"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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Meredith

    Well done, well done, well done!! Someday I hope to meet you and have a face-to-face conversation with you!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, Meredith. I’m sure that would be fun. Let me know if you ever swing through Atlanta!

  • Great thoughts Tim! I think these sorts of distinctions and the use of careful language is really important for this conversation. This is good stuff. Thanks for talking about it!

  • Jeff

    Yes. This is the right way to approach this. I have made the distinction between something that is chosen and something that is learned. I did not choose to be an American culturally but I learned to be one by growing up in American society. Someone not born in American society could chose to learn to be part of it by making specific decisions over a period of time. Likewise, I could learn to be part of different society but again it would be a matter of decisions over a period of time.

    There are actually many things we learn without intentional choose to do so: one’s language, one’s response to frustration and disappointment, one’s favorite sports team etc. The fact that I did not intentional choose it does not mean it was innate and not learned. Nor does it mean that I cannot chose to intentional unlearn it or choose differently in the future.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      That too is a helpful distinction, Jeff. I suppose I use “voluntary” because it points to some amount of freedom or consent. By saying that alcoholism is voluntary — and I believe it is — I open the possibility for moral assessment of alcoholism and the particular acts that flow from it. So I think the distinctions we’re making overlap, and it might be more helpful in some contexts to use the one, in other contexts the other.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    As someone who’s been anxiously following the New York State Senate these last few weeks, waiting to hear the final decision on the basic rights of over a million citizens, there’s little in today’s post I disagree with.

    The distinction between ‘chosen’ and ‘voluntary’ is crucial to understanding human behavior. I won’t jump to conclusions about whether you view homosexuality as voluntary, but I will say that even if it is, I’d argue that, at least from a secular perspective, “Is homosexuality voluntary?” is as ultimately irrelevant as whether or not it is a choice.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Rich Lin

    Tim, great job framing the discussion clearly, carefully and properly. I look forward to reading your thoughts in the coming days.

  • rvscruton

    If same sex-orientation is an “identity movement,” then so too is complementary sex orientation.
    Besides, gayness isn’t an act, it is a disposition that acquiesces in voluntary behavioral patterns.
    One is disposed to be right-handed, and this disposition determines the pattern with which one lifts up the toilet seat. One could on each occasion consciously choose to lift the toilet seat with one’s left hand, but this is a tedious and inauthentic expression of one’s nature.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m going to get more into the definition of homosexuality in the next post, Roger, but we’re not far apart on it. (Although I think handedness is more than a disposition to use one hand rather than another.)

      • rvscruton

        My point was not that handedness is a disposition to use one hand more than another. My point was that a “voluntary” pattern of using one hand over another was an authentic expression of a disposition, not a determinant of a disposition.
        Identity movement does not unfold over a “million miniscule choices.” On the contrary, it unfolds precisely to the extent that no choice is made. When I lift the lavatory cover with my right hand, not because I am thinking about using the left or right hand, but because it is an expression of my right-handedness, then there is no choice involved. To the extent that I do think about it and use my left hand then I am consciously opposing a disposition in act. In other words, one does not, as a matter of miniscule choice, “give in to a predilection,” one only opposes it. (Certainly, in the case of thinking about which hand to use in lifting the lavatory seat, if I choose the right hand after all, I am not choosing for a predilection, rather I am choosing not to act against a predilection. In other words, your brackets here do not include the predilection to express left-handedness, but enclose the either/or of choosing the right hand or not so choosing the right hand.)

        This distinction is vital, because your question, “is same-sex orientation more like right-handedness or eye colour, or is it something more like an identity movement?” is meaningless, because right-handedness and eye colour and sexual orientation are all identity movements; and they are identity movements which may partake in varying combinatory ranges of the physical, chemical, vegetative, sensory, emotional, psychological, rational and spiritual realms.

        • DinRL

          “Identity movement does not unfold over a “million miniscule choices.” On the contrary, it unfolds precisely to the extent that no choice is made.”

          This is far from axiomatic and needs to be borne out by evidence. “No choice is made” appears to imply (humanly speaking, not from God’s perspective) that predisposition and predetermination are sole or determinative causes of “identity movement.” Lots of studies today seem to indicate that from a secular (God-less) view, human choices are in fact chaotic and, this would seem to imply, resulting disposition is equally so. Seems contrary to the point you assert.

          “…right-handedness and eye colour and sexual orientation are all identity movements…”

          Simply put, this claim is extremely difficult to buy.

          Given the secular view, it’s important not to ignore God’s. Regardless of whether one wants to accept God or Scriptural authority, it is at least worth mentioning and briefly examining.

          Scripture explains human choice in a way the secular world does not dare: “All are under sin.” Not just kinda, sorta, less-than-perfect, and not-quite-sinless. But rather, “No one is righteous” and “no one does good — not even one.” That’s no one, *no* person, can accurately be said, on their own volition and from their own initiative, to do anything that can truly be classified as “good.” Again, whether one accepts this claim or not, if it bears out in genuine human behavior, then it would appear God is right and we are all wrong. (The cross, it may be argued, implies nothing less.)

          So while it’s hard to explain how people choose X or Y despite “knowing better” from a secular perspective, it’s not hard from a gospel perspective. What the secular explains as “chaotic” (doing something that would incur grave or even deadly consequences), God has explained as “sin” (voluntarily acting despite knowing better).

          The history recorded in the OT presumably bears this out. Israel knew the consequences of breaking Torah and even had God appear directly to them to explain it in great detail. Yet while Moses was still on the mountain they chose orgies and idol worship. How chaotic can one get? Why did they do it? This was not just true of the early years for Israel. The overwhelming trajectory of the nation was against God, regardless of punishment (as alluded to in, e.g., Isa 1.5-9).

          The point demonstrated is clear: simple knowledge of good and evil does not fix the human condition. In fact knowledge of moral imperatives, regardless of rewards and consequences, ultimately *results* in our flesh committing sin. What God says to Israel in Hosea 8.12 is in the end universally applicable: “Were I to write for him my laws by the tens of thousands, they would be regarded as a strange thing.”

          Rom 7.7-13 likewise echoes: “knowing better” only leads to “knowing sin.” (Coveting is Paul’s example, but is arguably the root of all human sin and renders Paul’s point universally applicable.) It doesn’t always lead to the most extreme sins (humanly speaking) all the time, but it leads to sin nonetheless.

          Bottom line, biblically, is it doesn’t matter whether one wants to assert how s/he is “disposed” to explain why they proceed along an “identity movement.” What matters is we are all disposed to sin, and we do it in the face of *knowing better* — even in the face of knowing God!

          Thus we are culpable for sin and will be judged for it, regardless of explicit knowledge of the Word: “All who have sinned apart from the Law will perish apart from the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law” (Rom 2.12). Regardless of what we have or haven’t seen or heard or read, we are all “without excuse” because we do in fact know better (Rom 1.20; 2.1). “Chaotic” to the secular mind, but not so in God’s eyes.

          So we will all be judged “according to [the] gospel” on “the Last Day” (Rom 2.16) in accord with our culpability.

          In the end it’s not God’s judgment of human sin that needs explanation, still less is it human sin that requires rationalization. We sin in the face of knowing better: we are guilty, period. Our sin bears culpability regardless of how we want to explain different, individual sins. It’s God’s willingness to atone for and forgive sin, and to give us life, which demands explanation.

          With our culpability being concrete and universal, it is only fitting that the solution is too: God reconciling the world to Himself (universal) in Christ, namely through His cross and resurrection (concrete).

          All are equally sinful, and all are equally reconcilable through faith in Christ crucified and risen, not through rationalization of sin as “identity movement” or with dubious claims about “predispositions” (Rom 3.23-26).

          Christ’s cross and resurrection ultimately transcend, and make nonsense of, empty human pleas to rationalize sin. More than that, though: His work also *defeats* sin and death, effectively rendering obsolete all attempted explanations about predispositions and identity movements. Just like His gift of eternal life makes nonsense out of presumed human knowledge about life and death (in fact it renders our knowledge as nothing more than mere “lies”; Rom 1.25; 3.4; 4.1-25).

          That’s quite likely where the author of this article is heading anyways, so will leave that be for now.

  • kevin

    Did you see this from the NY Times yesterday?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I did, Kevin. A remarkable article, I thought. Thanks for posting the link.

  • John S

    I guess i look at it from the other side, if homosexuality is in-born and as such we should accept it, then why shouldn’t we accept any other behavior? I’m an angry, lazy, violent, cleptomaniac, person but it’s genetic, in-born so it’s got to be acceptable to society without constraint (per homosexuality). A person is just being their natural, genetic self. This is especially relevant when you consider other sexual behaviors. A rapist or pedophile or incest lover or beastiality would fall under the same category of sexual ‘preference’. How can we not accept this behavior as in-born and call it acceptable as well? Consent may be considered but still does nothing to address the issue at hand, b/c if any of these is termed ‘wrong’ for whatever reason it shows that in-born traits should be examined for their goodness and not merely accepted unreservedly.

    • Kubrick’s Rube

      Consent must be more than merely considered- it is fundamental to the issue. The only example you give that could plausibly be consensual is incest, and there are plenty of reasons incest is deemed unacceptable when “examined for [its] goodness.”

      You’re absolutely correct that inborn traits should not be accepted unreservedly just because they are inborn. But we also can’t deem one inborn trait as unacceptable simply because other inborn traits are dangerous to society at large. The question of “what’s the harm?” needs to be asked before we say something’s unacceptable. And when it comes to homosexuality, whether or not we agree on if or what that harm might be, it is certainly not as clear or obvious as for rape, pedophilia, incest or bestiality.

  • John S

    And while i’m thinking about it may I also posit my take for consideration. Homosexuality, like any sin, IS inborn. The biblical term is flesh or sinful nature, we are each one born in sin and as such it is part of our nature or genetic make up. Or the theological idea of total depravity. We don’t sin because we choose to, we sin because we are sinners. No one does good, not one. We are unable to choose what is right. The heart is ‘beyond cure’ apart from Christ. I guess I’m submitting that the Bible indicates sin is in our genes, ie our sinful “nature”. (sin is natural as pertains to our human nature whereas homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ as pertains to nature/creation) Just thinking out loud, trying to bring Scripture to bear especially because i don’t see you referring to Scripture in your article. Perhaps you are going to explain where ideas (seemingly more from modern psychology?) like choice, voluntary, addiction, complex identity movements, and identity shaping decisions are portrayed and addressed in the Word, which gives us ‘all we need for life and godliness’. I’ll wait…

  • Jake

    “Something is voluntary but not chosen if is more of a slow migration in one direction that emerges from a million minuscule choices.”

    Well then voluntary is definitely NOT descriptive of a homosexual orientation, at least in my experience. From my earliest memories I was ALWAYS attracted to the same sex.

    I grew up in a fundamentalist (IFB) home, so I never chose to act on those desires. If you’re going to claim that homosexuality (as an orientation) is voluntary, please explain what “miniscule choices” I made before the age of seven or eight.

    Just for clarification, please don’t assume I’m trying to justify gay relationships. I happen to be a Christian who currently views celibacy as the best option.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Stay tuned, Jake!

  • Larry

    Very thoughtful and thought provoking Tim. Carefully reasoned and presented in a spirit of humility and compassion. Spiritually keen and intellectually satisfying … thank you for an important contribution to a current debate.

  • Good stuff. Anyone ever tell you you are a smart guy? Gracious too. Good combo. Me likes.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Heh. Thanks, Michael!

  • minimus

    Good stuff.

    I’ve called it “gay fatalism.”
    It’s interested that some other corollaries of the gay movement also includes “if you’ve EVER been involved in homosexual behavior, you are a homosexual for your entire lifetime.”

    I love how scripture counters that (emphasis mine):
    1Co 6:9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals,
    1Co 6:10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
    1Co 6:11 Such WERE some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.