Monday, October 18, 2010

A Few Bad Arguments against Homosexuality

Perhaps you've heard that Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck compared homosexuality to alcoholism over the weekend during a debate with his opponent on NBC's Meet the Press.

Buck made the comparison during this brief exchange:
MR. GREGORY: . . . Mr. Buck I want to start with you.  The issue of gays in our country, in a debate last month you expressed your support for "don't ask, don't tell," which we talked about with Mr. Gibbs, and you alluded to lifestyle choices. Do you believe that being gay is a choice?

MR. BUCK:  I do.

MR. GREGORY:  Based on what?

MR. BUCK:  Based on what?


MR. BUCK:  Well...

MR. GREGORY:  Why do you believe that?

MR. BUCK:  Well, I guess you can, you can choose who your partner is.

MR. GREGORY:  You don't think it's something that's determined at birth?

MR. BUCK:  I, I, I think that birth has an influence over like alcoholism and some other things, but I think that basically you, you have a choice.

MR. GREGORY:  Does that put him outside the mainstream of views on this?

SEN. BENNET:  I absolutely believe he's outside the mainstream of views on this.
Why do I bring this up? I recently wrote that I haven't seen a decent argument that homosexuality is wrong or that we ought to discriminate against homosexuals in the law. I'd like to take this opportunity to explain further.

Buck supports "don't ask, don't tell." This is a form of legal discrimination against homosexuals. Therefore, Buck supports at least some forms of legal discrimination against homosexuals. What are his reasons for doing so? I don't know. Perhaps he has no reasons and he just doesn't like homosexuals or he is afraid of them or he thinks that being hostile to homosexuals will help him get elected. As I will show, the belief that homosexuality is somehow a choice is not a good reason for discriminating against homosexuals. So if that is one of his reasons, he ought to reevaluate his view.

According to NBC News, Buck later refined his position:
After the debate, Buck clarified that he thinks there is "some element of predisposition" in homosexuality. He noted that he mentioned alcoholism as an example of another behavior that can be influenced by genetic factors.

"I wasn't talking about being gay as a disease," Buck said. "I don't think that at all."
I am happy to take him at his word. It seems to me that Buck was drawing an analogy between homosexuality and alcoholism, and in arguments by analogy, the objects being compared needn't be alike in all respects, and the arguer shouldn't be understood as claiming that they are.

Now, does the assumption that homosexuality is a mixture of predisposition and choice justify discrimination against homosexuals?

The argument may be more precisely articulated thus:
  1. Homosexuality is a mixture of predisposition and choice. 
  2. Discrimination in the law against anything that is a mixture of predisposition and choice is justified. 
  3. Therefore, discrimination in the law against homosexuality is justified.
Notice that one can't derive (3) without (2).

In what sense would homosexuality be a mixture of predisposition and choice? Perhaps this: one is born disposed to be a homosexual, and this disposition is activated when one makes certain choices. Indeed, this is what Buck appears to believe, since he says that homosexuality involves a predisposition but that one chooses one's partners. Now, here's the crucial question: is heterosexuality any different? Not that I can tell. Heterosexuality is also a mixture of predisposition and choice. Therefore, if (2) is adequate grounds to discriminate against homosexuals, then (2) is also adequate grounds to discriminate against heterosexuals. But clearly, it is absurd to think that we ought to discriminate against heterosexuals, simply because their heterosexuality is a mixture of predisposition and choice. So the argument in question fails.

Many arguments against homosexuality and for discrimination against homosexuals fail simply because parallel arguments mentioning heterosexuality and heterosexuals are clearly absurd. For example, my mother-in-law argues that homosexuality is wrong because homosexual behavior is medically risky. But it isn't essentially so, and many heterosexual activities are also medically risky and would therefore also be wrong. Even heterosexual intercourse in marriage involving penetration of the vagina by the penis involves some medical risk. If anything, this argument at best proves only that we have a moral obligation to minimize medical risk in our sexual activities (which is, of course, a pretty good idea anyway). 

Another problem with the argument is the assumption that predispositions are somehow morally relevant. From the fact that one is predisposed to do something, nothing follows morally. Those who defend the moral permissibility of homosexuality have claimed that homosexuality is permissible since it is predisposed rather than a mere lifestyle choice. But some of the things we may be predisposed to do are clearly wrong. For example, it may be that we are predisposed toward violence in densely populated areas or when resources are scarce, but that would hardly morally excuse violent behavior in those circumstances. Alternatively, those who hold that homosexuality is wrong sometimes argue that it is wrong because it is merely a lifestyle choice. But plenty of lifestyle choices are perfectly permissible: there is nothing wrong with becoming a monk, or getting married, or living frugally, or devoting one's life to helping others, and so on. The fact that something is a lifestyle choice is not itself a good reason to discriminate against people.

I am a heterosexual. I have no interest in engaging in homosexual behavior, and in fact I find the idea of homosexual behavior disagreeable. But homosexual relationships clearly bring great happiness to many people (as my marriage brings great happiness to me), and there is no good reason to discourage them or discriminate against people in them.

At bottom, I simply don't care what other people are doing in their bedrooms because I have more important things to think about. So does Ken Buck.

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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson