Monthly Archives: December 2002

Homosexuality and Morality, Part 3: The Harm Arguments

First published at Between the Lines on December 19, 2002

The ancient Roman Emperor Justinian believed that homosexuality was the cause of earthquakes, plagues, famine, and various other maladies. Modern-day critics have been only slightly less creative in their allegations. Homosexuality has been blamed for the breakdown of the family, the AIDS crisis, sexual abuse in the priesthood — even the September 11th attacks. It sometimes seems as if the entire nation’s infrastructure hinges on my sex life. (Well, not just mine, but I’m willing to do my part.)

Let us put aside the ridiculous allegations and focus on the more plausible ones. If homosexuality were indeed harmful to individuals or society, that would seem to provide a significant moral strike against it. But is it really harmful? And do the allegations prove what the critics claim — namely, that homosexuality is morally wrong?

Consider one of the more common charges: that homosexuality causes AIDS. On a straightforward reading, this claim is simply false. The HIV virus causes AIDS, and without the virus present homosexual people can have as much sex as they like without worrying about AIDS. (Fatigue, yes; AIDS, no.)

But the critics doubtless mean something a bit more sophisticated: namely, that (for men) homosexual sex is statistically more likely to transmit the HIV virus than heterosexual sex. This claim is true (given various significant qualifications), but it is unclear what follows. For consider the fact that, for women, heterosexual sex is statistically more likely to transmit the HIV virus than homosexual sex. Yet no one concludes from this that the Surgeon General ought to recommend lesbianism, or that lesbianism is morally superior to female heterosexuality. There are simply too many steps missing in the argument.

The general form of the harm argument seems to be the following:

Premise (1) Homosexual sex is risky.
Premise (2) Risky behavior is immoral.
Conclusion: Therefore, homosexual sex is immoral.

Both premises are false as written. Some homosexual sex is risky, as is some heterosexual sex, not to mention many activities that are not sexual at all. Some risky behavior is immoral, but much is not. To take just one example: people who live in two-story houses are at a demonstrably higher risk for serious accidents than those who live in one-story houses, and yet (thankfully) no one believes that ranch houses are morally mandatory.

But what about risks to non-consenting parties? If I choose to reside in a two-story house, thereby increasing my risk of accidents (especially while donning my Norma Desmond costume and dramatically prancing up and down the staircase), most people would consider that “my business.” But if I willfully impose risks on unsuspecting others, I can rightfully be blamed. Does homosexuality involve such “public” risks?

Here’s where the arguments begin to get creative. My favorite was offered by a priest who was offended by a lecture I gave ten years ago at a Catholic university. “Of course homosexuality is bad for society,” he wrote in an angry letter to the school paper. “If everyone were homosexual, there would be no society.”

Perhaps. But if everyone were a Catholic priest, there would be no society either. As the philosopher Jeremy Bentham quipped over 200 years ago, if homosexuals should be burnt at the stake for the failure to procreate, “monks ought to be roasted alive by a slow fire.” Besides, even if there were an absolute moral obligation to procreate (which there is not), it would not preclude homosexual sex for those who had children through other means. Sorry, Father.

More recently, critics have been fond of blaming homosexuals for their “threat to the family.” This too is perplexing. Homosexual people come from families (contrary to rumor, we are not hatched full grown in a factory in West Hollywood). Many of us are quite devoted to our families, and an increasing number are forming families of our own. Provided that these families embody love, generosity, commitment — in short, family values — where’s the problem?

It is not as if the increased visibility of homosexuality will lead people to flee from heterosexual marriage in droves. After all, the usual response to a gay person is not, “No fair! How come he gets to be gay and I don’t?” Which raises a crucial point: heterosexual marriage is right for some but not for everyone. To pressure homosexual people into such marriages (through so-called “reparative therapy,” for example) is generally bad for them, bad for their spouses, and bad for their children.

If we’re really concerned with preventing harm, we ought to begin by acknowledging this fact. Some people are happier in heterosexual relationships; some are happier in homosexual relationships; some are happier alone. When our fellow human beings are happy, that’s good for them and it’s good for us. Any “morality” that fails to recognize this doesn’t deserve the name.

Homosexuality and Morality, Part 2: The Bible

First published at Between the Lines on December 12, 2002

MANY PEOPLE claim that homosexuality is wrong because “The Bible says so.” This claim rests on two presuppositions:

(1) The Bible condemns homosexual conduct. (2) The Bible is a good moral guide.

Each of these raises questions. Regarding the first: does the Bible condemn all homosexual conduct, or just some? And which Bible are we talking about? (Remember that in addition to the numerous editions of the Judeo-Christian Bible, there are also countless other religious texts that claim divine authority. Given our tendency toward cultural myopia, it bears repeating that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are not Christians.)

Regarding the second presupposition: is the Bible infallible, or might it contain some error? If the latter, how do we distinguish true moral teaching from that which simply reflects the authors’ prejudices? Consider, for example, two passages — one from the Old Testament and one from the New — that seem pretty clearly to endorse slavery:

“[Y]ou may acquire male and female slaves ƒ from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born into your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.” (Leviticus 25: 44-46)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).

Faced with such morally troubling passages, the reader has one of three options:

(A) Deny that the passages really endorse slavery. But this seems rather difficult to do, especially given the references to “property” in the first quotation, which was allegedly spoken by God himself.

(B) Maintain that the Bible contains no error and concede that slavery may be morally acceptable. Not surprisingly, few believers take this approach (though the case was quite different 150 years ago, when slave-owning Christians often cited these passages). This option ought forcefully to be rejected. Surely one should have more confidence in the wrongness of slavery than in the inerrancy of the quoted text. Which leaves us with.

(C) Acknowledge that the Bible contains some error. To admit this is not to claim that God makes mistakes. Perhaps humans have erred in interpreting God’s will: after all, one should not confuse complete faith in God with complete faith in human ability to discern God’s voice.

Option (C) comes at a cost, however. Once you have admitted that the Bible contains error, you cannot simply use “The Bible says X” as if it were an airtight justification of X. This is as true for homosexuality as it is for slavery.

Is the Bible thus rendered useless? Not at all. The Bible is a valuable account of the experience of past believers, and it can teach important lessons on matters both moral and non-moral. But to quote its passages on controversial issues without paying attention to its historical context is to diminish its richness. Fundamentalists do the Bible no honor when they treat “The Bible says X” as if it were the last word, rather than a piece of a larger puzzle regarding human longing for truth and meaning.

Which brings me to another point. Critics often suspect that there’s something self-serving about “revisionist” readings of scripture by pro-gay scholars. In some cases, the critics are right. But the revisionist readings are also motivated by honest recognition of a tension between the apparent evidence of scripture and the apparent evidence of our experience. If God is the creator of all things, surely God reveals divine intentions in our lived experience and not merely in an ancient text. (Besides, if you don’t generally trust your own experience, why trust your experience of the text?) And if our lived experience teaches us that homosexual relationships can be loving and nurturing, there’s something incongruous about the idea that a benevolent God would condemn them.

How then do we explain the handful of passages that seem to condemn homosexuality? Biblical interpretation is a complex matter, and I can only scratch its surface here. (For a more thorough treatment, see Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.) But let me suggest that these passages, like the passages on slavery, strongly reflect the cultural circumstances of the authors. More specifically, they reflect (1) the fragility of the authors’ communities and a corresponding emphasis on procreation for the sake of community survival, (2) a distaste for Greek pederasty, and (3) a distaste for various pagan practices that included ritual homosexual conduct.

If the Biblical authors had these features in mind when they wrote about homosexuality, then what they were discussing is quite different from what we are discussing. In that light, using Biblical passages to condemn contemporary homosexuality looks much like using them to support nineteenth-century American slavery — a reflection of the reader’s prejudices, rather than an honest assessment of the moral facts.

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