Thursday, July 22, 2010

LGBT rhetoric and responses: Part III

This past semester, a U of I adjunct religion professor sent an email to one of his classes arguing that utilitarian logic that would lead to the approval of gay sex would also lead to the approval of human/animal sex and adult/child sex, and then argued that any disconnection between sex and procreation was wrong. The email resulted in the head of the Religion Department telling him he would no longer be teaching at the university, which has created considerable conservative backlash. I have been using this as a springboard for discussion of anti-LGBT rhetoric and common responses.

In my first post, I examined his argument that utilitarian reasoning behind the acceptance the acceptance of same-sex sexuality would lead to the acceptance of sex between children and adults and between humans and animals. I argued that a) there is an important element of truth the his argument, and that b) standard LGBT responses (to get offended and be highly dismissive or such arguments) are unproductive for two reasons. First, to advance their own politics, they are far too accepting of irrational hatred of people attracted to children. Second, such responses communicate to persuadable but as yet unpersuaded people that there is no good response to such arguments. (In fact, such LGBT rhetoric made it a much slower process than it might have been for me to change my own beliefs on the matter.)

In my second post, I examined his positive arguments for his own position, and (I feel) generally demolished them. In this post, I wanted to give serious consideration to the argument that acceptance of gay sex leads to the acceptance of adult/child sex. I wanted to do this to help promote critical thinking in such discussions, and to help in the persuasion of the unpersuaded but persuadable. Much of this will be based on my own thinking as I as I tried to understand the matter when my religion was leading me one way and my conscience another.

Argument 1: In regarding the Divine as the basis of ethics, there is a serious question raised at least as early as Plato (in the Euthyphro): Is that which is good good because it is what God commands? Or does God command it because it is good? (For Plato, there was the additional issue of the possibility of the god disagreeing with each other, a problem that monotheism does not have.) If what is good is good because God commands it, if God says to love your neighbor, that would be good, but if God says to go commit genocide, that would be good. In such a view, it is as though God should be obeyed not because God is good, but because God will give you the ultimate smack down if you don't. In the other case (God commands it because it is good), then there must be some sort of absolute goodness that exists above God, in which case God is not God.

One attempt of monotheist theologians to address this problem has been something of a natural law approach--that which is good is good because it is in accord with how God made things (and God's character), and God commands it because it is consistent with that--God, having created us, knows what it best for us and commands us accordingly. In such a case, there should (generally) be some rational basis for knowing the Divine commands apart from scripture. (Something like this is the Natural Moral Law position discussed in my last post.) In such a case, to maintain a belief that sex is only okay within heterosexual marriage, some reason must be given why same-sex sexuality is wrong. In my previous post, I addressed one (rather unconvincing) attempt to answer this. For me, I felt it was necessary to have some reason other than "because." I felt that somehow it had to be shown that this rule protects people or prevents harm.

I have seen some attempt to make this argument. Sometimes they will argue that anal sex is unhealthy or whatever. (The "logic" here seems to be that unprotected anal sex with people whose STD status is unknown is risky, therefore anal sex is dangerous.) I've seen other attempts at arguing that there is an increased risk of harm with gay sex, therefore it is wrong. I've seen this bolstered by evidence that in many cases adult/child sex causes no harm, but surely that does not mean it is okay. Therefore, they argue, only a likelihood of harm is necessary. Then to argue that gay sex causes an increased likelihood of harm, they'll argue that gay men tend to have more sexual partners than straight men and that this is because of (inherent) sex differences between men and women. More sex-partners means greater likelihood of getting an STD, such people tend to be (nominally) big supporters of monogamy, etc. (Those making this argument seemed to ignore the fact that, even if valid, the argument would not lead to a prohibition of lesbian sex.)

I do think there is something important recognized by this logic. In order for some act to be morally wrong, it is not necessary that it cause harm in all instances. A good example is drunk driving. This does not always cause harm, but it has a high risk of (very severe) harm. This can be usefully contrasted with another dangerous behavior: driving. Numerous people are killed every year in automobile accidents, many of whom were not engaging in particularly risky behavior.

In contrasting driving with drunk driving, an important point can be seen. In the case of the former, there are plenty of risks associated with it, but there are numerous means that can be taken to reduce those risks--requirements for drivers licenses, requiring a certain level of vision, traffic signals, police monitoring, prohibiting particularly risky behaviors such as driving under the influence, etc. In the case of drunk driving, however, there do not seem to be any good ways to allow non-harmful instances (ones where no one ends up getting hurt) and prohibiting the others. As such, the behavior should be completely prohibited.

Applying this logic to sexuality, I think the point is clear as to why the attempted argument against gay sex simply does not work. Both gay sex and straight sex can be practiced in highly risky ways (often called high risk sexual behavior.) The gender of the partner is of little relevance to the basic means of avoiding high-risk behavior and practicing safer sex.

Now apply the same reasoning to adult/child sex. There is plenty of evidence (a link for those wanting references) that adult/child sex is not always harmful; sometimes the child feels both at the time and in retrospect that it was a positive experience; sometimes it is the child who initiates it. However, children are a vulnerable population and therefore particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Childhood sexual abuse is a very real problem and there is a very real need to protect children. A key consideration for the moral question is whether adult/child sex is more like driving or drunk driving. I will let readers attempt to answer that question for themselves.

Argument 2: In addressing the likelihood of harm question, there is another direction that it needs to be asked from. All prohibitions cause harm, and there is the question of whether the good brought about by the prohibition outweighs this harm. (A prohibition against murder, for instance, brings about harm to those convicted of murder. This is generally considered acceptable because it is much better than just allowing anybody to go around killing anybody they wanted and getting away with it.) With same sex sexuality, it is clear that quite a lot of harm to people is done by such prohibitions (as even the slightest understanding of the experience of gay men and lesbians makes clear. It harms bisexuals as well, and it harms trans people given that many acts of violence against trans people are committed on the basis of believing them to be gay, rather than trans, blurring the boundary between homophobia and transphobia.)

While much harm comes from such prohibitions, I really can't think of any good that comes from them. Note that this line of logic is a kind of utilitarian ethic, but it is one that looks at a level above individual acts, considering larger social consequences. Applying this line of reasoning to consensual adult/child sex, I think it is clear that the situation is quite a bit more complicated than it is for sex between consenting adults.

Argument 3: My third argument is one I will not develop, but it long troubled me when I still believed that sex is only okay in heterosexual marriage. I think that if I had seen/heard someone else make it, it would have troubled me (in a good way) even more. Can "hate the sin; love the sinner" possibly be the basis for a sufficiently strong opposition to homophobic violence? A similar question applies to transphobic violence. By getting conservatives worked up about how this is such an important moral issue, how our morals are being degraded by acceptance of "the gay lifestyle", and all that jazz, is this going to help convince people how serious and how wrong homophobic violence is? Is it going to get them motivated to seriously combat it? I am skeptical.


Hezaa said...

Thank you for providing an examination of his arguments that is separate from rhetoric. I often feel when I try to make lgbt-positive arguments online separate from rhetoric (or otherwise work to answer questions that anti-lgbt people ask), people tend to misinterpret what I am doing and think that I am being anti-lgbt. I am trans and recently started considering the question "Is transness a lifestyle choice?" to see if I could demonstrate whether or not it was, and I kept that post at a semi-private privacy level in my online journal because I was afraid that people I knew would think I was being anti-trans by asking the question at all. Thank you for examining this professor's argument in detail and examining other conservative arguments without stooping to the level of rhetoric. The world needs more dialectical people like you.

NancyP said...

Re: slippery slope.
In both legal and ethical arenas, some rights will collide with other rights. We have the ability to argue the proper compromise needed to maximize rights without endangering other rights.

Regarding both sexual activity and marriage equality, it should be easy enough to agree that by definition, younger children and animals are mentally incapable of true consent. While older minors may be capable of consent, their power to resist coercion by adults is limited by their young age, and they can be said to have limited capacity for consent. Romeo and Juliet laws recognize the problems of dealing with teen relationships as they occur in real life - does it make any sense to automatically call the 16 year old a perp and the 15 year old the victim? Prosecuting a mutually consenting relationship between a 16 year old and a 15 year old seems to be for the benefit of the parents much of the time. It is difficult to draw an age line between peer and predator; I would prefer to see R&J exceptions apply differently for different ages of the younger of the sexual partners (the younger the partner, the smaller the allowable age spread).

Gender plays a big role in power differentials. The uproar about pedophiles concentrates on boys. Girls are frequently not on the radar - 12 year old girls who have sex with an adult are called "sluts", while 12 year old boys who have sex with men are called "victims".