Sunday, May 18, 2008

Prolegomena to Gay Marriage

The California Supreme Court has just legalized gay marriage. Here's the 172-page decision. Rather than address gay marriage itself, I would like to look at one particular argument that is often given in order to show that homosexuality is amoral -- neither moral or immoral. The argument is that homosexuality is genetic, and is therefore beyond the control of any given individual. In other words, their attraction to the same gender is not something they choose, but rather is just the situation they find themselves in, and therefore homosexuality cannot be considered immoral.

Before I critique this argument, please bear in mind that I am not arguing here that homosexuality is immoral, I'm merely addressing an argument which claims to prove that it is not immoral. If this argument turns out to be false, it does not follow that homosexuality is immoral, only that the argument fails to demonstrate otherwise. To put it syllogistically, if A is false in the equation "If A then B", it doesn't follow that B is false as well. B might be true for other reasons.

At any rate, there have been some genetic studies which seem to support the claim that homosexuality is genetic. My understanding is that none of these studies have been conclusive. Personally, however, I would be surprised if homosexuality didn’t have some kind of genetic aspect to it. Genetic links to various kinds of behavior have been discovered, and I don’t see why homosexuality couldn’t be as well.

We must also make a distinction between being attracted to the same gender and acting upon this attraction. Christianity maintains that some actions are immoral, but the temptation to perform these actions are not. Since we all have different temptations and different degrees to which we are tempted, we are called upon to not judge the person who sins because we can't know how difficult it is for him or her to refrain from such behavior. For all we know, the person who sins exerts much more self-control than we do. However, we are also called upon to judge the actions themselves. Leviticus 19:17-18 has both sides of this right next to each other: "Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself". This is the idea behind the saying "love the sinner, hate the sin".

(As an aside, our society equates not judging people with not judging their actions either. So to condemn certain behaviors as immoral is to judge the people who perform them. This is the same error that was made in the Spanish Inquisition, but from the other direction. Our society and the Inquisition both identify the person with his or her actions. The Inquisitors recognized that the actions were not good, and so considered the person not good. Our society recognizes that the person is not bad, and so considers the actions not bad.)

The argument I have heard claimed in this context is that if something is genetic, it is a physical characteristic, since genes are made up of matter. To condemn actions that are simply the outworking of a physical characteristic is just as inappropriate as racism or sexism. Since they are physical attributes, it is just as illogical to call homosexuality immoral as it would be to call a certain skin color immoral.

I don't think this argument works. Behavior is simply in a different category than skin color or gender. When it comes to behavior, genes can only predispose us towards certain actions, not predetermine them. We still have free will. If it was possible for genes to predetermine some acts, then they may predetermine the acts of deciding or believing things. But if it's possible for our beliefs to be predetermined, then this could apply to our belief that genes predetermine our beliefs. It's a Catch-22. If the belief in genetic predetermination may be genetically predetermined itself, then it's not believed because of any actual evidence or reason. It undermines itself. The only way to avoid this is to reject the possibility of predetermination.

One of my ethics professors put it to me this way: if you take, for example, the freaks who run ultramarathons of 100 miles or so, you would probably discover that they share certain genetic traits. But this is not even remotely the same thing as claiming that they are unable to refrain from running these races.

Moreover, just because particular actions are easier for some people to engage in (or harder to refrain from), it doesn't follow that there is nothing wrong with the behavior in question. Alcoholism and depression, for example, are often genetic. But we recognize that they should be treated.

Again, don't misunderstand me: I'm not arguing here that homosexuality must be the same kind of thing as alcoholism or depression. All I'm saying is that the claim that homosexuality is genetic does not prove what some people seem to think it does. Genetics simply cannot tell us whether a given action is immoral or amoral. To answer this, we have to look elsewhere.

(reposted from OregonLive)

4 comments:

jacob longshore said...

There's actually a misprint on page 118-9 of the decision. It should read as follows:

"Accordingly, insofar as the
provisions of sections 300 and 308.5 draw a distinction between opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples and exclude the latter from access to the designation
of marriage, we conclude these statutes are unconstitutional - with the exception of Ellen DeGeneres. We have to draw the line somewhere, people."

Tyson said...

This is a very difficult subject, especially when you're dealing with folks in the church who have homosexual feelings, but are obviously conflicted because of the moral injunctions. Did God make them to suffer this way? Does God give some a special burden, just as He gave Paul the special gift of celebacy (see 1 Cor 7:7)?

merelywords said...

>> Since they are physical attributes, it is just as illogical to call homosexuality immoral as it would be to call a certain skin color immoral … I don't think this argument works. When it comes to behavior, genes can only predispose us towards certain actions, not predetermine them. We still have free will.

>> Alcoholism and depression, for example, are often genetic. But we recognize that they should be treated.

I don't think there is evidence that alcoholism is genetic. The AMA declared it so, but I don't think it is true. I don't think any studies bear this out. Billions of tax dollars are poured into finding a genetic cause --what do you expect them to do? Cut off the basis for their own funding? That isn't the way research works. They are heavily invested in the disease explanation for alcohol.

It seems to me that you are begging the question. Aren't you assuming that genetic causes for behavior are functionally identical to non-genetic causes of behavior to begin with? How do you know that they aren't functionally identical to other genetic predispositions such as cancer?

merelywords said...

My comments were actually more of a question. Does my comment have any force? What would be a good answer to it? Moral responsibility requires an equality of some type, does it not? What type, and would a genetic cause of homosexuality undermine such an equality?