As some of you already know, I registered for an applied ethics course this semester. I have to submit two essays, the first one being:
What arguments might be advanced to defend the view that homosexual actions are immoral? Do any of these arguments succeed?
Homosexuality has been a subject of debate for centuries. From ancient Greek philosophers to modern day theorists, everyone has, at some point, formulated ideas and arguments to support or negate the view that homosexual actions are immoral. The purpose of this essay is to critically examine some of the principle arguments made against homosexual behaviour. I will also provide an analysis of the counter-arguments, and thereby conclude whether any of the arguments succeed or fail.
Action Vs Orientation
Action, as opposed to orientation, denotes a choice. It is not merely an attractive disposition for which there can be no responsibility or culpability. (Benatar, D. Lecture communication, 2009) The scope of this essay is not to examine the morality of homosexual orientations, but rather the actions that result from having such an orientation. The mere fact that the actions are chosen, puts homosexuals under abject scrutiny. Heterosexists argue that homosexuality is immoral simply because there are immoral homosexual acts that undermine societal values. For example, it is alleged that homosexuals are more likely to molest children. This is one of the weaker arguments, in that on an empirical level, there are more immoral heterosexual acts than homosexual ones simply due to the fact that heterosexuals have the biggest denomination. Yet, I have not seen one person proclaiming the immorality of sex between a male and a female, despite the numerous accounts of rape, paedophilia, et cetera that exist in the heterosexual sphere. In short, the subset cannot be used to infer conclusions on the whole.
This is also known as the “Yuk” factor whereby people assume an action is immoral based on their instinctive aversion to such acts. This rationality is faulty as we cannot debate with regards to personal taste. Homosexuals would most likely find conventional intercourse distasteful, and they would be entitled to that feeling as long as they don’t enforce it upon others. Disgust is purely subjective and is not grounds for prohibition or condemnation. In addition, there is the standard of reasonable avoidability. (Benatar, D. Lecture communication, 2009) No-one is forced to witness homosexual acts. In the case where the disgust factor can be easily avoided, all complaints towards it are null and void.
Danger to Society
The argument proposed by Sir Patrick Devlin, a respected English legal expert, states: “Homosexual relations are a threat to the integrity of vital social institutions and are inconsistent with the moral perceptions of ordinary people…the institution of marriage is one of the moral foundations of society for no society can exist without a shared sense of morals and ethics. The suppression of vice is very much the law’s business and it is perfectly reasonable to prohibit homosexual relations.” (Benatar, D. 2002:262) The problem with this is that social conventions are under constant migration. Ordinary people have different moral perceptions. As we move towards a more liberal way of thinking, an increasing number of people are beginning to accept homosexuals and their roles in society. A parallel example to this would be divorce. Several decades ago, the separation from one’s spouse was deemed inconceivably wrong. The subject attracted a lot of stigma, and many believed it was destroying the institution of marriage. Nowadays, as divorce is becoming increasingly common, it is no longer a taboo subject. If we apply the same reasoning to homosexuality, chances are in a couple of decades’ time, homosexuals will be as well perceived as their heterosexual counterparts. Therefore, we need to clearly distinguish between social transformation and social collapse (Benatar, D. Lecture communication, 2009), and realize that the two need not be mutually inclusive.
Many people are also under the wrongful impression that couples who engage in anal-sex have a higher chance of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. However, there is no medical analysis attached to this speculation, and the results are not verified by the proper channels. The risk of contracting HIV is linked to the practice of safe sex, not one’s orientation. Even if anal-sex does make one more susceptible to HIV transmissions, it is still not good enough a reason to infer immorality onto homosexual behaviours. Suppose homosexual acts do put the participants under increased risk of contracting HIV, we can push the boundaries further and say celibacy should be the way to go as celibates are immune from all sexually transmitted diseases. Of course, such suggestions are irrational and impractical.
Violates Scripture Prohibition
Appealing to God is another popular advancement against homosexual behaviour. Many religious fundamentalists express their disapproval by quoting Biblical scriptures that condemn homosexual acts as illustrated in Leviticus 18:22. Unfortunately, these people are too deeply engrossed in their beliefs to realize that religion is not evidence of proof. The Bible is not, and never will be, an authority in the eyes of atheists – to them, it is merely a book written by men and in the words of men. Even if for argument’s sake, we suppose there is a higher being, there is nothing to indicate the faithful representation and accurate interpretation of God’s words. The Bible for example, is filled with contradictions and confusions. Furthermore, the burden of proof is on the heterosexists to demonstrate reasons for punishing those whose only crime is “to engage in the only form of love-making that they feel capable of”. (Leister, B. 1997) In other words, appealing to a more controversial premise (i.e. God) is neither intellectual nor philosophical as no one can actually prove the verity of the second premise.
Unnatural, Therefore Immoral
The gist of this argument is that homosexual tendencies are unnatural, and the practise thereof, violates the law of nature. From that, it is concluded that homosexual actions are evil and wrong. The term “unnatural” can be interpreted in several ways, the first of which is something that does not occur in nature. However, homosexual behaviours do occur in the wild, as seen in the actions of a long list of animals including: birds, penguins and dolphins. An extract taken from a National Geographic article says, “There are male ostriches that only court their own gender, and pairs of male flamingos that mate, build nests, and even raise foster chicks.” (Owen, J. 2004) Therefore, humans are not the sole participants in what appears to be a naturally occurring act. Secondly, “unnatural” can also point to things that are artificial or synthetic. (Leiser, B. 1997) Again, this definition holds little persuasion. Technological advances have given us the luxury of genetically modified foods, synthetic clothing materials, and lab-induced products. So, in this sense, if we are to condemn homosexual acts for being “unnatural”, we have to extend the same courtesy to all the afore-mentioned products, and that is clearly ludicrous. Lastly, it is suggested that homosexuality is unnatural in the sense that it is abnormal. But there is nothing that connects statistical outliers with immorality. Geniuses for example, are rare occurrences, but their existence is certainly not immoral.
The second part of this argument deals with violating the laws of nature. I will expand on this by drawing on the teachings of David Benatar (Lecture communication, 2009). Laws of nature are different to social laws in that the former is descriptive (e.g. Newton’s law of gravity) while the latter is prescriptive (e.g. legislative laws). Descriptive laws are universal and cannot be over-ridden or violated. Flying on an aeroplane is not in violation of gravitational laws as gravity is still acting on the plane. If not, the plane would be randomly floating into space. So, laws of nature are not akin to social conventions which require people to behave in a certain manner. Going against natural laws does not lead to punishments, but rather consequences. To say homosexual activities are immoral because they violate laws of nature, and to subsequently punish those who indulge in homosexual acts is nonsensical and abusive.
Negating the Proper Evolutionary Functions of Bodily Parts
Our organs are developed for specific purposes. Just as eyes are for seeing and ears are for hearing, the primary function of genitals is reproduction. Traditional intercourse between a man and a woman may result in the formation of an embryo – something homosexual couples cannot achieve. The argument which stems forth from this is that homosexuals are using their genitals for unintended purposes. The misuse of genitals is deemed perverse and ought to be prohibited. (Leiser, B. 1997)
There are many rebuttals for this segment. Firstly, heterosexual couples who engage in masturbation and oral sex – both common practices – are also negating their proper bodily functions, yet no one is prohibiting them from doing it. The same goes for women on birth-control pills, and men who use condoms during intercourse. By preventing possible pregnancy, they are also in negligence of the proper evolutionary functions of their organs. It can also be argued that the world does not need more babies – it is already overpopulated. With lengthened life spans and increasing birth rates, we really do not need couples fostering more children than they already are.
What about people with studs in their ears or spectacles on their noses? They are clearly misusing the body parts! (Benatar, D. Lecture communication, 2009) But who is to say our organs have one, and only one, function? Evolution has made it possible for organs to have multiple capabilities. It may very well be that our bodies could also be used for artistic displays of rings and necklaces. The same applies to our genitals. Other than the function of procreation, they also serve as pleasure-inducing agents. Therefore, homosexuals are satisfying the secondary purpose of their genitals by engaging in pleasurable activities. What is more, sex organs are used to express one’s love for another in the most intimate way. To deny someone of that privilege is baseless and cruel.
Bestiality and Necrophilia
So far, every argument against homosexuality has been dissected and refuted. However, this leaves the subject matter in a vulnerable position as everything that is used to defend homosexuality could also be used to defend bestiality and necrophilia. Logic implies that if we accept homosexual acts, we are obliged to morally accept sex acts with animals as well as sex acts with the dead.
One way of overcoming this is to simply bite the bullet and feign indifference. That is, to take the stance that bestiality and necrophilia are both acceptable practices. But most people find it hard to deal with such a controversial point of view. Those who are in favour of homosexual acts are repulsed by bestiality and necrophilia even though they have no rational arguments to support their instinctive aversions. But all is not lost. David Benatar (lecture communication, 2009) proposes an alternate view. He says is it possible to exclude bestiality and necrophilia if we adopt the significance view of sex. That is, “mutual romantic love is a necessary condition for the moral permissibility of sex”. Animals and the dead are incapable of expressing romantic love, so there can be no mutual love making. Unfortunately, such an argument does not exist for those who adopt the casual view of sex, but that is a new topic going beyond the scope of this essay.
This essay merely deals with a few of the common missiles against homosexuality. The moral issues regarding the topic at hand are far from being exhausted. We can nevertheless extrapolate from the contents of this essay, and conclude that none of the arguments spurred forth withstand critical examination. There is nothing cogent in defence of the view that homosexual actions are immoral. Homosexuals should be given the same rights and privileges as everyone else. The sooner we accept this, the better off our society would be.
- Benetar, David. Lecture communication, March 2009
- Leiser, Burton. 1997. Title: Ethics in Practice: Homosexuality, Morals, and the Law of Nature. Place: Hugh LaFollette (ed), Blackwells, Oxford. pp 242-253
- Owen, James. July 23, 2004. [online] Available at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/07/0722_040722_gayanimal.html (Date accessed: 20 March 2009)
Edit: Please do not duplicate