When it comes to the debate on human sexuality, typically it is traditionalists who are painted as enemies of freedom.  After all, they are the ones who insist that extra-marital sex is wrong and should be discouraged.  However, the central argument used by many gay rights advocates also opposes freedom but in a much more fundamental sense than traditionalism. 

Let me explain.  Consider the popular gay rights slogan “biology is destiny” and the argument which often accompanies this phrase.  The idea is that some people are “born” homosexuals, due either to certain genetic factors or neurological hard-wiring which strongly predispose them to have a sexual attraction to members of the same sex.  For this reason, the argument goes, the traditionalist view that homosexual relations are immoral is wrongheaded, not to mention insensitive.  For how can people be blamed for what they cannot control?  As Immanuel Kant said (paraphrasing Pelagius a millennium before him), “ought implies can.”  If homosexuals cannot choose to be other than what they are, then there is no sense in telling them they ought to act otherwise.

Notice that the “biology is destiny” argument really amounts to the claim that homosexuals cannot help themselves regarding both their sexual preference and their choice as to whether to have sex at all.  The implication (or at least suggestion) in both cases is that their desires are irresistible.  That is, given their biological (and psychological) make-up, they cannot act otherwise than they do.  Now there is a general name for views such as this:  determinism.  Determinists believe that all phenomena, including human behavior and choices, are caused.  Among determinists there is disagreement as to whether we are, nonetheless, free and responsible for our behavior.  Those determinists who affirm the logical compatibility of determinism and freedom are called compatibilists (or, alternatively, soft determinists).  In contrast, those who maintain that determinism rules out human freedom and responsibility are called hard determinists.

So here’s the point.  In using the “biology is destiny” argument, gay rights advocates tacitly endorse hard determinism, at least as far as human sexuality goes.  That is, they deny that human beings are free when it comes to their sexual choices and behavior.  More than this, they deny we are morally responsible in these matters.  Ironically, then, proponents of the biological argument are enemies of human freedom and in a much more profound sense than their traditionalist opponents.  They deny freedom both morally (in the sense of responsibility) and metaphysically (in the sense of the ability to choose). 

Of course, not all gay rights advocates believe, strictly speaking, that “biology is destiny,” that there is a “gay gene” or some other entirely biological determinant of homosexual orientation.  But even the skeptical gay rights folks almost always accept some sort of determinism in the matter, whether it is psychological, social, or some combination of factors including biology.  How ironic it is that traditionalists are routinely criticized for being anti-freedom when it is gay rights advocates who implicitly deny freedom in a much more radical way.


18 Responses to “On a Certain Irony in the Case for Gay Rights”


  1. Lori L.

     

    So, would traditionalists say that “straight” individuals ARE free to choose, and that these same individuals maintain heterosexual relationships out of moral responsibility? I’m just saying. Feel free to release the dogs.

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  2. Jim Spiegel

     

    Lori,

    I’m not sure I understand your question, but most traditionalists would say that every human being is endowed with free will and the power of choice to overcome even very strong desires if these oppose right action. As to why straight folks maintain heterosexual relationships, their reasons would vary. No doubt many would do so out of genuine desire, while others would do so purely out of a sense of moral responsibility, and still others would be motivated by both.

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  3. Lori L.

     

    Hi, Jim. Yes, you answered my question adequately, thank you. I was playing a little devil’s advocate, but I do disagree with you on this matter. I have a close family member who is gay, and knowing her heart, it is easy for me to support her and believe in her journey.

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  4. Andrew Jones

     

    In response to the “biology is destiny” argument, I would also point out that the the proponents of this position would probably be inconsistent in their reasoning if you applied the same formula to alcoholism.

    Many scientists would argue that alcoholism is influenced by genetic factors. But do we tell people struggling with alcoholism that there is nothing they can do about it? Do we tell them that they have to succumb to the merciless will of their genes? Many peoples’ gut instinct is probably no. But why is this? Maybe it’s because the the negative effects of alcoholism are extremely visible. No one wants to see loved ones destroy themselves and the others around them. To say that an individual struggling with alcoholism has no hope for change is cruel. But, if we accept the “biology is destiny” line of reasoning, this is exactly the path we have to take. Maybe, if people were more aware of the destructive side of the homosexual lifestyle, they would be more inclined to think that individuals who live a homosexual lifestyle have at least have some kind of control over their actions and can change their behavior if they want to.

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  5. Scott Coulter

     

    This is an interesting perspective, Jim. Thanks for airing it.

    I’m glad you qualify your position at the end with your admission that not all gay rights advocates endorse the “biology is destiny” slogan. Although I am not so well informed about what gay rights movements (I do know they are plural) say and do, I know that not all gay-affirming persons have an essentialist theory of sexual identity.

    Setting aside the particular slogan “biology is destiny”, I want to question the proposal that taking the position that one’s sexual orientation is for all practical purposes fixed necessarily commits one to a position of hard determinism which denies moral responsibility for one’s sexual behaviors.

    Consider this possible perspective on sexual orientation which I take to be one possible gay-affirming position.

    One’s sexual orientation–straight or gay–involves having a certain range of psychosomatic responses to a certain range of stimuli. Straight males (like me), for example, find themselves attracted to women, and almost never to men. Some women may be more attractive than others. But men are almost never, if indeed ever, sexually attractive to a straight male. (For the present I’ll take “attractiveness” to be a quasi-property we project upon the world, out of our sexual sensibilities.)

    My straight orientation is given and (for all practical purposes) unchangeable. I have little or no control over whom I find myself attracted to. However, I do have control over how I respond to feelings of attraction to a woman, whether or not I act on sexual impulses or desires, whether or not I encourage or discourage such impulses. I can even perhaps cultivate as a settled character trait that I encourage, prolong, retain, and act upon only my sexual desires for my wife, and that I as a result of such cultivation am rarely tempted by other attractive women. I am morally responsible for my sexual behavior–including, by the way, my behavior toward my wife. I am capable of restraining my sexual desires and controlling the ways in which I act on my sexual desires in ways that are respectful of my wife and her personhood, her wishes and her best interest, as well as in ways that are consistent with monogamy. But nature (or nature plus social conditioning) has not given me the freedom to cultivate in myself an attraction to males, because that attraction is not there in the first place. So I am free, and I am morally responsible, and I choose, but my choice operates within limited freedom in the sexual realm. One way in which I my freedom is limited is this: I cannot choose to become gay.

    Now, a hypothetical gay male could expereince his sexuality–his sexual freedom and its limitation–in a way that is symmetrical to the way I have expressed my own experience, with one change: he is gay and I am straight. So, he is attracted to men and almost never, if ever, to women. He is free and morally responsible in the ways that he acts on his sexual desires. He is free and responsible to cultivate a virtuous character with respect to his sexual lifestyle. But he is not free to stop being gay–he is not free to stop being attracted to men. And he is not free to become straight–he is not free to become attracted to women. This is for the exact same reasons that I am not free to become gay, as a straight male.

    So much, I think, could even be accepted–and should be–by a non-affirming stance: one which recognizes sexual orientation as given and unchangeable, but regards all same-sex sexually intimate behavior to be morally wrong.

    But it should be regarded as at least a tenable position–and many gay-affirming Christians (some gay and some straight) do maintain this position–that there are morally appropriate as well as morally inappropriate ways of acting on same-sex sexual desires and impulses. And that morally appropriate ways are typically in the context of a mutual, loving, committed, exclusive, socially supported same-sex relationship.

    All this to say: it is certain tenable that human beings are free, but have limited freedom. And it is certainly tenable that human beings typically are not free to change their sexual orientation, but nevertheless they are free to act upon or refrain from acting upon their sexual desires that arise from their orientation. Therefore, holding the belief that one’s sexual orientation is not changeable (for all practical purposes) does not commit one to the position of hard determinism, either globally with respect to all human action, or locally with respect to human sexual behavior.

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  6. Neville Kiser

     

    To Andrew Jones, it’s difficult to start out with that analogy when people don’t view homosexual orientation as being wrong. That analogy (alcoholism) is something that gets continued usage in the Christian evangelical world and it is not helpful (when speaking to people who do not think it’s wrong). To use that analogy would be to assume that both you and the gay individual (or advocate of gay rights) come from a position that “homosexuality is unnatural” and that is something you won’t be hearing from the person you’re arguing with. I don’t mean to put you down, I’m just saying…I’ve heard people use this argument and to most gay people it’s an insult because it’s like saying, “You like football, so you’re no better than an alcoholic.” I know that sounds shocking, but trust me, this is where the conversation is out. I’m not a believer in people being born homosexual, per se, but I am more on the fence on the issue as a Christian in the world. From a political standpoint, I could certainly never (and didn’t this past election) vote YES on PROP 8 here in Southern California. I voted NO (NO on the banning of Same Sex Marriage/Unions). But why I did that is another issue in itself.

    Just wanted to challenge that comparison because of its fundamentally undermining of what most homosexuals believe. You can believe that’s wrong, but it still makes it difficult to carry on an argument about how alcoholism is genetically similar to homosexuality. Once again, genetics does not have the final word on what’s good or bad, does it? I don’t think that’s what being made in God’s image is what it’s all boiled down to. If it is, we are all in real trouble.

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  7. Jim Spiegel

     

    Neville,

    Andrew’s alcoholic analogy is actually quite apposite. What it is designed to refute is the notion that a genetic disposition by itself excuses the behavior to which it is causally linked. For such an analogy to have any force one must select something (such as substance abuse) which we all agree to be wrong and make the point that way. The implication is that, by parity of reason, homosexual behavior COULD be wrong even if there is a biological (such as genetic) predisposition in that direction for some. Whether homosexual behavior is in FACT wrong is a separate question. But at least the analogy succeeds (putatively) in showing that the fact of homosexual biological predispositions (if such exist) do not by themselves close the case in favor of the moral innocence of such behavior.

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  8. Jim Spiegel

     

    Scott,

    The approach you take in your account is much more admirable in its nuance and rigor than what is commonly set forth by permissivists. So good job there. But it appears to pivot on the ambiguity of the term “gay”. For the term may be understood in an essentialist way (as in it is in one’s nature) or in a performative way (as in how one behaves). To assume the former meaning in your account begs the question, for the issue under debate here is whether homosexuals are, in some sense or other, fixedly oriented or “naturally” this way. But to understand “gay” or “homosexual” in a performative sense (as I think we should) undermines your claim that “I cannot choose to become gay.” Clearly, any person, whatever one’s desires or inclinations, is capable of choosing to engage in homosexual behavior. In fact, many people have done so for various reasons (e.g. simple curiosity, for profit, on a dare, etc.). This is not to say one can choose or behave one’s way into having homoerotic feelings. But if “being gay” is essentially about behaving a certain way (having homesexual relations) rather than feeling certain ways, then this is irrelevant.

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  9. Scott Coulter

     

    Jim,
    I was not attempting to give evidence that a gay person’s sexual orientation is determined rather than chosen. I was rather attempting to argue that someone who holds this position is not thereby committed to hard determinism: i.e., a view that makes a person’s sexual choices un-free and hence morally neutral. So, I’m not sure that I am guilty of begging the question in the way you suggest in your response.
    P.S. – Thanks for the “good job”. 🙂
    -Scott

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  10. Brad Seeman

     

    I think you’re right on this, Jim. Another huge problem here is with the leap that we’re being asked to make that we wouldn’t make in other areas. If it turned out that alcoholism were biologically caused (even in the strongest sense of that word, which identical twin studies show is not the case with homosexuality), we would not be tempted to say that it is therefore right or good to be an alcoholic. Sociobiologists (of whom I am not a fan) have arged that tendencies to abuse step-children may be biologically hardwired into us. If that were a fact, we would not then say it was right. The parallel move in “gay marriage” debates is just as much a leap. The only difference is that many today *want* to make the leap in the latter case.

    (Of course I am not drawing a tight analogy between alcoholism and homosexuality; it’s only to point out the questionable nature of this specific argument that biological destiny means something is “therefore” right. Another–rather large–step is needed.)

    It seems to me that there are some interesting theological reflections from Genesis 3 and Romans 8 that should lead us to expect the fallenness of our biology. Not all biologically shaped inclinations are indicative of God’s original design.

    Nice post. I also enjoyed Amy’s post about cookie and Obama. Sounds a lot like our house!

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  11. Brad Seeman

     

    I hadn’t read the comments since yesterday. I see Andrew already made the point I just tried to make. As long as we make clear that the example of alcoholism is not a point-by-point analogy, but is drawing out a specific difficulty in a specific argument, it is very much on topic.

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  12. Scott Coulter

     

    Brad,
    What would the outcome of twin studies have to be in order to show that same-sex orientations are biologically determined? What do you think the twin studies that have been done do in fact show?
    I take it on authority that twin studies have shown that the identical twin of a gay male is also gay 50%-70% of the time. If you think this claim is inaccurate or misleading, could you please say so and provide evidence to that effect?
    I agree, by the way, that just because a disposition to have certain behaviors or experience certain impulses is biologically determined, it does not follow that it is healthy or morally good for a person to have that disposition or to indulge those impulses. I grant that the alcoholism illustration demonstrates that much.
    Whether or not being gay is a choice, and whether or not someone’s orientation can be changed remain relevant to our relationships with gay people and the way we conceive of them, whether we are affirming of their relationships or not. If being gay is not a choice, then we should not impose guilt, shame, and condemnation upon people for being gay. Even if it is better to be heterosexual or if homosexuality is a disease. If orientation cannot be changed, then “conversion therapy” is fruitless at best and harmful at worst.

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  13. Scott Coulter

     

    (Let me clarify a possible ambiguity in my last comment: I meant to say that regardless of whether or not we are affirming of our gay friends’ relationships it is relevant whether or not being gay is a choice and whether or not someone’s orientation can be changed. Whether we regard our gay friends as choosing their orientation is relevant to how we regard them and relate to them, both if we affirm their relationships and if we disapprove of their relationships.)

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  14. Elliott P.

     

    Scott,
    I don’t understand the leap that you are making. We can argue all day about whether or not someone chooses to be gay, but you can’t tell me it’s not merely a choice to enter or not enter into a gay relationship. Why should we affirm that? Regardless of how they get to the point of wanting to be in such a relationship (whether it’s their “fault” or not), it is certainly their fault that they are choosing to be in that relationship, and I see no reason to affirm that. Regardless of if being gay is or isn’t a choice, the relationship is, and we have the moral authority to condemn it, do we not?

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  15. Lezlie

     

    Perhaps, as Jim pointed out, differentiating in each instance whether one is speaking about a disposition toward homosexuality or is engaging in a homosexual relationship would clear up the discussion. “Being gay” could indeed mean either one in many cases.

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  16. Scott Coulter

     

    Elliott – I’m not sure why you’re reading me as denying that it’s a choice to enter or not enter into a gay relationship. If I was unclear on that, I apologize.

    I agree with you that the issue is not whether or not being gay is a choice, and that the issue is in fact whether or not being in same-sex (marriage or quasi-marriage) relationships is morally permissible or not. The issue Jim raised was however whether or not many gay rights advocates seem committed to hard determinism.

    I’m going to try not to take up too much more space on Jim’s blog now. I don’t want to monopolize. 🙂

    Reply
  17. Elliott P.

     

    Thanks Scott. You talked a bitin your longer comment about Christians who view exclusive gay relationships as moral. What are some of the reasons they give for this view?

    Reply

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