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.