Sunday, November 10, 2013

How Homosexuality is a Choice

The discourse around gay rights, despite its popular success in the US, has been deeply flawed. Much of the plea for acceptance of queer identities and relationships has been predicated on misguided prescriptions to "judge not." Many essentially have argued that the area of personal relationships between "consenting adults" (whatever that means) is beyond moral reproach. I've argued against such views previously. Here, I'll show that popular arguments about whether or not homosexuality is a "choice" in the gay rights movement have been similarly misguided.

I'll note only too briefly that what the "gay rights" movement is is a matter of some debate, as is what it ought to be. Certainly, "gay rights" is far too narrow a goal for the movement, but the argument I'm discussing most notably comes up in discourse around the rights of gays and lesbians.

The argument goes as follows. Some claim that homosexuality is unnatural and wrong, and in response to this it is claimed that homosexuality is not unnatural or wrong because it is not a matter of choice. That is, since homosexuals do not choose to be gay over being straight, they therefore should not be criticized for being gay.

This assumes, which is a matter of some controversy, that something cannot be wrong if one could not have chosen otherwise. But leave this worry aside.

More importantly, it's not clear what this "choice" business is supposed to make clear. Even if the major premise of this argument is granted, it's not the fact of being born with a homosexual orientation that those opposed to gay rights object to. They object to the practice of having homosexual sexual intercourse, and perhaps even homosexual romantic relationships. And these actions are clearly the result of choices an individual makes, if anything at all is. The fact that people don't choose to be gay doesn't, in itself, justify these actions.

What's even worse for this argument, though, is to consider its negation. Suppose it were true that having a homosexual sexual orientation were a matter or choice. What would this imply? It seems to me that it would imply very little.

This is because there would still be nothing intrinsically wrong with homosexuality. There might be, on certain definitions, something unnatural about it, but what of that? There are many things humans do that can be categorized as natural or unnatural, and yet these labels carry no moral force. We can always coherently say, "It's natural, but is it right?" or "It's unnatural, but is it wrong?" without any hint of contradiction.

Just because we're born with a certain predisposition does not mean we are justified in acting on that predisposition. And if we aren't born with a certain predisposition, but acquire it through choice or otherwise, this fact tells us very little of moral importance. What's important is the actions we take and the reasons there are for or against doing so. If people think there are reasons that homosexual acts are wrong, they need to clarify what those reasons are. Only then will we have be able to have a meaningful discussion about morality.

Once again, we've ceded ground to the religious, as if they're the only ones who have the right to talk about right and wrong. Since we don't know how to talk about right and wrong, we argue about interpretations of Bible passages or about what is and isn't "natural." Instead, we should consider the reasons our interlocutors present, and explain why we think they are good or bad reasons. As I've tried to make clear, this discussion of "choice" sheds no light on the matter whatsoever.

Some might say that despite my protestations, these arguments have been very successful in shifting public opinion. Perhaps. Alternatively, I find it plausible to imagine that the tide of public opinion was moving in a certain direction for a variety of reasons, and that these kinds of arguments are just the confused foam bubbling up from the wave. Either way, the ability of an argument to be successful in changing minds is not dependent on its being true.

In the end, I think there is something important about being gay that is a choice. When one finds oneself with a homosexual sexual orientation, one might choose to suppress those feelings. Or one might choose to embrace those feelings, identify with them as a gay individual, and choose to pursue pleasurable and meaningful homosexual relationships. The latter choice is likely the better choice to make.