Homosexuality and Morality, Part 4: The Unnaturalness Argument

First Published at Between the Lines on January 9, 2003. Based on the author’s article, “Why Shouldn’t Tommy and Jim Have Sex?” in Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

PEOPLE OFTEN ARGUE that homosexual sex is “unnatural.” But what does that mean? Many things we value — like clothing, medicine, and government — are unnatural in some sense. On the other hand, many things we detest — like disease, suffering, and death — are “natural” in some sense. If the unnaturalness charge is to be more than empty rhetorical flourish, those who levy it must specify what they mean.

What Is Unusual or Abnormal Is Unnatural

One meaning of “unnatural” refers to that which is statistically abnormal. Obviously, most people engage in heterosexual relationships. But does it follow that it is wrong to engage in homosexual relationships? Relatively few people read Sanskrit, play the mandolin, breed goats, or write with both hands, yet none of these activities is immoral simply because it is practiced by minority of people.

What Is Not Practiced by Other Animals Is Unnatural

Others argue, “Even animals know better than to behave homosexually; homosexuality must be wrong.” This argument is doubly flawed. First, it rests on a false premise: numerous studies have shown that some animals do form homosexual pair-bonds. Second, even if that premise were true, it would not prove that homosexuality is immoral. After all, animals don’t cook their food, brush their teeth, attend college, or read the newspaper; human beings do all of these without moral censure. The notion that we ought to look to animals for our moral standards is simply facetious.

What Does Not Proceed from Innate Desires Is Unnatural

Some people argue that homosexual people are “born that way” and that it is therefore natural and good for them to form homosexual relationships. Others insist that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice,” which is therefore unnatural and wrong. Both sides assume a connection between the origin of homosexual orientation and the moral value of homosexual activity. And insofar as they share that assumption, both sides are wrong.

Consider first the pro-gay side, which assumes that all innate desires are good ones. This assumption is clearly false. Research suggests that some people are born with a predisposition toward violence, but such people have no more right to strangle their neighbors than anyone else. So while some people may be born with homosexual tendencies, it doesn’t follow that they ought to act on them.

Nor does it follow that they ought not to act on them, even if the tendencies are not innate. I probably do not have any innate tendency to write with my left hand (since I, like everyone else in my family, have always been right-handed), but it doesn’t follow that it would be immoral for me to do so. So simply asserting that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice” will not prove that it is an immoral lifestyle choice.

What Violates an Organ’s Principal Purpose Is Unnatural

Perhaps when people claim that homosexual sex is unnatural they mean that it cannot result in procreation. The idea behind the argument is that human organs have various “natural” purposes: eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, genitals are for procreating. According to this view, it is immoral to use an organ in a way that violates its particular purpose.

Many of our organs, however, have multiple purposes. I can use my mouth for talking, eating, breathing, licking stamps, chewing gum, kissing women, or kissing men, and it seems rather arbitrary to claim that all but the last use are “natural.” (And if we say that some of the other uses are “unnatural, but not immoral,” we have failed to specify a morally relevant sense of the term “natural.”)

Just because people can and do use their sexual organs to procreate, it does not follow that they should not use them for other purposes. Sexual organs seem well suited for expressing love, for giving and receiving pleasure, and for celebrating, replenishing, and enhancing relationships — even when procreation is not a factor. This is why heterosexual people have sex even if they don’t want — or can’t have — children. To allow heterosexual people to pursue sex without procreation while forbidding homosexual people to do the same is morally inconsistent.

What Is Disgusting or Offensive Is Unnatural

It often seems that when people call homosexuality “unnatural” they really just mean that it’s disgusting. But plenty of morally neutral activities — eating snails, performing autopsies, cleaning toilets, watching the Anna Nicole Smith Show — are disgusting to many people. That something disgusts you may be sufficient grounds for an aesthetic judgment against it, but it is hardly grounds for a moral judgment.

Proponents of the unnaturalness argument have given us no good reason to believe that “unnatural” equals “immoral” or that homosexuality is unnatural in any significant sense. In sum, their position is longer on rhetorical flourish than on philosophical cogency.