Monday, January 04, 2010

Debunking the "Naturalistic" Argument Against Gay Marriage, Part I

As John points out over at The NonSequitur

"Arguments against gay marriage tend to fall into one of two groups: (1) the slippery slope group, which alleges that if gay marriage is permitted, all sorts of outrageous consequences will follow (such as the very Biblical polygamy or man-beast marriage); (2) question-begging Buckleyesque appeals to the natural order: gay marriage is contra naturam."
I discussed the fallacies in the slippery slope argument against gay marriage a while back in the post Countering the Slippery Slope Nonsense: Why Gay Marriage Doesn't Lead to Box Turtle Nuptials, and now want to look at the flawed argument that gay men and lesbians should be denied equal treatment under the law because "homosexuality is unnatural."

There are two steps here. Today, we will examine whether there is any sense to the claim that homosexuality is not natural. Tomorrow, we will examine whether any notion of natural is essential to the moral status of an action.

Before we can say that there is something wrong with homosexuality because of its unnatural nature, we need to know whether it is, in fact, unnatural and for that we need a clear sense of what is meant by the term "natural." The first and most obvious interpretation is "found in nature." This is the sense which contrasts with artificiality. Given this meaning, the claim is simply false. "The pairing of same sex couples had previously been observed in more than 1,000 species including penguins, dolphins and primates." "[M]ale sheep exhibit homosexuality at least as often as humans: roughly 8% of rams turn out to have sex exclusively with other rams." Its prevalence in the sexual behavior of bonobos, one of our closest genetic relatives is well documented.

If that meaning is not available to the opponents of gay marriage, let's consider other possible meanings. It could mean that being sexually attracted to members of the same sex is contrary to one's own nature. But, of course, nothing could be more natural. We do not select those to whom we are attracted. When you look at someone and get that "ooooh" feeling, it is a natural feeling that arises from within you, not the end of a cognitive process or a choice. One could not decide to become attracted to someone whom one is not. So, with this sense of the term, again, gay men and lesbians are naturally gay.

Maybe it means that it is contrary to human nature. This, then, requires a clean definition of human nature -- should one exist. Are there properties that are innate to all people, aspects that are not environmental? And if so, are any of these aspects sexual?

This is a burden to be assumed by those who make the claim and I've never seen a good account of human nature, but the strongest version seems to be based upon evolutionary concepts (something not easily made consistent with the worldviews of many gay marriage opponents). The argument would run like this:

- Humans are animals.
- Animals have a prime directive to perpetuate the species.
- Perpetuating the species requires having offspring.
- Having human offspring requires sexual intercourse with a member of the opposite sex.
- Gay men and lesbians do not have sexual relations with members of the opposite sex.
Therefore, homosexuality is contrary to humans' biological nature.

It is an odd argument in a number of ways. First, it makes heterosexual rape natural, since it would be an effective means of having offspring, and if we want to take the next step to natural entails morally necessary, the results are clearly problematic. Second, if the argument is sound, then it means that any reason for not having children would be problematic, creating an odd moral equivalence between being gay and being abstinent, and thus it would also be unnatural and thus immoral to be a Catholic priest. Third, it assumes that the only way to help perpetuate the species is through procreation. Of course, there are many ways that members of species contribute to the whole other than impregnating and giving birth, so even if we do have some sort of primal obligation to help maintain the species, surely there are many ways that can be done for those who for any reason choose not to have children. Finally, it impoverishes sexual intercourse, reducing it to nothing but baby creation. Human sexual relations are, indeed, an incredibly complex phenomenon which serve many, many functions -- some social, some biological, others interpersonal. This argument takes it and makes it only, or at least primarily, a function of reproduction. We are sexual beings by nature, but to take this aspect and argue that it amounts to a drive to populate the planet is a gross oversimplification of a complex part of the well-lived human life.

So, whether we take "nature" to refer to the entire natural world, the nature of the species, or the nature of the individual, the argument that homosexuality is unnatural fails. I believe the real sense of "unnatural" in many cases is as a synonym for yucky. Opponents of gay marriage find homosexual relations personally distasteful. That may or may not be true, but in any case it takes the claim to a subjective level that does not support the ultimate claim. That claim requires not only that homosexuality be unnatural, but that there is a link between naturalness and morality. That, is tomorrow's discussion.