"Is Homosexuality a Choice?" is Not the Right Question

"Is Homosexuality a Choice?" is Not the Right Question June 23, 2011
Note: This is part of a series on Christianity and Homosexuality.  See the introduction and first installment.

If you haven’t read the earlier parts of the series (links above), please do check them out.  Now, moving on…

“Do you think I just woke up one morning and chose to be gay?  Why on earth would anyone choose to be scorned and outcast, to face the prejudice, to be disowned, to give up the ‘perfect’ wedding and the ‘perfect’ kids?  It would be so much easier if I were straight, but I can’t just turn it on and off like flipping a light switch.”

We’ve all heard objection before, on television, in the movies, or in real life from friends, family members or perfect strangers.  It’s very powerful rhetoric.  It has at least one problem.  The human mind is an exceedingly complex thing, and the motivations for identity-shaping decisions are among the most inscrutable.  In other words, people choose to do all sorts of things that are not apparently in their self-interest.  “Do you think I would just choose to be a Muslim/Mormon/Pagan/Atheist in a society where that’s frowned upon?  It would have been so much easier to remain a Protestant.”  “Do you think I would just choose to become a communist in a family of capitalists?”  “…a drug addict?”  “…a career criminal?”  “…a servant to the poor in Calcutta?”  I’m not likening homosexuals and drug addicts — so let’s not play that game.  I’m saying that people do all sorts of things with adverse consequences for all sorts of reasons.  To express our independence, to spite our parents, to give society the middle-finger, to express anger, to express hatred, to identify with a favored victim group, to draw closer to a loved one, to run away from a loved one, do distract ourselves, to numb the pain, and even to destroy ourselves.  Why does a person choose to become a suicide bomber?

But sometimes poor arguments are offered for true propositions.  The basic point is correct: No one simply chooses to become any of those things.  But that doesn’t mean they bear no moral responsibility for what they have become, and it certainly doesn’t mean they have no responsibility for what they become henceforth.

Now, don’t respond yet to what I wrote in the above paragraph, because you don’t know where I’m going with this.  Let’s do something difficult: Forget for a moment that we’re talking about homosexuality.  Bracket that question.  I want to make a very simple but powerful and important conceptual distinction — and then, in the next post, return to the homosexuality question.  I am going to claim: We should not be considering whether homosexuality is a free choice.  We should be considering whether it’s voluntary. I’ll share my answer that question in the next part of this series — and the answer may surprise you.

The distinction that’s so important here is between what is chosen and what is voluntary.  (For philosophy buffs out there: it’s best if you forget the Aristotelian distinction here, as well as Augustine’s distinction between Libertas and Liberum Arbitrium.  What I’m making here are related, overlapping but not identical distinctions, hopefully more informed by modern psychology.)

Choice refers to a discrete and generally thoughtful and intentional decision between alternatives.  By “discrete” I mean that it is a single decision at a particular time.  You make a choice of which cereals to eat for breakfast at a specific time and place.  By “generally thoughtful and intentional” I mean that we’re generally aware (especially if asked) that we’re making a decision, and there are generally some rational processes involved for assessing reasons for and against different possible decisions.  By “between alternatives” I mean that when we make a genuine choice.  Whatever we choose, we were “free to do otherwise.”

Something is voluntary but not chosen if is more of a slow migration in one direction that emerges from a million minuscule choices.  Take, for example, someone who is addicted to sex with prostitutes.  No one “wakes up in the morning and chooses” to be a sex addict — but that doesn’t mean it’s not voluntary.  A person becomes an addict incrementally.  He may have inherited a certain predilection to addictive behaviors, but he gave in to that predilection when he agreed to go to the party where prostitutes were invited, decided to surround himself with friends who frequent prostitutes, decided to try it for the first time — and the second — and the third, and then chose to find other ways to fund his addiction, and chose not to get treatment for his addiction…and so on.  He may not have been free of negative influences (a genetic disposition, say) at the beginning, and his freedom to do otherwise may be all but extinguished at the end.  Ask him to stop, and he’s nearly, perhaps even completely, unable to do so by himself.  Yet, although he did not become an addict by choice, he did become an addict voluntarily.  There was no one moment when he became an addict, so it feels to him as though he had very little freedom in the matter.  And whether he “could have done otherwise” at any particular juncture, he could have done otherwise overall if he had made consistent choices in another direction.

Very few complex identity movements, positive or negative (toward becoming an addict, a teacher, a person of faith, even a parent), can be represented as a choice.  Most are voluntary.  There was no single moment when I chose to marry my wife.  I can point to turning points in our relationship, but I became a married man out of the aggregate of countless decisions made over the course of years.  In fact, eventually it seemed as though there was no decision to be made; it was just obvious that we had become a committed couple for life.

So the question becomes: Is a same-sex orientation (something I’ll define better in the next installment) more like right-handedness or eye color, or is it something more like an identity movement?  It’s not a choice.  And by the time a person has traveled the long route to homosexuality, he cannot simply “choose” to be heterosexual any more than he simply “chose” to be homosexual.

Now that the distinction between what is chosen and what is voluntary is set out, the next question is: Is homosexuality voluntary, or are gay men and women “born this way”?  And can a homosexual individual voluntarily, over the course of time, cultivate other desires and identities?  Again, check back tomorrow for the next installment, and please don’t attack me on the basis of what you assume I’m going to say without waiting to hear me out.

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