Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Senator Clinton, Here's Why Being Gay Is Not Immoral

Yesterday, in response to General Peter Pace’s homophobic outburst, Hillary Clinton balked at answering the question, “Is homosexuality immoral?” punting with the statement, “Well I'm going to leave that to others to conclude.” Senator Clinton? Glad to meet you. My name is “Others, Professor Others.”

Is homosexuality immoral? Step one, we need to figure out what is meant by the term “homosexuality.” It could mean sexual attraction felt towards those of the same sex. Since this attraction is not something we choose, it is not something that can be judged moral or immoral. Perhaps it is a lifestyle. The term “lifestyle” is either so vague as to be meaningless or specific enough that it fails to cover most gay people since any person’s lifestyle will differ from everyone else’s and even change over time for any given person. My guess is that it is meant to be a wink-wink nudge-nudge reference to the fact that all them gays have a lot more sex than straight people and we’re really talking about promiscuity here. But, of course, many gay men and lesbians are in long-term, stable, happy monogamous relationships. What is really at issue here? It’s same-sex sex. Is it always and necessarily wrong to get hot and heavy with someone who brings the same dish to the pot luck?

To answer this question, we need to figure out how to determine when something is immoral. Traditionally, there are five competing moral systems that do this job for us and it is fair to say that we employ all of them, seeing each to be operative in some cases and not in others. Each consider one of the parts of a moral situation – who did it, what he did, to whom it was done, the effects of having done it on all involved, and the effects of having done it for those to whom we have special moral responsibilities. Virtue ethics looks at the actor – was this the sort of action that will lead to the formation of a good character? Duty ethics looks at the what – all things being equal, is this the sort of act that should always or never be done? Rights-based ethics looks at the to whom – did the act violate anyone else’s rights? Utilitarianism looks at the consequences writ large – did the act leave the world a better place than any of the alternatives? And care-based ethics looks at the results for those with whom we have special relationships – did the act alienate or further embed you in the life of someone you care about?

Of course, using any of these tools to judge sexual acts will be impossible in the abstract since each encounter has its own particulars that need to be considered. Is it a budding romance or a casual hook-up? Are the people committed to others? Is everyone sober and in a rational frame of mind? But our interest is whether the mere fact that those making love to one another have the same genitalia is by itself sufficient to put one on the wrong side of the moral line using any of our ethical systems.

In this way, there is no reason whatsoever to think that you couldn’t have morally good same sex sex. You could have to willing, satisfied partners who were generous, caring, and responsive, who treated the other person as an end in him or herself and not a mere tool for pleasure. In this case, none of our systems would object to the act.

Let us consider some of the standard objections:

God considers it an abomination

This is a theological claim, not a moral one. Trying to kill your child is immoral. Abraham did it. God asked him to. Abe chose religion over ethics there. The two are different. If you want to follow Kierkegaard in saying faith is more important than ethics, fine, just realize that your zeal may lead you to be unethical, Mr. High and Mighty (and, may I add, really, really scary). The vast majority of lessons taught by the world’s major religions are good ones and line up remarkably well with morality, the world would indeed be a better place if the faithful would actually abide by them, but simply because it is a behavioral norm in a religious community does not make it a moral imperative. Someone who eats a cheeseburger may be a bad Hindu or Jew, if on Good Friday a bad Catholic, but that does not necessarily make them immoral for having eaten it.

They aren’t married

The word “marriage” has at least three meanings: (1) a religious rite, (2) a legal status implying shared rights, privileges, and responsibilities, and (3) a social status of mutual exclusive commitment. None of these makes a marriage license into a “have sex free” card. Sex and marriage are two entirely distinct things. Is it immoral to have sex with your spouse? Of course not, just don’t expect it too often. Of course, the folks we’re talking about are barred from getting married in the first place in most locales, a moral problem of it’s own, but that’s a different problem.

It’s not natural

Step one, what is meant by the word “natural” here? Is homosexuality found in nature? Sure. Eight percent of rams seek only to have sexual relations with other rams. Homosexual behavior has been widely observed in bonobo chimps. Maybe natural means “serves a biological function.” But, of course, we do many things that serve no biological function and aren’t morally wrong, e.g., forwarding bad jokes by e-mail to relatives we never speak to. Maybe it means “against human nature.” But to gay men and lesbians it is exactly a part of their nature. To try to be otherwise is what is unnatural. Maybe it means that it can’t result in a baby…

Sex is only for having babies

No it’s not. The number of different functions and roles that sexuality plays in the intricacies of human relations is staggering. Sex not only satisfies physical urges, but is used – like our bonobo cousins – to relieve tension. It is a way that we show tenderness and care to someone who is special to us. It is how we seek our own pleasure. As Freud was so fond of pointing out, it is a repository for all sorts of inner-baggage that has nothing to do with the act itself or any biological function it might contribute to. It is where we leave ourselves naked and vulnerable and where subtle and not so subtle power plays are made. It is gentle, fierce, playful, nerve-wracking, selfish, and selfless – an act wherein virtually all human emotions superpose, amplify, and conflict. And it's fun. All of this and it makes babies, too. Making babies is crucial to the survival of our species and should not be taken lightly, but simply because that is how you make babies does not mean that you can’t do other things with it as well. Surely, some of the reason we have sex are bad reasons and one can certainly act immorally in having sex for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way, e.g., rape. But one can live a good, caring, moral life and make love to one’s sweetie when there is no chance of conception.

There is absolutely no reason to consider sexual relations between same sex partners necessarily immoral. Are there cases when it is, of course. Is that all cases? Of course not. If you have any further questions, Senator, feel free to ask.