Wednesday, January 06, 2010

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

Yesterday we began considering the argument that one hears from gay marriage opponents that the state should not grant equal rights to gay and lesbian couples because being gay is immoral due to its unnaturalness. The argument has two steps:

1) Homosexuality is unnatural
2) That which is unnatural is immoral
Therefore, homosexuality is immoral

We looked at the problems with premise 1 in the last post and examine premise 2 today. Is there any sense in which the moral status of an action is tied to nature and does this connection touch human sexuality? Clearly, there are unnatural actions we do not want to condemn -- nothing immoral about wearing eyeglasses or using a computer even though neither is natural in any meaningful sense of the word. So, it must mean something else. It seems that there are two possibilities to justify premise 2: a) moral right and wrong are to be determined according to aspects of nature, or b) it is not unnatural, but anti-natural that is the problem, there is moral import to "the natural order of things."

There is a longstanding debate in ethics between those who support ethical naturalism -- the view that morality has something to do with properties in the world -- and those who oppose the view. Opponents have even coined the phrase "the naturalistic fallacy" for any attempt to ground ethics in the happenings of the world. This argument hinges on what philosophers call the fact/value distinction, that is, that ethics is about what ought to be the case, not what is the case; ethics prescribes, it doesn't describe. Those who support ethical naturalism are trying to get ought from is, but all you can get from is is is.

These views come in several flavors. Social contractarians argue that morality comes about through the formation of human organizations, in other words, it is the creation of civilization that separates itself from nature that gives rise to moral obligations. Nature is red in tooth and claw, a place where anything goes, there is no morality in the wild, but morality is essential for well-lived human lives and arises as a social construction. On this view, morality is there is save us from our nature.

Others, like feminist care-based theorists, move it from society at large down to individual human relationships. I have obligations to my family, my friends, my colleagues and students because of the relationship we share. I do for my children, not because I expect anything in return, but because I care about them. Their well-being is my concern. Either way, if organized society is the place from which moral obligations derive, then it seems that locating them in nature fails.

Ethical naturalists, however, contend that moral judgments are to be based on aspects of reality. Utilitarianism, for example, locates moral goodness in the flourishing or suffering of people. We can tell when and in general terms how much someone is affected by our actions and we ought to strive to create the best possible world. Any attempt to oppose gay marriage on such grounds would need to show that granting equal rights to people who express their care for each other in places you don't see, somehow harms us more than depriving them of their rights harms them...and the rest of us. Good luck with that one.

Emotivists argue that moral statements are really just claims about personal preference. When I say, "You ought not torture puppies for fun," what I mean is that I do not like it when you do such. Clearly, this locates morality in the world, but not in a way conducive to the case of the opponents of gay marriage.

But then there are the ethical supernaturalists, those who place moral duties on a metaphysical platform. Divine command theory is the view that there are a set of absolute rules set forward by God. Here, we have left the realm of ethics -- rational thought about judgment concerning human behavior -- and entered the realm of theology. It is certainly true that different religions have different theological behavioral codes and that much of these codes overlap with ethics. You shouldn't kill, steal, or bear false witness, all other things being equal. But what makes these actions immoral is that there are reasons why not. Simply referring to the mind of a deity which, even if He does exist, you don't have access to is not a basis for reasonable discussion. If you say the Christian God dislikes homosexuality and I say the Comedist God is cool with it, there is no rational place to go. Theological discussions are language games closed in on themselves and should not be confused with ethical discussions that can be meaningfully conducted across all other human boundaries.

So the claim that homosexuality is immoral because it is unnatural runs into problems when you try to fill out the notion of morality in terms of naturalness.

So let's construe the claim differently. It's not that all immoral acts are unnatural, but any action which violates the "natural order of things" is immoral.

- The human body has parts whose biological function is procreation.
- Most people feel an urge to use them in such a way that can result in procreation.
Therefore, it is not of the natural order to use them in ways that differ from that which would satisfy the urges of most people, even if you feel that urge.

The obvious questions are why should the urges of most people be considered "the natural order of things" and why should they be given any moral weight? Most people like fatty and sweet foods and there is good natural reasons for this evolutionarily. To hold the above argument, you would also have to believe that someone who just doesn't like sweets is acting immorally in eating only other foods, say, broccoli.

The argument further assumes that reality is a well-oiled machine, but one that is fragile. Any deviation from normality is a threat to it. The natural order is intrinsically valuable and small actions in opposition to it can derail it. Of course, large-scale constant deviations can threaten nature (see warming, global), but it is hard to see how affording civil rights to people whose sexual preferences are in the minority poses any threat whatsoever. As we saw, homosexuality is present in at least 1,000 species, none of which is endangered by this -- only by us. So, it seems that the "natural order of things" is not actually threatened.

But if it were, why would this necessitate the action's immorality? Adaptation, the changing of the natural order of things, is also quite normal. In some cases, the changes would be unnecessarily harmful to others (see warming, global); but in other cases, the changes would be innocuous, even helpful. So it is yet another burden to the opponents of gay marriage to explain what it is about the state of things in nature that is inherently good. Again, good luck.

So, it seems that any way you try to connect nature to ethics does not lead to the immorality of homosexuality, much less the granting of equal rights to all members of our society regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation.