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Gay Rights: Choice vs. Nature?

Michael Voytinsky says that the choice versus nature debate is irrelevant to the question of gay and lesbian rights.

The current debate on gay rights frequently centers on the question of whether or not sexual orientation is a matter of choice. If sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, if it is something that an individual is born with, then, goes the common argument, it is wrong to discriminate against this person. This argument is fundamentally mistaken and offers no support to the gay rights cause. The logical flaws in this argument have not gone unnoticed and are being exploited by the anti-gay ideologues.

The argument draws on the great deal of research suggesting that sexual orientation is congenital. Common sense tells us that no one sits down one day and goes, “Hmmmm… should I be gay or straight?” but rather some people find themselves attracted to people of the same gender. But there are people who consciously decide to experiment with their sexuality, to try gay sex and see if they like it. Some radical feminists embrace lesbianism for political rather than sexual reasons. Does this mean that different moral standards apply, depending on one’s reasons for same-gender sexual behavior?

If we accept the argument that same-sex sexual behavior is morally acceptable because people have no choice about their sexual orientation, we encounter some very peculiar implications. One, if gayness is a matter of choice, then it is acceptable, or in any case less wrong, to discriminate against gay people. Two, if a quality is congenital (or acquired unintentionally in some other way), then it cannot be immoral. Three, should a scientific theory, in this case the congenital nature of sexual orientation, be disproved, then the notion of equal rights for gay people will be disproved with it.

The first two implications in turn lead to the destruction of all rights-based morality. The last implication is closely related to the argument’s fundamental flaw – an attempt to derive an abstract moral concept from science.

First let us consider what happens if we give a moral significance to the lack, or presence, of choice in matters of sexual orientation.

Would it be all right to discriminate against gay people if it were purely a choice? Discrimination on the basis of religion is not generally regarded as acceptable, and religion is certainly a matter of choice. Some straight people choose to experiment with homosexual behavior – is it moral to discriminate against them?

People have a choice of which books to read, which clothes to wear, whom to associate with, what to write, all of which are protected by law and custom. An argument that it is moral for me to read some books because I have a compulsion to do so, but not if I simply pick the reading as one possibility out of many, is clearly preposterous.

If gayness is congenital, it is difficult to argue that other sexual orientations are not. Pedophilia may be congenital as well, but it does not follow that it is in the least acceptable for pedophiles to molest children. Sex with young children is wrong is because it harms children. It is equally wrong whether the perpetrator is attracted exclusively to young children, or is an opportunist whose sexual behavior is usually ‘normal’. If gay sex is morally acceptable because gay people have no choice but to be attracted to those of the same gender, why is it that pedophile sex is not acceptable, even if the pedophiles have no choice but to be attracted to children? Anti-gay rhetoric makes a great deal out of this inconsistency – which is inevitable given the original premise.

Peculiar implications do not, by themselves, invalidate an argument. Some of the conclusions of utilitarianism, for example, go contrary to many accepted notions. The conclusion that women must have equal social and political rights to men was very peculiar a few decades ago, and now it is an obvious truth. But the above implications are not simply peculiar or counter-intuitive – they are illogical, unworkable, and counter-productive.

These peculiar implications are a consequence of flawed logic that cannot help but produce unworkable results. The flaw is an old one, at least as old as Darwin and probably older. The flaw is in the attempt to derive morality from science.

Science is an excellent tool for describing the physical world. The theory of evolution (or, to be more precise, theories of evolution) describe the origins of human life, and can help us understand not just our biological origins, but origins of society and of human behavior. Morality is an essential part of society, and we can use biology to explain how morality, in the sense of concern for others beyond mere self-interest, came to be. An evolutionary biologist can explain how it is that a selfless act nevertheless helps our genes, which we share with others, to propagate. But this is purely descriptive. A selfish person will not, after reading a book of evolutionary biology, become inspired to be more concerned about others. An altruist is not likely to think in terms of the genes’ survival – evolutionary biology might explain why the altruist does certain things, but is not likely to change the actions.

Science as a guide to morals suffers from a major practical, as well as a major logical flaw: its impermanence. An 18th century philosopher transplanted to modern day would understand a discussion about rights. An 18th century scientist would be completely lost, and would have to start back in elementary school. Tying a question of fundamental rights to science is not only bad logic, it is risky politics. We can hope that in 50 years gay people will have equal rights. We can safely assume that most of the current scientific theories dealing with genetics will be at the very least substantially revised.

The right to have gay sex has the same basis as other fundamental rights – the right to associate with whomever we choose, the right to express our opinions, the right to think our own thoughts. Gay sex is inherently less harmful than many other actions that are permitted as fundamental human rights. Expression is a protected right, but it can, depending on what is being expressed, hurt feelings, lead to poor financial investments, or even self-destructive behavior. If my neighbors express the opinion that I am a nitwit, as is their right, it will hurt my feelings – it will cause me harm. If they have gay sex this does not affect me at all.

Gay sex is an entirely moral activity that should not be the basis for discrimination not because there is no choice in sexual orientation, but because it is a personal behavior that causes no harm to others. The question of what causes some people to prefer their own gender might be an interesting one, but it is not a moral one.

© Michael Voytinsky 2004

Michael studied philosophy at the University of Waterloo. He spends a lot of time reading, thinking and writing philosophical things, and in his spare time does technical support for computer security products.

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