Sunday, January 6, 2013

What's wrong with gay sex?

Here's a chpt of my book The Philosophy Gym on gay sex. It's topical again given current traumas in Church of England.

Mr Jarvis, a Christian, was asleep in bed, dreaming of the Last Judgement. In his dream, Jarvis found himself seated next to God in a great cloud-swept hall. God had just finished handing down judgement on the drunkards, who were slowly shuffling out of the exit to the left. Angels were now ushering a group of nervous-looking men through the entrance to the right. As the men were assembled before Him, God began to speak.

God: So who’s next? Ah, yes, the active homosexuals . So tell me, Jarvis, what shall we do with them?
Jarvis: You’re going to punish them, aren’t you?
God: Why do you say that?
Jarvis: Because to engage in homosexual behaviour is wrong, of course.

The Appeal to The Bible


God gently rubbed his chin and looked quizzically at Jarvis.

God. Wrong? Is it wrong?
Jarvis: Yes. You say so yourself in The Bible.
God: Ah. The Bible.
Jarvis: Yes. Look right here. “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.” Leviticus 18.22
God. Well, I may have been a little hasty. I’m not sure about that bit now.
Jarvis. Not sure? You’re God! You don’t make mistakes!
God: Perhaps I am not the real God. Perhaps I’m merely a dream God – a figment of your imagination.
Jarvis: Oh.
God. Also, why do you assume The Bible is one hundred percent reliable?
Jarvis: You mean it’s not?
God: I didn’t say that. But look, if you plan entirely to base your morality on the contents of just one book, you had better be sure it is the right book. And you had better be sure to what extent it can be relied upon, hadn’t you?

The Lord pointed to The Bible lying in Jarvis’s lap.


God: Flip forward a couple of pages. Scan down a bit. That’s it. Leviticus 11.7-8 What does it say?
Jarvis: “And the swine, though he divide the hoof; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat.”
God: Ever eaten a bacon sandwich? Then you have sinned! Now a little further down.
Jarvis: “These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers them shall ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales…”
God: “…ye shall not eat of their flesh.” Didn’t your last meal include moules marinière? Why aren’t you Christians out boycotting seafood restaurants and warning of the perils of lobster thermidor?

Jarvis turned a little pale.

God: If you read over the page from the passage about homosexuality, you will discover that it’s also wrong to wear a jacket made from a linen/wool mix.
Jarvis: I hadn’t noticed that bit before.
God: Further on it says it’s sinful to lend money for interest. Yet you condemn not one of these things, do you?
Jarvis: No.
God: But you confidently cite that particular passage of Leviticus to justify your condemnation of homosexuality. It seems you are picking and choosing.
Jarvis: But surely you no longer mean those other passages about seafood, jackets and lending money to apply? They’re outdated, aren’t they?

God looked sternly at Jarvis.

God: The word of God? Outdated? Okay, I don’t blame you for failing to condemn those who wear jackets made from a linen/wool mix. But you’re using your own sense of right and wrong, your own moral criteria, to decide which passages of The Bible to accept and which to reject, aren’t you?
Jarvis: Yes, I guess I am.
God: Indeed, it’s because the morality of The Bible does generally fit in with what you already think about right and wrong that you are prepared to accept The Bible as my word, isn’t it? If The Bible recommended stealing, lying and killing, you would hardly be likely to take it as My word, would you?
Jarvis: I guess not.
God: Then I think you should be honest. Rather than picking those bits of The Bible you like and rejecting the rest, and then claiming that your particular selection has my divine stamp of approval, I think you should just say that you think homosexuality is wrong and leave me out of it.
Jarvis: Very well.
God: Right, so if you believe homosexuality is wrong, can you explain to me why it’s wrong? Why do these men deserve punishment?

Homosexuality is unnatural


Jarvis looked out at the assembled crowd and scratched his head.

Jarvis: I didn’t say you should punish them. Perhaps they should be forgiven. But they have sinned. I can give you a number of reasons why.
God: What reasons?
Jarvis: The first is that homosexuality is unnatural.
God: Ah. That’s perhaps the most commonly held justification for condemning homosexual acts. But in what sense is homosexuality unnatural?
Jarvis: Well, most people aren’t actively homosexual. So homosexuality is an aberration from the norm.
God: In a sense. But then most men don’t have red hair. So red hair is also, as you put it, an aberration from the norm. Yet there is nothing unnatural about red hair, is there?
Jarvis: True. What I mean is that homosexual acts are unnatural because they are not what nature intended.
God: Not what nature intended? Hmm. Again, you need to clarify. Do you mean that homosexual acts run against those tendencies that nature has instilled in man, those that come most naturally to him?
Jarvis: Yes, I suppose I do.
God: I see. But now what about cleanliness? Cleanliness is next to Godliness, they say. Yet it hardly comes naturally to most human beings does it? Children seem positively fond of dirt. Man, for the most part, is pretty filthy, and doesn’t much mind being so. Your human obsession with hygiene is a very modern development. But then, by your own reasoning, cleanliness is morally wrong.
Jarvis: Oh dear.
God. Indeed, much that comes naturally to man is immoral. But he also seems naturally inclined towards greed, avarice, selfishness, infidelity and aggression. Humans have to struggle to control these natural inclinations. In fact it’s only those who succeed in thwarting these repugnant natural tendencies that are considered virtuous. Yet you would now reverse this and say that these tendencies, being natural, are good and what runs against them bad! Let me introduce you to someone.

Suddenly, Jarvis felt another person sitting close by. He turned to his right and saw a bald, serious-looking man dressed in a dark suit.

God: This is John Stuart Mill, who lived from 1806 to 1873. Mill here didn’t always give me a good press. In fact meeting me came as something of a surprise to you, didn’t it Mill?

Mill smiled nervously.

God: But he does has something interesting to say about what is natural. Don’t you Mill?
Mill: Conformity to nature, has no connection whatever with right and wrong….To illustrate this point, let us consider the phrase by which the greatest intensity of condemnatory feeling is conveyed in connection with the idea of nature – the word unnatural. That a thing is unnatural, in any precise meaning which can be attached to the word, is no argument for its being blameable; since the most criminal actions are to a being like man, not more unnatural than most of the virtues.

No sooner had Mill finished speaking than he vanished in a puff of smoke.

God: A fine mind, that Mill. So what do you say now?

Jarvis looked a little irritated. He remained convinced that there is something unnatural about homosexuality, something that makes it morally wrong. But he was struggling very hard to identify exactly what this unnatural and immoral feature is. Then, after a few minutes, Jarvis had an idea.

Jarvis. I have it! The penis has a specific function, doesn’t it? It’s designed for procreation: for the production of children. Homosexual activity is thus a misuse of that particular body part. One is using a body part contrary to the way nature intended.
God: I see. But then most sexual activity is morally wrong. For most sexual activity – even heterosexual activity – involves the thwarting of the procreative natural function. Masturbation is sinful: it cannot result in the production of children. Oral sex is sinful. The use of any sort of contraceptive device is sinful. Is that what you believe?
Jarvis: It’s certainly what many Catholics believe, isn’t it?
God: True. But look, if the justification for considering all these sorts of sexual activity sinful is that they involve using body parts contrary to their “natural” function, then what about, say, wearing earrings? It hardly looks like a “natural” use of the ears, does it, hanging lumps of metal off them? Yet it’s not considered sinful. No doubt you would deny that wearing earrings involves, as you said, using a body part “contrary to its basic, essential function”. But why?
Jarvis: I’m not sure.
God: And in any case, the question remains: Why is it wrong to use a body part contrary to its basic natural function? I just don’t see why it follows that if something comes unnaturally to us, or to a part of our body, then it’s wrong.

Homosexuality is dirty


Jarvis was struggling to answer God’s question adequately. So he decides to try a different tack.

Jarvis: Okay. Suppose I accept that Mill is correct. Morality has nothing to do with what’s “natural” or “unnatural”. Still there’s another much more obvious and better reason for condemning homosexual practices. I hope you won’t be offended if I speak frankly.
God: Be as frank as you like.
Jarvis: Very well. Homosexuality is dirty, isn’t it? Sodomy – placing ones penis in someone else’s anus – means that it is probable that one will come into contact with faeces.
God. What you say about sodomy is true. But does this show that all homosexual acts are wrong? No, it doesn’t. There are plenty of active homosexuals who don’t practise sodomy. You can’t condemn them, can you?
Jarvis. No.
God: Also, there are heterosexual couples that practise sodomy, aren’t there?
Jarvis: There are?
God. Take my word for it. But in any case, just because an activity is dirty doesn’t make it wrong.
Jarvis: Why not?
God: You’re a keen gardener, aren’t you?
Jarvis: Yes.
God: Well, gardening is a pretty dirty activity, isn’t it? Particularly where you live. There is rarely a day you spend in the garden that doesn’t result in you immersing your hands in cat faeces, is there?
Jarvis: I guess that’s true. You are right. Gardening is dirty, but it’s not immoral. So I can’t really use the alleged dirtiness of sodomy to justify my morally condemning it, can I?
God: You’re catching on, my boy.

Homosexuality is unhealthy

Jarvis now tried a different tack.

Jarvis: To engage in homosexual activity is unhealthy. That’s why it’s wrong.
God: Unhealthy?
God: Yes. Take HIV for example. HIV is an infection that results in AIDS. AIDS kills millions of people. And it is through homosexual activity that HIV is spread. Correct?
God: You are partially correct. HIV can be spread through all forms of penetrative sex. Indeed, many heterosexuals are infected too.
Jarvis: That’s true.
God: Also, homosexuals may practise safe sex. Heterosexuals too. Practice safe sex and the risks are pretty low.
Jarvis: Hmm. Also true, I guess.
God: Perhaps it’s true that homosexual acts are more likely to pass on the disease than are heterosexual acts, even if they are of the comparatively “safe” variety. But does that make it wrong? If it were found that drinking wine is similarly a bit less healthy than drinking beer, we wouldn’t morally condemn those wine drinkers who refused to switch to beer, would we?
Jarvis: I guess not.

Homosexuality corrupts the young

Jarvis: But what of homosexuals who prey on innocent young men? That’s wrong, isn’t it?
God: But it’s no less wrong when men seek to seduce innocent and impressionable young women, surely?
Jarvis: Well, yes, that is wrong too. But what the homosexual seducer does is more wrong.
God: Why?
Jarvis: Well, because the young man involved may then end up adopting a homosexual lifestyle himself. He may be corrupted.
God: You’re assuming, I think, that homosexuals tend to be made, not born. That’s contentious, is it not?
Jarvis: Well, isn’t it plausible that some men who would, other things being equal, go on to have only heterosexual sexual relationships may have a tendency towards homosexuality that, given the wrong sort of experience at an impressionable age, may result in them then pursuing homosexual liaisons later in life?
God: That’s not implausible. But notice that you’re begging the question. If there’s nothing morally wrong with homosexuality, then what difference does it make if a young man does end up engaging in homosexual acts? Why insist that this young man is corrupted?
Jarvis: Well, homosexuals live miserable lives. In many societies they continue to be vilified. So, as a result of his early homosexual experience, this young man may end up having an unhappy life. The homosexual who initiates the young man into this life must know this. So what the initiator does is wrong.
God: Perhaps. But even if what you say is true, is the blame for the young man’s misery to be pinned primarily on the homosexual who initiates him?

God pointed an accusatory finger at Jarvis.

God: Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to blame people like you for making homosexuals miserable by vilifying them?

Homosexuals are promiscuous

Jarvis didn’t bother to answer God’s question. Instead, he pointed out something about male homosexuals that does appear to be true.

Jarvis: Male homosexuals tend to be rather more promiscuous than heterosexuals. Doesn’t that, at least, make them worthy of your moral condemnation?
God: This, at best, would give me reason to condemn those homosexuals that were promiscuous. It would not justify my condemning homosexual acts per se. In fact there are many homosexual couples that remain faithful throughout their lives. And plenty of heterosexuals are promiscuous too.
Jarvis: True. But homosexuals tend to be more promiscuous.
God: In fact, there’s a scientific explanation for that. Males seem naturally much more disposed towards having no-strings sex than do females. Ask heterosexual men if they would accept the offer of no-risk, no-strings sex with an attractive stranger of the opposite sex and over 90% say “yes”. Ask heterosexual women the same question and the vast majority say “no”.
Jarvis: That’s interesting.
God. Yes. So you see, in heterosexual relationships, women act as a natural brake on the male’s impulse to have sex fairly indiscriminately. For male homosexuals this brake is missing. It is unsuprising, then, that they tend to be more promiscuous than are heterosexual males. It’s not that they are any less moral. It’s just that they have more opportunity to do what most men, whatever their sexual persuasion, would do given the opportunity.
Jarvis: Nevertheless, you admit that male homosexuals do tend to be more promiscuous, and promiscuity is not to be encouraged. So male homosexuality is not to be encouraged, surely.
God: Your argument rests on the assumption that promiscuity is itself a bad thing. But is it?
Jarvis: Isn’t it?
God: Can you explain to me why you think it is?

Homosexuals use each other as means, not ends

Jarvis: Well, take for example those bathhouses in San Francisco. You know, the ones in which homosexual orgies are supposed to have taken place. Men having sex with complete strangers at the drop of a hat. These men would be treating other men not as ends in themselves, but merely as a means to an end, that end being their own immediate sexual gratification. Now that is morally wrong, surely. It was the philosopher Kant (1724-1804) who said: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” And that is quite right, isn’t it? One ought to treat others as ends in themselves, rather than as the means by which one might obtain a quick sexual thrill. That, surely, is why such promiscuous behaviour is wrong.
God: An ingenious argument, I admit. But not persuasive. Let me conjure up for you another philosopher, Lord Quinton (1925- ), who has something interesting to say on this matter.

A figure began to materialize to Jarvis’s right. First some hands appeared; then a nose. Finally, there was Anthony Quinton standing before him (Quinton, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to God).

God: Ah. Lord Quinton. My friend Jarvis just suggested that it is wrong to use another person not as an end in themselves, but merely as a means to sexual pleasure. Homosexuals are less likely to enter into lasting, monogomous sexual relationships. They are, perhaps, more likely to engage in casual sex with a complete stranger, on a whim. Is it that a problem, morally?
Quinton: It is certainly true that long-term, morally and personally profound relationships are less common among homosexuals. How much does that matter? If I regularly play tennis with someone but do not see him except on the tennis court and at the health juice bar afterwards, if, in other words, I am interested in him only as a tennis partner, am I ignoring his status as an end in himself? More to the point, if I pick up different opponents every time I go to the courts, on a purely casual basis, am I acting immorally?
Jarvis: But hang on. Sex is not like tennis is it? Sex is a much more important part of life, surely.
Quinton: Except for a minute number of people sex is a more important part of life than tennis. A life in which it is merely a source of short-term gratification and not an inseparable part of a whole shared life is to that extent trivialised. But triviality is not a moral offence; it is, rather, a missed opportunity and one which, in fact, many homosexuals do not miss.

God waved his hand and Lord Quinton began to dissolve into tendrils of cloud. As the last wisps drifted away, God looked intently at Jarvis.

God: So you see, it may be true that some homosexuals use each other as means to an end and not as ends in themselves. But, as Quinton just explained, it’s difficult to see why there is anything morally wrong with that. It may also be true that some homosexuals miss out on the kind of deeper connection that can be made only within a stable, lasting and sexually exclusive relationship. However, as Quinton also just explained, this is surely not a reason morally to condemn them.

Jarvis scratched his head. He now felt very confused.

Jarvis: But I felt sure that you would condemn homosexuality.
God: If two consenting adult males want to enter into a sexual relationship, why not? So far you have not given me a single convincing reason why such activity demands my condemnation. Homosexual sex does no harm to others. Nor does it appear to do much obvious harm to the individuals involved. Why shouldn’t people engage in it if that is what they want?

Homosexuality and “family values”


Jarvis: You say that homosexuality does no harm to others. But perhaps it does. Perhaps it has a corrosive effect on society as a whole. For doesn’t it eat away at the institution that lies at the heart of any civilized society: the family?
God: Why do you say that?
Jarvis: Well, for a start, if everyone was exclusively homosexual, then there would be no families, would there? The human race would die out!
God: Does that make homosexuality wrong? I think not. For, similarly, if every man became a Catholic Priest, that too would mean the end of the family. Yet there’s nothing immoral about being a Catholic Priest, I hope?
Jarvis: No. But look, societies that fail to condemn homosexuality crumble. Once homosexuality is considered a morally acceptable alternative to heterosexuality, the result must be the breakdown of the family. And the family is the glue that binds society together, is it not?
God: You seem to be suggesting that homosexuality is like some sort of disease that will inevitably eat away at the vitals of society unless strongly dealt with.
Jarvis: Yes, I am.
God: But why must a society that tolerates homosexuality crumble? Actually, it seems to me that societies tolerant of homosexuality thrive just as much if not more than intolerant ones. And why do you believe homosexuality is a threat to the family? Why can’t we have both strong families and tolerance? You really have made no case for any of these conclusions, have you?

Jarvis grimaced.

God: In fact, it seems to me that your attitude towards homosexuals is driven less by reason and more by emotion: by feelings of disgust and revulsion.
Jarvis: I do have strong feelings about them, yes. They do revolt me. And shouldn’t society take into account the strong moral convictions of the great many who have such feelings?
God: But it’s clear, isn’t it, that morality isn’t simply a matter of emotion? Just because most people feel that something is disgusting or abhorrent doesn’t make it wrong. After all, plenty of people feel strongly about the moral inferiority of Jews. Plenty feel similarly about blacks. Plenty feel sickened by foreigners. Yet all these feelings are without justification. That kind of “them and us” sentiment on which “they” are held to be dirty, nasty and immoral comes very naturally to you humans. Perhaps you should be more vigilant, more on your guard against letting such feelings get a grip. As Ronald Dworkin points out, you certainly shouldn’t mistake such feelings for moral conviction. Isn’t that right, Ronald?

Another shadowy figure started to take form next to Jarvis and began to speak.

Dworkin: If I base my view about homosexuals on a personal emotional reaction (‘they make me sick’) you would reject [it]. We distinguish moral positions from emotional reactions, not because moral positions are supposed to be unemotional or dispassionate – quite the reverse is true – but because the moral position is supposed to justify the emotional reaction, and not vice versa. If a man is unable to produce such reasons, we do not deny the fact of his emotional involvement, which may have important social or political consequences, but we do not take this involvement as demonstrating his moral conviction. Indeed, it is just this sort of position – a severe emotional reaction to a practice or a situation for which one cannot account – that we tend to describe, in lay terms, as phobias or an obsession.

Jarvis looked uncomfortable.

God: See? You’re in the grip of a phobia or obsession.
Jarvis: Oh dear.
God: Having said all that, let’s get on with the judging.

God reached forward and pressed a small red button on his armrest. Immediately, the hall was bathed in an eerie red light and the air filled with the deafening “Parp! Parp! Parp!” of a claxon. Jarvis noticed that over on the left of the hall a number of doors had sprung open and little horned creatures with long tails were pouring out. These devil-creatures immediately began to prod the assembled homosexuals back in the direction of the doorways with their spiked forks. Many of these unfortunate men were now holding each other and whimpering.

God: That’s right. You all burn.
Jarvis: In hell?
God: I’m afraid so. They didn’t follow instructions. Couldn’t be clearer. You pointed out one of the relevant passages yourself. Homosexuality is an abomination. I razed Sodom to ground, didn’t I?
Jarvis: But a minute ago you said…
God: I have been testing you. I have pretended to be a bleeding-heart liberal in order to establish your commitment to The Bible. I do tests. Don’t you remember Isaac and Abraham – Genesis 23?
Jarvis: But what about forgiveness? Aren’t you going to allow them into heaven?

God pointed to the men being herded about by the devil-creatures

God: Let them into heaven? How can I?
Jarvis: But I thought you said...
God: There you go, thinking again. It’s all in the book: The book you hold in your hands. Take a look at Corinthians, 1, 6:9-11. It says very clearly that ‘abusers of themselves with mankind…shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. Such were some of you, but ye are washed…ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.’ Now these men are not ‘washed’ are they? They don’t repent. In fact, they flaunt their activities proudly before us. That one even has a ‘Gay Pride’ banner.

There was indeed a worried looking man standing at the front with a slightly droopy cardboard placard.

God: It’s all very clear: they go to hell.
Jarvis: Really?
God: Rules are rules. So who’s next? Ah yes, the lobster eaters. Come on down!

At this Jarvis woke up, his bed soaked in sweat.

37 comments:

Csiki Attila-József said...

Interesting, yesterday morning I have written a post on my blog about the planned criminalisation of gay relationships, of homelessness and the ethics of disgust.

Very interesting coincidence. Too bad it is in Hungarian :))

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I suspect the author of this piece have read "Is God a Taoist" by Raymond Smullyan .

http://www.mit.edu/people/dpolicar/writing/prose/text/godTaoist.html

Anyway, a rather nice "Socratic" piece, although methinks the author let god slip off the logical hooks way too easy.

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

Paul P. Mealing said...

This issue was discussed back in Sep. 2011, on a panel of diverse public figures.

At the bottom of the transcript can be found this comment by philosopher, Raimond Gaita:

But sexuality is so fundamental to our sense of what it is to be human. I mean, the old thing about birth and death and so on and it seems to me to deny - gays don't want this it's not a matter of liberalism, right, because liberalism says, look, as long as you're not harming anybody else, that's okay, but that's consistent with finding it disgusting. They say you do disgusting thing, as long as it doesn't. What they want is a recognition of the dignity of their sexuality and that is being denied to them. And given how fundamental sexuality is to our sense of what it is to be human, it is not an exaggeration to say, I think, that it's a denial of their full humanity.

Actually, it's worth watching the whole programme.

Regards, Paul.

Jon Wainwright said...

Just as people like Jarvis are to blame for making homosexuals miserable by vilifying them, opponents of gay marriage may be holding back homosexuals from forming faithful, monogamous relationships. Whatever one thinks about marriage as an institution, it does provide a clear, socially sanctioned standard for relationships between men and women. Those who most want gay marriage are more likely to support the values of fidelity and monogamy, the very values that opponents of gay marriage say they are in favour of promoting.

It's always worth bearing in mind in any discussion of human sexuality some basic scientific facts, for example, the difference in size of the sex cells, which defines the difference between male and female. A great deal flows from the male gamete being tiny and abundant and from the female gamete being large and scarce.

God is right when he says "that morality isn’t simply a matter of emotion" but he needs to brush up on moral dumbfounding, which is when our emotions provide the moral intuition, which is then rationalized and made to look as though it's the product of moral reasoning. Here, reason is a slave to passion in a rather unhelpful way.

I'm also just reviewing a fascinating book by Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism, which concludes with the great Baruch Spinoza (1632–77). His contribution to scepticism was to reject scripture as a source of knowledge and to reduce the Bible "to uninteresting opinions of some people who lived long ago." Jarvis, I'm sure, would not be impressed!

Peter P. said...

As someone who identifies as gay, this does present a spiritual paradox for me (and I think many lgbt who view themselves as Christian). The way I take the biblical view of this is to look at the motivation behind my sexual desire.
In my case, I've had both intimate sexual relations with long term partners, and one night stands. Comparatively, the sex with partners in a loving relationship is better in just about every way.
I also should point out that there is evidence that the church in its early history did sanction union between males. (see the book "Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe" by John Boswell)
My ultimate reconcilliation between my faith and my sexuality came after spending some time with a franciscan astronomer at his telescope. After viewing the universe with him over the course of several days, I believed that the words we use to describe God are finite, and that a God who could create a universe I could not begin to comprehend must have known what He was doing when He made me the way I am.
Of course, your mileage may vary.

FormFactor said...

After giving this a second read through and thinking on it for a few days it occurred two things came to mind. First, this doesn't much affect or address christian thought on the matter. Second, I've yet to find any defense of gay sex that either doesn't apply just as well to other taboo sexual preferences or lapse into weirdness.
In an earlier reply, Dr. Law wrote:

"To point out that justifications offered for discriminating against x fails is not to show that there are no grounds for discriminating against y or z. Obviously. But I realize this sort of fallacious thinking plays well in certain religious circles."

What do grounds for discriminating y or z look like?

Stephen Law said...

"What do grounds for discriminating y or z look like?"

Well, examples might be:

Grounds sufficient for e.g. withholding right to drive from young children - not sufficiently responsible etc. to do so. Ditto, giving them the vote.

Grounds for, say, withholding right to breast cancer screening from men might be, men are not sufficiently at risk of breast cancer to justify the expense of extending breast cancer screening to them (though some get it).

And so on and so forth. A difference in level of motor control, awareness, etc is clearly relevant when it comes to determining whether someone should be allowed to drive.

The colour of someone's skin on the other hand is not a morally relevant difference when it comes to the right to vote. Nor is sex. Though sex does become morally relevant when we consider e.g. breast cancer screening.

FormFactor said...

Dr. Law,
Thanks for replying. What would grounds for discriminating against sex between siblings or other close relatives look like? Ditto zoophilia.

Stephen Law said...

Well let's start with pedophilia. Why should we discriminate against that? The answer is obvious: because just as children are not sufficiently mature/responsible to drive, so they are not sufficiently mature/responsible to enter into sexual relationships.

Notice the above argument immediately provides us a counter-example to your claim that "I've yet to find any defense of gay sex that either doesn't apply just as well to other taboo sexual preferences". Nothing I said about gay sex provides a defence of pedophilia.

Now consider brother-sister and father daughter, etc. sexual relations. Should we discriminate against those? There's an obvious case for doing so - incestuous sexual relationships are likely to produce offspring that are genetically defective. Again, notice that nothing I say about gay sex undermines that argument either.

However, what of brother-brother incestuous relationships? They can't produce such offspring. So should we discriminate against them. Not on that basis obviously. Maybe there is no good case for discriminating in that case.

Re zoophilia - various arguments might be constructed for discriminating against that - one of the most obvious being sexual disease, another being animals cannot consent. But are these good arguments? Whether or not we should discriminate against it depends on whether or not a good case can be made for doing so. Possibly not.

Notice that my "defence" of gay sex is nothing more than my pointing out that, unless there's a good case for discriminating, we shouldn't discriminate. What you said is not true. My defence of gay sex does not work equally well in defence of brother-sister incest and pedophilia, for example. In those other cases, a good argument for discriminating can indeed be made.

Stephen Law said...

Re your other comment that my essay, "doesn't much affect or address christian thought on the matter" - all the arguments I consider have been offered by Christians. But perhaps none is the True ChristianTM argument? In which case what is the True ChristianTM argument?

For "True ChristianTM" check out http://www.landoverbaptist.net/showthread.php?t=86329

Jon Wainwright said...

Stephen, your first comment unwittingly illustrates the point I made about moral dumbfounding. Jonathan Haidt uses the example of brother-sister incest and asks us whether this is wrong. Most people think such sexual relations are wrong. When asked why, one reason given is that "incestuous sexual relationships are likely to produce offspring that are genetically defective."

But what if the brother and sister use a reliable method of contraception? Is it still wrong for them to have sex? Most of us have a gut feeling that it is still wrong, but when asked why, we're likely to be morally dumbfounded. We scrabble around for a reason, and perhaps end up saying, It just is wrong!

Here, moral reasoning is in the service of a powerful emotion, which evolved when there were in fact no reliable methods of contraception and when avoiding genetic defects was a question of survival.

Today, while the evolutionary reason has disappeared, the emotion hasn't.

Stephen Law said...

Jon you say

"your first comment unwittingly illustrates the point"

It doesn't *unwittingly* illustrate the point, as I was aware it illustrates it, and in fact almost made that additional point myself!

Even if there's good reason to prohibit such incestuous relationships, it does not follow they are intrinsically morally wrong, of course.

Jon Wainwright said...

Actually, in my last comment I meant to say that your second comment picked up on my point about moral dumbfounding, but the connection wasn't quite clear to me.

I'd suggest a more nuanced conclusion to saying that in these cases ("brother-sister incest and pedophilia") "a good argument for discriminating can indeed be made."

Your argument against pedophilia is stronger than the reason you give for discriminating against brother-sister incest (the possibility of genetic defects) - this reason is less effective if they use contraception.

Also, when you refer to something being "intrinsically morally wrong", do you mean there are objective moral reasons why that something is wrong?

Stephen Law said...

"Good argument" maybe too strong. It may still be a good case can be made against allowing brother-sister incest, as contraception is not 100% reliable and there will still be a significant number of genetic problems re conceptions. However, by "good argument" I really just meant this should carry some significant weight in our considerations, unlike the considerations raised re homosexuality. I am quite willing to acknowledge the possibility that close-family incest should be permitted in some circumstances.

By saying that it would not, in any case, follow from the fact that such incest should not be permitted that it was "intrinsically morally wrong" I just meant wrong other than because of such bad causal consequences.

FormFactor said...

Dr. Law,
I'm a novice so bear with me here.

It seems to me that the reasons given against incest and zoophilia
fail outright or go so far as to fail.

For example, suppose the potential for defective progeny is reason enough to disallow incest. It's also true that to varying degrees that same potential exists in non related unions. In some cases, the potential is as high if not higher than with incest; I have in mind here those with family histories of cancer, Alzheimer's, Down's syndrome, etc.. If applied consistently the notion that the potential for defective children is enough to disallow a particular sexual union seems to affect all others as well.

Such a view would also fly in the face of the argument for abortion rights. After all, if a woman's body is her own and she has the right to terminate a normal baby she also has the right to bring to fruition a defective one. It is her body to do with as she pleases or so we're told.
Beyond that asking what genetic defects are acceptable, who gets to decide on the matter and, most importantly, what's so wrong with the handicapped that they shouldn't be born should be enough to rethink sexual discrimination based on the potential for handicapped children.

The objections to zoophilia are stranger still. Disease shouldn't be an issue; sufficient protection is available in different forms. That leaves us with the idea of consent. It's an odd objection since consent isn't considered before turning animals into chicken mcnuggets, hamburgers, bacon, shoes, purses and belts. Neither is it considered when removing them from natural habitats and relocating them to zoos and circuses, putting them to work for our agricultural benefit or medical ends.
In light of those, penetration or being penetrated by an indifferent animal isn't just benign, it's a downright preferable alternative for animals whose right to consent we're so worried about.

Assuming the reasons given for discriminating against incest and/or zoophilia fail, does that mean that God's reasoning for gay sex apply to these as well and Jarvis can go back to sleep?

Stephen Law said...

"It seems to me that the reasons given against incest and zoophilia
fail outright or go so far as to fail."

They may do. Personally, I am not sure whether a good case can be made for discriminating against (i.e. prohibiting) those sexual acts (though I think a good case can be made re. prohibiting pedophilia). If it cannot, we should not do so.

Similarly, if a good case cannot be made against discriminating against homosexual acts, we should not do so.

You should not do so. So what's your True ChristianTM justification for doing so, given the failure of the justifications I examined that have been offered by other Christians?

And to repeat: what you said regarding sexual taboos generally - that the arguments presented in my dialogue would undermine discrimination against any sexual act - is false. Nothing said in the dialogue undermines the case for prohibiting pedophilia.

Stephen Law said...

Re brother-sister sexual relations, it's arguable that we ought to prohibit fertile people from marrying if there is a very significant risk of them having seriously genetically damaged offspring. I'm not endorsing the argument, btw, but if it's cogent, it rules out brother-sister marriage (though not brother-brother, as I said myself above). *If* the principle is correct, and other heterosexual marriages carry a similar risk, then yes we would have to apply it consistently, and apply it in those cases too.

These are the kinds of reasons we should be considering seriously, as mature, morally sophisticated adults, rather than "God disapproves of that sort of thing - it says so in this bit of scripture".

Stephen Law said...

re. Jon's interesting point about moral dumbfounding, it certainly is relevant here. You, Formfactor, seem to want to say, "But if your objections to discriminating against gays are good, then discrimination against other sexual taboos cannot be justified either." First of all, that's false, as discrimination against pedophilia can still be justified. Secondly, implicit in your objection is the assumption that discrimination against e.g. zoophilia and incest is indeed proper and justified. But is it? True, most of us have a powerful gut, instinctive reaction against those sexual practices. However, as Jon says, there's a plausible explanation for why would have evolved to have a deeply felt "Yuk!" reaction re. incest, even if such discrimination is not and cannot be justified. That should give you pause for thought, FormFactor, before placing very great confidence in your gut feelings in this instance.

FormFactor said...

Dr. Law,
A christian justification? God forbids homosexuality as it runs counter to what he intended sex and human relations to be. Are all homosexuals condemned? Not at all. Only unrepentant ones. The same goes for adulterers, murderers, thieves and incredibly, used car salesmen.
Jarvis should have known what laws concerning diet and dress were intended to demonstrate. He should also have immediately asked God to produce shrimp cocktail to snack on since Jesus not only made all foods clean in Mark 7:14-23 but he explains why eating seafood is of no consequence. Peter expounds on the matter in Acts 10.
Jarvis should also have reminded God that homosexuality is condemned by Paul in the new testament. Taking the whole bible into account rather than quoting bits and pieces, here and there, we see that old testament ceremonial and dietary laws having been done away with but moral laws upheld.
I can't say much for Jarvis's other reasons for cringing at the the thought of gay sex.
Finally, thanks for the link to landoverbaptist.com. I hadn't thought of that site in well over a decade. Some of it is still horrible yet funny. After all these years it's remains a guilty, shameful pleasure.

FormFactor said...

Dr. Law,
You wrote:
"These are the kinds of reasons we should be considering seriously, as mature, morally sophisticated adults..."

I agree. Of course, I'm immediately ruled out since my significant other assures me that I am not mature much less sophisticated. She is often right about that I'm afraid.

I'm not so much interested in feelings of revulsion in my gut when it comes to incest and zoophilia as much as how those same feelings play out in the non-religious. It seems to me that many in the non-religious camp have no better reasons for opposing incest and zoophilia than many religious people have for opposing gay sex. In fact, the reasons seem the same except for the "thou shalt nots" of religion.

And in some cases, the reasons are worse. The notion of requiring consent from animals for sex they're entirely indifferent to but not requiring the same for enslaving or taking their lives for sport or food, both which cause greater harm, is simply silly.

I'm also interested in the absolute dearth of columns, articles, and op-ed pieces from your side of the debate titled along the lines of "What's wrong with incest?" or "What's wrong with zoophilia?" given good arguments for prohibiting either seem to be in short supply.

Setting aside pedophilia for a moment am I right in thinking that if there are no good arguments against incest or zoophilia then "gay sex" in "What's wrong with gay sex" can be replaced with either while still having the same effect on Jarvis?

Along the way I confused pederasty with pedophilia. I'm not entirely convinced the latter isn't a problem for your side of the debate; I'm still thinking on that one.

Finally, I'm an amateur and I'm more than slightly embarrassed knowing that it shows. However, I'm happy to be learning a great deal and have you to thank for it.

I've bounced some of this off others but most of it I just run through my untrained head. Thank you for taking the time to instruct and forcing me to think it through carefully. And if I offend at any point I apologize; that is most certainly not the intent.

Stephen Law said...

Hi FormFactor. I am aware of Mark 7:14 and how Christians deal with the lobster thermidor issue. God decreed we shouldn't eat it, but then later said (through Jesus) that it's not wrong after all. Was it wrong, but then not wrong, or never wrong in the first place?

I am aware too that other bits of the Bible are pointed at to show that the many Jewish rules on usury, menstruating women, linen-wool jackets, beard shape, lobsters, foreskins, etc. no longer apply (though my impression is that some, shall we say, creative reading between the lines is required to get the precise result Christians want to get).

My impression was that this dropping of the old Jewish laws was to help spread Christianity, which would otherwise have remained a subsect of Judaism. That explanation makes more sense to me than that God himself should coincidentally, for some other cosmic reason (what, if it's not just a capricious whim?), decided to change his moral rules re. lobsters, foreskins, etc. (Or did God himself just drop his own rules when he saw they were an obstacle to the promotion of his new religion?)

But anyhow...

Stephen Law said...

...

re your point re lack of articles re incest but plenty on homosexuality etc is of course partly explained by the fact that homosexuality is much more widespread (at least to my knowledge) and that many more people are affected by discrimination against homosexuality. But I have no doubt it's also partly down to the fact that some of those who recognize the case for discriminating against gays is indeed rubbish have not yet thought through the issues re incest, etc and may be uninformatively and mistakenly going with their gut.

No offence taken, though I do find myself getting angry when I see friends and relatives who are gay being discriminated against by people like yourself (I assume you do morally and politically discriminate against gay couples, right?)

Many of the things Christians morally abhor I abhor too. Indeed, a good secular case can be made against rape, pedophilia, theft, murder, etc. etc. But it appears no good secular case can be constructed for discriminating against gay couples. Hence homophobic Christians typically resort to appealing to ancient bits of text of one among countless religions, text through which, they insist, God reliable reveals to us what does and doesn't meet with his approval.

I wonder whether, *if* it could be shown conclusively that those texts also forbid mixed race marriages, you would then disapprove of mixed race marriages too?

Stephen Law said...

Sorry I forgot to answer this:

"am I right in thinking that if there are no good arguments against incest or zoophilia then "gay sex" in "What's wrong with gay sex" can be replaced with either while still having the same effect on Jarvis?"

Well there may be good arguments against permitting e.g. incestuous marriages. e.g. the fact that (on average) 50% of kids born to a brother-sister couple will be significantly genetically damaged at birth (which I think is the case) might form an important part of a cumulative case for outlawing at least some incestuous marriages, for example (and pointing out, as you do, that a similar risk might require a ban on other kinds of marriage would not necessarily undermine the argument).

But yes, if no good case can be made for discriminating against incest, zoophilia, then we should not discriminate. And I don't consider pointing to ancient bits of text of one religion to be much of a case. Nor, indeed, do many members of that religion.

Jon Wainwright said...

On Stephen's point that Jesus supposedly ditched many Jewish rules to bring on board the Gentiles, Jesus (if he existed) was also thoroughly Jewish (Matthew 5:18):

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

It's such fun quoting the Bible - it can be used to make pretty much any point you like!

Stephen Law said...

Not sure if Jesus ditched the old Jewish rules, but the Christians obviously did. Not entirely sure there was a Jesus and even if there was this might not be a reliable attribution. Interesting quote Jon, thanks.

Jon Wainwright said...

Going back to the idea that some things are "intrinsically morally wrong", the word "intrinsically" is a bit of red flag to me, like "essential" or "eternal": they imply changelessness. This is why Darwinian thinking is so important, since it explains change and also the appearance of changelessness. Over evolutionary time, a disgust reaction against brother–sister incest was a useful adaptation (a biological trait that evolved through natural or sexual selection to promote survival or reproduction). While brother-sister incest would promote reproduction, this positive selection pressure was presumably more than offset by the negative selection pressure of genetic defects reducing survival (and reproduction in the next generation).

What is interesting now that we have the means to prevent conception is that the harm resulting from brother–sister incest (genetic defects) has also been removed, so if morality were simply about preventing harm and promoting autonomy, then brother–sister incest should be fine. While I have a lot of time for Sam Harris and his moral landscape, I also think Haidt's contribution to understand moral psychology is important: the harm principle is not the only principle at work, although it tends to dominate liberal discussions of the issues. Notions of purity and sanctity also figure, and much more strongly for some, although I would argue they're crucial for liberals too.

Stephen Law said...

Not sure about brother-sister marriage being fine now we have contraception, as contraception is unreliable, there will be accidents, and some couples will in any case deliberately flout the contraception requirement, if we make it a requirement.

How are purity sanctity are crucial for liberals? Do you mean they do figure in liberal thinking, or they ought to?

I am puzzled by Haidt. What he says seems largely obvious. So we liberals never noticed that conservatives tend to have more of a gut attraction to authoritarianism, issues of racial purity, etc? This has somehow passed us by, and we need to acknowledge it?

Jon Wainwright said...

If morality were only about preventing harm, then brother–sister incest could be permitted given certain strict conditions. Haidt's experiment was to investigate whether people engaged in moral reasoning about this, or whether they relied upon their moral emotions. Even when he made it clear that the brother and sister used two forms of contraception, most people still thought it was wrong. (For anyone objecting that even two forms of contraception could fail, imagine a brother who's had a vasectomy and sister who's had a hysterectomy.)

On the question of sanctity being relevant to liberals, imagine a liberal pet owner finding her beloved cat run over outside her house. How would she respond to a suggestion that it would be OK for her to cook the dead cat for dinner? (Assuming she had no other meal plans, she had the requisite butchery skills, etc., etc. -- this is a thought experiment!) Haidt's point, with which I agree, is that a concept of sanctity comes into play, expressed in the wish to treat the remains with respect.

Stephen, you're right that some of what Haidt says is obvious, although I did learn a lot from The Righteous Mind. And it's worth remembering that his main context is America, where these kinds of things are perhaps not quite so widely acknowledged as they are on this side of the pond.

PhiloKGB said...

FYI, the chance of a brother-sister mating producing offspring with a genetic disease is 50% only when both individuals are heterozygous (carriers) for a specific disease-implicated gene. It is difficult, at best, to determine such a chance knowing nothing about the genetic makeup of the individuals.

That aside, this is a wonderfully clear and well-argued discussion.

Stephen Law said...

Hi PhiloKGB, and thanks.

Yes it's true that if both are carriers of a given genetic disease the chance of the offspring having the disease of 50%, but I thought I read somewhere that it is ALSO true that the chances of a brother-sister couple having a child with a genetic disease, period, is also about 50% (i.e. because we all tend to be carriers of quite a lot of genetic diseases). However, I may have got that wrong, or it might be an unreliable source.

Stephen Law said...


Jon you said: "On the question of sanctity being relevant to liberals, imagine a liberal pet owner finding her beloved cat run over outside her house. How would she respond to a suggestion that it would be OK for her to cook the dead cat for dinner?"

Probably badly. ditto her deceased husband. We should not serve up her cat or hubby, obviously. That would be morally wrong. But because of the harm it would do her.

In a culture in which people just don't care about remains it might be morally fine to serve them up their cat for dinner. Or even their dead hubby. In fact, in some cultures with different ideas about sanctity it might be found deeply distressing and offensive not to serve up her hubby (and thus there might be a moral obligation to serve up hubby).

In short, the *moral* issue does still seem ultimately to come down to utility/harm.

Jon Wainwright said...

Where's the harm? Presumably, she wouldn't eat the cat if she thought harm would result.

She could make sure her neighbours don't find out, so she doesn't suffer harm by being ostracized in her local community. And she's not going to post a photo on Facebook of the delicious meal.

Is it still morally wrong for her eat kitty?

Jon Wainwright said...

I've just looked back to Haidt's report of his research on moral dumbfounding, and there's an interesting section on inventing victims (pp24–25):

``The biggest surprise was that so many subjects tried to invent victims. I had written the stories carefully to remove all conceivable harm to other people, yet in 38 percent of the 1,620 times that people heard a harmless-offensive story, they claimed that somebody was harmed. In the dog story, for example, many people said that the family itself would be harmed because they would get sick from eating dog meat.''

I substituted a cat for the dog in my example, but the principle is the same. Haidt also used a story in which a woman cuts up the American flag and uses it to clean the toilet. During the interview, if someone said, ``It's wrong to cut up the flag because a neighbor might see her do it, and he might be offended,'' the interviewer replied, ``Well, it says here in the story that nobody saw her do it. So would you still say it was wrong for her to cut up her flag?'' Yet even when subjects recognized that their victim claims were bogus, they still refused to say that the act was OK. Instead, they kept searching for another victim. They said things like ``I know it's wrong, but I just can't think of a reason why.''

Here is where Haidt observes that ``they seemed to be morally dumbfounded---rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively.''

Stephen Law said...

I think we are cross purposes. I said it would harm her to serve her up her own cat, given her attitude toward it. But in other cultures, the attitude towards the dead can be and sometimes is different. In which case there would be be nothing wrong with serving them up their dead cat.

As to whether it is morally wrong to eat dead pets or relatives - I don't think it is. If someone wants to eat their dead cat, I have no moral problem with that at all. There is no moral problem, so far as I can see. Yes, re the dead, issues of sanctity do typically come in to play (in our culture), but they are *morally* irrelevant, other for the reason I gave.

Jon Wainwright said...

You're right that we're talking at cross purposes. If I understand you correctly, Stephen, for you morality ultimately boils down to a question of harm. For me, I incline towards Haidt's view that there's more to morality than harm and fairness.

In any case, one of aims of Haidt's research was to look beyond what WEIRD people think (people from cultures that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). As a typical liberal atheist American (and therefore untypical American), his view of morality had also centred on the harm principle: what caused harm was wrong, what didn't wasn't.

Then he discovered that when people tried to justify their moral judgements, they were actually reasoning in support of their emotional reactions. He took this to be evidence for Hume's claim that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions". (I'd be interested in your take on this, from a professional philosopher's point of view.)

Picking up on the example of the desecration of the Stars and Stripes: the strength of feeling of many Americans to seeing their flag mistreated in any way seems excessive to many of us living in mainland Great Britain. Recent events in Northern Ireland, however, have brought home just what our own flag – the Union Jack – can mean to some people. I personally wouldn't try burning the flag on the Shankill Road.

Although I would probably suffer harm as a result of burning the flag in that situation, the act itself causes no one any direct harm. Indeed, if I burned the flag in Short Strand, I might have a cheering crowd. Whether or not harm flows from such an act depends on context, and this leads to Haidt's interesting ideas about groupishness.

Stephen Law said...

I am not signed up to the harm theory. But none of the above shows it is wrong. You say "I incline towards Haidt's view that there's more to morality than harm and fairness." Yet the cat eating scenario does not show there's ore to morality than harm and fairness. In fact it seems on reflection to show the opposite - sanctity has nothing much to do with morality. Though of course our gut may tell us otherwise. Maybe I should read his book rather than try to second guess tho...

Anonymous said...

Is sex with the Flying Spaghetti Monster wrong?

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/designate-flying-spaghetti-monster-official-deity-united-states-america/Q4PRQp6B