Monday, August 1, 2011

Is it effective to argue that homosexuality "isn't a choice"?

Julia Galef has a post in 3 Quarks Daily called "Pushing the right beliefs, for the wrong reasons." It's about the general problem of how to balance one's desire to make good arguments with the desire to succeed in winning over your opponents.

She gives a lot of examples, but I want to focus on what she says about sexual orientation:

[I]f you take the approach of convincing someone with the evidence that is more convincing to him personally, but which isn’t the real reason you believe the claim in question, then you’re setting yourself up for failure if that evidence turns out to be false. So, for example, I know a lot of people who make the case against discrimination of gays by arguing that homosexuality is innate. And judging from the ubiquity of that argument, it does seem to be one of the most persuasive arguments for gay rights as far as the general public is concerned.

Yet while I agree that the evidence is overwhelming that homosexuality is innate, I’m loath to make that argument, because in my opinion that’s not the real reason we shouldn’t discriminate against homosexuals. The real reason, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s none of our business if consenting adults want to sleep with each other, as long as they’re not hurting anyone else. By making the “homosexuality is innate” argument, I’d be staking my anti-discrimination case on an empirical question which, if it unexpectedly turned out to be false, would seriously undermine what is actually a very worthwhile case.

But it’s possible that’s a risk worth taking. . . . I’m not at all certain where to draw the line on the spectrum of persuasion, from smiles at one end to lies at the other. But at the least, I think it’s important to recognize that there is often a tradeoff between a good argument and a persuasive one, and to ask ourselves what our goal really is: improving people’s beliefs, or improving the processes of reasoning that they use to arrive at their beliefs?
I agree that this is often a tough tradeoff, but I wonder why the sexual orientation issue even presents this dilemma.

The question of what causes homosexuality may be interesting for academic or scientific purposes. But I don't understand why anyone sees the need to debate it in the context of a political discussion.

How is it anybody's business what actually contributed to a stranger's sexual and romantic and emotional attractions and commitments to another stranger?

People are going to find these activities either acceptable or unacceptable based on the consequences that flow from those activities — not based on what caused them.

Homosexuality and bisexuality and heterosexuality should be accepted whether they're caused by biology or upbringing or culture or even free choice. They should be accepted because they are clearly good things, not because of an esoteric, endless debate about their origins. They're good things because they lead to happiness and human flourishing and security.

Not all sexuality is acceptable. For example, pedophilia is unacceptable, immoral, and illegal. Now, I don't know why pedophiles are the way they are. And for purposes of any legal or political or moral debates, I don't care. All we need to know is that pedophiliac acts have harmful consequences. Whether those acts can be attributed to "nature" or "nurture" or "free will" is beside the point.

Of course, some people view homosexuality similarly to pedophilia, as a "deviant" "lifestyle" that shouldn't be tolerated. We should fight against this attitude, but not the part of the attitude that calls homosexuality or bisexuality a "lifestyle" or a "choice." Why would anyone want to devalue the words "lifestyle" and "choice" by insisting that they not be used to describe anything positive? Why would anyone (especially those who consider themselves "liberal" or "libertarian") condition their acceptance of others' sexual/romantic behavior on the idea that the behavior isn't a "choice"? Choice is not a bad thing. Choice is part of freedom. To be clear, I'm not saying that "homosexuality is a choice." I simply have no idea if it is, and I don't see how this question is of any concern to anyone (outside of academia or idle curiosity). And I know that people of all sexual orientations — especially bisexuals! — at least choose to act on their leanings. And there's nothing wrong with that.

It's popular, but hopeless, to insist that we keep our "morality" separate from government policy. It's easy to say, but no one follows it. The same people who say this about gay rights (and abortion) will advance their other views by saying things like: "Health care is a moral issue!" "The environment is a moral issue!" "Poverty is a moral issue!" These statements are almost always meant to suggest that the government should be involved in health care, the environment, and poverty, not that it should stay away from these issues.

You can't order people to selectively turn off their morality. People are going to exercise their faculties of moral thinking whether you'd like them to or not. What you can do is try to change their moral views.

I do like Jonah Goldberg's solution. Here's my rough paraphrase of his argument (from 2002):

(1) It is simply not clear how much of homosexuality is a choice vs. environmental vs. inborn. Maybe it's all of those things. Who knows?

(2) But even if it's actually a choice or environmental, we still don't really know anything about how people become gay.

(3) So, for practical purposes, people are essentially born gay.

From this, Goldberg concludes:
The crux of the issue is that for all practical purposes, it doesn't matter how so-called "waverers" became gay. Because they are that way now. And unless conservatives are going to endorse some pretty draconian and, more to the point, unenforceable policies, gays aren't going to go away or be "cured."
Despite everything I've written above, I do basically assume that people are either gay or bisexual or straight, and they don't have a choice in the matter. But this is just an assumption, not a firm belief, and it isn't the reason I'm accepting of gays and bisexuals.

Supporters of gay rights are mistaken if they believe that having this debate is going to clinch their position. They're not thinking about things from the other side's perspective. Someone who's committed to the belief that homosexuality will cause the downfall of civilization won't be heartened by knowing that homosexuality is genetically rooted. (In fact, contrary to popular belief, a perception that behavior is innate usually leads to more stigmatizing, since the supposedly bad behavior is seen as an ineradicable part of the person who does it.)

The reason gays should be accepted isn't that they have no choice in their sexual leanings or behavior. Again, that would call into question how to deal with bisexuals; even if you think they have no choice about their preference for either gender, they do have the option of only acting on their attraction to the opposite sex. (In fact, bisexuals might find this the far easier option, since there are so many more available mates of the opposite sex than of the same sex.) The only way to bring about acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality is to make the case that they are affirmatively good for the same reasons heterosexuality is good.


LemmusLemmus said...

I'd steer clear of arguments about whether homosexuality is a choice because they implicitly accept the premise that homosexuality is a bad thing. Arguing that homosexuals should be accepted because they don't have a choice is like arguing that a killer shouldn't get the death penalty because he didn't choose to kill in a meaningful sense (perhaps because he's feeble-minded or insane): You've already accepted that, in general, killing is bad and the death penalty is an appropriate punishment.

Minor point: I doubt that most people's aversions against homosexuality are based on consequentialist resoning.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Yeah, I should have added "for instance" to this sentence: "Someone who's committed to the belief that homosexuality will cause the downfall of civilization won't be heartened by knowing that homosexuality is genetically rooted." (But I have heard people express this fear.)

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