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”.
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.)