be changed to Whites, Christians or heterosexuals is equally irrelevant.”

Kameny (who is still going strong at 79) was absolutely right. Too bad people still haven’t gotten the message.

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First published June 17, 2004, in Between the Lines

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or so it seems as gay-rights opponents, in a desperate last-ditch effort to win their cultural war against homosexuality, trot out arguments that have been discredited for decades.

Many of these focus on the alleged harms of homosexuality. Having failed to make a convincing moral case, gay-rights opponents often shift to claims of “health risks” — including disease, decreased life expectancy, higher suicide rates, and so on.

Such scientific-sounding concerns give these opponents a veneer of objectivity. Indeed, their arguments sound almost compassionate at times. Consider the following question posed by Marquette University professor Christopher Wolfe:

“On the basis of health considerations alone, is it unreasonable to ask if it is better not to be an active homosexual? At the very least, don’t the facts suggest that it is desirable to prevent the formation of a homosexual orientation and to bring people out of it when we can?”

The correct answer to Wolfe is, “It depends.” For there are three key questions we must first ask:

(1) Are the allegations of harm accurate?

This question seems obvious, but it’s crucial. Many of the studies cited by gay-rights opponents are abysmally bad.

Consider the oft-repeated claim that homosexual males face a dramatic decrease in life expectancy. The claim is rooted in the research of psychologist Paul Cameron, who argues that even apart from AIDS, gay men on average die over thirty years sooner than their straight counterparts.

How did he reach this startling conclusion? By comparing obituaries in 16 gay publications with those in two mainstream newspapers.

As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. Cameron’s methodology is laughable even to those with no formal statistical training. Newspaper obituaries are unscientific. Those that appear in gay publications are far more apt to record the deaths of those lost in their prime than of those who died elderly, especially given the target demographic of such publications. There was no control group (after all, gays have obituaries in mainstream publications too). And so on.

It should thus come as no surprise that 1983 Cameron was expelled from the American Psychological Association for ethical violations. Yet his work continues to get cited by otherwise respectable researchers like Wolfe.

But suppose, purely for the sake of argument, we were to grant the allegations of harm cited by gay-rights opponents.

We would still have to ask a second question:

(2) Are the alleged harms caused by homosexuality itself, or some external factor?

In particular, we would have to ask whether many of the alleged harms result from anti-gay sentiment. In that case, there would be a vicious circle: opponents of homosexuality would be basing their opposition on factors caused by that very opposition — a classic case of “blaming the victim.”

In some cases these external factors are complex. Gays are, to a considerable extent, a wounded people. Many experience ostracism from their own families during formative years, with deep emotional scars resulting.

To say this is not to say that gay life is miserable or that we should not take responsibility for our own well-being. Rather, it is to remind those who allege various problems in gay life that they may share responsibility for those problems.

But suppose I’m wrong. Suppose — again for the sake of argument — that the alleged problems result from homosexuality itself, rather than social pressure. There is a third question that must be asked:

(3) What follows?

This is the question most people miss. They assume that if a practice is riskier than the alternatives, the practice must be wrong. But that assumption is demonstrably false.

Driving is riskier than walking. Being a coal miner is riskier than being a newspaper columnist. Football is riskier than chess. Yet no one thinks that the former activity in each example is wrong just because of the risks involved.

There are too many holes in the argument that links homosexuality with risk and risk with wrongness. Consider how Wolfe’s argument would look if we applied it to football:

“On the basis of health considerations alone, is it unreasonable to ask if it is better not to be [a football player]? At the very least, don’t the facts suggest that it is desirable to prevent the formation of [an interest in football] and to bring people out of it when we can?”

After all, there are safer hobbies, like chess!

Well, sure. But football players don’t want to play chess; they want to play football. The argument reminds me of an old joke:

Question: What’s the best way to avoid spilling your coffee while driving?
Answer: Drink tea.

Gays, like everyone else, can take steps to minimize risks in their lives. They can start by confronting the pseudo-science and invalid inferences of their opponents.

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First Published at Between the Lines on February 7, 2003

I HAVE SPENT my last five columns — and a good deal of my career — defending homosexuality against various moral attacks. Yet sometimes I spend so much time explaining why homosexuality is “not bad” that I neglect to consider why it’s positively good. Can I offer any reasons for thinking of homosexuality as, not merely tolerable, but morally beneficial?

Off the top of my head, here are five:

First, homosexuality can be a source of pleasure, and pleasure is a good thing. Too often we act as if pleasure needs to be “justified” by some extrinsic reason, and we feel guilty when we pursue it for its own sake. (How often has someone told you that he or she had a massage, only to add quickly, “I have a bad back”?) This is not to say that pleasure is the only, or most important, human good. Nor is it to deny that long-term pleasure sometimes requires short-term sacrifice. But any moral system that doesn’t value pleasure is defective for that reason.

Second, homosexuality can be an avenue of interpersonal communication, and this too is good. Few would deny the moral value of human interaction, including sexual interaction. Yet many of our opponents argue that we ought to forsake sexual intimacy in favor of celibacy. Forced celibacy robs people of an important form of human connection.

Third, homosexuality can be a source of emotional growth. Romantic and sexual relationships force us to “get outside of ourselves” in a powerful way. They foster sensitivity, patience, humility, generosity — a whole host of moral virtues. When Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets “You make me want to be a better man,” the line is moving because it strikes a deep and familiar chord. This is as true for homosexual people as it is for heterosexual people.

Fourth, and related, homosexual relationships promote personal and social stability. This is why people in relationships frequently live longer, report greater personal satisfaction, and are physically and psychologically healthier than their single counterparts. This is not to say that coupling is right for everyone: some people are happier alone, and we do them no service by pressuring them to pair off. But most people at some point want to find “a special someone.” Doing so is good for them, and what’s good for them is good for the community, which benefits from the presence of happy, stable, satisfied individuals. This is a worthy moral goal if anything is.

Some might object that I’m equivocating on the term “relationships” here. For our critics do not object to our offering each other emotional support, or setting up house together, or having deep conversations, or shopping at IKEA. What they object to is homosexual sex. These other activities might be morally unobjectionable, the critics concede, but they are entirely separable from the relationship’s sexual aspect.

Nonsense. There is no reason to assume — and there are good reasons to doubt — that one can remove the sexual aspect of relationships and have all others remain the same. Sex is a powerful way of building, celebrating, and replenishing intimacy in a relationship. To assume that one can subtract sex without affecting the rest of the equation is to take the kind of reductionistic view of sex that critics often falsely attribute to us.

All of the reasons I’ve mentioned thus far apply equally well to homosexuality and heterosexuality. (The fourth applies mainly to relationships, whereas the others could apply even to “casual sex”.) But someone might wonder whether there are any benefits unique to homosexuality (apart from doubling one’s wardrobe).

And so, let me suggest a fifth reason: insofar as homosexuality challenges deep-seated and irrational prejudices, embracing your homosexuality can be a powerful act of moral courage. It forces you to think for yourself, rather than simply parrot what others have claimed. Moreover, it invites you to transcend rigid gender expectations.

When I came out to my grandmother, one of her first responses was, “But who’s going to cook and clean for you?” Her marriage was premised on such strict gender roles it was difficult for her to conceive of alternatives.

It was then that I realized that the gay community has a great gift to give the straight community: a lesson about egalitarian relationships, where tasks are divided according to ability and interest rather than gender. Insofar as being gay within a heterosexist culture sharpens our focus on such inequalities and pressures us to confront them, it is not merely a challenge but a blessing.

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First Published at Between the Lines on January 23, 2003

OVER THE LAST MONTH I’ve been exploring various attempts to show that homosexuality is morally wrong. Not surprisingly, I’ve concluded that these anti-gay arguments don’t hold much water.

At this point in the debate opponents usually try to change the subject. “Oh yeah?” they say. “Well what about incest or bestiality?”

The proper response to this so-called argument is an incredulous stare. “Excuse me,” you should say politely but firmly, “but I have no absolutely idea what the hell you’re talking about. For I was talking about homosexuality, and now you are talking about incest, and I don’t see what one thing has to do with the other. You might as well ask me about tax fraudor nuclear proliferation — equally irrelevant topics to the issue at hand.”

Many gay-rights opponents seem to think of the “What about incest?” argument as a kind of trump card. Their idea is that if one accepts homosexuality, one gives up on the idea of drawing moral lines altogether.

Nonsense. Gay people, like everyone else, can make judgments about which kinds of relationships are conducive to human well-being and which aren’t. Besides, unless one assumes from the outset that homosexuality is immoral, there is no more reason to group incest with homosexuality than with heterosexuality: after all, there is far more heterosexual incest than homosexual incest.

Why, then, do critics continue to press this objection? Perhaps it’s because accepting homosexuality requires them to give up their favorite argument: it’s wrong because we’ve always been taught that it’s wrong. This “argument from tradition” has an appealing simplicity. It is easier to accept the status quo than to make fine-grained, well-reasoned distinctions between those sexual acts which contribute to human well-being and those that do not.

But easier is not always better. And in this case, the cost of simplicity is too high: it involves denying fulfilling relationships to gay and lesbian people without any better reason than “that’s how we’ve always done things.” This is moral complacency, and it deserves not merely to be rejected but to be harshly condemned. If one is going to condemn people for the loving, affectionate relationships in their lives, one had damn well have a better reason than that. The same reason was once used to oppose interracial relationships: it was a lousy reason then and it’s a lousy reason now.

The so-called moral case against us is in fact deeply immoral. There’s something rather perverse about condemning people because of whom they love. And the effects of such condemnation — the pain and suffering and fear, the talent and energy wasted by the devastating oppression of the closet — are a far greater moral tragedy than consensual sex could ever be.

Please remember this: morality is not the exclusive domain of our opponents. Exhausted by the mistaken moralizing of Dr. Laura, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the like, gays and lesbians are sometimes tempted to reject the practice of moralizing altogether. And then we start to believe the fallacy that “Morality is strictly a private matter.”

This is a serious mistake. Whatever morality is, it is not “strictly private.” It’s about how we treat one another. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what matters most to us — not just as a personal preference, but as a standard for public behavior.

The problem with our opponents is not that they make moral judgments. Everyone makes moral judgments, and those who think they don’t are either confused or depraved. The problem with our opponents is that their moral condemnations of homosexuality lack good grounds. Insofar as this mistake involves misinformation or confused reasoning, it is a logical error. Insofar as it involves indifference to the experience of gays and lesbians, it is a moral one. It is high time we stood up and identified it as such.

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First Published at Between the Lines on January 9, 2003. Based on the author’s article, “Why Shouldn’t Tommy and Jim Have Sex?” in Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

PEOPLE OFTEN ARGUE that homosexual sex is “unnatural.” But what does that mean? Many things we value — like clothing, medicine, and government — are unnatural in some sense. On the other hand, many things we detest — like disease, suffering, and death — are “natural” in some sense. If the unnaturalness charge is to be more than empty rhetorical flourish, those who levy it must specify what they mean.

What Is Unusual or Abnormal Is Unnatural

One meaning of “unnatural” refers to that which is statistically abnormal. Obviously, most people engage in heterosexual relationships. But does it follow that it is wrong to engage in homosexual relationships? Relatively few people read Sanskrit, play the mandolin, breed goats, or write with both hands, yet none of these activities is immoral simply because it is practiced by minority of people.

What Is Not Practiced by Other Animals Is Unnatural

Others argue, “Even animals know better than to behave homosexually; homosexuality must be wrong.” This argument is doubly flawed. First, it rests on a false premise: numerous studies have shown that some animals do form homosexual pair-bonds. Second, even if that premise were true, it would not prove that homosexuality is immoral. After all, animals don’t cook their food, brush their teeth, attend college, or read the newspaper; human beings do all of these without moral censure. The notion that we ought to look to animals for our moral standards is simply facetious.

What Does Not Proceed from Innate Desires Is Unnatural

Some people argue that homosexual people are “born that way” and that it is therefore natural and good for them to form homosexual relationships. Others insist that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice,” which is therefore unnatural and wrong. Both sides assume a connection between the origin of homosexual orientation and the moral value of homosexual activity. And insofar as they share that assumption, both sides are wrong.

Consider first the pro-gay side, which assumes that all innate desires are good ones. This assumption is clearly false. Research suggests that some people are born with a predisposition toward violence, but such people have no more right to strangle their neighbors than anyone else. So while some people may be born with homosexual tendencies, it doesn’t follow that they ought to act on them.

Nor does it follow that they ought not to act on them, even if the tendencies are not innate. I probably do not have any innate tendency to write with my left hand (since I, like everyone else in my family, have always been right-handed), but it doesn’t follow that it would be immoral for me to do so. So simply asserting that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice” will not prove that it is an immoral lifestyle choice.

What Violates an Organ’s Principal Purpose Is Unnatural

Perhaps when people claim that homosexual sex is unnatural they mean that it cannot result in procreation. The idea behind the argument is that human organs have various “natural” purposes: eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, genitals are for procreating. According to this view, it is immoral to use an organ in a way that violates its particular purpose.

Many of our organs, however, have multiple purposes. I can use my mouth for talking, eating, breathing, licking stamps, chewing gum, kissing women, or kissing men, and it seems rather arbitrary to claim that all but the last use are “natural.” (And if we say that some of the other uses are “unnatural, but not immoral,” we have failed to specify a morally relevant sense of the term “natural.”)

Just because people can and do use their sexual organs to procreate, it does not follow that they should not use them for other purposes. Sexual organs seem well suited for expressing love, for giving and receiving pleasure, and for celebrating, replenishing, and enhancing relationships — even when procreation is not a factor. This is why heterosexual people have sex even if they don’t want — or can’t have — children. To allow heterosexual people to pursue sex without procreation while forbidding homosexual people to do the same is morally inconsistent.

What Is Disgusting or Offensive Is Unnatural

It often seems that when people call homosexuality “unnatural” they really just mean that it’s disgusting. But plenty of morally neutral activities — eating snails, performing autopsies, cleaning toilets, watching the Anna Nicole Smith Show — are disgusting to many people. That something disgusts you may be sufficient grounds for an aesthetic judgment against it, but it is hardly grounds for a moral judgment.

Proponents of the unnaturalness argument have given us no good reason to believe that “unnatural” equals “immoral” or that homosexuality is unnatural in any significant sense. In sum, their position is longer on rhetorical flourish than on philosophical cogency.

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