Homosexuality As Naturally Good Part 1: Laying Out Objections To Ethical Naturalism, Some On Behalf Of Gays

I intend to lay out the case for the ethical goodness of homosexuality for homosexual people in a way that is consistent with my funadmentally naturalistic ethical theory. Many philosophers, natural scientists, social scientists, and laypeople alike are averse about trying to base ethical judgments on appeals to nature. And there are a number of fallacious ways of appealing to nature to justify one’s ethical judgments which justify their general wariness. And not least among their worries are the ways that arguments from nature have historically been used as ad hoc rationalizations of irrational cultural or psychological antipathies against gays (and other marginalized groups).

Also, homosexuality seems to many on first blush (in our heteronormative culture) to be inherently “unnatural” and so prima facie they assume that a naturalistic ethics would tend towards being anti-gay, and so, thinking that moral conclusion is erroneous, take this as a mark against naturalistic ethics for apparently implying it is true. In this post, I want to lay out the various objections to naturalistic ethics in general and the objection that it would justify poor ethical judgments against gays in particular. Only then, in my next post, can I get on with the task of making the positive case for naturalistic ethics and, in turn, the case for homosexuality on naturalistic ethical terms.

The most obvious objection to naturalistic ethics is that appealing to nature illogically could mean taking whatever is statistically normal as automatically morally normative. Such a principle applied unthinkingly could mean that lefthanded people are outcast as “unnatural” for simply being rarer than righthanded people (and, in the annals of irrational and harmful human inferences, this prejudice has in the past been inflicted on lefthanded people).

Another problem with appeals to what is natural is that culture shapes our perceptions so much that it is extremely hard to distinguish clear lines between what is natural and what is cultural in any number of our attitudes, practices, beliefs, norms, etc. It is impossible to think about nature without using any culturally transmitted paradigms whatsoever. We have thus far have had tremendous, clear success extricating ourselves from the influence of culture to look at nature on its own terms (as nearly as possible) only when we have done it with rigorous empirical, scientific detachment from our cultural and moral values. It seems very daunting to look at values in natural terms when it does not appear they will be capable of assessment using our most refined scientific tools like double blind experiments. When talking about values, our existing (deeply culturally shaped) values and feelings and other real world interests seem ineliminable and self-reinforcing. It is a common and fallacious mistake to project our cultural prejudices to be nature itself.

The third and fourth problems people have with basing our ethics on nature stem from the discovery of evolution by natural selection. The character of natural selection, which observably drives evolution, makes the existence of an intelligent designer of natural entities highly improbable.  Without an intelligent designer giving natural beings fixed natures that he or she intends them to fulfill, it seems bizarre to many people to say they have any inherent functions they are “intended” or “intending” to fulfill, rather than that they just behave in the ways that their physical makeup happens to make them behave according to the laws of nature. Even though they mostly are congruous with various naturally selected patterns, there is no “failure” to realize an “inherent function” when any given regularly occurring type of being deviates from the usual patterns of beings that are highly similar to it in basic structures.

The other, and more emotionally and ethically salient, way that evolution scares many off from naturalism is that it paints a picture of a universe in which selfish competition looks like the norm. In nature the stronger eats the weaker (or out-eats him) in order to be victorious. Evolution rewards the physically and/or mentally stronger. If we were to judge on evolution’s terms then it is feared that we must pitilessly favor the most powerful to the detriment of the least powerful as a matter of morality. Since this runs directly contrary to most of our moral feelings about protecting the vulnerable against exploitation and against founding society on an order of mutual cooperation for mutual flourishing, many understandably want to say that normative ethics should be kept far away from appeals to evolution.

The fifth reason to oppose naturalism in ethics is the famous “is/ought” gap, or, the “naturalistic fallacy”. To continue using evolution as an example, just because in nature the strong dominate (and sometimes even eradicate) the weak, whether directly or indirectly, this gives us no good reason to think that’s the way we should do things. Facts about how things happen to be in nature do not tell us what they should be like. All humans are prone to all sorts of naturally induced mistakes with respect to morality, but this does not justify our immoral behavior.

And the argument that there is an “is/ought” gap goes further to say that there is a fundamental difference in kind between facts of nature and value judgments. Facts of nature can be made objectively obvious even to those who do not want to see them. They can be measured in objective quantities, shown to be logically unavoidable, or impressed upon our senses in vivid, undeniable ways, etc. Values are not these kinds of things. It is argued that they are either constituted by our emotional responses to natural facts or that they are intuited rationally in some a priori way, but they are not the kinds of facts which can mediate disputes between people with different feelings, prejudices, norms, cultures, rational intuitions, etc.

A sixth reason people oppose naturalism in ethics is that sometimes natural things are bad for us. Cancer is natural, but it is bad for us. War is a naturally occurring part of human relations but it is generally bad for us. To determine the good natural things from the bad ones we must identify some features of things besides their simple “naturalness”.

A seventh reason people oppose naturalism in ethics is that they fear that it is morally stifling. Trying to live according to “nature” seems to cut against the grain of what it means to flourish as a human being. Humans are beings who thrive by transforming nature, not just submitting to it. Our technological and moral strength is our ability to adapt to changing circumstances with new scientific and cultural inventions. We can create new tools, both mechanical and ethical, to deal with crises in the natural and social environments. We are value creators, not value discoverers. We make the physical and cultural worlds better for ourselves by thinking of them outside the narrow confines of “the way things are and always have been and always must be”.

So, for these and other reasons we might enumerate, many well-informed and morally thoughtful people oppose naturalism in moral thinking. And the case of homosexuality entrenches many progressive people even more firmly against naturalistic ethics because it seems that naturalistic ethics would naturally (but wrongly) wind up on the side of the heteronormativity. Homosexual love is statistically not the norm and so it would seem like homosexuality was therefore “unnatural” (like insidious lefthandedness). Pro-gay people worry that if we were naturalists we would have to judge that homosexuality is a “defect” in nature since it frustrates the natural procreative process. We would presumably have to judge the proper “natural” uses of the sex organs by their “natural functions” of reproduction. Sexual desires, including the sexual love that creates and supports them, would be judged properly functional or not by whether they led to this proper natural outcome of reproduction. And since sexual expressions of homosexual love do not physically lead to reproduction, such love would be a malfunctioning desire, one at cross-purposes with its naturally given role. Similarly a naturalistic view that crudely said that evolution aims at reproduction would see homosexuality as bad from an evolutionary perspective.

In terms of the naturalistic fallacy, there would be a leap from saying that just because most people are what we define as heterosexual that most people should be heterosexual. Further, heteronormative cultural norms would be regularly confused for being given to us by nature itself (especially since they align with prejudices about looking at sex “naturally” and, thus, in terms of reproduction as its sole or defining “purpose). Appeals to nature would then be disguised cultural prejudices reinforcing anti-gay attitudes.

Finally, and I think most challengingly, the gay community has thrived by refining the ability to see value creation and cultural forms as open-ended and capable of great variety and reinvention. Its greatest cultural contribution to modern Western culture (besides its monumental achievements in securing much deserved understanding and legal rights for gay people) has been in its modeling for all of society what it means to truly define for yourself your own sexuality, and your own values in general, against severe, and often cruel and sometimes deadly, social and political and religious pressure to conform to rigid one-size fits all molds of human nature.

The gay community has led the charge more than any other group in resisting the suffocating and falsely labeled boxes of “nature” and “normality” in terms of gender, sexuality, community, and numerous other regions of values. The gay community has role modeled self-conscious, individualistic and communal defiance and recreation in the realm of values. They have helped us in incalculable cultural ways in our process of advancing the Enlightenment’s self-conscious belief that not only the physical world but the social world can be imaginatively changed for the good by innovations in values.

And they have not done this by taking an attitude that what was good was to be found in what was simply determined for us by “nature” or by conflating existing moral attitudes as just expressions of the natural ways things have to be. Looking at ethics as a matter of nature would (presumably) be to look at it the way we look at the rest of nature and say “that’s just the way natural things are” and not try to change them. At most we would be able to figure out how to work within nature’s confines or to technologically figure out how to manipulate natural beings according to their natures so they served our purposes. But natures are natures and, so, fixed in themselves. Had gays looked at sexuality like that would they have been able to transform values so effectively and so much for the good?

So, that’s an overview of the steep uphill climb I have ahead of me if I am going to defend the idea of a naturalistic ethics in general and the idea that it is hospitable to gays in particular. How can I account for the good of homosexuality in naturalistic terms? And how can I incorporate a proper appreciation of the worth of open-ended values transformation into an account of ethics that suggests we look to nature for guidance in values?

Come back soon for my answers to these challenges.

In the meantime, if you want a sneak peek, check out the following posts in which I make the case for the ethical goodness of homosexuality (and the rightness of naturalistic value determination):

An Argument For Gay Marriage and Against Traditionalism (Warning: this post is 6,000 words long, my longest and possibly most thorough philosophical discussion of any topic on the site.)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Contortions Of Catholic Philosophy: Eve Tushnet Argues Gay Sex Is Not OK But Sex Changes Are

Why “Loving The Sinner But Hating The Sin” Is Not An Option When Dealing With Gay People

A Follow Up Post On Gays And Christianity

Gays and Christianity 3: If God Exists and Is Good, He Cannot Oppose Gay Love

Happy National Coming Out Day 2009!

Unreal Discrimination?

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Glodson

    While defining morals in terms of nature is a bad idea in and of itself, I still think it fails to paint homosexuality as bad. If we are going to look to nature to determine if homosexuality is bad, then we should examine other animals. Last time I checked, there were over 700 species in which homosexual behavior had occurred. In some species, it has been observed that some will seek out animals of the same sex as partners. And others, the animals freely engage in homosexual and heterosexual sex. The bonobos are a good example of this, and our closest relative, if memory serves.

    I do not know of an example of animal behavior where the other animals systematically attack the ones that engage in homosexual sex. As far as I know, it doesn’t happen. So, it would seem that attacking another because of homosexuality, on any level, would be unnatural. Thus, even if one were to adopt ethical naturalism, homosexuality would still be natural. It would be the homophobia and repression of sexuality what would be unnatural and wrong.

    This would mean that “naturalistic” objections to homosexuality would fail on two fronts. The first would be the general idea that ethical naturalism is a bad system and a failure in general. The second would be that even if it wasn’t a failure, homosexuality is rampant in nature.

    But my favorite objection comes from Terry Pratchett’s The Fifth Elephant, where one character claims to be against unnatural things. The response: “You mean, you eat your meat raw and sleep in a tree?”

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    Daniel Fincke:

    And the argument that there is an “is/ought” gap goes further to say that there is a fundamental difference in kind between facts of nature and value judgments. Facts of nature can be made objectively obvious even to those who do not want to see them. They can be measured in objective quantities, shown to be logically unavoidable, or impressed upon our senses in vivid, undeniable ways, etc. Values are not these kinds of things.

    Allow me to expand and harden that gap. It’s not just that facts and values are different kinds of “things.” I’m not sure that either is a “thing,” and phrasing it this way makes this distinction sound like a claim about the universe. As if we maybe could stumble across a value, perhaps hiding out in the unresolved tension between general relativity and quantum mechanics. Or out past the orbit of Jupiter. But just so far have not.

    Rather, that distinction is a fact about language, about the meaning of “is” and “ought.” Language that is purely descriptive doesn’t hold any normative content. (Even when it is about normative content! E.g., “many moral codes include some reciprocity rule” is not a normative claim.) If you start from language that is descriptive, and end up with a normative claim, it is because you have added some normative claims along the way.

    This observation doesn’t say anything about where values originate. So no normative theory is implied by the is-ought gap. Only an account of language. As you pursue your project, look to where you first start embedding normative claims. It shouldn’t be hard, for a credentialed philosopher, to identify how they don’t strictly follow from any descriptive claims prior.

  • wat

    Culture is natural. There is nothing that can actually be placed in the negative set of things that are natural. Everything that exists is natural. I stopped reading after that.

  • quantheory

    I think you’ve left out a point, though admittedly one that doesn’t seem to be brought up as often. People who are trying to defend a practice within a naturalistic view of ethics often find themselves having to defend propositions that, upon further reflection, seem irrelevant.

    To use gay rights as an example, activists often end up promoting the proposition that being gay is entirely innate, genetic or biological. The evidence is certainly on the side of biology as being the major player (although the evidence is much stronger for gay men than for lesbians, and we still don’t really understand the mechanisms that determine sexual orientation).

    It seems improper for the gay rights movement to be shackled to defending this particular proposition; after all, if two men or two women fall in love, does it really matter whether the original attraction was due to nature or nurture? Is this actually the starting point from which we approach the question, or is it a distraction from a deeper point that we should be making instead, a point that is more honestly relevant to the motivations of gay rights activists?

    This situation also leads to a sort of political impropriety in science. Even if most of the evidence really does point to a biological origin for one’s sexual orientation, nonetheless the political nature of the question will lead to a constant questioning of scientists’ motives.

    This is often unavoidable (see climate change, or all of medicine), but it’s still in the interest of science generally and of individual scientists to avoid the sort of moralization of scientific questions that would lead to bias or the perception of bias. Naturalistic ethics seems to broaden the range of scientific fields that are direct targets of both the culture wars and scientific denialists.

    It works the opposite way as well, when something really is worthy of condemnation. If I’m trying to argue that child molestation is wrong, I don’t want to have to argue that pedophilia is not innate. I don’t so much care whether or not there are people who are “born pedophiles”, because the interest a child has in not being raped trumps any psychological drive I can imagine on the part of a child molester. Understanding where pedophilia comes from might be relevant to decisions about how to treat, rehabilitate, or restrain pedophiles. But it seems like I shouldn’t have to commit to a particular position on where pedophilia comes from in order to declare that raping children is wrong. Nor should researchers studying pedophiles feel pressured to confirm a particular ideological position, out of fear that the “wrong” conclusion might somehow justify molestation.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Excellent points, ones I have often wanted to stress myself.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    Another thought: a lot of traditional moral philosophy seems to want the source for values. So, for example, “they are either constituted by our emotional responses to natural facts or that they are intuited rationally in some a priori way.”

    Perhaps that counts as two.

    Still, what thin gruel! Real values, the ones on which people act, have a multitude of sources: the norms of the culture and subculture to which one belongs, family traditions, the teachings of a religion or cultural institution, osmosis or cleansing from relationships with others, experiences savored and experiences abhorred, the demands of a profession, overcoming, coping, or succumbing to a variety of life problems, goals dreamt, goals lost, the influence of teachers and books and movies. All this, filtered through an individual’s history and innate disposition. Then discussed, argued, and debated with others.

    By eliminating the notion that there is some one, True Source for values, the is-ought gap potentially frees people to recognize that where values originate doesn’t matter that much. That trying to judge a value because it originates with a story read in childhood or because it is contained in some Supreme Court case is much like trying to judge a plot device by finding who first conceived it and why. What matters with regard to values are their individual and social consequence, how they work together or conflict, what it takes to act on them as an individual, how they can be upheld by various social institutions, and how they interact with individual and cultural practices.

    There are many ways of discussing and weighing values. The most sterile and deceptive, it seems to me, is trying to source them. That is precisely what a fundamentalist preachers try to do. “This is important because this passage in scripture says so.” Of course, what the preacher teaches didn’t really come from that passage. If it did, the preacher wouldn’t be needed to explain it. Nothing so much wants to erase its own invention as exegesis.

  • John Morales

    I note that your blogling, Deacon Duncan, posted about this very topic not-so-long ago:

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/ James Gray

    It might be a good idea to define “naturalism in ethics.” I think such a definition could dispel many of these objections because they are irrelevant.

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com Qu Quine

    I think you should start by saying what you mean by “nature.” For some people that is about plants and animals before humans. Some scientists consider “nature” to be everything we can measure, and that includes all our technology, artifacts, thoughts and knowledge. Are you going to argue ethics from star and galaxy evolution?

    The word is difficult, as you can see when you start to ask people what they think is “unnatural.” Plenty of behaviors of other animals would be considered “unnatural” if done by humans. Cows would be considered “unnatural” if they started hunting down ducks (especially with shotguns).

    However, the bottom line is that “naturalness” has nothing to do with what we ‘ought’ to do or refrain from doing. Murder is perfectly natural, but we don’t want people to do murder (if no better, from the desire not be be murdered). Going into space is completely unnatural, but no ethical objection is brought against it (spending the funding, notwithstanding). It does not matter a bit if some think human sexual attraction of one kind or another is natural or not, the question is when does society have a compelling justification for restricting someone’s freely chosen behavior? Nothing shows any such re choice of love or marriage.