But if homosexuality isn’t ‘objectively immoral,’ then Anything Goes …

But if homosexuality isn’t ‘objectively immoral,’ then Anything Goes … September 13, 2012

One of the most common and most popular objections that arises whenever anyone acknowledges that homosexuality is not “objectively immoral” is the argument that somehow this means that “anything goes.”

“If we start affirming then all of morality goes right out the window. If we don’t say that gayness is objectively immoral, then the world has gone mad today and good’s bad today and black’s white today and day’s night today …”

Et cetera.

I do not understand this argument.

The majority of the people making this claim do not believe that heterosexuality is “objectively immoral.” Yet none of them believes that, therefore, “anything goes” for straight people. Affirming heterosexuality has not meant that all of morality has gone out the window, so why would affirming the exact same thing about homosexuality produce such chaos and calamity?

The panicked assertion that it would do so comes, I think, from these Christians’ failure to develop any credible sexual ethic.

What they rely on, instead, is a single yes-or-no question. The entirety of their ethical thinking and ethical consideration regarding sex and sexuality consists of asking that one question. Everything else — the entire universe of vitally important ethical concerns — is swept away, dismissed, and replaced by this question: Are the parties involved married to each other?

If the answer is “Yes,” then any sex between them is moral and righteous because, and only because, it occurs between two people who are married to each other. If the answer is “No,” then any sex between them is immoral and depraved because, and only because, it occurs between two people who are not married to each other.

That has come to be relied on as a substitute and a proxy for every other ethical matter that matters when it comes to sex: love, consent, commitment, fidelity, trust, betrayal, kindness, cruelty, respect, mutuality, reciprocity, honor, malice, liberation, exploitation, manipulation, safety, honesty, dishonesty, magnanimity, joy …

All of that and more is meant to be confirmed or contradicted by that one married/unmarried binary question. And that’s too much for this one question to handle. Marriage is not any kind of guarantee that all of those virtues will be present and all of those vices absent. Marital status cannot be the be-all and end-all of sexual ethics. (Libby Anne has a terrific discussion of this in her “tale of the two boxes.”)

I don’t think this ethical immaturity is limited to sexual ethics. The lack of a coherent Christian sexual ethic is likely just a consequence of a more general lack of ethical thinking. American Christians often have long lists of “Dos” and “Don’ts,” but little understanding of, or interest in, why any given item is in one column and not the other.

Sexual ethics, after all, are not a wholly separate and distinct thing. Sexual ethics mostly consists of taking our existing ethics and keeping them with us when it comes to matters of sex — of ensuring that we do not shed our ethics when we shed our clothes. That’s important, because sex tends to involve us at our most vulnerable. We’re naked — exposed and unarmored and enamored.

The same obligations we have to one another in the rest of our lives do not go away when we enter the bedroom. It’s foolish and reckless to presume that all such obligations are automatically satisfied simply because we have checked the box that says “married.” And it’s foolish and cruel to presume that all of those obligations are automatically violated just because a couple is gay.

Acknowledging that homosexuality is not “objectively immoral” is no different from acknowledging the same thing about heterosexuality. It does not imply chaos, calamity and “anything goes.” Affirming sexuality is not the end of sexual ethics but, rather, the beginning of it.

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  • Randall M

     You know, I never really thought about the possibility of the word “ballerino”.  I mean, if you had asked me was there a male equivalent of “ballerina” I probably would have stared blankly at you while my brain shut down. 

  • I don’t doubt that there are other factors. Outside of logic classes, peoples’ conclusions are rarely supported by one neat and tidy argument. I didn’t mean to imply this was the only reason Christians thought anything would go if homosexual sex was permissible, though rereading my comment I see why you’d think that.

    But there’s a big difference between usury and homosexuality. Usury is a business practice, and the idea that ethics applied in business is controversial. Many people think good businesses are cutthroat and that normal ethics doesn’t really apply: if you can get away with it, you do it. That’s not saying the Bible is wrong; it’s just saying it doesn’t apply here. It’s less challenging, or at least not challenging in the same way.

    As for why you don’t see pro-usury sandwich boards, I think that has to do with the fact that this isn’t a point people see challenged. Debates like this are in some sense social. We see other people making claims about topic X that we believe are wrong-headed, so we in turn argue for the other position on X, where normally we might not be talking about X as well.

    Again, I’m not saying this is the whole story, but I think it’s a big part of it.

  •  > the idea that ethics applied in business is controversial. [..] That’s not saying the Bible is wrong; it’s just saying it doesn’t apply here.


    OK. Sure. If the kind of ethics you’re talking about just don’t apply to businesses, then I can see why you restrict your efforts to constraining the behavior of individuals.

    Tapping out now.